Friday, December 26, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

After seeing it in the list of nominations for Best Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards, I decided to pick up Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress from the university library. The only other novel I have ever read by Atwood is her well-known classic The Handmaid's Tale, which I was pretty ambivalent towards. With that being said, I wasn't really sure what to expect from Atwood's most recent publication.

Genre, Themes, History: Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories or tales, most of which can stand alone. As explained in the acknowledgments, some of the stories have been published previously, while others are tales about other tales. The first three, Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady, are linked together and include characters that knew each other long ago and are being reunited through various events. And with the exception of Lusus Naturae, and perhaps also The Freeze-Dried Groom, each story includes characters that would be considered senior citizens, something I probably only noticed because of my tendency towards young adult fiction, or at least books that don't center around characters that are beyond retirement age. But the stories don't all deal with death and life and reflection as you might think they would. Many of the stories are slightly dark in humor, if they have any humor at all, and don't deal with kindly old grandmas and grandpas that are spending the rest of their years knitting and fishing. Many of them are writers, one is a gold-digging black widow, and most have some major character flaw that have placed them in the situation they're in. There were moments where I was ready to label this as a horror story collection because there are moments when things become incredibly scary (and Torching the Dusties is downright haunting). And there are other moments when things become unreal or part fantasy. But Atwood introduces these elements in such a way that makes it all seem almost natural, like it is what is supposed to happen.    

My Verdict: As with most short story collections, not every single one was a revelation. But the ones that are certainly make up for the ones that aren't. Simply put, Atwood knows how to tell a good story. Part of me was hoping that the ongoing storyline that reached across Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady would continue throughout the other six stories in the book, but no such luck. However, it is just as well as most of the other six were still incredibly enjoyable and left me wanting more. And fortunately, the stories that didn't exactly leave me wanting more tended to be shorter and easier to breeze past. Even if you're like me and have a tendency to skip over short story collections, I recommend picking up this particular collection. It is just shy of 300 pages and won't take up too much of your time.

Must Read: My personal favorite would be the storyline that extends through Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady. They are linked beautifully and each new reveal only made we want the story to continue on longer.

Okay to Miss: My least favorite was Lusus Naturae. Fortunately, it is also the shortest of the nine and an incredibly fast read.

Recommended Reading: It is only natural that I would recommend The Handmaid's Tale as it is the only other Atwood book I have read. However, I will also recommend The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. Like Atwood, Walton manages to include elements of fantasy and makes them appear as a natural part of the story, as opposed to something out of the ordinary.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Historical Fiction: Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip

I was sent Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip in exchange for a review, and what initially intrigued me about this book is its setting in 1930s China with a focus on a group of female embroiderers. I thought it would make a great follow-up to last week's post on Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition, which is about how China and its people got where they are today.

The Situation: Spring Swallow has escaped a life she never wanted to be a part of, a life that was chosen for her before she was even born. While her mother was still pregnant, Spring Swallow and her future husband, who also had not yet been born, were promised to each other and expected to be married when they got older. And even though her future husband would never make it out of the womb, Spring Swallow finds herself running away from her family after the wedding ceremony that was put together to bind her forever with her dead husband. After a young girl, Purple, takes pity on her and offers her food, clothes, and a roof to stay under, Spring Swallow finds herself living with a team of embroiderers, all studying under Aunt Peony, who used to sew for royalty. Fearing that her family may find her and drag her back into a miserable existence, Spring Swallow is determined to earn Aunt Peony's favor and become the best embroiderer she possibly can.

The Problem: Simply living under Aunt Peony's roof along with Purple, Leilei, and Little Doll, while doing chores and learning embroidery is not as simple and easy as it sounds. Aunt Peony turns out to be a secretive, stern, and demanding woman. And while Purple is extremely helpful, Leilei is full of resentment and envy, while Little Doll carries on as a simple house girl. Plus, Aunt Peony has one rule that none of the girls are eager to follow: they must take a vow a celibacy. Never are they to be with a man or marry one if they are to learn and live with Aunt Peony. Spring Swallow may have run away from her ghost husband, but she is not sure she is willing to give up on one day having a real one and maybe even starting a family. Will she be able to keep the vow she reluctantly made to Aunt Peony? Or will she go back on her word and risk being cast back out onto the street? As Spring Swallow continues her embroidery lessons, she also learns more about the strange and enigmatic woman she is studying under, as well as the other girls in the house. And when life begins to become a little more chaotic, maintaining her vow of celibacy to Aunt Peony soon becomes the least of Spring Swallow's concerns.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 1930s China. A large part of the novel is set in the small city of Soochow, where Aunt Peony's house stands, but there are frequent trips to Beijing and the surrounding area. The first part of the novel does focus heavily on the embroidery and the amount of time, patience, and practice it takes to become as good as someone like Aunt Peony. It is a highly sought after skill even though there is no longer any royalty to sew for. Stores and companies still look for talented seamstresses who produce goods they can sell. As a former embroiderer for royalty, and one of the best, Aunt Peony is teaching Spring Swallow and the others all of her patterns and skills, while still holding back the full story of her past and even a few of her best patterns. Just as the relationship between Spring Swallow and Aunt Peony grows, it also grows between Spring Swallow and the rest of the girls, although she is naturally closer to some more than others. All four of Aunt Peony's tenants are girls of misfortune that she has decided to take mercy on, and although they are all grateful, they still someday hope to leave and begin a life of their own, except for maybe Little Doll. Eventually the story no longer focuses as much on embroidery as it does Spring Swallow's continuing adventure, and the fate of everyone else in the house, including Aunt Peony. There is love, loss, tragedy, betrayals, reunions, and survival, all before Spring Swallow reaches the age of twenty.

My Verdict: This is an overall good story with great characters and a fantastic setting. Having Spring Swallow flee her family and become an embroiderer in 1930s China gives the story the feeling of a fairy tale, while still having it be accessible since the events take place in the 20th century. However, while the beginning of the book has a nice, steady pace, especially when it comes to learning the actual embroidery, the last two thirds of the book seem to have one plot twist and reveal after another. Ultimately, the book seems to leave the sewing behind and becomes something else entirely. Eventually, there is so much going on that it becomes problematic to remember where some characters in Spring Swallow's life left off and which ones know what information. It makes for a great page turner, but the overall clarity and consistency of the story suffers. And as the book continues on towards the end, the believability begins to suffer as well.

Favorite Moment: When Spring Swallow sees Aunt Peony smile and laugh for the first time while talking about awkward English words and phrases.

Favorite Character: It is somewhat difficult to choose as they all go through so much and make many foolish mistakes, mostly when trusting the wrong people, but I will go ahead and choose Little Doll. She may be young, and Aunt Peony frequently calls her either "slow" and/or "stupid," but she is ultimately quite helpful and probably the most trustworthy person in the entire book.

Recommended Reading: Although it is nonfiction, I recommend Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. It is the 2014 winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and for me, an incredibly enlightening account of modern China.         

