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Author Archive for Anessa Olson

All of Me

by Anessa Olson on June 13th, 2013
All of Me Cover Image

Dissociative identity disorder, or as it is more commonly known, multiple personality disorder, is one of the more spectacular mental health phenomena. Psychologists believe that it is caused by intense trauma, under which the mind shatters into several distinct personalities. All of Me, by Kim Noble, is a book about what it is like to live with complex condition. Written by Patricia, one of more than twenty different personalities inhabiting the body, the book describes the confusion of a young girl growing up in a body that would do things without her awareness. She describes waking up in strange places, among people she didn’t know, having no idea why she was there or how she got there.

Born in the 60’s, no one around her understood what she was going through, and her parents and teachers could not understand why she was sometimes unable to remember things from one moment to the next. When help was sought for her, she was at separate times diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, depression, alcoholism, and schizophrenia. The irony is that many of the diagnoses were correct. They simply all belonged to different personalities, or alters. Julia is a teenager who believes that she receives messages from license plates and television antennae. Katie is a three year old little girl. Ken is a gay man. Hayley is a responsible and gregarious middle-aged woman who fought for and won their independence. The only thing all of these different people have in common is the body of Kim Noble and love for her daughter, Aimee.

With the help of a patient and pioneering therapist, Patricia came to understand what was happening to her, although some of her alters still do not. Eventually, she turned to painting as a way of expressing herself and communicating with her alters. Now, Kim Noble is a successful artist, with fourteen of her alters contributing works.

Kim’s story is a vivid and fascinating glimpse into the mysteries of the human mind. She discusses what it is like living with her condition, how she learned to deal with the blackouts, the confusion, and the consequences of other personalities’ actions. She describes what it was like to realize that she was only one of possibly hundreds of people living in the same body, and that Patricia herself wasn’t even the main one. Rich in detail, the story is intensely personal, yet warm and even humorous. Patricia tells their story with a sensitivity and deftness that leaves the reader in awe of the strength and resilience of the human mind.

Romance Unashamed

by Anessa Olson on January 23rd, 2013
Romance Unashamed Cover Image

It’s easy to dismiss the genre of romance as one filled with shoddy writing and salacious goings-on. The truth of the matter is that there is more to the story. As with any genre, there is a great deal of variation. There are many different flavors of romance. Some are spicy and exciting, others are thrilling and suspenseful, still others are sweet and charming. And yes, some are more well written than others, but isn’t that true of every genre? The settings vary from medieval castles to alien space ships to modern-day New York. One of the things that make romance unique is that it, more than any other genre, borrows from and combines elements from other genres. A romance may have all the elements of a good mystery, or a fantasy novel, or a political thriller, and still have that little pink sticker on the spine. So no matter what your taste in literature, chances are that there is a romance out there, somewhere, that appeals to you.

So now it’s time for me to make a confession: I actually do like romances. It took me a long time to admit it, and even longer to stop feeling like I had to apologize for it. The renowned library educator, Dr. Betty Rosenberg, had a motto, “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” But all too many of us do anyway, whether we like romances, or science fiction tales of aliens and robots, or even People magazine. It’s far too easy to feel ashamed of something that brings us pleasure, if it isn’t ‘cultured’ or ‘sophisticated’ or ‘educational’ or ‘great literature’ or even ‘bestselling.’ The truth of the matter is that personal taste is a highly varied thing, and something that brings joy and satisfaction is always worthwhile. So here are a few romance authors I would recommend, a sampling of the genre. I invite you to set aside any scruples about the sticker on the spine, explore a little, relax, and have fun.

Lisa Kleypas has written a number of books that are set in nineteenth century England, though she has recently begun a new series that is set in the modern day, in a small town not far from Seattle. Her books are whimsical and charming, with realistic characters and elegant prose. Many of her characters are overcoming various emotional problems, and find comfort and solace with each other. Her heroines in particular are strong and vivid, without feeling anachronistic for their time period. There is tension, even heartbreak, followed by satisfyingly happy endings. Kleypas’s books generally include one or two fairly explicit sex scenes, but are not erotic marathons. Nor is there a sense that all the couple’s problems can be worked out in bed. Particularly fine examples of Kleypas’s work include Love in the Afternoon and Someone to Watch Over Me.

