Friday, December 30, 2016

Nonfiction: The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward

It felt appropriate to close out 2016 with a post about race. The full title of this collection of essays and poems is The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Jesmyn Ward is not the only author, as there are contributions from the likes of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, and poet Claudia Rankine. With the help of her editor, Ward worked on the collection as a response to the recent police and civilian violence against African-American men and women in the United States.

Genre, Themes, History: Naturally, I categorized this collection as nonfiction, though it includes essays, poems, and some creative nonfiction. Many of the entries deal with recent events such as the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, while others talk about race in the United States in general. My personal favorite is the entry by poet Kevin Young, "Blacker Than Thou," which discusses Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was recently found out to not be black, though she had been pretending to be, and was even the leader of her local Oregon NAACP. His essay is not only refreshing and humorous because of the acknowledged ridiculousness of the subject matter he chose to write about, but also because of the way he approached it. Somehow, Young manages to make jokes while being completely serious; laughing along while also pointing out that this stuff really isn't supposed to be funny. But I also enjoyed "Know Your Rights!" by author Emily Raboteau, where she walks the streets of New York City, taking pictures of the various murals that had been painted throughout the city by a Chilean artist who goes by the tag name of Cekis. Throughout her entry, Raboteau includes pictures of the murals, which offer tips and observations that are helpful when dealing with the police, and also interprets those murals as well as the surroundings they are placed in. Even though the pictures of the murals that are included are in black and white, they are still somehow made bright and vibrant through Raboteau's descriptions. Overall, the collection does more than just reiterate that black lives matter and make a general call to action. The authors approach this always delicate subject of race in America and pick it apart, sometimes slowly and painfully. The title, The Fire This Time, is a response to the 1963 book by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, which in turn comes from the slave hymn that states, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time."

My Verdict: Of course not every essay was funny like Young's, or as fascinating and engaging as Raboteau's. In fact, many of them were uncomfortable or a little hard to read, but for many people, so is the news that another unarmed black person has been shot down by police, or by an armed civilian who rushed to judgment. Even Young's look at the Rachel Dolezal situation asks questions such as what does it mean to be black, and can someone "feel black" when they don't look the part? It is a short collection, coming in just over 200 pages, and while parts of it may be difficult to stomach, any mature adult should be able to make it through just fine. For me, what makes it the most engaging is that the topics vary, as do their approach. Ultimately, the point is made, many times, that violence against blacks by those in power is not a new thing, but with social media and camera phones, we can see a lot more of it, and see it quickly. And with every small step forward we make, there is a wave of backlash waiting to either take away what little we have for fear that one day we will have more than the majority, or to somehow make said majority the center of the story and shift the focus away from black people.

Favorite Quotes: "I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity." - Jesmyn Ward

"One of the best things about being black is that, barring some key exceptions, it's not a volunteer position. You can't just wish on a dark star and become black. It's not paid either. It's more like a long internship with a chance of advancement." - Kevin Young

"Of course you can see why anyone would want to be black: being black is fun. Don't tell nobody." - Kevin Young

Recommended Reading: If you wish to explore Ward's fiction, then I recommend Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. But I also recommend How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston, as well as The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and of course, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Reader by Traci Chee

Traci Chee's The Reader: Book One of Sea of Ink and Gold was one of those novels that I actively, though unsuccessfully, tried to avoid, only because it was obviously only the first of what is going to be a series. My fear with the first book of any series is always the same: what if it is terrible, but now I feel obligated to continue until the series is done? Or, something that can turn out almost as bad, what if the series will not be limited to only three, four, or five books? What if this is a series that just keeps going well beyond the point of being interesting? Well, either way, here we are, and I am simply hoping for the best.

The Situation: Sefia lives life on the run, and cannot imagine things any other way, especially after the death of her father. She and her Aunt Nin hide out from authorities, and manage to survive by picking locks, petty thievery, and basically being incredibly aware of their surroundings. Nin has taught Sefia well, and has managed to keep her safe so far. But after going out on her own, Sefia returns to their hideout and sees that Nin has been found, and is being questioned. Although she manages to keep herself hidden, Nin is taken, leaving Sefia on her own for the first time. She knows what they are after. She keeps the item they seek close to her at all times. Sefia has in her possession a book, in a world where people no longer read, and words and stories have incredible power. It is what they were looking for when they killed her father, and now they will come for her.

The Problem: Now on her own, Sefia is convinced that is how she should remain, as everyone close to her seems to get hurt, or killed. But when she comes upon a strange boy who is being held captive, she knows she must save him, although doing so seems to only have earned her a partner she did not want. Now the two of them travel the land of Oxscini together, looking for the men who took Nin, who seem to also be the same people who hurt and captured this strange boy, whom Sefia has decided to call Archer. On their way they will encounter deceptive bartenders, murderous henchmen, and even helpful pirates, all while trying to discover the secrets and stories of the book Sefia has promised herself she will protect. But while they chase the people she wants revenge against, there are still others who are chasing her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel full of spells, magic, adventure, fighting, and storytelling. If there is one takeaway from this novel it is that words are powerful, and storytelling has incredible value, more than people realize. While Sefia may be the main character, her story, along with Archer's, is only one part of what is going on in these pages. Possibly even more interesting than the adventure that they are on is the story of Captain Reed, his crew, and his ship, the Current of Faith. At some point, Captain Reed does end up crossing paths with our heroine, but we also learn more about him from the mysterious book that Sefia is carrying, as his past adventures are written inside. But even beyond Sefia and Captain Reed, there is Tanin, whose full powers and purpose are never quite explained, and also Lon, a young apprentice studying in a strange library where he learns spells and how to control his Vision. All of this takes place in the fictional world of Kelanna. At the beginning of the book, a full map of Kelanna is presented, and becomes increasingly useful as the names of its countries and cities are mentioned. Chee has built an entire world, only a small section of which is explored in this first book. Also, the book Sefia is carrying is not the only one with secrets. The physical book of The Reader has hidden messages in it as well, and they are fairly easy to find if you look for them.

My Verdict: At first, the amount of characters that are presented in the story is overwhelming. I don't know if they are thrown out too fast, or if there are too many of them, but things got confusing quickly. It also did not help that many of them are a part of Captain Reed's crew on the Current of Faith, and each have their own function and personality. And there were times when the writing felt choppy, or the dialogue felt forced and unbelievable, or the relationships didn't seem...right. But I will say this, for any shortcomings there were in the writing - whether real or only imagined by me - the world that Chee has built for the purpose of this book is phenomenal and imaginative and everything you could want for a young adult fantasy novel. And despite my initial hesitations, I look forward to the second book.

Favorite Moment: When Captain Reed expertly deals with an assassin who had made it onto his ship.

