Friday, August 26, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

After reading Under a Painted Sky, I was excited to see what Stacey Lee came up with next. It wasn't surprising that she once again stuck with both young adult and historical fiction in this year's Outrun the Moon

The Situation: It's 1906 in San Francisco, and 15 year-old Mercy Wong knows that if she is ever going to be the businesswoman she dreams of being, she needs to further her education. Unfortunately this can't be done in Chinatown, and the country has not yet embraced a spirit of inclusion, especially when it comes to children of different races going to school together. But Mercy has a plan for getting herself into the St. Clare's School for Girls, an elite boarding school that would mean her living away from her mother, father, and younger brother Jack if she were to get in. Only by agreeing to pretend to be a Chinese heiress, and guaranteeing a business deal between Chinatown and a local chocolatier, does Mercy gain admittance, but then the real work begins.

The Problem: Despite her impeccable English and obvious ability, Mercy has a hard time making friends and keeping out of trouble in her new school. Plus, she is supposed to be a wealthy heiress from China, something she most certainly is not, as her humble Chinatown home would prove should anyone see it. But Mercy is determined to do what she has to do in order to stay in the school she believes could help her to a better future. But then disaster strikes in the form of a terrifying earthquake, and being able to stay in a fancy boarding school becomes the least of Mercy's worries as the city seems to crumble and burn before her eyes. Instead of worrying if she remembered to turn her uniform inside out, Mercy begins a frantic search for her family, for adequate shelter, and for a sufficient source of food. And she must do so with people from St. Clare's who still may not be ready to accept her based on how she looks.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also historical fiction. Set around spring of 1906, the novel ultimately leads to the epic earthquake that rocked San Francisco, leaving many people dead or without homes. Before survival becomes the main objective, Mercy must deal with the prejudices of the day, as her kind are expected to live and work within the borders of Chinatown, never emerging to offend the sensibilities of those who wish to pretend they aren't there. Even within her own neighborhood, girls like Mercy are expected to be submissive and obey, but her "bossy cheeks" rarely allow this, which means Mercy often speaks her mind and does what she wants. And while scheming her way into a fancy school would seem to be enough to keep her busy, there is also Tom, who everyone believes to be her intended, but Mercy isn't so sure. And to make matters worse, it seems Tom isn't sure either. In many ways, Mercy is a typical 15 year-old girl in the US, but the racial prejudices of 1906, and the lack of opportunities within Chinatown add another layer of issues Mercy must navigate if she wants to accomplish her dream. And then there is the earthquake, which disrupts the plans of even the most wealthy and comfortable of the city's citizens.

My Verdict: Once again, Lee does not disappoint. She presents a young adult novel that is fun, interesting, relatable, and again, makes me excited to see what Lee comes up with next. If I had any issues, it would be that interest in the storyline actually seemed to go down for me after the earthquake hits, when you would think it would go up. Mercy still has to deal with prejudice attitudes towards Chinese-Americans, and now she has to adopt basic survival skills as both food and shelter become scarce. But having her try to survive within the walls of St. Clare's was much more engaging, at least for me. Also, the conclusion of the book left more than a few loose ends that I felt could have used some more attention. But beyond that, this is a great story that takes a look at race relations in early 1900s California. And Mercy is a fantastic lead character who is driven without being annoying about it. And while her anger may flare often, and quickly, she is still gracious, even to those who have done nothing to deserve it.

Favorite Moment: When Mercy tricks her adversary into doing their chores the hard way, while Mercy and her friends quietly do their own chores the quick way and get done much faster.

Favorite Character: Headmistress Crouch appears to be someone who could cause a great amount of trouble for Mercy when she first enters St. Clare's. And while that may be true, even though the woman is stern and permanent grouchy, she is a strict taskmaster for a reason and ultimately cares for the girls - all of them - and their safety.

Recommended Reading: Naturally I recommend Under a Painted Sky, Lee's first novel. But I also recommend The Day of Atonement by Davis Liss, another novel that includes a historically devastating earthquake in the middle of the action.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Historical Fiction: The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

I sought out Martin Seay's The Mirror Thief because of its interesting premise and its inclusion of three interwoven story lines that take place during three different points in history. When done well, this method of storytelling can make for an amazing and unforgettable novel, and I looked forward to putting pieces together and seeing where it all ended up.

