Friday, August 29, 2014

Signs You're Reading A Good Book

10 Things That Happen When You Can't Put Down A Good Book

Whenever I write a review here, I feel confident that someone who reads it will think "Oh, that sounds like a good read!" and head out to find that book. Even the books that I maybe didn't enjoy so much will appeal to someone. If they didn't, odds are slim that they would have been published in the first place.

But how do you know if you're reading a really good book? One that's truly captured your attention? This list of signs (complete with fun animations) might serve as a good checklist if you ever find yourself thinking that your current read might be a "really good book."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

This is one of those novels that's been on my to-read list for a long time, almost since it was first published in February of 2012. Friends, coworkers and customers would ask if I'd had a chance to read it yet, to which I'd sheepishly reply that no, I hadn't gotten around to it yet. So when a burst of hot weather had most of us Western Washingtonians melting into our patio chairs and my thoughts turned wistfully to the approach of winter, I convinced myself that now was the time to read Eowyn Ivey's celebrated story of frontier Alaska in the 1920s.

Jack and Mable, childless and getting on in years, left Jack's family farm in Pennsylvania to pursue the promise of a new start in the untamed wilds of Alaska. While she occupies herself with the mundane domestic niceties of keeping their small cabin, and he works himself to a breaking point to tame their land into workable fields, they both steadfastly avoid the subject of their childlessness and the one stillborn baby that they left buried in Pennsylvania. One night in a fit of affection and loneliness, they build a snow-girl with the first snowfall of the season. The next morning, a small girl and her fox have appeared on the periphery of their homestead. The snow child is destroyed, its mittens and scarf adopted by the little girl, and as the girl slowly makes her way into their lives Jack and Mable wonder if the girl could possibly be real, or if they're trapped in some sort of fairytale.

Ivey's novel walks a very fine line between fiction and fantasy, and the result is a breathtaking, immersive reading experience where neither the reader nor the characters are certain of what is true and what is cabin fever or wishful thinking. Both Mable and Jack have their own ways of working things out in their minds, both regarding their lost child and coming to terms with what the presence of the new one means. Some of their approaches were effective, and others were not. Their development as a family, as a couple, and as Alaskan homesteaders all went together nicely, but not necessarily easily; I found myself loving one of them and disliking the other back and forth over the course of the story. In the end they were brought together though, again thanks to the snow child, along with some other vibrant characters and even me as a reader.

The author, who lives in Alaska, did a wonderful job of depicting the beautiful and sometimes intimidating vastness of the Alaskan wilderness. Setting the story in the 1920's allowed Ivey to not only to give her characters certain gender roles that needed to be overcome to ensure their survival in such a potentially harsh environment. Additionally, it also let the author take advantage of the isolation that was a part of frontier life everywhere, not just in Alaska. Even if your homestead was within visiting distance of another family, could a person afford to take a day off and visit instead of working on their own farm? Usually not. This lack of outside contact really helped to make me honestly wonder if the snow child were real, or just part of the characters slowly going mad due to unresolved sorrows and the beautiful loneliness of an unsettled wilderness.

The Snow Child will appeal to fans of Alaskan literature and those who like a very thin line between fiction and fairytale. To me the honest inability to tell the difference between what was real and what was in the characters' heads was at once frustrating and fantastic, attesting to Ivey's skill with words. You can find Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child at your favorite local, independent bookstore right now. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Advice On Life From Literature

Mockingbird cover

I love that as I'm reading, I constantly find lines or passages of writing that really inspire me. They're like little chips of opal in a bowl of sand, glimmering like little fragments of Truth (not just factual truth, but existential Truth) against the background of the novel. I collect these fragments, write them down and squirrel them away for another time, sometimes in a notebook but more often than not on little bits and scraps of paper that get bent and folded and washed and used as bookmarks in yet other books before slowly being eroded away into nothingness.

