4.17.2010

The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver

Bean Trees
The Bean Trees
The Bean Trees is the book that introduced me to one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver. I first read it in an honors English class in high school and just fell in love with the main character, Taylor Greer, and it was just so beautifully written that I keep coming back to it every now and then. Unlike some of her later work, Kingsolver uses spare language, using only the words she needs to get her point across and no more. (This is not to say that the others are wordy, just more stylish.)

We meet Taylor in Kentucky, where she lives with her single mother in a small town where the local pastime is to make babies. As soon as she can, Taylor gets a car and heads west. She doesn't really have a destination; she lets fate decide for her. In Oklahoma, outside of the Cherokee Nation, a Indian woman begs Taylor to take a small child with her. When Taylor learns what girl went through, she decides to take care of her. Dubbed Turtle because she latches on to things and won't let go, like the mud turtles in Kentucky, the girl forces Taylor to realize that motherhood--no matter how unorthodox--is not the end of the world.

The Bean Trees is not all about motherhood. Along the way, a family kind of grows up around Taylor. After her tires give way on the outskirts of Tucson, she settles down, becomes a roommate with a neurotic single mother, finds a job, and becomes friends with old ladies and Guatemalan refugees.

That pretty much sums up the plot of the book. But what makes it special is the way that it's told. The characters are real; you can really imagine meeting these people in real life. They talk like real people. They worry like real people. And the book is peppered with silly, humorous situations and dialog that make it all seem so homey. It takes a skilled writer to create a book like this, sweet and profound all at the same time. (Can you tell that I really dig this book yet?) I highly recommend both The Bean Trees and its sequel, Pigs in Heaven.

On a side note, The Bean Trees was also the book that made me aware of censorship. While I'd heard of banned books before, I hadn't actually been involved in a book controversy before. Some students (and their parents) were upset about the references to child abuse in the book and didn't want to read it. After the parents' challenge got turned down, I believe they were given the option of reading something else. I remember that, at the time, I was surprised that people would get so upset by something that happens "off stage" that they didn't want to read the rest of the book. Those of us who finished the book found it to be a wonderful book about family and redemption.

The Midnight Guardian, by Sara Jane Stratford

Midnight Guardian
The Midnight Guardian
The Midnight Guardian, by Sara Jane Stratford, is based on a premise that I think took a lot of balls to actually write. It's set in Britain and England between 1938 and 1940. The German war machine is gearing up to invade, and the rest of the world seems to be waiting and watching to see what happens. So far so good. The chutzpah comes in when Stratford's main characters come on stage. They're vampires. Not only that, but they're out to try and destroy the Reich. So yeah. Balls.

It takes a while to settle into this book, because Stratford chose to have to have two settings in two different timelines. On one side, you get the main character's lover, in Britain, who spends most of the book worrying about Brigit, the main character. Brigit gets two timelines. We meet her in 1940, on a train between Berlin and Basel. The other timeline starts in 1938 and catches up to the 1940 timeline. To be honest, I'm not sure about the author's choices in the structure of this book. If you want to build up tension--and I would think you would, given that this is a sort of spy novel--why would you let the reader know that the character is going to survive this or that brush with death?

Now that I've got that out of the way, let's talk about the plot. Brigit's cadre of vampires learns from refugees that the Nazis are wiping out vampires along with their other historical targets. So they decide that five of them are enough to take out the Reich. (You see what I mean about chutzpah?) The five make their way to Berlin and start making useful contacts and try to gather information.

*SPOILER ALERT*

You know the drill. If you don't want to know what happens, stop reading now and skip to the end of the post.

Which leads to another problem. Their grand plan doesn't go anywhere. The five are not very proactive. All they seem to manage are a couple of massacres and to steal information about the invasion of France. I don't know why Stratford didn't go whole hog and just let the vampires change history. It would have been a more successful book for it, I think. Since they don't accomplish much of anything in their big plan, The Midnight Guardian just feels like a let down. Which is a shame, because this could have been a great, gutsy book.

*END OF SPOILERS*

I'm not sure I can really recommend this book. While I'm curious to see if Stratford turns this into a series, I wouldn't buy the book. There are some serious structural and plot problems with the book that make me doubt the writer. On the plus side, I do appreciate her imaginative premise.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

I actually read this a while ago, but I never got around to posting about it.

Graveyard Book
The Graveyard Book
The Graveyard Book is a a young adult book that I actually enjoyed. It had the edge of the Grimm Brothers along with a wonderfully imaginative plot. The book centers on Nobody Owens, whose parents were murdered and was raised by ghosts in a nearby cemetery. To be honest, when I read the reviews of the book, I wasn't sure how the premise would work. You'd think after reading all of Gaiman's novels, I would have learned to trust him, but it was fantastic.

The book follows Nobody (or Bod, as he's known around the cemetery) as he grows up, learns reading from the grave stones, and takes lessons from long dead school masters and a werewolf. The book meanders along until Bod makes the choice to go after the man who killed his family. The ending is brilliant and utterly suspenseful, as Bod confronts not just the assassin, but a whole team of assassins. Did I mention that Bod is only about twelve at this point? Like Gaiman's Coraline, this is a kid's book that works for all grown ups, too.

Gaiman is one of the few writers I've come across that doesn't telegraph what he's doing. Like Tim Powers, Gaiman lets the details unfold slowly as the characters learn them. Since Gaiman uses creatures like werewolves, ghouls, and ghosts in new and non-traditional ways, The Graveyard Book is wonderfully original. I very much enjoyed reading it. It's the kind of book that you just sink into and let it take you were Gaiman wants to take you.

4.13.2010

Bite Me, by Christopher Moore

Bite Me
Bite Me
Bite Me is the latest chapter in Christopher Moore's exceedingly wacky vampire series. Told in turns by Abby Normal the Emergency Backup Mistress of the Greater Bay Area Night; Thomas Flood, author and reluctant vampire; Rivera, a cop who's seen too much weirdness; and Jody, a vampire who is the most together person in the whole book, Bite Me has a lot of action packed into its 309 pages.

If you've read the first two books in the series, Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck, you already know all the characters. If you haven't read them, go immediately to the nearest library or bookstore and get copies. Even if you haven't read them and don't have time to catch up, Abby Normal provides an excellent summary at the beginning of Bite Me. Abby longs to be a vampire, and Moore has mastered the art of writing like a teenage goth with self-awareness issues. She is one of the best parts of this book.

In Bite Me, the plot chickens of the first two books have come home to roost. Through a series of absurd misadventures, vampire cats are roaming the night, killing San Francisco's homeless. Because none of the character is particularly good at working together as a team, there are separate plots to rid the city of its undead feline menace that collide into each other. And, like in every good Moore book, mayhem ensues.

I know it sounds silly, but Moore has always had a gift for drawing readers into the hysterical weirdness of his plots. The problem is that when you try to describe what the book is about to others, people look at you like you're a loon. Suffice it to say, Bite Me is a terrific book for people who love wackiness and inventive humor in their stories. The only problem with it, from my perspective, was that it ended far too soon.