Friday, May 31, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick

For reasons I am not entirely sure of, I am just now getting around to reading Huntley Fitzpatrick's My Life Next Door, which came out in the summer of last year. I was already somewhat interested in it, and then it was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the Goodreads Choice Awards, but of course, was beaten out by John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Anyway, thanks to the UT San Antonio library I was finally able to pick it up and see what got people so excited.

The Situation: Samantha Reed lives a fairly uncomplicated existence with her single mother and sister, Tracy. She attends the local private school with her best friend, Nan, and both of them are about to kick off the summer before their senior year. This means part-time jobs with embarrassing uniforms, practice SATs, and getting in some swim time in order to be ready for team try outs in the fall. It also means occasionally babysitting for her next door neighbors, the Garretts, and all eight of their children. Joel, Alice, Jase, and Andy may not need supervision, but Harry, Duff, George, and Patsy are too young to be home alone while the parents work or run errands, and the older kids either live their own lives or work their own part-time jobs. Samantha has been observing the Garretts for years through her bedroom window. Their lives are so different from her own. But she soon finds herself fully immersed in their chaotic household, not to mention in a relationship with the sincere and disarming Jase.

The Problem: From the moment they moved in, Grace Reed, Samantha's mother, has never liked the Garretts. In her opinion, they have too many kids, their yard is never mowed, the garden is neglected, and they just aren't the kind of people Grace would prefer to have as neighbors. She would not approve of Samantha ever talking to them, much less babysitting for them. So the fact that her youngest daughter is dating one of them would send her over the edge. But this isn't the only issue Samantha is currently dealing with. It looks like Nan's twin brother, Tim, is getting deeper and deeper into drugs and alcohol, and Nan is turning out to not be the person Samantha thought she was either. And as her mom runs for political office, Samantha sees her less and less, while simultaneously seeing more and more of her iffy campaign worker. The summer started off so promising, but things quickly seem to get out of control, and it is all a little more than a 17 year-old could ever handle alone.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that explores themes of family, appearances, privilege, and happiness. The main opposition is set up between the Reeds and the Garretts: two families that live right next door to each other but couldn't be more different. Grace is overly controlled, and controlling, while Mr. and Mrs. Garrett are much more laid back, despite having eight kids to take care of. But something else that puts them at opposites is that while the Garretts seem happy, happiness is something Grace is only used to chasing, but never attaining. Other opposites that get set up are between Nan and Tim, Nan and Samantha, Tim and Jase, and even Samantha and Grace. Something that struck me was that, from the outside, Tim looks like an upstanding young man with his khaki suits and polo shirts, while Jase would easily be overlooked in his distressed jeans and t-shirt that is greasy from working on the car. But in reality, Jase is the one training for the football scholarship, while Tim got kicked out of school months ago and has been fired from every job he's ever had since.

My Verdict: This is a really fantastic story. For the most part, it is well-written, well thought-out, and the characters are relatable and interesting. Samantha isn't filled to the brim with the usual teenage angst that a lot of YA narrators have these days, and she admits that her life is fairly free of any real struggle. And while the Garretts may have a huge family, none of the kids get lost in the story and each have a personality all their own. My main issue with this story is the ending. There are just too many loose ends left hanging, and too many unanswered questions. It is as if Fitzpatrick panicked because she was approaching the 400 page limit that many YA novels tend to hover around, and decided to leave the fate of some characters unknown and put a quick fix, that ultimately fixed nothing, on everything else. Very unsatisfying, and utterly disappointing. Everything else is great up until that point. The plot kept me reading and lamenting that I only have one hour for lunch, and I really cared for the characters. But unless there is a sequel, there are just some things that will remain unresolved.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Grace comes in and actually sits in the Garrett's living room while the kids are all over the living room and kitchen, eating pizza and ice cream and generally causing a mess, like they always do. 

Favorite Character: George Garrett is the second youngest in the Garrett family, and he is full of useless knowledge that only scares him and makes him ask too many questions. He's just a sweet, curious kid looking for answers, and he insists on calling Samantha "Sailor Supergirl" due to the sailor outfit she has to wear at her part-time job. 

