Posted by: tuulenhaiven | October 19, 2014

The Girl From the Well

by Rin Chupeco

Ay, yi yi…Japanese ghosts…! I don’t often wander where they haunt, being fully aware of the fact that they do it with extra doom. I don’t want to be scared to death – and that’s what they do best! I did tremble my way through Rin Chupeco’s book, however, which stars Okiku – a terrifying female ghost who has been fighting the frightening fight since who knows how long (but at least since 1741).

In Chupeco’s tale, Okiku has traveled far from her well at Himeji Castle, and has spent the centuries bringing vengeful, horrible deaths to the killers of children, drawing inspiration from her own murder. Her actions free the souls of the dead children, but her own soul is trapped on earth. She eventually meets Tark, a teenage boy who is possessed by his own personal ghost, and her curiosity and loneliness draws her into his life. His cousin Callie is his other champion, and she and the ghost girl form a tentative partnership to save Tark.

This book has some pretty significant strengths and weaknesses. The story is interesting, but Okiku is the only really vibrant character. All of her bits are wonderfully chilling, and the visuals Chupeco conjures up are shiver-inducing. As I’ve mentioned before, I can stomach horror in books better than movies, and I’ll readily admit that if this book had been in film-form I would have been watching it from the cracks between my fingers… Spooky visuals galore.

Callie and Tark are less fleshed-out characters (despite being alive), and the dialog is rather stiff. There are a lot of interesting cultural details, and when our heroes leave the US and go questing in Japan there are fun countrysides and castles to explore. The story is narrated by Okiku, which works pretty well since she can pull off both first-person and third, drifting about following the other characters. It’s a bit of a stretch at times, especially when Callie dreams or when Okiku is somehow able to listen in on Callie’s thoughts, but hey – she’s a powerful spirit, in possession of all kinds of special talents!

I found The Girl From the Well via Library Hungry’s review during #Diversiverse, and knew I’d be reading it for R.I.P. IX. I liked it overall and it’s definitely a good Halloween read. I’m interested in digging into the folklore behind Okiku’s legend more, and maybe tracking down some other Japanese ghost stories (in book form – I won’t be watching The Ring anytime soon, or reading Koji Suzuki’s book for that matter…not this year anyway!)

Any recommendations along these lines?


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Posted by: tuulenhaiven | October 13, 2014

Of duck ponds and dollys

I’m sure you all saw that recent episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor told young Danny Pink about the huge benefits of being scared? Thusly:

Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time.

What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower! Your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you.” – DW 8:04 ‘Listen’

Great stuff, am I right?

My friends can attest to the fact that after watching an episode of Supernatural, I often wish someone would accompany me to the bathroom. I had to watch Twin Peaks during the day, and preferably on sunny ones. My boyfriend tickled me in the midst of watching Manhunter the other night and I nearly bloodied his nose.

There’s a strange pleasure in being spooked though, in making it past the gaping dark entrance to the attic stairs without being caught by a pale white hand, in ignoring the shape behind the shower curtain, in leaping onto bed and getting the quilt pulled up to your chin just. in. time. Rocket fuel, like the Doctor said.

My autumnal reads haven’t scared me properly thus far, but I’ve enjoyed a bit of haunting via Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Susan Hill’s double feature The Small Hand & Dolly.

The ocean at the end of the lane is in fact a duck pond, but Lettie Hempstock saw further and deeper than others. The unnamed narrator of Gaiman’s short novel finds his way back to the pond as an adult, and remembers all in a rush a series of events that nearly swept him away as a child. It began when a man committed suicide in his father’s car, at the lane’s end in front of Lettie’s farm. Something was released into the world, something dangerous and strange. Lettie promised no harm would come to him, and the little boy trusted her – even when evil forces found their way into his home and everything he knew about how the world fit together was challenged.

I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.” – p. 143

The adult narrator loses himself in his childhood memories, which lends a mature tone to the voice of a serious, observant, but vulnerable little boy. The adult can’t hope to explain some of the things he saw then, and the boy didn’t fully comprehend other things he witnessed. Both sets of eyes present a straightforward story, therefore, and that adds to the horror and to the fay quality of it. It’s a dream-like tale, with magic and wonder and surreal landscapes, but also the very real confusion of a child trying to navigate a world full of adult whims and rules. He constantly finds safety or at least distraction in books, which I related to strongly, and those books help him to survive and tell his own story.