Julia Quinn is another author who writes about nineteenth century England. Her books are effervescent comedies, bubbling over with wry good humor and ridiculous situations. Her books generally contain less emotional tension than Kleypas’s, and are rollicking good fun. Particularly entertaining are Ten things I Love about You and An Offer from a Gentleman. Again, these books contain one or two explicit scenes, but are not erotica.

Angela Knight has two series, set in two completely different universes. One is science fiction, involving time travel and genetic engineering. The other is urban fantasy, set in our own time, involving vampires, werewolves, and the Knights of the Round Table. Her stories are fast paced and exciting, often with an element of mystery heavily flavored with magic or fantastic technology. Her books contain more sex than the other two authors I’ve mentioned, and are more graphic. I particularly enjoyed Master of Swords.

For those who enjoy suspense, Pamela Clare has a series of books that involve men, usually with military backgrounds, helping women in life threatening situations. Despite the ‘damsel in distress’ set up, her heroines are fully developed and interesting people. The plots are complex and thrilling, with elements of mystery and horror. Her novel Breaking Point involves a U.S. Marshall who was captured by narcotics traffickers in Mexico and must escape with the help of a beautiful, kidnapped journalist. The tale is tense and sexy, with some fascinating twists and turns that will leave the reader on the edge of their seat.

These are just a few of the many romance authors out there. There is an almost infinite variety, with something to suit every taste. Genreflecting by Dr. Rosenberg, has a chapter dedicated to romance, with reading suggestions that cover much of the romance spectrum. So whether you are an experienced romance reader or someone just trying out the genre, it’s time to stop apologizing and enjoy!

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach

by Anessa Olson on October 6th, 2012
Martina the Beautiful Cockroach Cover Image

“You want me to do WHAT?” is Martina’s reaction to her grandmother’s “consejo increíble” (shocking advice). Martina, the title character in Carmen Agra Deedy’s picture book “Martina the Beautiful Cockroach,” is 21 days old and ready to offer her leg in marriage. Every señora in the family has something to offer, from a seashell comb to a lovely lace shawl. But her abuela Cubana (her Cuban grandmother), offers her only an important piece of advice: to throw coffee on the shoes of all of her suitors in order to see how they will speak to her when they are angry. One by one the suitors fail the Coffee Test, from the cocky rooster to the cold-blooded lizard. Then Martina meets a suitor she actually likes, a sweet little mouse named Perez. She reluctantly reaches for the pot, only to find the coffee on the other foot, for Perez too has an abuela Cubana.
This traditional Cuban folk tale is retold here with wit and humor. Spanish phrases and cultural references are neatly paired with English equivalents, giving the story a unique flavor and making it a pleasure to read aloud. The creative use of repetition, both in the language and the pattern of proposal and rejection in the plot itself, give the book a captivating rhythm and a certain amount of suspense. The illustrations are expressive and detailed, with a palate of rich, deep colors that make each page a visual feast. The illustrator, Michael Austin, uses the details of the old fashioned street lamp where Martina and her family live and the antique discards with which they have furnished it to invoke the mythos of Old Havana. Working together, the words and the illustrations present the old tale with charm and flair, creating a book that can be enjoyed again and again.
The question of cultural diversity and sensitivity is an important one for today’s teachers, parents, and librarians. Unfortunately, books addressing this theme for children can be heavy handed and prosey, and there are too few books by or about minorities. “Martina the Beautiful Cockroach,” however, comes at the issue of cultural diversity head on, though the story itself has nothing to do with the issue. It is a story from another culture — a window into a different tradition and way of life. Carmen Agra Deedy, born in Cuba with a pair of abuelas Cubanas of her own, has presented us with the most effective ambassador of them all. Martina, with her abuela and her coffee, shows us her world and her culture from the best perspective of all: from the inside.

