Friday, December 28, 2012

Historical Fiction: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is a historical fiction novel about the love affair between Martha "Mamah" Borthwick and the famous Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 20th century. The life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright is not something I am all that familiar with, but I was curious to get even a brief glimpse or snapshot into his life and maybe even how he worked.

The Situation: Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright met when Frank was designing her future home in the now famous Oak Park in Chicago. Frank had already designed a few of the houses in the area and would go on to design a few more. His artistry and genius were already well known before he and Mamah meet. And after realizing their attraction for one another, Frank and Mamah would take off on a tour of Europe before finally settling in Wisconsin. While Frank seems to be constantly thinking, designing, and building, Mamah indulges her own interests of writing and translating. She even takes classes while in Europe to learn Swedish so she can better translate for a well-known feminist writer. Frank and Mamah are undeniably in love with each other and are determined to attempt to build a life together.

The Problem: Both Frank and Mamah have already built separate lives with two other people that they are still married to, even after they take off to Europe together. The scandal makes front page Chicago news almost immediately, and no matter where the couple runs off to, the story follows them everywhere, as do the reporters. And while Frank and Mamah attempt to hide out everywhere but Chicago, the family that they have left behind, including their children, and Mamah's quiet, grounded, and somewhat guarded sister Lizzie, are left to deal with the scandal on their own. Mamah's two young children are left wondering where their mother is, and Frank's six children are left without their father. And while both Frank's wife and Mamah's husband are refusing to grant divorces, the scandalous couple are coming to the realization that what they abandoned their families for may not be what they thought it was. They each feel they have a right and claim to the true "free love," but what are they willing to sacrifice in order to have it?

Genre, Themes, History: As I already mentioned, Loving Frank is historical fiction. Frank Lloyd Wright really did have a love affair with Mamah Borthwick in the early 20th century, and while a lot of what Horan put down on paper is fiction, she does follow the major events of the couple's life, as well as their travels and their work. Even a few of the letters included in the novel come from real correspondence. And Horan claims that the newspaper articles included in the novel came from real articles that were published at the time. Themes include women's rights, family obligations, and the right to happiness. Even in Chicago, before she runs off with Frank, Mamah was heavily involved in women's rights and getting women the right to vote. While in Europe, she meets up with a well-known feminist writer and agrees to translate her works for her, even though there are some parts of her beliefs that she does not agree with. Also, all throughout the book Mamah struggles with her desire to be happy and be able to love who she wants, and the fact that she has basically abandoned her children in order to enjoy that right. It is a constant struggle, and it is one that Mamah has to constantly re-evaluate and reasses as she tries to make this new life work with Frank.

My Verdict: If Horan's goal was to make Mamah likable and relatable, then I am afraid she failed as far as I am concerned. It is a difficult thing to make someone who willingly abandons their children into a likable heroine, and I feel like Horan fell short. According to Horan's version of the story, Mamah does feel terrible about leaving her children behind while pursuing her relationship with Frank, and she constantly struggles with her decision and her desire to still be around her children. However, no matter how much she misses them and how bad she feels, she still refuses to return to Chicago, even though that is the only way she could be around them the majority of the time. Instead she hopes she can get more custody than her husband is ever willing to give, and she therefore ends up missing out on more and more of her children's lives. Instead of sacrificing so she can be with them, she decides the only way she can be with them is if she is able to keep the life she has been living at the same time. In other words, she is sorry her decision has taken her away from them, but not sorry enough to really do much about it. And even with all of Mamah's arguments about women deserving to be happy, even if that means they have to leave their husbands to do it, I just couldn't be on her side. And I couldn't relate to Frank either as he leaves his own wife and six kids, and is portrayed as a pompous genius who feels like people should feel privileged to have him work for them. Horan presented two main characters that I really didn't like, and that just ruined most of the book for me.

Favorite Moment: When Mamah realizes that the real Frank is very different from the man she left her family for. He is arrogant, selfish, self-serving, and cannot manage his money. It was basically the moment I had been waiting for during the entire book.

Favorite Character: I honestly didn't care for any of them. Frank and Mamah are at the forefront of the entire story and I was basically just waiting for their downfall. I did appreciate Mamah's sister Lizzie, who told Mamah upfront about how her decisions have affected all of them, and was probably the one who was able to get through to her sister the most.

Recommended Reading: If you're into historical fiction and like stories that also talk about the women's movement and women's freedoms in the early 20th century, then I would recommend Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone. I liked it much more than I did Loving Frank, as the characters are more relatable and the story is about more than just one couple.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

After reading the Future of Us, I decided to pick up Jay Asher's first novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. The premise alone - a young man learns more about the events that lead to a schoolmate's suicide through the prerecorded tapes she left behind - is enough to make most anyone want to know more. So I was curious to see how Asher was going to handle both this ambitious premise and the sensitive issue of teen suicide.

The Situation: Clay Jensen is your average teenage boy. Actually, according to pretty much everyone, Clay is better than your average teenage boy. No one seems to have anything bad to say about him. Hannah Baker was already pretty curious about Clay, and the lack of negative information about him only made her want to know more. Hannah and Clay have brief encounters either at school, or at the movie theater where they work, but unbeknownst to both of them, the other one desperately wants to have a deeper relationship. But on the day that Clay receives a mysterious package with no return address, that opportunity is already long gone with no hope of ever returning.

The Problem: The package is a set of seven tapes that Hannah recorded no more than a few days before she decided to take her own life. By the time Clay receives the tapes, Hannah has been dead a few weeks, and the school and community are still in mourning. But the tapes will bring a different sort of grief. Each side of the tape names a different person and event that Hannah blames for leading her to her ultimate decision. And the people that are receiving these tapes are the people she names on them, which apparently include nice guy Clay. And he will spend the next few hours, over the course of one night, starting from when he got him from school, listening to all seven tapes and finding out all 13 reasons why Hannah decided to take her own life.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is a young adult fiction novel which, to me, the overarching theme of is that hindsight is 20/20. And maybe also that high school, and the people in it, ultimately suck. Many of the events that Hannah recounts Clay was a witness of, and there are many things he starts to wish he would have done differently. And while I was definitely not a fan of high school while I was in it (or now even), it does seem to me that Hannah had to deal with an insane amount of awful people. I get it...teenagers can be cruel, but Hannah's high school seemed to have more than its fair share. And the book also throws out the idea that even if we could go back, knowing what we know now, would we do anything differently? And maybe more importantly, would it really matter? Would the outcome change at all? And how much of the stuff that happens to us are we allowed to blame on other people? At what point do we take responsibility for our own fate?

My Verdict: And it is those last two questions from the previous section that cause me to take issue with this book. Well, maybe not take issue with the entire book, but at least with the character of Hannah. It seems to me that of the 13 reasons why she took her own life, only four of them are actually a really big deal...and  two of those didn't even happen to her personally. In fact, she sort of serves as an accomplice. And with a few of these people, her argument is that they didn't care enough about her or about anyone outside of themselves to help her. But my argument is that this is the great lesson of high kind of have to look out for yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you. And maybe that is the lesson of this book, that you can't really blame others the way Hannah does for stuff that happens to you. Because if the actual point is to say that Hannah is justified in wanting to haunt the people she blames for her decision to take her own life, then I take issue with that. But if it is something more along the lines of how everything we say and do to other people, and I mean everything, has an effect, positive or negative, then I could get behind that.

Aside from how I feel about how the book handled heavy issues such as bullying and teenage suicide, I also felt like there was more Asher could have done with this scenario. It is such a strong and interesting premise, and I feel like Asher just doesn't take it far enough. And for some reason, I don't believe Clay's emotional investment in Hannah's life. Some things just feel like they are missing here.