Bizarrely, I haven’t read many books by Gaimen – I believe just Coraline and Stardust, beside this one – but I have so much respect for the author and how, and to what purpose, he wields his pen. This wasn’t my most favorite book of the year, but it was certainly delightfully moody and devilish, and a good R. I. P. read.

Susan Hill’s two little books were a bit more spine-chilling. They are ghost stories, and both deal with the sort of haunting where the consequences of a childhood act must be paid for in the end. They have delicious, irresistible build ups, and the sort of creeping imagery that gets under your nails and bores into the back of your skull, until you have to look. They’re not BOO! in your face scary – Susan Hill is deftly subtle.

The Small Hand is kind of fun because aside from the ghost story, it is the tale of a Antiquarian bookseller, tracking down a Shakespeare first folio, and there’s a lovely bit of travel up into the mountains of the Vercors, France. Of course our hero, Adam, has an encounter with the small hand on that dark, rainy road – which is as atmospheric and unsettling as the derelict Edwardian house in the English Downs, where it all started.

Dolly is the worse of the two tales, if you find porcelain dolls and pretty little girls terrifying at the best of times… It’s set amid the fens, always a sinister and lonely place, and in a slowly rotting old house – perfect. The adult narrator recollecting his childhood experiences reminded me of Gaiman’s book a bit, but this haunting doesn’t remain tidily in the past. Dolly and her like stalk Edward and his horrible cousin Leonora into adulthood, and Leonora’s act of petulant rage will never be forgotten.

Honestly, I would have fared badly if these tales had been in movie form, which is why I enjoy reading ghost stories, but usually steer clear of the horror genre in films. Still…this autumn I may attempt The Woman in Black - although I haven’t read Susan Hill’s most (?) famous book. However, I’ve been enjoying Daniel Radcliffe a lot lately (A Young Doctor’s Notebook, anybody?) and I like to challenge my senses – get in touch with that superpower, scared.

With these books I completed “Peril the Second” for the R. I. P. IX challenge. I’m currently inhaling The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco, which is definitely a R. I. P. read (and, incidentally, a #Diversiverse recommendation!), so despite my late start I’m getting plenty of spooky reading in before Oct. 31st ticks by.

What’s scaring you this autumn?

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | October 3, 2014

Getting My Spook On

I have been a slacker this year about signing up for and participating in Carl V.’s (of Stainless Steel Droppings) annual R.I.P. reading challenge. R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (IX) is one of my favorite book blogging activities, and I usually start consuming spooky books and movies with concentrated attention as soon as the calendar flips to September. Distractions (bookish and otherwise) piled up this autumn, but it’s not over till it’s over. The gorgeous banners drawn by Abigail Larson for the event have been haunting me from the sidebars of blogs everywhere, and they will now lend melancholy to my own.

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The rules of the challenge are simple. Read or watch perilous things (anything along the lines of Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, or Supernatural) and then share your love for the macabre with your fellow R.I.P.ers via the review site, found here. The event started Sept. 1st and the group is a vicious bunch, so there are already hundreds of reviews up. I will go grave robbing among them shortly to find some reading/watching suggestions.

The challenge has several “perils that you can choose to complete. Since I am starting a month late, I will endeavor to stay on this side of Death’s door by accomplishing:

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I must read two wicked books before Oct. 31st! Or else… I will very likely also participate in “Peril of the Short Story” and “Peril on the Screen”, just for extra skull and crossbones points.

I haven’t officially participated in this challenge since 2011, due to moving back and forth across the country and other boring life things, so I am especially excited to join the zombie hoards again. Pittsburgh is a great city to R.I.P. in, and I look forward to uncovering a few of it’s ghost stories, and hanging out with George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead), who filmed many of his horror films in and around the city. I’ll be dipping into my Poe anthology and probably knocking back a Shirley Jackson story, but I don’t know what scary novels I’ll read yet. I can’t wait to ravage the R.I.P. reviews, and my local library shelves, and see what I come up with!

Opening up a similar vein, All Hallow’s Read is upon us! Devilish author Neil Gaiman is the werewolf pack leader of this event, which is another spookily simple affair: give someone a scary book for Halloween.

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I shouldn’t need to explain it beyond that. I just need to find THE book to give away, and then pick who gets it. I will report back when these things are accomplished – and you should do the same! Because giving away books is fun! Check out what one of my local Pittsburgh shops (Rickert & Beagle Books) is doing to participate – I’ll definitely be popping round there sometime this month to pick up a few books (and maybe run into one of the owners, Peter S. Beagle himself…?!)

