Thursday, April 06, 2017

RIP Alex Tizon, Poison or Protect by Gail Carriger, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, and Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn

It seems that I start too many of my posts these past couple of years with an obituary. I don't know if that is because of my age, or because all those tail-end Baby Boomers like myself are getting older and dropping like flies. But whatever the reason, I was shocked and disheartened by this latest obit of Alex Tizon, a respected journalist. I actually knew Alex because he married a young woman, Melissa, who worked at the Mercer Island Reporter, as I did. Melissa and Alex also had a child the same year that my husband and I had Nick, and Melissa, knowing that I would be overwhelmed, brought me a bag of groceries and some baby essentials the week we brought Nick home from the Swedish Hospital NICU. I nearly wept with relief. But I remember Alex best as a charming man with a thousand-watt smile who spoke about journalists as storytellers during a writers workshop I attended when I was still with the MIR. He was smart, funny and an amazing reporter. I am so sad that he died so young (of what, I don't know). My prayers go out to Melissa and their children. Rest in peace, Alex.

Obituary Note: Alex Tizon

Alex Tizon
a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose 2014 memoir, Big Little Man: In
Search of My Asian Self, "documented his insecurities and alienation as
a Filipino-American," died March 23, the New York Times reported. He was
57. Tizon, along with Eric Nalder and Deborah Nelson, shared a Pulitzer
in investigative reporting in 1997 for Seattle Times articles "about
problems facing a Department of Housing and Urban Development program to
help Native Americans build homes.... The series resulted in a
congressional investigation and changes in the federal program."

In Big Little Man, he addressed many of the stereotypes he had
internalized as an Asian-American, having experienced them "as a set of
suspicions that seemed corroborated by everyday life.... When did this
shame inside me begin? Looking back now, I could say it began with love.
Love of the gifted people and their imagined life; love of America, the
sprawling idea of it, with its gilded tentacles reaching across the
Pacific Ocean to wrap around the hearts of small brown people living
small brown lives. It was a love bordering on worship, fueled by
longing, felt most fervently by those like my parents who grew up with
America in their dreams. The love almost killed us."

Michele Matassa Flores, managing editor of the Seattle Times, said that
as a reporter, Tizon "focused on the gray.... The world was not a simple
place for Alex, and he wanted to convey that to his readers."

Poison or Protect by Gail Carriger is a slender volume of steampunk/adventure/romance, written with Carriger's usual witty style and panache. The protagonist of this tale is one of Carriger's "finishing school" graduates, an academy on a dirigible that teaches young ladies manners and spycraft. Preshea is a broken-hearted young widow who has been sent to prevent the assassination of a Lord and break up the courtship of his daughter to an unsuitable young gadfly. Fortunately, said gadfly is accompanied by a muscular, manly Scotsman named Gavin Ruthven, who falls for Preshea on sight. Mayhem and flirtation ensues. Here's the blurb:
Can one gentle Highland soldier woo Victorian London’s most scandalous lady assassin, or will they both be destroyed in the attempt?
New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger presents a stand-alone romance novella set in her popular steampunk universe full of manners, spies, and dainty sandwiches.
Lady Preshea Villentia, the Mourning Star, has four dead husbands and a nasty reputation. Fortunately, she looks fabulous in black. What society doesn’t know is that all her husbands were marked for death by Preshea’s employer. And Preshea has one final assignment.
It was supposed to be easy, a house party with minimal bloodshed. Preshea hadn’t anticipated Captain Gavin Ruthven – massive, Scottish, quietly irresistible, and… working for the enemy. In a battle of wits, Preshea may risk her own heart – a terrifying prospect, as she never knew she had one.
I've read all of Carriger's other steampunk fantasy novels, and really enjoyed them for their wit and wonderful characters. This novel was no exception, with its spare but sparkling prose and precise plot that ends in an delightful HEA. I'd give it an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes steampunk romances that are fun and fancy.