Recommended Reading: Two other YA books came to mind that also have characters that live next door to each other. The first is Paper Towns by John Green (I know,  I recommend that one a lot), and the second is Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler. I enjoyed both of these books immensely and think they would be a great follow-up to Fitzpatrick's novel.      

Friday, May 24, 2013

Nonfiction: Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun

The official title of today's book is Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, and it is a true account about the author's experience with a stalker. Not only did what takes place in this book actually happen, but it is also still going on to this day.

The Situation: Author and professor James Lasdun was teaching at a school he refers to as Morgan College in New York City in 2003. It was a fiction writing workshop in the graduate creative writing program, and one of his students included an Iranian woman in her thirties, whom Lasdun only refers to as Nasreen. Like any other writing workshop, the students took turns having their work critiqued by the group, and when it was Nasreen's turn, Lasdun was actually incredibly impressed with her talent and foresaw her doing well in the future. Nasreen appeared to have taken the compliments and praise with great composure, and the class continued on as normal. Lasdun and Nasreen continued to correspond in person, but more so by email, especially after Lasdun realized that meeting his former student in person was probably not a good idea.

The Problem: Apparently, meeting Nasreen in person at all and starting the email correspondence at any level was a bad idea. The emails were always fairly frequent, despite Lasdun's attempts to keep his responses as uninvolved as possible, but soon they are no longer professional and don't just reflect the teacher/student or writer/mentor relationship that Lasdun obviously believed they had. He even attempts to help her out on getting published, since he does believe that Nasreen has promise and he sees the book she is currently working on doing well if she were to finish it. But even these attempts end on a sour note as Nasreen's book isn't published, much to her frustration. And to add insult to injury, this is around the time when several books written by Iranian women are being published, leading Nasreen to accuse Lasdun of stealing her work and selling it to other writers. If this were the only thing she accused Lasdun of, the whole ordeal probably wouldn't merit it's own book. But soon, Nasreen's emails range from sexual to anti-Semitic (as Lasdun is Jewish), and she begins to email many of Lasdun's professional contacts, no matter where he works.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that I have often seen classified as a case study on stalking. Lasdun provides the reader with subject lines and excerpts from actual emails Nasreen sent to him, as well lines from reviews she has left on sites such as about his previous books, in even further attempts to ruin his reputation. In fact, that seems to be Nasreen's sole aim. She doesn't seem to wish him real physical harm (or at least she doesn't intend to be the one to inflict it), but instead she wants to tarnish his reputation and seemingly make it where no one will let him teach at their school and no one will publish his work. In between talking about his stalker, Lasdun talks about two trips that he takes while going through this ordeal: one is a train trip to Santa Fe where he visits the ranch that D.H. Lawrence lived off and on in the years before his death. The second trip is to Israel for research for an article he has been asked to write. This trip leads to an extensive discussion on the Middle East and the ongoing conflict. Lasdun also talks extensively about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and how it relates to his current situation. Ultimately, the book is about the effect the stalking has on Lasdun in regards to how he views himself, how he relates to other people knowing someone is out there trying to ruin him at every moment, and the ever-growing fear that this torment will not end.

My Verdict: If Lasdun had just stuck with talking about the stalking and its effect on his life, this book would have been much more interesting. The sections that talk about the trip to Santa Fe and the trip to Israel gave me the feeling that Lasdun didn't have enough material on the stalking to make a full fledged book, despite the mass amount of emails he has received from Nasreen over 5+ years. I don't mind so much how much time Lasdun spends in his own head, exploring the effects these events have had on how he operates, even in just day-to-day activities, and especially when he is trying to write something. And maybe part of the problem is that the story isn't over yet. Lasdun couldn't write a conclusion because this is still going on. Even so, I suspect that there really wasn't enough material for a full book that only covered the stalking.

Favorite Moment: Any time Nasreen contacts someone Lasdun is either currently working with or has worked with in the past, and her attempt to ruin the relationship doesn't work, I feel like it is a win, even if it is a small one.

