Friday, April 20, 2018

Graphic Novel: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Every year, there are books that simply get away from me, and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui was certainly one of them for 2017. I am always on the lookout for more graphic novels, or in this case graphic memoirs, to read and make space for on this blog. It is a format I would like to become more familiar with, and I always get excited whenever I do find one I can fit in. Today's selection was no exception as I was excited to explore Bui's story as an immigrant from Vietnam attempting to find her place, along with her family, here in the United States.

Genre, Themes, History: As mentioned, this is a memoir presented in the graphic novel format. Bui tells the story of her parents and their journey from war-torn Vietnam, to their new lives in California. The story actually opens up as Bui prepares to give birth to her son, with her mother and her husband by her side. Suddenly she is struck with the sense of now being the parent, even though she still feels like the child who came to America so many years ago. Bui then moves backwards, beginning with her younger brother, and talks about the birth of all of her siblings, even the two sisters that did not survive. She then jumps to when her father was a young man in Vietnam, and begins to tell the complete story: how he grew up in a country constantly in turmoil; how he ended up being raised by his grandfather; how he met Bui's mother; and ultimately, how they got themselves and their four children to America. Bui did not initially choose the graphic novel format. When she first wrote the story down she felt it to be too academic. She wanted to present a history that was relatable and not oversimplified. Though choosing the graphic novel format meant having to learn a completely different medium, she pushed forward anyway. The final product is more than a story about immigration. It is about Vietnam; the importance of home; the importance of family; the expectations we put on ourselves and each other; and what it means to sacrifice for those we love.

My Verdict: This is everything I hoped it would be. It is a moving and intriguing story that beautifully, and sometimes tragically, details the events that led Bui to write this memoir. The narrative is easy to follow, and the art gives the book a somber feeling, even on the better moments of the family's history. And while Bui tells her family's story, she also talks about how difficult even attempting such a thing can be. Talking to each parent separately as well as together, Bui ran into several challenges when trying to put the whole story together. Admitting to even those trials lends the whole thing a sense of honesty that is necessary in a book like this. It is certainly a different approach to this type of story and Bui pulls it off extremely well.

Favorite Moment: When Bui's mother and father are able to use their limited English to help other refugees make their way through the airport.

Recommended Reading: For more graphic novel goodness, I recommend the adaptation of the novel Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.


Friday, April 13, 2018

Nonfiction: Educated by Tara Westover

I received Tara Westover's Educated as part of a giveaway on Goodreads. Although it was already on my to-read list, all book lovers know how easily that list gets out of hand, and sometimes great titles can still be overlooked. Receiving it for free from my favorite book website simply helped guarantee it a spot on this blog. And its focus on a young girl from a survivalist family who does not step foot in a formal classroom until she is 17 is what garnered my interest in the first place. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book, more specifically a memoir, in which Westover talks about her life and how it was shaped by her family and their belief's, as well as the effects of her father's mental illness. Westover grew up on a mountainside in Idaho, and was raised by Mormon parents who did not believe in public education, government assistance, or modern medicine. Her father firmly believed that to visit a doctor was to turn against the Lord, and even worse than someone who saw doctors was someone who tried homeopathic remedies, while also visiting doctors to seek their opinion. It was either one or the other. So Tara would grow up more or less homeschooled before acquiring admittance into Brigham Young University at the age of 17. She would eventually go on to receive a PhD from Cambridge, just as the book jacket says, but that is not really the point of the book, or even the point about education. It would take years, and much counseling, before Westover would realize that the education she missed out on was the ability to own her own memories, reality, and identity. Sure, she would not hear about the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement until college, but she also would be made to question her own memory of tragic and abusive events in her life, and the part some of her family member's played in that tragedy and abuse.  

My Verdict: This book had everything that a memoir should. It was honest; it was interesting; it offered a different look at life that we usually do not get to see; and it was filled with doubts over the author's memories, yet filled with a certainty that not only did those things happen, but they had an effect that some may want to deny, but they are only lying to themselves if they do. Be warned though: This book will infuriate many, trigger some, and cause great heartache for a fair amount of readers. It is a reminder that the people closest to us sometimes hurt us the most, and then they will claim it was for our own good. It is also a reminder that healing rarely comes quickly, and that education is a life-long journey, not a destination, and certainly not something contained within a school. Well-written and hard to put down, Educated is even more fascinating than the book jacket suggests. 

Favorite Moment: Any moment when someone in authority, whether it was a religious figure, a counselor, or a school administrator, exhibits faith in Westover's abilities and intelligence, whereas her father would do what he could to keep her at home working for him, and her mother would only mumble in agreement.

