Books Completed in September

1. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling (****)
2. Burnout, written by Rebecca Donner, illustrated by Inaki Miranda (**1/2)
3. The Outcast Oracle, by Laury A Egan (****)
4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (*****)
5. Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, by Linda Oatman High (***1/2)
6. Memento Mori, by Murial Spark (****)
7. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E Butler (*****)
8. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E Butler (****)
9. Shadow, by Suzy Lee (*****)

Reviews are behind the cut.

1. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling (****)
I have to respect Rowling for choosing to write whatever she wants to write; other authors might have been compelled to stick with fantasy and/or young adult, because that’s what worked for them before. But Rowling decided to stretch herself.

This novel of small town politics and lives is about as far from the magical realm of Harry Potter that you can get. It offers an omniscient narrator that jumps in and out of the lives of about a dozen main characters, each of them in some way wrapped up in the ongoing debate about the Fields, a low income section of town.

A lot of reviews have described the characters in this book as unlikeable, and for the most part, that’s true. As Rowling looks into the lives of these characters, their fears and depravities are revealed. Some I felt just neutral about, some I actively hated an wished the worst for. I think the only two characters I rooted for and hoped something good would come to were Sukhvinder Jawanda and Krystal Wheedon.

There’s a lot of pain and ill humor and ugliness in the underbelly of the characters portrayed, and they do mean, horrible things to each other. But the novel is buoyed by Rowlings skill as an author and her ability to make these characters round and full, almost real human beings. I was captivated while reading and completely drawn in.

I can’t say that things end happily or with a renewed sense of hope, but old bonds are shattered and new ones are made, and life goes on. For all the shadowy side of people shown and some of the terrible things that go down, I really, really enjoyed this book.

2. Burnout, written by Rebecca Donner, illustrated by Inaki Miranda (**1/2)
Danni and her mom move to a small logging town in Oregon, where they move in with her mom’s alcoholic boyfriend and Danni begins to crush on her soon-to-be stepbrother. She gets wrapped up in his hardcore environmentalism, which begins to branch into levels of ecoterrorism.

This is another young adult graphic novel (like Emiko Superstar) from the publication company Minx. I liked this one less than Emiko Superstar, as it didn’t quite come together for me. There was an intro scene that set up its own conflict as a result of the central story, but the into scene was never resolved. I didn’t really care much about Danni or any of the characters and I didn’t get why she fell for her would-be stepbrother, except that he was really cute. So, this was okay, but not great.

3. The Outcast Oracle, by Laury A Egan (****)
Description: “Set in 1959 on the shores of New York’s Lake Ontario, fourteen-year-old Charlene Beth Whitestone has been deserted by her parents, leaving her in the custody of her grandfather, C.B. Although he loves Charlie, he is a charming con artist, moonshiner, and religious fraud who inducts her into his various enterprises yet also encourages her dreams of becoming a writer. When C.B. suddenly dies, Charlie is left alone and must use her wits and resourcefulness to take charge of her life, all the while wrestling with the morality of continuing her grandfather’s schemes. When a handsome cowboy-stranger, Blake, arrives, he insinuates himself into C.B.’s religion business and into Charlie’s heart. Despite her resistance, Blake mounts a lucrative PR campaign, touting Charlie as an “oracle” and arranging for her to perform miracles.”

This literary young adult novel is more focused on character than plot. We see Charlie develop as a person as she tries to find herself in between all the scheming of those around her, as well as her own scheming in order to both fit in and survive. She’s a fourteen year old girl, who has to grow up far too quickly and Laury A. Egan does a fantastic job giving Charlie a voice. I could almost hear her speaking to me. Charlie and all the characters feel vivid and alive.

The writing is clean, precise, and image strong without being unnecessary flowery. Great book.

4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (*****)
Neil Gaiman is a long favorite of mine. I’ve read almost all of his bibliography, so I was thrilled to learn this novel was coming out.

The story revolves around a man who returns to where he grew up and begins to remember a series of terrifying events when he was a child. As a seven year old, he made friends with Lettie, the youngest member of the Hempstocks who live at the end of the lane. When a border within his home commits suicide, it sets of a series of strange events and unleashes frightening creatures.

This story didn’t disappoint me one bit. It’s interesting that this has been described as an adult novel, since its so clearly from the young boy’s POV and Gaiman captures that youth, wonder, and fear perfectly. The boy is fully realized and made me remember my own youth. I saw one reviewer describe the sex scene as awkward, but it wasn’t. It was sex from a child’s perspective, which makes it seem strange and undefinable at the same time. The scene was well executed and showed the character’s youth even more as the rent seemed unimportant to him.