Favorite Character: I wish I could like Sefia more, but she made too many obviously terrible choices, so instead I pick Captain Reed. He is a true pirate, with an intense desire for any adventure that will potentially turn into a great story. Plus, he is a picture of courage, and will do what he has to in order to protect his crew.

Recommended Reading: I think the Legend series by Marie Lu would be a good companion to this book. But instead of building a completely new world, Lu takes the world as we know it and reimagined it to where the U.S. has been split into two warring parts; Africa is a thriving continent for the first time in forever, and Antarctica is a highly sought out military ally.        

Friday, December 16, 2016

Nonfiction: The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell

On Thursday, October 13th, Jan Jarboe Russell was given the Award of Literary Excellence, presented by Gemini Ink, San Antonio's non-profit, literary arts center. Russell received the award not only because of her most recent publication, The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, but also because of her work with Texas Monthly magazine, as well as other work that has been published in many notable publications, and her previous books that were either authored alone or in collaboration with others. I had the chance to sit and talk with Russell a few weeks before the gala where she was given the award, and I am forever grateful to have been able to learn more about her and her work.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction novel that talks about the secret internment camp that was operated during World War II in Crystal City, Texas, from the years 1942-1947. It would be the attacks on Pearl Harbor that would spur then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order the rounding up of German, Italian, and Japanese people to be moved to internment camps all over the US. The camp in Crystal City was different in that it was the only family internment camp. Wives and children were moved down to Crystal City in order to be with the husbands and fathers that had been arrested months before, mostly on pure suspicion, and little evidence, of being sympathetic or supportive to the enemy cause of their home country. As Russell shows, there were some that were interned who would prove to be a threat, but for the most part, these were innocent people who simply wanted to live their lives. And Russell chooses to tell the story mostly from the point of view of two women who were young girls at the time, making Train to Crystal City one of few books to have stories about the war told from a female perspective. What makes Sumi and Ingrid's story even more tragic is that they were America-born citizens when they were interned with their families. And that also did not help them when it came time for the US government to negotiate exchanges with Germany and Japan for American Prisoners of War. So young children who grew up in the US were eventually sent to a country they knew little about, all because of fear and suspicion surrounding their fathers.

My Verdict: Of the few things I try to avoid more than fiction about WWII, it is nonfiction about WWII. With that being said, this is a fantastic book. I probably enjoyed it so much because it is about one of the aspects of WWII that many people do not know about. The camp in Crystal City was supposed to be a secret - many people who lived in the area at the time did not really know what it was for. And as Russell pointed out during our conversation, many of the people who stayed there that are still alive were young children then. And when the camp closed, many of the former inhabitants did not care to talk about or relive the experience. In detail that makes it clear that Russell did her research, the book not only presents the story of people like Sumi and Ingrid, but it also talks about the key political players of the time, including FDR, his wife Eleanor, J. Edgar Hoover, and later, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, among others. If you want to look at a different aspect of WWII aside from what is normally written about in novels, then I highly suggest this book.

Favorite Moment: When persecuted Jews (albeit a small amount) are included in the number of people exchanged along with American POWs.

Recommended Reading: As mentioned, I do not read much nonfiction about WWII, but as for fiction, I recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, or Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach

It is no secret to a regular reader of this blog that young adult fiction books are my absolute favorite to read and review. And I am always excited to read one that is not set in an American high school, but maybe instead somewhere overseas, and in a setting other than a school. Scott Stambach's The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko gives me both, as it is set in a hospital in Belarus.

The Situation: In the foreword to Ivan's story, it is explained that the papers that contain it were found in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Mazyr, Belarus by a journalist. The writer, Ivan, is believed to most likely have suffered from the connective tissue disorder known as Beals syndrome, as well as several other conditions. Ivan often describes himself as being only half of a person. With no legs and only one arm, Ivan must use a wheelchair in order to get around the hospital, where he has lived his entire life. He does not know who his parents are; has been through fourteen different psychologists at the hospital; can tell how long a patient will be at the hospital by the amount of pills and drugs they have to take, as well as the symptoms they show; and reads every book that he can get his hands on. Due to the limited library at the hospital, he receives most of his books from Nurse Natalya, who is not only his favorite nurse, but also the best friend he has ever had.

The Problem: Despite his own health problems and disabilities, and the fact that he is confined to the hospital, Ivan has more or less gotten used to his situation and has come up with many ways of dealing with it and keeping himself entertained. But in late 2005, all of his preconceived notions and ideas almost have to be done away with when Polina enters the hospital. She is beautiful, but also orphaned, and incredibly sick. Despite her problems, she does not look at all like she should be at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and her appearance has caused such a disruption in Ivan's otherwise fairly orderly life that none of his usual tricks and games do anything to put it back together. Polina is someone whose attention he actually wants to get; someone he wants to talk to; and someone who he actually cares whether they live or die.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in a hospital in Belarus. Though Ivan does not know when his birthday is, it is later revealed that he is 18 years old. Having spent his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, he knows everything about the building and those that have worked there for a long time. Even when it comes to those who have been at the hospital for only a short time, Ivan's sharp observational skills quickly tell him everything he needs to know about that person, and he has no problem using that information to his advantage. The other residents, or mutants as Ivan calls them, are not as aware as Ivan, but that changes when Polina is admitted. She challenges Ivan in ways that not even Nurse Natalya can manage, and although he has insecurities about his physical appearance, Polina does not seem to at all mind how he looks or how he talks. It is assumed that Ivan's deformities, and even most of the problems that plague the children in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, can be blamed on radiation that was released into the area when a nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded in 1986. Even in 2005, the surrounding area is still suffering the consequences of this explosion, giving the hospital a constant stream of patients. With the appearance of Polina, Ivan experiences emotions and a relationship he never thought he would get to have. It is the kind of story that is rarely told, but should be told more often: a boy who thought he knew everything there was to know about loss ends up learning so much more, while also receiving the love he never knew he deserved. 

My Verdict: This is a good story. In fact, it is extremely close to being a great story. Besides a few things here and there that made the novel either too much like the rest, or that did not quite fit with Ivan's voice, it is an engaging story with a fun, tricky, sometimes frustrating, but also sympathetic narrator. Ivan is often a jerk, but given his condition and history, it is understandable, and it is also often forgiven. And framing the story as a handwritten diary of sorts coming from Ivan himself works very well. The only way someone like Ivan would find the need to write down anything from his life is if something massive and/or catastrophic happened. So the reader knows Ivan's story is going somewhere, even during the moments when it seems like he is only describing the daily events of his life at the hospital. Every sentence is leading to something, and nothing feels wasted or unnecessary. But there are moments that do not quite feel true, or like something the Ivan we get to know would do. Other than that, this is a touching story of a hurt soul who is not done hurting.

