Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Night Bird, by Catherine Asaro (Fantasy)

Joyce Saricks describes Fantasy genre books as “world-building,” emphasizing the author’s ability to let the reader experience the worlds they create through vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, and feelings. Catherine Asaro accomplishes this and more with her romantic fantasy The Night Bird.

Fantasy and romance are both genres with which I have little experience, so I decided to try to explore both genres by choosing an author who blends the two together. Catherine Asaro is known for her science fiction, but lately it seems she has been more interested in writing fantastic tales of love set in magical lands. Her Lost Continent series, in which this book is chronologically placed fifth, features a magical land made up of diverse kingdoms, cultures, and climates. There is the golden paradise of Aronsdale, filled with waterfalls and a beautiful, gentle race of people. Contrastingly, there is Jazid, a barren and war-torn desert run by aggressive nomads with no respect for women. Other kingdoms are mentioned, but not explored in as much detail in this particular title.

Asaro’s protagonist is Allegra, a young and beautiful mage from Aronsdale whose magical gifts have resulted in her being chosen to visit the palace. Allegra is kidnapped on her journey to the palace by ruthless nomads from the barren land of Jazid and sold to the gruff but well-meaning prince regent, Markus Onyx. Despite his role as her owner, as well as his culture’s utter lack of respect for women, Allegra gradually comes to see his gentle side. Markus swiftly falls in love with her and through a marriage proposal, offers to raise her status from a lowly “pleasure girl.” Allegra in turn begins to develop feelings for him, and she struggles throughout the book to discover what exactly these feelings are.

In this world, magic is produced through shapes and colors, creating light and healing that can transform people’s moods and emotions. Allegra begins with minimal abilities, but throughout her captivity she discovers a peculiar power which may allow her to save her homeland, and Markus’ land, from impending war. When coupled with magic, Allegra’s singing voice has the power to put all those in the vicinity to sleep. I won’t give away any more of the plot, which becomes increasingly layered with political intrigue and fascinating characters, but you can probably tell that Allegra’s power will prove instrumental in the unfolding events. “Night Bird,” by the way, is Markus’ endearing nickname for Allegra, referring to her beautiful, sleep-inducing voice.

In my opinion, the author’s strongest point is her ability to explore issues of cultural tensions in a fantasy setting. The kingdoms of Aronsdale and Jazid are as diverse as their contrasting landscapes; in fact, they are quite reminiscent of Athens and Sparta of ancient Greece. The people of Aronsdale value art and beauty and avoid any violence, while the Jazid nomads prize strength and are bent on conquering their enemies. Women are highly esteemed in Aronsdale for their magical abilities, and Allegra experiences intense culture shock when she witnesses the misogynistic cruelty that Jazid men routinely commit against their women. Jazid women are considered lower than horses, and about on par with cattle. Because their cultures are so at odds with each other, it’s truly fascinating to see the relationship between Allegra and Markus develop.

What sets this book and others like it apart from the typical fantasy book, I think, is its equal treatment of the themes of magic and romance. Whereas most fantasy books focus more on the magical elements than any other aspect of the plot, Asaro devotes about the same amount of content to the intense and controversial romance developing between Allegra and Markus.

While their relationship is intriguing and sensual, it can also be uncomfortable at times—there’s definitely a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome going down here. Allegra is a feisty and humorous heroine, if a little weak in her ability to resist Markus’s often nonconsensual advances. I wouldn’t classify her a damsel, but her attraction to the strong and often distant man who could easily overpower her is a bit cliché.

Having said that, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I could not put this book down. I found myself turning the pages faster than anything I’ve read in a long time—I tore through this 571 pager faster than any of the others I’ve read this semester. Much like Twilight and other-worldly romances of the like, this book is definitely a guilty pleasure for me. The writing was mostly simple and direct, but there were some beautifully elaborate depictions of the world’s landscape—one of the vital characteristics of fantasy books. And though this book is part of a series, I had no trouble understanding the basic plot and keeping the characters straight, although my experience probably would have been enhanced if I had read the previous books. Though it’s probably not a masterpiece of fantasy literature, I would not hesitate to recommend this title to women looking for a juicy blend of romance and fantasy.

