Friday, May 29, 2015

Historical Fiction: A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

In the author's note for this week's selection, A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson mentions that she would rather think of this book as more of a companion piece rather than a sequel to its predecessor, Life After Life. In it, the story follows the life of Teddy, Ursula Todd's little brother, as he deals with unexpectedly surviving the war and living a life beyond it.

The Situation: Edward Theodore Todd, or Teddy, is the fourth of five children, and it is pretty much accepted by everyone in the family that he is his mother's favorite. So it quite naturally breaks her heart when he goes off to fight in World War II, becoming a competent and respected bomber for Britain's Royal Air Force. After three tours, the last of which he didn't expect to survive, even becoming a prisoner of war for a short time, he comes back home in order to start having the future he didn't expect he would get to have. But soon comes marriage, a child, and eventually grandchildren. Of course, Teddy must also endure all of the tragedies that life insists on bringing us. And as he continues to live on, even while those he was once close to begin to die off, he will always occasionally reminisce about his time in the war, wondering if what he did, what they all did, was justified. Was he a hero? Was he a murderer? Was he simply following orders?

The Problem: While A God In Ruins is more or less Teddy's life story, the one problem that seems to stick with him throughout the story would be his daughter, Viola. Having each grown up as one of five children, both Teddy and his wife Nancy had imagined they would also have a large family. And Teddy naturally thought that family would include a few sons. So the appearance of Viola, along with the knowledge that she would be the only one making an appearance, already put Teddy somewhat off-balance. But he also wasn't expecting her to become the selfish, entitled, passive-aggressive nightmare that she would become in childhood, and continue to be even after growing up and having children of her own. It's bad enough that memories of the war have stuck with Teddy, now he also has a daughter who either doesn't want to hear about them, or wants to blame men like her father for bombing innocent people. Viola resents her father at eery turn, especially after Nancy's death. Ultimately, Teddy must try his best to live a life he didn't expect to have, but one he is still ultimately quite grateful for. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that is also a Bildungsroman. Teddy's life story is told through sections divided up by certain time periods. While each section is labeled as to which year it covers, the sections do not appear in order. Also, even within a section that is supposed to be about 1942, there will be some discussion about events that happened in the past, as well as events that will happen in the future. And while the entire book is about Teddy, some sections focus on other people, such as Teddy's wife Nancy, his daughter Viola, his grandson Sunny, or his granddaughter Bertie. While Life After Life focused quite a bit on the childhood of the Todd family, A God In Ruins focuses more on Teddy's life after he has left his childhood home, starting with his involvement in the war. In the author's note, Atkinson mentions the many lives that Ursula lived in Life After Life, and asserts that the story in A God In Ruins is another one of Ursula's lives, one that wasn't covered in the previous book. So really, there could be a few books that tell the story of Teddy's life, each with a different outcome.

My Verdict: A God In Ruins is certainly more straightforward than Life After Life, mostly because the main character isn't forced to relive the same events over and over again. But this second book is also somehow less straightforward than the first due to the events of Teddy's life being told out of order. And one section may reference another, even if the referenced events may not have happened yet. That did cause some confusion for me, but ultimately all of the details end up sorted out. And without the novelty of the main character living her life over and over, I was wondering how interesting a book that is seemingly about WWII would be. But Atkinson proved to be able to tell a great story, even without a character that doesn't have any special sort of time traveling ability. Much like Life After Life ended up nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award in the Best Historical Fiction category (which it ended up winning), I expect the same to happen for this book. It is a book that goes into detail about the bombers of WWII without becoming either depressing or tedious. I think it deserves some sort of award just for accomplishing that alone.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any time Viola reaped what she had sown, which is often, because she sows a lot.

Favorite Character: It isn't hard to see why Teddy was always his mother's favorite. In his younger days he is very much a "good boy," and he grows up to be a good man, much to his daughter Viola's annoyance. He is far from perfect and has his own flaws, but some of his worst traits are better than many of our best ones. 

Recommended Reading: While it isn't completely necessary to read Life After Life before A God In Ruins, it would certainly help as it would introduce many of the characters in this book that aren't given a whole lot of attention. Plus, as I mentioned before, the previous book gives a full picture of Teddy's childhood, something almost completely left out of this one. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Historical Fiction: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

As I will eventually be covering her most recently published novel, A God in Ruins, I decided to also read Kate Atkinson's previous work, Life After Life, which was the winner for Best Historical Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. With a premise that promises readers a character that is forced to relive her own life over and over again, I was ready for a novel that could probably span more categories than just historical fiction.

The Situation: In England in 1910, Ursula Todd is born during an epic snow storm. For years the family and their servants would remark that they had never seen snow like that, and hadn't since. As Ursula grows up, her life is marked by a constant sense of deja vu. She often has the feeling of having done certain things before, even though she never actually has, and having been certain places, even though she has never seen them in her life. She is also often plagued by strange and cryptic dreams, and knows answers to questions that no one has even asked yet. Sometimes a sense of dread or foreboding will come upon her so heavily that she must act, leading her mother to send her to a psychologist, and her father to quite naturally be very concerned. Her brothers and sister all have their own individual traits - Maurice is forever a jerk, Pamela reliable and caring, Teddy sweet and incredibly likable, and Jimmy...well he is just Jimmy - but Ursula's is most likely the most troubling.

The Problem: It seems that Ursula has been destined to live her life over and over again, with her death being different from the one she experienced before. While she does end up dying from an incredibly aggressive strain of the Spanish flu multiple times, it isn't for lack of trying to avoid it. But only once does she die from accidentally falling out of a window, from unknowingly gassing herself in her own apartment, from choosing to die in the middle of the war, or from the collapse of a wall after England has been bombed by the Nazis. And in each life, small decisions she makes can not only save her own life, but others as well, especially with Adolf Hitler rising to power in Germany, bringing about World War II and all of the devastation it would inflict on Europe. In each life that she lives, Ursula has different experiences, and gets a little better at avoiding peril. But what is the point of her being given all of these chances? What is she supposed to do that would stop her waking up on that incredibly snowy night after having died moments before?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel with elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Ursula Todd is living her life over and over again. A lot of the events are the same, but some are completely altered, or erased altogether, with just the slightest change. Only sometimes does she get a kiss from a boy on her 16th birthday, and only in some timelines does she end up married, and only in one does she end up a mother. Life After Life is a book that allows the author to give her character multiple story lines without having to pick and choose just one to follow through on. Because Ursula is bound to wake up again on that snowy day as a new baby, she gets to try out a different course this time and see how her life will go. Unfortunately for her, because she is always born in England in 1910, her life will always include World War II and the awful events that come with it. Her brothers will always become soldiers, England will always be bombed, and many will always end up dead. It isn't so much a question of whether we would change our future if we could. It is more of a question of if we could change our future, would it matter?

My Verdict: It is always tricky business for any book, movie, or TV show to try to attack time travel, because logically, it just doesn't work. But Atkinson deals with it in such a way that doesn't let the troublesome logistics of it get in the way of a good story. And with every fresh start of Ursula's life, the reader all at once both knows and doesn't know what to expect. The general path stays the same, but many key events could turn out very different, and that is what makes the book such a compelling read. With every little decision that Ursula makes, the reader doesn't know if any little change will cause Ursula to live a little longer, maybe even accomplish whatever it is she is supposed to accomplish to stop the cycle, or cause that particular timeline to come to an end, allowing her to try yet again, starting with that snowy day. I recommend this book not only to historical fiction lovers, especially those who are interested in the events and people surrounding Europe during World War II, but also anyone who would enjoy a somewhat fresh take on time travel. 

Favorite Moment: While it may be the longest and most tedious section of the book, I did enjoy the timeline where Ursula works as a sort of rescue worker, looking for survivors among the destruction left behind after the Nazis drop bombs, risking her own life in the process.

Favorite Character: Ursula's lives are unfortunately full of unsavory and reprehensible characters, but her sister Pamela is always one of the good ones. 

Recommended Reading: I typically avoid novels that center around any sort of war, so I had a hard time coming up with a recommendation here. But I did thoroughly enjoy Between Shades of Gray by young adult fiction writer Ruta Sepetys. The story follows fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas as she and her family are deported to Siberia by Stalin in 1941. It doesn't have the time travel element, but it is an incredible story of a harsh journey as experienced by a teenage girl.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Reaper: The Blog Tour

Today kicks off the blog tour for my book, Reaper. The tour begins today and will continue through May 31st, with a different book blog posting a review everyday. 

Of course this is a great way to get my book out there and possibly gain it a wider audience and get it into more hands. These blogs could have followers that would never know anything about me or my book without this tour. Even so, I am still nervous. It is very possible that a reviewer may not have liked my book at all, and I naturally am not looking forward to reading something negative. But I will remain grateful for the opportunity either way and continue to look for more ways to get my book out there.

Below is the schedule for the Reaper blog tour. Be sure to give these fellow book bloggers some attention and check out some of their other reviews.

May 18 - Reading Addiction Blog Tours - Kick Off
May 19 - Penny For My Thoughts with Interview
May 20 - My Reading Addiction
May 21 - Steamy Side
May 22 - Texas Book Nook
May 25 - The Indie Express
May 26 - A Life Through Books
May 27 - Ashley's Bookshelf
May 28 - What U Talkin 'Bout Willis
May 29 - Lindea on Books and Writing with Interview
May 30 - The Northern Witch Books
May 31 - The Things We Read
May 31 - RABT Reviews - Wrap Up


Friday, May 15, 2015

Nonfiction: The Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guangcheng

I entered to win The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in the New China by Chen Guangcheng through the Goodreads giveaway program, and was thrilled to win and receive the book just a few short weeks later. My interest in the book began after coming across the shorter version of Guangcheng's story in the National Book Award winning Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. The story of a blind man escaping the surveillance of literally dozens of guards while he is under house arrest is just too good to pass up.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book, pretty much a memoir, written by Guangcheng after he managed to escape from China into the U.S. with his wife, Weijing, and his son Kerui and daughter Kesi. The many social and political themes include discrimination and prejudice against the disabled, social justice, access to education, the economic divide in China, common practices of the communist party, and even some common Chinese customs when it comes to weddings and funerals. After losing his sight as an infant, Guangcheng would be discriminated against because of his blindness, with even close friends and family believing he'll never get married and only be able to make a living as a wandering storyteller or psychic, which is the fate of many blind people in China. Even his access to education would be affected, and it didn't help that his family was extremely poor and could hardly afford pay his share of the taxes, much less send him to college and pay the tuition, room and board. Guangcheng will be able to attend a school for the blind, but his options regarding his profession were still narrow. And although he studies medicine, Guangcheng would eventually become what is known as a "barefoot lawyer." While he held no formal law degree, he still studied it, practiced it, and advocated for himself and those around him. It is this advocacy, specifically concerning the one-child policy, that would land him in prison, and after his release, oppressive house arrest. It is a story of overcoming enormous obstacles in an effort to fight for what is right.

My Verdict: While this story is autobiographical and mostly talks about Guangcheng's life growing up, and how he came to be under brutal persecution in his own country, the very beginning of the book, as well as the ending, include his time in prison, and reads much like a political or suspense drama. Also, there are many moments when this book almost becomes an exposé of all the things Guangcheng believes to be wrong with China, and there are a lot. The man names names, repeatedly, of both those who persecuted him and those he is grateful for (the latter list includes many American political figures that most readers in the U.S. will easily recognize). And the book reads as if Guangcheng went over his story with a fine-toothed comb, making sure to leave nothing out, as he wants the world to know what is happening in his home country. Guangcheng has one purpose, to get this story out to as many people as possible. I have to admire his bravery and boldness, as well as his resolve and persistence. Those that are interested in what really goes on in China - all the stuff they are so eager to cover up - may want to read this book. 

