Take A Peek Book Review: Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World, #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.

My Thoughts:

What a cool set-up! Sometime after the world we know is left mostly underwater and the United States is no more, survived by pockets of humanity living in rogue states, the Navajo nation is thriving within the magical walls erected before the flood by prescient elders. Within the walls, the Dinétah people live in a world where magic and gods have returned. And for some of the mortals, clan heritage has manifested with special powers and gifts — among these, Maggie Hoskie, whose speed and ability to kill have made her a powerful monster-slayer.

Maggie struggles with the emotional upheavals that have brought her to this point, and is joined by Kai, a former outsider who has secret clan powers of his own, to try to tame the evil that has brought monsters to the land. The story combines the grit and violence of urban fantasy with the natural beauty and starkness of the Dinétah land.

It’s a rich and fascinating world, although the world-building itself felt incomplete to me. While we’re introduced to Maggie and some of the elemental powers and gods, I felt that the story needed a bit more grounding and expansion. I always felt as if I was missing some tiny element that would push this book over the edge into full-on greatness for me. I would have liked to get to know Maggie more as a person, and the same is true for Kai.

Still, I loved the use of language and culture to paint a picture of the people, the land, and the magic. Trail of Lightning is the first book in a series, and I really can’t wait for more. I’m hoping the next book will give me the greater picture of this world that I’m dying for, so I can feel fully immersed.

As a side note, my city’s public libraries have chosen this book as the citywide “On the Same Page” book for January/February, which I think is all sorts of awesome. It’s really terrific to get a taste of fantasy fiction with a Native American heroine and cast of characters — really a unique set-up, and a world I want to know more about!

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The details:

Title: Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World, #1)
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: June 26, 2018
Length: 287 pages
Genre: Speculative/dystopian science fiction
Source: Library

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Audiobook Review: Flight

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Sherman Alexie is one of our most gifted and accomplished storytellers and a treasured writer of huge national stature. His first novel in ten years is the hilarious and tragic portrait of an orphaned Indian boy who travels back and forth through time in a charged search for his true identity. With powerful and swift, prose, Flight follows this troubled foster teenager–a boy who is not a “legal” Indian because he was never claimed by his father–as he learns that violence is not the answer.

The journey for Flight‘s young hero begins as he’s about to commit a massive act of violence. At the moment of decision, he finds himself shot back through time to resurface in the body of an FBI agent during the civil rights era, where he sees why “Hell is Red River, Idaho, in the 1970s.” Red River is only the first stop in an eye-opening trip through moments in American history. He will continue traveling back to inhabit the body of an Indian child during the battle at Little Bighorn and then ride with an Indian tracker in the nineteenth century before materializing as an airline pilot jetting through the skies today. During these furious travels through time, his refrain grows: “Who’s to judge?” and “I don’t understand humans.” When finally, blessedly, our young warrior comes to rest again in his own life, he is mightily transformed by all he has seen.

This is Sherman Alexie at his most brilliant–making us laugh while he’s breaking our hearts. Time Out has said that “Alexie, like his characters, is on a modern-day vision quest,” and in Flight he seeks nothing less than an understanding of why human beings hate. Flight is irrepressible, fearless, and groundbreaking Alexie.

Flight is a stunning, powerful look at seemingly unending cycles of violence, betrayal, and revenge.

Told through the voice of Zits, a 15-year-old half-Indian foster child who’s on the fast track toward a bloody end, Flight lets us inside the mind of a character who’s been neglected, abused, and repeatedly failed by the meager systems that are meant to protect him. When we first meet him, Zits is living in yet another foster home with people who don’t care a whit about him. He’s plagued by terrible skin, which is one of countless things that never get fixed for him because he’s just a kid in the system and no one wants to invest the time or money to improve his life. His favorite word is “whatever”, and it sums up his attitude completely. He’s done caring.

