Friday, May 26, 2017

Door Stop: Ulysses by James Joyce

I am just going to go ahead and start by saying that this is by far the most cryptic book I have ever read in my life. There are books that are hard to follow, and then there is James Joyce's Ulysses. There are books that include allusions to other works, and then there is whatever is going on in this one. Reading long books is something I am used to. But this...this was a different experience entirely.

The Situation: Stephen Dedalus is a frustrated artists living in Dublin, teaching history at a boy's school. He is aloof, somewhat awkward around people, and tends to exist and operate mostly inside of his own head. It is clear from the very beginning of the novel that Dedalus is still deeply affected by the death of his mother, which about a year ago. The hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom, is the opposite of Stephen in many ways, but the two also have some things in common. While Dedalus can be hard to talk to and isolated, Bloom is friendly and cheerful, though still an outsider. However, Bloom does not mind his status as an outsider, and the words and actions of others do not affect him as much.

The Problem: Bloom may be better able to navigate life than his young friend, but he is still struggling with the death of his son, as well as his wife's infidelity, though the latter has not been confirmed. Bloom manages to be mature and grounded, and can even sympathize with others despite his own struggles. Meanwhile, Dedalus becomes harder to talk to as the novel progresses, though that could be attributed to the fact that he also becomes drunker, and his thoughts are less represented. Between the two of them, they encounter many different characters and situations as they go about their lives in early 20th-century Dublin.      

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in Dublin, Ireland in the early 20th-century. At first, the novel primarily focuses on Dedalus, with the character of Bloom being introduced in the fourth chapter, though the two men will not physically cross paths until much later in the book. Ultimately, the focus stays mostly on Bloom as he serves as the Irish everyman, and Dedalus fades further from the reader's view the drunker he gets. Joyce's story is highly allusive and structurally more or less follows Homer's Odyssey: Bloom represents Odysseus; his wife, Molly Bloom, represents Penelope; and Dedalus represents Telemachus. The novel is broken up into three parts and eighteen episodes, with each episode corresponding to a character in Homer's Odyssey. Although the original text did not include the Homeric titles, Joyce later produced them when helping a friend of his understand the structure of the book. As a whole, the novel is hard to follow, but some parts fare better than others as the structure can change from episode to episode, or even in the middle of one. Its cryptic nature is one of the main things the book is known for, as well as its history of censorship and prosecution for indecency.

My Verdict: Oh my goodness this was difficult. I have never had such a hard time finishing a book in my life, and I doubt I will ever have so much trouble again. At least I hope. Usually when I read a door stop, even if it is one I did not like, I still have some measure of accomplishment and joy when I finally finish. Turning over the final page of Ulysses gave me absolutely no sense of joy or completion. I did not get anything out of the story or connect with any of the characters. I will not be able to choose a favorite moment or a favorite character because, honestly, I do not feel like I understood enough of what happened in order to do so. Sure, Bloom seems like an okay guy, but there could have been some hidden abhorrent action that he committed that I completely missed because of my lack of understanding of what I was reading. Truly difficult stuff. Not for those who lack patience or determination.

Recommended Reading: For a door stop that is a bit more accessible, my first recommendation will always be Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. But if you wish for something a bit more modern, I will recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Stephanie Garber's Caraval was one of those books that I felt like was all over Goodreads and everyone was reading it, except me. Honestly, for the most part, a book being plastered all over Goodreads usually does not have much influence on me, as I have encountered both good and bad books that way, not to mention countless mediocre ones. But because it is YA, and because the synopsis did grab my attention, I decided to pick it up, knowing that I was potentially getting myself caught up in a brand new series that may go in a direction I won't care much for.

The Situation: Seventeen year-old Scarlett Dragna lives on the Conquered Isle of Trisda with her father and her younger sister Donatella, or Tella. Ever since she was a little girl, Scarlett dreamed of being invited to Caraval, a game filled with magic and wonder, where you can either observe, or decide to become a player, and being too swept away in the events is a real possibility. Year after year she has written letters to Legend, Caraval's mastermind organizer, only to never receive an invitation, or any indication that the games will come to Trisda. Now Scarlett is 17 and engaged to be married, believing that her chance to attend Caraval has passed. That is until she finally receives a letter from Legend inviting her, her sister, and her fiance to the games. Despite the invitation, Scarlett still believes her chance has passed. With her wedding only days away, Scarlett does not want to miss what she believes to be her only opportunity to escape life with her cruel father. But Tella refuses to let her sister settle for unhappiness as a trade-off for safety, so she hatches a plan that will get them to the games, and maybe even win.

The Problem: It is hard enough for Scarlett to think of what her father, the Governor of Trisda, will do to either her or her sister once he realizes they have escaped. If he finds them, the punishment will likely be more severe than anything he has ever inflicted upon them. Of course, Scarlett is also worried about missing her wedding; her one chance of truly escaping life with her father. And then there is Julian, the mysterious stranger whom Tella has enlisted to help in her plot. Handsome, charming, and completely untrustworthy, Julian is instrumental in helping Tella put her plan in place. When Tella disappears once they reach Caraval, Julian is the only person Scarlett can lean on as she tries to track down her sister and leave Caraval in order to make it back home in time for her wedding. Unfortunately, Legend seems to have a plan of his own, as he kidnaps Tella and makes her and Scarlett a part of the game. And if Scarlett does not win, she may lose her sister forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fantasy novel set in a fictional world. Scarlett and Tella reside on the Conquered Isle of Trisda with their cruel father, the Governor. Later, they will travel to Caraval, a place that Scarlett had always dreamed of being invited to, though when she finally is, the timing could not be worse. Throughout the sisters' entire time at Caraval, the line between what is real and what is only part of the game is continually blurred, almost to the point where Scarlett is nearly driven to despair. There is no one she can fully trust, and when she does it almost always proves to be a mistake. No one and nothing are as they seem, and while there are rules to the game, no one plays fair, and everyone is only out for themselves.While Scarlett has to constantly decide who she can trust, and what she can believe to be real, she also must decide how much power she gives other people over her actions and her feelings. Her father had always manipulated both daughters as a way to control them, and the people of Caraval are proving to be no different. Ultimately, Scarlett must be stronger and smarter than ever before, while understanding that things may not be as they seem.    

My Verdict: I have mixed feelings about this one. For the most part, the story is interesting, complex, and with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing as to what is really going on. The reader ends up just as confused and lost as Scarlett, especially when it comes to who to trust and who to avoid. But sometimes - often actually - there are just a few too many twists and turns, and the mysterious characters are almost too many to count. Plus, for Caraval to be such a supposedly magical place, all that I could imagine it to be was an amusement park that was geared more towards adults rather than children and families. Also, there has to be a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief applied in order for the story to come through completely, but I suppose that can be attributed to the more fantastic elements of the story. And as far as protagonists go, Scarlett has to be one of the most naive and annoying ones that I have come across in a long time. Sure, her situation is crazy and confusing, but there is only so much  I can take of someone constantly being surprised when people do not turn out to be who they say they are.