Favorite Moment: The very beginning, when Guangcheng, a blind man, manages to escape the watch of literally dozens of men who have surrounded his home, and in broad daylight.

Recommended Reading: I definitely recommend the aforementioned Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos. This book will give a much broader view of China's political history and practices, as well as how they came to be the economic powerhouse they are today, and how the people are dealing with this change.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Classic Fiction: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I figured it was time to cover another classic, so I more or less just searched through my bookshelves for a classic written no later than the 18th century that I haven't already covered. Clearly, I landed on Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and will discuss this gothic novel here.

The Situation: Mr. Lockwood, a renter at Thrushcross Grange, visits the landlord of Wuthering Heights, and is forced to stay the night at his farmhouse after becoming snowed in. After having a bad dream in which the dead Catherine Earnshaw tries to enter the room through the window, Heathcliff, the landlord, escorts Lockwood to a different room and keeps watch at the window. In the morning, once he is escorted back to Thrushcross Grange by Heathcliff, Lockwood asks the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, about the people of Wuthering Heights. What Lockwood gets is an intricate and complicated story involving bitter, broken, and often hateful people. Some would call it a love story; some would refer to it as a case study in the inherent messiness of relationships; and still others would say it is the story of selfish and insecure people inflicting their own misery upon others.

The Problem: Heathcliff's adoption by the elder Mr. Earnshaw thirty years earlier makes his son, Hindley, incredibly jealous. It also doesn't help that Hindley's sister Catherine is also quite fond of Heathcliff and the two become close. After the death of his father, Hindley becomes master of Wuthering Heights and allows Heathcliff to stay on only as a servant. While Catherine and Heathcliff are still close friends, she becomes influenced by the good manners and superior appearance of the Linton family, who are the current tenants of Thrushcross Grange, and eventually becomes engaged to the son, Edgar. It is Catherine's confession to Nelly about her engagement, one that is only half-heard by Heathcliff, that causes him to run away and disappear. And although he would eventually return, his relationship with Catherine is never the same, and the rest of the family suffers due to their spiteful and vengeful behavior. Lockwood eventually gets the strange family's entire history from Nelly, catching him up on the events still going on in the present day.

Genre, Themes, History: Wuthering Heights is a British gothic novel set in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As I mentioned before, it could be considered a love story, albeit a tragic one.  And not quite the Romeo and Juliet type of tragic either, even though the body count is actually higher. Catherine and Heathcliff care for each other. But Catherine is essentially a snob and believes Heathcliff isn't good enough for her. Of course that doesn't stop her from becoming incredibly hurt when he runs off to get married. And while Catherine is used to pretty much getting everything she wants, and manipulating and pouting whenever she doesn't, Heathcliff is predisposed to hating everyone and vowing revenge for how he is treated. In short, these two people are making themselves and each other miserable, while everyone around them becomes miserable by proxy. Initial reviews for the book were deeply split, with some believing that the cruelty depicted was unusually severe for the time. And of course, there has been much comparison between this book and Charlotte Bronte's book, Jane Eyre, as the two authors were sisters, and both books were published within the same year. Jane Eyre is longer, but easier to swallow, while Wuthering Heights is often seen as more entertaining.

My Verdict: Writing books where pretty much every character is a terrible person is not a recent trend (The Girl on the Train, I am looking in your direction), and Wuthering Heights is a good example. People are awful, and apparently have been at least since the late 18th century. With that being said, I actually really like this book, even though every other page had me wishing for Catherine's death. The woman is exhausting.  And Heathcliff isn't much better, although for me, he elicits much more sympathy. I can see why reviewers and critics of the time thought the novel's tone was harsh and somewhat shocking. I would say even by today's standards, it still kind of is, especially when it comes to how Heathcliff is treated, and in turn, treats others. If you are looking for a classic with some grit to it, Wuthering Heights is most certainly for you.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Catherine dies. Yeah, I said it.

