The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman (1995) E

Date Read: 6.11.09 (reread)

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

I must have picked this up at a used book sale a little while ago and forgotten that I had done so, because I found it on my shelf with no distinct memory of having acquired it – something that has been occurring with increasing frequency lately. Whoops.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a medieval coming-of-age story, the story of a nameless girl picked up out of a dungheap by a sharp-tempered, greedy midwife. Christened Beetle by the midwife, she begins by sweeping floors and running menial errands, but begins to realize that she has more wits than the rest of the world gives her credit for.

I first read this in about fifth grade, but never liked this as much as Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman‘s other medieval historical fiction, although Midwife won the Newbery Medal. (Catherine “only” won the Honor.) Even at that age, I found the Moral at the End of the Story a little offensively obvious; Cushman also fell prey to the lesson-in-your-face YA tactic in Catherine, but that book’s greater narrative heft makes it more forgiveable.

However, The Midwife’s Apprentice is still an extremely enjoyable read. It’s very effective in creating a sense of space and slowly passing time despite its slim size, and there are quite a lot of wryly funny parts that I forgot. And Cushman’s attention to the details of medieval life is always extremely rewarding and fun – she creates a uniquely lively, earthy, and warm atmosphere, painting colorful pictures of village life, market fairs, and the breathtakingly detailed esoterica of the midwife’s trade, which employs ingredients from crushed emeralds to murderer’s wash-water. Her characters similarly have great warmth, and she effectively plays a broad emotional range over the course of the story. Overall, a very fun and feel-good read.

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Karen Cushman

The Millenium, by Upton Sinclair (1924) K

Date read: 12.24.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

(Copied from the back of the book). The year, 2000; the place, Central Park’s 100-story Pleasure Palace, built expressly for the “pleasure of the ruling class.” Shortly before the opening ceremony a radiumite explosion kills everyone in the world … except for the eleven people already inside the Pleasure Palace. Most of the eleven survivors are wealthy and can’t imagine living in a world without servants or luxuries: “No more quail in aspic, no more theatre parties, no more tailors,” they moan in unison. As the group battles to exist in a chaotic world without rules or structure or money, three of the survivors, led by Billy Kingdom, the poor yet resourceful outsider, go off to build a new utopian society, the Co-operative Commonwealth, on the banks of the Pocantico Hills of the Hudson River, north of new York City.

The Millennium was first written as a four-act drama in 1907, after the collapse of Sinclair’s own “Co-operative Commonwealth” in New Jersey. Its production on Broadway was delayed over and over until all copies of the play were lost. In 1924 Sinclair rewrote the story in novel form.

Review

Well, pretty much all you need to know is actually on that back cover summary– it tells you exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Overall, The Millenium was exactly how it sounds– a funny, informative, quirky, and insightful read. It is painfully clear from the dialogue (dramatic, very exclamatory), static settings, and narrative that the work was meant to be a drama and the style is rather enjoyable as long as you are expecting it.

The Millenium is a humorous dose of… everything that goes wrong with every form of government. Basically, after the explosion, the survivors cycle through all sorts of governments including Socialism, Communism, Captialism, Feudalism, and plain Survivalism. It was incredibly funny to see each form of government build itself up around one ridiculous product (nutrient pills, which in this futuristic society were the only form of sustenance) and the workings of the “economy”. You also get to see these intense, miniature forms of government comprised of 2-6 people clash against each other and watch one muscle its way to victory.

There really is not much in terms of character or setting development– the characters were very apparently only tools for Sinclair to use. And, well, the moral of the story was that governments suck and utopias rule. But what else can you expect from Sinclair?

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Upton Sinclair

The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003) E

Date Read: 5.24.09
Book From: Borrowed from kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

The Etched City is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the best and most memorable fantasy books I have ever read. I hate to make hand-waving pronouncements like that, but I really can’t think of any other way to begin this review.

The book follows two protagonists, both wanted for having fought on the losing side of a civil war: Raule, an emotionally deadened physician, and Gwynn, an elegant, amoral, and apparently indestructible gun- and swordsman. Somewhat begrudgingly reunited by circumstance, the two flee the Copper Country, to lose themselves in what Raule prematurely hopes will be a “proper” civilization.

Bishop’s writing in the beginning is stark and straightforward, but daubed with bursts of unexpected vividness, as she describes the Copper Country, a searing, deathly land that seems equal parts Middle East, American Old West, and Australian outback. The scenes are painted with a memorable and somehow terrible clarity – there’s a frightening kind of oppression and lostness to the Copper Country, with its sand-channeled beds of nail grass, black ruins, and rotting hamlets whose stillness is punctuated only by gunfights. (The book opens with a gratifying bang, as a four-man gunfight ends in the shooting and decapitation of three of the four.) The weight of the country, the sense of both mythic and mundane desolation, actually reminded me of many scenes in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle. Continue reading The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003) E

Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E

Date Read: 5.27.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

McKinley’s first published novel is actually one of the last of hers that I read, when in high school I belatedly rediscovered her books and went on a rampage through nearly all of her work – when much younger, I had tried and failed to get through The Outcasts of Sherwood, and hadn’t gone back since. (Actually, I’m currently still not up-to-date on her newest two novels, Dragonhaven and Chalice.) From what I’ve seen, Beauty might also be the most widely beloved of her work, in competition largely with the Damar books (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown).