The Situation: Curtis has arrived in Las Vegas to look for an old friend, Stanley. As a highly skilled former military man, Curtis was given this assignment because if anyone could do it, it was him. It seems Stanley has gotten himself into some trouble and needs to be found. And to make matters even more urgent, it seems Stanley may be seriously ill and may not have much time left. Then the timeline of the novel shifts to when Stanley was a young boy in California, making his own way by scamming unsuspecting tourists, while avoiding gang members he had angered, and also searching for the author of his favorite book, The Mirror Thief. The third part of the story follows Crivano, the mirror thief himself, in 16th century Venice as he attempts to fool local authorities at the risk of his own life.

The Problem: It becomes clear pretty quickly that the man who sent Curtis didn't tell him everything, and is holding back more and more information the longer the assignment goes on. There are more people involved than Curtis initially realized; the reasons he was given for hunting Stanley down were not entirely accurate; and the more people he runs into and interviews, the more he begins to think that he knows the least out of everyone. And if that weren't enough, his involvement in the situation now means he could be in trouble too. Back in the 1950s, Stanley managed to track down the author of The Mirror Thief, but the old adage about the dangers of meeting your hero turn out to be true, as Adrian Welles is not quite the man Stanley had hoped he would be. And, much to his growing frustration, the older man isn't able to give him the answers he wants regarding the book's hero, Crivano. Much like with Curtis and Stanley, Crivano is having his own issues pulling off his plan, and the chances of him coming out of it all alive seem to grow slimmer by the day. He may have very little to lose, but he would rather not lose his life. It may seem silly to people in our time that a government would expressly forbid mirror makers from leaving a country, but the Venetian fascination with the object as lead to exactly that, and Crivano is determined to help a couple of mirror makers escape Italy.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in three different locations and times. The first one encountered takes place in Las Vegas in 2003, as Curtis is attempting to locate Stanley after an incident involving several casinos in Atlantic City. The second setting is Venice Beach in 1958, as Stanley and his sidekick Claudio make an existence out of grifting and scamming. And then in the 16th century Venice, Italy, Crivano is attempting to assist mirror-makers in leaving the country, an act that has been expressly forbidden. All three stories are linked together by The Mirror Thief, a book that Stanley loved, and whose main character is Crivano. In other words, it is incredibly meta, and often somewhat confusing. And the third person limited narrating doesn't much help in clearing things up. What is clear, however, is that in all three stories the main characters are missing key pieces of information. They often believe, or at least want to believe, they have all of the answers that will allow their plans to work, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that someone else almost always holds the cards, and no one is safe.

My Verdict: First of all, this book is nearly 600 pages long. And while there may be three different stories being told within it, it still felt like way too long. Near the end it started to feel as if the author didn't feel like he had enough material for three different books, so instead he simply fused them all together. I don't know if that is actually true or not, but that is how it felt. And even with those three stories to work with, while they all had their interesting and exciting points, I was mostly bored with what was happening and immediately eager to move onto the next story as soon as a new one picked up. Usually the links that bring different side stories together are exciting and fun to discover, but the link between these three felt tacked-on at times and not enough to hold everything in place. It's a long story with very little payout, and I think there is better historical fiction out there to enjoy.

Favorite Moment: When Claudio finally stands up to Stanley after he's been the victim of a vicious attack because of his friend's actions.

Favorite Character: Perina is a woman about to take up orders to be a nun when Crivano meets her. While she isn't crucial to his mission, or even part of it, she proves herself to be both useful and faithful.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend The Coffee Trader or A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: by Dane Cobain

I am always flattered when I am asked to review a book, whether the asking comes from the actual author, their agent, or their publicist. Normally I research books on Goodreads or Amazon and purchase them myself, or check them out at the library. Even if I decide not to cover a book, it is nice to be approached by someone who recognizes that this blog could be helpful to them and a good way for readers to find out more about their book. That is how I came about The Rise and Fall of a Social Network by Dane Cobain

The Situation: Dan has just accepted a job at a new social media start-up called The concept is simple: users sign-up, update their profile and add notes, videos, etc, much like with Facebook. But no one can see anyone's profile except the user themselves. The only time anyone's profile goes public is when they die. is for the living, in that they are able to see the profiles of their loved ones after they've died. But it is also for the dead, as they get to cater their profile and put up anything they want people to see after they're gone. Dan has already been warned about the crazy long hours and extremely high level of commitment that will be required of him. He's sure him and his longtime girlfriend will be able to take the strain, plus he really needs a job. Fortunately, because of his coding skills, really needs him too.

The Problem: The long hours are going to be only one of many issues Dan will have to deal with at the start-up. While his other co-workers seem nice enough and are all good at their respective jobs, his bosses and founders, John and Peter, are demanding, constantly on edge, often rude, and always secretive to the point of suspicion. Not to mention paranoid. From the beginning, working at proves to be a trial and it affects every aspect of Dan's life, especially his relationship with his girlfriend, which he wrongly assumed would be fine. But even without difficult bosses and a neglected girlfriend, there is also the site to worry about, which is always under constant threat from outside, both online and physically at the office. Even with heightened security and heavily guarded servers, the site is vulnerable and needs constant protecting. But it also needs to grow if the small group is going to be successful and eventually make any real money. Deals are made and things are happening that John and Peter are very tight lipped about, and Dan can ignore that for the most part, right up until people start coming up dead.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in present day England for the most part, but later shifts to Palo Alto in California. The entire story is told from Dan's limited point of view, so his knowledge regarding doesn't amount to much at first, but eventually he uncovers more and more about the site, the founders, and what is really going on behind the scenes. chronicles the birth of a social networking site almost from the beginning, and follows it up until the ultimate goal of the public offering on the stock market. Cobain illustrates the high tempers, long and stressful hours, strained relationships, and intense meetings that come with starting an Internet company, while also showing just how far some are willing to go to "change the world," which really only seems to be code for "get incredibly rich." 

My Verdict: is a relatively short novel, coming in at under 200 pages, but there is a lot that happens, and it all happens fairly quickly. If I had one major bone to pick with the story it is that everything comes at the reader a little too fast. For me, it was like reading a long flash fiction story, which is actually great in that I was never bored or anxious to move on to the next thing. But ultimately I think that left some gaps that would have been worth taking a page or two to fill, while there were also some relationships between characters that I didn't quite believe because I couldn't see them developing so quickly. Now granted, I am coming off of reading The Shining, which is filled with the slow, masterful, suspense-building energy that only someone of Stephen King's ability could achieve, so maybe I'm not being entirely fair there. Even so, it is a fascinating story about a website with an equally fascinating idea behind it of leaving public profiles of the dead for their still living loved ones to see. Cobain certainly does not lack originality in his writing, and any reader looking for a good, quick, suspense-filled read will probably appreciate

Favorite Moment: I do appreciate that Dan was committed to keeping a written journal, a practise I truly believe is worthwhile for anyone, no matter what field they're in.

Favorite Character: It's hard to choose a favorite character since everyone involved with makes a terrible choice at one point or another. Still, I suppose I will choose Felicity, who goes by Flick. She's smart, knows her stuff, and doesn't let herself get pushed around by the guys...too much.

Recommended Reading: For another quick read full of suspense, try the graphic novel Patience by Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World.    

Friday, August 5, 2016

Horror Fiction: The Shining by Stephen King

Like anyone who appreciates a good scary story, I have become familiar with more than a few movies that are based off of novels by Stephen King. But for whatever reason, I have read embarrassingly few of his actual books. But thanks to a Christmas gift from a friend, I have finally tackled The Shining, the movie of which is often considered to be one of the scariest ever made, although I personally believe The Exorcist should hold the top spot. Either way, the movie is absolutely terrifying, and even if it is well-known that is differs greatly from the book, I still expected the same level of horror to come from the pages.

The Situation: Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic, has been given a second chance at rebuilding his life, and possibly a new career, as the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel. High up in the mountains of Colorado, the Overlook is closed for the harsh winter months due to the epic snowstorms that hit the area every year. After losing his teaching job due to unfortunate incident with a student, Jack receives the caretaker job and relocates at the Overlook with his wife, Wendy, and his five year-old son, Danny. The trio have had their share of trials over the years, mostly due to Jack's drinking, but he honestly sees this as an opportunity to turn things around, and also use the Overlook's seclusion as a chance to work on his writing. Wendy swings between general anxiety over the change and all out fear, while only Danny seems to know for sure that something awful is waiting for them at the hotel.

