Friday, December 25, 2015

Door Stop: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

It has been awhile since I have used the actual heading of "Door Stop" for a post, so I decided to go with a book that I read a long time ago. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas is one of those stories that many know about, and understand the general gist of, but few have actually read, mostly because it is over 600 pages long. So I thought I would take the time to write about it here and go over the grand adventures in the novel in some detail.

The Situation: It is France in 1625, and D'Artagnan, a poor nobleman, has left his home and intends to join the Musketeers of the Guard. On the way, he is insulted by an older man, beaten unconscious, and ends up losing the letter of introduction meant to be given to the commander of the Musketeers. Without it, he will not be able to join the ranks of the Musketeers, and now he is also bent on revenge against the man who insulted him and had him beaten. If that were not enough, he eventually ends up scheduling duels with each of the current Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. It is only when the Cardinal Richelieu, whose agent it was that first insulted D'Artagnan, shows up to arrest them all that the four gentlemen band together and end up fighting as one.

The Problem: It would seem that D'Artagnan has already had plenty of adventure before the real plot of the novel begins and the more epic adventures start to take place. But befriending the Musketeers is only the beginning, as D'Artagnan will end up being repeatedly attacked by the Cardinal, and having affairs with both his landlord's wife, and the beautiful but dangerous Milady, with the latter affair nearly costing him his life. Meanwhile the three Musketeers have their own separate problems, but the primary focus of the entire story is always on D'Artagnan as he pursues his ultimate goal of being a Musketeer, while avoiding the schemes of those who both wish him dead and plot against the throne.

Genre, Themes, History: The Three Musketeers is an historical adventure novel written in the 1800s, but set in the 1600s. The story is full of sword fighting, adventures, plotting, scheming, manipulative people, power hungry nobles and clergyman, seductive women, and a fair amount of witty banter. The novel is also somewhat political as the dangerous but smart Cardinal Richelieu attempts to advance his own power, while undermining the throne the entire time. The serialization of the novel took place four years before the French Revolution, when France's Second Republic was firmly established. Dumas would be no stranger to political tension and managed to insert it into the story, while still maintaining the sense of grand adventure that came with scenes of sword play and romantic distractions. And something else Dumas includes is the power of a beautiful face, as the villainous Milady is able to get away with most anything simply because of her beauty and charm. It is a beauty that would make her even more dangerous and manipulative than the Cardinal. In short, this story has everything that could be desired in an historical adventure.

My Verdict: Despite having been written in the 1800s and being a door stop, The Three Musketeers is worth picking up, even with all of the movie adaptations available as an alternative to working your way through a 600 page book. The story is rarely boring, and the villainous Milady was enough to keep me involved through to the end, wondering if she would get away with all she had done, and if the Musketeers would end up the triumphant heroes in the end. And while many of the longer classics tend to be confusing due to the massive amount of characters that are often introduced, the only confusion I sometimes experienced was in telling Athos, Porthos, and Aramis apart, but even that becomes clear early in the novel. Dumas' story can still holds its own against the many adventures we have available to us today, and there is a reason many attempt to make their own adaptations of it, despite there being plenty already in existence.

Favorite Moment: When D'Artagnan finally realizes who and what Milady is, and manages to escape her grasp and her charm.

Favorite Character: I assume everyone has their personal favorite Musketeer, so I pick Aramis. I don't have any real reason really, I just enjoyed reading about his personal struggle between wanting to someday enter a monastery, and his love of the ladies. 

Recommended Reading: Had I read any of Dumas' other works I would most certainly recommend one here, but unfortunately I have not had to opportunity to do so. Therefore I recommend Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. It is certainly a different kind of adventure story, entertaining in a different way and with a hero that only imagines that he is on a noble errand. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Witch's Market by Mingmei Yip

I was sent The Witch's Market by Mingmei Yip in exchange for a review, mostly because last December I had agreed to review her previous novel, Secret of a Thousand Beauties. Instead of focusing on 1930s China, The Witch's Market takes place mostly in the modern day Canary Islands, and deals with witches, spells, curses, visions, and even fortune telling.

The Situation: Eileen Chen is a Chinese-American assistant professor living in San Francisco and trying to make tenure. There is a rumor among the student body, and some of the faculty, that Eileen is a witch; a rumor that does not surprise her as she is the one who started it and still encourages it. She focuses on witchcraft in her classes, and is now looking for that big project that will allow her to secure tenure. After receiving some encouragement from a fellow professor, Eileen decides to travel to the Canary Islands to continue her research and eventually turn it into a book to be published. She does not know what she will find exactly, or what kind of adventure this will lead to. But she does have some experience with the subject matter as her grandmother made her living as a shamaness and taught Eileen many things. With only her background and the research she has done, Eileen sets out alone to the Canary Islands.

The Problem: Almost as soon as Eileen arrives, strange happenings and even stranger people begin to show up around her. She first hears about a dog and a man being swallowed up by the earth. Then she meets Cecily, who is supposedly a real witch, but is warned by others not to get involved with her. But it would seem even Cecily is the least of her concerns, as Eileen begins to have dreams of an unfamiliar woman attempting to speak with her. Soon, Eileen finds herself involved in the lives of a wealthy older gentleman, his vengeful and heartbroken ex, a young but handsome furniture maker, and two spirits who have something they desperately want her to know. Filling in the gaps of the information she receives requires Eileen to lean on the knowledge her grandmother taught her. She came to the islands to learn more about witchcraft, and had no idea that she would end up fending off would-be suitors, while investigating a 20 year-old murder.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that deals with witches, witchcraft, folklore, Buddhist teachings, and fortune telling, among many other things. Eileen has traveled to the Canary Islands in order to do research for a book on witchcraft she hopes to publish in order to secure her tenure. She not only ends up learning about witchcraft and meeting real witches, but she also becomes entangled in the lives of a few of the locals, and before she knows it she is investigating a potential murder. Plus, there is Ivan, the on again/off again boyfriend that she left back home in San Francisco. Both Ivan and Alfredo, the older man she meets on the Canary Islands, try to win Eileen's affection with charm and money. But she finds herself more drawn to the young Luis, who has neither. And then there is the bitter but worn out Sabrina who tells of a different side to Alfredo, but she hasn't exactly been the most innocent person either. Eileen enters a small community where everyone has their secrets, but they all seem to want to share them with her and have her in their lives. And she hopes to uncover enough of them that will both bring people together and allow the restless spirits of the dead to have some peace. 

My Verdict: It is an interesting premise: a Chinese-American professor with some knowledge of witchcraft goes to the Canary Islands to research the subject, and ends up using what she knows and what she learns to help the people she meets. I just wish it was executed better. The dialogue is often awkward and much of the plot is either confusing because of the timeline, or unbelievable. It was one of those stories where I found myself saying "of course" quite a bit. Of course Eileen knows Spanish. Of course a rich older man wants her. Of course another rich older man also wants her. Of course a young furniture maker also wants her. Of course she gets to say in other people's houses for a seemingly indefinite amount of time. Of course people just open up to her and tell her everything. You get the idea. On the other hand, what I did enjoy are the characters and the settings. Also, when Yip describes the travel to and from certain locations, I could only be reminded of some of my own trips and how sometimes just getting to a location was enough to drain your energy before you can do what you set out to do. 

Favorite Moment: When Eileen is able to explore Alfredo's castle and its many rooms.

Favorite Character: This is hard. They were all at least a little irritating to me at one point or another. So I think I'll just walk away from this section, something I rarely do.

Recommended Reading: I do recommend Yip's previous novel, Secret of a Thousand Beauties. Although I did have some of the same issues with it that I do with The Witch's Market, I feel like it is a stronger novel with a better storyline.    

Friday, December 11, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World is a Spanish-language work translated into English by Lisa Dilman. I first took notice of the work after it was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award for the Best Fiction category, although sadly it did not make it to the final round. Only a 107 pages long, it is a story that packs in a lot in a small amount of words.

The Situation: Makina has decided to cross over into the U.S. from Mexico in search of her brother, who crossed over some time before. She is not sure what would happen to her job at the switchboard while she is gone, as she is the only one who can switch between the different languages and dialects with ease. But she is set on crossing over, and her mother Cora has handed her a message to give to her brother once she sees him. After meeting up with various "businessmen" with whom Makina knows how to converse, who have interests of their own as far as her trip, she heads out with vague directions and not many supplies.

The Problem: When Makina is told what she should do, there are rarely any specifics, even when it comes to the people she is to meet along the way. Plus, there is always the chance she will be caught and either detained or sent back. The one thing that will not be an issue for Makina are the young men who think they can easily take advantage of her. Makina is street smart and knows her own mind, but the U.S. is still a strange place, and she has very little idea as to where to actually find her brother. Each clue seems to lead to another clue, which often leads to a dead end or an unforeseen danger. It is a trip full of questions and very few answers. And even if Makina does successfuly cross over, there is no guarantee she will be able to make it back.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novella that was originally written in Spanish. It is a surprisingly complex story to be only a little over 100 pages long. It is of course about immigration and language, but also about the epic journey, family, death, survival, and the end of the world. The story begins with a sinkhole opening in the earth and swallowing someone alive, and throughout the novel the landscape is blurry and unclear and nothing is for certain except that Makina is on a journey. And just like with any story that is being translated, there are phrases in Spanish that just would not translate the same into English. And even for those words and phrases with a direct translation, the meaning still is not quite the same. Even so, Makina's story still manages to come across the page as almost anyone can relate to the uncertainties of her trip and the hope she takes with her.

My Verdict: Even if it was a terrible story, it was not long enough to feel as if any time was wasted. Fortunately, it was not a terrible story. In fact, it was quite good, and I would recommend it to everyone. It was a bit outside of the box for me, and I only took notice of it because of the Goodreads Choice Awards. It is the kind of story that does not come along very often, so when it does it makes a huge impression. Makina is the type of heroine you care about, but do not necessarily fret over and wonder if she will be okay, because she can take care of herself and does not have to wait to around for someone to save her. And while some of the details that a reader is usually handed come off vague and unclear, it is not in an aggravating matter that feels as if the author is being intentionally withholding. The entire story is told with a mastery that most writers only hope to achieve throughout their career, and I look forward to future works by Herrera.

Favorite Moment: When Makina takes down a young man attempting to make a pass at her on the bus.

Favorite Character: Makina is the only character the reader gets to spend a considerable amount of time with, but even so, I think I would still end up picking her. She can take care of herself, and has a fierce determination that is not overdone or obnoxious.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. It tells the story of a small community of immigrants living in Delaware, focusing on the two young teenagers trying to live "normal" lives in the U.S.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Science Fiction: The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Any books with zombies immediately fall under the category of books I choose to ignore, but when a book has a book jacket synopsis as short but still as powerful as M.R. Carey's The Girl With All the Gifts, I find myself wanting to know more, while also being incredibly apprehensive as to what I will find. It helps that while zombie stories follow the same general idea, each one executes it in a different way. And if the synopsis was any clue, this story would not disappoint in originality and execution.

The Situation: Melanie spends the majority of her time in her cell, away from the other children, and away from the adults that supervise and teach her. Monday through Friday, she is strapped down into her wheelchair and taken to the classroom where one of several teachers leads the class. On the weekends she takes a bath and gets to eat, and then the cycle starts all over again. She does not know much about who or what she is, but does know that Sergeant Parks does not like her or any of the other children very much, and that Dr. Caldwell is not someone to trust. The only adult she does like is Ms. Justineau, and the days that she teaches are always Melanie's favorite. Having no memory of what it is like beyond the other end of the hallway, the end opposite the classroom, Melanie does not know enough to miss the outside world. As far as she knows, her life as it is at the base will be her life forever. Until one day, when it isn't.

The Problem: Things are continuing as normal at the base where the children, who are anomalies that were captured and brought there so Dr. Caldwell could study them, are taught and kept in cells, when the once secure fence surrounding the property is suddenly under attack by hungries. The hungries are being forced forward by junkers - people living off the land who refused to evacuate to safety when the infection took over the planet - determined to break through the fence and into the base. Within minutes, Melanie is no longer secured down by straps to make sure she doesn't bite anyone, and everyone inside the base, including her favorite Ms. Justineau, is in serious danger. But even when they manage to make it out together, Ms. Justineau is now stuck in close company with the cold and unpleasant Sergeant Parks, and the condescending and single-minded Dr. Caldwell. Survival within their small group would be hard enough even without the Melanie, the small genius-level zombie, tagging along.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that I at first had placed under the heading of horror. It is normally my natural inclination to put any book dealing with zombies under a horror heading, but I relented as I got further into the story. Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of blood and death and severed limbs and attacks by zombie hordes, but there is also a lot of science behind the entire story, mostly coming from Dr. Caldwell's clinical approach to the children she had captured for the purpose of studying them. The first part of the novel gives most of the scientific background to the story, over an underlying tension that comes from fear of the unknown. But once the characters are on the run, the science may still there, but these people also have to figure out how to survive and keep from being eaten. Oh yeah, and one of the hungries they are trying to avoid happens to be right there with them. Imagine running for your life with an overbearing sergeant, a woman who sees no issue with cutting up children, another woman who can barely keep herself from hugging something that often wants to eat her, and a zombie child. Carey paints a pretty good picture of the type of circumstances that cause many people to go it alone. But as much as the small group may despise each other, their chances are better together than alone. And strangely, their chances are best when Melanie is with them.

My Verdict: For someone like me who is more inclined to avoid stories with zombies, there were definitely some tough moments, and not necessarily because of all of the blood and the eating. Sure, that was awful, but what was downright creepy was Carey's descriptions of the ways the zombies operate. Melanie was different: she may have been a zombie who at the end of the day desired to feed on living beings, but she was at least aware of herself. It was the ones that chased after you if the saw or heard you, and then stopped and stayed where they were, for years if they had to, until something else came along that was worth chasing. Even Dr. Caldwell's clinical descriptions of what was happening didn't help. As a zombie book, this was done well. My only real bone to pick with the novel was some of the plot gaps that come with attempting to use science to explain exactly what is happening in a zombie apocalypse, and why children like Melanie are even possible. It is an ambitious idea, and one that may have been too big to explain in a believable way.

Favorite Moment: When Ms. Justineau walks over to Dr. Caldwell and punches her in the face. They both got on my nerves, but this scene felt right to me.

Favorite Character: I never would have thought so at first, but Sergeant Parks ended up being my favorite. He is the only one with any real skill to survive. And while he was a complete jerk, he didn't have any delusions about the situation and planned accordingly.

Recommended Reading: I am limited in my knowledge of zombie books, but I can recommend This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. It is a young adult novel that follows a group of high school students as they attempt to live together in their school while zombies wander around on the outside.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Winners of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards

It is officially December and the winners have been announced for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards. Find out who won, who lost, and how your own personal favorites fared among some of the best books of 2015.

Despite my own personal thoughts and predictions, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee took home the prize for Best Fiction. I of course had voted for Sara Nović's Girl at War, but it looks like it was just meant to be for Lee's recent book. Honestly, I am pleased that a book I managed to cover on this blog in the past year took away the ultimate prize, but I still wonder if people were voting more for Lee rather than the actual book. 

I am definitely excited that Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins won for Best Mystery & Thriller, somehow managing the impossible of beating out the literary juggernaut that is Stephen King. Not only did it win, but it completely blew the rest of the competition out of the water by gaining more than three times the votes of the second place finisher. But really, I am not all that surprised. The book is that good. 

Looks like neither A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson nor In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume had enough fans and followers to win for Best Historical Fiction, as the ultimate honor was given to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. 

In another category where two Door Stop Novels missed out on the top prize, Golden Son by Pierce Brown has been named Best Science Fiction for 2015, beating both Armada by Ernest Cline, and The Heart Goes Last by the prolific and forever loved Margaret Atwood. 

And while I am not surprised by the loss of Armada in the science fiction category, I am somewhat shocked that Brené Brown's Rising Strong didn't finish higher than 10th place for Best Nonfiction. But I am not shocked that it ultimately lost out to Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance, with Humans of New York: Stories close behind in second place. 

When it comes to Best Debut Goodreads Author, it is all about Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, so Sara Nović's Girl at War loses yet again, along with Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes. This is always a tough and fairly unpredictable category, although the popularity of Red Queen is pretty well-known and widespread, so I knew it was going to make a strong showing regardless.

But despite her own popularity and massive following, Sarah Dessen was unable to come away with the win with Saint Anything, losing out to All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. 

So far only two books that have appeared on this blog have managed to win first place, and there is only one category left: Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction. And it appears the seemingly impossible (at least to me) has happened and Rainbow Rowell's Carry On did not win first place. Instead it came in second to Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas. In my small world, this would qualify as an upset, only because Rowell has been such a powerhouse in past Goodreads Choice Awards, one year even managing to take both the first and second places in one category.

In any case, congratulations to all of the winners. Once again, I set off on a year-long journey to find and read the next year's winners. As always, even if I don't succeed in reading winning novels, I will have a hell of a lot of fun trying.    

Friday, November 27, 2015

Historical Fiction: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

In the Unlikely Event is actually the first book I have ever read by Judy Blume. I know her books are beloved by many and that some have been reading her work for decades. For whatever reason, I just never picked up anything by her, nor was I ever assigned to read it in school. But I decided to pick up her latest novel, which focuses on a city in New Jersey in a time of crisis and fear, and even made it into the final round for a Goodreads Choice Award in the Best Historical Fiction category.

The Situation: Miri Ammerman is a typical 15 year-old girl in Elizabeth, New Jersey, living with her single mother Rusty, her grandmother Irene, and her uncle Henry. She spends her days attending school, and spends much of her free time with her best friend Natalie. As an only child, Miri often allows herself to fantasize about her mother and Natalie's father being together, therefore making her and Natalie real sisters. Miri has nothing to complain about as her mother, grandmother, and uncle have provided everything she needs, except maybe the truth about her father. Everyone else in Elizabeth is also attempting to live their lives, such as Henry's fianceé Leah, a schoolteacher; Mason, an orphan who danced one dance with Miri at a party and now can't stop thinking about her; Christina, the girlfriend of Mason's older brother and an office assistant at the dental practice run by Natalie's father; and many other residents of Elizabeth who will become forever changed by the events that begin in the winter of 1951.

The Problem: On Sunday, December 16, 1951, a plane crash landed into the bank of the Elizabeth River. It would be the first of three planes to crash in the city within the span of two months, leading to the temporary closure of the Newark Airport. The events would not only lead to a natural fear of flying for many of the residents of Elizabeth, but it would also cause widespread speculation about the general safety of Newark Airport, conspiracy theories regarding the government and aliens, and stress and anxiety for those who never intended to fly as they wonder if their home or office could be the next one that a plane lands on. Despite most every one's desire to move on with life after the tragic events, it is clear that everything has changed and nothing will be the same, seemingly for the worse. Lives have already been lost, but marriages will also end, friendships will become fractured and never quite heal, and people like Miri will begin to always wonder when the next disaster will come.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel containing events that did happen in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1951-1952. Three airplanes did crash in the town, leading many to dub the town "Plane Crash City." Blume takes these events and uses them as the backdrop for the stories involving Miri and her friends, her family, and many others. While the story does mostly follow Miri, the perspective changes. It is always a story told by a third person narrator, but sometimes the action follows Miri, and sometimes it's Rusty, or Henry, or Daisy, or Corinne, or Christina, or get the idea. There are many different voices throughout this book, filling in some of the blanks that Miri wouldn't know, but not all of them. It is a look into how different people respond to a tragedy, and also the fear that can come out of it. Some move forward, some wallow in despair, and still others attempt to function while not really knowing what to do, somehow being pulled in both directions at once. And it doesn't seem that anyone knows how they'll react until it actually happens.

My Verdict: For about the first 200 pages or so, I was somewhat confused. All of the different voices and perspectives got to me and made the story hard to follow. I kept forgetting who was who, who was who's sister, or coworker, or aunt, or teacher, or girlfriend, or best friend, etc. It would be one thing if the voices only switched between two or three, even four people. But there were many more than that, and some would only be the focus once, making them incredibly easy to forget unless they featured prominently in someone elses story. But once I was able to push past that, I found this to be an interesting story, and even after about two-thirds of the way through, I still could not imagine where Blume was going with it. There was only one part where the story felt rushed, but it could also have been Blume's attempt to show how quickly things can change. 

Favorite Moment: When Miri is told she can't publish an article she has written for the school newspaper, so she makes copies on her own and hands it out anyway.

Favorite Character: I would pick either Miri or her uncle, Henry. Miri wasn't too angsty, which worked well since she is the one the reader has to follow for most of the book. And Uncle Henry was one of the few adults who was willing to be straight with Miri and tell her the truth.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Life After Life or A God in Ruins. Both are by Kate Atkinson, and both focus on the same English family, in and around World War II.       

Friday, November 20, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I was naturally very excited to read Rainbow Rowell's latest novel, Carry On, which naturally has made it into the final round for a Goodreads Choice Award in the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category. What made me even more excited was the fact that it was for young adults, and included characters that were sparingly mentioned in my favorite Rowell novel, Fangirl. Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, a favorite fictional character of one of Rowell's fictional characters, but now with his own story and adventures.

The Situation: Simon Snow is in his last year at Watford, the school for magicians. Since the Mage, the headmaster of the school, first found Simon at a home for orphans and had him attend Watford, Simon has not only been made the Mage's heir, but he has also been told he is the Chosen One. He is believed to be the most powerful magician that ever lived, and anyone who has seen him use his magic, which he still has not learned to control, easily believes it. For the most part, Simon enjoys attending Watford, has made a best friend in the studious and stubborn Penny, and even has the beautiful if somewhat superficial Agatha as a girlfriend. Even with all of the attacks and trouble Simon has had at Watford, he would never miss his last year, even if it is optional. Plus, he really loves the food.

The Problem: If there is one main issue Simon has with Watford it is his roommate, Baz. In true Watford tradition, once you are matched up with a roommate in your first year, you stay roommates until graduation. So no matter how much Simon and Baz may loathe each other, they are stuck sharing living space. Simon is convinced that not only is Baz pure evil and continually plots against him, but he also believes that he is a vampire. He has never been able to get concrete proof, but if he did he would finally be able to convince the Mage to expel him. It also does not help that Baz comes from one of the most powerful magical families in England, and his mother was the former headmistress. But as much as Simon does not like sharing a room with someone he thinks of as pure evil, he actually likes it less when Baz does not show up for the first day, week, month...  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also often placed under fantasy and romance. Simon Snow has been prophesied to be the most powerful magician the world has ever known, and he now attends Watford, the best school for young magicians. Throughout the novel, class issues come up, not necessarily between those who have magic and those who do not (normals), but more between those from the more powerful families, and those who would have never been admitted to Watford had the Mage not changed the rules. And while certain species (for lack of a better term) such as pixies are allowed to attend the school, others such as vampires are expressly forbidden. Also, while Simon may be the most powerful magician ever known, he isn't much use to anyone, including himself, if he can't ever control it. His spoken spells rarely work, while less powerful students such as his friend Penny are able to summon almost any spell with little effort. As I mentioned earlier, the characters of Simon, Baz, Penny, and Agatha first appeared in Fangirl. Cath was obsessed with the series of novels and was one of the best writers of fan fiction containing them. While Rowell is done with Cath's story, she decided to continue Simon's adventure and tell his full story here in Carry On. Talk about meta.

My Verdict: Fangirl is (still) my favorite book by Rowell, and Carry On is a great story of adventure and friendship and love and overcoming tremendous adversity. Rowell's writing is once again on point and reminded me of why I get excited every time she publishes a new book. With all of that being said, I had a very hard time separating what was going on in Carry On, and what little I know (because I haven't read them) about Harry Potter. Maybe it is because Simon's story began as part of an ongoing fan fiction story in Fangirl, but I just could not shake the feeling that I was reading Harry Potter fan fiction. There are huge differences between the two stories of course, but the big main elements are still there: powerful orphaned boy wizard; evil classmate always seemingly plotting the hero's downfall; studious and powerful female friend; a school for magicians; a headmaster beyond reproach but also not liked but other powerful magicians; a friendly adult counselor who lives on the school grounds but mostly stays out of the get the idea. Really, the book is a great adventure taken by another "chosen one" character. But unfortunately, we live in a world where one particular chosen one is almost always the first one we think about, and even in Carry On's most gripping scenes, Harry Potter's image and story was hard to shake, even for someone who has never read any of the books.

Favorite Moment: When it becomes clear to Simon that Ebb, his goat herding friend, is not as simple as she seems, and is more powerful than any of the children realized.

Favorite Character: As annoying and stubborn as she can be, I pick Penny. She may not be the most tactful person in Simon's life, but she is often the only one making any sense and acting in a way that actually benefits everyone and the situation.

Recommended Reading: Fangirl. When it comes to Rowell, it is always about Fangirl with me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015 Final Round

We have reached the final stretch of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards. Voting for the final round has opened up and will close on Monday, November 23rd. So be sure to make your voices heard and vote for your favorite books of the year.

Looks like both Girl at War by Sara Nović and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee have made it into the top 10 for Best Fiction. I will still be sticking with my vote for Girl at War, although I am honestly not all that confident it will be able to beat out books like After You by Jojo Moyes and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train is also hanging on in the Best Mystery & Thriller category, and will have to face off against Stephen King's Finders Keepers.

I am glad that despite not being as good as its predecessor, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson had made it to the finals for the Best Historical Fiction category. However, I am surprised that Judy Blume's In the Unlikely Event has squeezed into the top 10 as well, but I suppose it should not be. Blume has been writing for a long time and has a strong following as a result.

I am certainly not surprised that The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro did not make it into the final round for Best Fantasy.  For me this book was just not up to the standard that Ishiguro is known for, and while he may also have a strong following like Blume, it clearly was not enough to push him into the final round.

One book that has managed to make it into the final round despite its lower rating is Aramada by Ernest Cline. It is a story that has a great premise and is pretty interesting, right up until the end when things just fall apart and all momentum and energy comes to a grinding halt. But clearly, it has enough fans willing to at least vote it into the finals.

And for my first bit of sad news, it looks like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae was not able to get the votes needed to make into the top 10 for Best Humor. It was a write-in vote after all, and was not included in the original first round of 15. Even so, it is one I was rooting for, so it is sad to see it go.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown is still holding on in the Best Nonfiction category, and I will not be at all surprised if it ends up taking away the top prize. It has some stiff competition off course, and from the likes of Aziz Ansari and Humans of New York. The nonfiction category looks like it has some particularly strong finalists and it may end up being a close race to the end.

Both My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga and Girl at War have managed to make it into the final round for Best Debut Goodreads Author. I am fans of both of these books, so choosing was initially difficult. But I plan to stick with Warga's book and hopefully vote it towards a win.

Unfortunately, Warga's novel did not make it to the finals for Best Young Adult Fiction, and neither did All the Rage by Courtney Summers. The only horse I still have in this race is Saint Anything by Goodreads Choice Awards veteran Sarah Dessen. 

Which only leaves the category for Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction, where Rainbow Rowell, another Goodreads Choice Awards veteran, is still being represented with her novel Carry On. Rowell has won an award every year that she has been nominated, and I am hoping she is able to take the number one spot once again.

So this it people. Your last chance to let it be known which books you think were the best of the best for 2015. Stay tuned to Goodreads for the final results on Tuesday, November 24th.   

Friday, November 13, 2015

Nonfiction: Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

The full title of today's book is Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Dan-el Padilla Peralta was born in the Dominican Republic, but would come to live in New York City early on in life with his mother and father, and later on his little brother. Throughout his childhood and for part of his adult life, Dan-el would be considered an illegal immigrant, staying in the U.S. long past the date of his initial visa. But even with the incredibly huge roadblock of not having a social security number, Dan-el would manage to get one of the finest educations New York has to offer at an elite private high school, and eventually attend college at Princeton University.

Genre, Themes, History: Undocumented is a nonfiction book that follows Dan-el's life from childhood to just after he has been accepted into a PhD program at Stanford. Initially it would be Dan-el, his mother, his father, and his younger brother Yando. After his father leaves to go back to the Dominican Republic, Dan-el's small family would transition between homeless shelters before being set-up in apartment housing. Meanwhile, his visa would expire. And since Yando is the only legal citizen of the three, he is the only one eligible to receive any kind of aid. Despite never quite having enough, Dan-el has a love of reading and wants to do well in school. As he tells the story of his life, Dan-el makes clear the many people he had come into his life who fortunately recognized his desire to learn and ability to pick up on most subjects quickly. It also doesn't hurt that he picked up English and could translate for his mother whenever she needed. But even as he continues to excel in school and goes from public school, to a coveted full scholarship to attend one of the best private schools, there is always the lingering issue of Dan-el and his mother not being legal citizens. Like many illegal immigrants his age, he was brought into the U.S. as a child and now it is the only home he knows. Dan-el is able to keep his secret from most of his friends and instructors, even in college, but if he ever wants to travel outside of the U.S., or even just seek employment, he would have to confront the issue and attempt to solve it. His story is all at once the same as many other immigrants', and very different because of the academic success that would eventually lead to an Ivy League education.

My Verdict: This book is a fascinating story of the journey Dan-el made and the struggles he went through along the way. It is certainly the kind of story Hollywood would love to sell you - illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic goes from living in homeless shelters to graduating from Princeton - but it isn't just about that, although that is a huge piece of it and what made me initially interested in the story. Dan-el talks about life and his friends in Spanish Harlem, and balancing that life against the one he has with his other friends at the private school he attends. He talks about being able to excel in literature and the classics, but struggling with math and thinking that those struggles could hinder his acceptance to an Ivy League school. He talks about how even his desire to do well in school and go to a first-rate college didn't stop him from attempting a foolish shoplifting plan that went terribly wrong. He also talks about the pressure his academic success would later cause for his little brother, Yando. He even talks, at great length, about his lack of success in dating women of any color throughout his childhood and even after college. But behind all of that is the threat of being found out and reported to immigration. Instead of simply focusing on that one aspect of his life, Dan-el seems to tell the entire story, including all of his struggles as well as his successes.  His writing may not be the best, and it would be easy for some to want to write off the entire book as a humble brag, but this is a great book and just one example of what many immigrants must go through when they wish to stay in the U.S.

Favorite Moment: When Dan-el gets beaten in one-on-one basketball by his little brother, twice.

Recommended Reading: It won't come as a surprise to many of you when I recommend either Drown or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. As a Dominican author, Diaz's stories offer a good perspective from someone not born in the U.S. but now calls it home.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015 Semifinal Round

The second round of voting for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards has begun. Voting for the semifinal round will remain open until Sunday, November 15th, so go ahead and get voting here

The semifinal round simply means all books nominated for the first round are still in the running, but have been joined by five write-in choices in each category. So while none of my predicted winners and hopefuls have been eliminated just yet, they now face even more competition by some well-deserving fan favorites. 

