Friday, December 8, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When the 2017 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced, I was glad to see that Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 had made the cut. Also on that list was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a story of the relationship between two people and their decision to leave their homeland as it is torn apart by war.

The Situation: Saeed is a thoughtful, dutiful boy who lives with his parents. Nadia lives in an apartment by herself after deciding that living under her parent's roof was not for her. The two meet in an evening class, and although it took more than one attempt, Saeed eventually convinces Nadia to come have coffee with him. While their country implodes around them, the two young students manage to foster a relationship, and eventually Nadia moves in with Saeed as she realizes the danger of a woman living alone as the situation outside becomes more intense. And as things escalate, it becomes clear that the idea of leaving the entire country will have to be more than just a passing thought. More and more, the two begin hearing about  doors that open up into other parts of the world. If this is true, then there could be hope to escape and begin a new life in a safer location.

The Problem: The doors may make it easier to get to a safe location, but the usual issues regarding refugees and immigration still persist. With the amount of countries experiencing war and conflict, the locations the doors lead to suffer overpopulation and their own brand of conflict. There are many doors of course, but the ones to the best locations are heavily guarded, while the others are ignored due to lack of interest. After the first move, Saeed and Nadia soon find the need to move again. It is one thing to gain safe passage through a door that leads to a better location, but it is another thing to be allowed to stay in that location. Also, there is the strain that the situation can put on Saeed and Nadia's relationship. There may be a natural sense of loyalty to each other with every decision and step they take in their journey, but it may not be enough to hold them together forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often categorized under magical realism, fantasy, and literary fiction. Human beings migrating from one place to another is nothing strange or new, but being able to use a door to quickly go from a Greek island to the city of London is not something we are familiar with. Hamid gives a twist to the story of the refugee fleeing their homeland in search of a safer place to live. And while he may have made the actual journey a bit easier, everything else stayed the same, from the hostilities they face from those who inhabit their new location, to the hoops they have to jump through in order to gain access to the doors. Also, Saeed and Nadia's relationship proves to not be immune to the stresses of being a refugee. They always look after each other, and stay close to each other, but the romantic feelings are certainly difficult to maintain. While they are certainly the focus of the novel, the story does often move away from them in order to briefly talk about someone else in another part of the world and their experience with either a door, war, or the migration situation.

My Verdict: This is certainly an inventive and interesting take on a story we have heard before. Instead of having the characters make the long arduous journey across a country and a border, Hamid allows them to simply step through a door, though the argument could be made as to whether this actually makes anything easier. Just because a journey is made quicker does not mean it is safer or better. My only issue is that while Saeed seems fully fleshed out, Nadia seems to be little more than the cliched fiercely independent girl that no one (including Saeed sometimes) seems to know how to react to. But their relationship feels real, as well as the issues that come with it. It is a fairly short novel, so even if you find yourself less than interested about a quarter of the way through, I suggest continuing if only to find out where the couple's journey through various doors finally lands them.

Favorite Moment: When Saeed's father begins to regard Nadia as a daughter rather than just his son's friend.

Favorite Character: Saeed is as steadfast and loyal as they come. His consistency serves the pair well as they go on their often perilous journey.

Recommended Reading: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini also tells of choices made that take characters around the globe and how their lives are altered as a result.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Winners of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards

This is it! The winners of the annual Goodreads Choice Awards have been determined. After three rounds of voting, you the readers have made your voices heard as to which books have been your favorites for 2017. So let's get to it.

Unfortunately no DSNs took home the top prize for Best Fiction, but when it comes to Best Mystery & Thriller, Paula Hawkins has done it again with Into the Water, two years after winning it for The Girl on the Train. Honestly, I am surprised, as I figured Dan Brown's Origin had it for sure. 

Although I was really pulling for Dot Hutchison's The Roses of May, I cannot say I am surprised at Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King taking home the win for Best Horror. When it comes to horror, it's hard to beat that guy, who has had many wins over the years for Goodreads Choice Awards. But this is his son Owen's first win. 

I could not be more excited for Kate Moore and her win for The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women in the Best History & Biography category. This is a truly fascinating book, though it can be hard to read as many of the women literally fall apart before their loved ones' eyes after continuous and sustained contact with radium. This is truly a well-earned win and I am excited for those readers that will discover this book as a result. 

Sarah Andersen has won the award for Best Graphic Novels & Comics for the second year in a row. Last year she won for Adulthood is a Myth, and this year it is Big Mushy Happy Lump that takes the category. Clearly her observations about life as an introverted artist and bookworm resonates with people. 

