Friday, January 30, 2015

Classic Fiction: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Often when I go over a work that can be classified as a classic I tend to relax and have less anxiety when I first start to read it because the book has already withstood the test of time and there is less cause for me to wander if it will be any good. Granted, that doesn't mean that every classic I have picked up I ended up liking. In fact, there are quite a few that I have been pretty disappointed with, but I had a very good feeling about Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, which was also published under the title Ten Little Indians.

The Situation: Ten people have been invited to Soldier Island, all for various reasons, and they all accepted. Dr. Armstrong, Emily Brent, William Blore, Vera Claythorne, Philip Lombard, General Macarthur, Anthony Marsten, Thomas and Ethel Rogers, and Justice Wargrave all arrive at the island, not knowing anyone else among the other nine visitors, with the exception of course being Thomas and Ethel Rogers, a husband and wife pair who were hired as the servants for the host and their guests. But once everyone begins to get to know one another, it becomes clear that they were all summoned by different means and by different people. And their gracious host has yet to make an appearance.

The Problem: After the guests had finished their dinner, a resounding voice announces the real reason they are all there. Apparently all ten people, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers included, have played a major part in some sort of grave injustice that someone believes they should be held accountable for. And after nearly everyone has explained themselves and their situation, the guests begin to die off, one by one. This quite naturally leads some of the guests to search both the house and the island in an attempt to flush out the murderer and his hiding place. But once it is quite clear that there is no one else on the island aside from the original ten, then the only conclusion that can be reached is that one of them is the murderer. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a classic and fairly well-known mystery and suspense novel from the great Agatha Christie, originally published in 1939. It is one of those books I have always known about but never quite got around to reading until now. The other title, Ten Little Indians, comes from a nursery rhyme the guests find posted inside of the house that tells the story of ten little Indians that all have some curious event happen to them until there are none. The rhyme comes from a song written in 1869, which was an adaptation of another song written by Septimus Winner in 1868. Each one of the "little Indians" in the song dies or disappears in a certain way, and it seems pretty clear after only the first death that the murderer intends to follow the rhyme pretty closely when it comes to the death of the guests. And while some of the guests do feel guilt over the crimes they have been accused of, others do not, and still others do not feel like they have committed any crime at all and the situations were simply unfortunate accidents. Apparently, their accuser doesn't seem to care how they feel about their crimes, and if they don't get off the island then they are all doomed.

My Verdict: Pulling off the murder of ten different people in such a complex and interesting way would be a task for any writer, but Christie manages to pull it off, and all under 300 pages. This book is an incredibly quick read and very easy to follow, despite there being ten suspects to follow around in the beginning, although that number does begin to dwindle quickly. There are, of course, certain points that pulled away from the realm of believability. I mean, I have a hard time believing that anyone could really pull off something like this and not be caught, but Christie creates a murderer who is a master of planning and patience, and one who also knows about people and how they react. If you enjoy murder mysteries, especially the kind that aren't just gore-fests, but still sufficiently creepy and scary, then this book is definitely for you.

Favorite Moment: It is hard to pick one favorite moment as I was basically just waiting for the next body to turn up because I was so interested in how the murderer was pulling all of this off. The whole book is a disturbing but wild ride.

Favorite Character: I think Dr. Armstrong ended up being my favorite character. He was the most helpful, as well as one that was able to remain calm despite all of the killing that kept happening around him. Of all ten of the guests, he was the one I was pulling for the most. 

Recommended Reading: Unfortunately this is the only Christie book I have ever read, and I am not that big into mystery novels, so coming up with a recommendation has proven difficult. So I'll recommend Night Film by Marisha Pessl. It is also a murder mystery, but it is much longer and much darker, and slightly more complicated.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I was already on the fence about attempting to read David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks before I saw it had been nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award for 2014. Once I found it at the school library, I knew it would make it into the blog eventually, even as I was a little scared as well as excited to attempt my first Mitchell novel.