Favorite Moment: When Clay starts to realize that Hannah may be just as much to blame for her decisions as the people she names on the tapes. 

Favorite Character: All in all, Clay actually is a really nice guy. He's loyal, a good student, caring, makes sense why Hannah would gravitate towards him, especially considering her track record with other guys at her school.

Recommended Reading: I have to recommend Asher's book The Future of Us, which he wrote with Carolyn Mackler. With the use of Facebook, this book looks at what teenagers will do when given access to what their futures will look like as well as the ability to possibly alter it.   

Friday, December 14, 2012

Science Fiction: Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

My selection for this week is yet another nominee for the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards. Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker was nominated for the category of Best Science Fiction, but was beat out by Terri Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth. Even so, after reading the synopsis and the reviews, my interest was sufficiently piqued.

The Situation: Joe Spork is a clockworker attempting to live a quiet life in Britain, repairing clocks in his failing business and trying unsuccessfully to carry through assassination attempts on a local menacing cat. I say that Joe is "attempting" to live the quiet life, because his father was a well-known and notorious gangster. And a gangsters life is exactly the kind of life Joe wishes to avoid. He wishes to follow more closely in the footsteps of his grandfather rather than his father. It is his grandfather who taught him about clockworking, and he shares his grandfather's view concerning his father's life, and wants nothing to do with it.

The Problem: Another reason why I say that Joe is "attemtping" to live the quiet life is because it is his very trade of clockworking that gets him into trouble. One particular machine that a client has entrusted him with turns out to be a very important piece to a doomsday device. Joe eventually figures this out, but unfortunately, some other very interested parties, that are also very dangerous, have figured this out as well. Soon it appears Joe's father's way of life has found him after all, and only by embracing his family's history will he be able to save the world as we know it.

Genre, Themes, History: Angelmaker is science fiction with a fabulous amount of dry British humor. There is just the right amount of the absolutely ridiculous to make it funny without causing it to lean too much outside of the realm of believability. This book also approaches the idea of an apocalypse in a new and originial least to me. The doomsday device that is supposed to bring humanity to its knees is like nothing I would ever have imagined, causing me to see Harkaway as an incredibly creative and inventive writer. Also, there are zombies at one point. They may not be the focus and only have a brief appearance, but they are there. Another theme that comes up is something that always makes an excellent, but also incredibly tiresome, supervillain: the desire to want to be equal to God, and to also live forever. These two desires in an inheritantly evil person never manifest themselves for the goodwill of mankind. And these villains are also the hardest to kill because they will literally do anything to make their dream com true, despite the fact that it is impossible.

My Verdict: I am always pretty wary of science fiction, but this was absolutely delightful. It was refreshing and not too confusing (there were a few paragraphs I had to reread because I would realize a few pages avterwards that I clearly missed something very important), and as I mentioned before, pretty funny. And the story has a little bit of everything: there are spies, gangsters, complicated doomsday devices, a complicated family history unveiled in a wonderfully creative way, scary monks, zombies, a heinous supervillain, a viscous but still incredibly loveable pug, and bees. Yep, bees. There isn't as much science as I was expecting for a science fiction novel, but I still think science fiction lovers will enjoy it.

Favorite Moment: When all of the pieces of Joe's family history, and the truth about his grandparents, all comes together for him. The way Harkaway reveals it all just blew me away.

Favorite Character: I really want to pick Joe. He is a bit boring in the beginning, but steadily picks up steam and becomes a serious force by the end of the book. But I also appreciate Polly, the sister to Joe's ganster lawyer friend, Mercer. She may be a pretty face, but she isn't one to be messed with either.

Recommended Reading: Due to my limited knowledge and exposure to science fiction, I don't feel like I can adequately recommend another science fiction novel, but I would like to recommend George Orwell's 1984. Certain parts of Joe's interactions with the creepy monks remind me of Orwell's thought police and their methods of torture. I know...creepy.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Nonfiction: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the winner for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Memoir & Autobiography. I only recently learned about people who will hike along the Pacific Coast for varying amounts of time and for varying distances, and the idea absolutely fascinates me, mostly because it seems so impossible, and yet people do it all of the time. Strayed decided to do this exact thing, and Wild is her account of what lead her to do it, how the experience went, and how it changed her.

The Situation: Cheryl Strayed is a newly single 26 year-old woman trying to navigate life without her husband, her mother, her siblings, her stepfather, and any real stability in the form of a job or education. She bounces around from one waitressing job to another, just as she bounces around from one city to the next. This spiral began with the death of her mother a few years before due to cancer. Strayed's mother was the strong and solid anchor in her life, and now that she was gone, Strayed seems to have lost all of her focus, as well as everyone around her that she was close to.

The Problem: If all of that wasn't bad enough, Strayed has recently become attached to exactly the wrong kind of man. After happening to pick up the Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California while waiting in line at an outdoor store, Strayed is almost inexplicably compelled to come back to the book, purchase it, and read it cover to cover. Eventually, the curiosity that lead her back to the book would lead her to save up her money, purchase hiking tools and gear slowly over the course of a few months, and then, finally, she would do the almost unthinkable (at least to a city girl like me) and decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in the Mojave Desert, and ending at the Oregon-Washington border at what is called The Bridge of the Gods. She would do it alone. She would do it without ever having done any major hiking in her life. Needless to say, instead of getting rid of her current problems, the PCT was really only going to present her with a set of new ones.

Genre, Themes, History: Wild is a memoir that takes place in a very specific amount of time during Strayed's life. Actually, I would say the book is almost evenly split between how much she talks about the hike, and how much she talks about her past life leading up to the adventure on the PCT. The main driving force behind the entire experience seems to be the death of her mother. Strayed paints a picture of what the grieving process looked like for her, and how it took over every aspect of her own life, and then seemed to reach out and effect those around her. Strayed also showed what the grieving process looked like for her brother, her sister, her husband, and her stepfather, and how ultimately, these differences in methods lead to the separation between themselves.

Of course, it is nothing new for people to hike the PCT for long distances. The trail was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968, even though it wasn't officially completed until 1993. So while Strayed wasn't exactly doing something original, she was doing something fairly rare being a single woman hiking the trail alone...and being completely inexperienced in the area. She meets plenty of people along the way, both hikers and non-hikers, that help shape her experience. And while there a short spurts where she hikes with others, for the most part, she tackles the trail alone. She insists on it.

My Verdict: I was being generous on Goodreads when I gave this book three stars. The only reason I held off on only giving it two stars was because of that one thing I always value in nonfiction, and this is honesty. Strayed is upfront about several things that put her in a less than favorable light. Sure, she ultimately accomplished this amazing thing that most of us would never even think of, but she admits to being incredibly broken, unprepared (and yet strangely over prepared in some areas), naive, lonely, desperate, and dead flat broke during the majority of this experience. Even so, that admirable honesty was not enough for me to want to put this with my most favorite of books. Sometimes her lack of preparation would get on my nerves, as would her surprise when something would inevitably go wrong, or at least not go the way she though it would. And her constant need to almost cling to every other male figure that crosses her path was beyond annoying. Ultimately, it felt like one of those stories of someone going on this insane adventure to "find themselves," when really they only want to escape their problems. However, if I ever met Strayed, I would want to give her a high five and have her tell me more about it.

Favorite Moment: When Albert, one of the many other hikers Strayed meets on the PCT, helps her purge her almost comically overstuffed pack. One of the many items he point blank asks her if she needs is a roll of condoms.