Friday, December 12, 2014

Nonfiction: Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

The full title of the National Book Award winning work by Evan Osnos is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. As someone who would not describe themselves as an informed person, I anticipated that this book would be both informative and enlightening. I know of China's history in only the broadest sense, so anything Osnos put down in this book was almost certainly going to be new information for me. And while I expected to learn a good amount, I did not expect to also be so thoroughly entertained as well as fascinated. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is of course a nonfiction book that gives a detailed account of China: where it's been, where it is now, and in what direction the country seems to be heading. The book is split up into three sections, as its title indicates, that include fortune, truth, and finally, faith. Within each section, Osnos blends together stories from the lives of individuals that he has encountered due to his work, with the greater story of China as a nation. Some of the early accounts found in the book come from the writer's experience while working for the Chicago Tribune, but for the past six years, Osnos has found his home at The New Yorker

The first section on fortune includes the most discussion about China's history as a communist country and the rise of the individual. People are now working to make fortunes for themselves, and those that were born into the lower classes are doing their best to escape a fate that used to be considered unalterable. 

The second deals with truth and the people's desire for honesty from their government. According to Osnos, finding out the truth from the Chinese government is not only incredibly difficult, but anyone making an overt attempt to discover it, and distribute it to others, is in danger of essentially disappearing at the hands of Chinese officials. One trend that seemed to be a reoccurring one was the hiding of numbers and names of those that die in horrible disasters. The government refuses to release information on the number of deaths after schools collapsed with children inside after an earthquake; after a train crashed into another train because of a system failure due to a lightening strike; and even how many miners have died in collapsed mines over the past few years. Situations like these have caused the people to distrust their government. And even trying to discuss events such as these via the media or Internet ends up being difficult as sites get shut down and journalists are silenced.

The third and final section talks about the search for faith in the new China, and not only in regards to religion. The five recognized religions are Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and Taoism (although many sources substitute out Catholicism for Confucianism). And while freedom of religion is a thing in China, the churches are regulated by the state, and proselytizing is forbidden. But the people are not only searching for faith in a higher power, but in their own government as well. And the section on truth can certainly point to the reasons why.

My Verdict: It comes as no surprise to me that this book won The National Book Award for Nonfiction. Not only was it informative and eye-opening, but I found it to be fascinating as well. It was a nonfiction book that I actually could not put down, without it having been written by a celebrity. Again, as I mentioned before, I do not consider myself to be an informed person, so maybe someone who actually follows foreign news events will not be so impressed. But it was not just the information presented on China that was interesting, but the personal stories Osnos has been able to collect as well, some of which are absolutely heart-breaking. If you want to have a glimpse at what is going on with the new China, then I highly recommend this book.

Favorite Moment: When Osnos addresses the problem of reporting on only the corruption and criminals of China when there are undoubtedly good things that happen there too. But he also cannot pretend to ignore the truth in a country that constantly seeks to hide it. 

Recommended Reading: This may be a bit on the nose, but specifically while reading the section on truth, I kept thinking about George Orwell's 1984. I could not help it. The Chinese government's attempts to save themselves and hide the facts really did seem like something out this dystopian classic.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Door Stop: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I blame Half Price Books and their low prices for this one. I have never even seen the movie, so what would compel me to pick up Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind, is beyond even me, and I am the one that did it! First off all, this book is long. Like Atlas Shrugged long. Second, the characters are all pretty hard to tolerate, even the "good" ones. Even so, I paid the insanely low price of $1.99 for it (I had a coupon), and went for it. 

The Situation: Scarlett O'Hara is the prize of the south. Everyone knows it. All of the young men know it, the neighbors know it, her parents know it, her sisters (begrudgingly) know it, and Scarlett knows it better than anyone. She can have any man she wants wrapped around her little finger, even if they are supposed to belong to someone else. In fact, she can hardly tolerate anyone being #1 is someone's heart if is not her. So imagine Scarlett's shock when she finds out that the man she actually loves and cares for, beyond than just seeing him trip over himself to be with her, as become engaged to someone else. Now Scarlett's world has been turned upside down, and the new appearance of Rhett Butler is not helping as he seems to have figured her out when he first laid eyes on her, and won't let her forget it. Add to this all of the gentlemen's talk of an impending war with the north, and Scarlett's simple life on a southern plantation has now become full of irritation and annoyance.

The Problem: When the war becomes a reality and men young and old begin signing up for the cause of the south, Scarlett's world goes from annoying to downright inconvenient. Not only has it taken her beloved Ashley away, a man she is convinced still loves her despite his being engaged to someone else, but soon it removes all of the small favors and benefits she has always known as a rich southern girl. And that is only the beginning. Throughout the novel, the selfish but stubborn Scarlett will have to endure war, rationing, life as a widow, loss, jealousy, hunger, greed, hard work, the Yankees, and almost worst of all, a man who won't bend to her will no matter how much she tries. As Scarlett attempts to navigate life in a south that no longer remembers the south she grew up in, readers are shown the effects of the Civil War on a small part of the United States that was nearly burned to ashes, and had to build itself back up into what it is today.

Genre, Themes, History: This is considered a historical romance novel, as Mitchell wrote about Georgia during the Civil War while writing in the 1930s. Also, many ultimately consider the novel to be a love story between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, even though they spend most of the novel hating each other, or at least putting up the pretense that they do. The timeline of the novel is about 12 years, starting just before the Civil War began, and ending after Atlanta and the rest of Georgia was beginning to get back on its feet. In those 12 years, Scarlett goes from rich, to literally dirt poor, and back to rich again. In most stories, hard-hearted people who have everything taken away from them usually change in some way and gain some perspective on how they have lived their lives. The only thing that changes about Scarlett is that she becomes even more hard-headed and determined to have what she wants, not caring at all for what it does to those she loves, or what people think about her as she goes about doing it. It is often said of her, by various characters throughout the book, that she can stand anything, and she does. She may be selfish and insufferable, but her story is one of survival. But of course, there is also love, loss, and the long-standing effects of war. And while Gone With the Wind is one of the most beloved stories of all time, many take issue not only with its use of the "n" word, but with its general view of southern life at this time in history. Everything is so romanticized, and other historical points are just plain wrong. However, it is supposed to be fiction after all, so perhaps holding the events in the book up against the actual events of history may not be fair.

My Verdict: This book is an ordeal. A good ordeal, but still an ordeal. For one, Scarlett is one of the most selfish, stubborn, and just contemptible characters in all of literature. And the love story between her and Rhett often reminded me of Heathcliff and Catherine in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, another troubled couple in literature. Second, if Scarlett wasn't hard enough to deal with, the rest of the characters aren't a picnic to deal with either. Even the sweet and ever gracious Melanie can ride on a reader's nerves as she can endlessly find the good in anyone, but holds firm in her hatred of the Yankees while holding fast to her belief that the slaves should not be freed. Mitchell's characters all long for the south before the Civil War, even many of the slaves, and that is always difficult to reconcile. Overall, it is a great story, and I'll admit that it is fun watching Scarlett be disappointed and hurt time and time again throughout the novel. Any time it seems like she may redeem herself or do something not out of selfish regard, she grabs onto something else she wants and shows her true colors again. Honestly, her constant hardship and hurt feelings may be what kept me reading for 1000 pages.

Favorite Moment: Any time (and there are a lot of them) that Melanie shows absolute grace and kindness to Scarlett, even though she deserves it least out of everybody. The moments were even better when Scarlett resented that kindness, mostly because it only increased her own guilt.

Favorite Character: Try as I might, I can't pick one. Not even Melanie. I don't know if it was Mitchell's intention or not, but this book is just full of terrible people. 

Recommended Reading: I've already mentioned it, but I do think Wuthering Heights would be a great follow-up to this book. It's shorter, and it is written in a different place and in a different context. Even so, the relationship is just as caustic between Heathcliff and Catherine as it is between Rhett and Scarlett, maybe even more so.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Winners of the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards

The results are in and the people on Goodreads have decided on the winners for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. Let's see if any Door Stop Novels favorites made it all the way through to the end.

I am very pleased to announce the Rainbow Rowell's Landline beat out some extremely stiff competition to be named Best Fiction of 2014. Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage made a strong showing, but failed to make it into the top five.

I knew Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See would be a tough one to beat for Best Historical Fiction, and it turns out I was right as it took the top spot away from Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which came in second.

Not at all surprising is Amy Poehler's Yes Please taking home the award for Best Humor. I mean really, was there any doubt in anyone's mind that this would be so?

And the third Door Stop novel to take home a top prize is This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl for Best Memoir & Autobiography. This is another one that doesn't really surprise me; nonetheless, I am still incredibly pleased that this story has touched so many and was deemed worthy to be considered as the best of the best for 2014.

And for my final category, and personal favorite, I am absolutely giddy with joy that We Were Liars by E. Lockhart took the top spot for Best Young Adult Fiction.

So out of the many books read and covered for this blog that were published during 2014, four of them came out as the best in their category. Now, the fun starts all over again as I begin researching which books will be covered in 2015.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: Let's Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

I love a good road trip. I don't mind sitting in a car for hours at a time heading towards a certain destination. I'm fairly certain the longest road trip I have ever taken was from Austin, Texas to Toronto, Canada, and it was awesome. But I think what actually makes it impressive is that I took it with my mom and we both survived. That being said, I was understandably excited about reading Adi Alsaid's Let's Get Lost, which follows Leila as she heads north to Alaska to see the Northern Lights, and ends up having some crazy adventures along the way.

The Situation: Hudson works at a garage with his father, and it's the day before a big interview with the dean of admissions at Ole Miss. The plan is to finish up at the garage, go over some sample interview questions after dinner, and then head to bed early so as to be able to get up on time and make the 50 minute drive to the interview. Bree is hitch hiking across America, with no real destination in mind. She doesn't get along at all with her sister, whom she lived with up until nine months ago when she ran away, so she has no plan to return. Elliott just confessed his love to the girl of his dreams, and she rejected him, on prom night. Conversely, Sonia has found love and happiness with Jeremiah, whose brother is marrying the sister of Sonia's ex, who died after collapsing at a basketball game. Will she ever not feel guilty for having moved on with her love life?

The Problem: On the night that Hudson is supposed to brush up on sample interview questions, Leila comes to his garage in her bright red car, asking to have some work done. She is the type of girl that Hudson eventually realizes he'll be thinking about for months after she is gone. Now all thoughts of preparation for the interview, and his future, have taken a backseat. And when the next car to pick up Bree from the side of the road is Leila's ridiculously red car, the two girls end up having a series of adventures that eventually lands them in a situation where the only person they can reach out to for help is the one person Bree doesn't want to see. After suffering the crushing blow of having Maribel reject him, Elliott wanders drunkenly into a downtown street and is nearly run over by Leila's bright red car. She convinces him that he can't give up on Maribel so easily, but the whole thing may be futile. And as Sonia leaves the hotel in Canada where the wedding is to take place, with Leila as her getaway driver, she realizes after they have already crossed the border back into America that she has the wedding rings with her, and may not make it back to the hotel in time. While Leila always focuses on the problems on the people she ends up meeting on her road trip, she has issues of her own she is trying to sort out. She tells them all that she is headed to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. And while that may technically be true, it isn't the full story.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction book that follows one character, Leila, as she heads north to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. On the way, she encounters four other people, all around her age: Hudson, Bree, Elliott, and Sonia. The book is divided into five sections, one for each of the people Leila encounters, and then the last one for Leila herself. It is a tale of the classic road trip, and the potential adventures that can happen along the way, both good and bad. And with five different sections, the reader really gets five different stories, and Leila links them all together. The book covers the always life-defining fork in the road that is life after high school, dealing with death and loss, searching for the fairy tale ending, and of course, the search to find out who you really are, and what you want out of life. In other words, it is a young adult novel that gets to cover more bases than most due to its structure.

My Verdict: The nice thing about this book is that if you don't really care much for a character, chances are you won't have to read about them for very long because the book is made up of five different stories. But the bad news is that if you do like someone, they'll probably disappear within a few pages and never show up again. And if you don't like Leila, it's really too bad since the reader is stuck with her for the entire 368 pages. It does sometimes feel more like a short story collection than a cohesive novel, but the book does steadily pick up steam, and eventually the character of Leila looks more like a fully rounded character, instead of just another manic pixie dream girl. If she had remained nothing more than a manic pixie dream girl, I certainly would not have liked the book as much as I did. But she is a fully rounded character, her story just comes after the reader gets the story of the four people she comes across on her journey. Although, I am not sure the other four characters all get the same amount of attention and detail. Overall, the book reads like a road trip. And even the somewhat hard to believe moments can be easily overlooked.

Favorite Moment: When Elliott makes another attempt at professing his love to Maribel by singing an Ace of Base song onstage at his high school prom.

Favorite Character: I definitely liked Elliott's story the best and his character the most. It is a familiar story of a boy who pined over one girl all his life and finally got the courage to say something, but Elliott's story still manages to be endearing and refreshing, which left me rooting for him to get the girl.

Recommended Reading: If you want to read another YA book featuring a road trip, then I recommend Nina LaCour's The Disenchantments. In fact, the main character of The Disenchantments reminds me a lot of Elliott, but the circumstances are very different. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

As promised, I am covering the latest book by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The full title of the book is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Readers will find many themes and elements that appeared in previous books by Murakami, such as pseudo time travel, weird dreams, and of course, cooking.

The Situation: In high school, Tsukuru and his four friends were inseparable. Consisting of three boys and two girls - Tsukuru, Akamatsu, Oumi, Shirane, and Kurono - the five of them not only went to school together, but they also volunteered together after school tutoring elementary school kids. Akamatsu, which means "red pine" in Japanese, was the one with the best grades. Oumi, which means "blue sea," was the most athletic. Shirane, which means "white root," is the most beautiful of the two girls, and a fantastic piano player. And Kurono, which means "black field," was independent and tough, with a great sense of humor, and always had a book under her arm. Tsukuru is the only one of the five friends whose name is not associated with a color. He also felt that he was the only one without anything special about him. Even so, the five remained close throughout high school, and even tried to stay together once they all went off to separate colleges. The four colors remained in the town of Nagoya, while only Tsukuru went to school in big city Tokyo. But they still managed to write to him, and he always visited them when he went home.

The Problem: On one visit home during his sophomore year, Tsukuru attempts to contact all four of his friends, only to be forced to leave messages. Eventually, after not being able to get in touch with any of them, Ao (blue) informs Tsukuru that he is being kicked out of the group. The reason? Ao simply states that it isn't something he can tell him, and if Tsukuru wants to know what happened, that he better ask himself about it. Tsukuru can't imagine what Ao is talking about, and being exiled from his closest group of friends causes him to consider suicide for the next half year or so. He eventually moves forward, but even now, at the age of 36, Tsukuru has never made a friend quite like the four he had in high school, and other than a few girlfriends here and there, he really hasn't had any significant relationships. It is Sara, his latest girlfriend, who pushes him to go back to Nagoya and try to find out what exactly happened. But at this point, is it too late?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern day Japan. Like other works by Murakami, there is a sense of having to reach across time, in this instance into the past, in order to fix something that doesn't seem quite right in the present. Tsukuru's girlfriend Sara believes that never having solved the mystery of why he was exiled is holding him back even now that he is approaching middle age. She also believes it is what is keeping their relationship from moving forward. So she encourages him to seek out his former friends and finally learn what happened between them. Throughout the story, there are also familiar elements that are often found in Murakami's other novels like weird dreams, cooking, charismatic but less than likable leaders, and a somewhat clueless male protagonist attempting to find his true purpose in life, or if he even has one. This is also the third book that I have read by Murakami that includes some instance of sex while paralyzed and/or dreaming. I can't recall if this happens in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as well, but it is certainly in Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. It's now just something I have come to expect with his books. And while the story mostly focuses on the present day, there is much reminiscing about Tsukuru's college years, especially the time immediately following his exile from the group, and how he eventually survived it. It is a question of how far we decide to dig for the truth before we let it go and just try to live our lives.

My Verdict: Given that this is a Murakami novel, and how much I have enjoyed his other works, I wanted to like this book much more than I did. Just the cover alone gave me high hopes. I know, I know, I really should know better than to judge a book by its cover, but it is pretty spectacular. Even so, the story is actually kind of boring. Not a lot happens, which is a shame because the premise is pretty fascinating. Having a character go back to his hometown to investigate what caused his closest friends to cut him off certainly sounds intriguing to me. And while there is much discovery and introspection during Tsukuru's "pilgrimage," and all is eventually revealed, there really isn't much in the revelation, or much that really comes out of it. The build-up felt similar to other Murakami novels I have read, but then that build up just kind of fades away with no real results. I probably would have been okay with the lack of true resolution if the story had been more interesting, but it wasn't. Thankfully, this book isn't half the size of 1Q84. Still, I expected a lot more from nearly 400 pages of story.

Favorite Moment: When Tsukuru travels to Finland to see Kuro, especially since he has never traveled abroad in his life, and he picks Finland of all places as his first trip.

Favorite Character: Out of Tsukuru and his friends, I pick Kuro as my favorite. Even after everything that has happened, she seems to have adjusted the best and really made a life for herself. She is honest, creative, protective, and sensitive. Ultimately, she is just the person Tsukuru needs to see in order to clear up the past.

Recommended Reading: I came late to the Murakami party, so I can't just pick from his entire library and recommend any of his books, since I have only read a few of them. Of the ones I have read, I will recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is a door stop at 600+ pages. But if you really want a feel for some of Murakami's more recent writing, and you've got some time on your hands, I recommend 1Q84, which clocks in at 900+ pages. Happy reading!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 Final Round

Well this is it. The final round of voting has begun for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. Voters have until the beginning of next week to make their voices heard before Goodreads awards the best books of 2014.

I am pleased to announce that both of the books in the Best Fiction category that I have featured, or will feature, on this blog have made it into the final round. Both Rainbow Rowell's Landline and Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki have survived the stiff competition this year to make it into the finals, and I believe I will stick with my initial choice and vote once again for Rowell. 

Sue Monk Kidd has also made it into the finals for Best Historical Fiction with The Invention of Wings. I won't be at all surprised if this book ends up taking the ultimate prize for this category.

And it looks like history was not meant to repeat itself when it came to Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Mars. As I have mentioned in previous posts, last years The Long War, the second book in the duo's The Long Earth series, also made it into the Best Science Fiction category via write-in, only to not make it into the finals. But this year, The Long Mars has passed the test and fans like myself will have the opportunity to maybe get it a win. 

Both Amy Poehler's Yes Please and Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice have made it into the finals for Best Humor. This is another instance where I won't be at all surprised if Poehler takes home the top prize. If Moore ends up taking it, I will still be incredibly pleased, but I believe it would probably be seen as somewhat of an upset.

It seems that the story of Esther Earl Grace has made as much of an impression on the general reading public as it did on me, as it has entered the final round with some stiff competition in the Best Memoir & Autobiography category. This Star Won't Go Out is an emotional book that is more than just a story about a young girl with a terminal disease. Esther was joyful, full of hope, and most of all, just so full of love: something that easily comes through in the pages of this book.

E. Lockhart's We Were Liars survived the semifinal round and will battle it out for Best Young Adult Fiction, which is always a tough category. And just as I thought, Nina LaCour's Everything Leads to You just didn't quite make the cut.

And just when I thought I was going to be ten for ten in my predictions, I click on the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction to find that Leslye Walton's The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender did not make it into the final round, which is really a shame as it is one of the most uniquely beautiful and heartbreaking stories I have read in a long time. But that is the nature of the awards. If not enough readers vote for the book, then it just doesn't make it in. 

This last round of voting is open until Monday, November 24th, and the winners will be announced shortly after that. So make sure to vote and support your favorites. And while you're there, you can also pick up some great ideas as to what to read next.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Since I plan on covering Haruki Murakami's most recent publication, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, for next week, I figured I would finally read another one of the Japanese author's works that has been sitting on my book shelf for a few years, Kafka on the Shore. Having only read two other books by Murakami, I am still not quite sure what I should expect from them, though I was sure I would recognize a few familiar themes and hopefully not feel completely lost.

The Situation: Kafka (not his real first name) Tamura has just turned 15 years old and has decided to run away from home. He hopes to escape the Oedipal curse his father put on him, while also looking for the mother that abandoned him and his father, taking his sister with her. He doesn't have a real plan, but ends up in a private library in Takamatsu. After befriending Oshima, a young man who works at the library, and his boss Ms. Saeki, a beautiful and classy older woman with troubles of her own, Kafka ends up living in the guest room of the quiet library, while also working as Oshima's assistant. Meanwhile, an old man named Mr. Nakata has found part-time work finding lost cats for their owners. Due to a strange accident when he was only a boy, Nakata can't read or write, but gets a check every month from the government for his disability. And what makes him so good at finding lost cats is his ability to talk to them. But while on his latest search, he ends up coming into contact with a strange man, somehow linking his own fate with Kafka's.

The Problem: Kafka is already worried that someone will figure out that he is a 15 year-old runaway and will attempt to send him back home. So when he finds out his father has been murdered, he knows authorities will begin looking for him in earnest, even if he isn't a suspect. Meanwhile, the story takes a turn for Nakata as well as he must now travel somewhere, but he doesn't know exactly where, and do something, but he doesn't know exactly what. All he can say is that he'll know the place and what he needs to do when he gets there. Much like Kafka, he feels that fate is moving him along, as if he has no free will and is simply destined to do whatever will happen next, even if that means possibly hurting someone.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day Japan. Like other Murakami novels I have read, there are familiar themes such as strange dreams, cooking, pseudo time travel, weird sex, curious animals, and even a male protagonist on a journey to find something, although he isn't exactly sure what that might be. Neither of the protagonists are. Kafka isn't exactly sure what to search for when looking for someone to be either his mother or his sister. And Nakata will only know what he is looking for once he finds it. The story switched back and forth between the two as the odd chapters are Kafka's story, and the even chapters are Nakata's story. The two different stories do turn out to be linked, but the two characters never actually meet. Also, the Oedipus complex comes into play in Kafka's story as he badly wants to avoid fulfilling the curse his father placed on him before he ran away from home. There is some historical fiction included as well, as some of the early even chapters tell of the accident during World War II that caused Nakata to behave the way he does now. He only speaks of himself in the third person, can't read or write, and somehow has the ability to talk to cats as well as humans. The actual accident remains a mystery. People only know that Nakata was once an incredibly bright little boy, and then, after the accident, it was like his mind had been wiped clean.

