January 24

Beowulf by Gareth Hind

As you may have noticed, much of my reading in the past few months has been for upper secondary and adults. It really is time to get back to my young adult literature. So last night I picked this wonderful text from the pile.

I think by now everyone has heard of the legend of Beowulf. I remember trying to make sense of it in a English Lit course at Uni (and thank goodness I was studying German at the time). Hollywood has also made it’s corruptions.

This book is based on a 1918 translation into modern English. This preserves the epic tone of the story, but the action is relayed completely through graphic means. The reader ‘watches’ the battles rather than reads about them. 

Hind indicates in his notes that he thinks of Beowulf as the original comic superhero. The stories have been around for well over 1000 years, and Hind returns to the original tale rather than the more common Hollywood and pop culture tendency to combine all the battles into one epic fight, and all the evil into Grendel and maybe his mother. He is also very good with the historical content within his graphics, using runes liberally and even in his interpretation of Grendel.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this book.

 

January 24

Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston

Every now and then I manage to read the right book at the right time. In the past few days I have been thinking a lot about Obama’s inauguration and how the country where I grew up has changed. Then this book that I have been meaning to read for ages reached the top of the pile.

David is nine, and he is growing up in Tennessee in the 1950s. His father is the town doctor, and David starts to learn the bones of the body as soon as he can read. He shares this knowledge with his best friend Malcolm, so Malcolm knows the bones too. Malcolm can play baseball, and he can draw. Together these boys grow up sharing all the trauma and adventure that is involved. But Malcolm is black. Malcolm has to worry about the Klan, Malcolm knows that no matter how talented he is, he will never play baseball. David can see the injustice, and he is angry. But at nine years old what can you do?

This is a gem of a little book. I have recommended it for middle school students, and I think they can handle it comfortably, even if there is a darkness to the tale. Some may disagree. The writing is strong, the characters consistent and the plot very realistic. I loved it.

And perhaps many men and women growing up in the south like David have made this week’s political activities possible. Right now I am very proud of my homeland.

January 20

Our Little Secret by Allayne Webster

I really hate reading these books. I know that they are important, and it may be a way in which a damaged child finds the courage to seek help, but sorry I still hate reading them.

Ed (short for Edwina) is a fourteen year old girl growing up in a small town. It seems that she knows everybody, there can be no surprises. But then her best friend’s sister is raped. The town gossips, including Ed’s insensitive mother, go on about how she ‘asked for it.’ Ed is left confused and uncomfortable, watching as Anne-Marie suffers. And then Ed’s father’s best friend Tom starts paying a lot of attention to her. At first she is excited by the attention, almost as if a schoolgirl crush is coming true. She finally has a chance to rehearse all those skills she has been reading about in Dolly. But when things go too far, Ed is left frightened, and alone, remembering what was said about Anne-Marie, she keeps the secret and the sense of guilt nearly destroys her.

This book certainly has a predictable plot. No one in touch with the media reports and child safety notices could fail to predict the plot. But the power of this book is not in the action but the strength of writing of the characters. Ed is one of the most realistic young adults in literature that I have read about in a very long time. Webster has accurately caught the jumble of emotions that young teens feel, often all at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the book. I just hate the fact that such books need to be written. Very simply, it is too close to the truth for comfort.

January 19

Tears of the Desert by Halima Bashir

Dafur – does anybody know where that is? Sure it has been in the news occasionally, or some charity asking for money for the starving children of Africa, but do you really know where it is. What about Sudan? What do you know about the governmental structure and ruling party? Certainly as I started reading this book I was very ignorant.

Halima Bashir grew up in Dafur. She was a very happy and intelligent girl from a moderately wealthy family. The family was financially able to send her to a boarding school and enable her to break the cycle of poverty that entrapped many of her childhood friends. In fact, Halima did so well at school that she became the first non-Arab woman doctor. However, as she left the simple village life, she quickly discovered that in Sudan there was one rule for the Islamic Arabs and one rule for the Islamic Africans, and the rules greatly favoured the Arabs.

