Friday, February 23, 2018

Historical Fiction: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Lisa Wingate's Before We Were Yours was the 2017 winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction, and I figured I should check it out if not for that reason alone. Also, the premise is incredibly interesting and hard to ignore. In the present day, there is an epidemic of children being taken and traded, and it turns out this is far from a new thing as this is the very subject the book tackles, but in the setting of the late 1930s.

The Situation: Avery Stafford was born into wealth and privilege. And although she already has a successful career as a lawyer, she is also being groomed to eventually take her father's place in the Senate, should his recent health scare cause him to no longer be able to serve. Her future is more or less laid out for her, and all she has to do is stay by her father's side, go to the right events, take the right pictures, and finally set a date for her wedding. It is at a photo opportunity at a local nursing home that Avery meets May Crandall. At first glance, May is simply a cantankerous old woman whose family thought it best she be placed in a nursing home. But it is obvious that May recognizes something in Avery, and when the youngest Stafford must go back to the nursing home to retrieve a lost bracelet, she learns just enough to make all of the public appearances and wedding planning take a back seat to an interesting new investigation.

The Problem: It was 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee when 12 year-old Rill Foss's life turned upside down. After her parents leave for the hospital when it is time for her mother to give birth to twins, strangers find their riverboat and take the five Foss children - Rill, her three sisters, and her baby brother - to the Tennessee Children's Home Society orphanage. The children are told they will be returned to their parents, but Rill soon realizes this is not going to be the case, and that the orphanage intends to adopt them out to people who can pay a substantial amount for them. What Avery is able to learn in present-day South Carolina will bring Rill's story more than 70 years into the future, and have her questioning everything she knew about her family, her life, and what she thought she wanted.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in both 1939 Memphis and present-day South Carolina. Avery tells her story as the third daughter of a senator who knows too well that appearances are everything and any family secret is potential ammunition for the opponent. Rill tells her story as the oldest daughter of Briny and Queenie, two river gypsies in Tennessee who were raising their children aboard the Arcadia on the Mississippi River before they were taken. The Tennessee Children's Home Society was a real place, as was Georgia Tann, the woman who ran the place and was responsible for what happened there. Many today regard her as one of history's worst serial-killers, as it is estimated that hundreds of children died under her care. It is difficult to say for sure, as children's names were changed before they were adopted out, and all records and files were kept sealed, making it difficult for grieving birth parents to find the truth. Rill's story is full of abuse, despair, struggle, and loss. Avery may live a charmed life, but her concern for her ailing grandmother is what motivates her to look into the older woman's past, even if she is somewhat afraid of what she may find. If there is an old hidden family secret, she would rather find out about it before someone else does. 

My Verdict: I get why this book was ultimately named the winner for the historical fiction category in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Rill's story is masterfully brought together with Avery's, when on the surface, the two could not be more different from one another, but that is kind of the point. Two very different people, from two very different eras, turn out to be connected in a way they could not have been imagined. And perhaps what fascinated me most is the idea that if the terrible things of the past didn't happen, then we would not be the people we are today. Rill's story is heartbreaking in a way that keeps us reading, and Avery is privileged and driven in a way that the reader doesn't hate her. Both can be difficult things to pull off, but Wingate does it, while also telling a story that is at once fascinating and tragic, while still being hopeful. If there was one issue, it was that the ending felt rushed as the two stories came together.

Favorite Moment: When a woman from Rill's past turns out to be a key player in bringing the truth to Avery.

Favorite Character: Avery can be annoying in her naiveté, but ultimately she wants the truth for her grandmother and for her family, even if it would be best for the family image if that information stays hidden. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It is the true story of the women who worked with radium as dial painters and suffered the consequences of being in such close proximity to the dangerous element for prolonged periods of time.     