Favorite Moment: Partially because it was so fascinating, I enjoyed Ivan's description of who he refers to as the Ginger Twins. Two red-headed twins named Mary and Magdalena live at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and they are inseparable. That in and of itself is not so fascinating. But they do everything together and play together without even speaking. Without words, they both decide to do the same things and play the same games. Even Ivan with all of his tricks was not able to disrupt them, separate them, or make them acknowledge anyone else in the hospital.

Favorite Character: It would be easy to see Nurse Natalya as an enabler of Ivan's jerky behavior, but when you consider how little he gets to do, her behavior makes a lot more sense. And really, she treats him the way she does because she respects him enough to give him as much of a "normal" life as possible.

Recommended Reading: A book by John Green is always a good idea, so for this week I recommend The Fault in Our Stars. Also, Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom would be a good choice too.     

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Winners of the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards

Finally! The winners have been announced for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. It has been a slow and somewhat painful couple of weeks waiting for these results to come out, but they are here and the readers have spoken. 

Although I did not vote for it, I am still thrilled to say that The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has won for Best Historical Fiction. But the one I did vote for, Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, did end up coming in second, narrowly missing the win by less than 200 votes. For anyone who thinks their vote does not matter, this close race shows how untrue that is.

And it should be a surprise to no one that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child blew away the rest of the competition in the Best Fantasy category, with my personal pick of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders coming in sixth. 

While I had high hopes for Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Cosmos, I am not too surprised it did not end up winning for Best Science Fiction. It did still manage to come in fourth, however, and I think that is a fairly strong showing.

Another close call comes from the Best Horror award, with Joe Hill's The Fireman edging out my choice of The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison. I knew that Hutchison's haunting tale deserved to be in this category, and if there was an underdog that I really believed had a chance, it was this book. But hey, there is no shame in losing to Stephen King's son. 

I had sincerely hoped for a better showing for All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister in the History & Biography category; instead, it ended up coming in fifth, with The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth coming in eighth. And the winner? Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man by William Shatner.

And again, Lilac Girls end us coming in second place in its second category, Best Debut Goodreads Author. This time it comes in behind Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, which is the book I actually voted for, came in eighth. 

Aside from Best Historical Fiction, much of this blog post has been me listing off a bunch of near misses and close races for many of the books that have appeared on this blog. But I am beyond thrilled to say that Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys has taken home the award for my absolute favorite category of Best Young Adult Fiction. It feels right that the two categories that a Door Stop Novel would win for are Best Historical Fiction, a category that no Door Stop Novel has ever won before today, and Best Young Adult Fiction, my favorite category. Congratulations to Sepetys.

So now, we once again wait 12 more months until the next Goodreads Choice Awards nominees are announced. I certainly enjoyed discovering the 15 total Door Stop Novels that ended up being nominated this year, and I am sure I will enjoy the process of searching, finding, discovering, and guessing all over again in 2017.

'Till next year. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Door Stop: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

For the life of me, I cannot remember what it was exactly that compelled me to pick up Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Sure, I had heard of it, and knew of it as one of those incredibly long books that people like to say they have read, even when they haven't. But I don't know what actually made be begin searching the shelves at Half Price Books for it, before finally buying the 20th anniversary edition pictured here off of Amazon. Whatever the case may be, I have read it. It took me forever, but I read it.

The Situation: Hal Incandenza is the youngest son of James and Avril Incandenza. James founded the elite Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) in Boston, Massachusetts that Hal now attends and trains at in hopes of becoming a world-class tennis player. Though Hal's older brother, Mario, does not technically attend ETA, he does live there, and he and Hal share a room. And while James committed suicide back in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, Avril continues to assist in running ETA, along with her adoptive brother Charles Tavis. On the other side of the hill, at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery, Don Gately does his best to keep the halfway house running safely and smoothly, while also staying clean and sober. The two extremely different worlds are linked in various ways, but mainly through  a woman named Joelle Van Dyne, a former girlfriend of Hal's oldest brother, Orin, who finds herself at Ennet after a suicide attempt.

The Problem: Though Hal is a fantastic tennis player and incredibly smart, he suffers from severe insecurity, and loves few things more than he going down into the tunnels below Enfield to smoke marijuana in private. His insecurity is so bad that he seems to nearly fall apart after he is almost beaten in a tennis match by one of his close friends. Hal's problems could stem from marijuana; or the pressures of ETA and to be a great tennis player; or his father's suicide; or even his mother's strange behavior, as she has become increasingly agoraphobic since her husband's suicide. At Ennet, Don has his hands full trying to maintain order as well as stay clean, especially after one resident decides to supplement his addictive urges by killing small animals and pets belonging to neighborhood residents. Meanwhile, there is a third main story line where a group of radicals are attempting to commit an act of terrorism by finding and distributing a film that is apparently so addictive, that viewers want to do nothing else but watch it once they see it. And because this film was made by James Incandenza before his death, this group begins to seek out those closest to him as they look for the master copy.

Genre, Themes, History: Because this book is nearly 1000 pages of tightly packed prose, and also contains close to 400 endnotes, it has been categorized as an encyclopedic novel, which of course leads me to simply label it as a door stop. It was published in 1996, but is set in the future. In this future that Wallace has imagined, not only has the U.S., Mexico, and Canada merged to become the Organization of North American Nations, but each year is subsidized by a corporate sponsor, hence the aforementioned Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. Most of the action seems to take place during the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which we can only guess to be around 2009. Even without the crazy state the world is in (or at least North America), Wallace gives us characters that fit that space nicely. At first glance, the Incandenza family is not perfect - given James' suicide and Mario's disabilities - but they are stable. All it takes is a closer look at each member and how they interact with each other to realize that this may be one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on paper. At one point, Joelle remembers a dinner she attended at the Incandenza's when James was still alive. While the meal went off without a hitch and everyone was perfectly nice to her, she could tell that something was not right, and that Avril was just controlling enough for everything to look okay, but too controlling for it to actually be okay. And all of this is without the addicts living at Ennet, and the separatists wanting to commit a terrorist act. The title of Infinite Jest refers to the film the terrorist are looking for, created by James and starring Joelle. The novel deals with family, addiction, recovery, suicide, entertainment, and even tennis, as each character just tries to be 'okay,' and struggling immensely only to not pull it off.

My Verdict: More than once I have mentioned how hard Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is to read despite actually being fairly short. Well for me, Infinite Jest has the exact same problem, only it is incredibly long. As a whole, it was okay, with certain parts of it being amazing, and other parts being meh, and still other parts being quite boring. It is regarded by many as a masterpiece, and I easily understand why. What Wallace has done is no small thing, and it is what many try to do but fail to due to lack of execution, talent, or even patience. Wallace goes for broke, and it pays off. And the way he links the different story lines together does not at all feel cheap or easy or convenient. I recommend this book, but only if you have the time, and the desire to take the time, to read something that cannot be knocked out over a few days by the beach, or at a coffee shop. This book is an investment, and it should be approached as such.