Favorite Moment: Honestly, I am not sure. Possibly whenever Julian proves to be more trustworthy than initially believed.

Favorite Character: Except for Scarlett, no one is as they seem, or as they present themselves, including Tella. But Scarlett annoyed me too much for me to pick her. So instead I choose Julian. He is both helpful and deceptive, but ultimately more helpful.

Recommended Reading: Despite having an ending I take issue with, I choose The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Graphic Novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

So far, 2017 has been a good year for me and graphic novels. Normally, I am doing well to get in one graphic novel a year. Today's selection will actually be the fourth one I have covered this year, and it is only May. When I found out Octavia E. Butler's Kindred was going to receive the graphic novel treatment, I do not think I could have been more excited. After reading Kindred in graduate school, I remember being so happy when I was done reading it, not because it is a bad book or because it is badly written (it is neither of those things), but because the material was so hard to deal with and the situation was so tense and difficult. I felt bad for the protagonist and just wanted her to be safe and happy, knowing that neither of those things were going to happen quickly or easily. But despite any hesitation I may have felt due to past experiences with the novel, I was excited for this adaptation and hope you would be too.

The Situation: Dana is a struggling writer living in 1970s California with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly - without warning and seemingly without reason - she is transported from her living room, to a plantation in the pre-Civil War south. After rescuing a young white boy from drowning, Dana is rebuked by what has to the boy's mother, and after the father points a gun in her face, she transports back to her home where Kevin is waiting for her. To Kevin, she was only gone for less than a few seconds, but the time she spent with the little boy and his family was at least a few minutes. No one knows what happened, least of all Dana. What is worse is that no one can predict when it will happen again. Each time Dana is transported back, more time has passed on the plantation, and the little boy, Rufus, grows up bigger and just a little more dangerous.

The Problem: Time travel is trouble enough. Time travel to pre-Civil War America is something else entirely. And time travel to pre-Civil War America as a black woman who is used to living in the late 20th century is an adventure that no one would ever sign up for. If Dana were white, her adventures on the Weylin estate would go very differently. No worries about being captured and sold as a slave; no worries about being beaten just because of the color of her skin; life in general would be much easier. It is on her second visit that Dana realizes she is not being transported to just any slavery plantation, but apparently one where her ancestors lived, and Rufus is one of them. Without her help, Rufus will get himself into enough trouble that he will endanger her entire family line. But in order to save her family's history, she has to help him do the unthinkable, during a time in America's history where the unthinkable was not only allowed, but expected.  

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned before, this is a graphic novel adaptation of a science fiction novel written by Butler. Kindred was first published in 1979, and is probably Butler's most studied work, so it is not surprising that it would be the one to be adapted into a graphic novel. As is probably obvious, slavery is a prominent theme. The peculiar institution is both straightforward and not, managing to always benefit those in charge, while taking from those who already have nothing. No matter what work you are given to do as a slave, or what position you hold, at the end of the day you are some one's property and will be treated as such. Even any claims to freedom as a black person are tenuous at best; having the proper papers and documents can help, but nothing is guaranteed. With each trip back in time, Dana not only learns a little bit more about the people and operations of the Weylin plantation, but also about how to survive as a black woman out of time in a place where black people knowing how to read and write is frowned upon. And if Rufus is selfish and destructive as a little boy, then he is manipulative, entitled, and downright sociopathic as an adult. Dana must navigate the laws of the antebellum south in order to save herself, in more ways than one.

My Verdict: The novel was tough to get through. The graphic novel moves a little quicker due to the nature of the format, but still, it was hard to keep turning the pages at some points. With that being said, this adaptation does not disappoint and is a fantastic tribute to Butler's work. There are certain parts of the book that I remember being incredibly powerful, and for whatever reason they just did not come through as well in this version of the story. The impact of most of the harsher moments were softened, thankfully. But that also means that the moments whose power you wish to keep were also softened, taking away from the overall effect of the story. Still, Butler's story about the institution of slavery from the viewpoint of a 20th century black woman still comes across in all of its complexity and power, and with full color pages to help depict Dana's harrowing story and journey.

Favorite Moment: When Dana makes the decision that Rufus has broken whatever agreement they had between them, and decides to act on her own in order to return home.

Favorite Character: I don't know if Kevin is my favorite character, or if I just feel bad for him. He has to watch his wife go through something that no one would be able to logically explain, much less help with. And at one point *spoiler alert* he even gets stuck in the past when Dana transports without him. 

Recommended Reading: For more Octavia Butler, I recommend Fledgling. For another graphic novel, I recommend Habitat by Simon Roy.       

Friday, May 5, 2017

Historical Fiction: Before the Rain Falls by Camille Di Maio

Last year I had the pleasure of speaking with San Antonio author Camille Di Maio about her first book, The Memory of Us. Her follow-up and the focus of this post, Before the Rain Falls, is set to come out Tuesday, May 16th. I am extremely grateful that she thought of me and offered to send me a copy. Due to the nature of the blog, it is rare I can cover a book before it is available to the public, so this is a nice treat.

The Situation: Della Lee has returned to her hometown of Puerto Pesar, Texas after a long absence. Everything seems to have changed, except that the small town remains small and has very little going for it. Even the name of it translates into "Port of Regret," a name that fits Della's situation perfectly. And while her return is not exactly met with a parade or a party, she is not at all surprised. Even 70 years later, everyone in Puerto Pesar knows the story of Della Lee, the woman who was sentenced to prison for the murder of her sister, Eula. To look at her now, it would be hard to believe the 90 year-old woman would have ever committed such an act. Paloma Vega is also making a return to her hometown, but under much different circumstances. Having grown up in Puerto Pesar, Paloma now resides in New York City where her career as a doctor is primed and ready to begin. Her brief visit to help take care of Abuela and see her younger sister will not only bring her back into contact with the people who raised her, but also a reporter from Boston wanting to know more about a well-known painting in Puerto Pesar that appears to be crying. 

The Problem: Only three people know what really happened the day that Eula was murdered, and two of them are dead. Della is not exactly interested in visiting the details of the day that would send her away for seventy years. Mick, the reporter from Boston, initially came to the small Texas town chasing a story about a picture that appears to be crying. But after learning that the picture is in the likeness of a Eula, the sister of the woman who recently returned from prison, Mick sees an opportunity for a different kind of story. Suddenly, Puerto Pesar does not seem to be such a boring place anymore. Of course, the incredible food, and the assistance of the beautiful and smart Paloma, certainly help with this realization. But he has a life in Boston, while Paloma has hers in New York, and a place like Puerto Pesar could never compete with cities such as those. But still there is Della and the story she has yet to tell, and the night of the murder is only the beginning of it. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in modern-day Texas, specifically in the small fictional town of Puerto Pesar. While the town may not be real, I can assure you, as a native Texan that was often subjected to long road trips to tiny towns that were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that there are places like this all over the state. Oppressive heat, a desperate need for rainfall, lack of industry and jobs, fantastic Mexican food...yeah, that is small border town Texas. When Della was growing up, her father's cannery provided many jobs to the town. But after he died, the cannery was sold, and then closed, and many of the families were left hurting. And during the 70 years she was incarcerated, it seems little has changed. Paloma certainly left as soon as she had the opportunity, leaving her with a guilt over leaving Abuela and her younger sister, Mercedes, behind. But while Puerto Pesar may be the primary setting, the secondary one of the Goree State Farm for Women is just as important, and is where most of Della's story takes place. It is what happens there, just as much as what happened to put her there, that will lend to the rest of the novel. The narrative switches between Puerto Pesar today, and Della's story in the 1940s. And it is not until near the end of the novel that her entire story is realized. Suffice it to say that the words "the truth shall set you free" certainly apply to this novel.