Favorite Quote: "I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others - because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward." - Westover on her brother's casual use of the word "nigger" as an insult, after learning in class what the word actually represents.  

Recommended Reading: While Educated is mostly set in Idaho where Westover grew up, Ruth Wariner's story as told in The Sound of Gravel takes place in Mexico, where she also grew up in a Mormon household in an environment of abuse and control.   

Friday, April 6, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia is one of the many young adult books from 2017 that I missed and am now circling back to. Thanks to my annual trip to BookPeople in Austin, Texas on Christmas Day, I finally snagged myself a copy and gave it a place on this blog. There is of course the usual excitement of potentially discovering a new favorite YA author, but also, the premise alone sounds pretty amazing, and I was ready to root for a shy, creative, and awkward protagonist.

The Situation: Eliza Mirk is a high school senior in Westcliff, Indiana, and she hates it. High school that is. Actually, she is not all the fond of Westcliff either. And the best thing about being a senior is it means high school is almost over. Eliza does not have a high school crowd, or even a few small friends to eat lunch with. Her two closest friends live far away, and she only interacts with them online. The thing about Eliza is that she is shy, socially inept, a little strange, and the creator of one of the most famous web comics on the Internet, Monstrous Sea. But outside of her family, and her two online friends, no one knows that. And Eliza prefers it that way. Even when the new kid at school turns out to be Monstrous Sea's biggest fanfiction writer - as well as smart, and nice, and kind of cute - Eliza decides to continue to hide who she is.

The Problem: Hanging out with Wallace Warland, or rainmaker as he is known online, comes really easy for Eliza. For one, he is less interested in speaking to people than she is. And two, he loves Monstrous Sea, so they have plenty to talk about, or write to each other about. The longer she hangs out with him, the more she begins to come out of her shell, even attending a few social events and making new friends. Being more of a joiner is something Eliza's super athletic and outgoing parents always wanted for her. Thinking that Monstrous Sea is no more than a little hobby, they would prefer if their daughter stepped away from her computer and phone more often and joined them outside. They are pleased she has made a new friend, but still do not understand her, and she does plenty on her end to keep them in the dark. As long as Eliza maintains the tenuous control she has over her life, she will be able to make it to graduation in one piece. One small change could make her feel unbalanced. And a big one just might cause her to fall apart completely.  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in the fictional small town of Westcliff, Indiana, where Eliza lives with her parents and two little brothers, Sully and Church (named after Ed Sullivan and Winston Churchill, respectively). Eliza is incredibly anti-social, preferring to retreat into the fictional world she created known as Monstrous Sea. Her fans only know her as LadyConstellation, but her moderator Max (Apocalypse_Cow) and the manager of Emmy (emmersmacks) know her as Eliza (MirkerLurker), the creative and awkward girl who posts pages every Friday that continue the story. Eliza is not like every other teen in that she has a huge online following and prefers drawing, writing, and being online to pretty much everything else in life. But she is like almost every other teen in that she feels like her little brothers hate her, and that her parents just don't understand. Her identity is wrapped up in LadyConstellation and the story she has created, which is somewhat of a problem as she does not let anyone know that she is LadyConstellation, not even Wallace. Eliza comments that the beginning of the comic was her beginning, and that it is her responsibility to continue it. So what happens if it ends? What happens if her secret is found out? What happens if Wallace finds out?

My Verdict: I have to be honest and say that I did not like Eliza for probably the first half of this book. To me, she was a brat. And whiny. And incredibly selfish. I mean this was worse than typical teenage stuff. I can usually feel for the shy, socially awkward, creative type, but she was too much. Ever so slowly though, Wallace helps her to come up for air once in awhile, if only for a little bit at a time. Eventually, I did begin to feel for her, and root for her, and scream on the inside for her whenever things went wrong. And giving her a secret identity as a creator of a popular web comic added a new and fresh dimension to the story. Of course people are different online than they are in real life, but this was something else entirely. We may not all have insanely popular web comics, but everyone can relate to the desire to retreat to a place where we feel understood and cared about. 

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Sully confronts his parents with what they have done to Eliza and how little they truly know her. I think what is most messed up about this scene is that we know Eliza is the hero, and at this point her parents are the villains. No 13 year-old boy should ever have to yell at his parents about how they do not know his sister.

Favorite Character: I can honestly say I would never have called this at the beginning of the novel, but Sully and Church ended up being my favorites, even though they really aren't in the story all that much.

