Friday, December 27, 2013

Door Stop: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

For reasons somewhat still a mystery even to myself, I decided to tackle Dante's The Divine Comedy, and in the process I began to understand why most people simply read the Inferno and leave it at that.

The Situation: On the night before Good Friday, a 35 year-old Dante is lost in the woods and is suddenly attacked by a lion, a leopard, and a wolf. He is then rescued by the poet Virgil (of The Aeneid fame) and they begin their journey to and through the underworld, starting with the Inferno, or Hell. Having survived the Inferno, Virgil then continues to lead Dante through Purgatorio, or Purgatory. And naturally, after Purgatory comes Paradiso, or Paradise. But Dante's guide into heaven is no longer the poet Virgil, but instead Beatrice, his ideal woman. And after completing the tour of Paradiso, the epic poem ends with Dante finally understanding the mystery of the humanity and divinity of Christ, and his soul becomes aligned with God's love.

The Problem: Being allowed to take a tour of Paradise is all well and good, but Dante does have to literally go through Hell in order to get there, all ten circles of it. And in order to get out of it and only into Purgatory, Virgil leads Dante as they climb down Satan's form (seriously) in order to escape the last circle. And while going through these ten circles, the still living Dante is witness to the many souls who have found themselves in the various circles of hell, and the punishment they must endure for all eternity. The punishment for every sin has a sort of poetic justice to it, such as flatterers being covered in excrement (seriously) for all eternity. By comparison, going through Purgatory isn't nearly as jarring, even as Dante is taken through those who committed one of the seven deadly sins. There are many moments when Dante, despite Virgil's insistence that he will be fine, fears for his own well-being. But he must trust his leader if he is to make it through this journey and see his beloved Beatrice.

Genre, Themes, History: The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written somewhere between 1308 and 1321. It is also an allegory as it not only goes through three levels of the afterlife, but those levels also represent the journey of the human soul towards God. Inferno is where Dante sees sin for what it really is. Purgatorio is where the love of God, which is pure, is shown to become sinful when it flows through humanity, therefore resulting in the seven deadly sins. And finally, while Inferno and Purgatorio were centered around sin, Paradiso is focused on the four cardinal virtues as well as three theological virtues. The entire poem consists of a total of 14,233 lines divided into the three different parts, which each part containing 33 cantos, sort of like chapters. The number three has a prominent place throughout the poem, and it is even written in tercets according to the rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc.

My Verdict: As I mentioned in the introduction, I could easily see why people tend to only read the Inferno. For whatever reason, Purgatorio and Paradiso just aren't that interesting. I can't decide if it is the way they were written, or if it is simply because sins are interesting to human beings, while virtues or even lesser sins are not. Once Dante and Virgil make it past Satan, I found it really hard to continue reading. Ultimately I am glad I did, but it was a struggle. The good news is that it is poetry, so the reading actually goes much faster than it would for most other books more than 500 pages long. The bad news though, is that it is poetry and therefore for someone like me it could be hard to understand. Thankfully, each canto began with a brief summary of what was to follow.

Favorite Moment: When Dante sees the three faces and mouths of Satan, with one mouth containing Judas Iscariot, the disciple that betrayed Jesus, and the other two mouths holding Brutus and Cassius, the men that betrayed Julius Caesar. As one of the few people ever whose favorite Shakespeare play is Julius Caesar, it felt right to me that Brutus and Cassius would have places in Hell next to Judas.

Favorite Character: There are really only three consistent characters throughout the poem, and they are Dante, Virgil, and then Beatrice. Of the three, I choose Virgil, despite how little I care for his Aeneid. He serves as an excellent guide for Dante and is extremely patient throughout the narrator's doubts and fears.

Recommended Reading: I honestly have nothing for this. I would never recommend for anyone to ever read The Aeneid, so that's out. Since I mentioned it, I suppose I'll recommend William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I've always wanted to become one of those people that can recite Marc Antony's speech from memory, but since Shakespeare can sometimes be even harder to grab onto than The Divine Comedy proved to be,  that process has been extremely slow going. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Marisha Pessl's Night Film has been nominated in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller. I had discovered the book before I saw it had been nominated for the award, and it was one of those books I first received from the library, but later found at Half Price Books and was delighted at the chance to buy it and own it for myself, even though I didn't yet know how it ended. I was already convinced that it was something I would want to add to my own personal library.

The Situation: Scott McGrath is a disgraced former investigative journalist. He already once tried to discover the well-kept secrets behind the life of Stanislav Cordova, a well- known, incredibly famous, and notoriously secretive, directer of several iconic horror films. The man has a fierce following, and to say that his movies have become cult classics would be an understatement. There is even a secret, hidden website that only the most hardcore and committed fans are able to access. When McGrath attempted to investigate Cordova the first time, he was slapped with a million-dollar slander lawsuit after making some harsh, and rather foolish, comments about the man on television. It also didn't help that MCGrath's inside source was found to not exist, ruining MCGrath's reputation and causing him to lose his job. Now, Cordova's young daughter, Ashley, has been found dead in an abandoned warehouse, and McGrath sees this as another opportunity to find out the truth about the secretive director.

The Problem: If the first botched investigation ended up costing McGrath his reputation and his career, this one may cost him even more. Every lead McGrath finds and every new bit of information he encounters tends to offer more questions than it does answers. And it seems like someone from Cordova's own office is onto him and following him around, throwing obstacles in the way at crucial points, making this investigation even more difficult and problematic than it already is. Also, most of the people who would have the information McGrath needs have either seemingly disappeared off of the face of the earth, or they just aren't talking, or they're dead. But McGrath is determined to find the truth, and believes that he was always onto something, even before the lawsuit that was filed years ago halted his career. Cordova has become his white whale, but the search just might kill him.

Genre, Themes, History: I almost gave this book the heading of "horror," but decided against it. The book deals with a famous yet reclusive director of horror movies and some of the real life horrors that have surrounded his life and his films. And while there are no moments when anyone is being chased by a psychotic serial killer, there is still plenty of chasing. And many of the stories and legends surrounding Cordova and his films are just plain creepy. Also, throughout the book, Pessl includes clips from articles, screenshots of websites, including the secret one that is only for the most hardcore fans, and even some of McGrath's own typed notes with his handwriting of other details in the margins. Not only do these things lend to the book's credibility (as much as that is possible with a fiction novel), but it also lends to the creepy factor. Pessl put a lot of work into giving Cordova a complex history, and also made his fictitious film cannon as detailed as possible, as if I could go onto Netflix today and find his movie titles. Other themes include black magic, skepticism, method acting, Meta fiction, seclusion, and parental love. 

