Friday, November 20, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I was naturally very excited to read Rainbow Rowell's latest novel, Carry On, which naturally has made it into the final round for a Goodreads Choice Award in the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category. What made me even more excited was the fact that it was for young adults, and included characters that were sparingly mentioned in my favorite Rowell novel, Fangirl. Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, a favorite fictional character of one of Rowell's fictional characters, but now with his own story and adventures.

The Situation: Simon Snow is in his last year at Watford, the school for magicians. Since the Mage, the headmaster of the school, first found Simon at a home for orphans and had him attend Watford, Simon has not only been made the Mage's heir, but he has also been told he is the Chosen One. He is believed to be the most powerful magician that ever lived, and anyone who has seen him use his magic, which he still has not learned to control, easily believes it. For the most part, Simon enjoys attending Watford, has made a best friend in the studious and stubborn Penny, and even has the beautiful if somewhat superficial Agatha as a girlfriend. Even with all of the attacks and trouble Simon has had at Watford, he would never miss his last year, even if it is optional. Plus, he really loves the food.

The Problem: If there is one main issue Simon has with Watford it is his roommate, Baz. In true Watford tradition, once you are matched up with a roommate in your first year, you stay roommates until graduation. So no matter how much Simon and Baz may loathe each other, they are stuck sharing living space. Simon is convinced that not only is Baz pure evil and continually plots against him, but he also believes that he is a vampire. He has never been able to get concrete proof, but if he did he would finally be able to convince the Mage to expel him. It also does not help that Baz comes from one of the most powerful magical families in England, and his mother was the former headmistress. But as much as Simon does not like sharing a room with someone he thinks of as pure evil, he actually likes it less when Baz does not show up for the first day, week, month...  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also often placed under fantasy and romance. Simon Snow has been prophesied to be the most powerful magician the world has ever known, and he now attends Watford, the best school for young magicians. Throughout the novel, class issues come up, not necessarily between those who have magic and those who do not (normals), but more between those from the more powerful families, and those who would have never been admitted to Watford had the Mage not changed the rules. And while certain species (for lack of a better term) such as pixies are allowed to attend the school, others such as vampires are expressly forbidden. Also, while Simon may be the most powerful magician ever known, he isn't much use to anyone, including himself, if he can't ever control it. His spoken spells rarely work, while less powerful students such as his friend Penny are able to summon almost any spell with little effort. As I mentioned earlier, the characters of Simon, Baz, Penny, and Agatha first appeared in Fangirl. Cath was obsessed with the series of novels and was one of the best writers of fan fiction containing them. While Rowell is done with Cath's story, she decided to continue Simon's adventure and tell his full story here in Carry On. Talk about meta.

My Verdict: Fangirl is (still) my favorite book by Rowell, and Carry On is a great story of adventure and friendship and love and overcoming tremendous adversity. Rowell's writing is once again on point and reminded me of why I get excited every time she publishes a new book. With all of that being said, I had a very hard time separating what was going on in Carry On, and what little I know (because I haven't read them) about Harry Potter. Maybe it is because Simon's story began as part of an ongoing fan fiction story in Fangirl, but I just could not shake the feeling that I was reading Harry Potter fan fiction. There are huge differences between the two stories of course, but the big main elements are still there: powerful orphaned boy wizard; evil classmate always seemingly plotting the hero's downfall; studious and powerful female friend; a school for magicians; a headmaster beyond reproach but also not liked but other powerful magicians; a friendly adult counselor who lives on the school grounds but mostly stays out of the get the idea. Really, the book is a great adventure taken by another "chosen one" character. But unfortunately, we live in a world where one particular chosen one is almost always the first one we think about, and even in Carry On's most gripping scenes, Harry Potter's image and story was hard to shake, even for someone who has never read any of the books.

Favorite Moment: When it becomes clear to Simon that Ebb, his goat herding friend, is not as simple as she seems, and is more powerful than any of the children realized.

Favorite Character: As annoying and stubborn as she can be, I pick Penny. She may not be the most tactful person in Simon's life, but she is often the only one making any sense and acting in a way that actually benefits everyone and the situation.

Recommended Reading: Fangirl. When it comes to Rowell, it is always about Fangirl with me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015 Final Round

We have reached the final stretch of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards. Voting for the final round has opened up and will close on Monday, November 23rd. So be sure to make your voices heard and vote for your favorite books of the year.

Looks like both Girl at War by Sara Nović and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee have made it into the top 10 for Best Fiction. I will still be sticking with my vote for Girl at War, although I am honestly not all that confident it will be able to beat out books like After You by Jojo Moyes and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train is also hanging on in the Best Mystery & Thriller category, and will have to face off against Stephen King's Finders Keepers.

