DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE: A REVIEW

ZZ Packer’s 2003 publication, a collection of short stories, is as important and enlightening today as the year it was published. It makes a good pick-up-and-put-down read as do most short story collections, but it has a quality about the writing that makes it special. In many of the stories “That Old-time Religion,” beloved by many of our grandparents and beloved still in many predominately African-American churches is presented through the author’s beautiful story-telling style. As Alex Hailey expressed in a quote from Roots, included in the book,

“Join me in the hope that this story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderately the histories have been written by the winners.” The people in Packer’s stories are not losers; they are the over-commers. Some stories end happily, some sadly, but all are dealing with awakenings and the power they have over the individual, who, in turn, gains the power to overcome.  The stories teach us that prejudice comes in many forms; that loss of faith is a searing loss; that friendships and sisterhood can help us overcome almost anything; and that Civil Rights deal with everyone’s rights.

Some of my favorite stories were “Speaking in Tongues”; “Doris is Coming,” which dealt with the predicted end of the world New Year’s Eve 1961 (I remember well that prediction.); and “The Rapture.”

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THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY: A Review

This 2016 publication by Genevieve Cogman is a fantasy novel, the first in a series. It has been called, “… a stunning work of art that has me absolutely begging for more…” by The Fantasy Book Reviewer. I have to agree that it left me begging for more, and I have already ordered the second book which came out in September.  I cared about the characters and would certainly like to continue following them and their adventures/misadventures.

Irene, one of the protagonists, is the daughter of Librarians and a “professional spy for the mysterious Library”, which is an organization that collects important works of fiction from all the different realities. 

Kai is Irene’s assistant, and the mystery as to his secret/identity left me reeling as I read.

The two are assigned to an “alternate London,” whose world is “chaos infected”–meaning the laws of nature are bent by “supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic.” Irene and Kai are sent to retrieve a special book, but when arrive, they discover it has already been stolen.  Mystery upon mystery and calamity upon calamity occur, including mechanical, giant alligators and the sticky business (literally) of a massive silverfish invasion which starts underfoot and climbs the walls and anything (including Irene and Kai) that gets in its way.

Beset by “sinister secret societies,” the pair learns more about their alternate world, the motivation and politics behind their mission, and each other.

This is a perfect opportunity to get in at the ground floor of an exciting, spectacular series.

NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles: A Review

Paulette Jiles is a San Antonio poet, novelist, and memorist.  In this 2016 publication, she describes in poetic, vibrant wording the realities and hard times of the western frontier.

She tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, aka “Captain” and “Captain Kidd,” a “reader of the news” of the world. Captain Kidd travels from frontier town to frontier town  in a wagon bought from a snake oil salesman, which has the faded letters, “Curative Waters” on its side. Captain brings news of the world to each town, reading from newspapers from New York, London, and other hub cities.  He censors and edits his performance readings depending on the politics and conditions found in each town. My Oral Interpretation professor would certainly have given him an A+, for he keeps his rough, uneducated audiences spellbound by the sound of his voice.Early in this page-turner, he takes on the task of returning a ten year old white girl, held captive by the Kiowa since she was a tiny child to her relatives in a small Texas town.  He accepts this assignment on moral grounds as well as for the few pieces of gold coin that he is given. However, Johanna, the child, wants nothing more than to remain a Kiowa, having no memories of her life as a white child. Eventually, early childhood memories and language begin to surface, and she comes to call Captain “Kantah,” Kiowa for grandfather.  Their relationship is the focus and theme of the book.

A sub-theme is dimes, silver dimes. This is the price of admission for Captain’s readings.  They eventually save Captain and Johanna’s lives when they have to use them for ammunition. A memorable encounter in the middle of the novel is when Kiowa braves appear, and Johanna is faced with the strongest decision of her life.  Will she choose to go back to the Kiowa with the warriors? Captain faces his own decision as well: What would be best for Johanna?

The epilogue is most satisfactory. Loose ends are tied up and the reader feels good with outcomes, the decisions made, and what happens to characters he/she has come to love.

This is definitely a 5 out of 5 points book, which has action, excellent characterization, and an appeal that will keep you up late reading.

THE STARPLACE by Vicki Grove: A Review

This 1999 YA novel has been sitting on my TBR shelf since buying it from Half Price Books’ Clearance several months ago.  I bought it to put out in my Little Free Library in the side yard, but I wanted to read it first. With Hurricane Harvey delaying the opening of schools, I had enough time to read more than usual this past week, and since the novel is set in the time I was in junior high and high school, during the height of the Civil Rights era and “forced” integration of schools, I was intrigued.

On the Puffin paperback, a reviewer describes it as dealing with Friendship…”in spite of racism.” Francine, aka Frannie and her friends Margot, Nancy, and Kelli, meet the new girl to Quiver, a small town in Oklahoma who is named Celeste.  She is the first African American the girls, and almost the town, have ever seen up close. Max, Theodore, and Jason–misfits at their junior high, are the girls’ “friends who are boys–not boyfriends.”

Frannie fancies herself a “modern” Nancy Drew, as this excerpt clearly shows:

“My name is Driscoll, F.E. Driscoll, girl detective…Driscoll will get to the bottom of this mystery of the searchers from the haunted house (Celeste and her father) no matter how many hours of secret surveillance it takes.”