My Verdict: If you want a great mystery and/or thriller, then Night Film is the book for you. Pessl spares no detail when crafting this well-done mystery involving a director of famously harrowing movies and his recently deceased daughter. And while there are parts that come very close to terrifying, they weren't scary enough to make me afraid of going on with the story, but they were just intriguing enough that I knew I had to go on until the very end. Which brings me to the one real qualm I have with the book: I feel like, with all of the lead-up and evidence that the reader is provided, that Pessl wrote herself into a corner and wasn't really sure what to do with the ending. McGrath had been through all of this stuff, some of it pretty crazy, interviewed all of these people, collected all of this evidence, heard so many different sides of the story, and the ending, I felt, kind of leaves everything flat. For me, it was just unsatisfying. But considering MCGrath's character and his experiences, that could be the point, so there could be readers out there who will like the ending just fine. I very much enjoyed everything else that lead to that point, almost making it one of those books I wish I could read again for the first time, just so I can unravel the mystery again. But seeing as this book is almost 600 pages long, therefore making it a door stop, I think I'll move on.

Favorite Moment: When McGrath is seemingly and finally willing to believe in the effect of the supernatural when it comes down to his daughter possibly being in danger. A parent's love and concern for their child and their safety can cause people to believe things they never thought they would.

Favorite Character: I would have to choose MCGrath's unlikely yet quirky partner Nora, an aspiring actress (naturally) living in New York City, trying to slowly make a name for herself by auditioning for off-off Broadway productions, one of which is a gender-bending version of Shakespeare's Hamlet

Recommended Reading: If I lean more towards creepy instead of scary, I choose The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. If I decide to lean towards scary, I suggest Joyland by Stephen King. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Saving Paradise by Mike Bond

I was sent Mike Bond's Saving Paradise in exchange for a review, and I agreed because the premise did interests me, and I am attempting to read more crime novels. Plus, with this being a free book, this situation was already a win in my opinion. Also, I will be reviewing Bond's newest novel, The Last Savannah, due out in mid-January, early in the new year.

The Situation: Pono Hawkins is a veteran living in Hawaii, making his living as a well-known surfer, writing articles for surf magazines. He also teaches surfing to under-privileged youth, and makes extra cash on the side with his dog Mojo, a dachshund with his own surf board and fan base. After one of his many mornings spent surfing off the shore of Waikiki, Pono finds the body of a beautiful journalist washed up on shore. As an ex-con, Pono knows enough to just call it in and let the authorities handle it. And if she wasn't so pretty, he may have been able to leave it at that. But after asking a few questions, and learning that the coroner decided to essentially switch his conclusion from murder to accidental drowning, Pono finds himself unable to just let this go.

The Problem: As soon as Pono begins to investigate Sylvia's death on his own, it becomes clear that he has instantly made some very powerful enemies that want to give him the same fate. Sylvia's death was no accident, but the amount of people involved in the scheme is almost overwhelming, especially for one man attempting to clear this up on his own. Powerful people with money from powerful corporations are tracking Pono's every move and trying to keep him away from the truth, all in the hopes of keeping their other shady deals from coming to light in an effort to just make more money. If Pono isn't careful, and doesn't manage to stay one step ahead of them, it could very well be the end for him. And it doesn't help that not everyone tells him the truth all of the time, even those that are supposed to be helping him out.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a crime novel, or thriller. I have even seen this categorized as an existential thriller, though I am not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean exactly. While the primary focus of the story is one man trying to find out who killed a journalist, while not ending up dead himself, there is a sub-plot of several major corporations essentially attempting to use land in Hawaii for a "green" wind-farm project that actually isn't so green, except in that it would make them all very rich while not actually helping the environment at all. There is much discussion about these corrupt corporations, and also the corrupt politicians, including Hawaii's governor, that back them and help push their agendas onto the Hawaiian population. Hawaii is shown to not be quite the island paradise that most mainlanders would imagine it to be, as Pono is not shy about pointing out all of its flaws and corruption, which he asserts all started before it was even a U.S. state. It is certainly a different view of Hawaii than what we normally do not get.

My Verdict: This book is not for everyone. If you want a fast-paced thriller that often-times doesn't make a whole lot of sense but doesn't actually require much thinking to enjoy, then this may be a good book for you. Also, there will need to be some suspension of disbelief, but almost every book has a little bit of that I guess. My main issue is that almost none of the characters are likable, least of all Pono. Which is a shame really since he is the narrator and the one whose head the reader is in all of the time. Everyone is guilty of something, so it made it hard for me to not want them all to go down. Things definitely get better as the book moves along though, and it isn't crazy long or anything (clocking in at 277 pages). At the beginning I wasn't sure I was going to make it, but by the end I really did want to know what happened and was hoping everything would work out.

Favorite Moment: When one of Pono's many girlfriends finds out that she is just that and decides she is done with him. 

Favorite Character: My favorite person is definitely Mitchell, another veteran who served with Pono and is able to use his computer skills to tap emails and retrieve useful information. He is one of few people that Pono seems to genuinely care for, and Mitchell watches out for Pono and helps him in return. 

Recommended Reading: I think I will actually recommend Robert Galbraith's (aka J.K. Rowling) Cuckoo's Calling. It is also a crime novel, but takes a very different approach. The story takes place in London where a supermodel's death has been ruled a suicide, but her brother suspects it was murder. Instead of being a fast-paced thriller like Saving Paradise, Cuckoo's Calling is much slower and much more methodical in how the mystery is laid out.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nonfiction: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The full title of this book is The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy who is an advocate, motivational speaker, and author of several other fiction and nonfiction books. I picked this book up because, like many people, autism is a fairly big mystery to me, and probably always will be to some extent. And Higashida's book attempts to provide some answers directly from someone who lives with autism everyday.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that almost resembles a conversation more than it does a book. Higashida answers 58 common questions that are asked about those with autism, including "why do you like spinning," "what causes panic attacks and meltdowns," "why do you make a huge fuss over tiny mistakes," and even "why can you never stay still?" Higashida's answers are both enlightening and fascinating. He was diagnosed with autism at the age of five, and for him, spoken communication is next to impossible. This book, and also his other books, were written with the help of a Japanese alphabet grid where Higashida points to letters to spell out words, which a helper then transcribes. The Reason I Jump was actually first published in Japan in 2007, but has now been translated and published in English due to the efforts of David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas) and his wife Ka Yoshida, who have an autistic child of their own. Mitchell and Yoshida first translated the book for friends and family, but quickly discovered how useful the information would be to the greater population. And in between Higashida's answers are short fictional stories that he has also written. The book certainly dispels one of the most commonly held beliefs that people with autism are antisocial loners who lack empathy for others and their feelings. Higashida mentions over and over how bad he feels knowing that his actions sometimes disturb other people, making them uncomfortable and making them lose patience. His main plea is for others to not give up on him and others with autism and to keep trying. 

My Verdict: This book is useful for anyone who has ever had any contact, however limited, with any autistic person anywhere ever. In other words, everyone should probably read it. Even those who are autism specialists. It is fairly short, clocking in at only 139 pages. I read it in a day, but what I learned is pretty invaluable. And it's honest answers straight from the source. What could be more useful than that?

Favorite Moment: When asked the reason why he jumps, Higashida ends his answer with this statement, "Ah, if only I could just flap my wings and soar away, into the big blue yonder, over the hills and far away!"