Recommended Reading: I don't read many thrillers or mysteries, so I have a hard time coming up with a recommendation that involves a stalker. So I will go out on a limb and recommend the young adult novel Send by Patty Blount. Instead of stalking, Send deals with the issue of bullying and how more modern forms of communication, such as email and Facebook, can now play an incredibly dangerous role. Given that Nasreen's favorite way to communicate with Lasdun is through email, I felt that Blount's Send was a semi-decent choice.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Historical Fiction: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

This is my first Ian McEwan novel, as I haven't even read Atonement, which, as most of you know, now also exists as a movie starring Kiera Knightly. Sweet Tooth is McEwan's most recent novel, and takes place in 1970s England. It includes his first female narrator since Atonement, and it involves that interesting tension that can crop up when business meets pleasure.

The Situation: Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) grew up in a nice small city in the east of England, where her father was is an Anglican Bishop. She had a fairly quiet life with him, her mother, and her younger sister Lucy. But Serena was a different sort of girl in that she was very good at mathematics, which, in the 1970s, wasn't something people were used to. Serena may have been good at math, but her first love was reading. She initially intended to study English at Durham or Aberystwyth, but after much insistence from her mother to not waste her talent and her life, Serena ends up studying math at Newnham College, Cambridge. It is here that she discovers that she isn't really that great at math. Even so, she manages to finish her degree, have a few boyfriends, one pretty grand affair that ends terribly, and can report back to her mother after graduation that she has landed a job in London with The Department of Health and Social Security.

The Problem: Serena didn't land a job with The Department of Health and Social Security. She had actually scored a job with the British Security Service, or MI5. But within 18 months, Serena would be fired after having disgraced both herself and the man she was involved with. Basically, Serena bit off more than she could chew. At first she is hired on as nothing more than a desk jockey or paper pusher. But soon, a coworker informs the higher ups that while Serena may have studied math at Cambridge, she is actually quite the reader and is very familiar with books in almost every way, and knew about the major contemporary authors of the time. After an intimidating interview, Serena is chosen to work on Sweet Tooth, a project that attempts to find writers whose views line up with what England is trying to achieve during the Cold War, and support them financially so they can keep writing. It sounds simple enough, and it is, but even before taking on this assignment, Serena is having a hard time knowing who to trust in her job, and secrets about the past keep cropping up and affecting her future.

Genre, Themes, History: I decided to go ahead and stick with the historical fiction label only because Serena's job with MI5 involves so much that was going on with the politics of 1970s England, as well as the Cold War. Not only is England dealing with Russia, but the US also has to be dealt with in another way, and then there is turmoil and an economic crisis going on within England too. The biggest theme I found throughout the novel was the importance of truth, and how it can be used and manipulated to achieve what different people, and what different agencies, wish to get out of certain people and interactions. Also, the majority of the book takes place during Serena's early 20s. So McEwan explores that interesting time in a person's life when they've just graduated from college and are out looking for that job that will make all that time and money spent at school worthwhile. And, as a woman in the 1970s, in a field that was heavily dominated by men, Serena has to navigate a world in which she is often an unwelcome minority, and people are waiting for a chance to send her off.

McEwan admitted that parts of the novel were autobiographical, but not the parts about Serena. Parts of McEwan's life enter the story when Serena meets that writer she is supposed to sign up for the Sweet Tooth project. Parts of Tom Haley's life, and even some of his stories that Serena reads, are very similar to McEwan's, although the author laments that he was never approached by a beautiful woman and offered a mass amount of money from the government.

My Verdict: While this is a well-written and well thought out book, I can see why it initially received mixed reviews from the critics. Serena is the type of young, naive, and somewhat full of herself narrator that I try to avoid when picking out a book. However, because she is telling this story some time later, she is honest about who she was, what she did, and admits to being naive and full of herself. Even so, it becomes clear from the beginning of the book that she is a character that is perpetually in over her head and suffers for it. She also often rationalizes doing the wrong thing in order to get what she wants, only to have it come back on her in the end. One character sums the situation up nicely when he plainly states that she is more trouble than she is worth, and that can be hard for a reader to deal with in a narrator. Otherwise, the book is actually quite lovely and incredibly interesting. When Serena is reading Tom's stories, a detailed synopsis of each story is given to the reader, and they all seemed incredibly fascinating, at least to me. So not only did McEwan create an interesting novel, but he also created several interesting short stories as well to be described within the novel. Granted, as I have stated before, some of Tom's stories are similar to some of McEwan's earlier work. And in the end, it is revealed that the entire narrative isn't quite what it seems. No, all the characters aren't dead, but there is somewhat of a twist to it. It was a little weak in my opinion, but still an interesting way to end the story.

