Monday, October 26, 2009

Riveting Reads: The Surrender Tree


Let me paint a word picture for you. The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle is short. It’s a short children’s book of poetry with a shocking yellow cover and the charcoal silhouette of a tree rooted in a palm of a hand. A tree that looks almost finger-painted against the yellow background.
Its captivating cover attracted me like bees to honey. Or me to shoes. Or me to candy corn. I digress.
The silver spherical sticker helped sell me too, of course. The Surrender Tree is a Newbery Honor Book. Also, when you flip the book over, there’s a list of seven more notable awards Engle’s book was given, including ALA Best Book for Young Adults and Américas Award.
Critics agree. The Surrender Tree is a hit. It’s circulating through bookstores, libraries, schools, book clubs, and blogs. No doubt it will end up on the Oprah Book Club list. (At least this is one book your book club will likely read all the way through. Now, if you only get them to stop with the tangents and focus on a literary discussion for more than ten seconds at a time.) At a hundred and sixty-nine pages with only a poem on each page—similar to Out of Dust or Crank, two other very popular adolescent poetry books—The Surrender Tree still manages to douse the reader with a powerful Cuban voice and lyrical imagery.
The book spans the length of three Cuban wars where slaves fought the Spanish for freedom. Pulling from experiences of her great-grandparents’ past (they were Cuban refugees during the wars), Margarita Engle writes of three central characters. Rosa is a rebel Cuban with a talent for herbal healing. Some call her a witch because of her healing power and her ability to vanish when the adversary is closing in on her makeshift hospital. Witch or not, Rosa nurses injured rebels so they can live to fight another day. But her charity doesn’t stop there; Rosa heals friend and enemy alike. Her husband José keeps Rosa safe from the Spanish soldiers and an especially frightening villain nicknamed Lieutenant Death. Lt. Death hunts Rosa for years, believing somehow that her death will kill the spirit of the rebel movement and cause the faction to deflate.
Read The Surrender Tree and find out if Lieutenant catches “the witch” or if the Cuban refugees best their opponent. Anyway, at least look at the cover. You’ll be hooked too.
(as published in The Foothill Breeze in October 2009)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Riveting Reads: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


It is a truth universally acknowledged that women love Jane Austen. Even I—who would rather be watching football more often than cozying up on the couch with the latest Sandra Bullock DVD—love Jane Austen. I love it all; the gooey, sappy, so-sweet-you-could-die, eloquent, British prose is like a Valentine just for me. Any woman who has fantasized about “the one” as being a wealthy man, who could have anyone, but picks you for your wit and spitfire nature, can relate to Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice.
But who knew it could be better?
Throw in a little zombie action, a dash of ninjas, and some kick-butt sword fighting, and what do you get? The marriage of Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. (Bet Austen never thought she’d find matrimony like this!) With his bizarre and, let’s be honest, just plain fun interpretation of Austen’s novel, Grahame-Smith tweaks an already pristine classic into three hundred plus pages of laughs.
Grahame-Smith rebirths the famous first lines of the Pride and Prejudice into a telling opening. It says, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” And so the hilarity commences.
Elizabeth Bennet lives in a small British village outside of Meryton. Life is quiet, acquaintances few and far between, and scarcer as the epidemic inflicting the area—zombism or “the strange plague”—brings the dead to life and sets them hunting for scrumptious brain matter. The Bennet sisters are not the unprepared knitting and piano-playing types as Austen created. No, in Grahame-Smith’s version, the sisters had been trained in Martial Arts and wield weapons beneath their petticoats like Asian warriors. Grahame-Smith transforms Elizabeth Bennet into a heroine of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer persuasion. The strong female character we knew and loved is now a modest, zombie-annihilating vixen.
Although, I did laugh for nearly the first twenty pages without pause, I should warn you—as my sister warned when she loaned it to me—that the novelty tends to wear out sooner than later. Truth be told, it did. About the time that Mr. Darcy outlines the parameters of an accomplished woman as having “a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, [as well as being] well trained in the fighting styles of the Kyoto masters and the modern tactics and weaponry of Europe”, I thought the novelty had run dry. Nevertheless, it was worth reading.
Now, I realize there is a reader out there who is scoffing at the very idea of zombies in a Jane Austen novel, and is saying, “how dare someone pollute the words of a classic writer?” Yet, Grahame-Smith never claims to be a match for Austen’s intellect or talent. In fact, he only took one literature class. Truthfully, I hope he starts a trend. I, for one, would like to see A Farewell to Arms and Werewolves or Ulysses and Vampires. Besides, if you didn’t think Mr. Darcy could get any hotter, wait until he decorously blows the head off a zombie with a musket.
Kudos, Grahame-Smith. Write us another.


(published first in The Foothill Breeze in Oct. 2009)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

I would have another Riveting Reads review for you this Thursday, but I lost my thumb drive. Might as well be my thumb, ya know? I'll see what I can do. It's on Pride & Prejudice & Zombies...and yes, it is that awesome! Darcy can get hotter!

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