I am glad that despite not being as good as its predecessor, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson had made it to the finals for the Best Historical Fiction category. However, I am surprised that Judy Blume's In the Unlikely Event has squeezed into the top 10 as well, but I suppose it should not be. Blume has been writing for a long time and has a strong following as a result.

I am certainly not surprised that The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro did not make it into the final round for Best Fantasy.  For me this book was just not up to the standard that Ishiguro is known for, and while he may also have a strong following like Blume, it clearly was not enough to push him into the final round.

One book that has managed to make it into the final round despite its lower rating is Aramada by Ernest Cline. It is a story that has a great premise and is pretty interesting, right up until the end when things just fall apart and all momentum and energy comes to a grinding halt. But clearly, it has enough fans willing to at least vote it into the finals.

And for my first bit of sad news, it looks like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae was not able to get the votes needed to make into the top 10 for Best Humor. It was a write-in vote after all, and was not included in the original first round of 15. Even so, it is one I was rooting for, so it is sad to see it go.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown is still holding on in the Best Nonfiction category, and I will not be at all surprised if it ends up taking away the top prize. It has some stiff competition off course, and from the likes of Aziz Ansari and Humans of New York. The nonfiction category looks like it has some particularly strong finalists and it may end up being a close race to the end.

Both My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga and Girl at War have managed to make it into the final round for Best Debut Goodreads Author. I am fans of both of these books, so choosing was initially difficult. But I plan to stick with Warga's book and hopefully vote it towards a win.

Unfortunately, Warga's novel did not make it to the finals for Best Young Adult Fiction, and neither did All the Rage by Courtney Summers. The only horse I still have in this race is Saint Anything by Goodreads Choice Awards veteran Sarah Dessen. 

Which only leaves the category for Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction, where Rainbow Rowell, another Goodreads Choice Awards veteran, is still being represented with her novel Carry On. Rowell has won an award every year that she has been nominated, and I am hoping she is able to take the number one spot once again.

So this it people. Your last chance to let it be known which books you think were the best of the best for 2015. Stay tuned to Goodreads for the final results on Tuesday, November 24th.   

Friday, November 13, 2015

Nonfiction: Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

The full title of today's book is Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Dan-el Padilla Peralta was born in the Dominican Republic, but would come to live in New York City early on in life with his mother and father, and later on his little brother. Throughout his childhood and for part of his adult life, Dan-el would be considered an illegal immigrant, staying in the U.S. long past the date of his initial visa. But even with the incredibly huge roadblock of not having a social security number, Dan-el would manage to get one of the finest educations New York has to offer at an elite private high school, and eventually attend college at Princeton University.

Genre, Themes, History: Undocumented is a nonfiction book that follows Dan-el's life from childhood to just after he has been accepted into a PhD program at Stanford. Initially it would be Dan-el, his mother, his father, and his younger brother Yando. After his father leaves to go back to the Dominican Republic, Dan-el's small family would transition between homeless shelters before being set-up in apartment housing. Meanwhile, his visa would expire. And since Yando is the only legal citizen of the three, he is the only one eligible to receive any kind of aid. Despite never quite having enough, Dan-el has a love of reading and wants to do well in school. As he tells the story of his life, Dan-el makes clear the many people he had come into his life who fortunately recognized his desire to learn and ability to pick up on most subjects quickly. It also doesn't hurt that he picked up English and could translate for his mother whenever she needed. But even as he continues to excel in school and goes from public school, to a coveted full scholarship to attend one of the best private schools, there is always the lingering issue of Dan-el and his mother not being legal citizens. Like many illegal immigrants his age, he was brought into the U.S. as a child and now it is the only home he knows. Dan-el is able to keep his secret from most of his friends and instructors, even in college, but if he ever wants to travel outside of the U.S., or even just seek employment, he would have to confront the issue and attempt to solve it. His story is all at once the same as many other immigrants', and very different because of the academic success that would eventually lead to an Ivy League education.