My Verdict: In general, books by Murakami make me tired, and this one was no exception. Also, at the end, I was once again left with more questions than answers. Sure, things get resolved, but not nearly enough, at least not for me. The story itself is actually really good. Two men, at different stages in life, set off on seemingly completely different journeys, but those two journeys end up linked and even intersect for a little bit. One thing about Murakami: as exhausting as he may be, he is never predictable. Even if you guess that everything will work itself out, there is no way anyone could possibly guess exactly how that will come about. With Murakami, the possibilities are endless, and he may or may not give a full explanation about how exactly stuff happens. If you're a fan of Murakami, then I am sure you'll enjoy this book as well. If you don't get too hung up on loose endings or suspension of disbelief, then you'll be able to enjoy this book just fine.

Favorite Moment: When Nakata employs the help of a smart and well-off Siamese cat to get answers from a dumber street cat that is difficult to talk to. 

Favorite Character: There are actually quite a few great characters in this book. It is a rare thing for me to have a  hard time picking only one. But I will go ahead and choose Hoshino, the young truck driver that decides on a whim to abandon his job and help old Mr. Nakata on his journey. 

Recommended Reading: To follow up this book, I would recommend Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Parts of it will feel kind of familiar, but it has its own bizarre storyline with fascinating characters and events. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 Semifinal Round

So the Semifinal Round of the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards has begun, and just like in previous years, five more books have been added to each category, because choosing from the original 15 just wasn't difficult enough. My initial recap of the first round of voting can be found here.

I am delighted to report that Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Mars has made it onto the official ballot for Best Science Fiction. And hopefully we won't have a repeat of last year when the The Long Mars made it into the semifinal round, only to be left out of the the final round. I am truly hoping The Long Mars makes a stronger showing as I do feel it was a stronger novel.

Another book from this blog that has been written into the competition is Nina LaCour's Everything Leads to You. However, I do believe I will be sticking with my original vote for E. Lockheart's We Were Liars for the Best Young Adult Fiction category. I have no real issue with LaCour's book, I just think that Lockheart's was better. I also don't think that LaCour's was good enough to be considered the absolute best of the year.

None of my other votes will be changing either, but I know there are plenty of people out there who will be changing theirs in favor of some of the new entries. If the competition wasn't stiff enough, the chance to enter write-ins has shown the importance of standing by your favorites. Many times a book that wasn't originally nominated has come from out of nowhere and taken the coveted title.

The semifinal round will be open to voting through Saturday, November 15th. I suggest getting your votes out there, and then checking back on Monday, November 17th when the final round of voting will begin. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Nonfiction: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Like every other fan of Amy Poehler, I was ridiculously excited when I found out she was coming out with her new book, Yes Please. My reaction was a mixture of raising my fist in the air Homer Simpson-style and yelling "Woo-Hoo," and sighing with a strange sense of relief and thinking "well it's about time." Seriously, there was just way too much time between Tina Fey's Bossypants and this book.

Genre, Themes, History: This is of course a nonfiction book that could probably be best categorized as a memoir since Poehler is only 42 and therefore, at least in my mind, far too young to write an autobiography. Poehler talks about her childhood in the northeast; how she fell in love with improv and with comedy in general; the rough beginnings that would eventually lead to the Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live, and of course, Parks & Recreation; and everything in between such as the her family, the people (famous and not famous) that she met along the way, her friendship with Tina Fey, and her eventual motherhood. She even touches a little bit on her divorce from fellow actor Will Arnett. If there were one general theme I could take away from this book it would be that we have to work hard for the things we want. Yes she is the famous and funny and beautiful and talented Amy Poehler, but she wasn't just goofing off in a coffee shop somewhere and Lorne Michaels walked in and decided he had to have her for a little show he puts together (she pretty much gives this exact example as something that pretty much never happens). It was a long and tough road for Poehler. And fortunately for us she doesn't mind telling us about it.

My Verdict: Yes Please is just as funny, inappropriate, irreverent, enlightening, and honest as Poehler fans would expect it to. At it's simplest, it is like a dirtier version of Tina Fey's Bossypants. But it goes beyond just being a fun memoir by one of the funniest people alive today. The book is funny all the way through, but also manages to be serious where it needs to be, but without ever taking itself too seriously. One of the first things Poehler mentions is how hard it was for her to write the book, and how those who romanticize the act of writing are lying to us. She's up front about her faults, but also confident in the things she does like about herself, and is okay with letting people know what they can do with themselves if they don't agree with her. She talks about the people she knows readers want to hear about (like Tina Fey and Nick Offerman), and gives some anecdotes about the shows through which many of us have come to love her (like SNL and Parks & Recreation). She talks about sitting in George Clooney's lap, what is was like standing next to Hilary Clinton while dressed as Hilary Clinton, and what it was like being pregnant while working on SNL. In short, the book is funny and honest. And really, that is exactly what we should expect from a memoir like this.

Favorite Moment: When she goes through her Parks & Recreation co-stars one by one and discusses them in detail. It's always fun to learn more about the guy who plays Ron Swanson.

Favorite Quotes: 

On writing: "Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea...No one tells the truth about writing a book...The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not."

On change: "Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being. See what I just did there? I saved you thousands of dollars on self-help books."

On believing in people: "The only way we will survive is by being kind. The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others."

Recommended Reading: This should be obvious, but I'll say it anyway: Bossypants by Tina Fey.     

Monday, November 3, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards 2014

It's back. The opening round of the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards has begun. This is the only book award decided on purely by the votes of readers. With 20 categories, and each filled with 15 books to choose from, plus the option to write in your own personal choice, readers may end up having to make some tough decisions. So let's see which books made it that have appeared, or will appear, in this blog.

I have read two books from the Best Fiction category, and of course there are at least three more that have been nominated that I would like to read, but I'll deal with that on my own time. Both Rainbow Rowell's Landline, and Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (blog post coming up later this month) have been nominated, and of the two, I have to go with Rowell's Landline. I have read multiple books by both of these writers before, and while I adore them both, Rowell just comes out as my top choice.

There is only one book from the Best Historical Fiction category that I was able to pick up, but it was a good one. Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings tells the story of Sarah Grimke and her slave, Handful. It's one of those books that you read knowing that awards are just going to be thrown at it because it is so good and well done. It faces some stiff competition from the incredibly popular All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, but I think it can hold its own.

For the second year in a row I have nothing for Best Science Fiction. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Mars did not make the cut apparently, so I think I'll actually try to write it in. The Long War managed to make it into the second round of last year's voting, but failed to make the final cut.

And just for fun, since I don't have anything for Best Horror, I'm going to write in The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero. I don't even know if it really qualifies as horror, but I am going for it anyway. 

It looks to me that the Best Humor category is going to be a tough call. Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice has been nominated, but so has Amy Poehler's recent publication, Yes Please (blog post coming at the end of this week). Both books are incredibly funny, and they will each have to contend with other popular nominees such as One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak, and Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris. After some consideration, I think I will go with Poehler's Yes Please. If you haven't had a chance to pick it up yet, I highly recommend it. 

Looks like I'll be doing another write-in vote, but this time for the Best Nonfiction category. I honestly thought that This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl was going to make this category for sure, especially since it is about the girl whom John Green based the character of Hazel from his The Fault in Our Stars

But it turns out that Esther's story did make it into the Best Memoir & Autobiography Category, so I will certainly be voting for it there too.  