Stay tuned for perilous posts. Quoth the raven, “Manymore!”

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 30, 2014

Diversiversiversiverse…!!

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The concentrated effort to support and inspire more diversity in literature headed by Aarti of BookLust – A More Diverse Universe III – has ended in it’s official sense for 2014. She wrapped up the event here on Sunday, and shouted gleefully about the 73 bloggers who reviewed about 120 books over the two weeks of #Diversiverse.

I read five books for the event, and have added dozens of new titles to my TBR list. I read two books off of the list I concocted for myself – The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson, and Everyone Leaves by Wendy Guerra (still need to review that…) I raided my local library’s pleasantly diverse YA collection and turned up Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor and Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis. I also read The Good Braider by Terry Farish, and realized that the author was a white lady from Connecticut only after I’d finished it (paying attention is free, yo…)

Which brings up an interesting point – we definitely need to see more diversity in books written by Caucasian and POC authors alike. But for POC authors it can be hugely frustrating, and seem unfair, when a white author writes a book about people of color and then joins the throngs of published books by white authors. For 20 years now the percentage of books by and about people of color has been floating around 10%. Not okay!

Author Ellen Oh discusses “Why Being a POC Author Sucks Sometimes” and touches on her own irritation over white authors who try to write multicultural stories, while grudgingly appreciating their efforts – if they do it right.

It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. We need diversity in literature. We need it desperately. Diversity is not only for the under-represented—the truth is, diversity is important for everyone. All people need to be exposed to other races and other cultures in positive ways. All people need to learn tolerance and acceptance of differences. When we promote only a homogeneous view of society in our literature and our media, and deem books or movies about minorities as unsuccessful, it harms everyone. And so it is important that all authors include diversity in their books.

Ellen Oh quotes writer Claire Light, speaking on the doubly damned white author writing about people of color:

If you do do it and get it “wrong”, you’ll get reamed, and rightfully so. It’s presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don’t belong to if you can’t be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.

Further, if you do it and get it “right”, or rather, don’t get it wrong, you’ll still get reamed by members of that culture you’ve represented who rightfully resent a white writer’s success representing their culture.

All of this applies to Terry Farish’s book – The Good Braider – which is about a girl named Viola, who escapes South Sudan with her mother and comes to America to start a new life. Terry Farish (whose first job was working for the Red Cross in Vietnam during the war) lived in Portland, ME, for years and made many friends among the real-life Sudanese refugees who immigrated there. In the book’s Acknowledgments she lists them and speaks about how they impacted her life and helped build the story she came to write.

Perhaps this, then, is a book about people of color written by a white lady from CT, done right? Like Ellen Oh says, it’s complicated. But it is a good book, and one that Naomi Shihab Nye and Uma Krishnaswami were happy to stick up for. It is written in verse (I am on a real novel-in-verse kick this year, let me tell you!) and Viola’s voice is powerful. The book is full of details both beautiful and brutal. Terrible, violent things happen in war torn Sudan, and Viola and her mother carry their wounds with them to Portland, ME. (Trigger warning, for the wounded readers among us all: the story deals with rape, abuse, and PTSD.)

The journey from Sudan to Cairo is full of dangers, but Viola overcomes the obstacles with grace and intelligence. Life in the US brings many new difficulties, as she tries to fit in and find her identity, to be both Sudanese and American. Her struggle to adapt, to heal, and to blossom is a moving and important story.

I remember reading a newspaper article when I was a girl, growing up in a coastal Maine town, about the Sudanese refugees who were moving into Portland, ME. The community was finding ways to welcome, to house, and to understand these new neighbors and hopefully friends (Maine is still one of the whitest states in the country…) and I, who had no idea at the time what they were fleeing from, hoped that some would move to my little town. I wonder what my teenage years would have been like if someone like Viola had moved in next to me?

I can’t say if the book would have been better if it had been written by a Sudanese writer – I’m just glad I read it. I’m glad Farish took the time to listen to her neighbors’ stories, to learn how they braided their hair, what their food tasted like, and what their Congolese beats felt like in her tapping toes. That’s what I hoped to do as a girl, and what I still hope to do whenever I meet someone from a culture that is different than mine. I know that Farish wrote her book in the hope that it would inspire new understanding and friendship between people. That’s what we’re all hoping for when we demand multicultural stories.

