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The Week in Books Summer Edition, Week 5

June 20, 2010

As I said earlier in the week, I forgot to mention Cynthia Voigt’s The Runner in my last WiB.  The Runner is a prequel of sorts to the Tillerman books (Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, Sons from Afar, Seventeen Against the Dealer), although I am more inclined to think of it as a companion book, along with the other two that don’t immediately feature the four Tillerman children (Come a Stranger, A Solitary Blue).  This book focuses on Samuel “Bullet” Tillerman, the uncle for whom Sammy is named.  As we know from reading Homecoming & Dicey’s Song, Bullet died in Vietnam, and as an adult I found it difficult reading a book where I knew the main character was going to die at the end.  As a child, I was fascinated by any Voigt, but especially the Tillermans (and Izzy Lingard from Izzy, Willy-Nilly, as I’ve said before), so a book about Bullet (and his mother) drew me.  The race issues that I sort of took for granted as a kid were much more apparent to my adult self, although the one thing I learned from rereading the book that I did not expect was that I had trouble understanding Bullet’s thought processes sometimes.  As a kid, I felt I always knew what he was saying, but I was grasping to remember at times.  Voigt portrays Bullet scarcely at times; I think there’s a point where you’re either in his head or you aren’t, and I really couldn’t do it sometimes this time around.

The book itself is ultimately about the joys of running (which just made me sulky about my back; I miss jogging with the Wii Fit every day but I think it may have been doing more harm than good), prejudice, and stubbornness, not in that order.  We know from the Tillerman children that their mother, Liza, did not come from a happy home, and here we get a glimpse of what it was like to grow up under the thumb of John Tillerman, a hard, bitter man who pushes everyone in his family away.  He’s also passed his racism on to Bullet, who lives a sort of “separate but…separate” life, seeing the black kids in his school as so incredibly other.  Their hair, their music, their interpersonal relationships–nothing is like his closed-down world, or the privileged world of the kids he doesn’t really consider his friends–and when he’s told to train the new black runner or else lose his place on the team, this is compounded by their differences.  And yet, Bullet can’t keep his distance forever, especially when he realizes his world isn’t as insulated and segregated as he first believed.

Now that I am older, I can see why critics considered the book heavy-handed at times, but I don’t think it was a huge detraction in reading–and it wasn’t on my radar at all when I was younger, so I don’t think it matters, really.  The book is fascinating, Bullet grows less sympathetic with time, but I could read it another dozen times over the course of my life and still completely love it.

So that finishes up last week.  Heh.

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On to this week: I read nine books, but I’m ignoring four because they’re for the Harlequin romance recaps.  (In case you’re wondering about the titles, they’re Claudia Jameson’s Answer from the Heart, Bethany Campbell’s Spellbinder, Leigh Michaels’s A Matter of Principal, and Amanda Clark’s City Girl, Country Girl.  To get an overall feel on whether I liked them, check out my Goodreads account.  Add me there and let me know in a message–or comment here–you found me through my book blog!)

First off, I read the second two Peggy Sue books.  If I had to guess, “created by” means that Goudge wrote the first and the last books only.  (The books are downstairs, so I don’t know if that’s true.)  One and four are better written than two and three, and there could be a lot of reasons for that but that’s my guess.  My complaints from before still stand: What illness does Raven’s mother actually have?  WHY does Kiki fall out of love with Bobby so quickly and easily?  There’s a little bit of fleshing out that needs to be done here, but otherwise, it’s a decent series, for its time.  I actually kept thinking that it would be a fascinating HBO one-season series (if they ever did that on purpose)–you know, updated with more sex and cursing and more violence.  All the pieces are there for something truly excellent; I really believe that only the time period in which it was created stopped it from being…well, quite frankly, trashier in a really good way.

Then I read the second volume of Scott Pilgrim: Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.  I was really disappointed; I didn’t utterly fall in love with the first for a couple reasons, one of which is that Scott is a tool.  The second volume really highlights this, and a cute hero I can’t get behind is a cute hero I don’t want to read about.  Also, I found the second book a little confusing, timeline-wise, at times, and fairly repetitive as well.  I did like the “boss battle” but that was kind of it, other than a few little laughs.  However, I am still excited about the movie, because I think Scott will be more sympathetic, and the fat will be trimmed from this rather meandering series.  (Second opinion: my daughter loved it.)

Then I read When the Duke Returns by Eloisa James, the fourth book in her Desperate Duchesses series.  I’ve made it a point to pick up some of Eloisa James’s book since I saw her speak in Princeton, and while I do not think the quote that makes it on to all her books–“the historical Jennifer Crusie!”–really fits, I do find myself enjoying her books in a rather strange way that I can’t quite articulate.  I sort of want to go on record to say that Eloisa James does not write typical romances.  The Desperate Duchesses series is really more like a novelization of a television show, and in a way that’s a breath of fresh air compared to the stale repetition in other romances.  On the other hand, it makes for a rather disjointed way of telling a story–the “arc” of one character and the rebuilding of her romance with her husband (maybe) is interested, but presented in such bits and pieces that I find it difficult to keep my interest.  At the same time, James is also building a cast of characters that will be paired off eventually (one supposes), but unlike most romances, they do not feel like bit characters in the background, biding their time until they get their own plotlines.  Instead, they dominate the playing field, warping the concept of the romance (positively? negatively?  I CAN’T TELL), inclined toward failed flirtations and illicit affairs.  The men and women seem deceptively modern at times; I cannot tell if that’s a fact of human nature (we’re the same as we were in the past, only in different clothes) or anachronistic.

I accidentally skipped the third book because I find it incredibly difficult to figure out which book is which in this series, and it doesn’t help that she has at least two other books with the words “Duke” or “Duchess” in them to throw me off more.  I’m inclined to finish out this series and the one with the Shakespeare pun titles, but although James in on my incredibly short list of romance authors I’m inclined to seek out, I don’t think after that I’ll be rushing to grab everything she publishes.

Sorry, Ms. Bly.

Finally, I finished Kindred by Octavia E. Butler last night.  I picked it up on a whim after highly enjoying the engrossing Fledgling, and although the two topics are completely different, and the books were written decades apart, they are both fantastic in their own ways.  While Fledging is a vampire novel extraordinaire, Kindred is a novel of time-travel: Dana, a twenty-six-year-old black woman in the 1970s, is transported back to the early 1800s to rescue her ancestor–her white, plantation-dwelling ancestor.  Each time Dana returns to the past, she stays longer, and grows conflicted about her complicity and inability to act in slave times; how she is disliked by both blacks and whites; how she makes excuses for her ancestor; how she has to push her enslaved ancestor toward her plantation-owning ancestor to ensure her existence.  Although the book is sometimes heavy-handed for a reader in 2010, that is less Butler’s talent and more likely a result of the time it was written.  If it seems overly thinky and occasionally obvious, perhaps it needed to be.  It does not diminish the power in the book, although I will admit to finding it difficult to delve into the book right away.  It was only after the first fifty pages or so that I realized I could not put the book down, and every time I had to, I grew upset.

As a white, middle-class reader, I find Butler–who was a pioneer in science fiction as both an African-American and a woman–to be the kind of writer I need to explore more.  It’s great to have authors like Jennifer Crusie, who are writing sexy overweight characters in their 30s that I can relate to, but I need to get out of my comfort zone more.  A lot more.

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Next week: Um…I sort of went to TWO libraries this week, so I’ve practically stockpiled, which does little for the to-read bookcase, but makes me giddy.  I found a graphic novel version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–neat!

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