I remember that my working backwards to Beauty actually had an adverse effect on my opinion of it at first read – her later books tend towards much weightier plotlines and intricate, metaphorical language, so that I found Beauty simplistic by comparison. On re-reading it, I found that simplicity to be a great part of its charm. McKinley’s later books can perhaps be overburdened by axe-grinding (Deerskin), lengthy protagonist hand-wringing (Sunshine, which I passionately love nonetheless), and other excesses. (On reading Rose Daughter, McKinley’s second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, one of my roommates frankly remarked that McKinley “could use an editor.”)

By contrast, Beauty is fresh and openhearted, and although the prose may not be as elegant as that in McKinley’s mature works, her descriptions are exuberant and generously enchanting. Beauty, whose nickname here is ironic, is immediately recognizable as the archetype of McKinley’s heroines: likably bookish, plain, and straight-spoken, these anti-damsels may now litter the YA fantasy landscape, but McKinley’s are some of the first and definitely still some of the best. Beauty’s voice is funny and thoughtful, and being an inveterate lover of books, horses, and gardening myself, it’s pretty hard not to identify with her.

Continue reading Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2009) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date Read: 3.31.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Warm Bodies is the tale of a zombie in a society of zombies. R (he can’t remember the rest of his name), originally the entirely nameless protagonist of Marion’s beautiful “I Am a Zombie Filled With Love,” here has his story extended: during a raid on a human encampment, he inexplicably makes the decision to shelter a living human girl, so that they make their way together in a stagnating world.

I would primarily describe this novel as cinematic, both in good and bad ways. Good because so many of the scenes are uniquely vivid and striking and just beg to be visualized – zombies swaying back and forth in “church;” R riding an airport’s moving walkway and coming to a stop just opposite his soon-to-be zombie wife; the Stadium that is the center of life for a surviving human community. Bad because most of the plot and execution is cheesy as hell.

This really just needs to be stripped down and rewritten, or at least have a stronger editing hand. It’s not just some of the questionable language (“the sun stood over us like a royal guardian,” “my mystique has thickened and intensified like balsamic reduction”), it’s the overall plot concept. A rebellious, artsy-bohemian girl who Changes Everything by having the protagonist fall in love with her? [SPOILERS FOLLOW; HIGHLIGHT TO SEE] Humans literally being so soulless that they turn into zombies? Please. Pleeeeeease.

The original short story was charming and likable because it was quirky, lovely, and unexpected – this beats all of its loveliness and unexpectedness into a sticky, saccharine pulp. I read most of this with a sort of mild curiosity as a result, rather than real interest, despite the many excellent individual concepts. Still, I love Marion’s work in general, and am extremely excited to see his career take off,  so I’m very happy to own one of the few copies (I think about 220 were printed in the end) that he designed and self-published. Signed, too!

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Warm Bodies (2009) [K]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2009) K

Reviewer: Kakaner
Date Read: 3.15.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Summary
A zombie in a post-apocalyptic desolate landscape befriends a rare living girl and finds himself being transformed by his relationship with her. An extension of a short story by the same author: I am a Zombie Filled with Love.

Review
This was… sadly underwhelming and disappointing given Marion’s previous works. I was initially very excited to read this because 1) ZOMBIE FICTION MOG! and 2) the short story was pretty amazing. The first chapter opens up with the original short story, a very poignant 1st person zombie narrative describing the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the narrator during one slice of a day. There is emphasis on the zombie’s inability to think coherently, speak, or process thoughts quickly. The zombie’s outlook on the world is extremely complacent and only slightly quizzical, but it is apparent the zombie brain cannot handle being inquisitive.

In order for Marion to tell the story he wanted to tell, he had to break away from the narrative restraints he set up in the short story by giving his narrator a larger capacity for thought and purpose. However, the result was a rather obvious discontinuity between the first chapter and the next couple chapters in narration, and the subsequent abrupt change in atmosphere and storytelling wasn’t handled very well. Overall, the characters and story were rather predictable, and as ashamed as I am to say this, the story was just cheesy. All of Marion’s works are very romantic, and usually he manages to either avoid cheesiness or fully embrace it and turn it into something special. I lost interest about halfway through Warm Bodies, frustrated by the narrative inconsistencies and the plot.

Although The Inside wasn’t perfect, I think it suited Marion’s style and storytelling better. There was a lot more confidence, atmosphere, and passion in that novel. I guess Warm Bodies still makes for an interesting casual read because it is still zombie fiction for once NOT presented in graphic novel form.

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Warm Bodies (2009) [E]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion