Friday, June 23, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Piecing Me Together by Reneé Watson

YA Fest continues with Piecing Me Together by Reneé Watson. I had hoped to hear Watson speak at the 5th Annual San Antonio Book Festival, but unfortunately, due to terrible storms in the northeast, her flight was canceled and she could not make it. Even so, I bought Piecing Me Together anyway and decided to give it a place during the month of June.

The Situation: Jade is determined to make it out of her neighborhood on the north side of Portland. She is already on the right path to do so by attending St. Francis High School, a private school in the nicer part of town. It may mean not attending Northside with her best friend, Lee Lee, but being a student at St. Francis means access to many opportunities Jade is constantly being encouraged to take advantage of. Sometimes that encouragement comes her guidance counselor, other times her own mother. But the opportunity Jade would like to take the most advantage of is the chance to travel outside of the country with the study abroad program. This is the opportunity that convinced Jade to attend St. Francis in the first place, and this year she is a junior, which means she is finally eligible to be nominated.

The Problem: Being one of the few black people in a predominantly white school comes with its problems, for sure. First is the difficulty of making friends. Then there is the potential of being judged for who you are and where you are from. Sure, it is nice to have people looking out for you, ready to provide "opportunities" for you, but that can also feel cheap and exhausting. And this latest opportunity - a mentorship program called Woman to Woman - looks like it will be joining the list. The only reason Jade agreed to it is because it comes with a college scholarship. But she does not feel as if her mentor really understands anything about her, or even cares to. Just because Maxine is black, it does not mean she can relate to Jade, which is a shame because Jade could use someone she can really talk to, someone who can understand her. Opportunities are nice, but what Jade would like more than anything is to be heard.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction book set in modern day Portland, Oregon. Jade lives on the north side of Portland, in a neighborhood that the rest of the city is often wary of. But while others do not see the beauty in her neighborhood, Jade certainly does. In the little free time she has in between school, friends, family, and the Woman to Woman program, Jade makes collages out of pretty much anything she can get her hands on. She has mastered the art of taking what most of us view as garbage or junk, such as bags from fast food restaurants or free newspapers, and turning them into something beautiful and impressive. It is through her art that Jade is able to communicate the best, and her lack of willingness to simply open her mouth and speak up for herself is something she will have to reconcile later in the book. She is finally able to make friends with one other person at St. Francis, but that friendship is tested when Jade feels like Sam is just another person who not only does not understand her, but also constantly downplays incidents that occur due to Jade's race. And when it seems that Maxine is both proud of Jade and also completely out of touch with her, our protagonist feels misunderstood on all sides, frustrated by the feeling of not being seen or heard.

My Verdict: The characters are well formed and relatable. The setting of Portland is well done and a great choice. And the issues brought up are both timely and important for us to talk about and address. But I did not quite buy the interaction between the characters, nor was I able to easily follow much of the narrative, due to its choppy nature. The pacing of the story did not move as smoothly as I would have liked. It is well organized and the story follows a well-thought out timeline, but there are issues brought up that see little follow-up or closure, and some of interactions between the characters seem to come out of nowhere, with little background given as to how they got to where they are in the relationship. A little more time could have been taken to develop the characters and their backgrounds. With that being said, I did not feel like the story was rushed, just that some things were left out.

Favorite Moment: When Lee Lee talks about what she is learning at Northside. Even though it is not a prestigious school like St. Francis, Lee Lee's homework sounds much more interesting and relevant than Jade's.

Favorite Character: Lee Lee is someone who sticks by Jade despite the obvious challenge of not going to the same school as her. She is not jealous of any new opportunity Jade has, or even of the new friend Jade is able to make. Lee Lee simply lives her life and is there for her friend.

Favorite Quote: "Here I am, so focused on learning to speak another language, and I barely use the words I already know." - Jade

Recommended Reading: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has become a YA powerhouse since its release earlier this year. Everyone should read it, especially if you are looking for more books with protagonists of color, and that deal with real issues in our current political and social climate.   

