2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Quick and the Dead

Three very different teen girls, all motherless and strange, share one summer in the American desert. Full of vibrant supporting characters, poignant quips, and haunting imagery, The Quick and the Dead was a surprising and often uncomfortable read.

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Joy Williams’ three teen girls were an offputting mashup of spot-on depiction, and unbelievable diatribe megaphone. There were moments of pure familiar cringe for me as rebellious eco-terrorist Alice preached to disinterested adults (which definitely still happens to this near-30 year old adult). Likewise with the steely detachment of recently orphaned Corvus, and Annabell’s most annoying whining. I loved these moments; Williams can purely distill a previously ineffable feeling with just a quick phrase. She’s remarkably good at this throughout, exposing shivery truths using childish revelations.

There was something shameful about surviving sorrow. You were corrupted. She was corrupted. She was no good anymore. She was inauthentic, apocryphal. She wanted to be a seeker and to travel further and further. But after sorrow, such traveling is not a climbing but a sinking to a depth leached of light at which you are unfit to endure. And yet you endure there.

Despite the real joy of reading some of Williams’ passages, she’s also prone to going all Tom Robbins on me (at his best, brilliant. At his worst, ridiculous.) All the characters in The Quick and the Dead speak as if they are reading a speech written by a very creative mind. They speak over and above each other, in universal ideologies and proclamations, or deep into their own navels. The only narrating character who felt remotely real to me was Annabell’s widowed and coming-out father, and he spends the entire book haunted by the insufferable ghost of his dead wife. The main characters do much of this monologuing, but the worst are the supports.

I’ve seen what comes next. Vigils. Concern is the new consumerism. A person’s worth can be measured by the number and intensity of his concerns. Candles, lighting a candle, confers the kind of fulfillment that only empty ritual can bring. Empty ritual’s important. It’s coming back as a force in people’s lives. Its role is being acknowledged. It’s the keystone for tomorrow’s dealings in an annexed and exploited world. And holding a candle, cradling a little flame with others holding their candle, cradling their little flame gives people the opportunity to experience something bigger than themselves without surrendering themselves to it.

Ugh. Look how long that block of text is. I hate paragraphs like this, even when they are spoken by evangelists (which this one is). I hate it when authors rant. It is definitely a style many people enjoy, and power to them. But it makes me feel the same way as when I’m stuck talking to a drunk stranger at a dull house party.

The Quick and the Dead was equal parts brilliant and boorish. Williams is an astonishing writer; for those who like to see an author in every spoken line, in every desiccated coyote and nursing home scrubs color, I can see how Williams would be a fave. Not my fave, but undeniably brilliant.

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Under a Painted Sky

Samantha, a Chinese American, and Annamae, a runaway slave, flee West  towards California. Annamae is running from slavery and to find her brother, while Samantha is fleeing an accidental crime. Both girls are looking for a new start and freedom that they just can’t have in Missouri in 1845.

b052e9cd4014e17e426697fed22c534f.jpgThe girls disguise themselves as boys-Sammy and Andy- and join a band of three young cowboys for protection. The group romps through the Western genre: learning to ride horses and shoot guns, a stampede, a treacherous river crossing, animal attacks, dysentery, a fiddle/banjo battle. This book is seriously fun, and gives opportunity for the girls to use their own skills as well as learn new ones from the cowboys. Along the way they meet abolitionists and musicians, gold hunters and criminals, and many groups of people fleeing west for opportunity or freedom. Each character brings a cultural asset to the story- a refreshing reminder that the westward expansion wasn’t just a white Protestant story.

“After a thousand miles of trail, it seems to me that good luck is always just a few steps ahead of bad, and maybe the amount one receives of either simply depends on the distance traveled.”

untitled-design-2As the girls are pursued by the law, violent men in the wilderness, a supposedly murderous gang of escaped slaves, and their own grief, they become close friends. They also become close with the cowboys, but must always keep their real selves hidden. There are some laughs here, but also a decent look at gender norms as explained by young folk on the frontier. Sam and Andy’s experiences allow the reader to explore grief, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Though the book has moments of intense violence, including the underlying violence of bigotry, Under a Painted Sky is ultimately about was can happen when people are kind. What gets our two characters to their surprising but happy ending is goodness in unlikely circumstances and from unlikely people, the beauty of music and storytelling, and the determination and friendship of two brave young women.

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This is a fun adventure that has a diverse cast of characters, explores time period issues through a race and gender lens, and shows the power of female friendships! A great book for teen readers* and adults.

Scent Notes: warm leather, violin polish, and rain on hot dirt

*CW: Book has more than one attempt at sexual violence perpetrated by adult men against young women. Also death, slavery, and murder are a regular element.

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