Recommended Reading: Many aspects of this story remind me of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, one of my favorite YA books, and certainly my favorite book by Rowell.   

Friday, March 30, 2018

Contemporary Fiction: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I am just now making my way through a book that many others had the pleasure of reading  back in 2017. For whatever reason, it took me all this time to finally read Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

The Situation: Eleanor Oliphant spends most of her time alone, blissfully alone, and she would not have it any other way. She finds most conversation tiresome, including her weekly phone calls to her mother. Thankfully, her job in accounts receivable at a design firm allows for minimal social interaction with her workmates, though Raymond, the new IT guy, somehow becomes an exception to this. Social cues that most everyone else takes for granted go right over Eleanor's head, and most of her observations regarding how people interact with each other, though often accurate and poignant, can come off as judgmental and cold. But even Eleanor proves to not be immune to the presence and charms of a local musician, whom she has decided she is meant to spend the rest of her life with.

The Problem: Contrary to what Eleanor tells herself, it is actually not okay that she spends so much time alone. Despite her harsh judgment of Raymond's appearance, his smoking, and his lack of certain social graces, her interactions with him are one of the few things that could assist her in operating normally with the rest of society. Strangely enough, her sudden and unhealthy fixation with the local musician is also helping her become more familiar with how most people function. But it is when she and Raymond find themselves assisting a stranger that Eleanor will begin expanding her social circle to include warm, bighearted people who are genuinely interested in who she is and how she is doing. Eleanor soon finds herself receiving what her mother was never willing to give, and she may not survive if she does not allow it to continue.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in present-day Scotland. With Eleanor as the narrator, we are treated to an incredibly regimented daily routine, right down to the foods she eats at every meal, and even on the weekend. If Eleanor does not see a need for it, then there is no place for it in her life, and this includes people. She holds her coworkers in little esteem, and for the most part, the feeling seems to be mutual. If it was not for an incident with Sammy, a sweet older man in delicate health, Eleanor would have no reason to continue interacting with Raymond from IT, therefore allowing her to remain mostly friendless and alone. Of course, Eleanor does have her mother, but she does not exactly make her daughter feel loved and accepted. It is tempting to simply label Eleanor as socially awkward or rude and then move on, as certainly many people in her life have done. But it soon becomes clear that while Eleanor may be curt, and judgmental, and cold, she is also hurting, and hiding, and simply needs someone to reach out.

My Verdict: This book came in third in the Best Fiction category for the Goodreads Choice Awards for a reason. For one, the character development is spot on. The layers that make up Eleanor Oliphant are peeled back slowly, but not too slowly, revealing just enough at just the right times. The pacing is fantastic, and the voice is magnificently done without being too much, if that makes any sense. And while Eleanor's pain is not something everyone can relate to, it may be safe to say that we have all had moments when we As if people are always looking at us, knowing we do not belong, and that we have no clue what we are doing. But at the same time, we wanted to believe we were fine, sometimes because that belief is the only reason we can keep moving forward.

Favorite Moment: When Eleanor is amazed at how much Bobbi Brown make-up costs. It is one of the many things on which I commiserated with her.

Favorite Character: Sammy Thom is the nice old man Eleanor and Raymond end up assisting after he takes a nasty fall in the street. He practically invites the two strangers into his life and family and could not have exhibited more gratitude and grace towards them. He is one of the many people Eleanor needed in her life but didn't know it.

Recommended Reading: I recommend You Are Here: An Owner's Manual for Dangerous Minds by Jenny Lawson. Sure, it is part coloring book, but it is also filled with motivation from someone who often finds it difficult to be inside her own mind.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Science Fiction: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Today we have the conclusion to the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor with book #3, The Night Masquerade. After the intensity of book #2, Home, I knew the final entry would have more surprises and adventures, as well as new species of creatures to meet. Again, spoiler alert for anyone who has not read either of the two previous books in the series.

The Situation: Binti is far away from her family when disaster strikes at home. Not only is her family there, but her Meduse friend Okwu as well. With Mwinyi as her escort, she begins to make her way back to her home, but is scared of what she will find there. Ever since leaving home over a year ago to attend Oomza University, so much has happened in Binti's world. There have been so many irreparable changes, so many reasons for Binti to be happy about her decisions, but also so many reasons for regret. And it seems just as she gets used to some new part of herself or abilities, even more is revealed about who she really is, and the learning has to start all over again.