When Zits end up in juvie yet again, he meets a strange and magnetic white boy who calls himself Justice, who seems to understand Zits and his struggles in a way no one else ever has. Justice introduces Zits to guns and the means to take revenge for the years of his own miserable life, as well as all the many years of wrongs done to his people.

As Zits pulls the trigger in a heinous act of mass murder, he starts his journey through time and space, landing in the bodies of other people at critical times of violence. In some cases, he’s the one committing atrocities; at other times, he’s a victim. Through each episode, Zits is both witness and participant in acts of great violence, experiencing first-hand the destructive power of people’s quest for vengeance.

Listening to Flight is a particularly chilling experience. Narrator Adam Beach gives Zits an appropriately adolescent voice, yet is also able to shift — as Zits shifts — into an adult FBI agent, an Indian tracker, a downtrodden drunk, and a modern-day cop, each with a distinct personality and style of expression. The narrator’s portrayal of Zits’s increasingly despairing and horrified mindset is powerful. He captures the pain and suffering that Zits sees, as well as the pain of the recovered memories of Zits’s earlier life and the lives of others.

It’s a blessing, I suppose, that Flight is a relatively short book. It’s an intense experience, and doesn’t need to be distilled at all by lengthening the story. Even though the narrative is full of terrible events, Zits’s voice and unique perspective lends the audiobook rare moments of lightness as well. It’s not an easy book or listening experience, but Flight is well worth the emotional investment you’ll have made by the end.

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The details:

Title: Flight
Author: Sherman Alexie
Narrator: Adam Beach
Publisher: Grove Atlantic Black Cat
Publication date: 2007
Audiobook length: 4 hours, 40 minutes
Printed book length: 208 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: If If Ever Get Out Of Here

Book Review: If If Ever Get Out Of Here by Eric Gansworth

If I Ever Get Out of HereIn If I Ever Get Out Of Here, main character Lewis Blake faces yet another lonely year as the only Native American kid in the all-white smart kids’ class at the local junior high school. As a rez kid in 1975 Buffalo, New York, Lewis knows that 7th grade will probably bring more of the same for him — sitting alone, talking to no one all day until he rides the school bus back to the Tuscarora reservation with the kids he grew up with. Much to his surprise, though, one of the new kids from the town military base doesn’t seem to care that they’re from different worlds, and the two boys soon strike up a friendship over their love of the Beatles and Paul McCartney.

But friendship only extends so far. George and his family welcome Lewis into their home and their lives, but Lewis just can’t quite bring himself to return the favor. Lewis lives with his mother and uncle on the reservation in a house that’s literally falling apart around them, and he’s sure that George would drop him in an instant if he ever got a real sense of just how poverty-stricken Lewis really is.

If I Ever Get Out Of Here is both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of Native American life. In it, the author vividly describes the challenges faced by the children of the reservation, who may attend the white schools but know that they’ll never really leave the rez. In this pre-PC world, outright racism is common in the local community, and when Lewis is targeted by a much-feared bully who’s known for his hatred of “Indians”, none of the adults are willing to intervene. It’s up to Lewis to take a stand, and his bravery leads to both triumph and betrayals as the repercussions are felt throughout the school and the town.

Above everything, If I Ever Get Out Of Here celebrates two universal forces for good: Sincere, unwavering friendship, and the power of rock and roll. George and Lewis are good kids with their heads on (mostly) straight, who understand the importance of family, and who’ve grown up in one form of isolation or another. They bond and connect with a sense of trust that moves beyond the barriers of race and economic class. What truly brings them together, however, is the music, and this book is saturated with the delight of discovering something new and true through the grooves of a vinyl album.