If someone asked me what I would name as the book of the year, I would have to answer with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This book absolutely smashed the competition in the Best Debut Goodreads Author category, while also taking a second win in the always incredibly competitive Best Young Adult Fiction category, beating out usual regulars and favorites such as John Green (Turtles All the Way Down) and Sarah Dessen (Once and for All). Add the fact that it spent nearly a year on the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and you have one powerhouse of a book. Congratulations to Ms. Thomas!

And there you have it. Four DSN books took home wins in five different categories, and I could not be more pleased. And of course, more than anything, these awards help to introduce to me other books and authors that I may have missed. So until next year's awards, I will be reading and discovering more books. I know I will never be able to read and cover every book that ends up being nominated, but I will have a hell of a fun time trying.    

Friday, December 1, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus just might be worth my time. I do not know how many times it I saw it on the New York Times Bestseller list before I finally added it on Goodreads. I also do not know what it was that made me ignore it for so long. The premise is interesting, it's YA, it has a decent rating...what was wrong with me?

The Situation: On a fairly regular Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High School have managed to score themselves some time in detention. It is a veritable The Breakfast Club situation with Bronwyn Rojas, the Brain; Addy Prentiss, the Beauty; Nate Macauley, the Criminal; Cooper Clay, the Athlete; and Simon Kelleher, the Outcast. All five go in, but only four come out alive. Simon goes into anaphylactic shock after taking a drink of water, and is taken to the hospital. Moments later, everyone is informed that he didn't make it and was pronounced dead. There is much suspicion as Simon had a severe peanut allergy, but all he did was drink water; all of the epipens were mysteriously missing from the nurse's office; it is later revealed that Simon's cup had peanut oil in it; and the epipen he usually keeps in his backpack was also missing. Oh, and there is also the small detail that Simon ran a gossip app that ruined many of his classmates' lives, and his next scheduled post was going to reveal secrets about the four people he was in detention with.

The Problem: High School is hard enough when you aren't being investigated for murder. But not only do the Bayview Four now have their lives under a microscope, but someone is still posting messages on Tumblr regarding the murder and the most likely suspects. Though Simon is no longer around to post to the app, someone is still spilling secrets, and insisting that not only were they in the room when it happened, but that they are the one responsible. Each one of the Bayview Four had a reason to hurt Simon, but so did everyone else in school. Everyone also has something they want to keep hidden, and Simon knew that. With more secrets coming to light with every passing day, and the police no closer to finding Simon's killer, Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, and Cooper realize they will have to figure things out for themselves, and hope they get to keep some secrets hidden in the process.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel in which the action begins in September, just after the semester begins, and ends before Thanksgiving. The first-person narrative switches between the four prime suspects as the time moves along. Only two of the Bayview Four can be said to be close, as Addy is dating Cooper's best friend, Jake. The two of them, along with Bronwyn, may have the most to lose from Simon's gossip, with Nate having the least. Nate already has a record, and reputation, although getting caught dealing again would land him in serious trouble. Naturally, a murder conviction wouldn't help either. Possibly the biggest theme of the book, if you can call it a theme, is that high school sucks and teenagers are awful. Also, being innocent until proven guilty seems to be something people just say but do not actually believe. And real friends are a precious resource. Going through a hard situation will quickly show you just how many you actually have.

My Verdict: This book is a crazy ride, but not so crazy that it becomes hard to follow or believe. A student ends up dead and of course everyone wants to know how and why. But it is absolutely nuts how quickly people are willing to turn on someone wants they attract the wrong kind of attention. I would attribute this to the whole high school sucks and teenagers are awful thing, but really, adults do it too. McManus' portrayal of just how quickly things can spiral seems painfully accurate. And even more painfully accurate is the character of Simon: A student who creates a gossip app and posts terrible things about people, all because he actually craves what these students have, and wants nothing more than to be the center of attention at Bayview High. He feels like he is owed something he never earned, and then dies because he went too far. Entitlement is a thing people. I highly recommend this book to all lovers of YA as well as murder mysteries.

Favorite Moment: When Addy's sister rents an apartment that has built-in bookshelves. It may or may not be my dream to have such a thing in my house one day.

Favorite Character: While I never would have guessed it at the beginning, Addy becomes my favorite character. At first she is the typical girl with the high school jock boyfriend that she can't stand to be separated from, but through some painful trials, she begins to get the hang of thinking for herself and choosing what kind of person she wants to be.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. It may not be a murder mystery, but it is a YA novel that deals with death, secrets, and those who stick by you when times are tough.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues by Edward Kelsey Moore

Today's selection is a sequel to 2013's The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat. Edward Kelsey Moore has decided to continue the journey of Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean in The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues. Now that readers already know the stories behind the three main characters, the sequel lets a new character come back to Plainview after a long absence.

