Friday, January 20, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Camp 80 by Lee DuCote

As part of a blog tour, I received Lee DuCote's Camp 80, a story about six senior citizens preparing to move into a retirement community, but before they do, their new place of residence has a road trip planned to help everyone get to know each other. 

The Situation: Derrick St. Clair, the lead social worker at the Cedar Branch Retirement Community, is preparing to take the newest set of residents on a road trip. Karl and Betty, a grumpy husband and forgetful wife from Alabama; Gerald, a quiet but incredibly wise widower from Atlanta; Jack, a five-times divorced ladies man from Manhattan; and June and Violet, eccentric sisters from Arkansas, are all getting ready to move in and start the next phase of their lives. All are in fairly good health, all are in decent shape, and they are all over 80. Derrick, with the help of Katlyn Rose, or Kat, another social worker at Cedar Branch, and the 20-something Simon, is to drive these senior citizens through the southern states, stopping at various tourist attractions and hotels along the way. He knows he will have his hands full, but even so, he is not prepared for the adventures this trip has in store.

The Problem: Keeping up with six octogenarians is hard enough when you stay in one place. Trying to do so on a road trip, and keep them all from killing each other or bickering all of the time is a different matter entirely. Simon keeps having to load and reload the luggage in the van because of Violet's fixation on the vehicle being "balanced." Betty can barely keep Karl from grumbling in annoyance about everything, but mostly over Jack, who is always looking for a bar and friendly female smile. Gerald, who lost his wife nearly eight months ago, mostly sticks to himself and only speaks when asked a question, but somehow Jack has taken a liking to him anyway, making them a pair of unlikely friends. And all six of them cannot help but notice how nice of a couple Derrick and Kat would make. Every stop brings a new adventure, and thankfully an opportunity to visit a bathroom. But it may also bring a new opportunity for someone to get annoyed, or even possibly hurt or arrested.     

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that includes a different kind of road trip. There is a van, and two chaperones, but the campers are all above 80, which does not mean the trip will be any easier or any less exciting. All six of the senior citizens have their quirks and charms, but the most charming may be Jack, and the most quirky may be Violet, and they both get on Karl's last nerve, who is easily the most grumpy of the entire group. They make their way from what I assume to be Florida, all the way to the Gulf Coast in Texas, stopping at museums, restaurants, aquariums, and hotels along the way. Derrick and Kat, with the help of Simon, do their best to wrangle everyone, or at least just keep everyone alive. But although they may be above 80, that does not mean that keeping up with them is an easy task. And often, they are just as mischievous and crafty as any other group of campers. 

My Verdict: This novel is incredibly cute, and funny, and sweet, and also a little sad. I like the originality of the idea of a group of 80 year-olds being taken on a road trip in place of the usual group orientation that comes with moving into a new community with people you do not know. Obviously, this is not going to be the usual type of road trip, at least not the kind we are used to reading or seeing movies about. The fear here is that there will be too many obvious jokes or references to the fact that these people are over 80. And sure, there is some of that, but it isn't so much that I felt like I was constantly being reminded that these people are senior citizens getting ready to move into a retirement community. And much like if I was stuck in that van with them on this trip, I felt like I got to know each of them and really started to like them, which makes the ending of a trip like this that much harder. There could have been more detail added to the descriptions of people and places, and overall I really did not get the point of Simon's character since it seems he does not add much to the story, but it is still a fun novel worth reading.

Favorite Moment: When the group decides to take revenge on a group of young men who regularly harass a young waitress at a restaurant.  

Favorite Character: Gerald is the quiet widower who carries around a picture of the wife he misses, frame and all. Though he keeps to himself, he knows how to speak up at the right moments and is knowledgeable about the most unlikely subjects.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Although it is a collection of short stories, some of them can be linked together and involve older people and couples and their lives after retirement.   

Friday, January 13, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is one of those books that I kept hearing about, but never actually picked up until now. After seeing that it had been nominated for Best Mystery & Thriller for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards, I finally searched for it at the library and was able to pick it up. Even though it did not end up winning the award, I had heard enough good things that I was sure to be in for a decent ride.