My Verdict: This is a well-written story that succeeds in being about more than one thing or one person. It is not only about Della and the events that put her in prison, much less what happened while she was in there. And her story by itself would probably be enough to fill an entire book. But Di Maio also decided to include the story of someone else who left Puerto Pesar, but for very different reasons, allowing the reader a view of the small town from a younger perspective. And then there is Mick, the complete outsider, who only shows up to get a story, and ends up with something else entirely. There are parts that are not entirely believable, such as how quickly the story is able to wrap up after the big reveals (yes, there is more than one). Or even how quickly Mercedes is able to get past her feelings of abandonment towards her older sister. But overall, this is a well-done novel.

Favorite Moment: When Mick, someone unfamiliar with good Mexican food, has a churro for the first time in his life. 

Favorite Character: Arturo, the owner of a local Puerto Pesar cantina, is the perfect mix of helpful and slightly overbearing. He is the local every visitor needs to visit, and not only for the potential of free margaritas and loaded nachos.

Recommended Reading: Naturally I recommend Di Maio's first novel, The Memory of Us. However, I will also recommend Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby, a nonfiction account of small town Texas life according to a visit by an outsider.            

Friday, April 28, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Shout out to the UTSA Library for having Shanthi Sekaran's Lucky Boy on their shelves, and for being able to not only hold it for me, but also deliver it to my office. Having a brand new library book, that no one else has read yet, hand-delivered to you is a special feeling. Plus, I was excited to delve into this story of two very different families and the little boy they would both come to love.

The Situation: Solimar, or Soli, has decided that she must leave Mexico and head north, like many of the other young people that used to live around her. The small town of Popocalco simply has nothing to offer her, and she longed to live a life of possibility and hopes in the US. She would attempt to make the dangerous and long journey to Berkeley, California, where her cousin Silvia already lives with her two boys. Her father has made a deal with a man to help his daughter cross the border, even though that may mean Soli having to lay in a small hidden space in the man's car. 

Kavya and Rishi are an Indian-American couple already residing in Berkeley, him as a ventilation specialist for a large company, and her as chef for one of the many sororities on the UC Berkeley campus. As a somewhat typical Berkley couple, both Kavya and Rishi would consider their lives to be fairly complete. Naturally, they both wish they were a bit more successful than they are in their respective fields; they would like to have more money to spend; and they would like it if they could live up to their parents' near impossible expectations. But more than anything, they would like to have a child, and after months of trying, it becomes clear that this is not going to happen in the usual way.

The Problem: As soon as Soli's journey begins, things become difficult and dangerous. The man that was supposed to help her across the border has other ideas. Plus, being a woman alone on a journey north is an incredibly perilous thing, even after she manages to join up with a group of young boys determined to make their fortune in Arizona. But Soli does what she has to do, and manages to make it to her cousin's apartment in Berkeley both tired and victorious. And pregnant. It is her child that will end up being the answer to Kavya and Rishi's prayers. After deciding to foster and adopt, Ignacio El Viento Castro Valdez would be the child to end up in their home. When both Soli and Silvia are discovered to be illegal immigrants following an incident in the city, they are sent to jail, and then to immigrant detention centers, which means Ignacio is now officially under the care of the state of California. For Kavya it is love at first sight, and she cannot imagine life without him, even as the fear that he will some day be taken from her and given back to his birth mother hangs over her and Rishi's entire existence. And though Soli's situation seems hopeless, she refuses to give up on her son, or on herself.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set mostly in present-day Berkeley, California. Soli ends up there after traveling up from Mexico, though the journey is not easy, and there are many moments when she is not sure she will make it. And even after she arrives, she struggles to earn a living as first a housekeeper, and then a nanny once her son is born. Her story centers not only on immigration policies in the US, but also the dangers that come for those who decide to take that often perilous trip north; how many immigrants, particularly female immigrants, are often treated in detention centers; and just how powerful a mother's desire to be with her child can be. For Kavya and Rishi, though mostly Kavya, the story revolves around the intense desire to have a child. And when it is not possible to have their own, they are more than happy to take on someone else's, as long as there is a little body occupying space in their home and in their hearts. Rishi even notes to himself that his wife seems to have become a different person, not only when they are trying to get pregnant, and when they finally take Ignacio into their home, but also when the reality sets in that he may not get to stay with them. And when custody does eventually become an issue, the question ultimately becomes who should Ignacio stay with? Does Soli, as the birth mother, have ultimate and final rights to him, even if that means he will be deported back to Mexico with her? Or should Ignacio stay with Rishi and Kavya, a fairly stable Berkley couple with whom the child has lived with and now knows as his parents? This is not an easy question, but there still has to be an answer.

My Verdict: In the synopsis, this book is described as one with no obvious hero or villain, and for the most part, I can agree with that. Soli is not a bad person or mother. She took chances, a lot of them, and some worked out while others failed miserably. And unfortunately for her, the US is typically not kind to illegal immigrants who make mistakes. Kavya and Rishi are not bad people either: not for wanting to adopt Ignacio, and not for doing everything they can to keep him under their roof. Sekaran does an excellent job keeping things objective, mostly by telling the story from both points of view. Of course, there is a strong possibility that a reader will end up picking a side anyway...I certainly did. And the third person omniscient narrator does not offer any recommendations or commentary. Nor does the narrator give only the facts, but instead manages to tell an emotional story of how one boy came into existence, and then managed to have two families that loved him dearly. Whichever side you end up on, Lucky Boy is a book that will challenge what we believe about motherhood and adoption.

Favorite Moment: Any time Soli manages to defy all odds and get herself out of what looks to be an impossible situation.

Favorite Character: Kavya's mother Uma can be an impossible woman to get along with. She does not understand why her daughter has not had a child yet, and is not shy about voicing her disapproval when the subject of adoption comes up. But the first time she meets Ignacio, it is clear that she will be a great grandmother to him every chance she gets.

Favorite Quote: "Just weeks before, this trip had felt impossible, but now she saw that impossibility was only ignorance shrouded by poverty."

Recommended Reading: A book with similar themes but a very different plot is The Light Between Oceans by  M.L. Stedman. Both books are emotional and present difficult situations that do not have easy solutions.     

Friday, April 21, 2017

Science Fiction: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This blog is sadly lacking in the science fiction department. And really, that isn't any one's fault but my own. It just isn't my favorite genre, and I have a hard time being genuinely interested in the premise of books with a heavy science fiction presence. With that being said, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty caught my attention. Now that The Long Earth series has finally finished, I will need to find something to fill the blog's admittedly tiny science fiction void. But books like Six Wakes just might do the trick.

The Situation: Maria has just woken up inside of a cloning vat on board the spaceship Dormire. This is not all that strange, since the year is 2493, and cloning has become a common practice among all humans on Earth, and on the Moon. The science behind cloning has progressed to the point that when a new clone wakes up, he or she will even remember everything that happened right up to the point of their most recent mindmap. So if a mindmap was done five minutes before death, then the new clone will wake up with almost no gap in their memory. Yes, rules and laws had to be put into place once it was clear human beings were taking the technology to a dark place, because we can never have nice things. So the Codicils that were established in 2282 make it clear that only one copy of a single person can be in existence; suicide is still a crime; and complete rebirth (as in starting life again all over as baby) is forbidden, with some exceptions of course. Maria and her fellow crew members are on the Dormire with thousands of other sleeping passenger clones that are all to be woken up once they reach the new planet they are to colonize. For Maria and the crew, it is a chance to wipe clean their criminal histories and start again.

The Problem: As soon as Maria wakes up, it is clear that this is not like the other times. For one, she can clearly see her old body, which appears to have been brutally murdered with a knife wound to the back of her neck. Also, there are three other bodies visible that were also killed, and the clones of all six crew members are now waking up. Finally, and probably most worrisome of all, Maria cannot recall the last 25 years or so of her life, all of which were spent on the Dormire. No recent mindmaps were made of any of the crew, or if they were, they have been deleted along with everything else from the ship's computer. Whoever attempted to kill the crew also tried to sabotage the mission completely. But there are only six crew members working the ship, all of which were cloned. Fear and paranoia take hold as everyone quickly attempts to figure out who is the killer. All of them have a criminal history, so no one is above suspicion, and all of them could still be in danger.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that tackles many issues. Obviously, there is the cloning of humans, and the myriad of ethical issues that always brings up. As mentioned above, the Codicils make it where people cannot simply have multiple copies of themselves running around. But the clones also cannot have children, and "hacking" is a very serious crime. Hackers essentially are able to go into someone's DNA and make alterations that can be as simple as changing eye color, to something more complex like changing someone's beliefs or desires. It isn't just cloning that becomes an issue, but the value of human life. For the crew of the Dormire, it is no secret that they are all on the ship because they desire a clean slate and an escape from their criminal pasts. But what crimes they actually committed are kept a secret, which seems like a good idea, but serves to only breed suspicion. Everyone has done something horrible in a past life, or seems to have a secret agenda in this one, even the good-natured and down-to-earth doctor, Joanna. There is a startling reveal in almost every character's history. Even the ship's artificial intelligence, IAN, may be more than what it seems.

My Verdict: Even if science fiction isn't your thing, Six Wakes is a fantastic murder mystery. And there is not so much science fiction in it that the mystery gets buried or lost. From the very first page, when Maria wakes up, the pace is set and never lets up. And most importantly, Lafferty keeps you guessing. Sure, it is fun to try, but there is enough action and information thrown at you that the identity of the real killer is not 100% clear until near the very end of the book. There were moments where, for me, the science behind everything was a little too much and I found myself getting lost, though never bored. What becomes clear is that, while the cloning of humans has had its advantages for the world that Lafferty created, there have been some serious drawbacks as well, mostly when it comes to how human life is valued. It did not seem to me that the narrative attempted to land on either side of the issue. At its core, Six Wakes is a science fiction murder mystery, not necessarily a discussion on the ethics of cloning.

Favorite Moment: When IAN is allowed to restore himself to 100% power and becomes the sarcastic, almost fully sentient type of AI that is fun, while also unnerving to be around, given how much power he has over the ship.          

Favorite Character: Joanna is a constant stabilizing force throughout the entire story. Sure, she has her own criminal past, but if I were stuck on the Dormire with these people, she is the one I would trust the most and seems the least likely to murder someone.

Recommended Reading: Goodness, I have no idea. I simply do not read enough science fiction. So instead I will recommend Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's a very different kind of book, but it is also set in a future where things are done very differently from how they are done today.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

Today's post has been brought to you by the impulse buy at Half Price Books. It is not often that I will pick up a brand new book at the used book store. I usually reserve such purchases for Amazon or the rare chances I get to stop by BookPeople. But while I was waiting for my latest shipment from Amazon, I found myself staring at Robin Roe's A List of Cages and lamenting that it was not going to be included in my next package. So I decided to go ahead and just buy it then and there...along with a few others.

The Situation: Adam is a senior in high school and can hardly sit still. It is not because he cannot wait to graduate, or even because his classes are boring, though they are. Adam has ADHD, but manages to keep it pretty under control without hardcore pharmaceuticals. He may have a hard time reading social cues, and can never seem to stop talking, but as long as he is able to get up and move around occasionally, he is fine. For one of his senior year electives, his task is to track down a troubled freshman who has a habit of skipping sessions with the school psychologist. Adam is glad to be able to move around for once, but he does not expect for the troubled freshman to be Julian, the foster brother he has not seen in years. Julian lives with his Uncle Russell now, having lost both parents at a very young age. The two boys could not be more different, with Adam being outgoing and popular, and Julian being withdrawn and awkward. But Adam is glad to reunite with the brother he lost.

The Problem: It is clear that Julian is going through something, but the young boy is so timid, and so hesitant to share anything, even as he and Adam become friends despite the differences in their social standing. It is a friendship that even Adam's closest friends do not quite get as it becomes more and more normalized, and soon Julian is one of the gang. But there is something about his life at home with his Uncle Russell that Adam does not like, but he cannot quite put his finger on it. Julian will suddenly stay at home sick for days at a time, and when Adam finally comes upon the truth, he is torn between telling an adult, and honoring Julian's wish to keep things quiet. But Julian's problems may end up spelling trouble for the both of them if someone does not step in soon.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that follows two young male narrators. Adam is the popular and almost constantly moving senior in high school, while Julian is the socially awkward freshman who hates English class because the teacher makes him read out loud. When they were both in elementary school, Adam's mother took Julian in as a foster child after his parents were killed in a car accident. They would have kept Julian with them forever, had his Uncle Russell not shown up and decided to take him in instead. Five years later and the two boys are now attending the same high school. Adam is still the same hyperactive boy with the friendly smile whom everyone seems to adore, but Julian is more like a frightened and wounded animal than the stubborn and creative boy he used to be. Perhaps it is Adam's ADHD that makes him not care at all how people look at him when he hangs out with Julian. Not even the menacing and angry looks from his best friend, Charlie, keep him from inviting the freshman along on every adventure the group plans. It is not a book only about the foster system, or troubled teens, or child abuse, or ADHD, though it does contain all of those things. If anything, it is about what can be accomplished when we extend a hand, even if we do not get a positive response right away.

My Verdict: Yes, there is difficult subject matter. Yes, you may cry because there is a pain described in these pages that no one, much less a small child, should experience. And oh yes, there are moments of pure frustration because the solution seems obvious, though the characters ignore it, and we as people and readers are incapable of not playing the "if they had only just" game. But given all of that, it is a book worth reading and confronting. It is not hard or painful just for the sake of being hard or painful. And I do not get the sense that Roe is trying to make us all better people and teach us a lesson. The story does not come off that way. Instead it comes off as a heartbreaking tale of a young man who has accepted less than what he deserves because it is all he has gotten for so long, and he has been told it is all he should get. But it all changes because someone decides to show him otherwise.

Favorite Moment: When Julian and Charlie are able to have a one-on-one conversation without Adam in between. Charlie is the very definition of the big scary senior, but the two manage a short conversation where both sides get to be honest.

Favorite Character: I did not care for him much at first - although I guess I was not supposed to - but Charlie eventually became my favorite. He's big, he's angry at the world, and he cannot stop complaining about everything. But when it comes down to it, he just wants attention like everyone else and hates feeling forgotten.

Recommended Reading: Kids of Appetite by David Arnold also switches between two teenage narrators, but this time it is a boy and girl as they tell the story of how they ended up in separate interrogation rooms at the police station.    

Friday, April 7, 2017

Nonfiction: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Here we are with yet another classic I was somehow never forced to read, but I do remember my brother bringing it home from school once and being so incredibly curious about the title. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is only part one of her seven-part autobiography. In honor of her birthday earlier this week, I thought I would cover this classic from an amazing woman whose career spanned more than 50 years.

Genre, Themes, History: As the first in an autobiographical series, this book is nonfiction and starts with the early life of Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928. The book begins with Angelou's early life in Stamps, Arkansas; covers her brief but traumatic time living with her mother in St. Louis; back to Stamps with her grandmother; and then ultimately ends after she moves to Oakland, California to once again live with her mother. At the close of the book, Angelou is 17 years old and has just finished high school. It may seem like Angelou and her brother Bailey were moved around a lot, but there are few moments when her living situation felt tenuous, especially when she was living with her grandmother, whom she referred to as "Momma." Angelou recalls growing up poor and black in the segregated south, working in her momma's store, which prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II. Angelou also talks about the man that sexually abused her, and whose subsequent murder was the reason she stopped speaking for nearly five years. It would not be until an encounter with a friend of the family that she would be encouraged to talk to other people besides her brother Bailey. In this coming-of-age story, Angelou touches on identity and racism as she talks about the earliest years of her life.

My Verdict: Angelou's story is told in such a way that it is honest without being abrasive; poetic without glossing over the hard stuff; and incredible without becoming out of reach or hard to believe. This woman had been through a lot, and this book only deals with the first 17 years. Despite the hardships and intense racism that Angelou had to deal with, the book is fairly easy to read and is never boring, but almost always inspriational. With her brother Bailey almost like a sidekick, Angelou's story includes adventures as well as misadventures, and observations about growing up that are only obvious in hindsight. They are the kind of observations nearly everyone can relate to, but I do not think anyone could tell these stories the way Angelou does.

Favorite Moment: When Angelou slaps one of her dad's girlfriends when she calls her mother a whore.

Favorite Quote: "Didn't Moses lead the children of Israel out of the bloody hands of the Pharaoh and into the Promised Land? Didn't the Lord protect the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace and didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? We only had to wait on the Lord."

"The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance."

Recommended Reading: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, as well as The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward.     

Friday, March 31, 2017

Graphic Novel: Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer

I have decided to take a bit of a gamble and picked up Wires and Nerve, the first in what will be a series of graphic novels by Marissa Meyer. While it may be the first of the graphic novels, Wires and Nerve actually continues the story that was initially started in Meyer's Lunar Chronicles series, which began with the best-selling Cinder in 2012, and ended with Winter in 2016.

The Situation: It has been a few months since Cinder has claimed what was rightfully hers: the throne of Luna. Finally, there is peace between Earth and Luna, and Cinder has big plans to keep it that way. All of her friends that were introduced in the Lunar Chronicles series have more or less gone their own way. Emperor Kai continues fulfilling his role as leader of Earth; Cress and Captain Thorne remain together on his ship, the Rampion; Scarlet and Wolf have settled into a life together on her farm in France; Winter is now an Ambassador, with Jacin forever at her side; and of course there is Iko, the android with feelings, who is now the heroine of the story. It was not long after Cinder took the throne that the misdeeds of the former queen begin to cause problems. The men she recruited for her army, and then forced to go undergo mutations that gave them wolfish tendencies and a taste for humans, have begun attacking people on Earth. Iko figures she is the ideal person, or android, to help track them down.

The Problem: Because she does not have actual human flesh, and is skilled in various methods of combat, Iko does prove to be incredibly good at tracking down the packs of wolf-hybrid soldiers that have been wreaking so much havoc on Earth. It seems that because of her efforts alone, attacks have decreased, and entire packs are going into hiding. However, for every pack she finds, there is always one or two that get away, and it seems these fortunate few have managed to team up with a leader determined to get revenge on Cinder for her ancestor's misdeeds. Despite being told otherwise, he believes he and his followers can be returned to their previous form, and is resolved to do whatever it takes to get to the lunar queen. The mission alone is enough for Iko to deal with, but she must also deal with often being forgotten, as she is left out of historical accounts of the events that led to Cinder claiming her throne. Also, it seems that only her closest friends seem to understand that Iko can be an android and also have feelings. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a graphic novel that can also be labeled as young adult, science fiction, and fantasy, and is a continuation of the Lunar Chronicles series, also by Meyer. Full disclosure: I did not read any of the previous books in the Lunar Chronicles series, and I most likely never will. This is something I did think long and hard about, but ultimately I am satisfied with the summary of the story we receive in the opening pages of Wires and Nerve, and I am happy to be a part of what happens next, now that peace has supposedly been achieved. I am usually the first to complain when a well-loved series has reached a satisfying conclusion, only for the author to decide to write more books. But in this case, I support the decision, though mostly because I skipped the first round, and the second round is in a different format. Iko, the narrator, occupies that grey area of not being human, but having feelings. More than one person questions her ability to really know what feelings are, as many want to believe that anything she says and does is just a simple trick of her programming. She certainly benefits from being able to recover from almost any injury with a repair and reboot. But having wires instead of veins makes it easy for some to dismiss her, despite a fair amount of evidence that she is capable of being much more than a service android.

My Verdict: I was dubious, but only because I am essentially coming into the bigger story right in the middle. Thankfully, we are provided just enough back story to set up the new one, but not so much that I feel like those who did read the first four books (plus the bridge books) will be annoyed by the recap. I am sure many who are like me and did not read the first four will be intrigued enough that they want to go back and start from the beginning, and I can certainly understand why. Iko may be the protagonist, and a complicated one, but each of the other eight characters make at least one appearance and will seemingly have some part in the events to come. The story is fun, full of adventure, and manages to keep a fairly comedic tone for some scenes, while being incredibly serious in others. Iko may have had a smaller role in the previous books, but now she is front and center, and out of the nine, I think she is a smart choice. Naturally, I cannot speak for those who have been following the series since the beginning, but I think anyone who is just now joining in will be pleasantly entertained.