Friday, June 16, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Welcome back to YA Fest! For the entire month of June, all of the books I will be covering will be from young adult fiction. And today, not only is the book young adult, but fantasy as well, which is a genre I rarely cover. I had the opportunity to hear Laini Taylor speak, not only about her latest book, Strange the Dreamer, but about writing in general. The cover alone is enough to make nearly anyone at least pick up the book and read the jacket in anticipation of a beautiful but unique story.

The Situation: Lazlo Strange is an orphan. At first it seemed he would grow up to be a monk, much like those who take care of him at the Zemonan Abbey. But then he took a fateful trip to the Great Library and never returned, with no one making him. It was not too hard to believe that Lazlo would become enraptured in books. He was known around the abbey to be prone to fantasy: a dreamer. And one thing he often dreamt of was the city of Weep, whose true name Lazlo used to know, but not anymore. Lazlo dreamed of Weep so much that he wrote books about it, and became an expert in a subject that was practically of little use to anyone. Of course, that would change when the Godslayer himself would come to Zosma in search if its best scholars to take back to Weep. Of course, Lazlo is no scholar, only a lowly librarian. But fortunately for him, the Godslayer had an interest in hearing some new stories.

The Problem: Lazlo not being a scholar is not so much an issue, except for some of the others who feel he has no place in their group. Thyon Nero certainly believes as much, and takes almost every opportunity to say so, bringing up numerous reasons and examples as to why. Even so, the Godslayer, Eril-Fane, is pleased to have Lazlo's company. And despite the young librarian's innocence and lack of a specialty, he is allowed to be a part of the mission, the reason Eril-Fane came to Zosma to recruit the scholars in the first place. It seems the citizens of Weep are living in a literal shadow. The home of the gods that used to torment their existence - the ones that Eril-Fane struck down years ago - hovers above the city, keeping it in a constant shadow. Eril-Fane wants nothing more than to be rid of the citadel forever, but what he does not know is that the day he slayed the gods, he missed a few; five to be exact. In the coming days, Lazlo will learn the entire history of exactly what happened in Weep, why no one remembers its true name anymore, and why ridding the city of the floating citadel is not as straightforward an issue as it seems.

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned, this is a young adult fantasy novel, set mostly in the mythical city of Weep, though it had another name once. Lazlo Strange is the protagonist and the subject of the title. As a boy, and even as he grows up into a young man, Lazlo is often ridiculed for being prone to fantasies. But it is those fantasies that will land him a place among the scholars who get to travel to Weep and aid the Godslayer in an attempt to liberate his people. Lazlo may be the main protagonist, but in the floating citadel itself is Sarai, half god, half human. She and four others - Feral, Ruby, Sparrow, and Minya - are all that are left from the time Eril-Fane managed to slaughter the gods that used to rule his people. The five of them stay in the citadel, out of sight, for fear that if the people of Weep find out they are there, they will once again attempt to kill them. Only Minya is old enough to remember the slaughter, but she holds enough bitterness and rage to cover them all, and resents the others for not being as ruthless as she is. But what the rest seem to want more than anything is to be able to live a life outside of the citadel without fear of being killed. This is certainly true of Sarai. And she is the only one among them who has a way of "visiting" the city, without ever leaving the safety of her home. As the book shifts between Sarai and Lazlo, the complicated history of Weep is revealed, making it clear that getting rid of the floating citadel will involve more than a godslayer employing a few scholars.