The Problem: After the Overlook is officially closed for the season and the Torrances are its only inhabitants, things immediately begin to happen that can't just be explained away as hallucinations, or as symptoms of Danny's always strange behavior. The young boy has always been prone to strange visions and fainting spells, but neither Jack nor Wendy can explain away how accurately he can read their thoughts, or know what has happened on the complete opposite side of the hotel. Soon the entire family hears things such as voices in the ballroom, and the empty elevator moving up and down. And the only thing more disconcerting than Danny's assertion that something bad will indeed happen, or their increasing isolation as the snow continues to pile up outside, is that Jack seems to be exhibiting symptoms he only has when he's been drinking, and their isn't a drop of alcohol in the entire place. Every attempt to escape or find a way out is thwarted in one way or another, and it appears the Overlook hotel is intent on the family staying until it does whatever it wants to do. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror story, one that isn't based on a real story or an actual place, like many horror movies and stories we hear today. Before page one, King writes that the Overlook and the people within it are all from his own imagination...although doesn't that make it even creepier to think about? In any case, almost all of the action takes place at the fictional resort hotel in Colorado. The Overlook has an incredible history full of murder, suicide, gang violence, jilted lovers, and dirty politicians. Despite its beauty and appeal, its long history is also full of stories of the many times it failed as a hotel, and its long string of closures. It has changed hands many times, and this only adds to the collection of ghosts and voices inside. Danny's ability to shine, a term used by the cook Dick Hallorann, who can also shine, makes him feel, see, and hear these voices more keenly the most, but they eventually make themselves known to everyone. Most adults would be crippled by such a thing, but the five year-old boy is able to withstand an incredible amount of abuse, which is fortunate as his parents are virtually no help at all. Jack may not shine, not like his son anyway, but he is affected by the hotel in a different, more sinister way, while Wendy finds all of her strength in her desire to protect her son. 

My Verdict: I don't have to say it but I will anyway: the book is better. For the most part, the general theme and story that Stanley Kubrick's movie tells is the same. But there are some key changes that were made and it's hard to understand why. So for those of you that haven't read the book and/or the movie, I will go ahead and issue a giant *SPOILER ALERT*, and say that you may want to just skip the rest of this section. First off, there are some brilliant bits with the hedge animals out front, as first it appears they are moving, maybe; and then they are moving, definitely; and then they are all out attacking and causing harm. Why Kubrick found the need to change that to an intricate hedge maze I'll never know, and I guess it doesn't matter. The man could do what he wants. If King could make a lion made out of hedges come across as terrifying from the page, surely Kubrick could do the same on film. But I also find it odd that he would have Hallorann be killed, when he lives in the book. And why leave the Overlook standing, along with the hedge maze, when both the hotel and hedge animals burn in a blaze of glory after a faulty boiler explodes in King's version? Finally, in the movie it's all about Jack going crazy and wielding an axe. In King's version, it is clear that the hotel has taken over and has its own agenda. If Kubrick kept that, it would have made for a different movie, sure, but still a terrifying and good one. And while it isn't explained exactly what the hotel is, the book's explanation of how things are happening the way they are actually makes sense and isn't terribly confusing or hard to follow. One thing many horror stories fail at is plausible explanations, next to decent endings. And The Shining certainly has both.

Favorite Moment: I just like the fact that ultimately the hotel was bested by a five year-old.

Favorite Character: It's near impossible to not love Danny's innocence, even though things would have been much easier for him and his mother if he were older and stronger. Those are the only two things that hold him back in any way. He's certainly smart enough, and has better discernment than most adults, which is maybe owing to the 'shine.' But it becomes clear pretty early on that if any one person from the Torrance family should make it out alive, if should be him.  

Recommended Reading: As I said, the number of Stephen King novels I have read is incredibly small, but a good horror story doesn't really get any better than The Shining. But I did really like The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero, as well as Night Film by Marisha Pessl.