The Situation: If you were to ask Scott, he would confess himself to be somewhat of a failure at life. On paper he is a full-time painter, but in reality his work never quite brought him enough attention so that he could hit it big. But it did give him just enough access to alcohol and money, until he finds himself middle-aged with very little to show for his time on Earth. Only after making a concerted effort to pull away from how he had been living his life does he start to really paint again and pull himself together. Living a somewhat secluded and simple life on Martha's Vineyard allows him to concentrate, and after some good fortune, he has managed to schedule some meetings back in New York City. An acquaintance with Maggie, the wife of a television executive who is at Martha's Vineyard on holiday, gives him access to a ride on a private plane back into the city. Things appear to be looking up, right up until it is clear that they are not.

The Problem: The private plane that Scott boards never makes it Martha's Vineyard. After it crashes into the Atlantic Ocean about 16 minutes after take-off, Scott finds himself swimming for his life, though he has no idea if he is swimming towards the shore or away from it. And it isn't just his own life that he is trying to save. Maggie's four year-old son has also somehow survived the crash, and now Scott must fight the water, the wreckage, the night, and the cold temperatures as he struggles toward land. And while that is hard enough, Scott will have another fight on his hands once the two of them make it to safety and the world begins to piece together the story. Most everyone will see him as a hero, but of course, there are those that will wonder why he was even on the plane, and how he managed to be only one of two to survive. Plus, even those that believe him to be a hero will not be willing to give him his privacy. With a full investigation underway, and the suspicious being incredibly eager to talk and throw out wild accusations, the reader of this mystery is fed the stories of those who were on the plane in little bits, leading up to a final reveal that answers nearly everything.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is heavier on the mystery than on the thriller, if only because the terrible thing has already happened, but now we are trying to find out why, with no real threat of another terrible happening. While those in the media and those investigating the crash are interested in why Scott was on the plane, the reader already knows the answer, so the full attention is turned to why it went down, and who exactly is responsible. There are many motives to choose from, the least of all would belong to Scott. David Bateman is a high-powered television executive who has plenty of reasons to be paranoid and worried about his family's safety. And his friend, Ben Kipling, seems to have been involved in some less than favorable business deals with some less then favorable governments overseas. Add in some complex relationships between crew members on board, and things tricky. But Hawley illustrates just how easily the media, and people in general, like to grab hold of the most available explanation, despite there being no proof that it is the right one. And with freedom of speech and the 24-hour news cycle, people are allowed to throw out their theories and make accusations with little regard to the people they are affecting. Information becomes currency, and those who have the most win. Scott becomes a victim of this cycle, knowing that to try to clear his name by going on a popular talking head's news show would only make things worse. But staying silent does not seem to help either. In between chapters that deal with the present, the reader is given the stories behind the other people who were on board the flight - the Batemans, the Kiplings, the security guard, the flight attendant, pilot, and co-pilot - filling in gaps that even Scott himself could not have known.

My Verdict: I will say this: there is a certain point in the story where you do not want to put the book down, and instead would rather power through to the end, sleep and work obligations be damned. But I am not sure it is for the reason the Hawley intended. Sure, I wanted to know what caused the plane to go down, but more than that, I wanted justice to be done to Bill Cunningham, the awful human being who took it upon himself to make a villain out of Scott just because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cunningham is the kind of TV figure that many people wish everyone would just stop paying attention to so that maybe he would go away, but we know that is not going to happen. As long as the guy talks loud enough, and says enough crazy things, people are going to continue to watch him. I doubt he was supposed to take up as much space in the reader's mind as he did in mine, but the result of the investigation became secondary to me. Which then led to the ending feeling somewhat, well, meh. And many of the reveals did not feel much like reveals, but more like ways to simply keep the story going beyond 300 pages.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Emma, Maggie Bateman's sister, throws her greedy hipster-idiot husband out of the house for being, well, basically a greedy hipster-idiot.

Favorite Character: No one in this book is a decent person. Even Scott. Sure, he swam for eight hours in chilly water and ended up saving four year-old JJ's life, but other than that, the guy is no saint. But on that heroic act alone, I suppose it's right to choose him.

Recommended Reading: If you are looking for other books that are more mystery than thriller, then I recommend Shelter by Jung Yun.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Graphic Novel: Habitat by Simon Roy

I received Habitat by Simon Roy as a winner of a giveaway on Goodreads. I am always looking to include more graphic novels on this blog, so naturally I was delighted when I was notified that I had won. Plus, free books! It is also nice to read something with pictures for a change instead of what can often feel like endless pages of uninterrupted text (Infinite Jest, I am looking in your direction).