Heartless by Marissa Meyer is the author's YA take on the Alice in Wonderland story, with a few twist and turns to keep it interesting and relevant to today's young adult audience. I've read Meyer's "Lunar Chronicles" and while I enjoyed most of them, I noticed a tendency to over-complicate the plot with too many side characters and subplots. Heartless suffers from the same malady, but only marginally. Here's the blurb:
Long before she was the terror of Wonderland—the infamous Queen of Hearts—she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.
Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.
In her first stand-alone teen novel, the New York Times-bestselling author dazzles us with a prequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Though Catherine seemed way too naive and gullible, and her friend Mary Ann seemed equally blind to reality (though she was supposedly the sensible one because she was a servant/ladies maid) I was fine with her plotting until she revealed her plans to her parents, greedy and ambitious and stuffy people that they were, and then is surprised when they threaten to disinherit her, toss her out on her ear and have nothing to do with her unless she marries the ridiculously childish and idiotic (but wealthy) King. Meanwhile, she's fallen in love with a Rook from the Chess side of Wonderland, and though he reveals to her that he needs the heart of a Queen to stop a war on his side of the country (and thus he had an ulterior motive for her to marry the king, so he could take her heart), she still loves and adores him and yet proceeds to put herself in danger by flouting a prophecy to save Mary Ann, after Mary Ann turns stool pigeon and traitor and ruins Catherine's chances at happiness. Add into this mix the "Mad" Hatter, called "Hatta," who is truly the evil at the heart of all of Catherine's troubles (and her kingdom's troubles) and you have a recipe for a book with no good protagonists that you can actually root for. Also, Catherine's parents make a 360 on their controlling her life by saying, late in the novel, that they "only want her to be happy" when she'd explained previously that she wanted a bakery of her own and the Rook to be happy, and they both told her NO, in no uncertain terms, that her happiness didn't matter one iota to either of them. Why the sudden reversal? We are not to know, apparently. What we're left with, at the end, is a cruel Queen who is bitter and literally without a heart. How can anyone enjoy a book that ends with such ugliness? For that reason, I'd give this book a B-, and recommend it only to those who are huge Alice in Wonderland fans.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is our April Book Group novel that we'll be discussing at the library next week. This book is a fictionalized account (based on known facts about her life) of the life of Beryl Markham, an English born woman raised on a farm in Africa around the turn of the century. I read Markham's autobiography, West With the Night way back when I was barely out of my teen years, and I remember being thrilled about her tales of flying and adventure and going against what women were expected to do in the 1920s. I don't recall reading so much about her work training racehorses, which, in addition to her dealings with Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen, who also had a farm in Africa near Beryls) and all the men she seduced and married, makes up a majority of this books chapters. Not being a huge fan of horses, I was rather quickly bored by Beryl, her weak family and 'friends' and string of awful lovers. We also read McLain's popular novel "The Paris Wife" about Ernest Hemingway's appalling treatment of his first wife during his early career in Paris, last year. While I'm aware that we're supposed to find these deeply flawed protagonists sympathetic in both of McLain's novels, for me, she never manages to elevate them beyond their own easily avoided mistakes and pathetic weaknesses so that the reader can have anything other than contempt for them. Here's the blurb:
Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.
Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.
Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.
I've long been a fan of Isak Dinesen's works, including Out of Africa, and I was horrified that McLain cheapened her character by making her seem delusional and old hag-like, sort of a Norma Desmond of Africa, who clings to her lover though he's having it off with Beryl (and presumably everyone else) because she claims she "can't live without him" and will kill herself if he leaves her. We also don't get to read much about Beryl's flying career until the end of the book, which frustrated me, as that was what I found most interesting about her. McLain's prose is drowsy and hot, like an African afternoon, and her plot is sluggish, though it gets you there eventually. I'd give this book a C+, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in colonial Kenya and horse racing/training in the 1920s.

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn is  a fast-paced and fun new series for the author of the Kitty Norville books, (all 14 of them) which I read within a month or so and enjoyed, for the most part. This is a YA science fiction novel, which is a departure for Vaughn, as the Norville series is supernatural urban fantasy. Fizzy prose drives a zero G plot that floats off the page, with brother and sister protagonists that are more human and realistic than the "earth born" people around them. I adored practical Polly Newton and her evil genius twin Charles, who are sent to a posh school on earth by their heartless and cold mother, who has an agenda to further her own career, even at the cost of her children's lives. Here's the blurb:
Well-known for her bestselling series Kitty Norville, Carrie Vaughn moves to science fiction with Martians Abroad, a novel with great crossover appeal. Polly Newton has one single-minded dream, to be a starship pilot and travel the galaxy. Her mother, the Director of the Mars Colony, derails Polly's plans when she sends Polly and her genius twin brother, Charles, to Galileo Academy on Earth.
Homesick and cut off from her plans for her future, Polly cannot seem to fit into life on Earth. Strange, unexplained, dangerous coincidences centered on their high-profile classmates begin piling up. Charles may be right—there's more going on than would appear, and the stakes are high. With the help of Charles, Polly is determined to find the truth, no matter the cost.
Though Publisher's Weekly notes in their critique that
"the color-within-the-lines plot and young characters without any depth fail to create interest, much less sustain it."
I found the plot to be straightforward and the characters had natural depth that grew as the characters matured throughout the book. I loved that Polly always came to the rescue of her classmates and automatically helped people because it was in her nature to be caring and kind, without regard to her own gain. My only qualm with the book was their evil Martian mother, who seemed not to care if her children were killed in a series of horrific accidents that she set up to allow Polly and Charles to "prove" themselves and provide her with some kind of political or business cachet with the wealthy kids parents. Making a parent so cold and calculating seemed unreal to me, almost as if she were a robot and not a human. 
Despite that, I'd still give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA science fiction with winning characters. I look forward to the sequel.

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