Recommended Reading: Strayed starts her journey with certain books , and slowly gets rid of those book as she reads them, while acquiring others with every package of supplies she receives at stops along the way. One of the many books she reads is The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor, a personal favorite of mine (and hers apparently). While Flannery O'Connor's short stories have little (or nothing, really) to do with hiking, I figured I would go ahead and recommend it...mostly because I have absolutely no clue what else I could recommend. But the stories are so good that I feel comfortable in my recommendation anyway. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Winners for the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards

Whoo-Hoo! Congratulations to John Green for winning Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards with The Fault In Our Stars

I also am super excited to congratulate Susan Cain for Quiet winning Best Nonfiction. I adored this book so I am glad to see many others did too.

I would like to extend congratulations to every winner. After over one million votes, every winner should be honored to receive this recognition in the only book award that lets the people decide. There was some really stiff competition, but the people have spoken,

You can see all winners here Even if your favorite didn't win, I know you can at least get some ideas on some other fabulous books to put on your reading list.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: In Between Days by Andrew Porter

Andrew Porter is a local (to me) San Antonio author who currently teaches at Trinity University. So it makes sense for me to be excited to read his most recent publication, In Between Days. Local bookstores were buzzing about it, and that gave me plenty of reasons to pick it up.

The Situation: The Harding family is sort of just...existing. Elson has recently divorced from his wife, Cadence, and is currently living on his own and continuing his work at a Houston architecture firm. He does have a girlfriend, Lorna, whom he loves (or at least thinks he does) because she is basically very different from his ex-wife and everything he has been used to. Cadence has also sort of moved on and is in a relationship with one of her professors. Their son, Richard, resides in the post-graduate space all college graduates have come to know and love (or hate) as he writes poetry that he never does anything with while working at a local coffee shop when he isn't getting high at a friend's house. And finally, there is Chloe, who is attending school on the east coast. Well, at least she was, until she was sent home on a suspension and events start to take a turn that effects everyone at home. If the Hardings thought just existing was hard enough, then they really weren't prepared for this.

The Problem: Chloe's boyfriend, Raja, is involved in an "incident" at their school, and Chloe has been implicated enough where the school finds it necessary to send her home while the investigation gets underway. But that isn't the end of it. After a few brief days, Chloe's family loses contact with her altogether. Even Richard, whom she has always been incredibly close to, can only guess where she is, what she is up to, and who is with her. Soon, government officials are showing up at Cadence's house, wanting to bring people in for questioning, asking if anyone knows where Chloe is or if they know anything that can help them find her. Chloe is in real trouble, and her plan of hiding out is only making things worse for her and her family. And if dealing with her wasn't stressful enough, Elson and Cadence attempt to navigate their post-divorce relationship, while Richard still isn't sure what exactly it is he wants to do with his life.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel telling the story of the modern day broken family during a particularly difficult time in their lives. Porter's story shows how certain behaviors and events can repeat themselves across different generations (that whole "sins of the father" thing), while also pointing out that ultimately we all make our own decisions as to who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives. Also, like quite a few books I have come across recently, this book highlights just how far some of us will go to get what we want, to get out of trouble, and how willing we can be to sometimes drag down those closest to us to get it, including people in our own family. Throughout the novel, family and friends get exploited and taken advantage of, often ruining the relationship forever and placing people down a path they will never recover from. But again, it was their decision, and they made it. And while the narrator is ultimately third person omniscient, Porter shifts the viewpoint between all four Harding family members in a way that is somehow not the least bit confusing. Having multiple viewpoints is always nice in that it gives the reader more information than what they would have access to if they were sticking with just one character.

My Verdict: I wanted to like this book more than I did, but the ending just kind of ruined it for me. I didn't quite believe that things could actually turn out the way they did and that life would be just fine. Don't get me wrong, Porter doesn't just tie everything up in a neat little bow. This is a messy situation that never gets completely cleaned up. But even so, something about how everything turns out just didn't ring true for me. Also, these characters, particularly the Harding family, are some of the most selfish characters I have ever read about...and I have what Homer Simpson would diagnose as a "reading problem" (bonus points if you can point to which Simpsons episode he says that in). I have read about a lot of selfish people, and for me, the Hardings would be right up there with Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, and Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray. Alright, maybe they aren't quite that bad, but there are moments where they are pretty close. However, I do like both Wuthering Heights and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the selfishness, coupled with the ending, of Porter's novel just left an overall bad taste in my mouth. Even so, I am excited to check out whatever book Porter publishes next.

Favorite Moment: When Richard realizes that his current situation, even without the craziness surrounding his sister, is not the way he ultimately wants to live his life. 

Favorite Character: I would have to say Richard, but even he barely makes it in. The novel is full of people that are so broken and selfish that it is hard to truly like anyone like I would in a Dickens novel. I can feel empathy for them, but then they'll make a decision that will completely turn me off.

Recommended Reading: I am actually having a hard time making connections between this novel and others I have read, but I do keep coming back to Paper Towns by John Green. In Between Days is not a young adult novel like Paper Towns, but Chloe reminds me quite a bit of Margo sometimes because of her disappearance and how devoted the people around her seem to be to her happiness.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Classic Fiction: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

This is my first attempt at a D.H. Lawrence book and, like a lot of people, I picked it up because of the controversy that has always surrounded the story, and not necessarily because of my limited knowledge of the actual plot and characters. Lady Chatterley's Lover is one of those books that will probably always live in some sort of infamy, and that alone will be enough for people to pick it up.

The Situation: Lady Constance Chatterley lives with her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, in Wragby Hall, their estate in Nottinghamshire, England. Sir Clifford has been left paralyzed from the waist down from his military service, and therefore will not be able to provide an heir to Wragby. He has officially but kind of unofficially given Connie permission to have a child by someone else in order to produce an heir, and he would simply raise the child as his own. Taking on a lover wouldn't exactly be a stretch for Connie since she has done it before and was more sexually experienced than Clifford even before they got married. Connie has already carried on one affair with a painter, and has now started seeing the estate's gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors.

The Problem: It would be one thing if Connie could have a brief affair with Oliver, get pregnant, and then go back to Clifford and live happily ever after. But of course, things don't quite go that way. It starts with the fact that Connie doesn't actually much care for Clifford. And she is increasingly enamored with Oliver. Oh yeah, and he is technically still married to someone else as well. So while Connie has found someone who can cure her sexual frustration, she is still legally bound to someone who never will, and she is growing increasingly anxious and annoyed and feels more and more trapped in her situation. And soon, all attempts to "fix" things only make matters worse.

Genre, Theme, History: This has been classified as a romance, but it is also an argument that Lawrence is presenting about the mind and body. Essentially, you need both to be engaged in a relationship for it to work. Connie is dissatisfied with her husband because he is all mind, and literally cannot perform sexually. Oliver left his wife because of her overbearingly sexual nature. In each other, they are able to find both, and their relationship slowly builds over time into something real. There is also the underlying theme of class conflict. There are several characters, Clifford included, of which it is stated that they cannot stand any sort of rising up of someone beneath them. Clifford likes clear class lines of where people are and he would like for them to stay that way. There is the obvious social contrast between Connie the aristocrat and her lover, Oliver the working man, but there is also the conflict between Clifford and the men who work in the coal mines he owns.