Friday, February 16, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

I first became interested in Nina LaCour's writing when I read The Disenchantments back in 2013. I actually feel like I should have picked up her latest novel, We Are Okay, much sooner than I did. I mean, it did end up winning the 2018 Printz Award, which is no small thing. Either way, it's here now. And as always, I was excited to see what story LaCour would tell next, as well as what emotions and issues she would explore. Also, what made me even more excited about this book is that some of it takes place on a college campus, a setting I feel like I do not see enough of in YA literature.

The Situation: Marin just finished her first semester of college and is now prepared to hunker down in the dorms, alone, during the entire winter break, in New York. It would perhaps make more sense for her to go home for Christmas, like everyone else in her building, but even four months later, Marin is no mood to travel over 3,000 miles back to California to face what she ran away from. For as long as she can remember, it was always just her and her grandfather, whom she called Gramps. She occupied the front of the house, and Gramps took the two rooms in the back. They would always meet up in the middle for food, Gramps' lectures, and whatever else that constituted a normal family life. But since his sudden death just a few weeks before Marin was supposed to leave for college, she has left everything behind, as even her memories are often too painful to think about.

The Problem: Of course there have been people back home who have attempted to contact Marin. It may have just been her and Gramps in the house, but he had his poker friends, and she had school friends who cared for her. One of them, Mabel, has even taken it upon herself to travel across the country to see Marin, away from sunny California and into the snowy landscape that is New York in the winter. After months of ignoring Mabel's texts, Marin thinks about the visit with dread, even as she prepares for it by shopping for groceries and making her room presentable. Even before Mabel arrives, her fast approaching visit has Marin reflecting on the last moments of senior year, and her final summer at home as she knew it, and Gramps as she knew him. Mabel's visit may finally force her to face what happened, why she ran, and the life she thought she knew.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in and around an unnamed college campus in New York, and around the San Francisco Bay area for the flashbacks. Marin tells the story of her current situation alone in the nearly abandoned dorm hall, and the months leading up to when she left for college. The transition from high school to college can be complicated enough, but Marin is also dealing with the added grief of her grandfather's death, and what she has learned since. Then there is the guilt she feels over what she could not do for him, and how she has completely abandoned her old life since. This grief and guilt are naturally central to the novel, but so is the idea of family and how it is not necessarily always made up of people that are related to you. Also essential are the friends that will stick by you no matter, even to the point of traveling across the country after many unanswered text messages. And the grief that Marin feels of course comes from the loss of a loved one, but also at the revelation of not knowing someone as well as she thought she did.

My Verdict: Honestly, this one took awhile to get going for me. It could be a testament to the grief Marin is wading through. It could be the way she is telling her story. It also could be the harsh setting of Christmas Break in cold and snow-covered New York, even with the flashbacks to sunny California in other chapters. Either way, it was not until well over halfway through that I began to be truly invested in this story. But once the book got there, there was no turning back. This is not to say that the grief in the first half does not feel real, or that Marin is not relatable,  or even that the story is not interesting. I suppose as Marin begins to open up, so did the book, at least for me. By the end, I was reminded as to why I first started reading LaCour's work five years ago.

Favorite Moment: When Marin stocks the refrigerator in the communal kitchen and proceeds to label all of her food, even though she will be the only one in the building for at least three weeks.

Favorite Character: There are actually quite a few options here, but I think I will go with Hannah, Marin's roommate in college, who is actually only in the very beginning of the book before leaving for Christmas Break, but her presence is always felt. After having met Marin for the first time on move-in day, Hannah has taken it upon herself to be the best friend and roommate she can be. Always encouraging, always willing to talk, and even willing to shield Marin when she is confronted with something she does not feel like handling, Hannah is the friend we all need when we are hurting, especially when we are also far from home. 