The Situation: It is 1984 and fifteen year-old Holly Sykes has run away from home. Although she doesn't have a plan anywhere to run, especially after finding out that the man who she only recently professed her love to doesn't necessarily feel the same way in return, she refuses to endure anymore of her mother's treatment. It is a shocking and hurtful literal slap to the face that wakes Holly up to her inability to live in her own home any longer. She realizes she'll be leaving behind not only her mother and father, but also her younger siblings Sharon, and the odd but always incredibly loveable Jacko. Before she even steps out of the house, it seems that Jacko already knows Holly will never be returning, and hands her a picture of a maze, or labyrinth, and makes her promise that she'll memorize the way out of it. Holly promises, and sets out on an adventure that she doesn't realize will effect her entire life, and those around her.

The Problem: Holly isn't the only one who goes missing that day. Just a few days after she has successfully disappeared and procured a temporary job at a strawberry farm, Holly is found by a school friend and learns that Jacko has disappeared. It is a disappearance that causes Holly to return home, and also spend the rest of her life looking for her brother. As the decades roll by, Holly will come across key people in her life that are also somehow connected to Jacko's disappearance, and it won't be until her mid-fifties that she finally begins to receive some answers as to what happened that fateful day, and what is still going on now. Turns out both she and her little brother had gained the attention of both sides of an ongoing epic war. And while Holly would like to think that everything hinged on her decision to run away all those years ago, she will eventually learn that things just aren't that simple.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a novel that I decided to stick with the always far too vague and general "contemporary" heading, but I think could also be labeled as science fiction given a fairly convincing argument. The story begins in 1984, and doesn't conclude until the not-so-distant future of 2043. But just going into the future isn't what could push this book into the heading of science fiction. The entire story revolves around an ongoing battle between two different types of seemingly immortal entities. There are those that are endlessly reincarnated into a different body as their old bodies die, and then there are those who consume souls in order to keep living. Just having these two types of beings in the story would be enough, but the way they battle with each other is really what gives the book it's epic feel. The Bone Clocks could also be considered a coming-of-age story, as it begins during Holly's teen years and continues well into her old age, although there are entire sections of time that are skipped over. And while there are several different first-person narrators throughout the length of the story, Holly always features heavily as the novel's central figure. Everything seems to happen either because of her, or around her, and she finds herself involved whether she wants to be or not.

My Verdict: This book is incredibly entertaining, but also exhausting. And the ending is a slow painful crawl. Actually, my main issue with the book is not necessarily its length - although it is a door stop at 600+ pages - but for how long the ending drags. If the book ended about 50 pages earlier than it did I probably would have given it a higher rating on Goodreads. Instead of ending it at a point that, at least to me, felt fairly natural, Mitchell extends it for an entire extra section, seemingly for the purpose of asserting that there is no God, religion is a placebo, and we are destroying the earth to a point that will cause us to live as if the zombie apocalypse has indeed happened, only it doesn't happen, by the 2040s. But I must say that everything up to that point is actually pretty awesome, and I see why there was such a buzz about Mitchell coming out with a new novel.

Favorite Moment: When Holly asserts to an atemporal being that she'll regret threatening Holly's family. While things look bleak at the moment of the assertion, somehow it comforted me into believing that this was the beginning of the end of the war.

Favorite Character: While Holly turns out to be a terrific heroine, despite the beginning where she is mostly a headstrong teenager who thinks she knows everything, I pick the being Marinus, who fights on the good side of the war, and makes appearances in key points in Holly's life.

Recommended Reading: As I said, this was my first Mitchell novel, so I can't in good faith recommend another one. So instead I will recommend Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. These are two very different novels with very little in common with one another, but there were elements of Mitchell's novel that reminded me of events in Angelmaker

Friday, January 16, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

And here we are for the third and final book in the Anna and the French Kiss series by Stephanie Perkins. I first took notice of the series when I saw that Isla and the Happily Ever After was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. Although it did not win, scouring the list of nominations isn't a bad way to potentially find my next favorite book, so I gave this series a shot.