The Situation: Hank Cho is a new soldier in the Habsec army. The Habsec are a people group living in the distant future. Yet, despite their access to technology such as a 3-D printer that prints weapons, and man-amplifiers that serve as robot suits that can be put on and used in combat, the Habsec are also reminiscent of ancient civilizations due to their love of formal rituals and cannibalistic tendencies. Although he is a new recruit, Cho proves to be a quick study after he makes his first capture. He is subject to the usual teasing that comes from being the new guy, with other soldiers insinuating that he is a "civvie," the group of people Habsecs capture, kill, and eventually eat. But Cho manages to hold his own and impress his superiors.

The Problem: After his first capture, Cho is encouraged to take a souvenir from the victim as a way to remember the occasion. Cho takes what appears to be some sort of token that was simply hanging around the man's neck, but after breaking open the already damaged outer shell, the item is revealed to be a print card similar to the ones used to make weapons from the 3-D printer. But what ends up coming out of the printer is a weapon like nothing Cho has seen before. And when his superiors attempt to take it from him, things quickly escalate, causing Cho to run for his life into enemy territory. The Habsec want that weapon, but the Engineers that now have Cho want it as well, and will not be giving it back without a fight. The two groups have been in an ongoing war since civilization inside of the Habitat collapsed, and this weapon would certainly serve to help one group finally bring about the end of the other. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a graphic novel set in a futuristic dystopia, with a civilization that resembles Mesoamerica in both its architecture and culture. While average everyday citizens are dressed in little more than loin cloths and rags, they have the ability to build and use man-amplifies: suits of armor that people can climb into and use for combat. But despite such advancements in technology, the Habsec have reduced themselves to cannibalism as there is a general shortage of food. Most of the story centers around Hank Cho and his discovery of an incredibly powerful weapon that either side would love to have, but there are brief moments where explanation is offered as to how exactly mankind came to be this way, why there is a war, and if there is any hope that things will ever get any better. Due to a rebellion, the Habitat has since been cut off from other worlds, as well as outside help and resources, which is an interesting and new take on the ejection from the Garden of Eden that takes place in the Bible. From the outset it is clear that the Habitat is a place where people are dying all of the time, though usually at the hands of someone else. This is a world that is ending in more ways than one, and the discovery of this powerful new weapon is not going to be the savior everyone thinks it is.

My Verdict: Sure, plots centered around futuristic dystopias are not new, but Habitat does take it into a new direction; or at least it is new to me. At first this appears to be a story about an ancient civilization, such as the Aztecs of the Mayans. But then the 3-D printer appears and it is clear this is a civilization that reached its zenith, and then somehow regressed. That alone impressed me a great deal. If I had any one real issue with the story is that it isn't long enough, and sometimes the rushed pace made it hard to follow what was happening, and which side was doing what. I felt like there could have been more explanation of the Habitat's past, and the ending is a little too quick and neat given the amount of carnage that comes before. Still, Roy's creative and imaginative story is worth checking out for any graphic novel lover.

Favorite Moment: Anytime the reader was offered even the smallest bit of insight as to how the Habitat came to be what it is today. 

Favorite Character: When escaping the Habsec, Cho ends up falling into the hands of the Engineers, with Joan as his accidental protector. She has every reason to simply get rid of him, but she takes him with her as she searches for help and ultimately, a solution to their crumbling way of life.  

Recommended Reading: For another graphic novel, I recommend Patience by Daniel Clowes. It is longer, and handles the future in a very different way, while still taking old ideas and giving them a creative presentation.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Nonfiction: The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward

It felt appropriate to close out 2016 with a post about race. The full title of this collection of essays and poems is The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Jesmyn Ward is not the only author, as there are contributions from the likes of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, and poet Claudia Rankine. With the help of her editor, Ward worked on the collection as a response to the recent police and civilian violence against African-American men and women in the United States.

Genre, Themes, History: Naturally, I categorized this collection as nonfiction, though it includes essays, poems, and some creative nonfiction. Many of the entries deal with recent events such as the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, while others talk about race in the United States in general. My personal favorite is the entry by poet Kevin Young, "Blacker Than Thou," which discusses Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was recently found out to not be black, though she had been pretending to be, and was even the leader of her local Oregon NAACP. His essay is not only refreshing and humorous because of the acknowledged ridiculousness of the subject matter he chose to write about, but also because of the way he approached it. Somehow, Young manages to make jokes while being completely serious; laughing along while also pointing out that this stuff really isn't supposed to be funny. But I also enjoyed "Know Your Rights!" by author Emily Raboteau, where she walks the streets of New York City, taking pictures of the various murals that had been painted throughout the city by a Chilean artist who goes by the tag name of Cekis. Throughout her entry, Raboteau includes pictures of the murals, which offer tips and observations that are helpful when dealing with the police, and also interprets those murals as well as the surroundings they are placed in. Even though the pictures of the murals that are included are in black and white, they are still somehow made bright and vibrant through Raboteau's descriptions. Overall, the collection does more than just reiterate that black lives matter and make a general call to action. The authors approach this always delicate subject of race in America and pick it apart, sometimes slowly and painfully. The title, The Fire This Time, is a response to the 1963 book by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, which in turn comes from the slave hymn that states, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time."

