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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Random: An Unpredictable Shape Shifter Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy writer Alma Alexander comes up with some really great concepts.  She wrote a pair of novels that took place in an alternate China which centered on a group of women friends who communicated with each other in a women's language.  This was based on an actual Chinese tradition, but by setting it in an alternate universe she could ask herself some interesting "what if" questions dealing with Chinese history.  I was also inspired to find out more about the real women's language that once existed in China.  Eventually, Lisa See wrote a novel about it called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  Since I'd already encountered the idea of a Chinese women's language in Alma Alexander's  The Secrets of  Jin Shei, I didn't find it as original as most of Lisa See's readers. 

Recently Alma Alexander offered Random, her newest book, to all her fans on Goodreads as a free review copy.  I'd been following what she had to say about the book on her blog and I was very interested.  This is a shape shifter fantasy with a huge difference.  What if a shifter changed into the last warm blooded being he or she saw when the full moon arrived?  That's Alma Alexander's premise.  This variant is called a Random in her fantasy universe.  If the concept of a Random shifter intrigues you as much as it intrigued me, you'll want to read this review.


I should tell readers that this is a YA novel because some people reading this blog may be avoiders of YA fiction.  I used to be one of those people, but then I discovered that some of the best authors who are currently writing were tackling some very provocative themes in YA novels.

 One of the reasons why I didn't read YA is because it usually deals with high school.  I admit that high school was an ambivalent experience for me.  I also have a taste for the unusual, and intensely dislike the common stereotypes of teen behavior.  Stereotypes in general are boring and predictable, but I find stereotypes of teens downright repellent.

 One of these stereotypes is the "mean girl".  This trope involves a popular girl who leads a clique of girls who are all so anxious to be popular themselves that they imitate her behavior.   In so many YA novels, the authors never imagine that the influential popular girl is a good role model. No, she is usually vain, selfish and cruel.  Her influence causes the culture of the entire school to become toxic.   One of the things I really liked about the high school aspect of  Random is that Jazz, the protagonist, finds that the most trustworthy and loyal friend she has in her own age group is a girl that is the popular leader of a clique who is empathic, insightful and generous.  Of course it helped that the popular clique leader is a shape shifter like Jazz.

Unfortunately, Jazz had an older sister whose experience of high school was damaging and ultimately tragic.  A major plot strand of Random was Jazz's struggle to discover and deal with the truth about her sister, Celia.

Another important theme of Random is immigration.  Jazz's family had come from Russia.  Although Jazz was born in the United States, her parents and older siblings had changed their names and abandoned their culture in the hopes that they would be more accepted by Americans.  Due to this decision to hide their Russian identity, Jazz feels cut off from the rest of her family.  Since the United States is a nation of immigrants, this theme will resonate with a great many readers.  I personally feel that sacrificing a family's past impoverishes family life and American society as a whole.

I realize that prejudice is the main reason why minorities hide traits that can be kept secret.  The most prominent difference between Jazz's family and the majority of Americans couldn't be hidden.  Shape shifters must register.   Some of the laws regulating shape shifters established by America's government in Random are reasonable ones that are based on a concern with public safety.   Yet they were often enforced in a barbaric and discriminatory fashion.  The foundation of bias is fear, and Randoms might make people especially fearful because they are unpredictable by nature.

One of the reasons why I read science fiction and fantasy is because I am a xenophile.  A xenophile enjoys encountering strangeness.   There is such a thing as too much predictability, too much blandness.  The opposite attitude of xenophobia is a more common one.  Some xenophobes do read science fiction and fantasy.  They prefer shape shifter novels that portray the shifters as monsters who are hunted down and killed.  These novels are always from the perspective of the hunters.  Novels written from the perspective of "monsters" could make them  seem too sympathetic.  Alma Alexander's  choice to focus on a shape shifter girl whose family faced persecution makes xenophobes seem like monsters.

From a thematic perspective, Random is a very eloquent defense of those who are different.   Yet the choice to hide strangeness from the readers (along with the xenophobic characters) feels inadequate to a xenophile.  Like Jazz, who feels a sense of loss over never having truly known her family members, I miss seeing characters named Svetlana  and Goran instead of Celia and Malcolm.  I miss seeing Russian vocabulary and customs.  More importantly, I wanted to see behind the closed doors of  Turning Rooms where some characters shifted into animals.  As an animal lover, I wanted to peer inside the minds of these alien beings who share our planet with us.  Some authors accomplish this very successfully.  Faith Hunter's portrayal of Beast in her Jane Yellowrock series is particularly noteworthy.

I am also not fond of  books that end abruptly leaving a very obvious narrative thread dangling due to the momentous revelation in the final scene.  Authors seem to believe that this practice increases sales of the next volume in the series, but many readers find an unresolved ending unsatisfying.  I am one of them.    It's not that I regret reading Random.  I thought it was original and very moving, but it did have shortcomings. The failure to provide what I consider to be a proper ending is one of them.  