The Situation: El Walker has returned to Plainview, Indiana only as a favor to an old friend. When El was a younger man, he regularly played at Forrest Payne's club, the Pink Slipper. His singing and guitar playing always brought in the crowd, but the musician's lifestyle helped turn him into an unpredictable drug addict. And after one fateful incident involving his young son, El left Plainview and vowed never to return. As soon as he receives his payment for the wedding gig, his plan is to leave Plainview once again and never look back.

The Problem: Unfortunately for El, complications from diabetes force an unplanned hospital visit. It seems the city he is ready to leave behind has decided to hold onto him for a little while longer. During his stay, he meets Barbara Jean, one of the three Plainview Supremes known for their regular table at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat, and the daughter of one of his foster sisters. He recognizes her face immediately, and the two begin an unlikely friendship that centers around memories of the past, even though most of them are not exactly happy. El still wants desperately to leave Plainview, knowing that the longer he stays, the more trouble he is likely to get into. But he is not the only one in Plainview with trouble coming. Clarice has an upcoming piano concert in Chicago that is making her more nervous by the day, and a newly-attentive husband she is not sure she wants to be with. And Odette will soon struggle to help a husband as he confronts his feelings about the return of an unwelcome visitor.

Genre, Theme, History: This is a fiction novel set mostly in the small town of Plainview, Indiana, and continues the story of the three Supremes, as they are known. Odette is still round and resolute, prone to speak her mind when it is least wanted and not caring in the least. While Clarice and Richmond are doing better in their relationship, she still is not sure if a traditional marriage is what she wants from him, even though for the first time, it is what he is willing to give her. And while the beautiful and kind Barbara Jean seems to have finally received her happily ever after, she still must confront the life of a mother who constantly humiliated her. Once again, Moore confronts the issues of generational sin, anger and forgiveness, and how family will always be able to remind you of where you came from, especially when you would rather forget. El wants nothing more than to continue outrunning his past, but it seems it has finally caught up with him and is determined to make him face what he did, even though he is not the only one who will suffer in the process. By the end it is fairly clear the story of the Supremes will continue into a third book, as there are still stories to tell and small town life to explore.

My Verdict: I adored the first book, and I adore this one as well. I loved being able to visit again with Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, and see where their lives have lead now that Odette is cancer free, Richmond is still treating Clarice the way she deserves, and Barbara Jean has reconnected with an old love. The format of having Odette narrate some of the chapters, while a third person omniscient narrator takes care of the rest, can still be confusing, but not to the point where it is annoying or gets in the way of the story. Moore has a knack for portraying situations and stories that may seem ridiculous (and they are), but the characters are so well thought-out and believable that it comes off more like gossip than a crazy tale. Even the characters that are larger than life are people I can see myself being introduced to during a visit to the small towns my parents grew up in. There is a level of authenticity to everything that happens that not every writer is able to pull off.

Favorite Moment: When Veronica, a somewhat rival to the Supremes, thoroughly embarrasses herself after patting herself on the back for shaming them in public.

Favorite Character: Still Odette. It will probably always be Odette.

Recommended Reading: Obviously, there is the first book, The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat. But I will also recommend The Sellout by Paul Beatty. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: The Speaker by Traci Chee

Last year, I covered Traci Chee's The Reader, the first title in her Sea of Ink and Gold series. Today I am happy to cover the follow-up, The Speaker. I may not be much of a fantasy reader, but something about this series appeals to me, and I am excited to see how the story continues.

The Situation: Sefia and Archer have managed to escape the Guard and are now back out on their own, though they are being expertly chased. It is not only them that they Guard wants, but the Book as well. In a world where no one reads or writes anymore, words are powerful  and stories can be used as weapons. Fortunately, Sefia is able to use the ability she inherited from her parents to keep herself and Archer safe, while he can use what he learned while in captivity to fight almost any battle he comes across. Together, they make it their mission to free as many other boys as they can from the dreadful Impressors: men and women who have made a job out of capturing young boys in an attempt to find the one who will bring about the Red War. With Sefia's power and Archer's skill, it seems they cannot lose, and their worst enemy may be themselves.

The Problem: If Archer's time in captivity taught him how to fight, it also taught him to want to fight. The only thing that seems to help silence the nightmares and the ever-present tension and thirst for revenge he always feels as a current running inside of him, is being able to punch, kick, stab, and shoot, anything that causes hurt and pain. Freeing captured boys helps Archer feel better about what he has become, but as he gains followers, and the team becomes a well-known gang to be feared, he fears he is becoming exactly what the Impressors are looking for. Sefia feels the same, but she would do anything to stay near him, though she is already afraid she may be losing the boy she loves. Add in the fact that the Guard is still after them; the Book continues to be cryptic and withholding when telling its secrets; and that there is a much bigger plot with control over all of Kelanna as its goal; and it seems that Sefia and Archer's story is far from over. But will it end with both of them alive? Will it end with them together?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fantasy book set in the fictional world of Kelanna. In this sequel, Archer and Sefia travel mostly in the land of Deliene, though they do find themselves in Oxscini for a time. Sefia is once again the primary protagonist, but there is almost an equal amount of attention given to Archer and his thoughts as he attempts to fight his guilt and blood lust. Readers do get to see the return of Captain Cannek Reed and the rest of the crew on the Current of Faith, as well as the members of the Guard who continue to hunt down Sefia and attempt to bring their time of reign to pass. Everyone in this story is ultimately attempting to change their own fate, while seeming to simultaneously run right into it. The Book that Sefia has in her possession holds all of the answers, but consulting it is tricky. It seems to reveal only what it wants to, and you have to be able to ask the right questions. Sefia and Archer want to be able to live their lives, but fear they have a bigger part to play in everything - parts that may separate them, even kill them. The Guards want ultimate power over all of Kelanna, but will they be able avoid killing each other off before their plan comes to fruition? It is all written in the Book, and they all agree that what is written will come to pass. But they either don't trust it, or they don't want to wait, as everyone is still fighting for or against their own destinies.

My Verdict: While I do have the same issue with this one as I did with the first book, in that sometimes there are just too many characters doing too may things for me to keep track, I will say that the confusion was much less, and I was better able to almost let go of all of the details and just enjoy the ride. And what a ride it is, though granted, the map of Kelanna at the beginning of the book does help. Sefia and Archer's adventure alone would probably be enough to fill an entire series. But Chee does not stop there as she always goes back to what the Guard is up to, as well as Captain Reed and his crew. It is evident that the story is working up to something big, and The Speaker does well to build up the excitement for what is to come in the next book. It contains exactly what every fantasy book should contain: magic, fighting, conspiracy, intrigue, adventure, travel, and an ending that opens the door to incredible possibilities. The only thing missing is some sort of monster, but who knows? That may be coming in the next book. And naturally, I love that this is a world that emphasizes the power of books and words and how easily we can take them both for granted. 

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Archer manages to cut off one of Serakeen's hands in the middle of a fight.  

Favorite Character: The more I learn about Captain Reed and his story, the more I like him and want to see more of him.

Favorite Quote: "You don't get to be a slave-owner and a hero." - Captain Cannek Reed

Recommended Reading: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor may be a good adventure for many young fantasy readers, though I really enjoyed The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.     

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 Final Round

Oh man, here we are. The final round of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards. I am both excited and scared to find out if my favorites did or did not make it into the top ten of their categories. Every year seems to contain at least one surprise for me. So might as well end the torture and dive right in.

Thankfully all seems well in the Best Fiction, Best Mystery & Thriller, and Best Historical Fiction categories. All of the DSNs that were nominated in each are hanging strong. It is in the Best Science Fiction category that we first run into trouble. Looks like Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes, which was a write-in vote added in at the second round, did not quite make it into the top ten, which means I am back to voting for American War by Omar El Akkad.

Things return to normal for Best Horror, but another write-in, this time for Best Nonfiction, failed to make it into the final round. The exit of Brené Brown's Braving the Wilderness from the competition means I do not have anything to vote for in this category. Granted, I cannot say I am surprised, but I still like for the books I cover to at least make it through to the end.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore continues to hold its own in Best History & Biography, and the same can be said for both picks in Best Graphic Novels & Comics, and the three picks in Best Debut Goodreads Author.

And then we come to my favorite category, the one I seem to take the most personally for some reason. Of the seven DSN YA fiction books that were nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction, only five made it into the final round. Given, that is pretty amazing, that half of the finalist for one category were featured on this blog. Even so, I am sad to see Jeff Zentner's Goodbye Days did not make the cut, along with Robin Roe's A List of Cages. Whew! This is a tough category, every year.

The Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category remains the same for both DSN books that were nominated, which ultimately means that of the 22 books originally nominated (including the write-ins) for an award that were also featured on this blog (or at least, there is a solid plan to feature them), 18 of them have made it into the final round, and I think that is awesome. Really, this all only serves to make me super curious about the nominees I did not read that people seem to love. It would be nearly impossible for me to read every book that is nominated, or even just the ones that make it to the final round. But I always have a blast trying to read and write about as many as I can. And if I end up discovering new ones after the fact, I just consider it a bonus.      