Favorite Moment: As macabre, and somewhat gross, as it may be, I enjoyed Hal's description of the moment when he came home and found that his father had stuck his own head in the microwave and turned it on.

Favorite Character: Sometimes this is hard when pretty much every character is an absolute mess. Hal would be the easiest choice I guess, but instead I will pick Don Gately. After a life of hard drugs and hard living, Don has finally gotten clean through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and now works for Ennet house in several different capacities. He still has his demons, and the other residents give him plenty of grief, but overall he is a decent guy trying to get his life together.  

Recommended Reading: If you want another door stop (although I seriously recommend going for something light after this one), I say go for The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It also focuses on one main character, but has several side stories that connect to the main story line. For something lighter (as in shorter) that also offers an interesting view of the future, I recommend Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers has appeared on Buzzfeed's list of "Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer." Exploring the lives of a Cameroonian couple that immigrated to the US, the book looks at the pitfalls of the so-called American dream against a New York City backdrop.

The Situation: It is 2008 and Jende and Neni Jonga live in a tiny apartment in Harlem with their young son Liomi. After leaving Limbe, their hometown in Cameroon, Jende lived in New York City for years, working hard and saving up enough money so that his wife and child could join him. Now they live a decent, if somewhat cramped and tenuous existence as Neni attends school with dreams of becoming a pharmacist, and Jende just landed a job as a driver for an extremely powerful and wealthy Wall Street executive. While working and saving up money is certainly a big part of Jende and Neni's plan for carving out a life in the US, there is also the matter of Jende's expired visa and the possibility that he may be deported. Hard-earned money must be spent on immigration lawyers, applications, and fees. And then there is the long wait that may only result in a denial. But currently, both Jende and Neni have friends in New York and decent jobs. And of course, they have each other.

The Problem: While Jende may have landed a great job as a driver for Clark Edwards and his family, he doesn't anticipate becoming an unwilling observer, and sometimes participant, in the issues surrounding the wealthy man's work and family. As the recession hits, Clark's firm is hit hard, and while the demands of his job were already putting a strain on his marriage, the financial crisis threatens to push everything over the edge, and the formerly financially comfortable Edwards family begins to panic about how their lives will change. Meanwhile, Jende must oscillate between loyalty to his employer, providing for his family, and securing the ultimate dream of American citizenship, all in a time when it looks like he could loose any of those things at almost any moment. The strain of trying to achieve the American dream may prove to be too much for both families.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in New York City in 2008, just as the US economy is taking its downturn. Jende Jonga is an immigrant from Cameroon who is currently staying in the US beyond the original expiration date of his visa. The job he lands driving for Clark Edwards is by far the best paying job he has ever had, but it makes him privy to certain details about Clark's work and family life. It's two families on extreme opposite ends of the socio-economic scale, and yet they both have struggles in their marriage, their careers, and ultimately want to carve out a nice life for their children. Granted, Jende's worry about having enough money to buy food is incredibly different from Cindy's, Clark's wife, of having to possibly let go of the maids or nanny. And while the Edwards have plenty of money, that does not mean they are immune to marital issues, or problems with their children. Both families must reevaluate what they are willing to do and sacrifice in order to achieve their version of the American dream. And instead of looking at a white family and a black family, the reader gets to look at a white family and a Cameroonian family, which is entirely different, as Cameroonian families have different rules as far as how wives behave towards their husbands, and obligations to family still living back home.

My Verdict: On Goodreads this book was described as "compulsively readable," and I understand exactly what they mean. While there isn't much suspense or action, I had to keep reading just to know how everything was going to turn out. As if Jende and Neni's story wasn't enough, the drama that circles around the Edwards family is also captivating, giving the reader two families of fully developed characters to become invested in. There were moments where I felt the story dragged a little bit, but even then there was dialogue to follow, or careful descriptions to consider or take note of. I am always interested in reading the stories of different immigrant groups as they do their best to make a life for themselves in the US, and Mbue's novel is another example of how tough living in the US can be if you weren't born here, and sometimes even if you were.

Favorite Moment: When Neni marvels at the food that is prepared and served at gatherings at the Edwards summer home.

Favorite Character: Jende's cousin Winston is a Cameroonian success story. He also immigrated to the US, and now has a great job and is able to assist Jende in his current quest for a green card. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Instead of focusing on immigrants from Africa in modern day America, Gyasi's book follows the history of a Ghanaian family from pre-slavery days to present day.     

Friday, November 18, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer

If author John Green endorses a book, chances are I am going to pick it up and read it. And with Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer, Green said it is the "smartest and funniest book about spontaneous combustion you will eve read." Yep, you read that right. Spontaneous freakin' combustion.

The Situation: Mara Carlyle is a senior at Covington High School in Covington, New Jersey. She is more or less your average teen trying to make it out of high school with the help of her best friend Tess, and a fair amount of drugs she is able to buy from a pair of twin dealers. Up until her senior year her life has pretty much gone unremarked, but when one of her classmates literally explodes in the middle of third period pre-calculus, Mara knows things are about to get a little crazy, to say the least. And while poor Katelyn was the first victim, she will certainly not end up being the last.

The Problem: It's generally problematic when the kids in your senior class start blowing up without any warning or provocation. Naturally, the normal explanations (as "normal" as an explanation for something like spontaneous combustion can be) are sought, such as terrorism, tainted drugs, something environmental, something genetic, etc. But as more kids continue to blow up, and more explanations are crossed off the list, both the Covington locals and the US Government get desperate as the former wish to escape what appears to be their fate, and the latter wish to at least contain it if they can't stop it. Kids attempting to escape Covington are captured and brought back. While a few manage to cross state lines, it is eventually proven that what has become known as the Covington Curse is not dependent on proximity to the city or high school. As Mara's world falls around her, she makes an attempt to rally her fellow classmates into a life of semi-normalcy. But when one combustion hits close to home, Mara starts to wonder if she is the source of the Covington Curse.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in the fictional town of Covington, New Jersey. Told in the first-person by local senior Mara Carlyle, the book covers her senior year of high school and the strange events that take place, namely the spontaneous combustion of a lot of her classmates and the reactions that follow. There is plenty of fear, some suspicion, almost complete confusion, and a whole lot of questions. Mara admits from the beginning that she is a less than trustworthy narrator, but she is all we have, so we have to trust her enough to continue with the story. She doesn't hold back on the filthy language or inappropriate jokes and puns about her fellow classmates going out with a bang, and does little to attempt to hide the less favorable aspects of her own personality. But if she isn't willing to hide that stuff about herself, then there is little chance she is hiding anything about the situation. And with this particular situation being as crazy as it is, the students experience everything imaginable, from school being canceled; to extreme boredom because school is canceled; to being quarantined in a makeshift seclusion tent; to being allowed to riot and destroy property after a particularly beloved student becomes another one in the string of combustions; to eventually rebuilding their own school just so they can finish their senior year; and then to once again being allowed to to do what they want when it appears there are no answers and the entire senior class is doomed. It's a case study to what happens to a small community when the unthinkable (and unbelievable) happens with no answers or predictability.