The Problem: Things have turned out worse than Binti could have ever imagined. It seems the Khoush and Meduse have decided to once again war with each other, and the Himba people are caught in the middle. The only hope is for someone to negotiate peace, real peace, and Binti believes her skills as a master harmonizer can make it happen. Because of everything that has happened, The Himba Council is hesitant to trust Binti, but she must move forward anyway. As a female who has seen the Night Masquerade twice, she knows something big is supposed to happen. But when it comes, it is once again an event that no one was ready for, least of all Binti herself.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novella set mostly on Earth, but also travels as far out as Saturn at one point. The second book left off with Binti and Okwu still on Earth after the former decided to return home from Oomza University and see her family. Binti is still struggling with what she has learned about herself, but is also slowly getting used to it with the help of Mwinyi, another harmonizer. Mwinyi's harmonizing seems to mostly center around communicating with animals and nature, something he uses to keep then safe on their long journey back to Binti's home. Identity is once again central to the story. The way Binti sees herself has to change with almost every passing day. And she must negotiate it against how others of different races and species see her. Another theme is that of prejudice and how we all suffer from it in some degree. And then there is the theme of war and how no one really ever comes out the winner.

My Verdict: I enjoyed this one more than I have the previous books, and I am kind of sad that we have come to the end of Binti's journey. While not everything was neatly tied up, and not every issue or conflict was resolved before the final page, The Night Masquerade is still a satisfying conclusion to an epic tale filled with adventure, war, struggle, and an incredibly vast amount of places and people that many imaginations have never encountered before. My only regret is that we do not get to see more of Oomza University. It seems to be a common comment that there is more imagination and creativity in the Binti series than in many full-length science fiction epics, and I completely agree. What Okorafor has accomplished is truly amazing. With the entire series coming out to around 400 pages, this is an easy series to get into and enjoy, and I recommend it to any lover of science fiction.

Favorite Moment: When Binti decides to move forward and take action despite the absence of the Himba Council.

Favorite Character: Mwinyi is smart, level-headed, and resolved. He sticks with what he does well and always uses his incredible gifts to help in a situation as opposed to hurt. He also knows who he is, what he wants to do, and where he wants to go.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Wires and Nerve series by Marissa Meyer. It is a series that follows the events of the Lunar Chronicles with Iko the android as the main protagonist.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Science Fiction: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Today I will be continuing the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor with Home, its second installment. The first book introduced us to Binti, a determined young Himba girl who ran away from home to attend Oomza University. Now she must come to terms with the full ramifications of her decision and how it has affected her family. And just like with any series, I must issue a major spoiler alert for anyone who has not read the first book.

The Situation: It was a year ago that Binti left her desert home on Earth to attend Oomza University. But it has also been a year since she witnessed the death and massacre of her friends aboard a ship; a year since she was declared a hero after negotiating peace between the Khoush and Meduse; and a year since one of the Meduse, Okwu, was allowed to enroll in the university with her. Binti still has nightmares of that stressful event, and it seems that not all of the Khoush have accepted Okwu as a friend to their people. Despite this, and any anxiety Binti may feel about seeing her family again, she has decided it is time to return home and complete her pilgrimage. She is convinced this is what will bring her peace and allow her to continue with her life, and that it is important Okwu comes with her as an ambassador for the Meduse.

The Problem: While Binti's family is certainly pleased to see her, they have not made peace with her decisions and what she did a year ago. Plus, the presence of a Meduse on Earth is immediately unsettling to most of the people who see it. It seems Binti's family is insistent on making her feel bad for deciding to choose her own path, instead of following in the path they chose for her as a master harmonizer. On the night before she is to leave on her pilgrimage, Binti sees something only male Himbas are supposed to see, causing a group of the primitive and much derided Desert people to show up. They came to see Okwu, but also to take Binti for the night. With nothing going as she felt it would, Binti realizes there are more changes to come, even though everything is already much different than she thought it would be.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novella that I assume takes place in the distant future, though just like the first book, no specific year or time is named. Home takes place one year after the end of Binti, with the heroine now settled into her studies at Oomza University, though she is still mentally suffering from the events that happened on the ship that brought her there. Now we see Binti return home, allowing the reader to meet her family for the first time, while also seeing how the people on Earth react to the presence of a Meduse. Binti is once again forced to closely examine who she is, as her belief's about her own identity are challenged in ways she never imagined possible. Non-Himba people expect her to be one way, while her family expects something else, she has her own ideas, and the appearance of the Desert people complicates things even further.