My Verdict: This book is a fascinating story of the journey Dan-el made and the struggles he went through along the way. It is certainly the kind of story Hollywood would love to sell you - illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic goes from living in homeless shelters to graduating from Princeton - but it isn't just about that, although that is a huge piece of it and what made me initially interested in the story. Dan-el talks about life and his friends in Spanish Harlem, and balancing that life against the one he has with his other friends at the private school he attends. He talks about being able to excel in literature and the classics, but struggling with math and thinking that those struggles could hinder his acceptance to an Ivy League school. He talks about how even his desire to do well in school and go to a first-rate college didn't stop him from attempting a foolish shoplifting plan that went terribly wrong. He also talks about the pressure his academic success would later cause for his little brother, Yando. He even talks, at great length, about his lack of success in dating women of any color throughout his childhood and even after college. But behind all of that is the threat of being found out and reported to immigration. Instead of simply focusing on that one aspect of his life, Dan-el seems to tell the entire story, including all of his struggles as well as his successes.  His writing may not be the best, and it would be easy for some to want to write off the entire book as a humble brag, but this is a great book and just one example of what many immigrants must go through when they wish to stay in the U.S.

Favorite Moment: When Dan-el gets beaten in one-on-one basketball by his little brother, twice.

Recommended Reading: It won't come as a surprise to many of you when I recommend either Drown or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. As a Dominican author, Diaz's stories offer a good perspective from someone not born in the U.S. but now calls it home.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015 Semifinal Round

The second round of voting for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards has begun. Voting for the semifinal round will remain open until Sunday, November 15th, so go ahead and get voting here

The semifinal round simply means all books nominated for the first round are still in the running, but have been joined by five write-in choices in each category. So while none of my predicted winners and hopefuls have been eliminated just yet, they now face even more competition by some well-deserving fan favorites. 

I feel like I should not be surprised that Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman has been written in for the Best Fiction category, but I am. Yes, it was written by Harper Lee, the Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame. And I get that. But honestly, Watchman reads like a first draft. It has its place in the history of American literature, but I get the sense that this was a write-in simply because it was written by Lee. Again, I get it, but still. I'll be sticking with Sara Nović's Girl At War

Another surprise that probably should not be is the inclusion of Judy Blume's In the Unlikely Event for the Best Historical Fiction category. It is not a bad book really, in fact there are parts that are quite interesting, but best historical fiction book of 2015? Eh, I'll still be voting for A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. 

The fact that The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro made it in as a write-in for Best Fantasy tells me that people are voting for books based on who wrote it, and not necessarily because it was actually any good. I adored Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, but The Buried Giant just did not have any of the same magnetic simplicity, and instead left me bored and confused. Its low rating on Goodreads causes me to believe I am not the only one who felt that way. Even though it is the only book I have read to make it into the Best Fantasy category, I still will not be voting for it.

Yet another example of a book being nominated based more on the author's past success is Armada by Ernest Cline. Cline originally blew everyone away with Ready Player One, so Armada's release was highly anticipated, but somewhat disappointing. Even so, it has not stopped the die hard fans from voting it into the Best Science Fiction category. 

One write-in I am glad to see is The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae for Best Humor. As a fellow ABG, I appreciated Rae's honesty and wit about navigating life through all of the awkwardness and uncertainty that it can offer. This is the first of the write-ins that I came across that I will actually vote for.

In my favorite category, Courtney Summers' All the Rage has made it in for Best Young Adult Fiction, and I absolutely understand why. Summers approaches a very sensitive subject with boldness and does not hold back. This book may very well make it to the final round and give both Sarah Dessen's Saint Anything and Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes some very real competition.

And just like that, the original number of Door Stop Novels that were nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award jumps from seven to 13. Wow. I guess I am getting a little better at this every year.      

Friday, November 6, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Girl at War by Sara Nović

I picked up Girl at War by Sara Nović after I saw that Goodreads had recommended it to those who appreciated the writing of Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. And now it has been nominated for a Goodreads Choice award in two categories: Best Fiction and Best Debut Goodreads Author. Girl at War is a story of a little girl who finds her tomboyish existence interrupted by the civil war in Yugoslavia. Even with my aversion to stories about war, something in the description of the book caused me to still pick it up.

The Situation: Ana Jurić lives with her mother, father, and little sister Rahela in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia. The book begins with Ana and her family spending summer in the city, when they usually spend it in the small fishing village of her godparents, but the Serbians had blocked the roads to the sea. It would be only one of many things that will change how Ana is used to living her life. Soon there are air raids and rations, and the family must take the risk of traveling when Rahela becomes sick and the local doctors can do nothing for her. What happens in Yugoslavia will be a story that Ana struggles to tell over the next ten years, even after she becomes settled and established in the U.S.