Everyone needs to write them, especially the Sudanese woman who, like Viola, escaped the violence of their homeland and arrived in the US to build new lives. I want to hear their stories, in their own words. I’ll seek them out, and I’ll demand that they get published. Which brings us back round to #Diversiverse.

As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s not over. I’m on a roll here, and my TBR list is swollen with new authors and titles. I was going to list all the ones I’m excited about, gleaned from the #Diversiverse reviews (and I haven’t even gotten through them all yet!), but I’ve gone on here long enough. It was an exciting two weeks, and I’ll be benefiting from it for probably the rest of my reading days. #Diversiverse on folks!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 29, 2014

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest/ Was not spoken of the soul.”

Sept. 27th 2014

Sometime last week it became autumn. That’s always a great day! Autumn is my favorite season – the time of spooky stories, pumpkin beers, brilliant foliage, and serious cemeterrying. I went to Boston to wish one of my sisters a happy birthday this past weekend, and was joined while I was there by the rest of my sisters. They know that I love cemeteries, so all 5 of us plus a few other friends spent part of a gloriously sunny afternoon wandering around Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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I could have spent much longer exploring America’s first “garden cemetery”. It was established in 1831, with the intent to be a more pleasant place than the typically dismal church side graveyard. It’s landscape varies from steep to rolling hillsides, with trails leading into hidden groves and grottoes. It doubles as an arboratum – there are thousands of trees and about 700 different species and varieties. Many of them are very old and very large. The cemetery succeeds in being a peaceful, beautiful place where folks can wander and ponder the sentiments found on gravestones like this one:

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I like that quite a bit. I wonder who said it? who is buried beneath it? who thought it was the fitting thing to put on their stone?

When I’m in a cemetery I often think of a book I once read by Peter S. Beagle called A Fine and Private Place. It’s about two troubled people who meet in a cemetery, in the afterlife unfortunately, and fall in love. It’s lovely and melancholy and would be a perfect book to revisit during this autumn season. The title (and inspiration for some of the plot) comes from Andrew Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress – 

The grave’s a fine and private place

But none, I think, do there embrace.

My very much alive sisters and I did quite a bit of embracing over the weekend, some of it in the cemetery (but of course not in the grave) and enjoyed some of that real! and earnest! life that the tombstone above shouts about. Pumpkin beers were drunk, and a 13 lb. salmon was smoked. Board games were played. Music was listened to. I discovered the band A Hawk and a Hacksaw and remembered that autumn is an excellent time to listen to the accordion, if it is pumping out the wistful, somewhat unsettling sounds of Balkan and Klezmer and Eastern European-inspired music, thusly:

View of downtown Boston from the tower - Sept. 27th 2014

I spent my anniversary in Boston (seen above from Washington Tower in Mount Auburn Cemetery) , but I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for a year now. This time last year I was pretty excited to be here, and I am pleased to say that this is still true. The trees are starting to turn, Southern Tier’s Imperial Pumking is on tap once again, I haven’t finished exploring Allegheny Cemetery yet, and I’ll begin a brand new job/adventure in a few days. I still live with one of my best friends, and I’ve made some very good new ones in the past year. I lost the hat that I brought with me from Oregon (the one I’m wearing in the picture from last year’s arrival in Pittsburgh post) but I found a new one that has been treating me well – just like my new home!

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Urban hiking in Pittsburgh – I almost never leave home without that hat, that bag (complete with “I read banned books!” pin), and my camera in hand.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 23, 2014

Mare’s War

by Tanita S. Davis

I’m so pleased that I found this book during my last library visit, because in addition to being an excellent #diversiverse read, it introduced me to a forgotten piece of American history – the Women’s Army Corps 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion. This was an all-female African-American battalion – the first one in the Army and the only all-female battalion to serve overseas during WWII.

“Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity E. Adams,…and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell,…inspect the first contingent of Negro members of the Women’s Army Corps assigned to overseas service.” 6888th Central Postal Directory Bn. February 15, 1945. Holt. 111-SC-200791. – from the National Archives

Davis ran into the story of the Six Triple Eight while looking for information about her grandmother, and while she didn’t find anything about her own family she felt compelled to tell the story of another grandmother.

Mare’s War is about two grand adventures. Octavia and Talitha have been forced to spend their summer vacation accompanying their grandmother Mare on a road trip from California into the Deep South. Both sisters are less than thrilled about “babysitting” Mare, who, with her fast red car, push-up bras, stiletto heels, and no nonsense attitude, is a bit of a handful. Octavia doesn’t know if she’ll survive the trip, stuck between strong-willed Mare and her older, cooler, equally obstinate sister Tali. However, Mare’s stories about her own teenage years earns both girls’ grudging respect, and as the miles roll beneath the car wheels Octavia and Tali discover that they have a lot to learn about Mare and each other.

Mare’s story is one of stubborn determination to make something of herself in a world that was mostly unwilling to support or assist her. Society and her mother expected her to work in Miss Ida’s house dusting furniture for the rest of her days, but Mare had other plans. An education, a good job as a secretary, and a pleasant place to live for her sister Josephine and herself didn’t seem like much to ask for. It was more than she’d ever get in the Deep South of the 1940s though, so Mare ran away from home and joined the 6888th African-American battalion of the Woman’s Army Corps.

New friends, strict training, deployment to England and then to France were all taken in stride. The segregation she encountered within the Army, and overseas, was still bitter to swallow. No amount of job-well-done could take away that pain, but like everything else in her life Mare shouldered the burden and soldiered on. She achieved much of what she’d aimed for, and then some, as she discovers late in life during a summer road trip with her granddaughters.

The book flips between the present-day trip and Mare’s story, Octavia narrating their daily struggles together and Mare of course telling her own tale. Mare’s voice is strong and her story is full of interesting details about daily life for a WAC at that time, and the more specific trials a “colored servicewoman” endured. The “good enough to die, but not good enough to drink from the same water fountain” story repeated itself over and over. Mare’s experiences in England were especially poignant, as she and other women from the 6888th interacted at times with perfectly decent Englishmen/women, and then turned around and slammed into racism and hatred from white American soldiers. This balancing act was tricky, and it was painfully obvious that while one war was coming to a close, the “war at home” for Mare and her friends and family was still far from being won.

In the present day, Octavia feels and sometimes sees how there are battles still being fought, especially as the red sports car heads deeper and deeper into the south. The two teenagers live in what feels like a very different world than the one Mare grew up in, but some things haven’t changed enough.

It’s an excellent book overall, but I am more than usually grateful that the author sat down and wrote it. The story of the 6888th battalion has been lost and buried. The unit wasn’t even recognized for it’s services until 2009, and by then only 3 women could be located. I found an article from earlier this year in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about one servicewoman – Anna Mae Robertson, now 90 years old – whose daughter contacted her state rep and demanded that her mother receive the military honors she deserved. This bit of the 6888th’s story was detailed:

The work began in Birmingham, England, in 1943, when Robertson and the rest of the Women’s Army Corps 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion were assigned to tackle a two-year logjam of mail. Given six months, they finished in three.

Toward the end of the war, their performance earned them a trip to Rouen, France, to get a mountain of mail moving on the continent. Again, they were given six months; again, they were done in three. From there, it was on to Paris, where they were given top-notch treatment in appreciation for their work.

After that though, they were sent home and promptly forgotten.

Major Charity Edna Adams, commander of the 6888th, and eventually the highest ranking African American woman to serve in WWII, wrote a book about her experiences – One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC – which was published in 1989. There is very little else out there about these women, beyond some magnificent pictures in the National Archives, and now Tanita S. Davis’ book.

“Auxiliaries Ruth Wade and Lucille Mayo (left to right) further demonstrate their ability to service trucks as taught them during the processing period at Fort Des Moines and put into practice at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.” December 8, 1942. Oster. 111-SC-162466. – National Archive

I’m pleased that my involvement in A More Diverse Universe inspired me to check this book out. Davis’ blog looks like an interesting read, and her debut novel – A la Carte – also sounds good. And of course I look forward to learning more about the 6888th battalion!

I found this picture of women from the 6888th on Tanita S. Davis’ blog – check out her post about it!

There are still 4 days left of the official #diversiverse event. This post will be the 81st review listed over on Aarti’s blog. I hope we get at least 100 before we’re through!

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Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 22, 2014

The Return of Sarah Bone

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Ages ago (late summer/autumn 2011) I started drawing Sarah Bone. I envisioned the start of my career as a graphic novelist, or at the very least a zine-maker, and couldn’t wait to see where that adventure took me. My real-life adventures took me from Maine to Oregon not long after, and Sarah Bone was neglected while I built houses out of mud and learned to timber frame.

Last week she resurfaced, with a slightly new name (similar to myself – I’ve embraced “Sally” since moving to Pittsburgh) and without any hair, for some reason. I’m not sure what she’s been up to recently, but I can imagine it’s been interesting and I know that she has a lot to share. I believe this is just page One of Sally Bone Vol. 1. I might have started writing that comic book at long last! But I won’t get too ahead of myself. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

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You can click on the image to get to a larger one, if need be. The adventures of Sally Bone will continue soon! (Or in another 3 years.)

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 21, 2014

Akata Witch

by Nnedi Okorafor

None of the other books I had picked for #Diversiverse had made their way to me yet, so last Thursday I stood in the YA section of the Lawrenceville branch of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library and just scanned the shelves for non-white-sounding authors’ names. I remembered that I wanted to read a book by Ruth Ozeki, which brought me to the 7 or so books in the ‘O’ section, and my eyes tangled with ‘Okorafor’. A Nigerian-American female author whose book – Akata Witch – had commendations from both Ursula K. Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones on it’s cover? Jackpot!

The book is about an albino girl named Sunny, who was born in the US to Nigerian parents, and taken home to West Africa when she was 9 years old. Three years later the story opens with her still struggling to fit in. She looks Nigerian, speaks perfect Igbo, and is a talented soccer player – but she is so sensitive to the sun that she can only play at night, and she must spend her days beneath a black umbrella or tucked away inside. Her schoolmates tease her, and her father wishes she hadn’t been born.

Sunny’s tentative friendship with Orlu (a boy who stuck up for her in a schoolyard fight) and Chichi (a mysterious girl who lives with her mother in a mud hut and reads incessantly) deepens into something much more powerful when the two kids reveal that they have magical powers – and that Sunny does too. They are all members of the Leopard People, an ancient world-wide race of magic-wielders.  Sunny soon finds herself scrambling to learn how to use her powers, understand her place in this whole new world, and together with Orlu, Chichi, and another American boy named Sasha, track down and prevent the evil Black Hat Otokoto from murdering any more children.

This book was interesting and imaginative…but also a little bit dull, which seems like a direct contradiction! Something about the writing style, and specifically the voices of the characters seemed…flat. I felt like the spark was missing from the narrative, and this puzzled me immensely because the story was at the same time richly detailed and full of surprising quirks. Nigerian culture, and the magical world of the Leopard people poured from the pages. The hidden spaces of Leopard Knocks with it’s market streets and massive library, the way charms and acts of juju worked, the spirit faces that each person wore beneath their real one – all these details were colorful and somewhat familiar, but full of the zest of a different setting. Being transported to West Africa was, to me, just as exciting as exploring the landscapes and rules of a new fantasy world.

The straightforward story-arc with it’s typical hero’s journey did suffer a bit in contrast. Some of the main characters didn’t seem as fleshed out as many of the magical creatures Okorafor came up with (like the large red ghost hoppers that serenaded Sunny at night, or the artist wasp that made castles out of crumbs). Sunny’s friends are all characters commonly found in such stories. Sunny herself was a bit more vibrant, but not remarkably so.

This is the first in a series, I believe, and for all my complaints I will most likely keep reading. Even if this book was somewhat uneven, I liked it a lot and I am eager to seek out more of Nnedi Okorafor’s books. She has won several awards, and one of her adult books – Who Fears Death – sounds particularly interesting to me. I am glad to have stumbled into her in my library last week!

What she is doing with her writing is extremely important, after all. As she wrote in an article that was intended for the New York Times (but was never published):

…it’s a fact that the genre of science fiction was birthed in the West. Few science fiction classics and contemporary works feature main characters of African descent, African mythologies, African locales, or address issues endemic to Africa. And until recently, next to none were written by African writers.

As a Nigerian-American, born and raised in the United States, what distanced me from science fiction novels early on was feeling that I was not a part of the stories; I didn’t exist in them. I suspect the same can be said for many African writers who might consider writing science fiction.

When Okorafor didn’t find herself or her culture represented in sci-fi or fantasy stories, she decided to write herself into the narrative, while also taking advantage of a “literary tool which is practically made to redress political and social issues.” (The rest of her article is worth checking out.) We need more authors being gutsy enough to follow suit, and more readers who are willing to lift their voices and demand more books like Akata Witch.

Of course this is precisely what we’re doing right now through A More Diverse Universe! This post will be the 58th review submitted to Aarti’s list at BookLust, and there will be plenty more added before Sept. 27th brings this event to a close (although it’s never really over). #Diversiverse on, readers and writers!