My Verdict: I always take a gamble when I pick up the first book of what is sure to be either a series, or at least a two-parter. And with this one, I may have lost. But although I lost, this is not a bad book. Allow me to explain: what Taylor has done here is what Sarai talks about nearly halfway through the novel, and this is create a story that is beautiful and full of monsters. Lazlo is just the kind of hero you root for, and Sarai is just the type of heroine who is capable and not at all helpless, but she still needs help. Eril-Fane is the right mix of mysterious and regal, while Thyon is the guy people will love to hate. There are countless other characters I could mention, such as Minya, the vengeful and twisted godspawn whose presence makes the reader uncomfortable, because that much hate and anger can only lead to terrible events. And then there is Weep itself, the city whose true name was lost, and whose people are still hurting from years of abuse at the hands of entities more powerful than they. It is a lovely book, but I doubt I can make myself continue in the series. The issues confronting Lazlo will not be easily solved, and that is fine, but I do not think I can handle a second installment where he will be toyed with endlessly due to his feelings, while also dealing with his newfound knowledge about himself and about Weep. I also am not interested in reading about a villain who is allowed too much control for way too long (I get enough of that in reality, and my nerves simply cannot take it). Granted, for me to abandon a series after the first book means I have to make certain assumptions for the rest of the story that may or may not be true. However, with how Strange the Dreamer ended, I am not hopeful, and may have to let this series go. But it is not the book, it is me. Those with tougher nerves and who love immersive worlds will be just fine. 

Favorite Moment: Anytime Lazlo rises above Thyon's narcissism and pettiness, which is pretty much what happens every time they interact.

Favorite Character: Lazlo is an easy pick, so I am going with it. Generally pure and good, with few faults, which is what makes him so annoying to people like Thyon. Favor has not smiled on Lazlo his entire life as it seems to have for Thyon. But somehow, the former still manages to be the better person in every situation. 

Recommended Reading: As I mentioned, I do not read much fantasy, but I did read The Reader by Traci Chee and enjoyed it a great deal.       

Friday, June 9, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

This week we continue the Door Stop Novel YA Fest - where a young adult novel will be covered every week through the month of June - with Jeff Zentner's Goodbye Days. In late 2016, I read and reviewed Zentner's debut novel The Serpent King, which was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. For his follow-up, Zentner continues with Tennessee as the setting, but this time moving from a small town to the big city.

The Situation: Summer vacation is coming to a close, which means Carver Briggs will soon return to Nashville Arts Academy. He and his three best friends, Blake, Eli, and Mars, will be finishing their senior year of high school, while focusing on their different creative strengths and generally being teenage boys. But when his friends are on their way to pick Carver up after a movie, tragedy strikes, and all three boys are killed in a horrific car accident. Now Carver's world, which was once filled with laughter, love, creativity, and support, feels empty, hollow, joyless, and oppressive. Losing his three best friends in one single motion, and right before senior year is supposed to start, is bad enough. Knowing that the friends and family of the victims, as well as many in the community, point the blame squarely at Carver himself, makes it so much worse.

The Problem: The car accident occurred moments after Carver texts Mars, asking him where they are, and to text him back. Mars was mid-text when his car slammed into the back of a truck, going 70 miles per hour. With some people, it is easy for Carver to see where he stands with them, and what they think of him. Adair, Eli's twin sister, glares at him every chance she gets. And Mars's father, a powerful judge, wants to bring criminal charges against him. But not everyone holds Carver accountable. Blake's grandmother even asks him to be a pallbearer at the funeral, and later asks to spend time with him in an attempt to better know her grandson. The day they spend together will come to be known as a Goodbye Day. And while it may achieve its purpose in that they remember Blake while also learning new things about him, it does not ease Carver's guilt, and it does not mean the panic attacks will stop. It certainly does nothing to stop those who blame him from wanting to make him pay.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in Nashville, Tennessee, and mostly focuses on four students at Nashville Arts Academy. Carver and his three friends all had to apply to attend, with each one having a different creative focus. While Carver is a writer, Eli is a musician, Mars sketches and draws, and Blake has an incredible sense of humor, one that has brought him a massive amount of followers and subscribers on YouTube. While the novel opens just after the car accident and before Blake's funeral, it occasionally flashes back to moments the boys shared together. Sometimes it is all four of them, and sometimes it is just two or three. Carver remembers his best times with his friends, while also doing his best to move forward, which is naturally difficult. It is one thing for Carver to have survivor's guilt, and it is another thing for Carver to blame himself for what happened. It becomes something else entirely when others agree with him, and they want justice. Throughout the course of the novel, Carver will be called a murderer, be told he should go to jail, and that it is not right that he profit's from his friend's death. But the title of the novel comes from the Goodbye Days he will spend remembering his friends and the people they were. 

