Search This Blog

Thursday, November 29, 2018

'Harbor Me' by Jacqueline Woodson

From the BLURB: 

It all starts when six kids have to meet for a weekly chat–by themselves, with no adults to listen in. There, in the room they soon dub the ARTT Room (short for “A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to talk about what’s bothering them–everything from Esteban’s father’s deportation and Haley’s father’s incarceration to Amari’s fears of racial profiling and Ashton’s adjustment to his changing family fortunes. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they have to hide from the rest of the world. And together, they can grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.


I miss the beginning of our story together. And the deep middle of it.

Jacqueline Woodson's 'Harbor Me' is easily one of my Top 3 favourite books of 2018. 

It's a middle-grade of only about thirty-thousand words; but the economy of language is even more remarkable, considering the heartbreakingly big ideas and topics being explored within. 

Woodson has spoken about how she wrote this in the middle of America's shifting and toxic attitude towards immigrants, and in particular; increased powers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and less rights for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). For a book that was written right in the midst of so much hurt and pain, what Woodson has achieved is a remarkable feat of equal parts tenderness and bitterness, hope and resistance. 

It's about six children with various learning difficulties, who are put into a trial classroom and made to thrive with a caring teacher who encourages them to listen to one another, and speak their truth too, in the ARTT room (A Room To Talk) amongst themselves. 

Our protagonist is Haley - who is recording everyone's stories - she's a biracial girl whose mother died tragically, and is being raised by her uncle, while her white father is in prison and soon to be released. There's also Ashton - a white child at a predominantly black middle-school, who has to start thinking about the ways his life is different and will continue to be, from his fellow classmates - simply because of the colour of their skin. Esteban's father is currently being held in detention in Florida, after being caught by ICE agents - his family don't know his fate, and are themselves hiding out with relatives, lest they be detained too. The other children have their own plights and insecurities - like a father telling them they can no longer play with toy guns, and a mother who will no longer speak Spanish in the street for fear of having racial abuse hurled at her. 

These kids are discussing big ideas amongst themselves - like how they speak the 'Pledge of Allegiance' but don't really feel free, and when their teacher asks them to think of the Lenape first peoples of the land they're standing on - and whether or not they would have fought with them to keep their land, or been one of the invaders taking it away? 

This book is a product of 2018 in many ways - but because of that it also feels timeless, because of the deep hurt being inflicted on society (and around the world) right now. Woodson carves these marks in 'Harbor Me', knowing we'll be dealing with the repercussions of these actions for generations to come. 

'Harbor Me' though, feels like a celebration in so many ways. Even at its most heartbreaking. Because the children read true - they feel like an honest reflection of our next generation currently living these times and asking questions, while deciding that it'll be different with them. Because they'll make it so. 

Jacqueline Woodson is one of my favourite authors of all time. Reading her is like coming up for air. She's the kind of author that makes you want to be a writer, and feel so grateful that you get to be a reader too. 'Harbor Me' is one of her best, and that's saying something. 


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

'An Easy Death' Gunnie Rose #1 by Charlaine Harris

From the BLURB:
From the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse series and the inspiration behind HBO's True Blood, comes an electrifying new thriller centered on a young gunslinging mercenary, Lizbeth Rose.

Set in a fractured United States, in the southwestern country now known as Texoma, this is a world where magic is acknowledged but mistrusted. Battered by a run across the border to Mexico, gunslinger Lizbeth Rose takes a job offer from a pair of Russian wizards.

She may be young, but Gunnie Rose has acquired a fearsome reputation and the wizards are at a desperate crossroads, even if they won't admit it. They're searching frantically to locate the only man whose blood they believe can save their tsar's life.

As the trio journey through an altered America, they're set upon by enemies. It's clear that a powerful force does not want them to succeed in their mission. Lizbeth Rose is a gunnie who has never failed a client, but her oath will test all of her skills and resolve to get them all out alive.

The Dark Tower meets True Blood in this gritty and wildly entertaining tale of Gunnie Rose. A woman fighting unimaginable odds to keep her people alive after the disintegration of America, this is a surefire hit for fans of The Walking Dead or Westworld.

‘An Easy Death’ is the first book in a historical-paranormal series by American author Charlaine Harris, called ‘Gunnie Rose’.

If you’ve been reading my book blog for a while now, then you would have figured out that Charlaine is easily one of my all-time favourite authors – and certainly the one I own the most books of. I inevitably fall in love with all her new series (whether they’re gritty small-town mystery noir, or paranormal-noir) I always get hooked, and I’m thrilled to say that ‘An Easy Death’ first book in this new series is no exception.