Recommended Reading: The Disenchantments remains my favorite LaCour book, but Hold Still is probably the one she is most known for. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Graphic Novel: Gone Rogue by Marissa Meyer

Today I am excited to cover Gone Rogue: Wires and Nerve Volume 2 by Marissa Meyer. I decided to pick up the series last year with Volume 1, even though I never read the original books in the Lunar Chronicles series, and probably never will. Even with that considerable gap in knowledge, I was able to follow the first book just fine and enjoyed it immensely as it left me excited for where the series was headed. Naturally, I must issue a spoiler alert for anyone who has not read either Volume I or the original Lunar Chronicles.

The Situation: It has now been a year since the evil queen Levana was overthrown, allowing Cinder to take her place on the throne, and a few months since then events of the first book in the Wires and Nerve series. Iko and Kinney are still charged with hunting down rogue bioengineered wolf-soldiers, led by Alpha Lysander Steele, who still maintains that his mutation can be reversed, and that Cinder simply refuses to do it. With the annual Peace Festival coming up in New Beijing, an event that even the queen herself is scheduled to attend, everyone knows it is time to step up security and be on alert. If Steele was going to make a big move, this would be the time to do it. 

The Problem: Steele has managed to amass quite a number of wolf-soldiers in his army, and one of which includes one of the group's own, Wolf. After Steele shows up on Scarlet's farm, he does his best to convince Wolf to join him, and it works. Wolf would also love to have his mutation reversed, and he worries his true nature will someday hurt his relationship with Scarlet. Now his loyalties are being questioned by his closest friends, with only Scarlet remaining certain that he is only playing along to protect himself, and her. But Wolf is not the only one who may be dealing with identity issues, as Iko faces near constant scrutiny from Kinney, the person she must spend the most time with. She can make as many upgrades as she wants, but ultimately she is an android, and she must come to terms with how and why she was made. Meanwhile, Steele is getting ready to make his move, and it is obvious he will not stop until he has his revenge.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction/fantasy graphic novel for young adults. Much like the first book, there are plenty of action scenes, and all of the main characters from the original series make an appearance. Kai and Cinder look forward to reuniting after months of being apart; Scarlet and Wolf continue to attempt to maintain a simple life together in France; Cress and Thorne still travel together in Thorne's ship; and Winter and Jacin remain as close as ever as the former continues to serve as an ambassador to Earth. Central to the book is the theme of identity: who we are, what makes us who we are, and if any of that could be changed, would we go for it? And along with the theme of identity is the equally heavy theme of what it means to be human and deserving of friendship, loyalty, and love. Steele's stubbornness only serves to turn him into what he claims he no longer wants to be. Meanwhile, Iko, an android, is able to accomplish and feel things no mechanical being should, leading her to dig a little deeper into her unique programming.

My Verdict: The intense action and drama start up even quicker in this story than it did in the first one, and that one started off with a fight scene. Meyer immediately throws the reader into a situation that shows Steele's determination. Knowing how dangerous he is and what he is willing to do allows the reader to feel his threatening presence throughout the book. No one in the group is safe, and while the attempt to feature all eight original main characters, plus Iko and Kinney, can make some scenes crowded and confusing, the overall result shows how the issue effects everyone differently, though they all stand by Cinder. This is a great continuation of the Wires and Nerve series, and has once again left me wanting more. The art and illustrations are well done, the story is interesting and compelling, and the characters are fun, while also containing plenty of depth. 

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Cinder calls out Steele for being the only one who is actually referring to the wolf-soldiers as beasts and monsters.   

Favorite Character: Although they don't get much exposure in this series, I still pick Scarlet and Cress. Scarlet is quick to pick up a shotgun and do what she has to do, while Cress is quiet and shy, but also smart and loyal. 

Recommended Reading: I would like to recommend the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor. It follows a teenage girl as she leaves Earth for the first time to attend University, but her ship is attacked by the fearsome Meduse who are bent on revenge.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Classic Fiction: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I decided it was time to read the 1989 Man Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. This is not my first exposure to Ishiguro as I have read both Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant, but this is perhaps the book he is best known for, so I looked forward to exploring it.