My Verdict: The rumors were true...this book is heartbreaking. But given the premise, that is to be expected. And it is not heartbreaking to the point of lacking any and all joy or hope. Dealing with the deaths of not one, not two, but three of your best friends is a terrible thing. But everyone also wants to blame you for it? Yikes. I anticipated that I would go through the usual frustrations that I normally do with YA novels, mostly when it comes to teenagers acting like, well, teenagers and mostly being needlessly brutal and vicious, while the victim holds back and does not say anything and works through their own stuff. But this book puts a slight twist on the formula, adding incredible amounts of grief to pretty much everyone involved, as there is almost no one that was not touched by one of the deceased. Zentner manages to present the less than straightforward emotions that come with this sort of situation, especially for Carver. No one is completely in the wrong, and no is completely in the right either, except maybe Blake's grandmother. So instead of being frustrated with the characters, I spent most of the book just grieving with them and wanting everyone to find peace. It's an emotional ride as well as a great story.

Favorite Character: Georgia, Carver's older sister, is the kind of older sibling we all need. Ready to defend her little brother at every turn, and also provide a wet willy, she seems to be the character with her feet most firmly on the ground, despite the terrible tragedy they are all dealing with and the temptation to go completely off the rails.

Favorite Moment: When Nana Betsy, Blake's grandmother, shares Blake's favorite meal with Carver (fried chicken and cornbread) at the close of their Goodbye Day.

Favorite Quote: "I had to teach him that he can be the son of a judge, but if he acts the way young white men do - the way his friends do - he will be treated more harshly." - Judge Edwards, Mars's father.  

Recommended Reading: Zentner's first novel, The Serpent King, is set in a small town, and deals with grief of a different sort. Also, its main character seems to make a quick appearance in Goodbye Days.            

Friday, June 2, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls...welcome to what I am calling the Door Stop Novels YA Fest. Through complete accident and little planning of my own, every post for the month of June will cover a young adult novel. That's right. For the next five weeks, every Door Stop Novel will be a young adult fiction novel. It is no secret to anyone who reads this blog regularly that young adult is my favorite genre, and this year, I have certainly had my pick of YA books to choose from. There have been so many in fact - so many that I wanted so badly to read - that I am letting YA take over the entire month of June, which is also my favorite month. And starting things off will be The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

The Situation: Starr Carter is from the hood, and that is no exaggeration. It is not something she just says, and no one can call her a liar. She lives in Garden Heights with her mother Lisa; her father Maverick, or Big Mav; older half-brother Seven, and younger brother Sekani. To most people around the neighborhood, Starr is known mostly as "Big Mav's daughter who works at the store." While her father owns and runs the local grocery store, and refuses to move his family to a safer neighborhood, Starr and her brothers are still sent across town to attend a school in her Uncle Carlos' neighborhood. After Starr's best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting when they were ten, Big Mav and Lisa decided they needed to do what they could to keep their children safe.