George and his father manage to find tickets to a Paul McCartney and Wings concert in Toronto (although Lewis has to endure the comment from a friend’s dad, “Hope you didn’t get scalped,” complete with hand gestures illustrating just what a scalping would look like). Yet once the concert starts, all the stresses of being the lone Indian among a sea of white people fade away, as Lewis observes the awesome glory of being in a crowd at the perfect rock concert:

The guy next to me grabbed me by the armpit and insisted that I stand on my seat. I was short enough that doing this didn’t make me much taller than anyone else, but I still crouched a little to even the view for the guy directly behind me. A minute or so later, that guy tapped me on the shoulder and yelled that I was fine standing. He was tall enough to see… The strangers around me made me one of them. It was almost like being home on the reservation, and I let myself enjoy the surging excitement.

The Beatles, Wings, Queen, Bowie — these form the soundtrack of the boys’ lives during their junior high school years (and provide the chapter titles in If I Ever Get Out Of Here), and the author thoughtfully provides us with a detailed, lovingly compiled playlist at the back of the book.

This young adult novel strikes me as appropriate perhaps for older middle-grade readers as well, although they may be less familiar with the historical elements that come to life here. In all the different facets of life facing Lewis, the settings ring true. The casual racism and cruelty experienced by Lewis may be shocking to young readers raised in today’s more aware society, but the fear and pain caused by bullying are certainly something that kids of any era would be able to relate to.

Written as a first-person narrative using straight-forward language, If I Ever Get Out Of Here lets us inside Lewis’s head and Lewis’s world, and both are fascinating places to be. As a visit back in time and to a world that most white Americans either can’t or don’t want to see, this book engages the reader’s heart and mind. Lewis is a terrific main character — not a perfect boy by any means, but an overall really good kid who is proud of his people but doesn’t want to be confined by old rules. If I Ever Get Out Of Here vividly captures the dichotomy experienced by the Native American youth who feel a deep sense of belonging within their communities on the reservation — but whose opportunities for better lives lie elsewhere.

I recommend this book for teens and adults alike. The people feel real, the dialogue and events capture the essence of the 1970s, and the music just makes it all come to life. Most of all, it’s a tribute to true friendship — the kind that’s loyal, steadfast, and lifelong — and the difference it can make in a lonely boy’s life.

Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via NetGalley. I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Flashback Friday: A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight. If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

(published 1987)

From Goodreads:

Michael Dorris has crafted a fierce saga of three generations of Indian women, beset by hardships and torn by angry secrets, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of kinship. Starting in the present day and moving backward, the novel is told in the voices of the three women: fifteen-year-old part-black Rayona; her American Indian mother, Christine, consumed by tenderness and resentment toward those she loves; and the fierce and mysterious Ida, mother and grandmother whose haunting secrets, betrayals, and dreams echo through the years, braiding together the strands of the shared past.

Telling one story through three sets of eyes, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water moves backward chronologically through the generations of a family to reveal their secrets, their hopes, their pain, and their disappointments. It’s a beautifully written tale, heavy at times but worth the emotional investment. Read it for the portrait of a family; read it for yet another painful lesson on the Native American experience and how its history echoes until today.

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love (please mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the Flashback Friday host!) and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!

Book Review: The Round House

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

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Main character Joe is 13 years old the summer that his life changes forever. Joe is the devoted, mostly well-behaved son of two loving parents, growing up on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. His father is a judge in the tribal legal system; his mother works in the all-important tribal registry office, handling the complex web of rights and obligations that are tied into a person’s genealogy and ancestry.

At the start of that fateful summer in 1988, Joe’s mother is brutally attacked and raped. Joe’s secure home and safe world is turned upside down, as the hunt for the rapist and the quest for justice consume the family. Ultimately, however, it is the tangled mess of legalities stemming from early tribal treaties and the creation of the reservations that determines the outcome of the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrator. Different laws apply to different jurisdictions, and the case ends up resting on the question of where the attack took place. Was it reservation land? State land? Federal land? Unless the jurisdiction can be determined, there can be no legal process, and so even though the identity and whereabouts of the rapist are pretty quickly determined, it is not at all clear that the man can or will be tried for the crime.