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Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 19, 2014

Up and down and over and under

It’s been a week of walkabouts. There is a lot of history to trip over in Pittsburgh any time you set out on foot, especially when you wander into older neighborhoods. Last Friday an errand brought me up into the Hill District, where once upon a time Pittsburgh’s African-American culture was rollicking. Famous jazz musicians met to play and compose (Lena Horne and Billy Eckstein called the place home), August Wilson scribbled plays, and Claude McKay named the neighborhoods on “the Hill” the “crossroads of the world”. The Negro League baseball team that played up there – the Pittsburgh Crawfords – claimed two Hall of Fame players: Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. The infrastructure was deteriorating, but in the 1930s-50s the Hill District was a vibrant and important place.

The systematic destruction of homes and property seen as sub-standard by the city government, the failed Civic Arena, rioting following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the collapse of the steel industry brought things crashing down around the residents and business owners ears. The Hill almost died – but in the 1980s the city began to invest in the area again and over the past several decades there has been new development and energy there. Some folks call it a renaissance.

Along Centre Ave., Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014

Last Friday I got to see a mural being finished up on the side of a building on Centre Avenue. It features August Wilson and highlights his plays. 10 local kids and young adults worked on it, supported by the Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, which was started in 2002 by an artist from the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Wilkinsburg. There were a dozen folks from the neighborhood standing around watching the progress, and one passing local said proudly to me, “Well now it does look like August Wilson!”

St. Benedict of the Moor, Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014Terrace Hall Hotel, Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014

I passed the Hotel Terrace Hall and wondered what went on there back in the neighborhood’s heyday (or now, for that matter!). The St Benedict of the Moor Church, with it’s statue of the saint welcoming one and all, was another interesting landmark. The views of the city that you can get from the Hill District are pretty special too. Although the best 360 views are from the top – Herron Hill Park in the residential area known as Sugar Top – that day I enjoyed a new-to-me look at my own neighborhood of Lawrenceville.

View of Lawrenceville from Memory Lane, Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014

Stories about this walkabout inspired a friend of mine, and she asked me to take her up to Herron Hill Park. On Tuesday we set out on what would eventually be a 9 mile walk, for me, through 7  different neighborhoods, up and down some of Pittsburgh’s notorious stairs, across bridges, and through a tunnel.

The Swastika House on Andover Terrace, Sept. 16th 2014

On Andover Terrace, a shady tree-full street that zigs up to the zag of Bryn Mawr Road (by which you can eventually make your way to Sugar Top) we found something that stopped us cold. According to an interesting article about the house above (we felt compelled to Google it before moving on!), the swastika is benign. The original owner had it’s concrete form poured in 1912, at a time when the symbol meant nothing more than good luck. The present owners discovered the existence of the swastika when they had the wooden siding that covered it removed in 1981, 5 years after purchasing the historic home. As you can imagine, they had to decide what to do about it. After researching the house and discussing it with their neighbors (some of whom were Holocaust survivors…) they decided to let it remain – to startle and intrigue passing pedestrian explorers!

View of downtown from Herron Hill Park, Sept. 16th 2014

The views from Herron Hill Park are fantastic, as my friend discovered on Tuesday. Although the foliage is still thickly blocking some angles, the downtown skyline and Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, East Liberty, Oakland, and neighborhoods and boroughs beyond can be easily picked out by an eye familiar with the surrounding hills.

The following day I had to go downtown for an interview (I have since been accepted into the KEYS Service Corps!) and afterward I took advantage of the fact that I was across the street from the Smithfield Bridge.

Smithfield Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014

I have lived in Pittsburgh for nearly a year, but until Wednesday I had not walked across the Monongahela River via the Smithfield, or any other bridge. Completed in 1883, this is a lenticular truss bridge, and is the second oldest steel bridge still standing in the country. I walked across it with lots of other folks – it has probably the most pedestrian traffic of any bridge in the city, situated between downtown and Station Square where many commuters park.

Downtown from the Smithfield Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014

From the Smithfield Bridge you can see the Fort Pitt Bridge at the mouth of the Monongahela, and the Panhandle and Liberty bridges further up the river.

Fort Pitt Bridge from the Smithfield Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014Panhandle Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014

Smithfield Bridge detail, Sept. 17th 2014

The details of the bridge are lovely. It was fixed up in 1994-95 after being nearly demolished, due to it’s age and low clearance above the river. I’m so glad it’s now protected and cared for, since I can think of no finer way to traverse the Monongahela – unless it’s puttering about in a little boat in the sunshine…!