Recommended Reading: I haven't read any other books on autism, or special needs children or adults.  Susannah Cahalan's Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness tells the story from the author's point of view of her struggle to overcome a mysterious disease that quickly took over her body and almost ended her life had a doctor not been able to finally diagnose her successfully. Even though there is an entire month of the ordeal that Cahalan doesn't remember, the whole account is written in the first person and based off of the doctor's notes, and also the stories and testimonies of close friends and family.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Winners of the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards

The people have spoken and the results are in. Here are the winners of the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards.

For fiction, I am very pleased to see that my second choice, Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed, took home the prize for Best Fiction. And actually, out of all of my choices, this will be the only book that actually won in its category. But let's face it, there was some really stiff competition out there.

In a bit of a surprise, at least to me anyway, both Stephen King and Robert Galbraith (an alias for J.K. Rowling) lost to Dan Brown's Inferno for best Mystery & Thriller, with Galbraith losing just barely.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life took home the prize for Best Historical Fiction, while Malala Yousafzai took the Best Memoir prize by a very large margin with her book I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

And then of course, in my favorite category, Rainbow Rowell took not only first place, but also second place when it came to Best Young Adult Fiction. While I voted for Fangirl, it was Eleanor & Park that took first place, with Fangirl coming in at a close second. I am almost certain that this the first time one author has taken both the first and second place in a Goodreads Choice Awards category.

And there you have it. Now we look forward to 2014 and the wonderful books the year is sure to bring us.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Historical Fiction: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites takes place in 19th century Iceland, a place that is fairly mysterious to those of us that have been mostly stateside our entire lives. I figured the setting alone would make this an interesting read.

The Situation: It is 1828 and Jon and Margret, along with their daughters Steina and Lauga, run their small farm in Iceland, depending on whatever the land produces in order to survive through the harsh winters. The family has just received word that they are to have a young woman named Agnes stay with them for awhile. The family already has little space to spare in their small house, and after feeding themselves and their servants, there isn't much left. Plus, Agnes is a criminal charged with the gruesome murders of two men. She has requested to be moved to this valley since it is where she grew up, and she knows the Assistant Reverend who lives nearby. 

The Problem: Not only is Agnes a criminal, but the reason she has been moved from the prison to a home is because she has been sentenced to die and is now just waiting for the fateful day to arrive. Jon and Margret fear that she may display the criminal behavior that she has become known for while living in their home, and they worry over their daughters' safety and hope they don't become influenced by her. Also, the Assistant Reverend, Toti, fears he won't be able to help her as he is still young and a novice and not sure how to go about counseling her. But the longer Agnes does stay, the more the family gets used to not only having an extra pair of hands, but also her company. And after hearing her side of the story, it becomes clear to them that people are not always as they first appear.

Genre, Themes, History: This is an historical fiction novel set in 19th century Iceland, when death by beheading was still an acceptable form of capital punishment in that country. Agnes was a real person charged for the real murders of two men. She and two others, a man and another woman, were not only charged with their murders, but also for burning down the home that they were staying in at the time of the crime. Throughout the novel, Kent includes real correspondence between government offices and officials regarding the case. And while the story itself is fictionalized, Kent did extensive research and read many articles and stories that gave her a sense of what these people were like and how they related to each other. I think what struck me most about this story was how people make up their minds about you before they even meet you, and just how much time and effort is sometimes needed to undo that damage. 

My Verdict: This is a pretty fascinating story, and an ambitious one for a debut author, but Kent pulls it all of fairly well. The story is interesting, almost never boring, the setting is fascinating, and the characters are sympathetic and relateable enough to where the story doesn't just end up feeling like an historical account of something that happened too far away and too long ago for us to care. And at some moments, the language is absolutely beautiful. Historical fiction lovers will absolutely adore this book.

Favorite Moment: When Agnes helps deliver a baby during a difficult labor, to the shock and surprise to almost the entire community.

Favorite Character: Marget is an incredibly strong and constant wife and mother who is fighting her own battle to stay alive. She is understandably wary of Agnes when she first arrives, but the two of them soon come to a sort of understanding bordering on mutual respect.

Recommended Reading: This is perhaps an odd choice, but I recommend Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The two books don't have a whole lot in common, but they do both tell of how someone gets to a place where they believe murder is an option. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

A young adult novel that actually takes place during college instead of high school? Absolutely! Sign me up, every time. Maybe it is because I personally did not care for high school, but I was so glad to read the book jacket for Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and see that it started when the Avery twins were entering college. That was enough to convince me that this book was worth reading.

The Situation: Cather and Wren (see what they did there? "Cather" and "Wren." CatheWren. Catherine. Pretty clever.) are twins starting their freshmen year of college in Lincoln, Nebraska. This means leaving behind their manic father to take care of himself while they move into the on-campus dorms. Wren already told her sister she didn't want to be roommates, so this also means the severely introverted and anxiety-prone Cath is on her own, and there is a complete stranger, and the stranger's stuff, and the stranger's boyfriend, in her personal living space. A lot is changing all at once, but something that has remained constant for Cath is her love for Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) and her anticipation of the eighth and final book set to be released at the end of the Spring semester. In between classes and assignments, Cath can keep going back to what she knows and she does best: writing Simon Snow fanfiction for her ever-increasing fanbase. Wren may have deserted her, but she knows how to make sure Simon Snow never will. 

The Problem: While Cath may insist that she is perfectly fine staying holed up in her dorm room all semester, writing and living off of protein bars, her roommate Reagan insists that she come up for air once in awhile, and Reagan's boyfriend just won't leave her alone either. Cath can't even enjoy her junior-level fiction writing class in peace when a fellow-student insists they continue writing together after the end of a group assignment. And while her sister Wren is the one person on campus whose presence she actually does crave, it is clear that Wren has moved on to hanging our with her new roommate, Courtney, attending parties, getting drunk, not visiting their dad when he lands in the hospital, and even getting back in touch with the mother who abandoned them all. What if all of the change is just too much for Cath? And what if her love for Simon Snow isn't enough to carry her through it all?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set on a college campus during that all-important transitional moment when high school and most of what has been familiar to a person for 18 years is left behind in exchange for the new challenges and experiences that college has to offer. The Avery family are three examples of different ways people cope with hardship and change. Cath and Wren's dad turns absolutely manic and spends a disturbing amount of time and energy on his work. Without the girls around, no one is at the house telling him what to eat, or just to eat in general, and when to go to sleep. Cath is prone to panic attacks and is incredibly anxious when things feel out of control, which is almost always, while Wren seems perfectly capable of going off completely on her own, when in reality she is going down her own path of destruction. As a fairly independent person, I see where Wren is coming from. If she and Cath never separate and just attempt living their own lives, they'll never know whether or not they can, and it is unfair for Cath to expect her sister to hold her hand forever. She also can't stick her head in the sand and decide not to engage in life. On the other hand, Wren can't just completely break free of family and expect everything to just work out. Isn't that what their mom did? Isn't that the pivotal moment in their lives that started all of this to begin with? This book is not just about the freshmen college experience, or just about family, but possibly about growing up and everything that comes with that. Even the whole friendships of convenience issue comes up as both Cath and Wren make friends with people who, just because of the way college life and dorm life works, happen to be in close proximity, and most of the time those friendships don't have any real staying power. The book is also about writing as there is little Cath would rather do than work on her Simon Snow fanfiction. In fact, there is so much about writing in here that it made me want to get back to my writing, and not just blog writing. Cath's passion and commitment are enough to inspire any reader who has the slightest urge to do some writing of their own.