This is also one of those books that will always show up on banned books list, and has one of those interesting publication histories that involves false copies, copies that were smuggled into countries where it was banned, copies that were published but heavily edited to omit certain words (when it was first published, it was against the law to publish many of the words Lawrence used), and there was even an obscenity trial in 1960 when Penguin books finally published the full unexpurgated version. And now would be the usual time when I would say something about the book being pretty filthy by 1920s standards but that no longer applies today...except that is does still kind of apply today. Even for 2012 standards, the book is still pretty filthy.

My Verdict: I think this is one of those instances where if there wasn't so much controversy surrounding this book, it wouldn't be that popular, because honestly, it isn't that good. The dialogue isn't all that coherent, the relationships aren't believable, and overall the writing just wasn't that great for me. And the ending leaves much to be desired. If it wasn't for the filthy words and dirty scenes, I don't think anyone would care. And this is one of those stories that has been told to death and told better. And that fact that this is an argument doesn't really help anything.

Favorite Moment: When Clifford has to be helped up a hill by Oliver due to his disability, despite him obviously wanting to make it up on his own. Eventually even Connie helps as they have to push Clifford (who isn't  exactly light) as well as the motorized chair he uses to get around outside.

Favorite Character: She may be tiresome, but I do like Clifford's nurse, Mrs. Bolton. She's perceptive enough to see what is really going on, but is loyal to Clifford and does take really good care of him.

Recommended Reading: I've decided to recommend Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It isn't the exact same type of story, but it is pretty close, and I think Tolstoy does an infinitely better job. However, be warned, Anna Karenina is a door stop. So when you have a few months free, I'd say it is worth taking a look at.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Goodreads Choice Awards Final Round

After more than 800,000 votes, the Goodreads Choice Awards Final Round of voting has started. Book lovers are able to make their voices heard now through November 27th, when the voting will close for the last time. Winners will then be announced on December 4th, and we can all start reading and making predictions for next year.

I am so pleased to report that This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz has made it into the top ten in the Best Fiction category. It will still be competing against J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, not to mention the other eight finalists who have managed to make it through. Diaz still has my vote though, so I have my fingers crossed.

I also have my fingers crossed for Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone, which is still holding steady in the Best Historical Fiction category. Other favorites that are still in the running include Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth for Best Science Fiction (although it will have to put up a serious fight over Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker); Susan Cain's Quiet for Best Nonfiction; Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu for Best Humor; and John Green's The Fault In Our Stars for Best Young Adult Fiction. 

Naturally, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl has made it through to the final round in both the Best Mystery & Thriller Category as well as the Best Goodreads Author category. I can definitely see it winning in at least one of these, if not both. Another book that I read recently but didn't much care for has also made it to the finals. Cheryl Strayed's Wild has been nominated for Best Memoir & Autobiography, and I am having a hard time understanding why. The following behind Gone Girl makes sense to me, but not so much for Wild. Oh well, but that is what makes awards like these that are decided by the public so much fun: you get more than just one person's or a small panel's decision.

I think what has surprised me the most so far is that all of the books I have mentioned and have been keeping track of since the beginning are still in this thing. And really, anything can happen.

Cast your vote here, and again, winners will be announced December 4th, just in time for the holiday shopping season and trying to find that perfect read for the perfect someone.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers

Yep, I did it again. I went for the apocalyptic novel yet again, despite my disappointment with this type of novel in my earlier attempts to branch out. I just couldn't resist a novel that took on the zombie apocalypse, but from the perspective of a teenager instead of an adult. This Is Not A Test follows a group of teenagers as they try to survive the early days of the world's end. It is another take on a popular idea, and I just crossed my fingers and dove right in.

The Situation: The end of the world would actually not be that big a deal to 16 year-old Sloane Price. Six months ago, when her sister and best friend, Lily, ran away from home, that was the end of Sloane's world. Since then, she's just been thinking of ways to make it official. Before Lily left, they dealt with their abusive father together and were able to take care of each other and watch out for each other. Now, Sloane is by herself with the awful man, and sees no reason to keep trying to survive. I know what you're is this not the problem?

The Problem: The end of the world, the real one, is actually here. As awful as Sloane's abusive father is, what is happening on the outside is actually much worse. Before Sloane is able to end it for herself, the world has started to crash down around everyone else. The infected flood the streets, attacking anyone with a pulse. Barricading doors and windows only works for so long before those barriers give way and the infected come in, hungry for the living hiding out inside. And these aren't the slow living dead of old. These zombies are fast and incredibly hungry. Sloane finds herself barricaded inside the local high school with five other teenagers. It is by far the safest place in the city, but even it isn't invincible. And with six scared teenagers as its inhabitants, the situation quickly becomes tense. Think William Golding's Lord of the Flies gone horribly wrong. Yeah, I know...the whole point of Lord of the Flies was that it did go wrong...that is just how much worse this situation becomes. It all causes Sloane to wonder what if suicide is still the best way out. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult incredibly horrifying and terrifying young adult novel. Here's the thing though: the zombies aren't the only threat. The main threat throughout the majority of the novel are the six teenagers inside the school. Blame for prior events is thrown around menacingly, some are used as bait, others are threatened, no one is trusted, and yet they have no choice but to trust each other on some level because they are all trying to survive, together. But if it is impossible for the group to survive, how far will the individuals go to ensure their own safety? Oh yeah, and then there is still the issue of the zombies. It seems that every zombie book or movie or television show treats zombies a little bit differently. They are all basically infected human beings who have been bitten by another infected and either turn while they are alive, or they die and then turn, and then proceed to hunt down other living humans. Like I mentioned before, Summer's zombies are fast, but they are also clumsy. They aren't smart, but they are strong, and they don't work together. They have one goal, and that is to feed. 

My Verdict: I really like this book. I know, I was surprised too. I don't know if it is the fact that it is written from the perspective of a teenager, or that it is a young adult novel, or that the zombies really aren't the main factor, or that there aren't many adults present. Maybe Summers is just that good a writer. Whatever it is, I actually enjoyed this book. Young adults and adults alike would enjoy this novel and could probably relate to the struggle to survive against pretty impossible odds. Will I continue to read other novels about the apocalypse? Probably not. But that is through no fault of this book.

Favorite Moment: This book has one of those moments that I love when a character says something that profoundly foreshadows something that is to come. And even though the reader doesn't quite know it for sure, something about the way it is written or the way the character says it let's us know that something important has been spoken into the future. If done well, you know it when it happens, even if the character saying it is just a kid. And when the foreshadowed moment finally comes, it is almost as if the reader and author have shared some inside joke. It's incredibly satisfying.

Also, over and over, Sloane makes a point to say she wasn't raised to believe in God, but she prays anyway. Many books today like to have at least one character make the case that there either is no God or that they don't care if there is. Situations don't get much more hopeless than Sloane's, but she still prays. And the point may be that when close to the end, a lot of people do.

Favorite Character: Rhys Moreno may not be the leader of the group of six, but he probably should have been. He's smart, he's tough, and he isn't totally out for himself. He's not perfect, but he knows that, and he knows he doesn't need to be. He just needs to keep going. 

Recommended Reading: I am tempted to recommend either Golding's Lord of the Flies, or Colson Whitehead's Zone One. The problem is, I don't actually like either one of those books that much. However, for those readers out there who typically do enjoy novels about the zombie apocalypse, Zone One is probably a good choice. Be warned though, it doesn't have half as much action, and the writing is a little too clean. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Goodreads Choice Awards Semifinal Round

The semifinal round of the annual Goodreads Choice Awards has started and will be open to voting through November 17th. In this round, the write-in votes from round one have been taken into account, and now each category has five more books to choose from when voting. Once again, winners will be chosen and announced on Tuesday, December 4th.