Once Halima qualified as a doctor, her real troubles began. Long before her training was complete, she was sent to work as the only doctor in a small African village. Medical supplies were rudimentary, but with sensitivity, caring and clear thinking, Halima made a real difference. That is until the day the Janjaweed attacked the girls school in town. Every single female in the school was raped, teachers, adolescents and even the little girls. Many died. Later Halima was asked about the injuries by a UN representative, and she answered honestly. By that action, she made herself a target.

What follows is horrific. But the story also includes people of generosity and good will who help Halima survive, and escape to England. And then Halima encounters the Immigration controls!

This is a powerful story. And sadly every word of it is true. 

January 18

Getting Air by Debra Oswald

It seems ages since I actually read and reviewed a book intended for an adolescent audience. But yesterday I gave up on my ‘official’ review workload and picked up this little gem for a quick read.

Zac is growing up in a dead end town somewhere in the empty regions of Australia. The nearest cinema is 90km away, as well as shops, swimming pool and most of all skatepark. But Zac and his friends have their own places around town to skate and as long as they rotate through them, there isn’t too much trouble. Zac and his best mate Corey dream of a skatepark for their own town, but it seems a hopeless dream until the school Good Girl gets involved in the issue. Corey teams up with Lauren and together they gather a team that eventually raises the funds necessary to build the skatepark. Then tragedy strikes.

This was a very good read. There is plenty of skateboard action as well as family drama. The characters have a strong realistic voice and the personal reactions to the tragedy ring very true. 

I also liked the fact that the book is presented in large print. There are a lot of reluctant readers that should be attracted to this book and willing to see it through to the end.

January 17

My Father’s Roses by Nancy Kohner

How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I’m going to write a book someday.’ Many even have an idea, or a fascinating life story to tell. Nancy Kohner researched this book throughout most of her lifetime, but only put pen to paper after she was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. This book is all we will ever hear from her.

This is the story of three generations of Jews living and working in Podersam, Czechoslovakia. When Heinrich and Valerie marry in 1896 this is all part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Together they raise three children, send one son off to World War I to fight for the Kaiser, see all their eldest son and daughter married, the birth of their first grandchild and the rise of the Nazis. It is made very clear at the beginning of the book that the two sons escaped to England and Ireland, but the fate of the remainder of the family is revealed in context.

This book is very special because Kohner had nearly a century of letters to use as source material. This family wrote to each other regularly and kept all the letters, Even when the boys escaped to England, boxes of letters came with them. Nancy had to have them translated and much of the writing in this book is directly taken from these letters. This gives a wonderfully strong voice to Heinrich and Valerie, people that the author never met.

This book could easily have focused on Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust, and as such been lost in the huge volume of literature about those times. Instead the focus is very clearly on the family, their concern for Franz who is fighting on the Russian front in WWI, the fact that as the war continues there is nothing for them to sell in their shop, the joy of their garden. World War II is handled nearly as gently, but it is more traumatic because Heinrich and Valerie have to leave their home and business of 40 years to begin life anew, with both of them well over 60. When the Nazis arrive in Prague, the story becomes very sad. Valerie’s last letters are heartrending.

I thoroughly enjoyed this unusual book. An important story was told with love and respect. History was revealed through the eyes of the people who lived through it, not a historian’s analysis. 

January 13

The Right Hand of the Sun by Anita Mason

Historical fiction, that should be a good change. This author also wrote an award winning book called The Illusionist. I wonder if it is the book of the great movie by the same name? This looks like a good choice from the pile. Did I ever get a surprise.

The concept for the book is excellent. Geronimo was shipwrecked on the Mexican coast in the early 1500s. He is enslaved by the people there and works with them for 8 years, gradually learning their language. Then Cortez arrives and offers him the chance of rescue in return for his skills as a translator. As the language changes and different cultures are encountered, very quickly a second translator is required, a young woman who speaks two native languages and Geronimo makes the final translation into Spanish. This causes problems as Geronimo becomes suspicious of Cortez’s motives and methods and the young woman begins to fall in love with the Captain.