I've only read one of the 15 books nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction, but fortunately I enjoyed it immensely. E. Lockhart's We Were Liars has been nominated alongside two other books I hope to read in the near future, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira. The young adult category is always a fun one for me, and this year will prove no different. 

For the first time in the three years I have been doing this, I have actually read and covered a book from the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton is exactly as its title suggests, strange and beautiful. And it is the kind of fantasy novel I enjoy because it is just accessible enough in its weirdness for me to read it without feeling lost.

So there you have it. The first round of voting is open today through this Saturday, November 8th, and the semifinal round will begin on Monday, November 10th. The semifinal round will be when readers can see is their write-ins made the cut while getting a chance to vote again for their favorites to move on to the final round. You can vote here, and possibly get ideas for other books you would like to read in the future (The Bone Clocks, I am looking in your direction).  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Horror Fiction: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

When I read the description for Edgar Cantero's The Supernatural Enhancements, I was excited to add it to my queue as a potential post for Halloween. On the surface it is a haunted house story, but there is so much more to it than that, just as the book jacket suggests. And for me, a haunted house story probably would have been enough, so anything more than that was almost guaranteed to make me happy.

The Situation: It's 1995, and twenty-something year-old A. has just been informed that he has inherited Axton House in Point Bless, Virginia. Apparently he has, or had, a second cousin twice removed who recently passed away. And since A. is the closest living relative to the now deceased Ambrose Wells, he inherits the massive house and everything inside. So along with his companion Niamh, an Irish mute teenager who can't weigh more than 90 pounds, A. leaves Europe for Virginia to check out his inheritance. Not only is his new home more house than he and Niamh could ever manage on their own, but apparently it is haunted. Everyone in the area seems to acknowledge that this is true, both directly and indirectly. And once A. has an encounter of his own, he and Niamh begin rigging the house with video cameras and audio equipment to see what they can find. 

The Problem: The ghost or spirit that inhabits the house is the least of either A. or Niamh's worries. The house is full of so many secrets, the pair almost don't know where to begin. It also appears that Ambrose was a part of some sort of secret society that gathered together once a year during the winter solstice, which is less than two months away. Soon there is a break-in, and then the pair receive a visit from a friend of Ambrose's, who clearly believes that the late Mr. Wells intended to leave something behind for him and is eager to find it. A. and Niamh begin finding clues left by Ambrose, clues which they believe could lead them to the very thing Ambrose's friend is after. But the one person who could assist them in solving the mystery, Ambrose's butler, took off shortly after his master's death. Also, A. begins having awful nightmares, making him believe he is losing his mind. Ambrose died by jumping out of his bedroom window, just like his father before him. And if A. keeps having the troubling visions and nightmares, he may end up following in his distant cousin's literal footsteps.      

Genre, Themes, History: I have chosen to categorize this as a horror novel, although really it could be mystery, thriller, or suspense, or any combination of the above. Axton House is a haunted house, as there is a spirit living there that A. actually encounters. But there are also clues left behind by Ambrose that lead to an even bigger mystery, and possibly an answer to what he and 19 of his friends were involved in that caused them to meet every December during the winter solstice. Plus, it doesn't seem that the ghost or spirit is responsible for the awful nightmares and visions that A. has been having. Many of the nightmares are somewhat tame and not at all alarming, but others are terrifying and cause A. to feel real pain unlike any dream he has had before. The Supernatural Enhancements is a horror story that doesn't only stick with the haunted house idea. There is also a treasure hunt, a secret society, hidden rooms, crystal balls, cryptograms, murder, and a hedge maze on the Axton House property, just in case the creepy serial killer feeling wasn't quite complete. And in the grand tradition of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the entire book is comprised of letters, video footage, audio recordings, and journal entries, which can always make a story like this seem a little more real.

My Verdict: I always maintain that it is hard to find a good modern day horror movie, and horror novels aren't much different. But for me, Cantero manages to pull it off. The Supernatural Enhancements is just the type of haunted house story I love. Basically, it isn't actually about the house being haunted, although that is part of it. And there isn't an Indian burial ground in the basement, and the characters haven't been dead the entire time either. There is a hedge maze, which may seem a bit cliche, but trust me when I say that its presence is worth it. The book is more than just weird stuff jumping out at the characters from the shadows of a massive mansion. There is mystery and adventure, in addition to the prospect of being scared witless. And the secret society that Ambrose appears to have been a part of is just icing on the cake. In fact, I feel like much more time could have been spent just explaining how that works and all of the different aspects of it, as well as its history. Just when the reader is getting real answers as to how everything works, the book ends. I'm not saying I feel cheated or was left unsatisfied, but this was one rare instance in which I believe a book would have been better if it were a little longer.

Favorite Moment: While having dinner with friends of Ambrose's, A. is asked by their hosts to say the prayer before the meal. A, being more or less Atheist, passes the task onto Niamh, who can't speak. Yet somehow, the food is blessed and everyone moves on.

Favorite Character: If I had inherited a haunted house with a dangerous history and a questionable future, I would want someone like Niamh with me. More than once A. refers to her as his protector, although what qualifies her for such a title isn't really made clear. But she does the job well, despite weighing less than 100 pounds and lacking the ability to speak. She's smart, clever, stronger than she looks, and doesn't say much. Not bad as far as traveling companions go.

Recommended Reading: I could go a couple of directions with this. I already mentioned Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But there is also Marisha Pessl's Night Film, another modern horror/mystery novel. Also, if you're into books that contain letters and newspaper clippings and handwritten notes, then you may enjoy S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.   

Friday, October 24, 2014

Classic Fiction: Dracula by Bram Stoker

As we close in on Halloween I thought I would cover a classic that many people know about but few have actually read, Bram Stoker's Dracula. These days it would seem that there aren't enough books and movies out there about vampires (and zombies) to keep the public adequately entertained. Every story leaves people crying out for more, and there are many authors and movie producers out there who are more than willing to oblige. Even in 1897, when Dracula was published, vampires proved to be quite popular, and have remained so ever since.

The Situation: Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor, is meeting up with a Count Dracula in order to provide legal support for a real estate transaction. The meeting is to take place on the Transylvania border in the Count's castle. Despite Dracula's knowledge and charm, Harker eventually realizes things aren't quite right, and finds himself as a prisoner in the castle. The Count himself leaves for a trip to England, but that doesn't mean he has left Harker in the castle by himself. Before Dracula left, Harker had already encountered "the sisters," three women who live with Dracula in Transylvania and are vampires themselves. Now the sisters have Harker all to themselves, and would have begun to feed on him if he hadn't barely escaped with his life. This one ordeal is horrifying enough, and Harker is indeed lucky to be alive, but it is only the beginning of the terror Dracula will inflict on Harker's life.