Along the Monongahela River, Sept. 17th 2014

I have a few more weeks of relative freedom before I begin training for my new job (an AmeriCorp program) and I’m sure I will fill my time with more exploring. I went through a rough patch at the beginning of September and really thought I was going to leave the city, striking out for Maine or the West Coast (either direction would have been okay!) I pulled myself together though and sorted out the next step for me, which will be 10 months of service to the youth of the Pittsburgh community. This has pulled my energy firmly back to this city, and as I head into my second year here I am thrilled to be continuing my adventures, and look forward to getting to know the place better.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 15, 2014

The True History of Paradise

by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

I have finally decided that I’m glad I read this book after going to Jamaica. The island country explodes from the pages, it’s mountains and beaches and reggae roads thrumming with the rhythm of African drums, bumping car wheels, goats bleating, feet running, dancing, and the musical lilt of patois. I was sent whirligiging back, and got to see and hear Jamaica come alive again in flashes I recognized and ones that were new to me. History, culture, and people blurred before my eyes. The book is crammed full of JAMAICA, and whether you’ve been to the country or not, a major pleasure of reading it will come from getting to dive right into the rumpus of life there.

There in 1981 and the years before, anyway. This is a multi-generational, multi-century, multi-narrative story. Jean Landing, and her trip across Jamaica on a spring day in 1981, is the thread tying it all together, but the story leaps backwards and forwards throughout the history of the island and the Landing and Darling-Stern families.

In the present day Jean has decided to leave Jamaica, putting behind her it’s political upheaval and terrible violence, the streets and houses full of the ghosts of her family (including her tormented older sister), the calculating and imperious gaze of her mother, her beloved blue mountains, and a man who has been and will always be her dearest friend. She travels with Paul from Kingston across the island to Montego Bay, where her flight to America awaits. Roadblocks and soldiers bar their path, mountainous roads send them curling into the jungle – where more ghosts lie in wait – and all along the way Jean finds herself slipping constantly into a parallel journey through her memories and her stories.

Her family history is volatile, a thunderous meeting of race and social standing – African slaves, Chinese immigrants, wealthy Englishmen, Indian merchants, scholars, farmers, madwomen, preachers… Most of the folks whose names crop up on the complex family tree at the start of the book are given a chance to tell their tale – or the part, at least, that fits into the puzzle of Jean’s life. Most of the voices are distinct, the historical settings sketched in with brief, bold strokes. The book is a crazy-quilt, but like a crazy-quilt it is vibrant and beautiful.

Life for Jean and her family has been vicious and voracious, full of loves both passionate and painful. The book presents love in many forms, in fact – the love between parents and children, between siblings, between lovers, between friends, between neighbors, between a person and their political leaders, and a person and their country. Beyond that, though, it examines the actions or lack of action that various types of love inspire, and how love breaks down, or isn’t always enough to mend or save a broken soul – or a broken country.

Jean is also struggling to work out her place in the history of her family, and her country, and the world at large – and as a child of many cultures, in a country with such a rich and diverse history, this proves to be especially headache-inducing. Finding peace with her identity is part of her journey across Jamaica. The author speaks from her heart in this, having been born on the island to multi-racial parents. (She left when she was 19 to go study English literature at Barnard College and Columbia University and has lived in the US since then.) Cezair-Thompson is intimately familiar with the struggle to find and preserve a sense of identity, and appreciation for the ever active roll history plays in our personal stories.

I read this book for A More Diverse Universe 2014 (#Diversiverse), and for my larger project to diversify my reading (seeking out non-white female authors). It was a wonderful place to start, with it’s wealth of female characters and the way it addressed the concerns about identity that I detailed above. It was also well written and told an interesting story (I especially appreciated the skillfully done dialect – I had heard Jamaican patois being spoken without much comprehension, so it thrilled my linguistic-loving heart to see bits of it written out…!) I recommend the book and will certainly read Cezair-Thompson’s other story, The Pirate’s Daughter, next time I get an urge to visit Jamaica!

Follow the link above to find Aarti’s roundup of book reviews. The event runs from Sept. 14th-27th and over 100 bloggers have signed up! My review will be the 19th posted so far. Check back often for more – this diverse catalog will be an awesome resource by the time we’re done for the year. Three cheers!

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