The Problem: After a Spring Break party is broken up, Starr leaves with Khalil, another childhood friend. Not long after they leave, the car is pulled over, and a routine traffic stop over a busted tail light turns into Starr's worst nightmare, and it is one she has already lived. Khalil ends up shot in the back, and the officer, whom Starr will continue to refer to as One-Fifteen (his badge number) for the remainder of the book, continues to point the gun at Starr as her friend bleeds out in her lap. The event will make national news, and Starr will have more difficulty than ever balancing her two identities: the one she has in Garden Heights, and then one she has with her friends at school, where being black automatically makes her cool by default. With her neighborhood being torn apart, not only because of what happened, but also because of rival gang violence, and the judgment she fears she will receive at school, Starr tries her best to remain anonymous, and not be revealed to be the only witness, other than One-Fifteen, to Khalil's death. But if there is any hope of Khalil receiving the justice he deserves, Starr will have to speak out, despite the danger it could bring to her friends and family.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set mostly in Garden Heights, a neighborhood in a city that is never named, because really, it could be any city of substantial size in the U.S. At the center of the novel is the incident that claims Khalil's life, and the aftermath that follows...but it is not everything. Once the event makes national news, everyone is naturally giving their two cents, but Starr was actually there. Khalil may not have been armed, and he may not have done anything wrong, certainly nothing to deserve what happened, but labels such as thug and gangbanger are thrown around anyway, even by one of Starr's best friends at school. As if she is not going through enough, her family must deal with King, the biggest gang leader in Garden Heights, who has major issues with Big Mav. And what Starr knows about Khalil could put her family and friends in danger if she tells the wrong people. While keeping her family safe and alive is certainly a priority, so is getting justice for a friend who was killed for all the wrong reasons. This novel deals with unmerited violence against black people at the hands of law enforcement; gang violence; the seemingly endless cycle of drug dealing and drug abuse in the hood; the exhausting nature of being able to be one way at home, but having to be someone almost completely different when around people who do not look like you; and even the ever-present question of whether leaving a neighborhood means turning your back on it, even if you have a good reason to do it.          

My Verdict: Three words: I cannot even...I just cannot. There is a reason, several actual, for why this book made it to the top of the best-seller list for several weeks in a row. It is a book that approaches a subject that is painful for many people, black or otherwise, but sadly, it keeps coming up in today's society due to unarmed black people being shot by police. However, despite the subject matter, people do pick it up, and then they recommend it to their friends, who also pick it up. And then teachers buy it for their students, who then recommend it to their friends, and the cycle continues. And it is because it is not just a book about a difficult subject that is painfully relevant, but it is also incredibly, ridiculously, ludicrously, and almost unbelievably well written. This is a story. Thomas does not hold back and instead goes for broke, and it works in every way that it can. She even dares to address that one person in every one's life who is so blindly ignorant, but also so self-righteous that it induces a kind of rage that cannot even be identified, that they have the gall to insult some one's culture and/or how they feel about an issue, and then feel like they are owed an apology when they are called out on it. I could easily get on my soapbox right now and go on at length about why that kind of nonsense happens, but I will spare you...this is simply a wonderful book. And I try not to say this too much, but I am saying it here: everyone should read it.      

Favorite Moment: Anytime Starr's mother, Lisa, breaks down some one's name when they need to quit. We all know that moment when we have gone too far by how our parents say our name. My mother would middle-name my brother and me. And when she did, we knew we were pulling at her last nerve.

Favorite Character: It would have to be a tie between one of Starr's best friends, Maya, and Nana, her grandmother on her mother's side. Maya is small but mighty, and sticks by Starr through all of the drama. All of it. And while Nana may be a little off, she does not play around, and she loves her grandchildren.

Favorite Quote: "Daddy claims the Hogwarts houses are really gangs. They have their own colors, their own hideouts, and they are always riding for each other, like gangs. Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on one another, just like gangbangers. Death Eaters even have matching tattoos. And look at Voldemort. They're scared to say his name. Really, that "He Who Must Not Be Named" stuff is like giving him a street name. That's some gangbanging shit right there."   