I will be sticking with my vote for Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her in the Best Fiction category. However, due to the write-in option, the popular The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling has been introduced and will no doubt prove to be a strong opponent.

I am also sticking with Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone for Best Historical Fiction, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars for Best Young Adult Fiction, and Susan Cain's Quiet for Best Nonfiction.

Much to my annoyance, there hasn't been much in the way of additions to compete with Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in both the Best Mystery & Thriller and Best Goodreads Author categories. I was hoping the write-ins would provide some strong opponents, and maybe they have, but none of the new books interest me personally. I get why people like Flynn's book, I do, I personally just can't seem to get behind it. Oh well, we'll see what happens.

Other nominees from past blog posts that are holding firm include Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth for Best Science Fiction as well as Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu for Best Humor.

I am super curious to see how this round shakes out and what the choices will be for the finals. When the final round opens on November 19th, each category will display the top ten books and it will be the readers' last chance to vote for their favorite.

You can vote in the semifinal round here If anything, even if my favorite doesn't win, I got a lot of good future reading ideas out of this, and that is always a good thing.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is the latest mystery/thriller from author Gillian Flynn. This is one of those books that showed up on my Pinterest page thanks to, and after reading the premise, I had to know more. Usually mysteries and thrillers are not for me, but something about a missing persons case that points towards the husband who maintains his innocence just intrigues me...I blame the surge in crime shows from recent years.

The Situation: Nick and Amy Dunne are getting ready to celebrate five years of marriage. There have been some serious ups and almost terrifying, but they have made it to five years. And on the morning of the day, things seems to be looking up. They have survived both of them losing their jobs; the move from trendy and cultured Manhattan to Nick's Midwest hometown of Carthage, Missouri;, taking care of Nick's caustic but still kicking father; and the death of Nick's sweet mother, her illness being the reason they moved in the first place. But even through all of that, they are still here and still together. Amy has put together her annual scavenger hunt, leaving clues and treasures hidden around the surrounding Carthage area for Nick to find and that will ultimately lead to his anniversary surprise.

The Problem: After Nick returns home from helping his sister, Margo, with the bar they both own, he realizes immediately that something is very very off. The front door is wide open, and Amy is no where to be found. There are signs of a struggle, and as the police begin to investigate, everything points to Nick. And while he vehemently maintains his innocence, he also can't stop lying. He lies about where he really was for a good chunk that morning; about the disposable cell phone he has in his pocket, in addition to his real one; and about a few things that always make him look bad when the truth is eventually found out. He also can't seem to help but look uninterested, bored almost, with the whole thing. Like he honestly couldn't care less if they find her. And eventually, the town, the media, even Amy's parents, start to believe this is true. And then there is the issue of Amy's diary, which will reveal more than anyone, including the reader, is prepared for.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is a mystery/thriller with way more thriller than mystery, especially since all of the answers are given to the reader before half of the book is over, but everything still isn't quite solved yet. Also, the tricks and twists and turns continue up to the very last page. Many parts of this book made me feel like I was reading a Philip Roth novel. It was partly all of the twists and turns, but also partly the amount of just pure hatred coming out of every other character. Oftentimes it is all just so uncomfortable. Flynn explores the often used plot of the murder/missing person investigation that starts to point towards the husband until he is the only suspect, and soon, he becomes the most hated person in the country. Then Flynn brings up the question of what human beings are willing to do in order to not be the bad guy, or even look like the bad guy, even if they are. How far will people go to feel loved? How far will people go to present themselves a certain way? How far will people go to win? And does it matter if others are destroyed in the process?

My Verdict: If you like thrillers, read this book. If you like characters that self-righteously adopt the victim mentality, read this book. If you like endings that provide little to no hope, read this book. If you like experiencing a slow decline in your faith in humanity, then read this book. Otherwise, don't let yourself be bothered. I was prepared to like this book, but instead ended up giving it one star on Goodreads. The first part is absolutely enthralling. But by the beginning of the second part, the book takes a turn that it never recovers from. In fact, things just continue to get worse. I felt the shift immediately and was consequently disappointed. Remember that feeling I mentioned before of having read a Philip Roth novel? Yeah, that wasn't a good feeling for me (anyone who has read one of his novels and despised it will know what I am talking about). The people in this novel are the kind of people few of us want to hang out with, and the thing is, I don't want to read about them either. And the constant victim mentality that permeates this story gets old incredibly fast...especially when the supposed "victim" has done more harm that anyone.

Favorite Moment: The ending. Not just because it meant the book was over (although that is part of it), but because it seems like things are going to end one way, but all it takes is a few harsh, but honest, words from someone that get into the head of someone else. And those words will continue to haunt that character, possibly forever, leaving them with absolutely no peace, which is something they have spent their whole lives robbing other people of. It is a different kind of justice.

Favorite Character: Nick's mother seems to be a genuinely wonderful woman, she just married the wrong man, but tried to do right by her children. In a way, her death is the loss of the last real voice of any kind of sanity and reason. Without her as an anchor, the whole thing unravels.

Recommended Reading: This will seem incredibly strange, but I will recommend Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. In Gone Girl, the Mississippi River plays a significant role as Carthage is right along the edge of it and it shows up a lot throughout the novel, as does the mention of both Mark Twain and his classic novel. However, I would also like to recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I would never have thought about it had Flynn not put in a mention of this book early on in the novel, but it fits wonderfully. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Nonfiction: Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe

Katherine Sharpe's Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are is part personal memoir and part research on the history of antidepressant use in America, and its effects on those who took them. The title is what mostly made me interested in this book (yep, I judged it by its cover), but also, as someone who has never taken an antidepressant of been diagnosed with any sort of depression, this is one of those subjects I know very little about and was interested in finding out more.

The Situation: In the summer of 1997, Sharpe was enjoying her last few months at home in Arlington, Virginia, before moving to Portland, Oregon to attend school at a small liberal arts college. As the move date approaches, she finds herself increasingly anxious about the major transition she is about to make. However, she does make it, and lives to tell about it. But on her first visit home during winter break, Sharpe's anxious feelings return and are amplified. Back at college, she visits the health center for counseling, and is diagnosed with depression and prescribed Zoloft. It is the beginning of a ten-year journey that will include her taking an antidepressant of some sort so her depression doesn't overwhelm her. 

The Problem: While the Zoloft does help, Sharpe starts to wonder what many wonder when they, or their children, are prescribed an antidepressant. Is this pill changing my personality? Am I myself anymore? Or does the pill make me myself? Am I really depressed? Is there something wrong with me? Even in 2012, there is still a serious stigma associated with taking an antidepressant, and yet, the number of people who take them is higher than most people realize. However, Sharpe points out that there is a pretty telling correlation between how often antidepressants are prescribed, and how much money doctors get from the pharmaceutical companies that make them. Also, the use of antidepressants is much higher in the U.S. than it is in any other country. Generally speaking, it would seem like Americans are over-medicated. There is a significant number of people who genuinely benefit from antidepressants, but there is also a significant number who seem to be taking them just to deal with everyday problems that everyone has. Oh, and 30% of the population is unresponsive to antidepressants or don't benefit from them at all. So what is there for someone who is legitimately depressed, but medication doesn't work for them?

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned in the introduction, this is a memoir, but Sharpe has definitely done her research, and interviewed many other people who have been prescribed an antidepressant at some point in their lives, whether they believe it worked or not, and whether or not they even still take it. Sharpe also goes over the history of antidepressants, and of depression itself. She addresses the issue of depression and antidepressants being stigmatized, and how so many people diagnosed feel that there is something wrong with them, or that they have something to be embarrassed about. The book is a very thorough discussion of the topic.