My Verdict: I absolutely adore this book. Again, I was already pretty sold once I knew it took place in college as opposed to high school, but even beyond that, this is a fantastic book. The characters are relateable, and while I wouldn't say that Cath is the most upbeat and cheerful person ever, there definitely isn't the same kind of angst there that is often found in young adult protagonists. Again, the college setting is fantastic, and the entire backdrop of the dorms and the students and the classes and the library and the cafeteria was so well done without getting too bogged down in detail. There is some heavy stuff that happens within the 400+ pages of the novel, but it isn't so heavy to make the novel dark, but it keeps the book from being too light or too fluffy. If I had a complaint it would be about the excerpts that begin each chapter from both the Simon Snow novels and Cath's fanfiction. Just from the little snippets that Rowell gives us, I get the feeling that if I were to read either the Simon Snow books, or even Cath's fanfiction, that I wouldn't care for the Simon Snow novels at all. But trying to really get a good picture of a full-length book from an excerpt is like trying to buy an album off of iTunes based on those 90-second samples they give us (and yet people do it all of the time). Plus, none of it is real, so there is that. 

Favorite Moment: When Cath and Wren's father puts his foot down regarding Wren's behavior at college. He is pretty much the most laid back and easy-going father ever, so the fact that he got angry, and I mean really angry, meant that something had to have gone really wrong. He gives Wren two choices, neither of which she likes, but he honestly doesn't care. 

Favorite Character: I actually feel like I have a few choices here, which is rare for me, but I think I will go with Cath and Wren's dad. He can be pretty manic, but he has made the best of a less than ideal situation and has managed to get twin daughters off to college and not completely fall apart. 

Recommended Reading: I am actually having a hard time coming up with a specific book, so instead I'll recommend some authors: Sarah Dessen always seems like a good choice when it come to young adult books, as well as Sarah Ockler. John Green has written some of my favorite young adult novels, and I could never forget Ruta Sepetys and her incredible historical fiction geared towards teens. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Goodreads Choice Awards 2013 Final Round

This is it, the last chance to cast your votes in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards. We are down to 10 finalists in each category and the ultimate winners will be announced after this last round of voting ends on Monday, November 25th.

There is no surprise that Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed has made it into the final round in the Fiction category. Joining him is Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. And it looks like I will now be using my vote to support Hosseini as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah did not make it into the finals. Neither did Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, nor Lauren Grahams Someday, Someday, Maybe.

Even now that I have finished reading Marisha Pessl's Night Film, I think I will stick with my initial vote for Stephen King's Joyland, as both books made it into the finals for Mystery & Thriller. And joining them is Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling. It will be really interesting to see who ends up the winner for this category, and I suspect it will be a fairly close race.

Both Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls and Hannah Kent's Burial Rites made it into the finals in the Historical Fiction category. Despite what is sure to be stiff competition coming from Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, I am hoping Kent's Burial Rites pulls through, though I am thinking it is a bit of an underdog.

And it looks like I once again have no one to vote for in the Science Fiction category as write-in nominee The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter did not make it into the finals. I am still glad to know there were people who liked it enough to write it in and get it included for the semi-final round. Maybe the third book in the series will do better.

Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump is still going strong in the Memoir & Autobiography category. But so is Malala Youfsafzai's I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. So this another category to watch and may end up being a very close race as well.

And as for my favorite category, all three of my picks, Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, Sarah Dessen's The Moon and More, and Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy, made it into the finals. Also, it is interesting to note that Rowell actually has another book that was nominated and has made it into the finals along with Fangirl, and it's Eleanor & Park, her other book that was published earlier this year. So if Rowell does end up taking the prize, for which book will it be? I am voting for Fangirl, but I also haven't read Eleanor & Park yet. Honestly, I will be glad to see any of the books I mentioned for this category take the prize, but I can only vote for one.

So that is my take on the final round of the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards. Cast your votes, make your predictions, and stick around for the results. It has already proved to be an interesting race and the results will surely not disappoint.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Nonfiction: The Wolf and the Watchman by Scott Johnson

I decided to pick up Scott Johnson's The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, A Son, and the CIA when I saw it on the long list for the 2013 National Book Award for nonfiction. It would have to be halfway decent in order to be long listed, and a book about growing up with a parent in the CIA was just too intriguing to pass up.

The Situation: Scott Johnson was born in India, and would grow up never really staying in one location for too long. Only when he became a teenager did he learn that his father was essentially a spy for the CIA. Growing up he knew that there was more to his father's job than what he was told to tell his friends at school, but only when his father levels with him before showing him his "office" are his suspicions confirmed. Scott was always close to his father, and even continued to spend the majority of the year with him after his parents' divorce. He recognizes that being a part of the CIA and being a family man can't be the easiest thing. And being his son was becoming increasingly difficult as well.

The Problem: Not only is it fairly taxing on Scott to never be completely honest about what his father does for a living, but he eventually begins to wonder how much his father has hid from him as well. Surely there were things his father couldn't tell him; things Keith had to hide from his son not only because he wasn't at liberty to divulged them, but also because he had to keep Scott's safety in mind. It is this idea that will cause Scott to distance himself from his father and lead to his inability to completely trust him. Scott can't help but wonder exactly how much of his father's life is pretend. He also can't help but wonder how far his father has gone for the country he loves and works for. And even though Scott chooses a career in journalism, he realizes that he employs a lot of the methods his father used in order to get the information he wants. If he couldn't trust his own dad, what does that say about Scott?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that follows Scott from his birth in India, through his many travels with his father because of his job with the CIA, and on through Scott's own travels as a journalist for Newsweek. Along with being about what it is like having a spy as parent, the book is almost equally about Scott's adventures as a journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11th. Ultimately, the book begins to be about how Scott's job as a journalist in a war zone isn't that much different from his father's job with the CIA, and that really bothers him. It more or less all boils down to trust. Just as Keith used his training and skills with the CIA to not only get the information he wanted, but also get certain people to defect and work for the US instead, Scott uses similar skills and, for lack of a better word, manipulations to get the information he needs for his articles. And Scott has hard time reconciling the trust gained in order to get such information, and the perceived betrayal that happens when he then turns around and has that information published for the entire world to see. He also has a hard time coming to terms with some of the stuff his dad did, and other things he most likely did but never actually talked about.