Recommended Reading: Goodness, this is tough. I guess first, for the nonfiction side, I recommend The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. But for fiction, I will suggest The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It is a completely different kind of book, but like Thomas, Diaz went for broke and it paid off.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Door Stop: Ulysses by James Joyce

I am just going to go ahead and start by saying that this is by far the most cryptic book I have ever read in my life. There are books that are hard to follow, and then there is James Joyce's Ulysses. There are books that include allusions to other works, and then there is whatever is going on in this one. Reading long books is something I am used to. But this...this was a different experience entirely.

The Situation: Stephen Dedalus is a frustrated artists living in Dublin, teaching history at a boy's school. He is aloof, somewhat awkward around people, and tends to exist and operate mostly inside of his own head. It is clear from the very beginning of the novel that Dedalus is still deeply affected by the death of his mother, which about a year ago. The hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom, is the opposite of Stephen in many ways, but the two also have some things in common. While Dedalus can be hard to talk to and isolated, Bloom is friendly and cheerful, though still an outsider. However, Bloom does not mind his status as an outsider, and the words and actions of others do not affect him as much.

The Problem: Bloom may be better able to navigate life than his young friend, but he is still struggling with the death of his son, as well as his wife's infidelity, though the latter has not been confirmed. Bloom manages to be mature and grounded, and can even sympathize with others despite his own struggles. Meanwhile, Dedalus becomes harder to talk to as the novel progresses, though that could be attributed to the fact that he also becomes drunker, and his thoughts are less represented. Between the two of them, they encounter many different characters and situations as they go about their lives in early 20th-century Dublin.      

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in Dublin, Ireland in the early 20th-century. At first, the novel primarily focuses on Dedalus, with the character of Bloom being introduced in the fourth chapter, though the two men will not physically cross paths until much later in the book. Ultimately, the focus stays mostly on Bloom as he serves as the Irish everyman, and Dedalus fades further from the reader's view the drunker he gets. Joyce's story is highly allusive and structurally more or less follows Homer's Odyssey: Bloom represents Odysseus; his wife, Molly Bloom, represents Penelope; and Dedalus represents Telemachus. The novel is broken up into three parts and eighteen episodes, with each episode corresponding to a character in Homer's Odyssey. Although the original text did not include the Homeric titles, Joyce later produced them when helping a friend of his understand the structure of the book. As a whole, the novel is hard to follow, but some parts fare better than others as the structure can change from episode to episode, or even in the middle of one. Its cryptic nature is one of the main things the book is known for, as well as its history of censorship and prosecution for indecency.

My Verdict: Oh my goodness this was difficult. I have never had such a hard time finishing a book in my life, and I doubt I will ever have so much trouble again. At least I hope. Usually when I read a door stop, even if it is one I did not like, I still have some measure of accomplishment and joy when I finally finish. Turning over the final page of Ulysses gave me absolutely no sense of joy or completion. I did not get anything out of the story or connect with any of the characters. I will not be able to choose a favorite moment or a favorite character because, honestly, I do not feel like I understood enough of what happened in order to do so. Sure, Bloom seems like an okay guy, but there could have been some hidden abhorrent action that he committed that I completely missed because of my lack of understanding of what I was reading. Truly difficult stuff. Not for those who lack patience or determination.

Recommended Reading: For a door stop that is a bit more accessible, my first recommendation will always be Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. But if you wish for something a bit more modern, I will recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Stephanie Garber's Caraval was one of those books that I felt like was all over Goodreads and everyone was reading it, except me. Honestly, for the most part, a book being plastered all over Goodreads usually does not have much influence on me, as I have encountered both good and bad books that way, not to mention countless mediocre ones. But because it is YA, and because the synopsis did grab my attention, I decided to pick it up, knowing that I was potentially getting myself caught up in a brand new series that may go in a direction I won't care much for.