My Verdict: Of course not every essay was funny like Young's, or as fascinating and engaging as Raboteau's. In fact, many of them were uncomfortable or a little hard to read, but for many people, so is the news that another unarmed black person has been shot down by police, or by an armed civilian who rushed to judgment. Even Young's look at the Rachel Dolezal situation asks questions such as what does it mean to be black, and can someone "feel black" when they don't look the part? It is a short collection, coming in just over 200 pages, and while parts of it may be difficult to stomach, any mature adult should be able to make it through just fine. For me, what makes it the most engaging is that the topics vary, as do their approach. Ultimately, the point is made, many times, that violence against blacks by those in power is not a new thing, but with social media and camera phones, we can see a lot more of it, and see it quickly. And with every small step forward we make, there is a wave of backlash waiting to either take away what little we have for fear that one day we will have more than the majority, or to somehow make said majority the center of the story and shift the focus away from black people.

Favorite Quotes: "I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity." - Jesmyn Ward

"One of the best things about being black is that, barring some key exceptions, it's not a volunteer position. You can't just wish on a dark star and become black. It's not paid either. It's more like a long internship with a chance of advancement." - Kevin Young

"Of course you can see why anyone would want to be black: being black is fun. Don't tell nobody." - Kevin Young

Recommended Reading: If you wish to explore Ward's fiction, then I recommend Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. But I also recommend How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston, as well as The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and of course, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Reader by Traci Chee

Traci Chee's The Reader: Book One of Sea of Ink and Gold was one of those novels that I actively, though unsuccessfully, tried to avoid, only because it was obviously only the first of what is going to be a series. My fear with the first book of any series is always the same: what if it is terrible, but now I feel obligated to continue until the series is done? Or, something that can turn out almost as bad, what if the series will not be limited to only three, four, or five books? What if this is a series that just keeps going well beyond the point of being interesting? Well, either way, here we are, and I am simply hoping for the best.

The Situation: Sefia lives life on the run, and cannot imagine things any other way, especially after the death of her father. She and her Aunt Nin hide out from authorities, and manage to survive by picking locks, petty thievery, and basically being incredibly aware of their surroundings. Nin has taught Sefia well, and has managed to keep her safe so far. But after going out on her own, Sefia returns to their hideout and sees that Nin has been found, and is being questioned. Although she manages to keep herself hidden, Nin is taken, leaving Sefia on her own for the first time. She knows what they are after. She keeps the item they seek close to her at all times. Sefia has in her possession a book, in a world where people no longer read, and words and stories have incredible power. It is what they were looking for when they killed her father, and now they will come for her.

The Problem: Now on her own, Sefia is convinced that is how she should remain, as everyone close to her seems to get hurt, or killed. But when she comes upon a strange boy who is being held captive, she knows she must save him, although doing so seems to only have earned her a partner she did not want. Now the two of them travel the land of Oxscini together, looking for the men who took Nin, who seem to also be the same people who hurt and captured this strange boy, whom Sefia has decided to call Archer. On their way they will encounter deceptive bartenders, murderous henchmen, and even helpful pirates, all while trying to discover the secrets and stories of the book Sefia has promised herself she will protect. But while they chase the people she wants revenge against, there are still others who are chasing her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel full of spells, magic, adventure, fighting, and storytelling. If there is one takeaway from this novel it is that words are powerful, and storytelling has incredible value, more than people realize. While Sefia may be the main character, her story, along with Archer's, is only one part of what is going on in these pages. Possibly even more interesting than the adventure that they are on is the story of Captain Reed, his crew, and his ship, the Current of Faith. At some point, Captain Reed does end up crossing paths with our heroine, but we also learn more about him from the mysterious book that Sefia is carrying, as his past adventures are written inside. But even beyond Sefia and Captain Reed, there is Tanin, whose full powers and purpose are never quite explained, and also Lon, a young apprentice studying in a strange library where he learns spells and how to control his Vision. All of this takes place in the fictional world of Kelanna. At the beginning of the book, a full map of Kelanna is presented, and becomes increasingly useful as the names of its countries and cities are mentioned. Chee has built an entire world, only a small section of which is explored in this first book. Also, the book Sefia is carrying is not the only one with secrets. The physical book of The Reader has hidden messages in it as well, and they are fairly easy to find if you look for them.