My Verdict: This book is a crazy ride. Granted, with a subject like spontaneous combustion, there is really nowhere to go but down when it comes to the craziness and excitement. Unfortunately, that is eventually where this book goes after the first half. In the beginning, while kids aren't exactly exploding left and right, it happens often enough that you wonder when it will happen next (and to who), but not so often that you get used to it and accept it as a reality. The reader has front row seats to watching the small community unravel as it searches for answers. But somewhere along the way, even while students continue exploding, the novel gets off track and manages to become less and less interesting. While spontaneous combustion is certainly a compelling topic to base a novel, turns out it can't be the only interesting thing about the story, and that's what happens with Spontaneous. If the book isn't talking about the exploding bodies, or looking for answers regarding exploding bodies, then there isn't a whole lot to be interested in. Even the characters aren't compelling enough to be sufficient between combustions. While Mara may be in-your-face and always ready with a ridiculous joke or quip, she isn't endearing enough to be loveable, and neither is her boyfriend, Dylan. There wasn't much that made me want to root for these people, other than the general desire to not see anyone else die. Basically, the book is fun at first, and then becomes less and less fun the longer it goes on.

Favorite Moment: This is going to sound terrible (because it is), but anytime a student exploded were my favorite moments. Not because I'm into gore and blood (I'm not), or because sometimes the characters that disintegrated were less than loveable, but more because of the way Mara talked about it. There's little fanfare, before or after, and she takes you right up to the moment it happens, and then it happens, just as suddenly and unexpectedly as if you were there with her when it did.

Favorite Character: Mara's friend Tess is the kind of friend every high schooler needs. The two girls have their differences, but are truly best friends for life and never disappear entirely from each other's lives.

Recommended Reading: Okay, so Bleak House by Charles Dickens is incredibly long, but oh so worth it. Plus, it has a spontaneous combustion in it, and it's handled very differently from how Starmer described the ones in his book. However, because I know the book is long, and draining, I will say that the spontaneous combustion is (mercifully) near the beginning, and it is glorious.        

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Goodreads Choice Award 2016 Final Round

This is it you guys. This is your last chance to vote in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. We have entered the third and final round of voting, so be sure to support your favorite books of the year.

For this round, the number of nominees per category has been cut from 20 to ten, and immediately my heart breaks because Shelter by Jung Yun has failed to make it into the final round for Best Fiction. So what is my guess as to who the winner will be? Honestly, I am not sure, but I have heard good things about both The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

All three of my favorites for Best Historical Fiction - Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead - have made the cut. I will be sticking with my initial vote for Lilac Girls, although I will be thrilled if any of them win.

Even though I had my doubts, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders has made it into the last round for Best Fantasy. But again, I doubt it could garner more votes than J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I will vote for it anyway. 

Things are just as they should be over in the Best Science Fiction category as Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Cosmos is holding on. I will admit that I really want it to win, both because it is the last book in the series and also because it is one of the last books Pratchett worked on before his death in 2015. 

Truly, Dot Hutchison's The Butterfly Garden is still in the Best Horror category because it deserves to be. There may not be any ghouls or goblins or demons in the book, but the human villain is also incredibly realistic, as the kidnapping of girls and young women is a reality that occurs way too frequently in our society. 

While I am not surprised that A Thousand Naked Strangers by Kevin Hazzard did not make it into the final round for Best Memoir & Autobiography, I am shocked that The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner also did not make it. But hey, the readers have spoken. Not every favorite can make it to the final round I guess.

However, both The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth and All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister are finalists for the Best History & Biography category. I would love it if Traister's extensive look at a fascinating cultural shift in our society were rewarded with a win, but she is up against a biography of Leonard Nimoy by William Shatner.

I was so proud of myself for having read a graphic novel before it was nominated, but sadly, Patience by Daniel Clowes has failed to make it into the final round for Best Graphic Novels & Comics, which is a shame really because it is incredibly good.

At least two out of three of my picks for Best Debut Goodreads Author made it to the finals. While you can still vote for either Lilac Girls, or The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers has not made it to round three. This is actually a really tough category this year as I have heard good things about many of the books that were presented.

And last but certainly not least, in fact it is my favorite, there is the Best Young Adult Fiction category. Somehow, while Zentner's The Serpent King made it to the final round for the previous category, it did not make it in for this one. So the only dog I still have in  this race is Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. And honestly, I think it has a good chance of taking the ultimate prize. Of course, the one to watch will be Holding Up the Universe, written by last year's winner, Jennifer Niven.

As far as books that have appeared on this blog alone, there are still ten finalists across seven categories to choose from. Voting for this third and final round ends on Sunday, November 27th, with the winners being announced later that week. So, you have two weeks to make your voices heard and support your favorites from 2016.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: Bright Midnight by Chris Formant

After reading the premise I agreed to be sent a copy of Chris Formant's Bright Midnight in exchange for a review. Most music fans, of almost any genre, are familiar with the Myth of the 27 Club. Several artists - including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison - died at the age of 27, at the height of their popularity. Formant's novel surmises that these deaths weren't suicides, but instead carefully planned murders.

The Situation: Gantry Elliot may have what many consider to be a dream job, but he feels ancient and a bit under appreciated when he is around many of his coworkers. As a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, Elliott has reported some of music histories greatest moments, and subsequently, his knowledge about the industry approaches encyclopedic. But with a focus on classic rock, he doesn't get to write as much as he used to, and the 20-somethings that now surround him at work disregard him as out of touch and a little too old school. When a mysterious package shows up on his desk claiming that a member of the infamous 27 Club was murdered, Elliot initially shrugs it off as a prank. But the packages keep coming, and the clues inside turn out to be artifacts that only someone incredibly close to the artists themselves could possibly have in their possession.