Frannie’s impression of Celeste on the first day of seventh grade is that Celeste is “polished,” like her polished fingernails (Frannie bites hers) wearing saddle shoes, bobby socks, a circle skirt, and maintaining her composure amid curious and some malevolent stares. As Frannie and Celeste’s friendship deepens, meeting at the “rocket” in Frannie’s back yard, aka “The Starplace”, they exchange rhinestone bobby pins and become Star Sisters. Until she met Celeste, Frannie did not concern herself with the news on TV about sit-ins, firehosed young people or snarling dogs nipping at teenagers’ heels. She refused to listen to the evening news which poured out rhetoric about the “Red Threat” or even connect this with the “drills” they had begun at school.

All these fashions and things came directly out of my seventh and eighth grade years. Like Frannie, my folks tried to protect me from “such things,” never lying to me, but not bringing “delicate subjects that children don’t have to concern themselves with” up for discussion.

The book has a hilarious account of a patiently planned luau that turns out to be a catastrophe instead of making the four friends “popular” and cool. I laughed out loud. There is mystery; there is romance–a teen crush on Robin, Batman’s sidekick; and there is the complexity of best friends vs.new friends. Not only will young adults appreciate this peek into history (perhaps their grandparents’ day) but oldsters like me will look nostalgically back on kinder, simpler times which seemed so full of angst to us back then.

 

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY: by Charlie Jane Anders, A REVIEW

This unusual/weird novel is set in the near future and goes forward from there. Patricia Delfine and Laurence (“without a ‘w’ “) Armstead, the two protagonists meet in junior high.  They both are misfits among their peers–he, because he is working on an AI computer assembled in his bedroom closet and has invented a time machine that can move one two seconds in time; and she,  because she can talk to birds and other animals and is branded as a witch by her classmates. These two unusual, unlikely “friends” unite against strange antagonists and typical middle school harassment.

This book is science fiction which explores the themes of magic vs technology, the fate of planet Earth, and the complexities of friendship. As the cover asks, “Will they find love? Will they save the world? or, Will they destroy it?” The book is further described as “…wacky, sexy, scary, weird, and wonderful…” I found the novel to be all of the forementioned. As I read the book (and it didn’t help that I was reading it during the craziness of Hurricane Harvey) I wondered if both kids or their guidance counselor, or I, the reader, was crazy.  Many times I expected the author to end with an explosion of the planet and then the seventh graders’ denouement of, “And, then I woke up from my dream.” The author had in mind a much more complex yet satisfying ending. I would rate it five stars out of five stars and pay my compliments to the author.

THE BEAT ON RUBY’S STREET: A story for teens, pre-teens and everyone, A Review

Jenna Zark’s (author of A Body of Water) 2013 publication taught me more about the Beat Generation, Beatniks of the 1950s, and especially about “Beat Poetry” than I learned in an undergraduate class on Modern Poetry, which explored the subject. It is a fine book told from the point of Ruby, an eleven-going-on-twelve year old girl who lives in The Village in New York. She seems to be a “typical”pre-teen who has a “typical” cat, Solange.  Her mother, Nell, aka “Little Nell” is an artist, and her father, Gerard, aka “Gary-Daddy-O” is often on the road, playing bass. As Ruby tells us about The Beat Generation, “When it first  started, it was about people who were” beat up and fed up by the”System”, aka “The Man.”  Ruby had been making up poems by age four and writing them down by age seven. Her idol is Jack Kerouac, whom she describes is “…not a poet but writes like one.”

Ruby has a fourteen year old brother,Ray, who plays sax and often substitutes with his dad’s band, earning the adults’ respect and admiration for his playing skills. When Ruby gets in trouble on the “street,” she is sent to the police station, and Mrs. Levitt, a social worker steps in, setting in motion an investigation into her unmarried parents and her “home environment.” What follows in the story leads to Ruby becoming involved in a hunger strike at a children’s home in Brooklyn, where she is aided and abetted by her new friend, Manuela.

As she approaches her twelfth birthday day, she could never have imagined the changes in her life, attitude, and maturity or how things could change so quickly.  Through it all, she has her poetry (quite good, and interspersed throughout the novel) to sustain her and comes to the conclusion that “Poetry isn’t really good for anything except it makes you feel better.” Although the book explores the angst of “typical teen” misunderstanding and feelings that friends (and parents) don’t understand, Ruby, street-smart and talented,   is NOT a typical teen in a time and era definitely not “typical” either.

The author supplies questions for discussions suitable for book clubs, junior high English and history classes and anyone interested in the literary contributions to American literature from the “Beat Poets/Generation.”

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: A Review of an exceptional immigrant story

Lisa Ko’s 2017 novel, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction awarded by Barbara Kingsolver (for a novel that addresses issues of social justice) is an excellent novel. It is the story of Deming Guo, aka Daniel Wilkinson. The title indicates that everyone in his life leaves, or he leaves other people.  It is an intricate story of “love and loyalty.”

As the story begins, we find Deming with his immigrant mother, Polly, who works in a nail salon struggling to survive in The Bronx. One day Polly does not come home from work, and her boyfriend and his sister, Vivian, the mother’s roommates are not sure what  to do with the ten year old.  Deming, of course, wonders why his mother left him, then soon, why Vivian left him with social services who allowed the Wilkinsons, a middle-aged, white couple who are professors in upstate New York to adopt him.

This is not just an immigrant story, but a mystery that has many surprises along the reader’s journey through the novel. The book deals with expectations: parental expectations ; middle-class expectations, from both biological and adoptive parents; and  Deming’s own expectations from life.  Because of the last, he (Daniel) becomes a slacker, somewhat directionless and lacking purpose. The writer’s point of view alternates between Deming’s and Polly’s, spinning out extraordinary  lives of both main characters. There are happy moments and sad ones as well.  The setting spans the globe, presenting “one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read.” (Laila Lalami, author).  I agree.