Friday, November 21, 2014

The Conjure Man Dies: A Harlem Renaissance Murder Mystery

The title of this book, The Conjure Man Dies, was what hooked me.  I wanted to know more about this conjure man.  I have an interest in African diasporic religion.  When I received the book from the library, I was surprised to learn that it was originally published in 1932.  Then I researched the author, Rudolph Fisher , and learned that he was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  It's the first mystery in which all the characters are African Americans.  I learned from a review in Curtain Up that there was a play based on the book that was first performed in 1936.  The review dealt with a 2001 production of the play.  It also revealed that Morgan Freeman holds the option for a film based on this work.  These are the reasons I decided that The Conjure Man Dies merited a full scale blog review.


Despite there being a police detective investigating the case, I felt that the real protagonist of this novel was Dr. John Archer before I knew that author Rudolph Fisher was a physician.  I thought that Dr. Archer was the best developed and most sympathetic character. Rudolph Fisher's background also explains why the medical details seemed so authentic.

The Conjure Man, Frimbo, was a highly ambivalent character. This ambivalence caused me to wonder if his background was falsified.  Was he really an African king or a graduate of Harvard University?  We only have Frimbo's word for it.  He was clearly a very intelligent man.  I read an interesting academic article by Adrienne Gosselin about The Conjure Man Dies which compares Frimbo to the Egyptian God, Osiris.  There are certainly some parallels to the story of Osiris in this book, but I would also identify Frimbo with the African trickster deity, Anansi, because he seemed to me a master of deception.  Due to Frimbo's acts of misdirection, most of this novel deals with figuring out what was done rather than whodunit. 

The mystery is cleverly constructed with a number of plot twists that are surprising.  The most surprising development had me exclaiming, "What just happened here?"  It caused me to entertain the notion that Frimbo could have been a genuine practitioner.  Some of the stories told about him sounded like he had real powers of sorcery, but he behaved too much like an illusionist for me to surrender my doubts about him.  In the end, I disliked his arrogance and tendency toward duplicity.

The Conjure Man Dies has been criticized for its Amos and Andy type of dialogue that seems so dated today.  I confess that I wasn't enamored with that dialogue either.  It made most of the characters seem like caricatures.

So there were aspects of the book that I liked, and it certainly held my interest. Yet my feelings about Frimbo and the dialogue lowered it in my estimation.



Saturday, November 1, 2014

Lights of Madness: Was Joan of Arc Sane?

 Lights of Madness by physician Preston Russell has the goal of determining whether Joan of Arc was insane.  He lays out all the evidence and all the theories about her in his book.  I thought that he was taking an approach to Joan of Arc that I hadn't seen before, and decided to review it for The Bookplex.



This book includes an account of Joan of Arc’s life mainly relying on the transcripts of her trial.  There are numerous endnotes.  I have no complaints about Russell’s accuracy, but it would have been enormously convenient for readers if these notes had been hyperlinked within the text in the electronic version.  I have seen this user friendly feature in textbooks.  I think it should be standard in any digitized book that has endnotes or a glossary.   

Sometimes the trial transcripts were eye opening for me.   I have read numerous books about Joan of Arc, but I had never seen that she "gave hard clouts to camp followers" with the flat of her sword.  This testimony means to me that Joan was judgmental toward other women who may or may not have been prostitutes.  Some camp followers were the impoverished dependents of soldiers who had no homes to which they could return.  So when I read about those clouts, I made a note that Saint Francis has just gone up a notch in my estimation and Joan of Arc has gone down a notch.   Joan may have been trying to prove her piety.  Those clouts were a rebuke to women who were sinners, or so she supposed without having heard their stories.  

There is also a section dealing with portrayals of Joan of Arc since her death.  I particularly enjoyed reading about the background for Mark Twain's book on Joan.  Russell tells us how Mark Twain's interest in Joan was inspired. A fragment of a page from a life of Joan of Arc blew into  Samuel Clemens' hand when he was a teenager long before he took the Mark Twain pen name. I noticed this because of my interest in Afro-Brazilian religion. Oya, the Yoruban spirit of the wind, has many faces.  In Brazil some consider one of them to be Joan of Arc. In Haitian Voodoo, Joan of Arc is often associated with Erzulie Dantor in her revolutionary role.  Perhaps if Russell had known that Joan had been syncretized in the African diaspora, he might have included it in his history of Joan's portrayal since her death.

The aspect of this biographical study that I found most useful was Russell’s discussion of all the attempts to diagnose Joan of Arc.  As a physician, his views on this topic seemed authoritative.  I also very much appreciated Russell’s perspective on the the medicalization of spiritual figures.   Those who search for an appropriate diagnosis for this particular saint definitely need to read the trial transcripts thoroughly as Preston Russell has evidently done.

The cover and internal illustrations enhance the experience of reading Lights of Madness, so that it seems less dry and academic.

Although there were a handful of typographical errors, I found the book very readable.  I would recommend it to any reader who wants an in depth exploration of Joan of Arc’s life and a thoughtful evaluation of her psychology based on the extensive evidence available.