Favorite Moment: Any time Serena was reading one of Tom's stories and describing it to the reader. If his stories were as engaging as what she described, then it makes me wish the stories are real so I can read them myself.

Favorite Character: I think my favorite character was Tom, the writer that Serena ends up securing for Sweet Tooth. He is a genuine guy who simply loves what he does and isn't pretending to be something else, while most of the characters in the book are constantly hiding something due to the nature of what they do for a living.

Recommended Reading: For this book, I had a hard time coming up with a recommendation. So if you're looking for an interesting adventure with some humor, set in modern-day England, the I recommend Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. But if you want a story with more of a political twist that is set in the states and reads slightly more like an Ian Fleming novel, then I recommend True Believers by Kurt Anderson.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Body and Bread by Nan Cuba

I was fortunate enough to hear Nan Cuba speak about her new book, Body and Bread, which came out Tuesday, May 7th, at the San Antonio edition of the Texas Book Festival, and also at a recent meeting of the San Antonio Writers Guild. What intrigued me most about her book was that it takes place in a small west Texas town called Nugent, and that it dealt with the idea of family secrets. Having grown up with a mother who is a chronic road-tripper, and is herself from a small Texas town, I have always been slightly fascinated by them in a way that a lot of people are fascinated by train wrecks: you don't ever want to be a part of one, but they are fascinating to observe.

The Situation: Dr. Sarah Pelton is now a professor living in Austin, Texas, and has become somewhat removed from her remaining brothers, Kurt and Hugh. On the very first page of the book, we learn that her second-oldest brother, Sam, committed suicide years ago, and Sarah asserts that his death marked a sort of end to her life as well. Now Sarah is cranky and somewhat of a recluse, and likes it that way. She then proceeds to tell the story of her upbringing, starting in 1958 and moving up until Sam's death. In this narrative, the reader meets Sarah's parents and grandparents, Sam, Sam's girlfriend and eventual wife, and a range of other characters that make up the story of Sarah's childhood.

The Problem: These memories come up because Sarah and her brothers are attempting to sell their parent's place in Nugent, as well as their beach property on the coast. But that isn't the real issue though. The real issue is that the daughter of Sam's widow needs a kidney transplant, and while the kidney has been located and secured, the money has not. On a shaky suicide note, Sam had left everything he had to his widow, which would include his share from the sell of their parent's property, but his brothers aren't willing to give it all up. Without the surgery, the girl will most definitely die, and while Sarah may be cranky and not care much for people, this development causes her to dig deep into her families past, but mostly Sam's life. She has always attributed Sam to being the one who turned her into a truth finder, but the more she goes over her family's history, the more truth she realizes she somehow missed along the way.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a contemporary fiction book that felt to me like a coming of age story. It is very much about the idea of family, what makes a family, family secrets, identity, Texas history, Native American history, and the idea of the truth and its place in our lives. At the Texas book festival, Cuba shared that she also had a brother who committed suicide, and much like Sarah, it took her some time to heal from that. The book has a 20-year publication history. And while the story leads up to this final reveal of Sam's secret, Cuba admits that this wasn't the initial intention, and when she decided that it would be, a few of the clues the reader finds along the way were already written in.

My Verdict: This is a complex, well-written story that isn't just about family secrets and growing up in small-town Texas. This story shows the complex issues and trials that can come out of any family, dysfunctional or otherwise, and how the ideals of different generations can rub each other the wrong way. Having said that, I enjoyed the majority of the book a great deal, but there were some parts that just got weird. At a few points, the discussion of Native American tribes and their history just became too much and too over my head for the story to be enjoyable. And some of the interactions between modern-day Sarah and her would-be niece weren't quite believable. And while the secret doesn't exactly come easily, its reveal seems disconnected from the rest of the story. It is an excellent study on small town Texas life from the middle of the 20th century through today, but some parts felt alienating and were hard to relate to.

Favorite Moment: When present-day Sarah expresses her disgust with the festivities of Spirit Day at the college she teaches and explains her method for being seen by the administrators as quickly as possibly so she can leave. Since they saw her for that brief moment, they'll think she attended, when really she spent almost the whole time in her office, avoiding it.

