These are young adult historical novels written in a diary format, clearly intended to teach history in an entertaining manner. My local library has pretty much all of them. I like being amused by history, I like faux diaries, and I already like some of the authors (Joseph Bruchac, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Laurence Yep, Walter Dean Myers), so I thought I'd give some a try.

My Name Is America: The Journal Of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy, by the usually reliable Walter Dean Myers, was a bit disappointing. While it was well-researched (as far as I could tell) and had some good comic bits, it felt even more like "one thing happened and then another thing happened" than I expected given the diary format, and the overall effect fell flat.

Has anyone read any of these? Are any worth checking out? And while I'm at it, does anyone know of any diaries by actual historical black cowboys?

I already know to avoid the books in this series about Indians (Native Americans) written by white people. But some of the Royal Diaries look pretty interesting: Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595 (The Royal Diaries), Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 (The Royal Diaries) (Royal Diaries), Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China A.D. 531 (The Royal Diaries)...

ETA: Hey! Looks like Scholastic India has a "Dear India" series! I wonder if I can get my hands on any of those. Not at my library, that's for sure...
A childhood/teenage memoir of growing up in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on Myers’ family and neighborhood, his early attempts at writing, and the pervasive racism that slowly poisons his life and dreams.

Myers’ relaxed, warm style and deadpan humor make this easy reading, though I suspect that the episodic structure and lack of emphasis on the moments of conventional action would appeal more to adults than to teenagers.

View on Amazon: Bad Boy: A Memoir
A disappointing YA sf/fantasy novel with woodcut-like illustrations by Myers’ son, Christopher Myers.

A prologue of info-dump explains that after the apocalypse, the Okalians huddled in their Crystal City, hiding from the deadly plains outside. A plague kills all people outside of the city when they turn 18 or so, and the Okalians are always besieged by the Fen, who are feral children.

When the Fens break into and destroy the city, the Okalian teenagers are sent away in the hope of finding the promised land, and also hope that by now the plague has died out. Three teenagers journey across the land, sometimes accompanied by a friendly unicorn. They battle the Fens, find romance, and make the obligatory stop at the Land of the Lotus-Eaters -- here addicts of a psychoactive fruit.

Flat and clichéd. If you’ve read other YA quest fantasy, there’s not much new here.

But if you missed my earlier review of it, I highly recommend Myers’ historical fantasy The Legend of Tarik.

Click here to see it on Amazon: THE LEGEND OF TARIK

Shadow of the Red Moon
I had to return the book to the library before I had a chance to write it up; please forgive any mistakes herein.

This is a sequel of sorts to Myers' Vietnam War novel Fallen Angels, and the main character, an American soldier, is the nephew of the main character in the latter. Comparisons are impossible not to make, and the more recent novel suffered.

The major differences, apart from the obvious ones of time and setting, are the presence of female soldiers, the prominence given to the civilians of the country the American soldiers are invading/defending (depending on one's point of view), and the overall level of cynicism and anger in the book.

Several of the major characters are female soldiers, and this is totally normal to all the characters. Iraqi civilians are far more of a presence in Sunrise Over Fallujah than are Vietnamese civilians in Fallen Angels, and there are several powerful scenes in which Iraqis have conversations with Americans.

A big problem with the novel is that the characters weren't as vivid and eccentric as they were in Fallen Angels, and this ties into my other problem with the book, which was what I sensed as Myers' reluctance to speak too frankly about a war that's still going on.

While he doesn't stint on the trauma and violence of war, there are no genuinely unsympathetic portrayals of Americans, no one commits any atrocities, nor does anyone ever voice any sentiment one half as cynical as what one finds on every other page of Fallen Angels. The American military is portrayed as extremely competent, and there are none of the bureaucratic snafus found in Fallen Angels. (Yes, the all-volunteer Army now is more professional than the Vietnam-era one which had draftees who never wanted to be in it at all, but between news stories abotu makeshift body armor and talking to current members of the US military, Myers' well-oiled machine was just not believable.)

I think Myers didn't want to risk demoralizing people who are still fighting, but what that did was make the entire book feel weirdly sanitized. It's also a YA novel, but seriously, Myers has written YA novels that felt a lot more raw than this one.

I was also really thrown by a brief scene in which Jessica Lynch, Shoshanna Johnson, and Lori Piestewa made an appearance before they were taken prisoner. Since the rest of the characters were fictional and some of those people are still alive, it felt out of place and slightly creepy.

It's not a bad book, but it probably would have been better if Myers had waited longer before writing it.

Click here to buy it from Amazon: Sunrise Over Fallujah
Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for murder. The prosecutor calls him a monster, and accuses him of being the look-out during a robbery in which a shop owner was shot dead. (Steve isn't accused of doing the shooting, but any participation in a crime involving a murder can get a person charged with murder.)

In jail and miserable, Steve alternates writing a diary with dramatizing the events in a screenplay. And that is the only perspective we ever get on the events: the diary, which Steve knows the prosecutor might read and use against him; and the screenplay, which alternately attempts to glamorize and humanize his own life.

This intense novel is remarkably readable despite the unusual format, which I normally find very hard to plow through. Given the inherent possibilities for unreliable narration, I was positive that there would be a surprise ending of some sort. There was, sort of, or at least not an ending that I expected. It turned out to be more about emotion and less about plot than I had expected; I thought it was satisfying emotionally, but I really wanted to know just how unreliable Steve's version of events was, and unless I missed something, the ending doesn't indicate that at all.

A well-written, ambitious, meaty novel, but not one I'd be likely to re-read. Since I couldn't be sure how much of what Steve wrote was genuine and how much was a clever attempt to get himself off the hook or lie to himself, I never really connected to him.