Favorite Part: When Captain Thorne surprises his incredibly dubious father with a tremendous act of bravery.

Favorite Character: I do wonder if I would feel the same way had I read the other books, but right now I enjoy the stories and characters of both Cress and Scarlet. 

Recommended Reading: Had I read any of the previous books, I would recommend them. So instead I will recommend The Reader by Traci Chee.     

Friday, March 24, 2017

Historical Fiction: A Star-Reckoner's Lot by Darrell Drake

I was asked to review Darrell Drake's A Star-Reckoner's Lot, a story that takes place during the Sassanian Empire in Persia. I typically stay away from fantasy, but it was the unique and imaginative synopsis that led me to venture outside of my normal comfort zone and follow Ashtadukht on her strange journey.

The Situation: Ashtadukht has been trained to be a star-reckoner, but she is terrible at it. Her path to where she is now was never a straight one, and is full of ups and downs, mostly downs. After an interaction as a young child that left a favorable impression with the King of Kings, Ashtadukht was sent away to become a star-reckoner. But now, many years later, and after suffering the tragedy of losing her husband, Ashtadukht sets out on a journey with her cousin, Tirdad, to find the being responsible. It is clear from the beginning that the trip will be a difficult one, if only because of Ashtadukht's illness. It will take the pair across the Iranian countryside, and at one point, they will end up picking up a companion who shares the same unfortunate heritage as the being that killed Ashtadukht's husband. Divs are creatures of the Lie, and Ashtadukht serves the Truth. So to have such a creature as part of her traveling party will prove to be challenging, and it may also prove to be unwise. 

The Problem: Ashtadukht, Tirdad, and Waray, the div, encountere various obstacles as they journey from city to city. Ashtadukht's primary objective is always to vanquish any div she finds along the way, with Waray being the one exception. At first, her story seems little more than an odyssey of adventures, but the more the trio travels, the more they learn about Waray, the truth behind Ashtadukht's husband, and the truth behind Ashtadukht. Turns out there is a reason why she is terrible at star-reckoning, and there is an explanation for Waray's strange behavior beyond it being because she is half-div and half-human. There is even a reason for Ashtadukht's mysterious illness that she has always known as part of her life. The longer they travel, the more the group finds out, and the more bitter, resentful, cruel, and harsh Ashtadukht becomes. She has not made as much peace with her husband's death as she believed, and the trials of the journey may prove more than she can handle.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fantasy novel set during the Sassanian Empire of what is now Iran. Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner, though a terrible one, and her cousin Tirdad has be sent on the journey along with her at the request of her father. The two set off on one grand adventure that is made up of many smaller adventures along the way, allowing them to come across all sorts of people, cities, villages, and of course, divs. There is not simply one brand of divs. The beings come in all shapes and sizes, but it seems they all smell terrible and cannot be trusted. Even Waray, who is half-human, must be regarded with a great deal of caution. But the longer Ashtadukht and Tirdad travel with her, the more they come to like her, and even trust her. At first, the novel may seem like one grand adventure for justice and retribution, and while it most certainly is, it is also a cautionary tale of what holding onto the past can do to a person. Searching for truth and justice is one thing, but doing so when you are not fully ready for what you may find is something else.

My Verdict: I thought I was in for a unique story with the type of characters I do not regularly come across in the books I normally choose, and with A Star-Reckoner's Lot, I was right. I enjoyed reading about Ashtadukht's adventures as she traveled across Iran. Every chapter contained a different confrontation, new divs to fight or conquer, and new information that would give a new layer to what was happening to and around Ashtadukht. The story did become more difficult to read as it went on, if only because it was clear Ashtadukht was not headed in a noble direction, and things were only going to get worse before they ever got better...if they got better. If you like a blend of historical fiction and fantasy, then I recommend this novel.

Favorite Moment: When Ashtadukht comes face to face with what she really is. It may cause her great pain, but her recent actions make her less than likeable, so seeing her suffer a bit brought me a certain amount of satisfaction.

Favorite Character: Tirdad is the type of traveling companion you would want for this type of journey. Though Ashtadukht does not appreciate him as much as she should, and Waray cannot stop pulling tricks on him, he manages to remain patient, kind, and protective.  

Recommended Reading: I recommend Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler. Though Butler's story may take place in 20th century America, and involves vampires instead of divs, it is also a story or justice and retribution, as well as identity and acceptance.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

Yound Adult Fiction: The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon's The Sun Is Also a Star ended up being one of the four books I picked up during my annual Christmas Day trip to BookPeople in Austin, Texas. Every year I somehow manage to find myself in the young adult section, not able to find the book I had planned on buying, so I pick something else. However, I have yet to be disappointed by my second choice book, and this year proved no different.

The Situation: Natasha and Daniel are two teenagers living in New York City, but their lives are incredibly different. Natasha is originally from Jamaica, but has spent most of her life in the states. She loves early 90's alternative rock (think Soundgarden and Nirvana), plans to be a data analysis when she grows up, and believes in facts and science, not feelings and love and God. Daniel is a Korean-American who has an interview that could set him up to attend Yale. His parents more or less have his future mapped out for him, but not necessarily because they are strict and unbending (although they are). They simply want their sons to have it better than they did. But Daniel does not want to go to Yale and become a doctor. Daniel wants to write poetry and do stuff he is actually passionate about. As I said, Natasha and Daniel could not be more different, but that does not keep the two of them from meeting in Time Square, and falling in love before the day is over.

The Problem: Two things that stand in the way of Natasha and Daniel living happily ever after. 1. Daniel's parents will never go for him dating, much less marrying, a black girl. 2. Natasha and her family will be forced to leave the country by 10:00pm tonight. The have overstayed their visas, and due to her father's unfortunate error in  judgment on the night of his big break, their status was found out and revealed, and now they must leave a place they have called home for ten years. These are two huge hurtles, but Daniel cares less and less what his family thinks with each passing hour, and Natasha is doing what little she can to have her family stay in the country. Knowing the truth about her situation, Natasha initially pushes Daniel away, but being a romantic, as well as persistent, he is not so easily deterred. So the two of them spend an almost unbelievable day in New York City, both wanting to believe that fate and destiny are on their side, but knowing that everything could end as quickly as it began.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in present-day New York City. Natasha and Daniel's adventures all take place in less than 24 hours as they travel through Time Square, Koreatown, Harlem, Brooklyn, and a good chunk of Manhattan. Natasha is certainly the more practical of the two. She loves science, facts, studying the stars, and is dubious when it comes to fate and destiny. Originally, her father moved to the US from Jamaica to pursue his dream of acting. But after years of little success, the family of four is still living in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. And now they are being deported. Daniel is a dreamer, and he admits it. His entire life, he has always been second best behind his older brother Charlie, but that changed when Charlie was put on academic dismissal from Harvard. Now the pressure is on Daniel to get into Yale and be a doctor. While the novel mostly switches between the first-person points of view of both Natasha and Daniel, often it will go into an explanation of some seemingly small scientific fact, or it will explore the history or mindset of a minor or side character, basically asking the "what if" question and following the answers through to the end. Probably the main point I gained from these side stories was that while one decision may lead to a happily ever after, it won't be a happily ever after for everyone involved. 

My Verdict: Yes, Natasha's love of hard facts coupled with her cold and hardened personality gets tiresome. Yes, Daniel's persistence and romanticism gets annoying at times. But ultimately, this is a fantastic and well-crafted story about two teenagers who find each other in the weirdest way, in one of the biggest cities in the world, and despite being incredibly different, manage to make a connection that many people never make for their entire lives. Is it easy? No. Does it come with many challenges? Absolutely. But they go for it anyway, and that, to me, is almost always impressive, as is this story. There is a reason it received the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award from the American Library Association. It is a book about real issues, while still managing to be romantic and sweet and fun. 

Favorite Moment: When Daniel stands up to his brother, and also when Natasha stands up to her father.

Favorite Character: Natasha and Daniel both have their good points, but Daniel's optimism is almost infectious when it is not bordering on annoying. Then again, Natasha's honesty and forthrightness are not without their charms either.

Recommended Reading: I will recommend Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, another YA story that is told by more than one person using shifting points of view. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Graphic Novel: Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Andersen

I am not sure exactly what it was that kept me from picking up Adulthood is a Myth, the first in the "Sarah's Scribbles" Collection by Sarah Andersen. Simply from the cover alone I knew I would enjoy it, and the comics I see posted on Facebook from time to time always make me laugh. And when the collection won for Best Graphic Novels & Comics, I knew I should not have waited to enjoy this group of funny and oh so painfully true observations.

Genre, Themes, History: This is not a graphic novel in the sense that there is one story line to follow, but instead a collection of incredibly hilarious, yet often too true, observations about growing up as an introvert. Or even worse (sometimes, well, often actually), an introverted artist. Andersen's first collection includes comics that deal with everyday necessary actions such as picking out what to wear, how to decide when a load of laundry should be done, deciding whether or not to go to bed at a decent hour or stay up for no reason, and of course, an issue every introvert faces on occasion, whether to go out and be social, or stay in and watch Netflix for the thousandth night in a row. Then there are issues that mostly women will be able to relate to, such as the pros and cons of the cute lacy bra, and why sometimes buying pretty frilly underwear just is not worth the expense. And then there are the things introverts can relate to, such as the inexplicable but crippling fear that someone you just met does not like you, despite there being insurmountable evidence to the contrary. The struggle is real y'all. Seriously. On occasion, Andersen is joined in her adventures by a wise and cute rabbit friend who attempts to speak reason, but is often ignored. This rabbit will not only question Sarah's choices, but prod her to admit what is really going on, which makes him (her?) a pretty delightful and helpful sidekick.

My Verdict: I only have one issue with this collection, and that is I wish there were more comics to enjoy and that it went on for a bit longer than 109 pages. But what we do have to enjoy is hilarious and awesome, and again, often painfully true. The comics are ridiculous, but real; funny, but not over the top; drawn really well, while being incredibly accessible; and while the talking rabbit treads into the Calvin & Hobbes territory (which is not a bad thing), Sarah remains the star while the rabbit is the occasional voice of reason. All of this works to make a great collection that almost anyone would love to reference in casual conversation.  

Favorite Comics: I am partial to the panels that deal with Sarah's honest thoughts about those she is forced to interact with on a daily basis. But my absolute favorite is the one titled "Things That Make Me Feel Safe." Such things include leaving the TV and bathroom light on, as well as having a cat in the room, though even the cat seems to know the real truth about the situation (this may or may not hit close to home for me). Also, the comic about the "special snowflakes" is pretty great too.

Recommended Reading: Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant is another collection of comics that often made me laugh out loud, not only because of her observations, but also because of the fun she has with history, pop culture, and the cover art of classic works of literature. 


Friday, March 3, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee

The latest book from young adult fiction author Stacey Lee will actually be the first book of 2017 that I cover that will also be eligible for the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards in November. Yes, I get started early. The Secret of a Heart Note is Lee's third YA novel, and has come quickly off of the heels of her second novel, Outrun the Moon, which was published this past spring.

The Situation: Mimosa, or Mim, is an aromateur. In fact, she is one of only two aromateurs left in the world, the other being her mother. This means that they can smell better than the average human being. Mim can smell emotions, fear, whether a plant is healthy or about to die, and even the heart notes of a person, which can come in handy when helping them fall in love. After being home schooled her entire life, Mim decides she wants to go to high school like a normal teenager. Problem is, she is not normal, and the other teenagers know it. Commonly referred to as the "love witch," most of the other students keep their distance, with only a few being brave enough to speak and interact with her. One of which is her best friend Kali, but most students approach out of a curiosity about what she really is, and what her and her mother can do. As high school proves to be distracting in more ways than one, Mim struggles to keep up with her work at home, as well as her algebra homework. And being distracted while helping someone fall in love will lead to one of the biggest mistakes of Mim's career.

The Problem: There are several rules than an aromateur must abide by. No charging for your services. No "fixing" minors. And of course, no falling in love. Apparently, for an aromateur, falling in love will render their nose useless. Mim keeps all of the rules at the front of her mind, but when she accidentally fixes the wrong person while providing her services for her algebra teacher, lots of rules are broken very quickly, with Mim scrambling to fix everything without her mother noticing. When she is not trying to keep two adults apart, she is trying to keep the secrets of her best friend from being posted all over the Internet by the resident mean girl. And then there is this annoying side effect of being an aromateur where any guy (or girl) who touches your skin may be "infected" and become enamored with you. Keeping the guys at school from falling for her is only part of the problem; Mim has to deal with the jealous feelings of the female students as well. And she still has to keep up the work at home with clients and the garden. If everything is still a mess by the time Mim's mother returns from a trip, she will pull Mim out of high school for sure. But Mim is starting to rethink one particular rule and whether or not it is worth keeping, even if it means losing her nose.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in Santa Guadalupe, a small fictional town just north of San Francisco. Our protagonist and narrator is Mim, a 15 year-old aromateur who has traveled the world with her mother, collecting flowers and herbs and spices for the work that they do. For the kids at school to call her a love witch is not exactly fair. Of course, when do teenagers ever make a point of being fair to someone they do not understand? What Mim and her mother do is open people's eyes to the possibility of love with a specific person. When Mim's algebra teacher, Mr. Frederics,  approaches her house, asking that they fix Ms. DiCarlo, the school librarian, for him, it might look like Mim is being asked to cast a love spell on the poor woman. But instead, what Mim and her mother will do is mix an elixir that pulls from both the algebra teacher and the librarian's heart notes, and will only allow Ms. DiCarlo to essentially notice Mr. Frederics as a possibility. If the chemistry is right, then a match is made. If not, the two move on with their lives, though one may be slightly heartbroken, while the other is none the wiser. Love witch? Not quite. Moral gray area where Mim and her mother are meddling in people's love lives while only half of the party is aware? Definitely. But naturally, as quick as people are to judge, they are also quick to ask for Mim's services when it means they can get the attention of someone they like. However, despite being in the business of love, the life of an aromateur can be a lonely one, something Mim's mother has embraced, while Mim herself is not so sure. She is only 15, but she is already thinking that the lonely aromateur life may not be for her, despite her incredible talent and being only one of two of a dying species. 

