Saturday, March 25, 2017

RIP Jimmy Breslin, Midnight, Texas TV Show, The Reader by Traci Chee, Arabella of Mars by David Levine, and Starcaster by Shana Shaheen

As a journalist of over 30 years, I've come to admire and respect the tough journalists who did the hard work before me. Jimmy Breslin was famed for his wit and his consummate writing talent. He was the Studs Terkel of newspapers, with a healthy dose of New York tough thrown in for good measure. He lived a long and satisfying life, but his like will never be seen again in the world of wordsmithing.

Obituary Note: Jimmy Breslin
Legendary New York City columnist, novelist, biographer and raconteur
Jimmy Breslin
"who leveled the powerful and elevated the powerless for more than 50
years with brick-hard words and a jagged-glass wit," died March 19, the
New York Times reported. He was 88 and, "until very recently, was still
pushing somebody's buttons with two-finger jabs at his keyboard."

Breslin's book about the first season of the hapless New York
Mets--Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?--landed him a job as a news
columnist with the New York Herald Tribune in 1963. Soon he was "counted
among the writers credited with inventing 'New Journalism,' in which
novelistic techniques are used to inject immediacy and narrative tension
into the news," the Times wrote, adding: "But Mr. Breslin's greatest
character was himself: the outer-borough boulevardier of bilious
persuasion." He would go on to write for several newspapers in the city.

Author Pete Hamill, a former colleague, said, "It seemed so new and
original. It was a very, very important moment in New York journalism,
and in national journalism."

Breslin's books include the novels The Gang That Couldn't Shoot
Straight, World Without End, Amen, and Table Money; the memoir I Want to
Thank My Brain for Remembering Me; biographies of Damon Runyon and
Branch Rickey, as well as The Good Rat, a book about mob culture.
"Perhaps the quintessential Breslin book was The Short Sweet Dream of
Eduardo Gutierrez, published in 2002, in which he focused on the death
of an unauthorized Mexican worker at a flawed Brooklyn construction site
to rail against the shoddy building practices, political cowardice and
racism of his beloved city," the Times noted.

Though I wasn't a huge fan of Midnight, Texas, I think it will translate very well to television. I certainly hope it's more faithful to the books than the TV show True Blood was to the Sookie Stackhouse novels written by Harris.
A new trailer has been released for the upcoming NBC show Midnight,
on the novel series by Charlaine Harris, Entertainment Weekly reported,
noting that "it seems the town's inhabitants are quite the colorful
bunch." The series stars Francois Arnaud, Jason Lewis, Yul
Vazquez, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Arielle Kebbel and Peter Mensah. Midnight,
Texas premieres on July 25.

The Reader by Traci Chee had a slow start, and was somewhat difficult to follow due to deliberate redaction of text with big swathes of black ink, and smudges, and text faded to illegibility. But once you get past the first few of these, and realize that they're part of the story of a society that is nearly 100 percent illiterate, then the plot picks up steam and motors right along until the end, which is a cliffhanger, of course. I liked the fact that the characters in this novel were multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, and I LOVED that magic was inherent in books and reading, and librarians were visionary magicians. What I didn't like was the violence and death and slavery forced on children in this world, and the inability of more than a few adults to put a stop to it. Still, most dystopian YA is full of children trained to violence and death, like the Hunger Games, Divergent, and even the Harry Potter series. Here's the blurb:  
Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book—a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed—and punish the people responsible.With overlapping stories of swashbuckling pirates and merciless assassins, The Reader is a brilliantly told adventure from an extraordinary new talent.
Archer, the mysterious stranger mentioned above, was press-ganged into becoming a pit-fighter and a slave, whose owners abuse him and make money from his ability to kill his other child opponents. When Sefia rescues Archer from his captors, she helps him to overcome his brutal previous life and teaches him love and peace. But therein lies another problem that I have not just with this book, but with all of the dystopian YA fiction with a teenage female protagonist. They never go it alone. The authors of these books ALWAYS pair their heroines to a boy, usually one with some kind of stunted emotional growth or horrendous abusive childhood (which it is incumbent on the girls to heal) who also happens to be terribly handsome, and who of course falls in love with the female protagonist, and helps her fight her battles. It's not that I am against romance or romantic subplots, but it has become a trope, a cliche and a stereotype for nearly all YA fiction with female protagonists. Somehow, they're never able to be strong enough on their own. Still, though that's frustrating, I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who loves books and magic, but still has a stomach for violence and brutality that is inherent in Chee's world.

I'd like to make a quick note here about a book called "The Guineveres" by Sarah Domet. This book was on my wish list of books to purchase, but I decided not to wait and put it on hold at the library. I am so glad that I didn't shell out actual cash for this dreadfully dull novel, as the author tells readers what happens to the teenage girls (all named Guinevere) once they become adults before page 50. Why in the name of heaven would anyone tell the reader the ending at the beginning of the book? What would compel the reader to read on, knowing what was going to happen at the end? What precedes the revelation of what happens to the Guineveres is rather pathetic and sad, nothing that would make one want to know more about these Catholic schoolgirls who dream of something better, but can't seem to make that happen. I'm taking the book back to the library, and I'm glad that I dodged a bullet in not paying for such weak sauce of a novel.