My Verdict: There were moments when this book was incredibly interesting and I had to know what happens next, but also just as many moments when I was incredibly bored and could not have possibly cared less. I was way more interested in reading about what it was like to grow up with a parent who worked for the CIA than I was about Scott's time in Iraq, and the later half of the book leans more towards the latter. It was incredibly educational, and I think Scott portrayed his conflicting feelings towards his dad and even his own path in life quite well, so that even someone who has no idea what it would be like to live like that would understand the issue. I guess I just hoped that would stay as the center focus for the whole story.

Favorite Moment: As a teenager Scott makes the decision to stay with his mother, and his father actually breaks down and cries as he drops his son off.

Recommended Reading: The only suggestion I could come up with was Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. I don't usually read books about war or government spies, so Hosseini's books were the first ones I thought of as they are usually set in and around the area Scott was covering as a journalist.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Goodreads Choice Awards 2013 Semifinal Round

The opening round for the 2013 Godreads Choice Awards is already behind us, and now each category has had five more books added based on write-in votes.

I must say that for the Fiction category, I am surprised to see Lauren Graham's (of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood fame) Someday, Someday, Maybe. It is an okay book, I am just having a hard time seeing it as the best fiction book of the year. I think I will stick with my current favorite for this category, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. Another new addition includes Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, which I have not read but I have heard good things.

I could not be more pleased to see that my write-in vote for the Science Fiction category, The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, has made it in for the semi-final round. I will definitely continue to vote for it and believe that it could go far in the competition. 

For the remainder of the categories that I have any interest in, it looks like I'll be sticking with the same books I chose for the opening round. I do hope that Stephen King's Joyland, Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump, and Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl all continue in their respective categories at least into the final round, which is set to begin next Monday, November 18th. 

Whether your favorites win or lose, this competition pulls from a wonderful and diverse set of books. And if anything, it gives readers more suggestions for potential books to read. I know my list has grown considerably since the competition opened (Neil Gaiman I am looking in your direction).

Continue casting your votes here and check in next week to see how your favorites are doing.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Believe it or not, this is the first book I have ever read by J.K. Rowling. Of course, on paper, The Cuckoo's Calling is the debut novel of Robert Galbraith, but by now, most of the world has learned that the book is actually the latest from the Harry Potter author. And I was curious to see how Rowling would handle a detective mystery. Also, this book has been nominated in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller, which isn't at all surprising, especially considering its leap in popularity after everyone discovered who the true author was.

The Situation: Supermodel Lula Landry has fallen to her death from her London apartment. The police are more than ready to rule it as a suicide, as the model had a history of mental health issues. And if there was someone that would have murdered her, pretty much everyone is ready to blame her unlikeable on again off again boyfriend Evan Duffield, except he has an iron-clad alibi. The press are all over the story, the family is distraught, but everyone does their best to move on.

The Problem: Lula's brother, John Bristow, isn't even remotely convinced that his sister would have committed suicide. That is why he has insisted on reaching out to private detective Cormoran Strike, a veteran who lost his leg in the Afghan War, to investigate the entire incident, and is even willing to pay double the going rate. At first, Strike is going to refuse the offer, except he badly needs the job and the money. A recent break-up has him living out of his office, and debt collectors keep calling him demanding payment. Even so, he could be taking Bristow's money only to find out Lula did commit suicide, but then again, what if John is right and her killer is still out there. Strike's investigation gives him access to the types of people the paparazzi climb all over themselves just to get pictures of as they walk down the street. And Lula's family has the kind of money and connections that could protect them from almost anything. Everyone Strike interviews seems to have wanted something from Lula or were using her for something, and almost all of them have a secret to hide, something that keeps them from telling the whole truth. And if Lula was murdered, she may not be the one and only victim. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a detective mystery, or crime novel, almost in the classic sense. It is also clear that Galbraith (or Rowling if you prefer) intends to keep the story going as a series, bringing Strike back to investigate more crimes. While an obvious theme may be the high cost of fame, another one is the complication of adoption, as all three of the Bristow children (John, Lula, and an already deceased older brother, Charlie) were adopted by Sir Alec and Lady Yvette. The adoption of Lula is further complicated by Lula being an African American child adopted into a rich white family. And then of course, there is also greed and jealousy coming from everyone on all sides over various things, mostly money, but also over attention and fame. 

Rowling initially sent the manuscript for The Cuckoo's Calling anonymously, and at least one publishing house declined it. Interestingly enough, it was eventually picked up by a publisher that is affiliated with the publishing house that worked with her on The Casual Vacancy. After it was revealed that Rowling was the author, the book soared to the top of the best-selling novel list on Rowling's authorship was supposedly leaked via Twitter (of all things) to a reporter at The Sunday Times by the wife of a lawyer who had worked for Rowling. 

My Verdict: I will probably always be suspicious of any post-Harry Potter book by Rowling that gets rave reviews, simply because people like to ride the wave and acclaim any book by an author who has already lead them through one of the most beloved stories of all time. I'm not saying The Cuckoo's Calling was bad, in fact, it was actually quite good and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. And usually with most contemporary novels, my disappointment lies in the ending, particularly with mysteries. But that was not the case with this novel. Rowling has Strike methodically and thoroughly unravel this mystery before arriving at the inevitable conclusion. At some points, Strike's methods and questioning did make for a boring story, but usually not for very long. I doubt Rowling fans will be filled with the same sense of awe and wonder and excitement they had with Harry Potter, but The Cuckoo's Calling is still worth a read.

Favorite Moment: When the bulky 6'3" Strike gets the chance to enter a trendy club with a supermodel in front of paparazzi.

Favorite Character: I am tempted to pick Strike, because I do like him a lot as a main character, but I think instead I will pick Robin, his secretary at his office. Robin is fairly integral in holding Strike's life together. He is more than a competent detective, but Robin still proves incredibly useful in getting Strike information he couldn't get on his own. She is also polite enough to never bring up the fact that he currently lives in his office.

Recommended Reading: I am not terribly big into detective mysteries. And there is only one true crime novel I have ever read, but I enjoyed it immensely. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is the true account of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote wrote about the investigation that followed and even spoke to the suspects himself before they were hanged.  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Goodreads Choice Awards 2013

It is the opening round of the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards, the only book awards that are decided on by popular vote from readers.

Since Goodreads is probably my primary resource for deciding which books I review and blog about, I am always incredibly interested in the Goodreads Choice Awards and which books have made the cut in each category. And fortunately, I have managed to choose quite a few books that have been nominated in various categories.

Just from looking at the fiction category I can see I'll have to make some tough decisions this year. No surprise that Khaled Hosseini's And The Mountains Echoed made the cut for this category. But also in the running are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. I'd be willing to cheer on all four of these books, but I can only vote for one. And I am sure they will all have a hard time going up against Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland.

A few nominees for the Mystery & Thriller category that are also not at all surprising are Stephen King's Joyland and Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling. Of course, as most everyone knows by now, Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym being used by J.K. Rowling. But even with the immediate popularity The Cuckoo's Calling was guaranteed to gain upon being associated with the popular Harry Potter author, I have to say that the book is pretty good and can stand on its own merit. And another book nominated for this category that I am actually in the middle of reading is Marisha Pessl's Night Film. I am only about a fifth of the way through and from what I have read I do believe it deserves to be nominated.  I will probably lean towards Stephen King, but Night Film may end up changing my mind.

Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls has been nominated for the Historical Fiction category, and while I generally enjoyed the book, I can't say I believe it to be the best of the year. However, I also read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent for an upcoming blog post, and this book I am willing to vote for. But as always, this category has some stiff competition with Colum McCann's TransAtlantic and Philipp Meyer's The Son.

I actually don't have any favorites for the Science Fiction category, so I decided to write in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long War. I'm kind of surprised it was not nominated seeing how the first book in the series, The Long Earth, took the prize in this category for 2012.

For a future blog post I read The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida and translated by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). Just from reading the book jacket I had a feeling this book would be nominated, and here it is in the Memoir & Autobiography category. It is one of those books that probably everyone should read, and it is fairly short, coming in at under 150 pages. I won't be at all surprised if this book stays in the running for a long time, or if it ends up winning the entire category.

Probably my favorite category of all is Young Adult Fiction, and I am so glad to see that Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl has been nominated, a book I will be gushing about in an upcoming blog post. However, it isn't my only favorite from this year to be included in this category. Sarah Dessen's most recent novel, The Moon and More, as well as Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy have also been included. And really, I could see any of them taking the prize. Dessen seems to me like the obvious favorite, but Rowell could pull off an upset...Fangirl is just that good.

This is only the first round of voting, which is open through November 9th, and the second round begins next Monday, November 11th. So go ahead and begin voting for your own favorites here and making some predictions of your own. I must say, that I am probably more excited about this year's Goodreads Choice Awards than I should be. But hey, that's a bookworm for you.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Classic Fiction: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

The movie version of Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel Ender's Game comes out today in theaters throughout the US and Canada. I have many friends who read this book as kids and absolutely love it, so I approached it cautiously as someone who may have missed the window, but I was going to try anyway. The idea of adults using children for stuff that even some adults shouldn't even be doing is always intriguing to me, as is the idea of children growing up too fast too soon because of the world around them.

The Situation: Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a third. What that means is that his parents had more than the regulation two children allowable under Earth's two-children policy, so Ender is the youngest of three, after his older brother Peter and his sister Valentine. Because thirds are not common, and are technically against the rules, Ender is tormented relentlessly for it by the kids at school, and even receives constant reminders about it from his parents who endure their own hardship for making the decision. But even though Ender is a third, he is the only one of the three Wiggin children that is accepted into the Battle School. He has been recognized as somewhat of a prodigy, and becomes one of the youngest kids admitted into the Battle School: a school made for training young children to serve in the military, and ultimately fight against the alien race that has twice fought against humanity. Ender enters the school when he is only six years old, but the teachers and leaders believe they have made the right decision. And if they are wrong, it could mean the end of the human race.

The Problem: It was bad enough when Ender was picked on at school. It was even worse that he was picked on and tortured at home by his older brother, Peter. But much to his frustration, it looks like he will be picked on in Battle School as well as he is immediately singled out as one of the best and brightest, and the other children resent him for it. Ender just wants to do well and make friends, and while he is allowed and encouraged to do well, making friends is never really an option. Just as he starts to get along with someone, the rules change or he is transferred to another group. The better he does, the more intent some students are to hurt him. And it doesn't look like the adults plan to ever step in and do anything about it, and are constantly hiding the truth from him. Meanwhile, Ender also fears that he does so well at the Battle School only because he is more like his sadistic brother Peter than he wants to be. Why is he so good at the games? Why is he so good at hurting others? And at what point do the games stop, and the real fighting begins.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel set in the not-so-distant future. Aliens, referred to mostly as "buggers" because of their insect-like appearance, have twice threatened the human race so that now much effort and resources are put into making sure that never happens again, even if it means taking children as young as six years old and making them into soldiers. It's pretty much war at its absolute worst. It's life under the constant threat of invasion, and what human beings are willing to do to remove that threat. But kids are almost bred for this as all three of the Wiggin children were monitored to see if they were even right for Battle School. In the end it was decided only Ender was up to the task. And the fact that he was even monitored a year longer than Peter becomes a sore spot for the older brother, making the teasing and torturing even worse. For the entire book, despite his best efforts, Ender is never really in control of his life. The book is like a crash-course in manipulation. But it is also like a case-study on gifted children and how their differences affect their lives, for better and for worse. There are many moments when Ender would prefer that he wasn't so special, but then again, he enjoys it, and he likes being the best, even if it means dealing with the isolation, and also the unwanted attention from everyone else.

My Verdict: It makes me sad that it took me so long to read this book, because now I doubt I will take the time to not only read the other four books in the Ender Saga, but also the many other books that make up the Ender's Game series. Seriously, there is a whole Enderverse out there that Card dreamed up. Fortunately for me, Ender's Game does just fine as a stand alone novel. Actually, it does more than just fine. The ending does not leave anything hanging, but it also doesn't just wrap everything in a neat little bow either. People die, people are manipulated, lives are changed, for better and for worse, and relationships are broken. And Ender himself will never be the same...actually, most of the people in this book, adults included, will never be the same. But even so, Card manages not to crush the reader's soul. There are plenty of tense moments, moments that show the evil that human beings (even kids) are capable of, but also some glimpses of kindness and hope that make anyone believe, even Ender, that we're not in fact all monsters.

Favorite Moment: I pretty much enjoyed it whenever Ender outsmarted someone, and that happens a lot. No matter what they threw at him to challenge him or push him, sometimes even to trip him up, he bested them every time.

Favorite Character: Ender does manage to make some friends in both Battle and Command School, one of which being Alai. He is one of the few people who remains a comfort to Ender throughout the book, even when they weren't in close proximity to each other. It is these types of friendships that will help Ender make it through.

Favorite Quote: From Dink, an older kid at the Battle School: "I know, you've been here a year, you think these people are normal. Well, they're not. We're not. I look in the library, I call up books on my desk. Old ones, because they won't let us have anything new, but I've got a pretty good idea what children are, an we're not children. Children can lose sometimes, and nobody cares. Children aren't in armies, they aren't commanders, they don't rule over forty other kids, it's more than anybody can take and not get crazy." 

Recommended Reading: I highly recommend Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. It also takes place in the not-so-distant future, but instead of fighting an alien race, Cline's characters are fighting a large corporation in an elaborate video game built around 1980's pop culture references. Yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Historical Fiction: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena made it onto the fiction long list for the 2013 National Book Award. Normally I avoid anything, fiction or nonfiction, that is about the very real wars that have happened, or continue to happen, on this earth. But for Marra's book I decided to take a chance.