Here's a list of advice from literary classics to remind you that inspiration can come from the world around you but also from the way that it's recorded, the way that words are organized onto a page or spoken by a character. Maybe they'll inspire you to write down some Truths of your own.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review: "Henna House" by Nomi Eve

In school we learn about the Holocaust. We learn our facts and figures about the losses suffered, the horrors of death camps, the victory of the Allies over the Axis in Europe and the Pacific. We learn that Israel was formed. But if your history class is anything like mine was, some things got glossed over. Things that maybe as young people we didn't think to ask, like what happened to the other ethnic groups of Jews outside of Europe? Did Israel's formation impact them, and how? In what ways were their lives changed, even if they didn't immediately make it to the new Jewish homeland?

Henna House, Nomi Eve's latest novel, is the saga of a Yemeni Jewish family written in the form of a memoir by the family's youngest daughter Adela. She starts off life in a small Yemeni mountain village, and we follow her through the 1920's and into WWII, all the way to Israel. As the youngest child and her parents' only daughter, Adela is able to give the reader a unique look into a culture full of tradition, mysticism and beautiful history. But a sense of fear and impending catastrophe also suffuses the story as increasingly antisemitic laws passed by Yemen's Imam cast a pall over Adela's life. Her father grows sickly, and her mother desperately searches for a boy suitable for Adela's betrothal in order to save her from being adopted and converted by a Muslim family.

But amid the uncertainty Adela finds joy in the arms of her large extended family, particularly when her aunt Rahel arrives in the village with her husband and daughter and introduces Adela to the ancient tradition of henna body art. This portion of Adela's life, with its ritual and deep sense of timelessness, fascinates her as a child and becomes an important part of her identity as she and her family face hardship from not only outside influences like the Imam, but from family relationships as well. It accompanies her on her physical journeys, carries meanings and symbolism in its designs, and at one  point even betrays her deeply.

I found that I was very drawn to Adela's character and her story even without the hook she dropped at the very beginning that one of the people she loved most had met a particularly gruesome end. I found myself drawn into reading more not because of that allusion (in all honesty I'd forgotten about it until the event actually took place near the end of the book) but because Adela's voice, her open depictions and genuine feelings about her everyday life, reached out of the page and took gentle hold of my heart.

I've mentioned that Adela talks about some of the discrimination she faced as a Jew in a Muslim-dominated culture in Yemen, but I was very impressed by the factual manner in which these details were represented. Never did her character (or through her, author Nomi Eve) rail against Muslims and Islam or any of the religious differences between the two groups. Instead, she offers examples like how Jewish families were not allowed to build their houses higher than their Muslim fellows, or how Jews were not allowed to ride horses. She doesn't blame Muslims for the way things are in her writing; she merely states that it's the way things were. This artful way of illustrating inequality without laying blame was very impressive to me, coming from the perspective of one who claims neither religion. Adela even tells of Muslim and Jewish women borrowing the "stranger magic" of the other group's talismans, which seemed particularly poignant to me, as a representation of some sort of respect or admiration between the groups.

In Adela's culture and time period, children become adults and it's normative for them to behave as such at a much earlier age than in contemporary American culture. I was surprised sometimes by some of Adela's experiences at a very young age, and the author was certain to emphasize the maturity of these things even while reminding the reader of how young Adela was at the time. It was an interesting and very effective combination. I was pulled out of the reading at these points, but not for lack of skill in the writing. Rather, it was my own cultural background and biases that gave me pause at what I was being told, and instead of being dissuaded from reading farther at these points, this emphasis of a pretty staggering culture gap across time, language, religion and geography made me want to learn even more about Adela and where her life would eventually go.

This book was a blend of equal parts fictional family history, physical journey, self-discovery and bittersweet reflection. Adela gains much at the end of her long life journey, which we find out about at the end, including a place in the newly formed Israel ad a life with the man she loves, doing what she loves to do and writing her story. But she loses so much to earn these things, and when she does so, she has no guarantee that she will see any recompense in her life. This old hurt, the dull perpetual sorrow, clings to Adela's words and brought the weight of her entire cultural history down to land squarely in my gut. It's more haunting in its beauty, richness and sorrow than I could ever have imagined when I first picked this book up off the shelf.