Book information:

Title: The Night Bird
Author: Catherine Asaro
Series: 5th in the Lost Continent series
Publication date: 2008
Number of pages: 571

Monday, March 22, 2010

Topic 2: Laura Bush on Education and Literacy

Over spring break, Laura Bush came to speak at the local college in my parents’ hometown in Michigan. My dad, ever the staunch Republican and Bush-supporter, bought two tickets to see her. My mom decided that watching American Idol was more important than seeing the former First Lady speak, so I went in her stead. It turned out to be lucky for me, because Mrs. Bush addressed many of the issues I care most about, and listening to her was an enlightening experience.

Laura Bush majored in education in college, and then went on to receive her Masters degree in Library Science. She took advantage of her role as First Lady to encourage reading among the masses, with an emphasis on children. Her speech demonstrated her passion for teaching children to read early in their development and her unwavering support for all educators. In addition to raising funds for literacy-related causes, Mrs. Bush founded the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries, which is of particular interest to anyone planning to work in school libraries, as it makes several grants to school libraries across the country to purchase books. More information on that is at

She talked quite a bit about September 11th and what it was like in the White House during such a turbulent time, and then she connected the tragedy with her stance on reading when she described the National Book Festival that took place the same month. With the help of the Library of Congress, Mrs. Bush launched the festival as an attempt to share the joys of reading and to celebrate authors. I can get behind anyone who makes the effort to spread the word on books!

At the end of the speech, Mrs. Bush accepted questions from the audience. Many people asked about her views on specific education and literacy issues. One interesting point she made regarding adult literacy addressed the issue of vision health care and how many of those who cannot read at an acceptable level are also those who cannot afford regular visits to the eye doctor. Who would have thought that a problem as simple as poor eyesight could be one of the big contributors to illiteracy?

Mrs. Bush spoke only briefly about her controversial husband and their relationship, emphasizing that she supported his efforts even if she didn’t agree with them because, as she stated, she herself was not the president and had no place trying to influence his actions. She briefly mentioned President Obama’s decision to continue with the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which I can’t personally support because of the financial devastation my own high school suffered as a result of the program. But otherwise, I fully agree with her stance on the importance of teaching reading to children at an early age. I don’t even want to imagine how differently my life would have turned out had my parents not read to me from the beginning. If not for their encouragement, as well as the influence of my elementary school teachers, I could not have come nearly as far in my education as I have.

Hey, she's a fellow dog-lover.

Political alliances aside, Laura Bush is really a classy lady. Although she is seemingly reserved and doesn’t particularly stand out against the likes of Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, her views and her efforts on behalf of education and literacy are definitely worth checking out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Secret Shopper: Well, color me blown away

My local public library is extremely tiny and limited in its holdings. Thus, I entered the library anticipating the worst, but that’s far from what I received. My “Secret Shopper” experience proved to me that at least some librarians are heading in the right direction when it comes to readers’ advisory.

The librarian at the desk had my sympathy before I even spoke to her. A young, dour-looking boy in front of me addressed her in a horribly condescending tone: “You know your computers are slow?” She replied that she understood, but that several people used their FREE Internet service at once and there was nothing she could do to speed it up. The kid rudely ranted a little longer about the library needing to buy newer computers before he rudely abandoned the desk. Ah, the youth of today.

Then it was my turn. I hesitantly asked if she could help me find a good book to read. To my surprise, she agreed to help without any hesitation, as if she was accustomed to such a request. She asked what I was looking for in general. I replied that I wasn’t picky and didn’t have many favorite authors, but that I wanted something dark and heavy-handed, and that focused on characters.

She asked if I could give her an example of a book with these characteristics that I enjoyed, and I told her that I had recently read and loved Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I couldn’t see what tool she was using, but I saw her type the author’s name, and she indicated that she was searching for the title. Whatever tool she used recommended a Joyce Carol Oates book called We Were the Mulvaneys. She read me a summary that sounded intriguing, and then checked the catalog. When she found that the library didn’t carry it, she offered to put in a request on my account.

She kept looking for other recommended titles that the library did hold so I could take one home immediately. She found a few more titles that she herself had read, and she gave me a brief summary of each off the top of her head. She even enlisted the help of the other librarian sitting at the other computer, who listed off a couple of authors that I had read and a couple that I had only heard of. Suddenly, the librarian helping me jumped up from the desk and told me to follow her to the shelves to locate some of the titles.