I especially loved the Hempstocks and how they are portrayed. The three women are so clearly more than what they appear and have latent power. They are loving and warm and fascinating characters. I would love to see them turn up in more stories.

Gaiman also has a way of making magic seem matter of fact, just another part of the natural order, which I LOVE. It’s one of my favorite things about his writing in general. That, along with his invention of creepy creatures that are dark and terrifying and yet somehow sympathetic, too. Ursula was evil and wicked and cruel and yet I pitied her in the end.

Fantastic book. I really, really enjoyed it.

5. Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, by Linda Oatman High (***1/2)
The poeticly inclined diva, Laura Crapper,
otherwise known as Sister Slam,
is a curvy, loud-mouthed, boot-stomping,
vest-wearing, skirt-swinging,
flame-haired graduate from the realm
of high school hell. Together
with her fellow word warrior
and best friend, Twig, hit the road
with a squealing of gravel spitting tires
and begin their Poetic Motormouth Road Trip
to the enchanted land of New Jersey,
where they plan to stand
in the circular spotlight glow
and slam words into the microphone.

Along the yellow divided road, they
discover real world realities
in the form of cops and fender benders,
lost wallets and luggage,
along with divine new possibilities,
like applause and recognition
for notebook bound phrases
spun into spoken work, and perchance,
even a bit of romance in the form
of a green-eyed Jake.

This novel, broken
into lines and rhymes,
is a fast paced read full
of fun and good times.
Though the rhythm perhaps
lacks the flow of natural dialog
and the condensed nature
of scenes and events unfolding
rapidly, from line to line
and page to page,
means the level of depth
is somewhat shallow, there remains
growth and coming
into adulthood by remembering home
and accepting the raw hurt
of loss. The result is imperfect,
but playful and joyful and a book
worth reading.

6. Memento Mori, by Murial Spark (****)
While I was not fond of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, several people recommended I read another Murial Spark book and the most recommended was Memento Mori. For which I’m grateful, because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The story revolves around a group of the elder, each of whom exists in various states of mental and physical health. I think young people (being anyone under 70, I suppose, including myself) can tend to forget that grandparents and elders have lives and dramas, mysteries and betrayals, friendships and affairs. Maybe this is because we are too wrapped up in our own dramas and assume that live gets quieter as one gets older. But this book is certainly a reminder that just because one gets old doesn’t mean life gets simpler.

Throughout the book, too, is the interesting mystery of the caller, who rings up various people in the book (if they are over 70) and tells them, “Remember you must die.” Eerie and yet poignant, because young or old, we all must die, and each character reacts to this reminder quite differently. As the book went on, I think I was more fond those who were calm about this message than those who attempted to rail against it.

This book looked a quite a lot of fascinating themes and Spark’s sparse, abrupt style worked well. While I didn’t necessarily love any of the characters, I liked them in general and found them interesting. Overall a quick and enjoyable read, which leaves me wanting to pick up more of Spark’s work.

Footnote: After finishing this book, I can’t help but think again about how format impacts the reading of a book (at least for me). For example, Miss Jean Brodie was an audio book and Memento Mori was in hardback. It may be that Spark’s style works better on the page than when read. I don’t know, but I run into this from time to time, and now I’m wondering if I might not have enjoyed Miss Jean Brodie if I had read it in print.

7. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E Butler (*****)
I loved this book when I first read it and I have to say thoroughly enjoyed it on the second go around, too. A trigger warning should go out to those uncomfortable with violence and rape, both of which appear in this book.

Parable of the Sower is a bit of a bleak book, with the U.S. having dissolved into chaos with poverty levels extremely high and a vast majority of the population living on the streets. Many are homeless and jobless and some have taken to living as squatters in shanty towns, while earning as much as a living as they can. Some become scavengers and thieves. Some become predators, preying on the weak, kidnappers, murderers, rapists, and slave traders. (One of the things that’s terrifying about this book is just how real a world like this could be, with desperate people drawn to desperate measures.)

Lauren Olamina lives in Robledo, California in a small community, which is protected from the outside chaos by a wall. While many in the community believe this wall makes them safe, Lauren is less certain and begins to make plans to handle the storm she knows is coming. In the midst of this she also works to hide her psychological disorder, a kind of hyper-empathy that makes her feel the pain of others. She also begins to work on her discovery of a new belief system that she dubs Earthseed, one that is perhaps less comforting than the one her father preaches, but more practical for the world in which she lives. “God is Change,” she writes in one of the verses that appear at the beginning of each chapter, and, “The only lasting truth is change.”