My Verdict: At first, the amount of characters that are presented in the story is overwhelming. I don't know if they are thrown out too fast, or if there are too many of them, but things got confusing quickly. It also did not help that many of them are a part of Captain Reed's crew on the Current of Faith, and each have their own function and personality. And there were times when the writing felt choppy, or the dialogue felt forced and unbelievable, or the relationships didn't seem...right. But I will say this, for any shortcomings there were in the writing - whether real or only imagined by me - the world that Chee has built for the purpose of this book is phenomenal and imaginative and everything you could want for a young adult fantasy novel. And despite my initial hesitations, I look forward to the second book.

Favorite Moment: When Captain Reed expertly deals with an assassin who had made it onto his ship.

Favorite Character: I wish I could like Sefia more, but she made too many obviously terrible choices, so instead I pick Captain Reed. He is a true pirate, with an intense desire for any adventure that will potentially turn into a great story. Plus, he is a picture of courage, and will do what he has to in order to protect his crew.

Recommended Reading: I think the Legend series by Marie Lu would be a good companion to this book. But instead of building a completely new world, Lu takes the world as we know it and reimagined it to where the U.S. has been split into two warring parts; Africa is a thriving continent for the first time in forever, and Antarctica is a highly sought out military ally.        

Friday, December 16, 2016

Nonfiction: The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell

On Thursday, October 13th, Jan Jarboe Russell was given the Award of Literary Excellence, presented by Gemini Ink, San Antonio's non-profit, literary arts center. Russell received the award not only because of her most recent publication, The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, but also because of her work with Texas Monthly magazine, as well as other work that has been published in many notable publications, and her previous books that were either authored alone or in collaboration with others. I had the chance to sit and talk with Russell a few weeks before the gala where she was given the award, and I am forever grateful to have been able to learn more about her and her work.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction novel that talks about the secret internment camp that was operated during World War II in Crystal City, Texas, from the years 1942-1947. It would be the attacks on Pearl Harbor that would spur then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order the rounding up of German, Italian, and Japanese people to be moved to internment camps all over the US. The camp in Crystal City was different in that it was the only family internment camp. Wives and children were moved down to Crystal City in order to be with the husbands and fathers that had been arrested months before, mostly on pure suspicion, and little evidence, of being sympathetic or supportive to the enemy cause of their home country. As Russell shows, there were some that were interned who would prove to be a threat, but for the most part, these were innocent people who simply wanted to live their lives. And Russell chooses to tell the story mostly from the point of view of two women who were young girls at the time, making Train to Crystal City one of few books to have stories about the war told from a female perspective. What makes Sumi and Ingrid's story even more tragic is that they were America-born citizens when they were interned with their families. And that also did not help them when it came time for the US government to negotiate exchanges with Germany and Japan for American Prisoners of War. So young children who grew up in the US were eventually sent to a country they knew little about, all because of fear and suspicion surrounding their fathers.

My Verdict: Of the few things I try to avoid more than fiction about WWII, it is nonfiction about WWII. With that being said, this is a fantastic book. I probably enjoyed it so much because it is about one of the aspects of WWII that many people do not know about. The camp in Crystal City was supposed to be a secret - many people who lived in the area at the time did not really know what it was for. And as Russell pointed out during our conversation, many of the people who stayed there that are still alive were young children then. And when the camp closed, many of the former inhabitants did not care to talk about or relive the experience. In detail that makes it clear that Russell did her research, the book not only presents the story of people like Sumi and Ingrid, but it also talks about the key political players of the time, including FDR, his wife Eleanor, J. Edgar Hoover, and later, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, among others. If you want to look at a different aspect of WWII aside from what is normally written about in novels, then I highly suggest this book.

Favorite Moment: When persecuted Jews (albeit a small amount) are included in the number of people exchanged along with American POWs.