The Situation: It is the Second Chechen War and Dokka has just been taken from his home by the Russian Federation. After briefly searching the house, the Feds then continued to douse the inside with gasoline and set the entire structure on fire. His eight year-old daughter, Havaa, would escape only because her father had enough foresight to have packed a "just in case" bag for her and was able to push her out of the back door before the Feds entered the house. The little girl hid in the woods while her father was taken, and afterwards she is found by Akhmed, a friend of Dokka's. Akhmed knows Havaa cannot stay with him, as the informant who gave Dokka's name to the Feds is nearby and will be looking for her, so he takes her to the hospital. Sonja, the doctor who now runs the less than fully functional hospital, is reluctant to take on the small child. Sonja also isn't thrilled that the completely incompetent Akhmed wants to stick around and help out, but she needs all the help she can get. And Akhmed holds onto the faint hope that they all may be able to save each other.

The Problem: As I already mentioned, it is the Second Chechen War, and things are bad. The informant that gave Dokka's name to the Feds is still looking for Havaa, knowing she couldn't have gone far. And the people he reports to keep asking for names, and he's willing to give up his friends and neighbors in order to save his own neck. And while Sonja gets used to the presence of two more people in the hospital, she also deals with her own loss of her sister, whose narrative shows the trials and hardships many women go through when seeking illegal passage to Europe. Even Akhmed, as he attempts to keep Havaa safe, also has a very sick wife at home for whom he expects death is very close. He cares for her while using  his current relationship with Havaa as some sort of absolution for how he treated Dokka in the past. Everyone is struggling to just survive, but they are also struggling to keep secrets from decisions made in the past, some of which were made out of necessity, and some just out of selfishness. In the end it may not even matter. 

Genre, Theme, History: This is a historical fiction novel that takes place in 2004 in Chechnya. The Second Chechen War rages on and won't see an end for five more years. And while this book does take place during a war, there aren't a any battle scenes. Instead, Marra focuses on the civilians that stayed behind in Chechnya, or in Sonja's case, those that came back. I could just say that the overarching theme is one of survival, but there is more to it than that. Not only are these people trying to survive, and each one has a limit to what they will do in order to do that, but it is also about how many are willing to look beyond themselves in the face of imminent danger. Akhmed knows he is putting his life on the line for Havaa, but he does it anyway. Meanwhile, Ramzan gives up the lives of others in order to continue his own and get medicine for his father, something his father will come to resent. And even Dokka, before his disappearance, made room in his house for refugees needing a place to stay. And Sonja will come back from the safety of London to find her sister, and then will continue as a doctor in the nearby hospital...a hospital that many are quickly fleeing as she resolves to stay. This is the effect this war has had on this particular group of people, and everyone's decisions effect everyone else in some way. 

My Verdict: The only reason I picked up this book is because it was on the long list for the National Book Award, and the UTSA library had it available for check out. But I am glad I read it and glad I pushed through some of the harder and more brutal scenes to the end. None of these characters are completely innocent people. Everyone is guilty of some act of selfishness at some point, except maybe Havaa. But somehow, even with all of their flaws, Marra made each one relatable. Sure, I would like to think I have nothing in common with Ramzan the informant, but even his story manages to evoke some sympathy despite his continuing acts of cowardice that result in the disappearance and ultimate death of others. The novel is a picture of war that is often unseen and forgotten about. It is about the day to day life of those who aren't fighting, but trying to live their lives while their home is being torn apart. It is not only informative, but also compelling, and incredibly heartbreaking.

Favorite Moment: The reveals that Marra places throughout this book, not only about the main characters but also about many minor ones, are absolutely fantastic and done incredibly well, even the tragic ones. Marra slowly and thoughtfully reveals the plight of each of the people the reader has come to care about. In the same that way he unwraps their past and shows how they are all connected, he unwraps their future and shows how what happened in the course of the novel got them there.

Favorite Character: For my favorite character I have picked Ramzan's father, Khassan. He definitely does not approve of his son's decision to become an informant. And to really show his disapproval, he takes any of the food Ramzan gets as payment and feeds it to his dogs. 

Recommended Reading: While reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena I was reminded of Rutya Sepeteys' historical young adult novel Between Shades of Gray, which tells the story of a Lithuanian family who are forced from their home under Stalin's orders and are taken to the Arctic Circle for a life of hard labor. Two different wars, two different countries, but a lot of the hardship and terror are eerily similiar. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

All credit for my discovery of this novel goes to Goodreads as well as Barnes & Noble. It was on Goodreads that I first read the description of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah and decided I wanted to read it eventually. But it was seeing it at Barnes & Noble that made me realize that "eventually" wasn't quite soon enough.

The Situation: Ifemelu and Obinze grew up in Nigeria, where they met as kids. Almost immediately there was something between them. They liked each other and continued to date even after Ifemelu went away to America to go to school. She and Obinze kept in touch through emails and phone calls, and their friends and family did not doubt that soon they would be receiving wedding invitations and that the couple would be linked together forever. But eventually, it appears that Ifemelu has cut off all contact with Obinze. She stops returning phone calls and emails, eventually changing her number and deleting her old email account. Friends and family are confused, and Obinze is devastated. Enough time will pass, and Ifemelu will begin to meet and date other men as she gets more established in America, and Obinze himself will get married and have a child back in Nigeria. It isn't the way anyone thought the story would go, but that is what was happening.

The Problem: Obinze is now a rich man in Nigeria and is doing very well. But he isn't completely satisfied with how things are, and he often thinks about how he should not have married his somewhat simple and superficial wife, Kosi. He may have been able to continue living this life just fine, except one day he receives an email out of the blue from Ifemelu saying that she will be returning to Nigeria after years of living in America. Now he is obsessively looking online for more information about her and about what she has been doing. He checks his Blackberry constantly to see if she has emailed back. He even finds out what he can about the men she has dated in the States and finds himself becoming jealous, even though Ifemelu has long done with them. What will Ifemelu's return mean for him? For them?

Genre, Themes, History: If anything, this section is going to show just how simplistic my above summary actually is. This is a fiction novel that is about much more than just a boy and girl who become separated by time and oceans who are about to be reunited again. In fact, for the majority of the book, Ifemelu and Obinze aren't even together on the same continent. Just as much as this book is about a long lost love, it is also about race relations in America, cross-cultural communication and interaction, immigration, literature, education, and even black hair care. Ifemelu didn't simply come to America, get an education, work a few jobs, date a few people, and then go back home to Nigeria. She had to deal with all of the paperwork and red tape that comes with being from another country and trying to work and go to school in America. She started a blog about race in America that soon had readers from all over the world. She watched her aunt, a single parent, struggle to become a doctor in a strange country while raising her son. And she watched other people from other countries try to make it in their own way, with their own unique struggles and successes. Even Obinze had a brief stint in London that ended in his deportation. And after finally making headway as a businessman back in Nigeria, the reader is given a look into how Nigerians do business, how much they value status and wealth, and what being successful means to them. There is a lot packed into this 477 page novel, making it one of those books for which it is impossible to answer the dreaded question "So, what's it about?"