The Problem: Count Dracula leaves Harker in his castle in Transylvania only to begin tracking his fiance, Mina Murray, along with her lovely but naive friend, Lucy Westenra. Lucy's three suitors, Dr. John Seward, Quincey Morris, and Arthur Holmwood, are also drawn into the drama, along with one of Dr. Seward's patients, Renfield. Renfield is helpful in that he is able to sense Dracula's presence and provide help in that way, but he also believes he can consume insects, spiders, birds, and rats in an attempt to absorb their life force, much like Dracula does with human beings. When Lucy falls suspiciously ill and begins to waste away, Dr. Seward calls for a former teacher, Abraham Van Helsing, to help in find out what is going on. Van Helsing knows what has happened, and fears that there is only one way to "cure" Lucy, especially after it appears she has been stalking small children at night. And when Harker returns from his escape, all currently unaffected members of the group must band together to take down the powerful Count Dracula before he claims anymore lives. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a classic horror novel set in late 19th century Europe. Many people are familiar with the idea of vampires, and with the story of Dracula, but what many probably don't realize, unless they have read the book, is that it is written in epistolary format. That's right, the entire story is told through letters, journal entries, ship's log entries, etc. So instead of reading the story from the point of view of a third person omniscient narrator, or even just one person, there end up being many storytellers and many different voices and opinions, with Van Helsing's probably being the most verbose and rambling. Naturally, the one person the reader would probably most likely want to hear from the most is Dracula, but that option is never presented, which adds to his overall mystery. It is clear that the Count has some sort of great power, and uses the life force of other humans to sustain himself. What is also clear is that he is far too powerful for one person to fight on their own and must be stopped. When the story was initially published in 1897, it was incredibly popular, and controversial. Within the same year of its publication the story would be performed onstage. And of course, the story still remains popular today. And while many modern vampire stories have nothing to do with Count Dracula himself, it is clear that the influence is still present. 

My Verdict: Reading a book will never be as easy as watching a movie, especially when that book is over 100 years old and written in a style that many modern readers just aren't used to. But with that being said, lovers of horror should read Dracula at least once in their lives. I think the main challenge would be getting past the epistolary format and switching voices. Once that is accomplished, the character of Dracula is just as uncomfortably charming and horrifying as he is portrayed onscreen. And what is constantly present is the sense of foreboding and dread that comes from knowing some sort of powerful being is close by and potentially watching you at any moment, looking for the right moment to strike you or someone you love, and there is little you can do about it. Even for an old horror story, it is still incredibly scary.

Favorite Moment: When Renfield attempts to warn Mina of Dracula's intentions, despite being under the powerful vampire's control. 

Favorite Character: Although his diary entries can sometimes be a little much, my absolute favorite character in the story is Abraham Van Helsing. He is the one who comes in and knows what must be done in order to be rid of this threat, while acknowledging how difficult and dangerous it will be to do it. He makes very little pretense as to what is truly going on. 

Recommended Reading: If you wish to explore more classic novels that are more horror than they they are romantic, I recommend Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But be warned, this is one of those books that actually isn't that long, but for some reason takes forever to read. Oh yeah, and it also written through letters. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Day of Atonement by David Liss

Today I will be covering David Liss's most recent historical fiction novel, The Day of Atonement. I have been a fan of Liss's novels ever since I read The Coffee Trader. In fact, I credit that novel for giving me what little interest I do have in historical fiction.

The Situation: Sebastian Foxx has just arrived in Lisbon, Portugal from England to start a career as a young merchant. But before he can even be let off of the boat, a priest from the Inquisition must ask him questions and make sure he is who he claims to be, and hasn't brought with him any secrets or illegal texts/items. It is mid-18th century Portugal, and the Inquisition is in full affect. Sebastian would eventually show the priest that he in fact isn't what he says he was, but a man of the Catholic faith who believes as the priests do. This makes him incredibly valuable and potentially helpful to their cause, even though the last thing a newly arrived merchant would want is to have any association with the Inquisition. Unfortunately for them, not only is Sebastian not what he initially said he was, but he isn't Catholic either. Since his escape from Lisbon as a small child, he has converted to Judaism. And if the Inquisition were to find out, he would be imprisoned and killed for sure. But he has come to Lisbon to avenge the wrongs done to his family and kill the priest responsible. And in order to accomplish his mission and survive, he must lie about who and what he really is.

The Problem: In 18th century Lisbon, the Inquisition has eyes and ears everywhere. Even the man Sebastian is looking for, Pedro Azinheiro, has taken a specific interest in him and seems to know his every move. Also, despite having come to the city with the singular mission of avenging his family, Sebastian finds himself with another mission of helping a family friend and his young daughter escape the city before the Inquisition decides to take the daughter for themselves. This means acquiring enough money, dishonestly, that would allow them to flee the country, and also ruin the people that ruined him. As Sebastian goes about attempting to right these wrong, a trip that was initially only supposed to take a few weeks ends up taking months. And as he makes more allies, he also makes more enemies. But as plans begin to come together, the entire city literally begins to fall apart.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 18th century Lisbon, Portugal. The Inquisition is still rounding up people on the basis that they are the wrong religion, and the city of Lisbon is full of merchants as well as thieves. Someone may be picked up by the Inquisition because someone really does believe that they are Jewish. But a lot of the time, they are picked up simply because they have something someone else wants, such as money, property, connections, or an attractive wife or daughter. And if the Inquisition wasn't enough of a force to deal with, in 1755 Lisbon was pretty much leveled by a massive earthquake. And if you were fortunate enough to survive the tremors and the debris from the crumbling buildings and structures, then there was a good chance you would be destroyed by the resulting tsunami. And even after the final wave had done its damage, there were still looters, thieves, and rapists to contend with. In many of Liss' novels, almost every character is guilty of something, and this one is no exception. Even the motives for revenge against terrible people are questionable. And at some point it becomes incredibly difficult to root for the so-called hero as he insists on obtaining his revenge by almost any means necessary, and makes many errors in judgement along the way.

My Verdict: Historical fiction that explores the seedy past of a well-known city is something that Liss is just incredibly good at. On paper, a book about a Jewish man risking the dangers of the Inquisition to seek revenge for his family while pretending to be a young merchant just would not interest me. But somehow, Liss makes it work. Even the seemingly endless twists and turns that come from betrayal after betrayal are made bearable. Something else Liss makes bearable are the almost amoral characters that somehow still end up being likable. Men and women who have done terrible things in their past end up as heroes as they chase down priests right after taking out would-be rapists. It is always an interesting collection of people in a Liss novel, none of which I would ever care to meet in real life, but whose story I can be fascinated with from afar. Historical fiction lovers would appreciate this story, especially if they have an interest in the Inquisition, or the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon.

Favorite Moment: When Sebastian is ready to have mercy on a thief that has been arrested, only to change his mind when he hears about the horrible crime he was in the middle of committing before he was arrested. Suffice it to say that the crime was heinous enough that I am okay with Sebastian's decision to let the man hang.

Favorite Character: Kingsley Franklin is a large, clumsy fellow who owns the inn Sebastian is staying in. He can be annoying, and isn't the most stealthy person to take on a mission, but he is strong and loyal, and that is enough.

Recommended Reading: I recommend the first book that put David Liss on everyone's radar, A Conspiracy of Paper. The protagonist is actually the powerful and intimidating Benjamin Weaver, the mentor to Sebastian Foxx in The Day of Atonement

Friday, October 10, 2014

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

I am excited to be writing about the third book in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth series, The Long Mars. I am surprised I have been able to keep up with the series thus far, and I plan to keep doing so through all five books. And just like with other series that I write about in the blog, I must put out the usual spoil alert. If you haven't read either The Long Earth or The Long War, and don't want to know any of the details, it is probably best you don't read any further.

The Situation: It the year 2045, five years since the end of The Long War, where the story left off with a massive and catastrophic eruption in Yellowstone Park. Much of Datum Earth, that is the Earth you and I live on in present day 2014, has become uninhabitable due to the ash spewed from the volcano in Yellowstone. Most of the US has evacuated over the Long Earth. And even other countries such as Russia and China have been severely affected, causing them to evacuate as well. Joshua Valiente has become estranged from his family due to an almost innate desire to help with the relief efforts back on the Datum. Commander Maggie Kauffman is once again commanding an expedition to explore the limits of the far Long Earth, taking with her both humans and non humans, as well as a prominent politician. Sally Linsay has been contacted by her long disappeared father and inventor of the stepper box, Willis Linsay. And of course, there is Lobsang, who is still manipulative but well-meaning.