The Situation: Seventeen year-old Scarlett Dragna lives on the Conquered Isle of Trisda with her father and her younger sister Donatella, or Tella. Ever since she was a little girl, Scarlett dreamed of being invited to Caraval, a game filled with magic and wonder, where you can either observe, or decide to become a player, and being too swept away in the events is a real possibility. Year after year she has written letters to Legend, Caraval's mastermind organizer, only to never receive an invitation, or any indication that the games will come to Trisda. Now Scarlett is 17 and engaged to be married, believing that her chance to attend Caraval has passed. That is until she finally receives a letter from Legend inviting her, her sister, and her fiance to the games. Despite the invitation, Scarlett still believes her chance has passed. With her wedding only days away, Scarlett does not want to miss what she believes to be her only opportunity to escape life with her cruel father. But Tella refuses to let her sister settle for unhappiness as a trade-off for safety, so she hatches a plan that will get them to the games, and maybe even win.

The Problem: It is hard enough for Scarlett to think of what her father, the Governor of Trisda, will do to either her or her sister once he realizes they have escaped. If he finds them, the punishment will likely be more severe than anything he has ever inflicted upon them. Of course, Scarlett is also worried about missing her wedding; her one chance of truly escaping life with her father. And then there is Julian, the mysterious stranger whom Tella has enlisted to help in her plot. Handsome, charming, and completely untrustworthy, Julian is instrumental in helping Tella put her plan in place. When Tella disappears once they reach Caraval, Julian is the only person Scarlett can lean on as she tries to track down her sister and leave Caraval in order to make it back home in time for her wedding. Unfortunately, Legend seems to have a plan of his own, as he kidnaps Tella and makes her and Scarlett a part of the game. And if Scarlett does not win, she may lose her sister forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fantasy novel set in a fictional world. Scarlett and Tella reside on the Conquered Isle of Trisda with their cruel father, the Governor. Later, they will travel to Caraval, a place that Scarlett had always dreamed of being invited to, though when she finally is, the timing could not be worse. Throughout the sisters' entire time at Caraval, the line between what is real and what is only part of the game is continually blurred, almost to the point where Scarlett is nearly driven to despair. There is no one she can fully trust, and when she does it almost always proves to be a mistake. No one and nothing are as they seem, and while there are rules to the game, no one plays fair, and everyone is only out for themselves.While Scarlett has to constantly decide who she can trust, and what she can believe to be real, she also must decide how much power she gives other people over her actions and her feelings. Her father had always manipulated both daughters as a way to control them, and the people of Caraval are proving to be no different. Ultimately, Scarlett must be stronger and smarter than ever before, while understanding that things may not be as they seem.    

My Verdict: I have mixed feelings about this one. For the most part, the story is interesting, complex, and with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing as to what is really going on. The reader ends up just as confused and lost as Scarlett, especially when it comes to who to trust and who to avoid. But sometimes - often actually - there are just a few too many twists and turns, and the mysterious characters are almost too many to count. Plus, for Caraval to be such a supposedly magical place, all that I could imagine it to be was an amusement park that was geared more towards adults rather than children and families. Also, there has to be a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief applied in order for the story to come through completely, but I suppose that can be attributed to the more fantastic elements of the story. And as far as protagonists go, Scarlett has to be one of the most naive and annoying ones that I have come across in a long time. Sure, her situation is crazy and confusing, but there is only so much  I can take of someone constantly being surprised when people do not turn out to be who they say they are.

Favorite Moment: Honestly, I am not sure. Possibly whenever Julian proves to be more trustworthy than initially believed.

Favorite Character: Except for Scarlett, no one is as they seem, or as they present themselves, including Tella. But Scarlett annoyed me too much for me to pick her. So instead I choose Julian. He is both helpful and deceptive, but ultimately more helpful.