I feel like I should not be surprised that Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman has been written in for the Best Fiction category, but I am. Yes, it was written by Harper Lee, the Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame. And I get that. But honestly, Watchman reads like a first draft. It has its place in the history of American literature, but I get the sense that this was a write-in simply because it was written by Lee. Again, I get it, but still. I'll be sticking with Sara Nović's Girl At War

Another surprise that probably should not be is the inclusion of Judy Blume's In the Unlikely Event for the Best Historical Fiction category. It is not a bad book really, in fact there are parts that are quite interesting, but best historical fiction book of 2015? Eh, I'll still be voting for A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. 

The fact that The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro made it in as a write-in for Best Fantasy tells me that people are voting for books based on who wrote it, and not necessarily because it was actually any good. I adored Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, but The Buried Giant just did not have any of the same magnetic simplicity, and instead left me bored and confused. Its low rating on Goodreads causes me to believe I am not the only one who felt that way. Even though it is the only book I have read to make it into the Best Fantasy category, I still will not be voting for it.

Yet another example of a book being nominated based more on the author's past success is Armada by Ernest Cline. Cline originally blew everyone away with Ready Player One, so Armada's release was highly anticipated, but somewhat disappointing. Even so, it has not stopped the die hard fans from voting it into the Best Science Fiction category. 

One write-in I am glad to see is The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae for Best Humor. As a fellow ABG, I appreciated Rae's honesty and wit about navigating life through all of the awkwardness and uncertainty that it can offer. This is the first of the write-ins that I came across that I will actually vote for.

In my favorite category, Courtney Summers' All the Rage has made it in for Best Young Adult Fiction, and I absolutely understand why. Summers approaches a very sensitive subject with boldness and does not hold back. This book may very well make it to the final round and give both Sarah Dessen's Saint Anything and Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes some very real competition.

And just like that, the original number of Door Stop Novels that were nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award jumps from seven to 13. Wow. I guess I am getting a little better at this every year.      

Friday, November 6, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Girl at War by Sara Nović

I picked up Girl at War by Sara Nović after I saw that Goodreads had recommended it to those who appreciated the writing of Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. And now it has been nominated for a Goodreads Choice award in two categories: Best Fiction and Best Debut Goodreads Author. Girl at War is a story of a little girl who finds her tomboyish existence interrupted by the civil war in Yugoslavia. Even with my aversion to stories about war, something in the description of the book caused me to still pick it up.

The Situation: Ana Jurić lives with her mother, father, and little sister Rahela in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia. The book begins with Ana and her family spending summer in the city, when they usually spend it in the small fishing village of her godparents, but the Serbians had blocked the roads to the sea. It would be only one of many things that will change how Ana is used to living her life. Soon there are air raids and rations, and the family must take the risk of traveling when Rahela becomes sick and the local doctors can do nothing for her. What happens in Yugoslavia will be a story that Ana struggles to tell over the next ten years, even after she becomes settled and established in the U.S.

The Problem: In 2001, Ana is now a student in New York City, living on campus, and studying English literature. After struggling with telling her story, and the realization hat most people really don't want to know the real truth, Ana becomes accustomed to simply lying, believing this is the best way to go. If people don't want to hear her past, then she is more than capable of trying to forget about it. But on September 11, 2001, when two planes strike and take down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Ana understands that war and terror can follow her, even in the U.S. Even if the Twin Towers hadn't fallen, Ana's incessant nightmares are reminder enough. After reconnecting with someone who helped her get out, Ana now wants to go back to Zagreb, visit her home, and maybe get some answers about the friends and family she had to leave behind.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I was initially tempted to place under the heading of historical fiction, but since most of the conflict in the book took place in 1991, using the violence in the Balkans as the backdrop, I felt like it was all too recent for that, even though that was now almost 25 years ago. Since Ana is the narrator, the reader gets to see the war through her limited vision, and experience the confusion and fear that comes with being a child being forced underground during an air raid, or forced to hide in the back seat of a car at a scary and heavily guarded checkpoint. Much like Marra's book, Girl at War explores what children are capable of when forced to rely on themselves to survive in a hostile and war-torn environment. Ana did things she never thought she would learn to do, or have to do. And some of the things she would rather not think about ever again.

My Verdict: This book has excited a lot of people. I read one review that stated it was the kind of book that makes a person excited about the future of fiction. While I can't say I feel quite the same way, I did enjoy the book, and I can understand why others are excited. It is a tough subject to deal with, and it can easily be done with too much honest brutality as well as too little to the point of not being truthful. It is a fine line to walk, but I think Nović does pretty well. I actually wished it had been a little bit longer and explored more of what happened with Ana's little sister, Rahela. And while it is clear from the beginning that there is something Ana doesn't want to talk about, something even the reader doesn't know until near the end, I didn't find the final reveal of what that was all that compelling, even though it was an incredibly big deal, especially for a little girl. Maybe there wasn't enough build-up, or the actual reveal was too rushed, or maybe it was to be expected...I don't know. But even with that, it is still a great book, and despite the subject matter, a surprisingly easy read.

Favorite Moment: When Ana, still a little girl, finds sanctuary in a stranger's house. Although she won't speak and barely moves from her adopted corner of the room, the family leaves her alone and lets her be still and silent. 

Favorite Character: Ana's father. Her father continued to read her bedtime stories even after that air raids had started, and he knew the stories by heart. 

Recommended Reading: I certainly recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Marra, which takes place during the conflict in Chechnya.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015

There are three reasons why November is one of this bloggers favorite months of the year. There is Thanksgiving, the only day of the year when I can have both homemade German chocolate cake and homemade pecan pie with cheesecake filling. Then there is National Novel Writing Month, which somehow motivates me and thousands of others around the world to write 50,000 words in 30 days. And last but not least, there is the annual voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Every year I do my best to select books that I will not only enjoy reading, but that others will joy as well and may also discover as their new favorite book or author. Some of the books end up being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award. Every November, readers decide on which books will win in 20 different categories, and this year will be interesting, just like years before. With many books that made it on this blog being included in the nominations, let's get started with the predictions.

For the Best Fiction category there is only one Door Stop Novel that made it in, and its post will be coming out this Friday. Girl at War by Sara Nović is the type of story I usually shy away from, but I am glad I picked up this story about a young girl and her early life in Croatia, and what she found when she returned after living an entirely different life in the United States. I am confident it will make a strong showing, but competition is stiff with books like A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghihara and Fates and Furries by Lauren Groff.