Recommended Reading: As mentioned, I do not read much nonfiction about WWII, but as for fiction, I recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, or Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach

It is no secret to a regular reader of this blog that young adult fiction books are my absolute favorite to read and review. And I am always excited to read one that is not set in an American high school, but maybe instead somewhere overseas, and in a setting other than a school. Scott Stambach's The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko gives me both, as it is set in a hospital in Belarus.

The Situation: In the foreword to Ivan's story, it is explained that the papers that contain it were found in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Mazyr, Belarus by a journalist. The writer, Ivan, is believed to most likely have suffered from the connective tissue disorder known as Beals syndrome, as well as several other conditions. Ivan often describes himself as being only half of a person. With no legs and only one arm, Ivan must use a wheelchair in order to get around the hospital, where he has lived his entire life. He does not know who his parents are; has been through fourteen different psychologists at the hospital; can tell how long a patient will be at the hospital by the amount of pills and drugs they have to take, as well as the symptoms they show; and reads every book that he can get his hands on. Due to the limited library at the hospital, he receives most of his books from Nurse Natalya, who is not only his favorite nurse, but also the best friend he has ever had.

The Problem: Despite his own health problems and disabilities, and the fact that he is confined to the hospital, Ivan has more or less gotten used to his situation and has come up with many ways of dealing with it and keeping himself entertained. But in late 2005, all of his preconceived notions and ideas almost have to be done away with when Polina enters the hospital. She is beautiful, but also orphaned, and incredibly sick. Despite her problems, she does not look at all like she should be at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and her appearance has caused such a disruption in Ivan's otherwise fairly orderly life that none of his usual tricks and games do anything to put it back together. Polina is someone whose attention he actually wants to get; someone he wants to talk to; and someone who he actually cares whether they live or die.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in a hospital in Belarus. Though Ivan does not know when his birthday is, it is later revealed that he is 18 years old. Having spent his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, he knows everything about the building and those that have worked there for a long time. Even when it comes to those who have been at the hospital for only a short time, Ivan's sharp observational skills quickly tell him everything he needs to know about that person, and he has no problem using that information to his advantage. The other residents, or mutants as Ivan calls them, are not as aware as Ivan, but that changes when Polina is admitted. She challenges Ivan in ways that not even Nurse Natalya can manage, and although he has insecurities about his physical appearance, Polina does not seem to at all mind how he looks or how he talks. It is assumed that Ivan's deformities, and even most of the problems that plague the children in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, can be blamed on radiation that was released into the area when a nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded in 1986. Even in 2005, the surrounding area is still suffering the consequences of this explosion, giving the hospital a constant stream of patients. With the appearance of Polina, Ivan experiences emotions and a relationship he never thought he would get to have. It is the kind of story that is rarely told, but should be told more often: a boy who thought he knew everything there was to know about loss ends up learning so much more, while also receiving the love he never knew he deserved. 

My Verdict: This is a good story. In fact, it is extremely close to being a great story. Besides a few things here and there that made the novel either too much like the rest, or that did not quite fit with Ivan's voice, it is an engaging story with a fun, tricky, sometimes frustrating, but also sympathetic narrator. Ivan is often a jerk, but given his condition and history, it is understandable, and it is also often forgiven. And framing the story as a handwritten diary of sorts coming from Ivan himself works very well. The only way someone like Ivan would find the need to write down anything from his life is if something massive and/or catastrophic happened. So the reader knows Ivan's story is going somewhere, even during the moments when it seems like he is only describing the daily events of his life at the hospital. Every sentence is leading to something, and nothing feels wasted or unnecessary. But there are moments that do not quite feel true, or like something the Ivan we get to know would do. Other than that, this is a touching story of a hurt soul who is not done hurting.

Favorite Moment: Partially because it was so fascinating, I enjoyed Ivan's description of who he refers to as the Ginger Twins. Two red-headed twins named Mary and Magdalena live at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and they are inseparable. That in and of itself is not so fascinating. But they do everything together and play together without even speaking. Without words, they both decide to do the same things and play the same games. Even Ivan with all of his tricks was not able to disrupt them, separate them, or make them acknowledge anyone else in the hospital.

Favorite Character: It would be easy to see Nurse Natalya as an enabler of Ivan's jerky behavior, but when you consider how little he gets to do, her behavior makes a lot more sense. And really, she treats him the way she does because she respects him enough to give him as much of a "normal" life as possible.

Recommended Reading: A book by John Green is always a good idea, so for this week I recommend The Fault in Our Stars. Also, Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom would be a good choice too.