For one thing, Charlaine Harris has her finger on the pulse of American society. It’s little wonder that ‘Dead Until Dark’ – the first book in her ‘Southern Vampire’ series – came out in 2001, the time of September-11 and the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil. What followed in that series (at first very successfully, and then towards the end – less so) was a paranormal story focused on vampires that unlike Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ a few years later, was not solely focused on vampirism as a metaphor for lust, but rather as an ongoing metaphor for “othering” in American society. Which remained especially timely when HBO and Alan Ball adapted the books into the mega-successful (again, more in the beginning than the end) television series ‘True Blood’, that used vampirism as an allegory for the gay rights movement in America. The final and seventh season of the show aired in 2014, and the following year in America the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all fifty states.

So, yes – you can see that Charlaine Harris often has a canny ability to take a long view of the present situation in America and write some fabulously quirky and timely allegory and metaphors. Which is especially true here, in ‘An Easy Death’ and post-2016 Trumpism but especially Russian interference in Western democracy. Because ‘An Easy Death’ and the ‘Gunnie Rose’ series is essentially a historical-paranormal Western mash-up, set in a fractured America that broke apart after President Roosevelt and half the nation died in the wake of an influenza epidemic.

As the protagonist, Lizbeth Rose’s, teacher mother explains to her daughter one day;

A lot of people didn’t want to talk about the past, because it was painful. But Mom thought I should know how things had gotten to be the way they were: the dead president, the dead vice president (influenza), the banks crashing, the drought, and the influenza … again. 
The population had dropped, the government could not protect itself, and other countries had grabbed pieces of America.“USA got big bites takes out of it: by Canada from the north, by Mexico from the south, and by the Holy Russian Empire from the west, where the Russian tsar settled when he fled his own country. To the east, the thirteen original colonies – all but Georgia – voted to form a bond with England, to keep from becoming part of Canada. They picked the name Britannia. The southern states banded together as Dixie. Georgia went with them.” She was pointing out the new countries on the map. 
“So what about us?” I asked, looking at the old map. She pointed to the place where we lived. “Texas and Oklahoma and New Mexico and a bit of Colorado became Texoma, where we live. We live in Segundo Mexia, in Texoma. And this big area north of us, the plains, that’s New America.”

Yes, especially interesting that in this version of human history – the Romanov Dynasty was not ended in a basement execution by Bolshevik rebels, but rather the tsar and his family (yes, all four daughters and son) were rescued by his British cousin, and were royal refugees for a time until they swooped in on a weakened America and created the Holy Russian Empire (HRE).

When ‘An Easy Death’ begins – Lizbeth says that following Nicholas’s death, the young Tsarevich of Russia Alexei Nikolaevich has taken over as tsar (though rumours abound that he has a blood disease that keeps him perilously close to losing control of his reign).

And while at first all of this big moving around of human history like jigsaw pieces feels like Charlaine Harris just world-building, it’s actually surprising how much all of the above soon comes to directly affect Lizbeth Rose and the trajectory of this gun-slinging story – when she’s offered a job to bodyguard two grigoris from the HRE as they hunt down one of their own …

Now, as is often the case with the first book in a Charlaine Harris series – there is a lot of laying the land here, and possibly more than usual because there’s a historical component to this story (that as far as I can tell, takes place some times in the 60s?) and has to go over some rewriting of the 20th century to explain a few things;

And bandits were everywhere, especially in Texoma, New America, and Dixie. I had heard that in Britannia, the area that had knelt to England, there was so much law that bandits were caught and hung quickly. The same for Canada, which had expanded to take in a lot of northern America. Canada had its horseback police, who were supposed to be crackerjack at their jobs. The Holy Russian Empire had a squad of grigoris and militia whose job it was to track highway robbers and kill them on the spot. 
But in Texoma and New America, formal justice was scarce on the ground.

I can imagine that people who come into this hoping for all the Western gun-slinging and paranormal fun (of which there is – since grigoris in this universe do possess magical abilities) may get frustrated with how slow-going this is.

But I personally loved everything about ‘An Easy Death’ – right down to the very sparse romance that could well grow into more with the series, or be a one-off (something else Charlaine Harris is very fond of, is a sort of “red-herring” romance in the first book and a completely new contender appearing down the track). Certainly ‘Gunnie Rose’ feels like classic Westerns, tipping into enclosed mysteries – in which every book could be a completely new adventure with a whole new cast of characters. I have learnt to be somewhat patient with Charlaine Harris, especially in the romance department (hello, Harper Connelly and Tolliver!) so while there's not a lot to go on here, I have hope and confidence that that will become more of a focus down the track ...

Either way, I am onboard! And given the comparisons to ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Westworld’ especially (I’d also throw ‘Wynona Earp’ in the mix) I’m also not surprised that this is yet another Charlaine Harrris book being optioned for television (her series ‘Midnight, Texas’ is also a seriously decent paranormal show!)

But mostly I am very impressed by Charlaine building an entire series on the premise of how precarious American history has been – that it all could have been so very different give or take a few influential players dropping off the scene … and talk about Russian interference in modern US-politics, here’s a new series in which the Russian Empire has embedded itself in the American heartland. I can’t wait to sit back and see how all of this unfolds, indeed.


| More