When the walls finally fall, Lauren and two other survivors from the town begin to make a long slow journey North with hordes of other refugees that may or may not be trusted. Along the way they gather allies and followers, people she hopes to convert and one day build a community with — that is, if they can survive the dangers on the roads and the hordes of drug addicts that thrive on setting fires.

The hope in all this chaos and horror lies in the ways people are able to come together and offer help, aid, respect, and trust to one another, how they are able to cling to their humanity even in desperation, and how they are willing to work toward hope by building something new with each other.

In addition to Butlers skillful storytelling and collection of interesting characters, the religion proposed by Lauren Olamina is fascinating. The concept of a practical religion, not focused on the rewards or punishments that come after death, but on the rewards or sufferings that one can achieve through hard work in life is rather fascinating. I remember reading it the first time and being kind of taken in by it, even if this is fiction, because even fiction can house truths. And even now, I find this fictional religion captivating and I’m curious what would happen if people in this world were more focused on how they can shape their own lives while doing as little harm as possible.

At any rate, this is a fantastic book, grim at times, but hopeful at others, and one in which I find myself rooting for these people to conquer and achieve the life they hope to shape for themselves.

8. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E Butler (****)
Several years after the events of the first novel, Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina and her fellow survivors of the chaos of the Pox have welcomed others and began to build a home for themselves in Northern California. Acorn is a community of over 60 people, most of whom are followers of Olamina’s religion, known as Earthseed. While there are still many dangers and poverty is still rife, things in California have quieted some and there is less overt violence on the roads. But a new fear is growing in the form of a fanatical Christian group, controlled by a powerful presidential nominee, that wants to return to an archaic and false ideal of the past, and this group could erase Acorn and Earthseed from the world.

The book opens with the voice of Olamina’s daughter Asha, and Asha’s anger with her mother is clear. Asha has compiled pages from her mother’s and father Bankole’s journals in an attempt to understand them and to understand herself. It’s clear from the start that while she can find sympathy for the father she never met, she has little sympathy for her mother.

As the book unfolds, we still are presented with Olamina’s voice the most in the form of her journal entries, and she is fascinating as ever in her persistent pursuit of making the Earthseed religion a reality. She’s powerful, brave, driven, and almost blinded by her drive, but she is also loving and caring toward her family and friends.

Through the words of Asha, Olamina, and Bankole, we see how Earthseed grows from a few words written in a notebook into a full community and cult, which is nearly wiped out. The journey is fascinating and it’s compelling to see an imagining of how a religion (or cult, depending on your point of view) can be born and grow followers.

Like with Parable of the Sower, a trigger warning should go out to those uncomfortable with violence and rape, both of which appear in abundance within the book. Violence appears many times in this book, but again, there is hope in the way people come together and find ways to preserve their humanity in horrifying situations.

But also, like Sower, Butler writing and storytelling offer a grim, and occasionally bleak, but ultimately hopeful tale that might have failed in less skilled hands. While I didn’t love it as much as the first, it is a fantastic book and one I also recommend.

The only pity is that Butler never had a chance to continue with this series, which I have heard would have continued Earthseed’s journey by having its followers attain their goal of populating the stars. It would have been fascinating to see how these people carried this religion into new worlds, and how their society changed and grew as generations build communities on new worlds. I suppose, since it was never written, that I will just have to imagine what might have been.

9. Shadow, by Suzy Lee (*****)
Last night I also flipped through Shadow, by Suzy Lee, with my niece. I didn’t exactly read it to her, as there were no words to read. But it was fun to see my niece point at the images and oooh and aaah.

For being wordless, Shadow is an amazingly fun book. It begins with a young girl clicking on the garage light, which casts dark shadows on the floor. As she plays, watching the shadows, her imagination makes the shadows come alive — until they begin to take on a life of their own. Suzy Lee’s art is beautiful and she manages to tell a complete, delightful story with only images and the results are wonderful.

I remember loving these kinds of wordless books when I was a kid. I would flip through them regularly, loving the art and enjoying the story all over again. And I think my niece will love this one, too, when she’s a bit older and can appreciate it.

Suzy Lee also has a book called Mirror, which has the same character and same story set up, which looks wonderful. I’m going to have to buy more books by her, because they’re great.