The Problem: It will be years before Datum Earth will be able to recover from the eruption, so people are traveling over the Long Earth in record numbers, filling up already established cities, much to the annoyance of those already there. Joshua is already estranged from his wife and son, and now Lobsang has contacted him in hopes the he can help identify what appears to be a new generation of smarter, wiser human beings. Meanwhile, Sally isn't exactly thrilled to be contacted by her father, knowing he always has an ulterior and self-serving motive for everything he does. And the more questions she asks, the more secrets he seems to keep. And while attempting to maintain peace between those that have join her on her new expedition, Maggie comes across a few of the humans that Lobsang has been wanting to know about. But this new generation isn't the most friendly, and they are different enough that many people are ready to declare that they aren't actually human. But most everyone understands, through the many examples throughout the history of the human race, what events naturally follow when a group of people is demoted out of the human race.

Genre, Themes, History: The Long Mars is the third installment in a science fiction series that explores the possibility of there being many parallel earths, some of which are similar to ours, but many are completely different. This book is the first in the series to explore the idea of there being parallels of other planets in our solar system as well, as is denoted by the title. Much like in The Long War, human beings are still attempting to navigate relationships with other species found on the other earths, and due to some initial transgressions, progress remains slow with many of them. And as if dealing with a new species that looks like nothing we've ever seem before wasn't hard enough, it seems a new type of human being has emerged out of one of the established cities out in the Long Earth. This new human being is not only smarter and wiser, they also know they're smarted and wiser. And the knowledge of being different coupled with the treatment that comes with others recognizing those differences has made many of them hostile and calculating. How these people are treated is really a lesson on how history repeats itself, and how the initial reaction to almost anything or anyone different is usually fear. The book also asks if whether or not a preemptive strike is ever justified. Both sides of the question are heavily debated, and there can be serious consequences to either course of action.

My Verdict: This book is much more interesting and engaging than the second least it was for me. It is always slightly strange for me when there are multiple story lines going on at once and the chapters switch between them, as there are always storylines I want to stay with and know what happens, and others that I prefer weren't even there. And having the Linsay's explore the long worlds of an entirely different planet certainly added an entire new level to the whole story. Naturally, with the possibility of infinite earths there are infinite directions Pratchett and Baxter could take the story. But now there are infinite Mars too. And it stands to reason there could also be infinite Jupiters, Saturns...even infinite versions of our own moon. There are just so many possibilities with this story that predictability is not an issue. If I did have a bone to pick with it, it would be that some details are cleaned up and disposed of a little too easily. Of course, the authors have two more books in which to work everything out, so maybe those details will be dealt with later.

Favorite Moment: When Frank Wood called both Sally and Willis Linsay out as the arrogant loners they are.

Favorite Character: It can be hard a lot of the time to like any of the characters in this series, as they are usually either angsty, arrogant, self-serving, defensive, manipulative, or just stupid and reckless. While Frank Wood isn't less guilty than any of the rest, he does seem to at least have some insight into the Linsays and what is really going on with them. Plus, if I was stuck on some space expedition with the three of them, he is certainly the only one I would trust.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I recommend both The Long Earth and The Long War. Anyone who enjoys either of the author's precious work will most likely enjoy The Long Earth series.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers is actually Emma Straub's third novel, and even though I had originally intended to read Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, I just never got around to it, mostly because every time I looked it up on Goodreads the ratings for it had declined until I was convinced I wouldn't much care for it. But the critical reviews for The Vacationers have fared much better, so I decided to give it a shot.

The Situation: The Post family - Franny and Jim, along with their son, Bobby, and their daughter, Sylvia - have decided to leave Manhattan for two weeks and enjoy the sun and sand on the island of Mallorca. This will be Sylvia's last trip before starting her freshman year at Brown University. And Bobby will be bringing his girlfriend Carmen, with whom he lives with in Miami, Florida, where he works in real estate and she works as a personal trainer in a gym. Charles and his husband Lawrence will also be joining the Posts, even though Lawrence is knee deep in work on his latest movie, and the couple is in the middle of adopting a child. Even with everything going on in their private life, they have all decided to take this trip anyway, with all of them staying in the same house on the small island, enjoying whatever Mallorca has to offer.

The Problem: This trip to Mallorca could be viewed as an escape for everyone involved, if only the problems they have at home didn't insist on following them. A change in location doesn't mean that Jim would magically have his job back, or that he didn't sleep with the intern. Being on the island also doesn't mean that Franny will magically forgive him, or stop being an entitled and castrating woman. Both Jim and Lawrence still remain jealous of the friendship that Franny and Charles have always shared, and they all still have a shared dislike of Bobby's girlfriend, Carmen. This of course puts Bobby in a tough spot, but he has other worries of his own, namely a large and seemingly insurmountable debt that he is reluctant to tell his family about. And then there is a Sylvia, the youngest member on the trip, who is desperate to have something great happen on this trip before she goes off to college and attempts to turn herself into someone different from who she has always been. And these seven people are going to attempt to share the same house for two weeks on a Spanish island. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that takes place during a family vacation in Spain. It explores the idea that a change in location doesn't actually change or erase any of the problems a family may have back home. If anything, the trip may shine a spotlight on the issues and force people to deal with them instead of ignore them. Everyone is forced to be in such close proximity to one another with very little hope or chance for escape in a place where none of them knows how to get around or speak the language. Also, jealousies abound on almost every side. Franny is jealous of the intern Jim slept with before losing his job; Jim is jealous of Franny's relationship with Charles; Lawrence is jealous of Charles' relationship with Franny; and no one likes Carmen. Sylvia knows more or less what is going on with her parents, but Bobby is completely in the dark and naive enough to believe that everything is fine, both between his parents and between himself and Carmen. Sylvia is also naive enough to believe that one trip to Mallorca can allow her to change who she is entirely. It's a story that explores the complex relationships between friends and family. Vacations are usually a chance to get away, but the problems at home can sometimes come with you.

My Verdict: The storyline and characters are actually really good, but the writing fails to bring it all together into a cohesive novel. The narrative is often choppy, and the transitions are either non-existent or incredibly rough and jarring. The characters are often incredibly trying and irritating too since most of them are entitled and selfish, but even that is nothing compared to the distracting writing. Even though no one is likeable, it is almost like they aren't expected to be from the very beginning, so it isn't really that big of a disappointment. This could have been an utterly delightful and light beach read if some of the scenes or some of the characters' reactions made more sense or were given better placement within the story. This is the kind of book I can see someone picking up in an airport bookstore on the way to boarding a plane...something to pick up almost by accident, and only something to read as a time filler.

Favorite Moment: When the truth about Bobby's money issues finally comes to light. It isn't so much that it finally happens, but how it happens.

Favorite Character: None of these people are all that likeable. I wouldn't want to spend two weeks with any of them on a Spanish island. But if I had to choose, I would pick Sylvia. I think she is young enough where she could grow up to not be like the rest of her family, although the chance of that happening is incredibly slim. 

Recommended Reading: If you're looking for a light beach read about a troubled vacationing family, I suggest We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. It is a young adult novel, but a good one and well written.