The Situation: Stevens, an English butler who has loyally served at Darlington Hall for three decades, has decided to take a road trip of sorts to see an old friend and coworker, Miss Benton. Upon the death of Stevens' previous employer, Lord Darlington, Darlington Hall has been sold, and now bought, by an American gentleman named Mr. Farraday who has kept Stevens on, as well as any of the other staff who wished to stay. It is at Mr. Farraday's suggestion that Stevens has decided to take this trip, as he was hardly ever one to take a day off for any reason. It is during this trip that he will reflect not only on the sights, villages, and people he will come to meet on his journey, but also his life of service to Darlington Hall, and more specifically, Lord Darlington himself.

The Problem: Ultimately, Stevens is simply a man who works very hard, who decides to take advantage of a brief period of time when his employer will be away to take a drive to meet up with the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, and perhaps even persuade her to rejoin the staff as the present staff has found themselves a bit overstretched as of late. However, such a drive seems to allow him time to reflect honestly on his previous employer and some of the events the occurred after World War I and before World War II. The more Stevens remembers, the more he finds himself defending his unwavering service and loyalty to a man whose reputation seems to have declined sharply since he was at the height of his influence. The more the butler remembers, the more he is forced to acknowledge that Lord Darlington may not have been a man so deserving of his life's attention.

Genre, Themes, History: The is a fiction novel set in post-WWII England, but often reflects back to Stevens' days of service before the second world war took place. One theme that Stevens finds himself exploring throughout the novel is that of dignity and the various definitions that can be given for the word, including his own. It seems that Stevens' brand of dignity means carrying out his tasks as a butler at all costs to himself and his own desires, even if that means family members in crisis are ignored when a guest of Lord Darlington's must be attended to. Stevens is also insistent on carrying out his duties to his employer even when he makes less than favorable alliances with certain political figures and organizations. For one, Stevens feels like Lord Darlington's political actions are none of his business, and two, despite how people talk about him after the war, Stevens is still insistent on defending his former employer's honor. What is interesting is as the novel unfolds, Steven remembers more details, or perhaps simply allows himself to, while also coming closer to meeting up again with a woman with whom he had peculiar, though strictly professional relationship.

My Verdict: Though I loved Never Let Me Go, Remains of the Day may be the best book for those looking for an easy introduction into Ishiguro's work. It's short (less than 300 pages), and easy to follow, even as Stevens moves back and forth through time, remembering stories about his time in Darlington Hall. Stevens himself may be a bit frustrating, but that is more than likely the point as the man is so dedicated and so unwavering in his duties that he lets nothing, and I mean nothing, get in the way of him being an excellent butler. Ishiguro masterfully handles how everything is revealed, as nothing feels rushed, or out of place, or left unsolved. 

Favorite Moment: Hard to say really. There are many nice small moments in the book, but so much of it is Stevens attempting to convince himself that he has spent his life well in the service of a noble man, when it slowly becomes evident that may not be the case. The revelations are small, but slow-coming, and Stevens is not one to get worked up about them.  

Favorite Character: Young Mr. Cardinal has a small presence in the book, but he proves to be someone who also cares for Lord Darlington much like Stevens does, but is not content to sit idly by while the man is taken advantage of.

Recommended Reading: Never Let Me Go is also a great example of Ishiguro's masterful storytelling.      

Friday, January 26, 2018

Nonfiction: Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

I first took notice of Lucy Worsley's Jane Austen at Home when it was nominated for Best History & Biography in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards. I always credit Austen as being one of the primary authors that started my love of reading, and although I tend to shy away from biographies of authors, this one intrigued me. Instead of focusing on her life as a single woman who wrote, this book seemed to look more at Austen's day-to-day life, while also exploring how she managed to accomplish what she did at a time when women were so restricted.