This final round of voting does not end until Monday, November 27th, so you have a full two weeks to make your voices heard. The winners will be announced on Tuesday, December 5th, and will receive their crown as readers' favorite books of 2017.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Historical Fiction: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

This may be my last attempt at historical fiction for 2017, and of course, it deals with World War II. Not only that, but it also deals with World War I, because it seems no matter what I do I am bound to pick up a book that has to deal with at least one of them. With Kate Quinn's The Alice Network, an unlikely trio travels through Europe searching for answers they may not be ready to find.

The Situation: It is 1947 and Charlotte "Charlie" St. Clair has just burst into the home of Eve Gardiner. All Charlie wants is answers regarding her cousin Rose, whom she has not seen for many years and fears may be lost to her forever due to WWII. She decides Eve may be a good place to start since the woman used to work at a bureau that helped locate refugees. Unfortunately for both women, Eve is as ornery and drunk as Charlie is determined and persistent. Add Scotsman Finn Kilgore as Eve's personal assistant/driver/minder, and the three of them take off on a journey that has as little chance of success as Eve does of staying sober every night. Charlie is more than willing to defy her mother if it means finding Rose. Mrs. St. Clair only wants her daughter to take care of her "little problem" (i.e. she's pregnant), return to America, and marry someone respectable. But Charlie wants more out of life, and unbeknownst to both her and Finn, Eve wants more out of their search than to simply find Rose.

The Problem: Eve has her demons, that much is clear. If she is not drunk, she is hungover and looking forward to getting drunk. And when she cannot sleep, anyone who enters her room is met with a gun leveled at their face. While Charlie searches for a cousin who may have been part of the Resistance in WWII, Eve relives her life as a spy in WWI. It may have been something she signed up to do, even something that allowed her to end up a decorated war hero, but it is also what has given her the demons she currently lives with. With lies, betrayal, and experiences that give her dreams and memories she will never forget, Eve's life as a spy has yet to let her go, even 30 years later. And when Charlie barges into her home with a name she has not heard in decades, Eve decides it is time for some closure, and also a little bit of revenge.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set both during WWI and just after WWII. Charlie searches for her cousin Rose in the year 1947, while the woman she hired relives her life in 1915, when she served as a spy against the Nazis in a small town in France. It is in Lille that Eve will end up employed as a waitress at a restaurant known to be frequented by German officials. As they enjoy the food they horde only for themselves, Eve discreetly listens to their conversation and passes useful information to her superiors, one of which being the head of the spy ring with which she is currently employed. Along with Eve, there is Lili, the head of the Alice Network, and her Lieutenant, Violette. All three women are based on real people, but the story is still fiction. There was a ring of female spies who were able to collect and pass on important information while pretending to be completely different people. In the novel, Eve pretends to be a young girl named Marguerite, and she does her best to pretend that she does not speak and understand either English or German, but only French. While living a lie for the war effort, Eve manages to make friends with her fellow spies, making what happens later that much harder to swallow. Even with moments of glorious victory, the defeats still manage to nearly destroy all three women, and turn Eve into the bitter and hateful woman she has become once Charlie finds her. But with Charlie's search, Eve seems to have a renewed purpose, even if it is focused solely on revenge.

My Verdict: As much as I gripe about wanting to stay away from books that deal with WWII (and WWI for that matter), there is a reason that I keep picking them up...I mean, there just has to be...because it just keeps happening. In the case of The Alice Network, it is probably close to the same reason I picked up both The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls. Some part of me wants to know more about what women did during that time. In The Alice Network, Quinn tells an emotional, suspenseful, often terrifying, but ultimately incredible story of one woman's experiences as a spy, and how those experiences shaped the rest of the her life. Eve and Charlie may not have made choices that someone else would make, but it was up to them how they would deal with the war, and they leaned into their choices as resolutely as they could. I often found myself eagerly turning the page while also shaking my head like I would at a modern horror film after someone suggests that the group should split up, or head upstairs, or run into the forest. The point is made several times throughout the book that war chews people up, never ends quickly, and is always happening in some part of the world, and the stories we find here are an example of how true that is, even if it is through a work of fiction.

Favorite Moment: When Charlie defies her mother for the second time and decides to finish what she has started.

Favorite Character: Eve is tough, but she is tough to a fault. She is the kind of tough and stubborn that often leads to her snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, you would rather have her on your side than against you.

Recommended Reading: I have already mentioned The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls, but Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is also worth checking out.