The Problem: These clues that keep landing in Elliot's lap could lead to the biggest story of his career. But if the members of the 27 Club were murdered by what appears to be a serial killer, then why is someone turning over the evidence now? Is the killer still out there? And why does this mystery messenger seem to know where Elliot lives and where he is at all times? It becomes enough to get the FBI involved, and for Elliot to begin looking over his shoulder. Even Elliot's skeptical boss, Alex Jaeger, becomes involved as he sees the potential of what a story like this could do for Rolling Stone. But even with the mystery informant seemingly giving up all of the good information, it soon becomes clear that this story won't be easy to get, and it will take the combined efforts of officials in three different countries to get everything they need.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in present day, but it looks back in time to when musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Peter Ham, and others, were turning up dead, all at the age of 27. The cases concerning their deaths are eventually opened as cold cases and investigated all over again, when initially they were accepted as suicides, or accidental suicides. To realize such a thing now, with so much time having passed, would mean bringing to light a massive cover up that someone had managed to keep hidden, and most likely wants to keep it that way. Naturally, issues of greed and fame come up, and Elliot begins to wonder just how deep this thing seems to go. Anyone who is a fan of any of the above named artists would recognize some of the details surrounding their life and death. Formant takes classic rock history and manages to play with it just enough to offer a plausible alternate version of history.

My Verdict: While the premise is certainly fun and interesting, and it is fun to somewhat go back in time and look at the lives of some of classic rock's biggest stars, I wish the fun translated through to the more mundane aspects of the actual investigation. It was fun to read about Elliot having mysterious clues dropped off at his job or apartment, but the book becomes much less fun once he officially joins up with the FBI and the actual investigation begins. Essentially, any part that didn't have Eliot in control of the story was almost always guaranteed to be boring, and the further along we get into plot, the more Elliot would disappear. Formant does manage to pull it all together in a very intense and entertaining final 100 pages or so, which is impressive considering just how much he puts out there. All of the pieces seem to fit together nicely with very few loose ends, and a good amount of action.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Elliot's cowboy boots are mentioned. As a native of Texas, he still insists on wearing them even though he now lives in New York City (and I want to be clear here, not everyone who lives in or is from Texas wears or even owns cowboy boots).

Favorite Character: I empathize with Elliot, but my favorite would actually have to be FBI Agent Raphael Melendez. He would end up taking the lead on the case and is actually the one taking the most risk in pursuing it in the first place.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore. It isn't quite of the same vein, but Moore does reimagine the stories of King Lear, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice into a hilarious adventure involving murder and romance. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Goodreads Choice Award 2016 Semifinal Round

The first round of voting for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards closed on Sunday, and now readers can vote in the semifinal round until this coming Sunday, November 13th.

For the semifinal round, the original 15 nominees for each category remain as options, but now they are joined by five write-in votes. So if you were already having a hard time picking between multiple options in certain categories, now that choice has been made even more difficult. Of course, you may have submitted your own write-ins, and now is the time to see if there were other readers who felt the same about a deserving book or author as you did.

You can read about my first round predictions in my post from November 8th. Today I would only mention any new nominees that also happened to be picked for Door Stop Novels

But really, the only thing I have to say is that I am sad my write-in vote of All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister did not make it in for the Best Nonfiction Category. Thankfully, I can still vote for it in the Best History & Biography Category. It looks like I will not have any Door Stop Novels in the Nonfiction category this year. If I had only scheduled my reading of The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward for before December, I am sure I would be voting for it.

Same can be said for The Reader by Traci Chee, though I am already voting for The Serpent King for Best Debut Goodreads Author.  

I suppose this is what happens when so many of your favorites are introduced in the first round; it does not leave much room for new ones to be introduced in the second one.

However, things do begin to get intense in the third and final round, which will begin on Tuesday, November 15th. The semifinal round could be the last time you see some of your favorites, so be sure to vote to keep them in the competition.


Friday, November 4, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

When a reviewer asserts that an author may be a rival to well-known young adult fiction author John Green, it certainly makes me take notice as I adore Green and pretty much everything he does. That is exactly what has been said about Jeff Zentner and his book, The Serpent King, which follows three small-town teenagers during their senior year of high school.

The Situation: Dillard Early, Jr, or Dill, has had a few hard years. First, his father is serving jail time for possessing inappropriate pictures of children on his computer. It also doesn't help that the man was a well-known snake-handling preacher with a penchant for handling rattlesnakes and copperheads, while also convincing his congregation to drink poison as their survival would be a sign of having strong faith. Due to the prison sentence, and mounting debts, Dill's life consists of school, work, writing songs he never intends for anyone to hear, and hanging out with fellow outcasts Lydia and Travis. Lydia has managed to put herself on the fast track out of Forrestville, Tennessee, mostly due to her fashion blog and high grades. And while Travis may be a big guy with matching strength, his softhearted nature keeps him from standing up to his alcoholic and abusive father.

The Problem: Dill's daily life is fairly miserable, but the one thing that makes it even more so is a visit to his father in prison. Dillard Early, Sr. seems to get stranger and harder to talk to with every visit, and he still can't seem to admit that he is where he is because he did something incredibly wrong. But avoiding visiting his father only earns him a serious guilt-trip from his exhausted mother. While his family relationships are falling apart, things don't go so well with his friends either as he faces the reality of Lydia leaving for college in New York, which makes hims resentful, causing him to pick fights with her during what will end up being their last year to hang out together. And his mood doesn't improve when she pushes him to also apply for college and maybe get of their small town. For Dill, graduation is beginning to feel more like an ending than a beginning, and before that happens, there is one other ending he must face that he wasn't planning on.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in a small town in Tennessee. Some of the common themes that usually come from a small town setting are present, such as the girl wanting desperately to get out and attend college in the big city, and the boy that feels like he will be stuck there for the rest of his life. Travis even serves as the guy who is actually content where he is and would never entertain thoughts of being somewhere else. And of course there is the unfortunate small town trait of everyone knowing who you are and your family history, especially if said family was part of a recent scandal. Dill can't go anywhere without someone recognizing his face or name. And if they aren't wary of him because of what his dad did, they are angry at him for their perceived belief that it is his fault his father is in jail. As each chapter is told from the point of view of either Dill, Lydia, or Travis, another theme that comes up is the irrefutable and ever-present fact that parents just don't understand. Dill's parents can't understand (or refuse to) why he would want to leave Forrestville when he can stay and work and help pay off the family debts. Travis' father doesn't even attempt to understand his son and his interests. And while Lydia may have won the gold medal among her friends when it comes to parents, even she doesn't get why they would choose to live in such a small town when there are big cities with better opportunities. Oh, and then there is the snake handling. Since the events of this book take place after Dillard Early, Sr's arrest, and after the collapse of his congregation, any scenes of actual snake handling happen through flashback. But Dill's father and mother both believe strongly in the signs of the faith and perceive anyone who doesn't have them as not being a true follower.

My Verdict: Well, I can say that I get the hype now, because this is a fantastic book. Writing about three misfit seniors in high school navigating small town life is certainly not a new idea, but Zentner does it well, and he does it with an original story line and great characters. Sure Dill can be annoying in his more brooding moments, and Lydia was easily one of my least favorite characters for about the first two-thirds of the book, mostly because of her self-righteous attitude and inability to recognize exactly how much suffering her friends endure. But hey, they're teenagers. It's all about them. And while the snake handling could have easily been something thrown in just to keep things interesting, Zentner makes it more than just a one-note detail in Dill's past. The book is surprisingly complicated, without being hard to read or cumbersome, and I think there is something in Dill, Lydia, or Travis that almost everyone can relate to.   