This is essentially a very human story, set against a backdrop of one of the most dramatic events in the history of the New World. That is one of it’s problems. I certainly do not know enough Aztec history or geography to make sense of this story easily. I needed a map and even an encyclopedia at hand to make sense of the story. And that is not the way I prefer to read fiction.

Parts of this book are excellent. The retreat from Technotitlan was brilliant. The chaos and confusion of the escape was riveting. The character of Moctezuma was also incredible. I loved the way he made a victory out of his imprisonment.

But I believe that this book would benefit from more logical editing. Why on earth did the author put in a whole section about Geronimo’s shipwreck and language acquisition two-thirds of the way through the book? And frankly, the final 100 pages are boring. The story is over, Cortez has won, it doesn’t take all that space to let us know that Marina became one of his harem and Geronimo went back to the native people who had cared for him for 8 years.

Sorry, but mostly I found this book to be a slow and difficult read. A map would have helped greatly, but the publishers failed to provide one. Instead the reader is expected to independently research to make sense of the story. That is not my idea of an entertaining read.

January 12

Night Shift by Lilith Saintcrow

Interesting read. A little horror, a little romance, a whole lot of police procedural, well kind of, and simply a good read. I think I like this new series of books from Saintcrow.

But I should begin at the beginning. Jill Kismet is a special assistant to the police. She is a Hunter, specially trained to deal with demons, and all forms of hellbreeds. She has been trained by the best, and a good thing too, because her city keeps her very busy, fighting at night and investigating by day. As this story opens, something strange is loose and cops are dying. Jill is determined to stop it, them, whatever it is. What follows is an action adventure that is refreshingly different from many of the other gothic horrors that I have read in the last 12 months.

Saintcrow doesn’t waste a lot of time clearly identifying her evil creatures, vampire, demon, and everything evil is simply hellbreed. Weres can be any animal, not just a wolf, and generally they have established rules and move freely around human society. This provides her with a simple platform to simply get into the action and the adventure. Mostly the good guys and the bad guys are nice and obvious. But our Hunter is definitely a shade of grey.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It never took itself too seriously. Unfortunately however, I doubt very much that I will ever have the time to continue with the series. However, if you are interested, I believe book two is available.

January 10

Treachery by Julian Stockwin

About 12 months ago I reviewed the previous book in the Commander Kydd series by this author. At least this time I knew what to expect.

This book opens with Kydd in absolute grief after the disasters that happened at the end of the last book. His love is dead, he has offended the admiral, and it seems that his navy career is destined to stay exactly where he is. As the book opens he is sent to serve with the fleet protecting the Channel Islands. But then he is framed for smuggling and life just gets a little worse. It seems that even Renzi has deserted him as finances force him to take a job on another island. But then Kydd gets the offer of a privateer vessel, and with it the opportunity to return to sea, continue the fight and improve his financial position.

Again, this book does not compare favourably with O’Brian’s wonderful series, although the plots share some similarity. (Check out The Letter of Marque Book 12 of the Master and Commander Series). But at least this time I am more used to the writing without vowels and the plot stays well away from staterooms and on the sea where Stockwin’s writing is much stronger. This plot is at least believable.

January 4

Beyond the Shadows by Brent Weeks

Finally, the end of this wonderful series. I am always looking for new fantasy that I can recommend, and this series will certainly be a welcome addition to the shelves.

We left Kylar after he rescued Logan and together they fought to drive the invaders from their country. Unfortunately, political circumstances prevented Logan’s restoration to power and now the impoverished, broken country is under the rule of a selfish queen, only interested in her own comfort and status. Kylar knows that he has to commit one more assassination, but Logan has forbidden it. 

That summarizes the first few chapters effectively, but there is much, much more in this incredible book. The final battle scene is one of the most incredible that I have read in modern fantasy literature. Most of the time fantasy authors keep their good and evil beings clearly separated, but Weeks creates characters that are both good and evil. 

It has been a very long time since I have enjoyed reading a fantasy trilogy quite this much. Thank you!