My Verdict: As I said, there is a lot to this book, but I rarely felt overwhelmed by everything that was going on and everything that Ifemelu was observing. I am sure many will feel like Ifemelu's thoughts on race will seem heavy-handed and unnecessary, but really, her observations felt to me like the kind of stuff a non-American black person would pick up on and find interesting. The reader gets to follow Ifemelu from her life as a young girl in Nigeria, to her life as a young adult in America, and then back home again. And while you know from the beginning that Ifemelu intends to return to Nigeria and meet up again with Obinze, Adichie writes it all in such a way that I didn't mind at all that she takes the scenic route and almost leaves the reunion for the very end. In fact, I think I would have been fine if Ifemelu and Obinze went on living their separate lives. The love story between the two of them was probably my least favorite part. I enjoyed watching Ifemelu navigate life in America, and Obinze's misadventures in London that lead him back home. There is one part where a character, the sister of one of Ifemelu's American boyfriends, is lamenting that she wanted to write about race, but the editor keeps wanting her to sort of water it down and make it about other stuff too. And maybe that is what Adichie had to do. Maybe this book is really about race, but the love story was put in to really sell it. I honestly have no idea, but I can see that happening.

Favorite Moment: The parts I enjoyed the most came from the blog post entries that were included throughout the novel. Ifemelu is a fairly straight-forward person who isn't afraid to speak her mind, but in her blog, she really didn't hold back. Topics ranged from black hair care, to Barack Obama, to the white friend who "gets it," to interracial relationships, and on and on. For me, these were some of the most interesting passages in the book.

Favorite Character: I may not have agreed with her opinions and her actions all of the time, but I will pick Ifemelu as my favorite character. She is the one the reader has the most access to throughout the novel, and fortunately for me she rarely got on my nerves and didn't cause much eye-rolling. I think I like her because she wasn't afraid to be the bad guy and tell the truth.

Recommended Reading: A few times throughout the book, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is mentioned, and that would be a great follow up to Americanah. Also, Baratunde Thurston's How to Be Black is always a good choice.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Science Fiction: The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Quite naturally, I had to eventually read and blog about Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's follow-up to The Long Earth, a science fiction series centered around the idea of there being parallel Earths, most of which are like our own. The Long War continues the story of how humanity is adjusting to the seemingly endless opportunities afforded to them by the Long Earth. As I mentioned in last year's post, this is a story line with seemingly endless possibilities, and Pratchett and Baxter decided to embark on a good deal of them.

The Situation: It is now ten years after Joshua Valiente and Lobsang took a trip across the Long Earth and discovered sights and species that most had only read about in science fiction novels. Now, humankind has spread out across the Long Earth, shaping it just as it is shaping them. And Joshua, now with a wife and child of his own, has settled in a small town simply referred to as Hell-Knows-Where (see what they did there?) a long way away from the Datum, or original Earth. Now somewhat of a celebrity, Joshua would like to live a simple life and leave all of the exploring to the more adventurous types, such as Sally Linsay, who doesn't care at all for Joshua's decision to "settle down." Also, the enigmatic Lobsang is still up to his old tricks with his ability to be in multiple places at once and know pretty much everything there is to know about anyone that he finds interesting or that he believes might help him in his personal mission. It has only been ten years since Step Day, so humanity is still making mistakes regarding the Long Earth, but progress is being made, and everyone is getting along as best they can.

The Problem: One of the many new species that human beings have encountered in The Long Earth are the trolls. They are kind, smart, strong, and somewhat sensitive creatures. They cause the humans little to know trouble. In fact, in many settlements, they work for the humans and don't seem to mind doing it. But in a place in the Long Earth known simply as "the gap," one mother troll decided she didn't want her cub to be part of an experiment being run by the space program, and attempts to subdue her and take the cub end tragically. And of course, because humans seem to have video of everything and will share anything remotely interesting  as quickly as they can, the video of this incident becomes well-known across the Long Earth, and the result is an almost complete split, with some wanting to protect the trolls and maintain peace with them, and others calling for their subjugation and/or extermination. Sally, a troll sympathizer, goes to Joshua for help, and despite his reluctance, he agrees. Meanwhile, President Crowley has sent out stepping airships across the Long Earth colonies that fall under the jurisdiction of the USA in an attempt to maintain control of them, and also to somewhat deal with the troll issue. And of course Lobsang seems to have his own objective as well, as he continues to recruit his own team and even attempts to get back into Joshua's good graces. With millions upon millions of worlds to explore, there are many opportunities ofr progress, and also for destruction.

Genre, Themes, History: In the first book, just the idea of there being so many alternate "earths" to discover was overwhelming enough. In this second book, it is still overwhelming, but that didn't stop Pratchett and Baxter from going even further with this idea. The Long War is of course a science fiction book, but it takes fear of the unknown and misunderstood, as well as colonization and greed to a whole other level. It is no longer just Lobsang and the Black Corporation that he works with that are interested in exploring the Long Earth. Now the Chinese are getting involved (and I'm assuming other countries as well) and are making their own discoveries. Also, it becomes apparent that each world isn't just slightly different from the Datum, but that some have the capacity to be nothing like anyone has ever seen, and same goes for the life forms that inhabit them. Literally anything is possible. President Crowley back on the Datum is concerned with maintaining control over the colonies associated with the US in order to not suffer a complete economic collapse at home, as well as protect those who chose to remain on the Datum. But like most things, it appears that ultimately, everything about the Long Earth doesn't revolve around human beings and what we think is best for it. These alternate earths have seemingly always existed without us, but now that humanity has started stepping, existence without the Long Earth may no longer be a possibility.

My Verdict: There was certainly some tension regarding the discovery of the Long Earth in the first book, but while there is still a great deal of discovery that takes place in The Long War, Pratchett and Baxter bring the tension to the forefront. Really, my only concern may be that there are too many possibilities for this type of book, as the authors bring up a lot of different storylines in the 400+ pages of this book. I am comforted by the fact that the series may end up being at least five books long, so maybe there will be ample time for everything to get somewhat resolved by the end, but still. It would be one thing if we were following Joshua, Sally, the US military, Lobsang, and the slew of other new characters that were introduced just over the surface of our own world. But we're attempting to follow these people over millions of worlds, all with their own species and ecosystems, a few of which nearly cost Joshua his life. But I suppose that is half the fun isn't it? So many possibilities make the story less predictable, and the adventures can literally go anywhere. I plan to keep up with the series, because at this point I just have to know where Pratchett and Baxter are going with this.

Favorite Moment: When Helen, Joshua's wife, completely lays out a would-be assassin of her husband with one punch to the face. 

Favorite Character: Before I had picked Joshua, who I still like, but I think I will go with Agnes for this book. Sister Agnes was one of the nuns at the home Joshua grew up in before she died. Now, she has been reincarnated (sort of) by Lobsang and is still as awesome and ornery as ever, but with a younger and quicker body. She is just the type who may be able to keep Lobsang in check, and she still doesn't take any nonsense from anyone.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, it would make sense for me to recommend reading The Long Earth before attempting to tackle its sequel. But just as I did a year ago, I will also recommend checking out Segei Lukyanenko's Night Watch series. It's much darker, and it's fantasy instead of science fiction, but it might be worth looking into if you enjoyed The Long War