Favorite Character: Even though he is a minor character at best, I have chosen Sarah's younger brother Hugh. For most of the stories about their childhood, he is attempting to remain unseen while everyone else has their problems and conflicts around him. And as he gets older, not much has changed, even though he has become a key player in selling his parent's estate and dealing with Sam's widow. He seems to be an advocate of the keep-your-mouth-shut method, and that is a method I can get behind.

Recommended Reading: I will recommend an actual study about small-town Texas living, Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby. Valby is a journalist who spends a significant amount of time in Utopia, Texas, getting to know the residents and history of this tiny community. It is incredibly interesting how it isn't necessary to go half-way around the world in order to find people completely different from yourself.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

On February 12, 2013, young adult writer Ruta Sepetys came out with her much anticipated second novel Out of the Easy. I hope to eventually read and post on her sophomore attempt, but in the meantime, I was able to pick up her debut novel, Between Shades of Grey. I was already expecting something a little different from the usual young adult books I pick up, and it turns out I was right to brace myself.

The Situation: Lina Vilkas lives in 1940s Lithuania with her parents and younger brother, Jonas. It is World War II and Stalin has been steadily marching his Russian troops west, taking over various countries, until he eventually meets up with Hitler. Some people have already been declared prisoners and sent away from their homes. The ones that remain must be careful what they do, what they say, and who they say it to. Lina is an incredibly gifted artist, but her tendency to draw political cartoons that depict the Russians in a less than favorable light incite her father's anger, but only because he knows they could incite something far worse.

The Problem: Mr. Vilkas was right to worry, but not about Lina's pictures, for now. The Vilkas family has been turned into the Communist Secret Police, the NKVD, for unknown crimes. When Lina's father is away, the NKVD come into Lina's home and order the family to pack their bags and head out. They almost separate Jonas from his sister and mother, since he is a male, but Mrs. Vilkas' fluent Russian comes in handy and saves him. From here, the Vilkas family will be taken far away from their home, along with other Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. Stalin has decided to go ahead and take over the Baltic States, and he declares the former inhabitants as war criminals and sentences them to hard labor in prison and labor camps in places like Siberia, and even the Arctic circle. If the journey and work doesn't kill them, it seems like the harsh weather and lack of food just might. Lina must find a way to survive if she is ever to go home again. And she must figure out how to use her drawings as a way to send messages if she ever wants to see her father again.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical young adult novel that takes place during WWII. Obvious themes include war, survival, art, brutality, and sacrifice. Less obvious themes, at least to me, include compassion, empathy, community, and who you are in the face of an intense crisis. This part of WWII isn't the part we here much about in the states. The people of the Baltic states were forced from their homes and weren't allowed to return until about 12 years later, and even then, they were still treated like criminals and couldn't return to their actual homes, since they had long been taken over and claimed. While Between Shades of Grey isn't a true story, it is representative of what actually happened to a lot of people. Also, not only did Sepetys do a significant amount of research, interview many people, and even travel to Lithuania, the author is also the  daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.

My Verdict: This is a story. And it's an incredible one. Sepetys tells of the horrors that Lina's family is put through, but she does it for a young adult audience while not holding back at all. Her descriptions of the brutality and especially harsh travel conditions feel all too real. And she is able to portray the desperation of some characters as opposed to the hope of others, and how quickly and easily any one of them could cross the line between either on any given day. There were parts where I found myself praying out loud as the characters were praying, hoping for the survival and recovery of one of their own. What Sepetys put down on these pages is almost unbelievable, but it can't be, because it did happen.

Favorite Moment: When Lina is faced with her own selfishness and her own brand of brutality when she assumes one of their own has turned against them, only to find out that it is far from the truth, and the situation is much worse than she could have thought.

Favorite Character: Lina's mother is smart, clever, loving, sharing, and is really the glue that holds their little group together. She is always willing to sacrifice her own comfort for someone else in need, and even manages to see the humanity in the Russians that torture them.

Recommended Reading: Many things about this book remind of Elie Wiesel's Night. But while Lina's family was Protestant and the story is told from a teenage girl's point of view, Wiesel is Jewish and his story is the true account of his journey to and stay in a concentration camp. Both stories depict atrocities committed during WWII.