My Verdict: I learned a lot from this book. And I definitely enjoyed learning about the antidepressants of my generation more than I would have from a strictly scientific book or paper because of Sharpe's personal anecdotes and interviews with other people. Having a personal story, instead of just facts and figures from a PhD, really makes this book that much more fascinating. My only critique would be that certain parts aren't all that well-written, but the actual information and content is worth it.

Favorite Moment: When Sharpe points out that while some people who are prescribed an antidepressant, including herself, start questioning how the drug has altered their true self or whether what they are now feeling and sensing is real or just some side effect, there are people who are diagnosed that don't have that luxury. Some people genuinely feel better but start to question how their identity is affected, while others, for whom the drug hasn't worked, still just want to feel better. They don't have the opportunity to worry over their "true self."

Recommended Reading: I will recommend Quiet by Susan Cain. While Cain's book is not about depression or prescription medication, it does deal on the subject of introverts and their power to be incredibly influential. A few times in Coming of Age, Sharpe makes the connection between those who are depressed and those who are simply a little more introverted than most, and therefore have a harder time in new situations, or in crowds, etc. Cain's book sheds a lot of light on the mind of the introvert. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Goodreads Choice Awards 2012

It's back! The annual Goodreads Choice Awards has started back up again with the first round of voting. After three total rounds of voting, winners will be chosen in each category (which include fiction, historical fiction, young adult fiction, fantasy, poetry humor, etc.) and announced on Tuesday, December 4th.

With 15 nominees in each of the 20 categories during the opening round, there are plenty of titles to choose from. The opening round closes Sunday, November 11th, so you do have some time to make up your minds. Haven't read any of the titles you see? Not to worry. You can actually write in a nominee if you choose (and I know it is tempting, but please, no "Bart Simpson" write-ins mkay?). 

One of my personal favorites from this past year, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, has been included in the Best Young Adult Fiction category, so I know what I'll be voting for in that category. Also, Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her has been nominated for Best fiction, and I believe it has a very strong chance of taking that award. And not surprising in the least, Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone has made it into the category for Best Historical Fiction. I believe it will definitely make it very far, maybe even take the win in the category. People are generally pretty crazy about this book and it enjoys a very loyal following.

Another personal favorite made the Best Nonfiction category, and that is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I really have my fingers crossed for this one as I believe both introverts and extroverts can benefit greatly from this book.

Other books that I have blogged about and have made the lists of nominees include Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth for Best Science Fiction, Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu for Best Humor, and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (upcoming blog post) for Best Mystery & Thriller and Best Goodreads Author. While I believe all three have a fighting chance, they didn't necessarily make my personal favorites lists for 2012. But despite my own personal opinions, I can definitely see Gone Girl going the distance in the Best Mystery & Thriller category.

If I were tempted to do a write-in, I would choose Courtney Summer's This Is Not a Test for the Goodreads Author category. I don't think it could compete with John Green's The Fault in Our Stars for Best Young Adult Fiction, but I think it belongs somewhere among the first round nominees.

You can begin voting here This is the only major book award that is decided by readers, and I think that is pretty cool.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Door Stop: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

I have finally come back around to doing a door stop, and just like the others, that label fits this week's novel so well due to the book's actual physical size, as well as the density of the content. Don Quixote is David Copperfield long. In fact, it is so long that some of the characters Don Quixote meets in the second part have already read the first part and are well aware of his previous adventures. Yeah...wrap your head around that one for a minute.

The Situation: Alonso Quijano is a retired country gentleman who has spent mass amounts of time reading books about chivalry and knights and adventures and fair maidens needing to be rescued, etc. In fact, he has read so many of these adventures and has amassed such a huge collection that he decides, in his old age, to go out as a knight and find some adventures of his own. He takes to calling himself Don Quixote, renames his lean but loyal horse "Rocinante," puts on some old armor, and takes off to right injustices and help the downtrodden. Eventually he recruits the help of his neighbor and local farmer, Sancho Panza, who serves Don Quixote as his squire for the remander of his adventures. Together they encounter a ridiculous amount of colorful characters and become involved in more than their fair share of adventures.

The Problem: To put it simply, dude is crazy. Really no other explanation for it. Everyone knows it, Don Quixote's family knows, everyone he encounters knows it, even Sancho is aware that not everything his master sees and does and says comes from a sound mind. And while Don Quixote's loose grip on reality (which is only loose when it comes to the subject of chivalry and seeking adventures as a knight) makes for great entertainment for those of us reading from the safety of a 21st century coffee shop, it causes massive problems for those around him. He is out there ruining people's windmills, hurting their flocks, destroying property, and more often than not, getting himself badly hurt in the process. Eventually, Don Quixote's reputation starts to precede him, and some decide to use his lack of sense, and Sancho's lack of head knowledge, against the both of them and play tricks on them for sport. This then begs the question, at what point has this all stopped being funny? At what point does it all become quite serious? And who in this situation, is really the crazy one?

Genre, Themes, History: This door stop is a parody or spoof of the chivalric romances that were popular around Cervantes' time. They are the very same chivalric romances that Don Quixote the character has become obsessed with to the point of lunacy. By having Don Quixote decide to actually act out what he has read in these books, Cervantes is showing how absurd the content found inside these books really is. Metafiction is a major theme as other works are talked about throughout the novel, and later, a published account of the events at the beginning of the book are talked about by various characters, including the dillusional hero. Written in episodic form, while the book is often funny, there are many points in which the tone is quite serious and philosophical. Eventually, closer to the end, it becomes clear that Don Quixote may not be the only unbalanced person in the book.

My Verdict: Like a lot of other door stops, Don Quixote is a slow build, but one with a very high pay off. At first, it is all about the foolish knight and his misguided idea, which actually has the potential to become very boring very quickly (and it does), but then the knight is joined by Sancho, and they then continue to meet various characters with various histories and stories of heartbreak and injustice. While Don Quixote remains the primary focus, it isn't necessarily all about him. In this way, the episodic format works well, and the diversions are welcome as opposed to annoying. And the book gradually brings itself together the closer it gets to the end of the story.

Favorite Moment: When Sancho is made a pretend governor (although he believes it is real) over a pretend island, he proves to actually be an incredibly competent and wise leader, despite the fact that it is all a massive joke to prove just how inept he is.

Favorite Character: I would have to go with Sancho, the squire. He is full of so many proverbs and wise sayings that they spill out of his mouth pretty much any time he speaks, much to the annoyance of his master, Don Quixote. But every once in awhile he hits upon one that is extremely profound and proves he is to possibly be the wisest person in the room.

Recommended Reading: I expect very few people to take this advice to heart, but given the format of Don Quixote and its stories of chivalry, I will recommend Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales are indeed extremely cumbersome and boring, but others are actually pretty entertaining. Naturally, I recommend only a Modern English translation...don't try to be a hero with the Middle English stuff... 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

Once again, I am able to come through on one of my many promises from the beginning of the year and cover the most recent novel by young adult fiction writer, Sarah Ockler. Bittersweet is her third novel, and Ockler sticks with her tradition of looking at the issues of teenage girls in North America through the eyes of a first-person protagonist as she attempts to navigate life.

The Situation: Hudson Avery is a fantastic figure skater. I mean this girl is good. Three years ago, when she was still competing, she took the top spot in every major skating competition. In fact, she is so good that the co-captain of the high school hockey team has taken notice. The team hasn't won a game in 10 years, and Josh thinks that by picking up a few tips from Hudson, they actually have a shot. And not only is Hudson a crazy good skater, but she can make a mean cupcake. She makes them for friends, family, school, and even to sell at the diner her mother owns, Hurley's. Seems like Hudson has a few things going for her.

