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 http://www.goodreads.com/choiceawards. 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 long...like 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 shared...to 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 off...it 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.