It is absolutely no surprise that The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has been nominated for the Best Mystery & Thriller category. This book was compared heavily to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but to me, it is much better, and easily gets my vote. But I will not surprised if Robert Galbraith's (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling) Career of Evil does well too.  

Also not surprising is the inclusion of Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins for the Best Historical Fiction category, especially seeing as how its predecessor, Life After Life, took home the win in 2013. But I doubt At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen, of Water for Elephants fame, will go down easy. 

None of my science fiction selections made the cut this year, so I am writing in The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, because why not? It is the fourth book in the series, the first of which actually won for Best Science Fiction back in 2012. 

I know I am more than a little biased towards Brené Brown, whose newest book, Rising Strong, has been nominated for Best Nonfiction. I have heard her speak on more than one occasion and also read her previous book, Daring Greatly. I cannot recommend her books and talks enough, even though her subject matter can be challenging and make many people more than just a little uncomfortable.

Not only will there be a chance for you to vote for Girl at War in the fiction category, but you can also vote for it under Best Debut Goodreads Author as well. However, I do believe that I am going to vote for My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga. Warga's novel is a young adult story about a girl making plans for her suicide. It is a bold debut and one worth checking out, even due to the sensitive nature of the subject. 

Warga's novel has also been nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction, but so has Sarah Dessen's latest novel, Saint Anything. Both books will face stiff competition from David Arnold's Mosquitoland and Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places. But I believe while Dessen may not win, she will certainly make it to the final round. 

My shock over not seeing Rainbow Rowell's Carry On in the Best Young Adult Fiction category subsided upon seeing it in the category for Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction. Rowell has already won Goodreads choice awards for Eleanor & Park and Landline, and I will not be surprised if she comes away with yet another win. I expect Victoria Aveyard's Red Queen to also at least make it to the finals, where the two will have to fight it out with the others.

With seven books over seven categories, and one write-in, I certainly have my favorites picked out that I will stand by and root for while the voting for the opening round continues through Sunday, November 8th. You can vote for your favorites here, and feel free to comment with your own predictions.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty is one of those books I happened to see in a random email, advertisement, or list that I would normally not pay any attention to. After reading the synopsis, I half-heartedly added it to my to-read list. And only after trying to check it out from the UTSA library since May, only to be deterred by whoever insisted on checking it out until January, did I finally bite the bullet and order it off of Amazon. The book somehow went from being an "I'll probably end up deleting this off of my wish list," to an "I need to read this book as soon as possible and get it onto the blog." Not exactly sure how that happened, but here we are.

The Situation: The unnamed narrator of the book hasn't had the easiest childhood. Growing up in the incredibly poor and under served "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens, California - a city that the surrounding area would rather just erase off of the map, so they do - would have been hard enough without a father who insisted on conducting his own homemade social experiments on his son. The narrator was home schooled, physically abused, and forced to be left handed. He would eventually grow up to buy the same house he had grown up on after his father passes away, and now runs one of the few farms in Los Angeles county. And because of his inability to be like his father, he earns the nickname of "sellout," primarily used by one of his father's former colleagues. As crummy as life is in Dickens, he decides to actually do something when the powers that be decide to erase Dickens off of the maps.

The Problem: The only methods for putting Dickens back on the map that our narrator can think of are not only illegal, but insanely controversial. At first he unwittingly becomes a slave owner, although his one "slave" has volunteered, and doesn't actually do any work. But then our narrator decides the way to fix Dickens is by re-establishing something the Civil Rights movement fought against: segregation. It starts with a sign on the bus designating front seats for the elderly, disabled, and white. Eventually the narrator would attempt to segregate the middle school, local businesses, and even the hospital; actions that land him in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. While the narrator is of course trying to make a point, he is also trying to answer two questions: Who am I? And how may I become myself?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often placed in the humor category. It may seem strange to describe a book wherein the main character owns a slave and tries to reintroduce segregation as funny, but it is. Of course, it is the kind of funny where you feel bad for laughing but can't seem to stop (think Catch-22, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or anything by Flannery O'Connor). Throughout the entire book, Beatty touches nerve after sensitive nerve concerning race and prejudice in the U.S. and doesn't let up until the very end. The book is often irreverent and always unflinching as the narrator boldly tries to bring up segregation in an attempt to prove that it does actually work (yes, you read that right). Using many moments in history and various pop culture references, Beatty shows just how complicated, and also how not at all complicated, the issue of race is. And the fact that bringing segregation back to Dickens, California seems to do more for the city than desegregation ever has is just one way Beatty plays with the issue of race, while simultaneously not playing at all.

My Verdict: A book where the "N" word and the "F" word make an appearance on almost every page is going to make even the most easy-going, liberal minded person a little uncomfortable at least once. And even though that may be the point, I never felt like the book was obnoxious or annoying about it, though I am sure many others will feel differently. Beatty doesn't pull punches, touching on an incredibly sensitive subject with almost complete insensitivity, while also being incredibly serious. It's a weird line to walk, but somehow Beatty does it. There are moments that go too far, but they are almost always followed up by moments where I had to admit that a fair point had been made. The Sellout is a book that gets readers to think, while making them laugh. If you have to learn about race in the U.S. and face some seriously messed up and horrible truths about our country, you might as well get a good laugh out of it.

Favorite Moment: When the narrator describes how his unfunny father told jokes at open mic night - in APA format (ha!).

Favorite Character: This is hard because all of the characters in this book are fairly ridiculous and mostly awful people. But isn't that the way it is in real life? So I will pick the narrator, because at least he is being honest about the ridiculousness, even if he doesn't fully understand it all. 

Recommended Reading: How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston would be a fantastic follow-up, or even introduction, to this book. And if it is more irreverent humor that will make you inappropriately laugh out loud that you're after, there is also The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

Around the same time that Tommy Wallach's We All Looked Up was published, I had been searching for movie clips that showed the world ending. It wasn't enough that the movie had to do with the end of the world, but they actually had to show the world ending, which only a few of them do. So when I read the synopsis of this book on Goodreads, I knew I had to read it.