Genre, Themes, History: As mentioned, this book is a biography, and it covers not only Austen's life, but also that of her entire family, and even some members of the extended family. It is the letters of Austen's nieces and nephews that many historians would come to rely on, in addition to the letters written by Austen herself. There were two nieces, Fanny and Anna, whom Austen was particularly fond of, and we are able to learn much from them regarding their aunt's views, humor, and habits. It is well-known that Austen never married, which seems ironic for a woman whose books always ended with the heroine finding a husband. But what Worsley manages to do is point out the differences among the six primary books that Austen published (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey), and how each one reflects what was going on in Austen's life at the time. On the surface, each one ends in a happily-ever-after, making it easy to miss the subtle hints about marriage that Worsley asserts Austen is attempting to make. Of course, Austen did not begin publishing until well into her adult life, which means the first half of the book is spent establishing what her home and family life was like. With ample discussion about her parents, brothers, sister, extended relations, and the homes she would live in and visit, this book is a well-rounded effort to explore a subject already familiar to so many.

My Verdict: It is clear that Worsley has done her research and has a love for the subject matter. The author leaves no stone unturned, almost causing the word "thorough" to be an inadequate descriptor, as she begins before Austen was born and goes through every detail of her albeit short life, right up to her death. Probably the most difficult thing about biographies, aside from accuracy, is making them engaging to the reader, but even here Worsley succeeds, even when describing something as seemingly mundane as one of the many stately homes that Austen would see in her lifetime. But it is Austen's own words from her letters that would be the most interesting, as well as the letters of those close to her. Her books prove her to be extremely clever and witty, and her letters are only further evidence of that fact. Worsley managed to compile her evidence into a volume that is comprehensive without being boring or too heavy.

Favorite Moment: When Austen is able to travel around England without a male escort as she has reached an age and status that allows her this independence.

Recommended Reading: My favorite Austen book will always be Pride and Prejudice, though it was Emma that gave me my first introduction into the author's work. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

I know I know...this book would probably fit better under a poetry heading, but it would most likely end up being the only one of its kind on this blog. Poetry has never been my strong suit, so I don't make a habit of reading it, or writing about it. But Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds caught my attention, and given that its primary audience is young adults, and particularly young adults who do not feel seen, I figured I could manage my way through it.

The Situation: Will's older brother Shawn has been shot. The 15 year-old finds it hard to believe, but it's true, and he knows who did it. Where Will lives, The Rules are simple: no crying, no snitching, and get revenge. Since Will knows who killed his brother, the rules say that he is supposed to get them back for what they have done. He knows there is a gun in Shawn's dresser drawer. Does he know how to shoot it? It doesn't matter. He knows what he has to do, so he puts it in his waistband and makes his way out of his apartment building.

The Problem: Will's fairly straightforward goal of finding the guy who killed his brother and doing the same to him is immediately interrupted once he gets onto his apartment building's elevator. In a little over sixty seconds, the elevator will stop six times, with someone new getting on every time. Each person knows both Will and Shawn, or at least knows who they are. However, they are all also dead. Or they are supposed to be. Will remains determined to carry out his plan, though he does wonder if he is losing it. But with the appearance of each new ghost, Will's resolve, as well as his belief that he is doing the right thing, begins to come apart. Turns out he may not have the whole story, and The Rules may not be as important as he always believed.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel written in verse. In other words, it is a collection of poems that, when put together, tell a story. This would appeal immensely to many young readers as it makes for easy reading. And these aren't the type of poems that take a whole lot of analysis in order to get the meaning; although, I imagine many of them could be poured over and tons of hidden meaning could potentially be revealed. Again, poetry is not my strong suit, so I gave up on poetry explication once I finished graduate school. But even for those like me, the themes of gang violence, revenge, generational sin, and what it means to be a man will easily come through. Will is also unfortunate enough to have the past haunt him, but not in a way that means he did something wrong, but perhaps because he is about to.