The Problem: The reason Hudson hasn't competed in three years is because on the night of a big competition, she came to the painful-as-hell realization that her dad had been cheating on her mom, and that this was more than likely the beginning of the end of the marriage. So Hudson threw the competition, one in which she was the clear favorite to win, and to the confusion of everyone, walked away from the sport. But one day, Josh catches her skating on the nearby frozen lake while on break from Hurley's, and she is still amazing. So soon a deal is made where she helps the hockey team in exchange for ice time to train at a local arena. If she gets in some serious training and becomes good enough to win the upcoming Capriani Cup, she could win a $50,000 scholarship and be guaranteed a ticket to college, as well as a trip out of her small hometown of Watonka, New York. But skating was something her and her dad tell her mom that not only is she skating again, but that she prefers that to helping out at the diner, could possibly break her mother's heart. So she skates, bakes cupcakes, waits tables at the diner, crushes on hockey boys, and inadvertently pushes her friends away, all while being a teenager struggling to find out what exactly it is she really wants.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that deals with the issue of the broken family, and the lasting effects it can have on the kids. While living with her mom and little brother, Hudson and her family's main source of income is from the failing diner. And with her dad half the nation away, the only true father figure she has in her life is Trick, the diner's fry cook. Meanwhile, the dad has found yet another woman and only stays in contact through email, or, as if that wasn't distant enough, through his blog. The novel is also about ice skating, and cupcakes, and hockey, and boys, and best friends, but really, I feel like the issue of divorce is what lies behind almost every moment. And Hudson constantly runs scenarios in her head of what "parallel Hudson" is doing. The Hudson who didn't throw the competition. The Hudson that still has her family intact.

My Verdict: I really do like this book a great deal. It is light and refreshing, but still serious where it needs to be. Sometimes there is a bit too much going on, but maybe that is simply because Hudson does have a lot going on herself, and some areas do start to suffer. The novel does have the usual which-guy-will-she-pick moments as well as the necessary how-is-she-going-to-attend-the-prom-and-also-babysit-her-little-brother moment (except there isn't a prom scene, but you get what I am saying). Even so, I think it is well written, and I may like it more than I did Twenty Boy Summer, and that is saying something.

Favorite Moment: At the beginning of each chapter, Ockler includes a short recipe for one of Hudson's famous cupcakes. Every chapter...all 27 of them. Needless to say, I really want a cupcake, like right now. I think one day I will make the "Lights, Camera, Cupcakes!" which include chocolate Coca-Cola cupcakes with vanilla buttercream icing, and topped with buttered popcorn, peanuts, Raisinettes, and M&M's. I have more than a few coworkers who would happily help me devour them (Ashley W, I'm looking in your direction).

Favorite Character: Hudson's little brother Max, or Bug. He is basically the greatest eight year-old kid ever and has a serious obsession with crime shows and negotiation skills that amount to him getting more of Hudson's awesome cupcakes. The kid can practically take care of himself, never rats on his sister, and helps out whenever possible at the diner. If I had a younger sibling, I'd want it to be Bug.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I am going to recommend Ockler's very first novel, Twenty Boy Summer. Instead of dealing with a broken family, Twenty Boy Summer deals with a family in mourning, and the neighbor next door who is dealing with the loss as well, but for reasons of her own. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

The natural follow-up to last week's post on Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is his most current publication and National Book Award finalist, This Is How You Lose Her. Choosing this book was a very easy decision for me since I greatly admire Diaz's writing and have yet to meet anything he writes that I didn't like.

The Situation: Yunior is back. The main character in this book at least has the same name as the narrators of both Oscar Wao and Drown. But unlike Oscar Wao, and more like Drown, it is all about Yunior. With the exception of one chapter, the story follows Yunior around during different points in his life. From the time he is brought to the US by a father he barely knows, to his future of teaching at MIT, the reader is given an honest and often harsh look at how this man came to be who he is.

The Problem: Ultimately, who Yunior is happens to be a miserable Dominican who has messed up yet again by cheating on his girlfriend. This is how the story starts. And as Yunior starts talking about his life, his family, his upbringing, his friends, and his past relationships, it is clear that this isn't the first time this has happened to Yunior, and history says that it won't be his last. Like his brother, like his father, and apparently like many Dominican men, Yunior is a chronic cheater. And this time he has really messed up. He pines after this woman like he has no other, hoping against hope that he can get her back. And as he starts to look back on how it all happened. The acknowledgement that it isn't an isolated incident causes him to look at his entire life, and how exactly he got to this point.

Genre, Themes, History: Much like Drown, this is almost more of a collection of short stories than a novel. One of the stories, titled "Otravida, Otravez," doesn't even mention Yunior at all, but instead is about a woman carrying on an affair with a married man whose wife and kids are back in his home country of the Dominican Republic. The remaining stories deal with Yunior and his situation, but they do not appear in chronological order. The primary theme appears to be infidelity, and not just Yunior's. It is like an epidemic. Something that is also heavily explored is the trend of parents either leaving their home country and their children behind in order to start a new life in the US, or the parents remaining home and sending their children off to the US on their own. Most of the time the parents have every intention of having the rest of their family join them, but there are a few who have no desire to either go back or send for the others...and both men and women fall into this category. Then there are those who do have their families with them in the US, but they still have another partner in the home country, and sometimes a whole other family. Diaz presents the fractured family life of the Dominican immigrant trying to make it in the US - a country where, according to Diaz, even the devil got his ass kicked.

My Verdict: This book reminded me a great deal of Drown, mostly in its structure and its narrative voice. Although, the language is much rougher than it was in Drown, almost rougher that it was in Oscar Wao, and the subject matter is much tougher...some of it. Because of this, I have to once again say that I can't recommend anyone read this book unless they are ready for it. But chances are, if you get through Oscar Wao okay, then this one probably won't phase you at all. Now having given my obligatory warning, I will say that I have once again found a Diaz book that I love and hold in high regard. Maybe it is his unblinking honesty and willingness to put it all out there, I don't know, but I like it.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any moment when Yunior truly regrets and has genuine remorse for how he has screwed this relationship up. It was he who cheated, and she just wasn't going to put up with it.

Favorite Character: This is slightly more difficult...this is one of those books where none of the characters really come off that great. The men are cheating, and many of the women let it happen and put up with it. It is a heartbreaking cycle that Diaz presents here.

Recommended Reading: Once again, I would have to recommend his book, Drown. This Is How You Lose Her almost picks up where Drown left sort of fills in some of the blanks and brings the reader up to speed. I highly recommend reading it before attempting anything else by Diaz. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I decided to cover this Pulitzer Prize winning book from Junot Diaz because on September 11th, his collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, hit bookshelves, and I hope to cover it next week. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Diaz's previous book, and for me, it is one of those books that only comes around once in awhile, and one I will never forget.

The Situation: The book begins with the story's hero, Oscar de Leon, living with his mother, Beli, and sister, Lola, in New Jersey. To put it simply, Oscar is your standard nerd (some of you familiar with the British comedy The IT Crowd probably read that in Denholm's voice...that is certainly how I heard it as I typed it). He is obsessed with anything science fiction, and spends countless hours pouring over comic books and graphic novels. He aspires to become the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien, and also, like many nerds, to eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. Granted, his nerdy leanings are a significant barrier to that last part, but ultimately he is a sweet guy who may just spend a little too much time invested in worlds that aren't this one.