“Enchanted” by Alethea Kontis

by Anessa Olson on July 30th, 2012
“Enchanted” by Alethea Kontis Cover Image

Telling and retelling fairy tales is a tricky business.  It is not simply that everyone already knows how the story ends that makes it difficult either.  A fairy tale is not defined by its plot or its characters, however familiar.  Neither is it defined by its fantastic elements nor even its antiquity.  Of course, many fairy tales have all of those things, but that is not what makes them what they are.  A fairy tale is defined by the breathless wonder and inexplicable power tied up in the story itself.  Stories, clever and ancient and wise, that capture our imagination again and again and again no matter how many times we hear them.  It is this that defines a fairy tale, and this that makes them almost impossible to retell.

Alethea Kontis, in her new young adult novel Enchanted, has managed the almost impossible.  She takes the familiar stories, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, the Princess and the Frog, even the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, breaks them up into their component parts, and recombines them into a fairy tale that is at once new and old, full of wonder and magic and humanity.  She braids the tales together around a single family, the Woodcutters, who live in a rather shoe-shaped house at the edge of the Wood.  Peculiar and magical things keep happening to this particular family, and in the midst of it all the seventh daughter, Sunday, wanders off into the Wood and meets a frog named Grumble who lives in an old wishing well.  Grumble and Sunday become friends, and, soon enough, fall in love.  When Sunday gives Grumble a hurried kiss goodbye, he is transformed back into the prince he was.  Unfortunately, that cannot be the end of the story.  The prince is the son of a nameless and ageless king, the godson of a fairy named Sorrow, and at the heart of the Woodcutter family’s most bitter loss.  So he invites all the women in the kingdom to three midnight balls to hide the fact he wishes to invite only one.  And in the meantime Sunday discovers more than she ever wished to know about herself and her family.

This story is not a lighthearted one, nor is it a tale for children.  It retains the spirit of the old tales it repeats — dark, bloody and captivating.  This is a tale of magic and wonder, yes, but it is also a story about a young woman searching for love, hope and independence, of a family burdened with secrets, and of a young man looking for redemption.  And amid these profoundly human trials we find the ancient words of wisdom from those old familiar stories: One good turn deserves another. Words have power. Be careful what you wish for. And above all, true love’s kiss will break the curse.

“A Company of Swans” by Eva Ibbotson

by Anessa Olson on June 14th, 2012
“A Company of Swans”  by Eva Ibbotson Cover Image

The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a familiar one, often repeated.  The truth of the matter is that we all do it anyway.  We look at the cover art, pass judgment on the title, read the flap or the back cover and maybe a few pages, and then either check the book out or consign it to our literary scrap heap.  This was the procedure that I followed when I picked up Eva Ibbotson’s young adult novel A Company of Swans.  I looked at the ballerina on the front, read the back cover, and decided that it was little more than a few hours of light entertainment, a piece of fluff, nothing more.  Fortunately, I happened to be desperate for something, anything to read, and so I picked it up anyway.

It is not often that the assumptions I make based on a book’s cover are so thoroughly broken.  I was, to say the least, surprised.  The story is that of a young woman, Harriet Morton, who lives a restricted and largely joyless existence as the daughter of a classic’s professor in Cambridge.  Harriet’s only escape is her lessons in ballet, at least until she receives an offer to join a ballet company going to perform in Manaus, in Brazil.  The tale of Harriet’s foray into the world of professional dance is neatly interwoven with the story of a young man, Rom Verney, the younger son of a local aristocrat, who fled to the Amazon to make his fortune.  The plot is rife with adventure and humor, mistaken identity, treachery and romance.  In short, all the elements necessary for a delightful and satisfying tale.

Where the book really shines, however, is its prose.  Reminiscent of the works of Francis Hodgson Burnett and J.M. Barrie, it glows with charm and whimsy.  Ibbotson’s evocation of her chosen period, the early twentieth century, is deft and reminiscent without being nostalgic.  The characterization, not merely of Harriet and Rom but also of the secondary characters, is wry and larger than life, bringing the reader loveable heroes and deliciously loathsome villains.  Laced with good humor and warmth, Ibbotson’s work is satisfying on many levels, a great read that one can return to again and again.