If you want a poignant, sometimes painful, and utterly staggering look into a little-known culture that blends Middle Eastern history with Jewish heritage, pick up Henna House by Nomi Eve. While the book itself is a work of fiction, Eve does a wonderful job of listing her resources and inviting the reader to find out more about the histories of families like Adela's. Henna House was released on August 12th and is available now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: "Trial by Fire" by Josephine Angelini (The Worldwalker Trilogy Book 1)


It's no secret that our world has its fair share of environmental problems. The presence of smog in our air, a depleted ozone layer, polluted water and a questionable diet in the United States has led to a number of health problems in our population over the course of modern history. Lily Proctor, a high school student in Salem, Massachusetts, is allergic to just about everything. From alcohol to harmless potatoes, Lily reacts badly with everything from hives to seizures, and her body temperature is perpetually fevered. But things could be worse: she and her best friend Tristan have just started dating, and she might even get to go to a party while her sister takes care of their emotionally unstable mother.

But of course, things don't go as planned in the life of Lily Proctor. After a catastrophic evening, Lily finds herself pulled across the layers of the universe into an alternate reality. Here, in a completely unfamiliar version of Salem, witchcraft holds society together and science is persecuted viciously. And ruling over it all is Lilian Proctor, Lily's double, the Salem Witch.

Author Josephine Angelini has created a complex and interesting take on magic in the first book of what will be a new YA trilogy. I found the idea of a witch as a crucible particularly intriguing, seeing how foods and other elements were transformed into force and energy. But while I was very interested in that take on witchcraft, I was disappointed by the lack of explanation behind those powers. Lily is revealed to be a very powerful witch, yes. But the reasons behind what gives a witch her abilities, if it's biological or environmental or something else, are never addressed. I felt like that took away from my sense of appreciation for what Angelini had created in this take on magic, like she'd delved into it just far enough to write the basic story but didn't develop things any deeper. It was a letdown in an otherwise very convincing, immersive version of our world reimagined.

The other major plot hole that served to shake me out of my enjoyment of this novel lay in that while Lilian hinted to Lily more than once that she "needed" here in this other world, that there were plans for her and reasons for her to stay, nothing more than that was ever said. It left me frustrated and struggling to understand Lily's motivation for her actions in this strange Salem, if she didn't know or seem to pursue finding out Lilian's intentions for her. While Lilian never hurts her, just seems to scare her, Lily sees her immediately as evil and does her best to get as far away from her as possible. Basic things like why Lily was brought into an alternate reality or what Lilian has planned for her remain not just unanswered, but almost completely unaddressed. It could be that the author has a big reveal planned for the next book in the series, but it's my personal feeling that a little more information now would have done wonders to make me invest more in the story and its characters.

While I did have some definite criticisms of the way that this book is laid out in terms of plot development, the egalitarian nature of the relationship that develops between Lily and Rowan was a great breath of fresh air in a genre that seems to have a bad habit of sometimes seeing too much overblown romance in potentially unhealthy relationships between characters. (See Rachel Hanley's great blog post about how "romance ate the rest of my book!") Is this a teen book? Yes. Does that mean there's going to be some romantic agonizing and possibly obsession? Usually. But the way that Angelini managed to work a mutually beneficial, codependent relationship between a witch and her caretaker, or medic, was impressive and greatly appreciated. Especially in the case of Lily, who is completely lost in this new world, and Rowan, who had a complex and painful relationship with Lilian, they're both at each other's mercy regarding power and survival as well as emotions.

This book is a quick dip into a cleverly conceived alternate reality, intriguing despite some serious flaws. It's one of those premises that turned history on its head so completely, and in such an unexpected way, that I was swept right along with it. If you're willing to overlook some plot holes in exchange for a vivid world and some pretty fantastic characters, make sure you pick up a copy of Josephine Angelini's book Trial by Fire when it's released on September 2nd of this year. You can pre-order it now through your favorite independent bookstore!