Arabella of Mars by David Levine is a YA Steampunk science fiction novel that I was really looking forward to reading. Though the British Empire has conquered Mars and colonized it, as well as other planets, they still haven't allowed women to inherit property, have careers or remain unmarried and go to college to gain a career. Fortunately for Arabella and her weak twin brother Michael, they were raised by a crab-like Martian nanny on their plantation on Mars, who taught them to speak the language and fight to defend themselves. Arabella, like her father, has an affinity for creating and fixing "automatons" or clockwork robots that can do all manner of tasks with computer-like efficiency. Unfortunately for Arabella, once she's sent "home" to earth, she discovers that she has an evil cousin who departs earth to try and kill her brother so as to inherit the family plantation and turn out her mother and sisters with nothing onto the streets. Arabella has to disguise herself as "Arthur Ashby" in order to gain passage on a star ship headed for Mars to foil her cousin's plan and save the family fortune. Here's the blurb:
Since Newton witnessed a bubble rising from his bathtub, mankind has sought the stars. When William III of England commissioned Capt. William Kidd to command the first expedition to Mars in the late 1600s, he proved that space travel was both possible and profitable.
Now, one century later, a plantation in a flourishing British colony on Mars is home to Arabella Ashby, a young woman who is perfectly content growing up in the untamed frontier. But days spent working on complex automata with her father or stalking her brother Michael with her Martian nanny is not the proper behavior of an English lady. That is something her mother plans to remedy with a move to an exotic world Arabella has never seen: London, England.
However, when events transpire that threaten her home on Mars, Arabella decides that sometimes doing the right thing is far more important than behaving as expected. She disguises herself as a boy and joins the crew of the Diana, a ship serving the Mars Trading Company, where she meets a mysterious captain who is intrigued by her knack with clockwork creations. Now Arabella just has to weather the naval war currently raging between Britain and France, learn how to sail, and deal with a mutinous crew…if she hopes to save her family remaining on Mars.
Arabella of Mars, the debut novel by Hugo-winning author David D. Levine offers adventure, romance, political intrigue, and Napoleon in space!
The aforementioned Captain Singh is a native of India and has bronzed/brown skin, which is the reason some of his racist crew try to mutiny against him. Of course, Arabella stops the mutiny and falls for him, and though he's much older than she, they end up marrying, because it is impossible to have a young woman protagonist in these YA novels who doesn't have a boyfriend or husband (see review of The Reader, above). The prose tries to be old fashioned and intricate, but that just slows the plot, and the characters have to struggle against that somewhat. There was also way too much boring detail about life aboard a ship, about the knots tied, the balloons used to make it a dirigible and all sorts of other ship trivia that should have been edited down or out. Still, I liked Arabella's pluck, and I'd give this novel a B+,and recommend it to those who like sea-faring airship adventures.

Saving the best for last! Starcaster by Shana Abe, writing here as Shana Shaheen, is another triumph for Abe, who is a master storyteller and prose stylist. November Duval (called Ember) and her brother Mason live on a farm out in the middle of nowhere in the far future, when technology is for the rich and magic is something that is used only in rare cases and then only by dynasties. Ember is infected one day with a TB-3 plague when a girl on the bus coughs out the last of her lungs and her life onto Ember as she's leaving the bus and heading home. Her brother Mason, a scientific genius, refuses to allow her to die, so he manipulates the lottery to get her aboard a Time Train in space, where time slows so that for every month that goes by on the train, years go by on Earth. The hope is that each time the train is stopped, one or more of the plagues that infect the passengers will have found a cure so that they can disembark and continue on with their lives. Here's the blurb:
It was widely acknowledged that Taza Sullivan had a hole in his heart. Not a literal hole, but the shadow imitation of one; it stretched the breadth and depth of that unspoken space, the seat of his soul.
The hole remained despite the many blessings sprinkled like rose petals, like cherry blossoms, all through his life: firstborn of a sovereign, alight with power, handsome and charismatic and smart.
And even though no one had been able to foresee what, exactly, was needed to fill that gap within him, she did exist-a millennium before Taza was even born.
November Duval lives in a scientifically elegant world where the advances in technology are destroying the earth, even as the corporations promoting them assert they will save it. She considers herself an ordinary girl with an extraordinary problem: she's been exposed to a highly contagious, manmade disease: Tuberculosis Type Three.

Eventually, it will kill her, and millions like her. There is no cure.
Yet Ember's given a second chance at life when she wins a coveted ticket to the Time Train: the most innovative, sophisticated spaceship ever built. Along with a few of the richest, most powerful people in the world, the train will speed Ember into the future-all the way to the day her disease is cured.
At least, that's what's supposed to happen...
Ember makes friends with the extremely wealthy technological genius who created the Time Train, an old man who is dying of cancer. She also befriends a child who has TB-3 and a young man who, of course, falls in love with her. Unsurprisingly, most of the rest of the wealthy and ill people on the Time Train turn out to be total scumbags, selfish and cruel, with the added "bonus" that one of the other young men on the Train is also a rapist. Though he tries to rape and kill Ember, she's saved by the robots and AI aboard the train. When it becomes apparent that the train is no longer making stops, and they've been aboard almost a thousand years (just a few years in train time), Ember manages to stop the train and helps figure out a way to pilot it back to earth, in a crash that doesn't kill everyone aboard. Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell the story of Taza, the prince whose life is under constant surveillance from his grandmother and father, who seek to control him until he becomes king. Taza has magic and visions, though, and his main vision has been of Ember and her life both on earth and aboard the time ship, which he sees streak across the skies as a meteor falling to earth. He gets a dispensation from his father to travel to wherever the meteor has fallen and find the girl of his visions, though he doesn't actually find her until the final pages, when he realizes that everything about her, including her AI fireflies, are forbidden technology. This left me yearning for another chapter or at least a few more pages, so Taza and Ember get to know one another across the years. But I realize that there will have to be a sequel so at least we can find out if there's a cure for Ember's TB. The prose is, as with all of Abe's books, gloriously lush and original. It makes the plot swift and the whole novel riveting reading. The compelling characters are the real stars here, though. I'd give this book a well-deserved A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys mesmerizing science fiction/romance. 
and in national journalism."

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