When we reached the shelf, we launched into a discussion of some of our favorite books and found that our tastes are rather similar. She became more and more animated as she pointed out books that she had loved and ones that had circulated frequently. I soon forgot that I was supposed to be evaluating her, and I found myself relaxing and just enjoying the conversation.

Throughout the whole interaction, I was becoming more and more impressed by how much the librarian cared about finding the perfect book for me. We found a couple of titles for me to check out, and I wrote down a few more titles to check out in the future. I left the library feeling very satisfied with the service and excited to read the recommended titles.

The only criticism I could possibly come up with is the fact that the librarian asserted her personal opinion quite a bit—she told me what she likes to read instead of focusing completely on my interests. However, since we seem to have enjoyed so many of the same authors and books, I don’t really see it as a problem in this case. In my opinion, this librarian went above and beyond the call of duty with her enthusiasm and willingness to do whatever it took to find the right book for me.

Overall, a great success!

Friday, March 5, 2010

My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman (Women's Lives and Relationships)

I must admit, I selected “Women’s Lives and Relationships” as one of my genres with a certain amount of trepidation and cynicism. I thoroughly enjoy female protagonists in historical fiction books, but I have always found it difficult to identify with women in contemporary settings. When I watch a movie or a television show, I most often choose male characters as my favorites and oftentimes develop an uncalled for feeling of scorn for the female characters. It’s difficult to explain; I suppose I just feel that female characters are usually weak in comparison with their male counterparts, and I tire of the same old stereotypes showing up in every woman character nowadays—they are always beautiful, without a blemish or hair out of place, they always have the “ideal” body and are highly fashionable, and they are often severely lacking in personality. Frankly, they just bore me. This is one of a few reasons I have avoided books about contemporary women.

Luckily for me, I spied Elinor Lipman’s name in our textbook and chose to read her fairly recent work My Latest Grievance, which features a young but highly intelligent female protagonist whom I grew to admire the more I glimpsed of her character and her life. Frederica Hatch was born and raised in a college dormitory at Dewing college, a small women’s college in Boston. The Hatches are what they call a “dorm family”—Frederica’s father and mother, David and Aviva, have served as “houseparents” of the dorm her entire life, saving themselves tremendous amounts in housing and food expenses. Frederica’s upbringing has been rather unique—her parents are politically correct to the point of obnoxiousness, and she lives among several older, surrogate “sisters” who change every year. Her life is so entrenched in the world of academia, it’s no wonder she sometimes finds herself yearning for the “normal” life she witnesses at her friends’ houses.

In 1976, when Frederica is sixteen years old, she accidentally learns of her father’s previous marriage to a woman named Laura Lee French, with whom she makes contact. Circumstances soon lead to Laura Lee becoming a housemother of another dorm on campus, and this is where the plot takes off. Laura Lee’s presence is initially refreshing and exciting to Frederica, who tires of her parents’ neutral attitudes toward everything. However, when Laura Lee involves herself in a scandalous affair with the college president (who is married with three children, I might add), Frederica sees firsthand the harm that Laura Lee selfishly causes others—and contemplates turning against her.

This is a small but incredibly dense book; Lipman is incredibly eloquent and detail-oriented, and she devotes much of the text developing her unique and quirky characters. Despite this, I would definitely classify this as a “light read,” especially in comparison with the heavy-handed literary fiction I’m used to. Lipman relies heavily on dialogue, and she plays on her strengths by focusing on characters over the plot, which works well in a story like this. The optimistic tone and witty humor was enjoyable and refreshing after the last book I read (namely, A Thousand Splendid Suns). All of the characteristics of the typical women’s lives genre are here: it is an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Frederica and her family, and the story is slowly paced yet still compelling.

This book gives me hope that there are more books in the “Women’s Lives” genre that will interest me—ones that are intelligently written and focus more on loyalty to family and friends than on careers and romance. I would recommend this book for women like me who perhaps have been avoiding this genre, but are interested in giving it a chance. I’m definitely glad I did.

Book information:

Title: My Latest Grievance
Author: Elinor Lipman
Publication date: 2006
Number of pages: 243
Setting: A small college in Boston, Massachusetts
Time period: 1960s-1970s
Subject headings: Teenage girls—Fiction, College teachers—Fiction