My Verdict: Even though poetry is my kryptonite, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Even for those who have never been in a situation anywhere close to what Will is going through, his character will be extremely relatable, whether it is the fear, or the insecurity, or the despair, or even the blind resolve despite mounting evidence to the contrary, many of us have felt like Will at some point in our lives. It is that feeling that something needs to be done, and we believe we are the only ones who can do it. Reynolds portrays that feeling of desperation so incredibly well that it is near impossible to judge Will, but only root for him, and hope for him. There is a reason this book was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is a different approach to young adult literature, but a welcome departure to what we are used to seeing.

Favorite Moment: Any time Will does not manage to come off as cool and confident as he would like, especially with a gun stuck in his waistband.

Favorite Character: Buck is the man who took it upon himself to look after Shawn and Will when their father died. Now he continues to do so even though he is dead, as he is the first to visit Will in the elevator.

Recommended Reading: Dear Martin by Nic Stone would be a great follow-up, as would the nonfiction Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.   

Friday, January 12, 2018

Door Stop: The Sagas of Icelanders

So, this happened. I took it into my head that I needed to read The Sagas of Icelanders. Why? Well, I actually went to Iceland last summer and enjoyed it immensely. Sure, the sun would set after midnight and then rise again at three in the morning, and the temperature never reached above 55 degrees...in June...but it was truly an incredible place. They also have a tradition of giving each other books on Christmas Eve, and then people spend the rest of the evening reading. Isn't that lovely? It was while I was browsing in one of the Reykjavik Eymundsson bookstores that I first saw a copy of The Sagas of Icelanders. Noting its size and length, I knew that eventually it would be one of my door stops.

Genre, Themes, History: The Sagas of Icelanders is actually a collection of ten sagas and six tales, all telling stories about the Vikings and heroes from long ago who migrated to Iceland and did many famous deeds. A saga is usually a story about ancient Nordic history that tells of early Viking voyages, battles, and feuds between families. Each story is different, usually focusing on one particular person or family, and telling not only their history, but the history of the people immediately surrounding them. For instance, the first saga in the collection, Egil's Saga, naturally focuses on Egil, but the story begins with Egil's grandfather and continues to move down the family line, eventually coming to Egil himself before moving onto his sons as the protagonist ages. It is the longest saga in the collection, but it serves as a great introduction into how the sagas are structured and how the Vikings operated. Throughout the reading of the sagas, it becomes clear that the Vikings were big on honor and reputation, as well as justice, trade, and quite naturally, storytelling. Often the main conflict will come from someone spreading lies and slander, and their target will kill in retaliation, as in The Saga of Ref the Sly. From there, families will seek compensation for the death, which is rarely given, and the conflict continues from there. Other times the hero will be driven to killing someone after having been treated unfairly, but justice will be sought against them, leading them to flee or seek help in an effort to defend themselves. Full of drama, some romance, and even comedy, the sagas show a world that may be far removed from our own, but the themes are still familiar.

My Verdict: It may have taken me awhile to get used to the structure and language, but once I got to the middle of The Saga of the People of Laxardal, which actually focuses on the most famous female protagonist of all sagas, Gudurn Osvifsdottir, I was able to find my own rhythm for reading the stories and was able to enjoy what they had to offer. Just like with any other collection of stories, I had my favorites, and there were characters I cheered for, and others that only caused me to shake my head in disappointment. If there was anything that frustrated me it was the injustices of the justice system the vikings used, or rather the way some managed to exploit and manipulate it to work in their favor. It seemed difficult to receive real justice for a wrong committed, which may have accounted for all of the times the victims sought justice in their own way. Either way, I found myself enjoying the stories by the end and looking forward to each new tale the collection had to offer.

Favorite Saga: The Saga of Ref the Sly is easily my favorite, with Ref the Sly also being my favorite character. Ref is a quiet boy who is initially thought to be useless, but proves to be very skilled in working crafts. Others assume they can easily best him in combat, only to be proven this is not the case once he thoroughly defeats them in battle.   

Recommended Reading: If you're looking for a more modern story that tells the long and complicated history of a family attempting to settle in a new land, I suggest East of Eden by John Steinbeck.