The Problem: In 2001, Ana is now a student in New York City, living on campus, and studying English literature. After struggling with telling her story, and the realization hat most people really don't want to know the real truth, Ana becomes accustomed to simply lying, believing this is the best way to go. If people don't want to hear her past, then she is more than capable of trying to forget about it. But on September 11, 2001, when two planes strike and take down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Ana understands that war and terror can follow her, even in the U.S. Even if the Twin Towers hadn't fallen, Ana's incessant nightmares are reminder enough. After reconnecting with someone who helped her get out, Ana now wants to go back to Zagreb, visit her home, and maybe get some answers about the friends and family she had to leave behind.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I was initially tempted to place under the heading of historical fiction, but since most of the conflict in the book took place in 1991, using the violence in the Balkans as the backdrop, I felt like it was all too recent for that, even though that was now almost 25 years ago. Since Ana is the narrator, the reader gets to see the war through her limited vision, and experience the confusion and fear that comes with being a child being forced underground during an air raid, or forced to hide in the back seat of a car at a scary and heavily guarded checkpoint. Much like Marra's book, Girl at War explores what children are capable of when forced to rely on themselves to survive in a hostile and war-torn environment. Ana did things she never thought she would learn to do, or have to do. And some of the things she would rather not think about ever again.

My Verdict: This book has excited a lot of people. I read one review that stated it was the kind of book that makes a person excited about the future of fiction. While I can't say I feel quite the same way, I did enjoy the book, and I can understand why others are excited. It is a tough subject to deal with, and it can easily be done with too much honest brutality as well as too little to the point of not being truthful. It is a fine line to walk, but I think Nović does pretty well. I actually wished it had been a little bit longer and explored more of what happened with Ana's little sister, Rahela. And while it is clear from the beginning that there is something Ana doesn't want to talk about, something even the reader doesn't know until near the end, I didn't find the final reveal of what that was all that compelling, even though it was an incredibly big deal, especially for a little girl. Maybe there wasn't enough build-up, or the actual reveal was too rushed, or maybe it was to be expected...I don't know. But even with that, it is still a great book, and despite the subject matter, a surprisingly easy read.

Favorite Moment: When Ana, still a little girl, finds sanctuary in a stranger's house. Although she won't speak and barely moves from her adopted corner of the room, the family leaves her alone and lets her be still and silent. 

Favorite Character: Ana's father. Her father continued to read her bedtime stories even after that air raids had started, and he knew the stories by heart. 

Recommended Reading: I certainly recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Marra, which takes place during the conflict in Chechnya.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015

There are three reasons why November is one of this bloggers favorite months of the year. There is Thanksgiving, the only day of the year when I can have both homemade German chocolate cake and homemade pecan pie with cheesecake filling. Then there is National Novel Writing Month, which somehow motivates me and thousands of others around the world to write 50,000 words in 30 days. And last but not least, there is the annual voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Every year I do my best to select books that I will not only enjoy reading, but that others will joy as well and may also discover as their new favorite book or author. Some of the books end up being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award. Every November, readers decide on which books will win in 20 different categories, and this year will be interesting, just like years before. With many books that made it on this blog being included in the nominations, let's get started with the predictions.

For the Best Fiction category there is only one Door Stop Novel that made it in, and its post will be coming out this Friday. Girl at War by Sara Nović is the type of story I usually shy away from, but I am glad I picked up this story about a young girl and her early life in Croatia, and what she found when she returned after living an entirely different life in the United States. I am confident it will make a strong showing, but competition is stiff with books like A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghihara and Fates and Furries by Lauren Groff.

It is absolutely no surprise that The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has been nominated for the Best Mystery & Thriller category. This book was compared heavily to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but to me, it is much better, and easily gets my vote. But I will not surprised if Robert Galbraith's (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling) Career of Evil does well too.  

Also not surprising is the inclusion of Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins for the Best Historical Fiction category, especially seeing as how its predecessor, Life After Life, took home the win in 2013. But I doubt At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen, of Water for Elephants fame, will go down easy. 

None of my science fiction selections made the cut this year, so I am writing in The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, because why not? It is the fourth book in the series, the first of which actually won for Best Science Fiction back in 2012. 

I know I am more than a little biased towards Brené Brown, whose newest book, Rising Strong, has been nominated for Best Nonfiction. I have heard her speak on more than one occasion and also read her previous book, Daring Greatly. I cannot recommend her books and talks enough, even though her subject matter can be challenging and make many people more than just a little uncomfortable.

Not only will there be a chance for you to vote for Girl at War in the fiction category, but you can also vote for it under Best Debut Goodreads Author as well. However, I do believe that I am going to vote for My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga. Warga's novel is a young adult story about a girl making plans for her suicide. It is a bold debut and one worth checking out, even due to the sensitive nature of the subject. 