Favorite Moment: When Travis stands up to his abusive father.

Favorite Character: Lydia's father, Dr. Blankenship, is almost too good to believe. But I decided to anyway because he is so much fun, without being the parent that ends up being more like a friend. Not only is he great to his daughter, but he's great to her friends, even offering to drive Dill up to the prison to see his father.

Favorite Quote: "I'm tired of watching the world grind up gentle people. I'm tired of outliving those I shouldn't be outliving. I've made books my life because they let me escape this world of cruelty and savagery. I needed to say that out loud to somebody other than my cats. Please take care of yourselves, my young friends." - Mr. Burson, the local bookstore owner. 

Recommended Reading: Since John Green was mentioned before, I recommend Looking for Alaska, over his most recent novel, The Fault In Our Stars. Both are good, but Looking for Alaska explores a different kind of heartache.          

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Goodreads Choice Awards 2016

It's that time of year again. It is time for readers to cast their votes for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. For me, this is one of three November events that makes it my second favorite month of the year. Not only do I enjoy casting my votes for my favorite books, but I also love to see which ones made it onto this blog, while also discovering new books to read and possibly blog about in the future. 

The ultimate winners of the Goodreads Choice Awards will be chosen by you, the readers. So be sure to make your vote count. 

For the category of Best Fiction, I easily and without hesitation vote for Shelter by Jung Yun. This book asks the question of what obligation do we have to family members who used to abuse us? When it comes down to it, do we owe anything to the people who made our lives miserable now that they really need us? Yun explores this questions openly, without holding back, and I recommend this book to pretty much everyone.

Best Historical Fiction always seems to be a category I swing and miss on, but this year there are three Door Stop Novels to choose from. First there is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a story that follows two branches of the same family line, stemming from one woman from 18th century Ghana. While one of the family lines experiences slavery firsthand in the New World, the other still was not immune to the effects of the peculiar institution, even as descendants are well-off and privileged in Africa. Then there is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which follows a runaway slave as she uses the historical escape route, here presented as an actual railroad that runs underground, and moves from state to state in an attempt to not fall into the hands of her former owners. My guess is that this will be the ultimate winner for this category, but at least for this first round, I will be voting for Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. Despite my attempts to stay away from books that deal with World War II, I found myself reading this one, and I absolutely loved it. But both Homegoing and The Underground Railroad are great too, so really any of these would deserve to win. 

I believe for the first time ever, I have read a book that has been nominated for the Best Fantasy category. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is a wonderfully imaginative book about outcasts Patricia and Laurence and the epic battle between science and magic. The book makes the reader wonder if these two will come together to save humanity, of effectively aid in tearing it apart. I am not expecting this book to win though, especially as it will be going up against Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling.     

I am so pleased to see that the final book in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth series made it into the nominees for Best Science Fiction. The Long Cosmos finishes out the series that has followed Joshua Valiente as he travels across the Long Earth, and then even further into other places unknown. Of course, the ending of the series was made even sadder due to Pratchett's death in 2015. So again, I am glad to see this book here and am delighted to vote for it. 

I had a feeling that the book in my most recent blog entry would make it into the Best Horror category. The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison is just that good, and that terrifying. The Gardener is all at once a kidnapper, serial killer, and serial rapists, who of course has also convinced himself that he is saving his victims from something. If you're looking for a good horror story that simultaneously will show just how messed up humanity can be, this is the story for you. 

 For Best Nonfiction, I have decided to do a write-in vote for Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies. This book looks into the growing trend of women deciding to not only get married later in life (if at all) but also have kids later in life. This shift has set off many changes in American culture that few saw coming, and I found the information Traister presented to be both fascinating and informative.   

For Best Memoir & Autobiography, I did enjoy A Thousand Naked Strangers by Kevin Hazzard, a memoir in which Hazzard chronicles his time as an EMT in Atlanta. But I think I will actually be voting for The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner, a heartbreaking and emotional tale about life in a polygamist cult and what it took to break free.

Well what do you know...Traister's All the Single Ladies has been nominated for Best History & Biography (an interesting place to have it, I think), along with Skip Hollandsworth's The Midnight Assassin, a book that talks in detail about the country's first serial killer in Austin, Texas. Even though I already gave it a write-in vote, I do believe I will be sticking with All the Single Ladies for this category as well. 

And of course Patience by Daniel Clowes (of Ghost World fame) is nominated for Best Graphic Novel. Of. is really good though, and it absolutely gets my vote.

Lilac Girls makes another appearance in the Best Debut Goodreads Author category. But my vote will be going to The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner. Poor Dillard Early, Jr, or Dill, can't seem to win for losing. If people aren't avoiding him because of the crimes of his father, then their blaming him, saying he should have been the one to take the fall. It's a different take on small-town life that almost anyone could relate to. Also nominated is Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, which follows immigrants from Cameroon as they attempt to make it in New York City. Both of these books will have blog posts coming out about them later this month. 

The Serpent King shows up again in my always favorite category of Best Young Adult Fiction. And honestly, I would almost put it in a tie with Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, with the latter coming out on top, but only barely. Both novels have the story shift between different characters with each new chapter, but Sepetys tells the story of four teenagers, all from different countries and with different motives, as they struggle to survive World War II, and end up boarding the ultimately doomed ship of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I am always a sucker for the way Sepetys tells a story, so I will be voting for her. 

And there you have it. For this year's awards, there is a record 15 total Door Stop Novels that have been nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, with a few of them nominated in multiple categories. Naturally, I hope my favorites take home the final prize, as I am sure you are too. But that can only happen if we vote in all three rounds, with this first opening round closing on Sunday, November 6th.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Horror Fiction: The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison

For the weekend of Halloween, I figured it seemed appropriate to cover a horror story, whether it be about ghosts and goblins, vampires and werewolves, or even ordinary humans doing horrific things, making themselves proper monsters in their own right. Dot Hutchison's The Butterfly Garden falls into that last category, as a story unfolds regarding a serial killer with a peculiar obsession.

The Situation: Maya has just been rescued from a place she had only known as the Garden. Years ago, she was kidnapped and woke up in a strange and bare room. The Garden belonged to a wealthy man, known to Maya only as the Gardener, who had a habit of collecting butterflies. Unfortunately, the butterflies he was interested in weren't the kind that change from caterpillars and fly around. The Gardener's butterflies are young women, ages 16-21, that he was holding captive near his home. And they become butterflies when he has tattooed wings on their backs and renamed them, making them his own. But now that officials have found the Garden and rescued the girls, Maya is the butterfly they most wish to speak with since she seems to be their leader, and the other butterflies don't want to talk to anyone until they talk to her first. And her name is not Maya, it's Inara.  