The Problem: Oscar and his family are cursed. The "fuku" curse follows Oscar everywhere he goes, and this curse is seriously lethal. He already has a hard enough time navigating his life without this thing, and yet, it continues to haunt him and his family. Not only is Oscar's social life severely hampered, but his mother is downright caustic, and his sister, who is probably the most stable of the three, is rebellious almost to a fault because of their mother's tyranny. The fuku follows Oscar through his childhood, into college, and then right through his short adult life. He finds most of his solace in his extensive knowledge of science fiction and fantasy, and also through his college roommate and Lola's one-time boyfriend, Yunior, who also serves as the book's omniscient narrator for the majority of the novel. Oscar's life is hard...I don't think there is any formulation of words out there that I could use to describe just how hard without just quoting the entire book. It's that bad.

Genre, Themes, History: It is tempting for me to want to describe this book as science fiction, because it is FULL of references to popular, and not so popular, science fiction books and characters and TV shows and comic books and graphic novels and movies, etc. But in the end, it is fiction of the New Immigration. Diaz is from the Dominican Republic and would be considered to be part of the New Immigration (immigrants who came to the US after 1965). Since Oscar's family is also from the Dominican Republic, immigration is a major theme, but Diaz also goes into great detail of some of the history of his home country, particularly its time under the harsh dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Diaz actually talks a great deal about Oscar's ancestors as they struggled to stay alive under Trujillo's regime, giving the reader a greater understanding as how Oscar and his family got to where they are.

And while this book if very often extremely vulgar, and derogatory towards pretty much everyone, and incredibly offensive, it is also absolutely one of the funniest books I have ever read in my life. And one unlikely tool Diaz uses as comic relief is the use of extensive foot notes. Yep, foot notes. He uses them so much that the reader realizes that they just have to be part of a joke. And of course, to skip them would be to miss out on a lot of useful information. And while it would have made the most sense for Diaz to use the footnotes to explain some of the science fiction references, many of those go unexplained, leaving only the very curious to Google them for ourselves.

My Verdict: Because this book is so filthy and so vulgar, I could never in good conscious recommend this book to anyone ever. With that being said, it is one of my favorite books of all time. It is laugh-out-loud funny, often during the most inappropriate times, and it is one of those stories that is so full of obscure references and Spanish phrases that I don't know, that I am sure I only really get about 60% of what Diaz is trying to say...but I kind of like that. I like that fact that there is so much in there that I could probably spend the next few lifetimes trying to figure it all out. Diaz once did an appearance at Trinity University here in San Antonio, Texas, and I was fortunate to be able to attend and hear him explain some things about the book that I never would have even thought of. For instance: the main four characters can be seen to represent The Fantastic Four with Oscar as The Thing; Lola as The Invisible Girl; Beli as The Human Torch; and Oscar's grandfather as Dr. Fantastic. Fascinating!

Favorite Moment: There were quite a few moments where the book made me laugh out loud, but there is one moment while Oscar is in college when Yunior is telling yet another story of some awful nickname that other students have given to Oscar because of how nerdy he is. And then Yunior goes on to say that Oscar actually starts to respond to it! For some reason, I completely lost it at that point. Maybe it is the honest frankness that Yunior uses to tell these stories, but as bad as I felt for Oscar most of the time, Yunior makes it very clear that he was in fact pretty ridiculous.

Favorite Character: One character that I found myself wishing Diaz had spent more time on is Lola. She does get her own chapters where she is the primary narrative voice, but she is such a strong and determined person that I wanted to hear more from her, or get her perspective on certain things. I suppose this is where her similarities with The Invisible Girl come in: while she may be invisible a lot of the time, she can still manipulate force fields all around her. And coupled with the way her mother often treated her, I couldn't help but want to hear more of her story.

Recommended Reading: I suppose a good way to find out whether or not someone could make it through Oscar Wao is to recommended Diaz's semi-autobiographical novel Drown, and see how that sits with them. It isn't quite as vulgar, but it is still honest. And I think that is what I like most about Diaz - the man goes for broke, and it has paid off extremely well.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss

As promised, I have finally gotten around to covering David Liss' latest novel, The Twelfth Enchantment. I have yet to meet a Liss book I haven't liked, even if they are historical fiction, a sub-genre I have a hard time appreciating. The Twelfth Enchantment gives a different view of 19th century England that we won't find in anything by Austen or a Bronte...maybe Dickens.

The Situation: Lucy Derrick lives an incredibly miserable existence with her miserly uncle and his harsh and unforgiving serving woman, Mrs. Quince. After the death of her father and the marriage of her sister, Lucy is left with little connections to family and no money to survive on her own. If this wasn't bad enough, Lucy is also a woman with a compromised reputation as she attempted to run off with someone four years before. It would appear that Lucy has no choice but to enter into a less than desirable marriage with a local mill owner, as he has condescended to accept her as a wife, and her uncle would gladly have her out of his house.

The Problem: If all of that wasn't bad enough, Lucy's life is about to get much harder, and much more dangerous, when a troubled Lord Byron (yes, THE Lord Byron) shows up at her uncle's house, warning her against her impending marriage and charging her with a cryptic task. This task is one that Lucy only learns the meaning of after much searching and more than a few adventures. And eventually, she has more questions than she does answers. But she must solve all mysteries, and soon, for the very fate of England, as well as herself and her family, depend on it. It would all be difficult enough if a woman in Lucy's position had to deal with impossible human beings, but they are the least of her concern. There are witches, demons, goblins, ghost dogs, spirits, and even a giant man-eating tortoise...yes, a tortoise.

Genre, Themes, History: The Twelfth Enchantment is decidedly historical fiction. And I am usually wary of novels that use real public figures, past or present, in their fictional narratives, but Liss pulls this off well. Lord Byron plays a huge role in this story, and even William Blake makes a couple of appearances and is just as delightfully erratic and eccentric as we would expect him to be. General themes include magic, sacrifice, life and death, rules of society, inheritance laws, and social (as well as political) revolution. The novel takes place during a time when the Industrial Revolution is really starting to gain momentum in England, and in general, the lower classes are not too pleased about it. The larger conflict surrounding Lucy throughout the novel is between those who are ready to usher in the age of machines and industry, and those whose backs would actually break in order for that to happen. For machines to truly take over, not only would many jobs be eliminated, but the ones who would keep their jobs to work those machines would be overworked and underpaid. This is what Lucy finds herself in the middle of.

My Verdict: Once it gets going, and that doesn't take long, this book takes you on a serious ride. But sometimes, it felt like there was almost too much going on, like there was too much story...if the makes sense. And it wasn't necessarily the stuff about the magic that made me feel that way, but there are so many mysteries that Lucy comes across. Every chapter would uncover some new twist or discovery that would shock her and change her whole way of thinking. It definitely helps in keeping the reader entertained, but I found myself able to believe less and less of what was happening by the time the giant ravenous tortoise showed up. Still makes for a great story, but it could be a little too much sometimes.

Favorite Moment: Yep, I'll have to return back to the giant tortoise...I mean, it is just so ridiculous, but Liss made it so interesting and cool at the same time. And the reader can't say they weren't given fair warning before it is just so out there that I believe very few of us would have ever taken it seriously. I mean, it's a tortoise!

Favorite Character: Mrs. Emmett is one of those characters who, on the surface, is the most frustratingly useless person alive. But really, they turn out to be a very important piece in the journey.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend Davis Liss' The Coffee Trader. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, this book doesn't have half the mystery and adventure and magic as The Twelfth Enchantment, but it is still surprisingly enjoyable, and will hold your attention until the very end.