Warga's novel has also been nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction, but so has Sarah Dessen's latest novel, Saint Anything. Both books will face stiff competition from David Arnold's Mosquitoland and Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places. But I believe while Dessen may not win, she will certainly make it to the final round. 

My shock over not seeing Rainbow Rowell's Carry On in the Best Young Adult Fiction category subsided upon seeing it in the category for Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction. Rowell has already won Goodreads choice awards for Eleanor & Park and Landline, and I will not be surprised if she comes away with yet another win. I expect Victoria Aveyard's Red Queen to also at least make it to the finals, where the two will have to fight it out with the others.

With seven books over seven categories, and one write-in, I certainly have my favorites picked out that I will stand by and root for while the voting for the opening round continues through Sunday, November 8th. You can vote for your favorites here, and feel free to comment with your own predictions.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty is one of those books I happened to see in a random email, advertisement, or list that I would normally not pay any attention to. After reading the synopsis, I half-heartedly added it to my to-read list. And only after trying to check it out from the UTSA library since May, only to be deterred by whoever insisted on checking it out until January, did I finally bite the bullet and order it off of Amazon. The book somehow went from being an "I'll probably end up deleting this off of my wish list," to an "I need to read this book as soon as possible and get it onto the blog." Not exactly sure how that happened, but here we are.

The Situation: The unnamed narrator of the book hasn't had the easiest childhood. Growing up in the incredibly poor and under served "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens, California - a city that the surrounding area would rather just erase off of the map, so they do - would have been hard enough without a father who insisted on conducting his own homemade social experiments on his son. The narrator was home schooled, physically abused, and forced to be left handed. He would eventually grow up to buy the same house he had grown up on after his father passes away, and now runs one of the few farms in Los Angeles county. And because of his inability to be like his father, he earns the nickname of "sellout," primarily used by one of his father's former colleagues. As crummy as life is in Dickens, he decides to actually do something when the powers that be decide to erase Dickens off of the maps.

The Problem: The only methods for putting Dickens back on the map that our narrator can think of are not only illegal, but insanely controversial. At first he unwittingly becomes a slave owner, although his one "slave" has volunteered, and doesn't actually do any work. But then our narrator decides the way to fix Dickens is by re-establishing something the Civil Rights movement fought against: segregation. It starts with a sign on the bus designating front seats for the elderly, disabled, and white. Eventually the narrator would attempt to segregate the middle school, local businesses, and even the hospital; actions that land him in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. While the narrator is of course trying to make a point, he is also trying to answer two questions: Who am I? And how may I become myself?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often placed in the humor category. It may seem strange to describe a book wherein the main character owns a slave and tries to reintroduce segregation as funny, but it is. Of course, it is the kind of funny where you feel bad for laughing but can't seem to stop (think Catch-22, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or anything by Flannery O'Connor). Throughout the entire book, Beatty touches nerve after sensitive nerve concerning race and prejudice in the U.S. and doesn't let up until the very end. The book is often irreverent and always unflinching as the narrator boldly tries to bring up segregation in an attempt to prove that it does actually work (yes, you read that right). Using many moments in history and various pop culture references, Beatty shows just how complicated, and also how not at all complicated, the issue of race is. And the fact that bringing segregation back to Dickens, California seems to do more for the city than desegregation ever has is just one way Beatty plays with the issue of race, while simultaneously not playing at all.

My Verdict: A book where the "N" word and the "F" word make an appearance on almost every page is going to make even the most easy-going, liberal minded person a little uncomfortable at least once. And even though that may be the point, I never felt like the book was obnoxious or annoying about it, though I am sure many others will feel differently. Beatty doesn't pull punches, touching on an incredibly sensitive subject with almost complete insensitivity, while also being incredibly serious. It's a weird line to walk, but somehow Beatty does it. There are moments that go too far, but they are almost always followed up by moments where I had to admit that a fair point had been made. The Sellout is a book that gets readers to think, while making them laugh. If you have to learn about race in the U.S. and face some seriously messed up and horrible truths about our country, you might as well get a good laugh out of it.

Favorite Moment: When the narrator describes how his unfunny father told jokes at open mic night - in APA format (ha!).

Favorite Character: This is hard because all of the characters in this book are fairly ridiculous and mostly awful people. But isn't that the way it is in real life? So I will pick the narrator, because at least he is being honest about the ridiculousness, even if he doesn't fully understand it all. 

Recommended Reading: How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston would be a fantastic follow-up, or even introduction, to this book. And if it is more irreverent humor that will make you inappropriately laugh out loud that you're after, there is also The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.