The Situation: Peter is the popular athlete of Hamilton High with the ridiculously gorgeous girlfriend. Everyone knows who he is, and next year he will be attending Stanford on a basketball scholarship. Eliza is the resident photographer with a reputation for sleeping around. When the rumors about her first began circling, they were untrue, but since then Eliza has more than lived up to her reputation. Andy is your typical skateboarding slacker. He'd rather be getting high than doing pretty much anything else, including going to class. And Anita is the high-strung overachiever who could never do enough to satisfy her parent's high expectations. All she has ever wanted to be was a singer, but her parents have done everything they can to squash that dream.

The Problem: The asteroid ARDR-1388, or Ardor, has been discovered in the sky. At first no one is concerned, as there is a small chance of any large object in space actually colliding with Earth. But once the President of the United States makes the official announcement, the world knows there are only eight weeks before Ardor is supposed to make contact with Earth, giving humanity a 66.6% chance of survival. Now Peter, Eliza, Andy and Anita, whose lives barely intersected before, are thrown into each other's paths and their lives become increasingly entangled, especially as their surroundings become more chaotic. With possibly only eight weeks to live, now is the time to make dreams come true and come clean with those you care about. Of course, that becomes difficult when the one you care about may not feel the same way, and everyone seems to have their own idea about the best way to spend their final moments on Earth. 

Genre, Themes, History: We All Looked Up is a young adult novel set in modern-day Seattle during the final few weeks before the end of the world. The book is broken up into ten sections an slowly counts down to when Ardor is supposed to collide with Earth. Each section contains a story from each of the four main characters: Peter, Eliza, Andy, and Anita. In the beginning their stories are fairly separated, but they slowly become more intertwined, and they crossover considerably as the characters become more inseparable. As you can probably imagine, society begins to slowly unravel after the announcement is made, eventually causing even the police to give up on maintaining any semblance of order. And as the four characters weren't exactly all best friends at the start, their interactions with each other aren't always the best, even as everyone is just trying to deal with the news of their impending doom in the only way they know how. It is a look at what people do in the face of imminent doom, and for once there are no zombies. Also, the music mentioned in the book is of Wallach's own creation and can be found at

My Verdict: This book is as frustrating and complicated and poignant and insightful and heartbreaking as any decent YA novel should be. All four characters are well thought-out, and they all get pretty equal treatment. Since the narrative viewpoints are coming from four teenagers, the way they handle the impending apocalypse is naturally a bit different from how an adult would, but also not that different. And there is something to be said for an author who can write a book that holds your interest, even though you're pretty sure about how it is all going to end. Wallach still had me holding onto hope and rooting for all four of these kids, even though things seemed doomed from the beginning.

Favorite Moment: When Anita finally realizes things for what they are and makes it her mission to clear the air.

Favorite Character: Definitely Anita, although she has her frustrating moments too. She uses the approach of Ardor as a reason to live her life beyond her parents' ridiculous expectations and do what she has always wanted to do.

Recommended Reading: We All Looked Up is certainly the only end of the world YA book I have ever read, unless you count the zombie apocalypse novel This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, but even in that one the world isn't completely taken out. Interestingly enough, the latest installment of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth series, The Long Utopia, has to deal with the potential end of one of the many versions of Earth that human beings have discovered. I would recommend either of those books to someone wanting to explore how humanity would deal with the end of life as they know it.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Nonfiction: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa

I picked up Juliana Barbassa's Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink because I have loved the city she focuses on ever since I visited in 2010 for a mission trip. My church has sent small missionary groups to Rio de Janeiro for many years now, and I was always told that the city is all at once one of the prettiest, and one of the filthiest, places in the world. As Barbassa was born in Brazil - and after having moved around a lot her entire life she finally settled there again and continued her journalism career - I was interested to read her thoughts and findings about a country that always seems to be moving forward and backward at the same time, while being both beautiful and sometimes unflinchingly ugly.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book written by a native of Brazil who moved away from the country at a young age due to her father's job. After living all over the world, Barbassa moved from San Francisco back to Brazil in late 2010. Interestingly enough, her new life in Brazil and coverage of Rio starts in the fall after I had visited the city with my church group that previous summer. The city was already preparing to host both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, and many were dubious (and would remain so) that Rio could pull it off. From the story that the first few chapters of Barbassa's book tell, my team got out just in time. In an effort to clean up the city and make it safer, two promises that were made when Rio went after the Olympic bid, the police would make a serious effort to crackdown on the hold drug lords had over pretty much every slum, or favela, across the city. This crackdown would result in the loss of many lives, not just those targeted, and would cost the city a good amount of money. And the clean-up attempt was just getting started. Thousands would be removed from their homes in an effort to make space on valuable real estate for more upscale homes, sport venues, and tourist attractions. And while Brazil's economy had been showing signs of promise for years, things would once again take a dive as the World Cup drew closer, causing social unrest. The book ends just after the World Cup, when Brazil would suffer that humiliating and unforgettable loss to Germany with a final score of 7-1. For Brazil, soccer has always been more than just a sport. But in 2014, to have won the World Cup at home would have perhaps been a marker that everything would turn out okay. The fact that the team lost in their own Maracanã Stadium left many uncertain, some without hope, and still some continued to simply carry on.

My Verdict: There were no parts of this book that were boring or uninteresting. Even when Barbassa was rattling off numbers and statistics, the book remained engaging and the information was always relevant and helpful. The author painted this picture of a city with such scenic beauty and such promise, but years of corruption and misuse of people and land somehow undermine even the most practical plans for restoration. While plans will be announced to clean up this or put an end to that, the citizens of Rio remain doubtful because they've heard it all before, and aren't much surprised when there is no follow through. Barbassa does not shy away from the parts of Rio that are often unsuccessfully hidden from tourists. Of course there is mention of Ipanema and Copacabana, but there is also mention of the dangerous mudslides that killed thousands and crushed whole neighborhoods; the city's attempts to take land from a favela because they wanted to build it up in anticipation of the Olympics; the bloody war to end criminal control over favelas; and the various environmental issues that plague the city. Although I haven't been there in five years, and even then I was only there for ten days, it seems that Barbassa painted Rio as it is, with both its beauty and its flaws.     

Favorite Moment: Although it is probably painful to actually deal with and I'm sure it was no fun to endure, I most enjoyed Barbassa's description of the bureaucracy she had to endure while getting her first apartment. People who complain about red tape in the US have no clue how bad it could actually be.

Recommended Reading: For anyone interested in nonfiction about locations around the world, I recommend Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. This book gives fascinating insight into the New China and how the country got to where it is today.