The Situation: Isla has just had her wisdom teeth removed and can only eat soft foods. She finds herself at a cafe not too far from her home in New York City when she spots Josh, a fellow student at the School of America in Paris, or SOAP. Both Isla and Josh will be seniors this year, and while she will be returning with her best friend Kurt, who is now a junior, she can't help but take mental note that Josh will be returning without his now ex-girlfriend Rashmi, who graduated last year. Isla has always been well aware of Josh's relationship status, since she has had a crush on him since their freshman year. And now, the shy and usually reserved Isla finds herself calling out to the boy of her dreams the summer before they are to return to school, and she is only mildly aware that she is somewhat drugged up on painkillers and may be making a complete fool herself. Even so, the conversation she is having with him right now is real, and she hopes it will only lead to more.

The Problem: While Rashmi is definitely in the past and no longer an issue, Josh's lax attitude towards his classes and his attendance still remains - an attitude that was a major point of contention between him and Rashmi. When he isn't using Jewish holidays that he doesn't even celebrate to his advantage and a way to miss school, he is leaving the country on weekends on many adventures, hoping to not get caught. Isla has the highest grades in her class, and is usually big on following the rules. It also doesn't help that her little sister, Hattie, is a freshman at SOAP this year and has no problem giving Isla a hard time. So when it becomes clear that Josh likes her back and they are beginning to have some sort of dating relationship, true love may not be enough to keep them together if Josh can't stay out of trouble and, even worse, takes Isla down with him. Plus, while Isla knew all about Rashmi and his life before her, she's not sure if her own insecurities will let her overcome his past. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that takes place in a variety of cities. The story starts off in New York City, where both Isla and Josh's families live. But of course, like Anna and St. Clair in the first book, both of them attend SOAP in Paris during the school year. But there are trips back home to New York, and even one side trip to Spain for a night, despite leaving the country being against the rules during the school year. Just like with Lola and the French Kiss, characters from the previous books make a brief appearance. In fact, even Meredith shows up along with Lola and Cricket. And because the story takes place during the year of the Winter Olympics, there is some talk about Cricket's twin sister Calliope and her figure skating. While Anna had to deal with St. Clair having a girlfriend at the beginning of their senior year, and Lola had to deal with the past heartbreak she had experienced from Cricket, Isla's issue is that she has been hung up on Josh since freshman year, and now she isn't sure she is worthy of him. It doesn't take a whole lot for jealousy and insecurity to put a damper on any relationship, now matter how much the two people supposedly love each other. Isla and the Happily Ever After is another study in the complexity of teenage relationships made even more complicated by miscommunication and other teenagers.

My Verdict: While it is nice to come to the end of the series and get some closure not only on Isla's story, but also Anna's and Lola's, this last book still left me somewhat disappointed. For whatever reason, I expected to like Isla more than I did. And while she was much more likeable than Lola, there were still glimpses into her personality that left me excited for the awful and inevitable reality check she most certainly had coming. Maybe it was her insecurities coming through, or maybe it was Josh's relaxed attitude towards everything, despite him being a smart guy with plenty of potential, but I don't think I would want to be friends with these two in real life. However, I will say that Isla has a certain honesty about her that her two predecessors did not have. Although, her admissions that you have to come from money to attend SOAP, and that a lot of the kids there have never worked a day in their lives, didn't really help me feel like I could relate to them. Also, while the setting returned to Paris with a few trips to New York, the adventures around Paris just didn't have the same novelty about them that they did in the first book, but that may be because, unlike Anna, Isla was already familiar with the city, so explanation about the city was less necessary. 

Favorite Moment: When Isla reconnects briefly with an old friend and the younger sister of Rashmi, Sanjita. Their brief conversation helps Isla realize that she isn't as clueless about her own future and what she wants as she thought.

Favorite Character: Kurt is Isla's best friend who has very high-functioning Autism. He may be hard to talk to sometimes, even for Isla, who has known him her entire life and knows exactly how he operates, but he is a devoted friend who will speak the truth, whether or not Isla cares to hear it.

Recommended Reading: Of course I pick Lola and the Boy Next Door. While all three books could potentially stand on their own, they are definitely better when read as a series. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins is the natural follow-up to last week's Anna and the French Kiss. Both books are part of a three-book series that ended with this year's Goodreads Choice Award nominee for Best Young Adult Fiction, Isla and the Happily Ever After. And while all three books have a different heroine and narrator, characters from the previous books do make appearances.

The Situation: Seventeen year-old Lola loves to dress up. And I don't mean dress up as in simply try on all of the clothes in her closet in an attempt to come up with immaculate and trendy outfits that will grab the attention of guys and the envy of girls. Lola likes to wear costumes, and wigs, and lots and lots of accessories. With Lola, it is almost as if everyday were Halloween. At the start of the story, Lola's next costume project includes making a dress Marie Antoinette might have worn, with the layers of undergarments included, for her high school's winter dance. She even intends to put together a wig two feet tall, completing the look. Her parents, Andy and Nathan, support her completely in her clothing choices and don't do anything to sway her. The only thing they would love to sway her away from is her boyfriend Max, who is the lead-singer in a local rock band...and 22 years-old. But Lola is adamant that Max is the one for her, and she does what she can to hold onto that belief even with the return of her first love, Cricket, who also happens to be her neighbor.

The Problem: Aside from wanting to walk into her school's winter dance in her huge dress and under her massive wig, with Max by her side, Lola also wanted to never see the Bell twins again. Both Cricket and his sister Calliope caused her plenty of pain before they moved away two years ago, allowing a string of renters to go in and out of the house next door. But when Lola sees a moving truck in the neighbor's driveway, she fears she is going to have to confront the past again, as well as the first boy that had a hold of her heart. Of course, Max has her heart now, and Cricket did break it once. It also doesn't help that the other Bell twin, Calliope, is not exactly a joy to be around. While keeping her distance may have been Lola's initial plan, it doesn't work out that way, and soon she and Cricket are spending more time together than ever. But as Max becomes more resentful and jealous, and Lola becomes more confused, it becomes apparent that something has to be done, and it won't be easy. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in modern-day San Francisco. As I mentioned in the introduction, this is the second book in the Anna and the French Kiss series. While Anna and St. Clair aren't incredibly prominent cast members, they do make enough of an appearance for the reader to see how their relationship is progressing now that they are both in college and away from Paris. A prominent theme that remains a constant from the beginning is the idea of wearing costumes. Two points are made: the first being that costumes can hide the real you, and if you're constantly wearing one are you ever really yourself? The second being that costumes often expose you by showing you for who you really are and what you really desire. In a strange way, both theories can be applied to Lola, something she has to figure out for herself as the book progresses. Another theme was the always interesting question of how much our past, or the past of our parents and perhaps other generations that preceded even them, determines who we are today and who we will be in the future. Lola's mother is actually her dad Nathan's sister, but she wasn't ready to raise a kid when she had her, and still has trouble pulling her life together. Lola often wonders if she is predestined for the same undesirable future as her mother, while simultaneously resolving to not have that happen.

My Verdict: As with Anna and the French Kiss, I still maintain that teenagers are the worst. However, this book doesn't have quite the same amount of tension between teenagers that the first one did, although there is more general angst, mostly from Lola and Max, and Max isn't even a teenager. Much of the general tension actually comes from Lola and her interaction with her parents, mostly over her relationship with Max. Even with this tension, I probably would have enjoyed the book more if Lola was more likable. While it isn't impossible to like a book even though the main character isn't that great, I had a hard time getting past Lola's pride, arrogance, and willful blindness about the situations going on around her. She generally can't be trusted, and like most teenagers, strongly believes she knows what is best and that everyone else is wrong. Also, she is essentially a manic pixie dream girl. Yeah, there is only so much of that I can handle. But overall, the story isn't bad. And it was nice to catch up with Anna and St. Clair. Also, since San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world, I always love having it as the setting in any book I read.

Favorite Moment: When Lola and her best friend Lindsay go as each other for Halloween, which really only requires Lindsay to dress up in costume as she wears fairly normal clothes every other day of the year, unlike her friend.

