Saturday, November 13, 2010

POSITIVELY by Courtney Sheinmel

Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
Middle Grade Contemp
Simon & Schuster, 2009

Every so often I come across a book by accident that ends up being one of my favorite reads of the year. This is such a book. It's not exactly new, but for some reason it was still featured on the "new release" shelves in the YA section of my local library. I had no idea what to expect just by looking at the cover, but I like pink so I picked it up.

I know. That's a silly reason to read a book blurb. I've never denied the spell that book covers cast on me, though. For this one, it was just the overall cleanness of it (and the pink bubbles) that got my attention.

Once I cracked it open and read the blurb, there was no turning back.

Emerson Price cannot remember a time when life was ordinary. She was four years old when she and her mom were diagnosed as HIV-positive -- infected with the virus that causes AIDS -- and eight when her parents divorced. Now she is thirteen and her mother is dead. Emmy moves in with her father and stepmother, but she feels completely alone. Even though everyone has always accepted her, no one -- not her father, or stepmother, or even her best friend -- understands what it's like to have to take medicine every single day and to be so afraid of getting sick. Now Emmy misses her mom more than she ever thought she would.

When Emmy's dad and stepmother send her to Camp Positive, a camp for HIV-positive girls, Emmy is certain she is going to hate it. But soon she realizes that she is not so alone after all -- and that sometimes letting other people in can make all the difference in the world.

It's a bit chilling to think of this girl's situation. Even more chilling was the opening sentence:

When my mother died I imagined God was thinking, One down, and one to go.

The story that followed did not disappoint. Something like this has the potential to smack you around with ideals, but the author never once did that. It was raw and real, and at times, a bit unreasonable. But I wouldn't expect a 13 year-old girl to be reasonable, especially when she knows she might not live to see adulthood, she might not ever have a first kiss, let alone have sex with anyone... she might not ever know if people are nice to her because they feel sorry for her or because they actually like her as a person.

These are not small things.

And yes, this book made me cry, but probably not for the reason you're thinking. When Emmy goes to camp she starts to see things differently, about herself and others. What really got to me, though, was how her view of her mother remained consistent through the entire story. She never got upset with her mom for passing on this death sentence to her. She cherished what they had together while they had it. She remembered the good things about her mom, and if she realized she was forgetting something specific, like the sound of her mom's voice, it saddened her.

There are so many things to love about this book. I'm sure I could read it again and see things I didn't see before. It is one of those rare reading experiences that has a truly resonating quality, which is why I'm surprised I'd never heard of it before.

Please read this book and tell others about it. I've added it to my list of recommended reading for teens, but I think adults should read it, too. Everyone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

George Friedman - The Next 100 Years

TL; DR : Worth reading, if you can take it as speculative sci-fi rather than a history of things which haven't happened yet. Buy it if you're looking for something interesting and feel like stepping off your beaten literary path.

For some reason, it's become really popular to predict the coming fall of America. China is rising, we're falling, our age of dominance is over and we'll soon be playing but a bit part on the world stage. Depressing stuff. Which is why this book was, if not always completely believable, at least a refreshing read.
In this book, George Friedman first claims that he will draw a rough outline of how the next hundred years are going to play out, and then proceeds to draw a ridiculously detailed one. I won't pick apart all of his core assumptions here, because I would be in serious danger of breaking the strictly enforced 60,000 word limit. Suffice to say that, if you write a future history based on the assumptions that China and Russia will both fall apart, and America will continue to rise, you're building on shaky ground.
But let that go. Predicting the future is really a hopeless enterprise, and reading a book of predictions as a graven list of Things That Will Happen can only be annoying. That isn't to say, however, that The Next 100 Years isn't worth reading. Friedman starts with a valid (if not perfect) set of assumptions, and reasons forward along the most rational path - as far as any of history's twists can be called 'rational'. The result is a sprawling tangle of future wars and politicking that makes for a good story if you can get past the fact that you're supposed to take all of this seriously.
In the end, there's nothing more fun than reading about the US squaring off against Japan, and winning. Again.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Patrick Lee/THE BREACH

I just finished this and I'm not sure I can formulate any coherent thought other than YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW. LIKE STARTING YESTERDAY.

This one took me by the throat in the first sentence and didn't let go until the last. Actually, it didn't let me go at the last sentence. It didn't let me go at all. Luckily there's a sequel coming out at the end of December, titled GHOST COUNTRY.

Read this. If you have to sell a kidney (to steal Simon's suggestion) just to get the mass market paperback, do it. If you love thrillers, you'll love this. If you love SF, you'll still love it. If you love taut, no-nonsense writing that tells the damn story, you'll love this.

BIG new fan of Patrick Lee. One of the few books I've read in a while that left me shaking.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Octavia E. Butler/KINDRED

In 1976, Dana has just moved into a quiet country house in California with her husband, Kevin. Their life as writers is relatively quiet, but Dana's comfort is shattered the first time she is sucked into the past, into the first decade of the 19th century, to rescue a drowning little boy. The early 19th century isn't a very pleasant place for a young black woman (with ostensibly no husband or owner to protect her) to be stuck. As she is repeatedly called back to the past, Dana begins to put together her strange situation, and realizes that the young boy she rescued, Rufus, is her own great-ancestor: a slave-owner in rural Maryland. She is sucked into the past every time his life is in danger, with, she guesses, the unique and trying job of keeping him alive long enough so that he can sire her great-great-great-grandmother.

Dana's adventure, a rather familiar scifi/time traveling narrative used to examine slavery, is a deeply psychological reading experience. Butler's prose is straightforward and the narrative deceptively simple, but it calls up serious and very interesting questions. As Dana watches her young ancestor grow up, she also watches him change from an open-minded little boy to an increasingly corrupted and antagonistic man. The abuses and corruptions open to a nineteenth-century male slave holder begin to take hold of him, and Dana is forced to ask herself whether she can actually justify helping keep him alive. When she is stuck in the past for long periods of time, she is necessarily trapped by slavery; on the occasion when Kevin (who is white) is brought to the past with her, she must deal with the psychological ramifications of their very different circumstances.

One of Butler's most powerful points is about the insidiousness of slave psychology. Not only does Dana begin to acclimate to the enslaved lifestyle, she continues to tolerate it as her bad treatment gradually escalates, and there comes a point when she is even an agent of its enforcement. My skin crept as I followed her logic in support of the status quo, and I began to feel oppressed by the hopeless and seemingly irrefutable situation I was reading about. I think this creeping sense of dread and disgust was the product of a very carefully and cleverly crafted book.

Lydia Sharp reviewed Kindred here a couple months ago. I already owned a copy and intended to read it at that point, but I thank her for inspiring me to bump it up on my list.

Kindred was first published in 1979, and I was really unhappy to learn after discovering this book that Octavia Butler died (rather tragically young) in 2006. But I'm glad I found her. After going to the Sirens Women in Fantasy conference recently, I've started to think really closely about the ways women have shaped the sff genre. There's a neat "period table" of great female sff writers of the last century ("great" being determined by awards and nominations) that has been some help to me as I try to understand the genre better. In case anyone else is interested in and wants to talk about the genre, please hit me up!