Those are the bare bones of the plot. At a deeper level, The Round House is a meditation on so much more. Some of the most compelling aspects of this book include:

– The sense of family and community present among the people living on the reservation. Joe’s immediate family is small, but his extended family is huge. Everyone is a cousin or an in-law; everyone plays a role in the lives of others. The support and connection is palpable. There is no hiding here — wherever Joe goes, he is known and welcome.

– The depth of the friendships among the boys in this story. Joe’s friends are his brothers. They have adventures, they get up to mischief together — but they have each others’ backs and their bond is one of love and dedication. The relationships among these boys are quite lovely to read about.

– The outrage over the crime that was committed. I think we are all too used to the awful stigma that still attaches itself to rape survivors in our society, but that sense of shame is completely absent here. Joe’s mother suffers deeply, but her suffering is from fear of her attacker and what he may yet do, to her and to others. What is clear here is that Geraldine was the victim of a violent crime, and she is supported by her community without question and without stinting. The house overflows with casseroles; Joe is looked after by not just his aunt and uncle but by everyone. No one hesitates to ask Joe how his mother is or to offers words of kindness. It’s a refreshing attitude that condemns the attacker without in any way blaming or belittling the woman who was attacked.

– The linking of traditional beliefs to the modern occurences. The elders in the family are respected and honored. Joe’s centenarian grandfather tells tales of buffalo women and evil spirits, but these are not just ancient myths — various facets of the stories come into play in the search for justice for Geraldine.

– The reminder that what may seem to many as an unfortunate chapter in US history is still having an impact on real people’s lives to this day. The daily frustrations of living with the outcomes of the tribal treaties is a very real part of the characters’ experiences. An incredibly powerful scene takes place about 2/3 of the way into the book, as Joe asks his father why he bothers — why does he continue trying cases in the tribal courts when nothing seems to make a difference? In response, Joe’s father pulls an old, moldy casserole from the back of the fridge where it had been forgotten, dumps it onto the table, and then begins to pile utensils and kitchen implements on top of it:

That’s it, he said.

I must have looked scared. I was scared. His behavior was that of a madman.

That’s what, Dad? I carefully said. The way you’d address a person in delirium.

He rubbed his sparse gray whiskers.

That’s Indian Law.

I nodded and looked at the edifice of knives and silverware on top of the sagging casserole.

Okay, Dad.

He pointed to the bottom of the composition and lifted his eyebrows at me.

Uh, rotten decisions?

Joe’s father goes on to explain how he and his fellow judges, in case after case, are attempting to overcome the poor foundations of their legal system by creating strong decisions on top of these, hoping to some day create a stronger framework for laws that support their people’s lives. It’s a lovely scene, showing in few words both the depths of the problems facing the tribe and the strength of the connection between Joe and his father.

The plot of The Round House swirls around the traumatic events of that particular summer, but in many ways the story is a coming-of-age tale with the universal characteristics of a boy’s emergence into manhood. Through the attack and its aftermath, Joe for the first time sees his parents as vulnerable. He starts to realize that they have inner lives, fears and hopes, apart from him, and that they can’t always protect themselves or him from the harsher realities of life. Joe and his close friends are on the cusp of their teen years, developing sexually, exploring the boundaries of freedom, reveling in their small conquests and steps toward independence. Much of the climax of the story has to do with Joe, with the assistance of his friends, taking affirmative steps on his own toward what he feels must be done. Joe has gone from the protected child of the family to a young man who wants to be the protector, and while he may stumble along the way, it is this significant summer that propels him forward into the kind of man he will grow up to be.

It’s easy to see why The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012. This beautifully written, powerful story of family and friendship, crime and justice, tradition and history is filled with memorable, well-drawn characters, dramatic plotting, and moral conundrums. There’s a lot to think over, and I’m still mulling through the events and implications of the various plot turns.

The Round House is not light reading, but it’s certainly worthwhile. I recommend it highly, and look forward to exploring more of Louise Erdrich’s work.