Favorite Character: Cricket is just an all-around fantastic guy, and it's not hard to see why Lola fell for him in the first place. He is the literal boy next door, and he enjoys making automatons and Rube Goldberg machines, like the one in the beginning of The Goonies that is over engineered to do the simple task of opening the front fence. He is also incredibly patient and long-suffering since his entire life has been spent following his sister around as she built her career as an ice skater, and he doesn't seem to resent it at all.

Recommended Reading: Of course I am going to recommend the first book in the series, Anna and the French Kiss. Both books have fabulous settings, but it is hard for pretty much any city to go up against Paris.    

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I wrote a book. Yes, me.

In November 2013 I made my first attempt at National Novel Writing Month. I managed to hit the 50,000 word mark, and after heavy editing and an additional 25,000+ words, I submitted it to a few publishers. Now my young adult novel has a release date of February 12, 2015 and is up for presale. 

Yeah...I can't believe it either.

Reaper is now up for presale on the Black Rose Writing website. And if you preorder it, you can use the code PREORDER2015 and receive a 10% discount.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

After seeing that Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction, I decided to check out the entire series, which started in 2010 with Anna and the French Kiss. It seems as if my fate is to explore at least one YA trilogy per year on this blog, and really, that isn't so bad as far as fates go. YA quickly became one of my favorite genres of fiction only a few short years ago, so I'll go for any opportunity to read a novel written for the younger set.

The Situation: Anna Oliphant is starting her senior year of high school. But instead of returning to her familiar high school in Atlanta, Georgia with her best friend Bridgette and ex-boyfriend/friend Matt, she has packed her bags and grabbed her passport to attend the School of America in Paris, or SOAP. Paris is a far cry from Atlanta, and while this may be the opportunity of a lifetime - being able to spend her senior year of high school in the City of Lights - Anna is less than thrilled. She is only attending because of her father's insistence and need to impress others. Anna would rather continue with her hobby of reviewing films for fun, while also holding down a part-time job at a local Atlanta theater where her crush also works. As she stumbles through her first few days in Paris, keeping her room cleaner than most teenagers would and avoiding having to make any attempt at speaking French, she meets her neighbor, Meredith, and her other friends. While Meredith is single, Rashmi is dating Josh, the only junior of the group. And then there is St. Clair.

The Problem: St. Clair is definitely not single. His longtime girlfriend has already graduated and is attending a college not too far away. But that hasn't stopped Meredith from having a massive crush on him, and it doesn't seem to be stopping Anna either. But she manages to keep reminding herself that not only is St. Clair taken, but she also has Toph, who continues to email and call her from Atlanta. And as Anna keeps reminding herself about how things really stand, she and St. Clair become good friends. But if that is where he wants the relationship to stay, then why does he seem jealous of Toph? And any other guy that shows Anna any attention? Even as she continues to get to know him, Anna can never tell if St. Clair is just being the charming guy that everyone likes, or if he is giving her special attention. Either way, it still doesn't change the fact that he has a girlfriend, Meredith likes him, and against her better judgement, so does Anna. Soon, the fact that she is far away from home becomes the least of her worries.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that follows an American girl as she attends her senior year in a boarding school in Paris. So not only does Anna have to deal with being a high school senior, but she has to do so while getting used to a whole new school, in a whole new city, in a whole new country. Naturally there is plenty of comparisons between the U.S. and France, as well as much talk about the sights, sounds, people, and food of Paris. Because the school that Anna attends is specifically for American students, she doesn't have to use French too much while on campus, accept of course, during French class. But Anna does have the usual amount of culture shock when she first arrives, and it takes her a little longer than most to venture outside of the campus and really explore the most romantic city in the world. Once she gets past the issues that come from navigating a strange culture, Anna still has to deal with all of the issues that naturally come with being a teenager and dealing with high school. As a senior she is applying to colleges, but since it is her first year at SOAP, she is stuck taking beginning French with the freshmen. And of course, as with most YA novels, their is the required mean girl who decides to taunt and humiliate her for no real reason. One theme that came up the somewhat surprised me was the idea of the comfort zone and that, despite its name, it can sometimes get you into trouble if you're too hesitant to venture away from it.

My Verdict: Ugh, teenagers are the absolute worst. The only thing worse than teenagers is having to go to high school with them. This book is full of all of the reasons why people have wished there was mandatory homeschooling legislation, or at least college-prep courses that we could have started in middle school. And a high school that you also live in? Yikes. But even with all of the incredibly painful events Anna must live through, it didn't make me anxious when it came time to pick the book back up and continue reading. In fact, I couldn't put it down. The main characters are interesting, the side characters are interesting, this setting is Paris, and the school itself is intriguing enough without being made into a completely inaccessible novelty. YA readers will appreciate the foreign setting, unique circumstances, relateable characters, and all too familiar humiliations and miscommunication.

Favorite Moment: When Anna realizes that there are movie theaters all around the school that show movies in English, therefore allowing her to continue with her hobby.

Favorite Character: There was really no one character that I absolutely loved, but I will go ahead and pick Rashmi. She used to be the best friend of St. Clair's longtime girlfriend, but this was before Ellie graduated and basically ditched all of her old friends. But now she is dating Josh, keeping straight A's so she can get into Brown, while also keeping her friends in line when they act stupid or get into petty arguments. She can be rigid and standoffish, but ultimately, you want her on your side.

Recommended Reading: Pretty much anything by Sarah Dessen would suffice. But in the name of specificity, I will choose Along for the Ride, which also happens to be my personally favorite of the Dessen novels I have read.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

After seeing it in the list of nominations for Best Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards, I decided to pick up Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress from the university library. The only other novel I have ever read by Atwood is her well-known classic The Handmaid's Tale, which I was pretty ambivalent towards. With that being said, I wasn't really sure what to expect from Atwood's most recent publication.

Genre, Themes, History: Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories or tales, most of which can stand alone. As explained in the acknowledgments, some of the stories have been published previously, while others are tales about other tales. The first three, Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady, are linked together and include characters that knew each other long ago and are being reunited through various events. And with the exception of Lusus Naturae, and perhaps also The Freeze-Dried Groom, each story includes characters that would be considered senior citizens, something I probably only noticed because of my tendency towards young adult fiction, or at least books that don't center around characters that are beyond retirement age. But the stories don't all deal with death and life and reflection as you might think they would. Many of the stories are slightly dark in humor, if they have any humor at all, and don't deal with kindly old grandmas and grandpas that are spending the rest of their years knitting and fishing. Many of them are writers, one is a gold-digging black widow, and most have some major character flaw that have placed them in the situation they're in. There were moments where I was ready to label this as a horror story collection because there are moments when things become incredibly scary (and Torching the Dusties is downright haunting). And there are other moments when things become unreal or part fantasy. But Atwood introduces these elements in such a way that makes it all seem almost natural, like it is what is supposed to happen.    

My Verdict: As with most short story collections, not every single one was a revelation. But the ones that are certainly make up for the ones that aren't. Simply put, Atwood knows how to tell a good story. Part of me was hoping that the ongoing storyline that reached across Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady would continue throughout the other six stories in the book, but no such luck. However, it is just as well as most of the other six were still incredibly enjoyable and left me wanting more. And fortunately, the stories that didn't exactly leave me wanting more tended to be shorter and easier to breeze past. Even if you're like me and have a tendency to skip over short story collections, I recommend picking up this particular collection. It is just shy of 300 pages and won't take up too much of your time.

Must Read: My personal favorite would be the storyline that extends through Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady. They are linked beautifully and each new reveal only made we want the story to continue on longer.

Okay to Miss: My least favorite was Lusus Naturae. Fortunately, it is also the shortest of the nine and an incredibly fast read.

Recommended Reading: It is only natural that I would recommend The Handmaid's Tale as it is the only other Atwood book I have read. However, I will also recommend The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. Like Atwood, Walton manages to include elements of fantasy and makes them appear as a natural part of the story, as opposed to something out of the ordinary.