Click on the link to buy it from Amazon:


Spoilers )
Help me prioritize my to-read stacks! Please comment to tell me which I should read first and why, and if there's anything I should avoid and why.

Note: This is just the first poll.

Other note: I have already read and enjoyed other books by Butler, Myers, Johnson, and Liu.

[Poll #1342964]
We got word that General Westmoreland wanted us to "maximize" destruction of the enemy.

"What the fuck does that mean?" Peewee asked. "We get a Cong, we supposed to kill his ass twice?"

This is one of the best Vietnam War novels I've ever read, and I've read quite a few of them.

It follows the usual structure of a novel from the point of view of an American soldier: the arrival of a naive kid who has no idea what he's in for, his brutal baptism of fire, his bonding with his fellow soldiers, his realization of the absurdity of military rules in a situation where logic doesn't seem to apply; disillusionment, misery, PTSD, questioning of what the war is about and whether killing other scared kids is right; black humor, grief, violence, terror; concluding in either death or a homecoming that, whether it's actually depicted in the novel or not, the reader knows is just the beginning of yet another long and harrowing journey.

Myers' novel fits that structure to a T. What makes it special is that it's just so well done: the black humor is actually funny, the characters are vivid, the atmosphere makes you feel like you're there, the philosophical and moral dilemmas are real and complex. Myers particularly excels at making combat suspenseful without making it seem glamorous. He captures the boredom of the troops without boring the readers by depicting them doing all sorts of ridiculous things, like watching a movie with the reels mixed up, in a desperate effort to kill time.

The dialogue is especially great. I kept marking pages with bits I wanted to quote, then moving the marker to the next page, and the next. Highly recommended.

The book's dedication: To my brother, Thomas Wayne "Sonny" Myers, whose dream of adding beauty to this world through his humanity and his art ended in Vietnam on May 7, 1968.

Click here to buy the paperback from Amazon: Fallen Angels
I remember reading and enjoying this children’s book from 1979 when I was about eleven, but that and the premise was all I recalled about it.

A group of black teenagers in New York City form the Action Group, a do-gooder club. After world peace proves elusive, they track down the slumlord of a local dump and demand that he improve conditions in the apartment building. He promptly tricks the narrator, Paul Williams, into buying the building for a dollar.

Now Paul and his friends are landlords. After an initial burst of enthusiasm at the idea of helping the tenants and making a profit as well, they discover why the slumlord was so desperate to get rid of the place. The place is falling apart, half their tenants don’t pay rent, another tenant is a maniac named Askia Ben Kenobi who karate-chops the banister to pieces, and Paul and Action Group founder Gloria get locked into a tenant’s bathroom while trying to fix the doorknob.

Paul and the Action Group desperately try to keep the place going – throwing a rent party, hiring an accountant (who moonlights as the head of an investment firm called Financial Banana), creating mental shields to zap Askia Ben Kenobi – while also trying to clear a friend of theirs who’s been charged with theft.

While there is an appealing sense of community and lots of individual funny and touching moments, the book doesn’t live up to its terrific premise. Characters are introduced and seem to be major, only to disappear without an explanation or ever being mentioned again. The “clear our friend’s name” plot is not integrated with the “young landlords” plot. Lots of funny bits are introduced, then dropped without ever coming to a climax or conclusion.

The slang and some of the ideas are distractingly dated. "Karate-chop" is not actually a karate term. Everybody trusts the cops. Gloria is into women’s lib while Paul doesn’t believe in it. (It’s clear that Myers is in favor, but that whole subplot is handled in a manner that feels very old-fashioned.)

This book didn’t age well. I wish I could see what Myers would do with the premise if he tackled it now.

Click here to buy it from Amazon: The Young Landlords
I read a few novels by acclaimed African-American YA writer Walter Dean Myers when I was a teenager, but except for The Young Landlords, in which a bunch of kids acquire a building and its uncooperative tenants, he was too much on the gritty realism side for my taste.

I was boggled when, a while back in a used bookshop in Pasadena, I discovered that he had written a YA fantasy novel! I snapped it up, but took a while to get around to reading it. I was afraid it would be yet another subpar work by an author writing outside of his comfort zone.

It turned out to be surprisingly good. Written in a simple yet elevated style, like a fluid translation of an ancient myth, it tells the story of Tarik, an African boy taken as a slave to medieval fantasy!Spain. After the young men and women are sold off, Tarik's entire family is murdered by the tyrant nicknamed El Muerte, and Tarik is left for dead.

But he's rescued by two old men, one African and one Spanish, who were themselves victims of El Muerte. They train him and give him several quests to find magical items that will help him with his goal of revenge and justice, and then set him to it... accompanied by the Spanish girl they also rescued but who was too angry to accept their emotional control training, a half-mad warrior named Stria.

Though the story is familiar from a thousand quest novels, the mythic style, the fast pace, the roots in African culture and legend, the destabilizing presence of Stria (who is not the hero but provides a bracingly flawed presence to contrast with the rather perfect Tarik, and also saves the conclusion from an overly neat wrap-up), and the fact that I could probably count on my right hand every YA fantasy novel published in America with a black male protagonist, combine to make this an excellent read. I'm only sorry I didn't find it when I was a teenager and the quest narrative was still exciting and new to me. But honestly, this is worth reading even you're thoroughly sick of quests.

I regret to note this, since it should not be unusual, but I was impressed that the cover is not whitewashed.

This novel is out of print. It would make a fantastic reprint for the Firebird line.

Click here to order it from Amazon: THE LEGEND OF TARIK


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