The Problem: For the most part, Inara is a straightforward person...until she isn't. She begins to tell her story to investigators Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison, starting with her less than stellar upbringing, and her early days in the Garden. It is obvious that Inara is holding back something, and she takes her time telling the story, letting out important details as she feels comfortable. For the most part, Victor is willing to be patient, only prodding when necessary. Plus, he isn't in that big of a rush to hear about the many horrors of the Garden, including other ways the Gardener demonstrated his ownership; the visits from his sadistic and cruel oldest son; and why none of the girls ever reached past the age of 21. While the Gardener may have been captured and the survivors are now safe, the investigators are still racing against the clock as parents and family, some of which are incredibly powerful, are demanding answers only Inara can provide. Also, her name isn't Inara.

Genre, Themes, History: I decided to place this fiction novel under the heading of horror, but it could also go under thriller, or mystery, or even crime fiction. The story Inara tells about her childhood is sad and tragic. And then she's kidnapped, and the story goes from tragic to a living nightmare. At the very least, the Gardener is a serial killer as well as a serial rapist. But that isn't all of it. He is also delusional, as he seems to believe, at least on some level, that he has rescued these girls from something and is keeping them safe. He is manipulative as he justifies to himself, his captives, and his sons that what he does is for the best. He is obsessive, as everything he does has a certain order and process to it, and he runs the Garden on a tight schedule and oversees almost every detail. But ultimately, he is a sad and weak man with money and means to project that onto unwilling victims.

My Verdict: As hard as this book can be to read (and there are moments when it is really hard), there is an almost constant desire to keep turning the page, if only to see how it all ends. And given that the reader knows from the beginning that the Garden has been found and the survivors have been rescued, it is certainly a triumph that Hutchison still manages to hold the reader's attention, even though the outcome is already known. Also, the book isn't hard to read because of any fault or failure in the writing style or voice, but instead because of the horrors the butterflies have to endure. Sure, there are moments when it feels like Inara could tell the story a little faster and be more forthcoming with crucial information. And there was a point near the middle of the book where I wished I could have heard from one of the other survivors. But once everything comes together in the end, it is clear the every detail and delay served a purpose. It is a fascinating, original, and horrifying premise. But given how many women are discovered these days after years of captivity, and no one knew, it actually isn't all that far fetched. And maybe that is why it is so scary.

Favorite Moment: When Desmond, the youngest son, must confront his own role in all of the horror.

Favorite Character: Bliss (not her real name) may be one of the smaller women kept in the Garden, but she is certainly one of the toughest. She isn't afraid to call someone out or give them a piece of her mind, and in incredibly colorful language at that. 

Recommended Reading: Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn is about a cult leader and the writer who becomes obsessed with telling his story, even going so far as to move across the country and live in the house the cult used to inhabit.      

Friday, October 21, 2016

Historical Fiction: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad first came to my attention when it was picked for Oprah's Book Club, and I imagine the same is true for a lot of people. I read Whitehead's Zone One, another take on the zombie apocalypse scenario, back in 2012 and had fairly mediocre feelings towards it. But I decided to give Whitehead another chance, especially seeing as the premise of this book could not be more different from Zone One.

The Situation: Cora was born a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, escaped years before, making Cora a "stray," and her stubbornness and strong will make her an outcast, even among the other slaves. For the most part she does her work and keeps to herself, never really entertaining the idea of escape, at least not seriously, until Caesar comes along and asks her to join him on his attempt. Her initial "no" eventually turns into a "yes" when Cora is severely punished for attempting to protect another slave. Both Cora and Caesar know it won't be easy, and if caught, the punishment will be creative and hellish, ultimately leading to death. But the pair head to the Underground Railroad anyway, hoping for the freedom that so many dreamed of but failed to achieve.

The Problem: Cora and Caesar may know that escape won't be easy, but they don't quite realize how hard it will be, or all of the different obstacles that can stand in their way. After taking on an extra passenger that ends up slowing them down, their trip is almost over before they even reach the Underground Railroad when a group of hunters find them. And after Cora kills a white boy out of self-defense, the hunters are no longer looking for just a runaway slave, but a murderer as well. Her dream of no longer being someone's property takes her through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. The racial climate is different in each location, but no matter how accepting the area may be, Cora must always be on the watch. If she lets down her guard even the slightest bit, she is in danger of being captured and returned to her vengeful master.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in pre-Civil War America. In this book, the Underground Railroad becomes more than a metaphor for the system of pathways, routes, and the people who helped run it, that allowed many slaves to escape to freedom. Whitehead has the Underground Railroad take on a much more literal meaning and role as it becomes a system of actual train tracks that are run underground, with small train cars run by conductors. Many of the stops that Cora comes across are managed by white abolitionists who are risking their own lives and reputations by helping fugitive slaves. And because Cora travels to many different states, never able to settle in just one for too long, the reader is able to see how the different states each deal with slavery and racial tension. In Georgia, Cora is a slave and is treated as such. In South Carolina, things appear to be a bit more hopeful, only for Cora to discover that there are many ways to oppress an entire race of people, even under the guise of helping them. And then there is Indiana, where an entire community of black people, some former slaves and some born free, live together out in the open, almost completely free from outside oppression...almost. Cora's journey takes us through different parts of the US during one of the country's darkest points in history, showing us that slavery in American was not a one size fits all situation.

My Verdict: Yes, it is about slavery. Yes, it contains brutality. And yes, at times it was very hard to read. With that being said, I can see why Oprah picked it. Unflinching honesty is almost always what you want in a book that deals with such a hard subject. But Whitehead isn't brutally honest and graphic just for the sake of being brutally honest and graphic. And Cora isn't the type of heroine who sits and waits for someone else to rescue her, though she does have to depend on people from time to time in order to get away unnoticed. Another great thing about her is that she doesn't despair much, or at least she isn't dramatic about it. When she does lose hope, or when things do look bad, Whitehead gives her emotions, but I got the sense that Cora didn't dwell on them much, or let them overtake her, making her journey a lot easier to follow.  

Favorite Moment: When Cora covers the body of a fellow slave being beaten, at great detriment to her own physical well-being.

Favorite Character: Sam is a white man sympathetic to slaves and assists fugitives and run-aways. He runs one of the stops along the Underground Railroad at risk to his own life and property.   

Recommended Reading: I highly recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This book reaches further back into the slave trade process, starting in Africa, and follows two branches of the same family tree as one family line ends up in America, while the other stays in Africa and must deal with the effects of the slave trade there.