Recommended Reading: Despite having an ending I take issue with, I choose The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Graphic Novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

So far, 2017 has been a good year for me and graphic novels. Normally, I am doing well to get in one graphic novel a year. Today's selection will actually be the fourth one I have covered this year, and it is only May. When I found out Octavia E. Butler's Kindred was going to receive the graphic novel treatment, I do not think I could have been more excited. After reading Kindred in graduate school, I remember being so happy when I was done reading it, not because it is a bad book or because it is badly written (it is neither of those things), but because the material was so hard to deal with and the situation was so tense and difficult. I felt bad for the protagonist and just wanted her to be safe and happy, knowing that neither of those things were going to happen quickly or easily. But despite any hesitation I may have felt due to past experiences with the novel, I was excited for this adaptation and hope you would be too.

The Situation: Dana is a struggling writer living in 1970s California with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly - without warning and seemingly without reason - she is transported from her living room, to a plantation in the pre-Civil War south. After rescuing a young white boy from drowning, Dana is rebuked by what has to the boy's mother, and after the father points a gun in her face, she transports back to her home where Kevin is waiting for her. To Kevin, she was only gone for less than a few seconds, but the time she spent with the little boy and his family was at least a few minutes. No one knows what happened, least of all Dana. What is worse is that no one can predict when it will happen again. Each time Dana is transported back, more time has passed on the plantation, and the little boy, Rufus, grows up bigger and just a little more dangerous.

The Problem: Time travel is trouble enough. Time travel to pre-Civil War America is something else entirely. And time travel to pre-Civil War America as a black woman who is used to living in the late 20th century is an adventure that no one would ever sign up for. If Dana were white, her adventures on the Weylin estate would go very differently. No worries about being captured and sold as a slave; no worries about being beaten just because of the color of her skin; life in general would be much easier. It is on her second visit that Dana realizes she is not being transported to just any slavery plantation, but apparently one where her ancestors lived, and Rufus is one of them. Without her help, Rufus will get himself into enough trouble that he will endanger her entire family line. But in order to save her family's history, she has to help him do the unthinkable, during a time in America's history where the unthinkable was not only allowed, but expected.  

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned before, this is a graphic novel adaptation of a science fiction novel written by Butler. Kindred was first published in 1979, and is probably Butler's most studied work, so it is not surprising that it would be the one to be adapted into a graphic novel. As is probably obvious, slavery is a prominent theme. The peculiar institution is both straightforward and not, managing to always benefit those in charge, while taking from those who already have nothing. No matter what work you are given to do as a slave, or what position you hold, at the end of the day you are some one's property and will be treated as such. Even any claims to freedom as a black person are tenuous at best; having the proper papers and documents can help, but nothing is guaranteed. With each trip back in time, Dana not only learns a little bit more about the people and operations of the Weylin plantation, but also about how to survive as a black woman out of time in a place where black people knowing how to read and write is frowned upon. And if Rufus is selfish and destructive as a little boy, then he is manipulative, entitled, and downright sociopathic as an adult. Dana must navigate the laws of the antebellum south in order to save herself, in more ways than one.

My Verdict: The novel was tough to get through. The graphic novel moves a little quicker due to the nature of the format, but still, it was hard to keep turning the pages at some points. With that being said, this adaptation does not disappoint and is a fantastic tribute to Butler's work. There are certain parts of the book that I remember being incredibly powerful, and for whatever reason they just did not come through as well in this version of the story. The impact of most of the harsher moments were softened, thankfully. But that also means that the moments whose power you wish to keep were also softened, taking away from the overall effect of the story. Still, Butler's story about the institution of slavery from the viewpoint of a 20th century black woman still comes across in all of its complexity and power, and with full color pages to help depict Dana's harrowing story and journey.

Favorite Moment: When Dana makes the decision that Rufus has broken whatever agreement they had between them, and decides to act on her own in order to return home.

Favorite Character: I don't know if Kevin is my favorite character, or if I just feel bad for him. He has to watch his wife go through something that no one would be able to logically explain, much less help with. And at one point *spoiler alert* he even gets stuck in the past when Dana transports without him. 

Recommended Reading: For more Octavia Butler, I recommend Fledgling. For another graphic novel, I recommend Habitat by Simon Roy.