My Verdict: While this second installment certainly expands on the world that was introduced in Binti, I found myself annoyed and a little mystified at how naive Binti herself proved to be. Having spent a year away from home after running away, Binti is completely taken aback that her family would have anything other than kind and welcoming words for her upon her return. Also, she is continually surprised when anyone has a negative reaction to the appearance of her Meduse friend, when throughout history the Meduse have been at war with the Khoush, and therefore in their minds, the entire human race. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that she can so easily befriend a creature that once was resolved to kill her, and is still quick to resort to violence and war. Her shortsightedness is a cause for much of her grief, and she never seems to quite grasp that she cannot choose her own path and make everyone happy.  That being said, the world-building in this novella is incredibly well done as each setting is vivid and well thought-out, as is each new species or race of people. The story itself can be a little all over the place, with the introduction of new things coming on suddenly, making them seem like more of a plot device. Overall, this is a good follow-up to the first story.

Favorite Moment: When Binti realizes she has plenty of prejudices of her own.

Favorite Character: Binti's mother seems to be the most gracious of all of her family. She may not approve or understand what her daughter is doing, but she at least manages to not make her feel worse about everything that is happening. 

Recommended Reading: The Sea of Ink and Gold series by Traci Chee currently only has two books out (The Reader and The Speaker), but it follows the adventures of Sefia as she looks into her past and her family, ultimately trying to find out who she is and what she was meant to be.     

Friday, March 9, 2018

Science Fiction: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Welcome to the first of three blogs dedicated to Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series. As the second installment was nominated for a 2017 Goodreads Choice Award, and the third and final installment was published earlier this year, I figured now was as good a time as any to explore it in its entirety. Also, I am excited to potentially discover a new favorite science fiction author.

The Situation: Binti has left her home on Earth to attend the prestigious Oomza University. It is truly the opportunity of a lifetime, but Binti must risk everything to take it. The Himba people do not travel much, if at all, and they certainly never leave Earth and their families, even if it is to attend the best school. So Binti must leave quickly, and in secret, knowing her parents and siblings will think her selfish and reckless. Not only that, if she ever does return, she will have brought shame upon her family and ruined her chances for marriage. But Binti is the first and only Himba to ever be accepted into Oomza University, making her the envy of many Khoush people. So she endures the hard stares of those not used to seeing anyone like her, as well as potential disappointment from her family, and follows her dream.

The Problem: It is apparent that many are not pleased to have Binti on the ship. To them, her skin is too dark, her hair is too coarse and thick, and she is covered in a strange red clay substance that she calls otjize. However, just as Binti gets used to life on the ship, and even manages to make friends, tragedy strikes and everyone on board is killed, except for her. It seems when the Meduse boarded the ship, intent on killing every human they find, specifically every Khoush they find, it is Binti's mysterious abilities that save her, and her dark skin that shows she is different. Now caught in the middle of a war her people have no part of, Binti must use everything she has learned not only to survive, but also to negotiate peace.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novella set in an undetermined time, but it is certainly not the time we live in now, on the Earth we know and love. Binti is Himba, and is originally from Earth where she lives with her family in the desert. As the only Himba to ever be offered a place at Oomza University, Binti soon finds herself surrounded by Khoush people, who, by her description, have skin so pale it is as if they are afraid of the sun. She must suffer the rude stares, whispers, eye rolls, even have someone touch her air without asking, like many minorities throughout history. Feeling both unwelcome and lost, Binti remains resolved to attend the university. The Meduse, a non-human people with tentacles and stingers, are at war with the Khoush people, and therefore in their minds, they are at war with all humans. Binti is certainly an epic space adventure squeezed into 90 pages, but it also looks at race, class, war, tradition, math, science, and identity.

My Verdict: While there are some elements of this story that are above my head, especially as I am not a regular science fiction reader, the adventure is still engaging, and the characters are complex and interesting. I found myself wanting to know more with every page, curious to see what turn the story was going to take next, but hoping Binti would be successful in the end. It is a fantastic twist on the girl going off to college story, as well as the girl leaving her family behind to follow her dream story, potentially altering her destiny. And of course, it is also nice to have a person of color as the hero in a science fiction story, something we are slowly, but surely, seeing more of in literature. I look forward to reading more about Binti's adventures in the next two installments.

Favorite Moment: When the otjize Binti wears on her skin and hair works to heal one of the Meduse.

Favorite Character: Binti is afraid and unsure of what she is doing, but she does it anyway. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. It is not science fiction, but it is about two girls, one Chinese-American and one African-American, setting off together on the Oregon Trail and learning to survive against incredible odds.