Favorite Character: Nelly Dean, the housekeeper and narrator for most of the novel, seems to be a completely unbiased bystander, and is able to tell the story just as it happens. Of course, that would mean that the people are just as awful as her story shows them to be. 

Recommended Reading: It's easy to recommend Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre as a companion novel, seeing as the two authors come from the same family. But I will go ahead and also recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, another classic novel that shows the darker side of human beings who are allowed to get away with treating people however they want.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Twisted by Marjorie Brody

The week's choice was written by a fellow member of the San Antonio Writer's Guild. Marjorie Brody's Twisted is a young adult novel set in small-town Texas, so it naturally appeals to me anyway. The fact that I know that author made it that much easier to choose it for the blog.

The Situation: Fourteen year-old Sarah doesn't want to talk about what happened the night of the school dance. She would like to forget about it and move on with her life. Ideally, she would go to her parents, but her father would no doubt do something rash that would land him in jail for the rest of his life. And her mother would find a way to make it seem like it was Sarah's fault. So Sarah does whatever she can to hide the truth, and she hopes that the other person who knows what happened will do the same. Meanwhile, 18 year-old Judith has a secret of her own that her and her boyfriend Carlton must come to a decision about. The answer seems pretty obvious, especially with the future the two of them already had planned out, a future that would be ruined should Judith decide to keep the baby.

The Problem: While Sarah would love to forget about what happened, even if that means stewing in her own hatred and anger while the offenders go free, it looks like the events of that night are going to be found out anyway. But even though the police have been told, which in turn means Sarah's parents have been notified, she continues to insist on keeping her mouth shut and denying that anything happened, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. She finds an unlikely friend and ally in Judith, who is going through her own struggles with an unplanned pregnancy, an alcoholic father, and an absentee mother. Somehow, the two become friends, confiding only in each other about what is really going on. But even the girls don't realize how linked they really are.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in present day small-town Texas. While Sarah is a freshman, Judith is a senior with plans to attend college and be with her boyfriend, Carlton. While Judith is wise, beautiful, and confident, she has an alcoholic father to deal with. He is drowning himself in liquor due to his grief over Judith's mother's death, and Judith is trying to take care of him and make it through these last few weeks of high school. Sarah actually has both parents fully involved in her life, but her mother is so preoccupied with seeming perfect and put-together that she ignores what is really going on with her family. Her father, however, always has Sarah's back and defends his daughter, but going to him with her issues isn't an option either because of the dangerous way he may react. Another issue that seems to plague both girls is how much gossip can circulate in a small town, which only adds to people's desire to keep things quiet and deal with issues privately, even if that means causing more harm. There are many instances throughout the book that seem like they would be cleared up if the characters were just honest. But much like in real life, sometimes things aren't quite what they seem, and there are more issues than what shows on the surface.

My Verdict: The title on this one is most certainly appropriate. The story appears to be going one way, and then makes several sharp turns before the book is over. In fact, the story continued to take twists right up until the very end...much like an actual twister. It certainly made for a compelling read; however, some of the twists and turns did seem cheap. Something like this can be really great if it is done well, but as the story got closer to the end, many of the twists felt like shortcuts the author took to hurry up and get to the ending. If the novel were a bit longer and the story were given just a little bit longer of a timeline, the ending probably wouldn't have felt so convenient and slapped together.

Favorite Moment: When Sarah was finally ready to tell the truth about what happened to her.

Favorite Character: Judith has her own demons, but she ultimately stops being too afraid to face them. It becomes clear why Sarah is so drawn to her.

Recommended Reading: As for a young adult novel, I would recommend Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead as a good follow-up. If you're looking for something more geared towards adults, I would recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.