My Verdict: For the first few pages of this book, all I could think was "too much too soon." So much information regarding smells, flowers, herbs, spices, and emotions are thrown at the reader that it quickly became overwhelming. Then as the book progressed, it became mildly annoying, and then eventually I just got used to it and expected it. In fact, by the time I turned the last page, I kind of wished I had taken some notes along the way. I know it is fiction, but it was still interesting from a research perspective. The story is unique, the teenagers not too annoying, and the setting of the small northern California town worked incredibly well. But if I had one other issue, despite the speed at which information seemed to come at me at the beginning of the book, it would be the speed of the conclusions at the end, especially when there are so many loose ends left. I truly have nothing against everything being wrapped up with a neat bow by the end of a book, but there is something to be said for the journey needed to get there. 

Favorite Moment: When it became evident that Mim's mother would be spending most of the novel in another country. Maybe it was planned this way, but that woman stressed me out. I cannot imagine how Mim dealt with living with a woman who could literally sniff out lies.

Favorite Character: Mim herself is a bit over dramatic, and bumbling, and clueless. But she is 15, and deals quite well with being labeled as a "love witch" by her classmates. I give her credit for trying to fix her mistakes while also helping her friend. Sure, nearly everything she does turns out to be misguided and terribly planned, but again, she is 15. And she means well.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Lee's first novel Under a Painted Sky, which is very different from Heart Note, but also incredibly good. Northern California is traded for the Oregon Trail. And love witch Mim is traded for orphaned violinist Sam.  

Friday, February 24, 2017

Nonfiction: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Today's selection was one of those books I could not get my hands on fast enough. But every Christmas Day, I take a trip to BookPeople in downtown Austin, because it is one of the few things that are open on that day. And, since it is Christmas, it is possibly the one day of the year that 6th street is not crowded with people. So I decided that was the day I would buy Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, and was almost not able to when the store only had one copy left, and no one could find it. Fortunately I did, and it made Christmas Day that much better. 

Genre, Themes, History: This of course is a nonfiction book, where current The Daily Show host Trevor Noah talks about his life and the many adventures, and misadventures, he had growing up in South Africa. When he was born, apartheid was still very much a thing in South Africa, so it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to have sexual relations. Of course, it still happened, and Noah is proof with a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, hence the title of the book. He recalls his early childhood days when he was not allowed outside to play freely with the other children because of the color of his skin and the fear that he would be taken away. And while he knew his father, he could not acknowledge him in public, and vice versa. From there, Noah continues to chronicle his life in Johannesburg, South Africa. For the most part, the story is told in chronological order, but there are times when he will circle back to important moments in his life, specifically when it came to moments that include his abusive stepfather, Abel. It may be Noah's story, and all of the experiences are from his point of view, but I think it could be effectively argued that the actual main character is his mother. Noah tells the story of a stubborn woman who made sure to give him what she never had so that he would not be subjected to the same fate many young men share in South Africa, especially many black men. The two of them were a team, and with all of the dangers that even a post-apartheid South Africa under Nelson Mandela had to offer, the two of them managed to survive and make it work. They had their difficulties and disagreements, and she was never hesitant to discipline him - and he admits to also being a bad child - but ultimately, they were in this thing together, and it showed. The story does not end with Noah coming to America or with him becoming the host of The Daily Show. The book is all about his life in South Africa and the support of his mom.

My Verdict: There are so many reasons to love this book. First, there is the way Noah tells his story. It is just as honest and funny and forthright as anyone who is familiar with his comedy would expect it to be. Second, it is a crash course in the recent history and culture of South Africa. You think you know about South Africa, and apartheid, and Nelson Mandela...but unless you lived it, you don't. Noah lived it everyday for most of his life, and he does not shy away from the often brutal reality that was daily life in Johannesburg. There is a lot more to it then just black against white, and often Noah describes the feeling of being at the center of it, yet not really belonging to any one group. Third, there is his mother. This stubborn and independent woman made up her mind to make her own way and raise her son to do better than she did. Every story is more jaw-dropping and hilarious/sad/shocking/emotional than the one that comes before it. True, Noah would not have these stories to tell if he had not grown up in South Africa. But he did grow up in a place where his very existence was often a danger to himself and those around him, and everyone can learn a great deal from his decision to tell his story. 

Favorite Moment: There are so many to choose from. But I decided on the moment when Noah describes eventually meeting other people like himself that were also half black and half white, but instead of staying in South Africa, they chose to emigrate somewhere else. Before then, he did not realize that leaving was even an option. "Imagine being thrown out of an airplane. You hit the ground and break all your bones, you go to the hospital and you heal and you move on and finally put the whole thing behind you - and then one day somebody tells you about parachutes. That's how I felt."

Recommended Reading: For humor while discussing the African-American experience, I recommend How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston. For a humorous memoir about the life of a comedy legend, I recommend Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Classic Fiction: Sula by Toni Morrison

In honor of her birthday tomorrow, I decided to cover Toni Morrison's Sula. I have read many of Morrison's books, old and new. Sometimes I was forced to for a class, and then there are ones, like Sula, that I read on my own. Whether I was forced or I volunteered, I was never disappointed, and I am always ready for a Morrison book recommendation.

The Situation: It's 1922 in Medallion, Ohio and twelve year-old Nel and Sula have become fast friends. Soon, they are often thought of and seen as one person, their bond is that close. Where one ends the other begins. They're both  poor, black, smart, and come from homes where the mothers are less than nurturing. Living in a community known as the Bottom, Nel and Sula grow up navigating life as a minority in a town and time where the majority has no issue letting their hatred and prejudices be known. Nel must also deal with a mother who is not shy about her displeasure over her daughter's physical appearance. And Sula deals with a mother who admits to loving her children, but not liking them.

The Problem: Nel and Sula will stay close friends until ten years after Nel's marriage, when Sula comes back to town and the unthinkable happens. Nel's life will change forever, but Sula's will remain the same, even after she becomes a social pariah in the Bottom and it is clear that most everyone would prefer if she were not around. It seems Sula is destined to follow the same path as her mother, who died in a tragic fire years earlier when she was only a girl. As strong-willed as ever, Sula keeps her path if for no other reason than that it is hers and she has the freedom to choose it, though it may lead her to a tragic end.

Genre, Themes, History: Initially published in 1973, I gave this the label of classic fiction and can now add it to my shelf next to the other Morrison novels I have been able to read. Once again Morrison explores the complicated matter of growing up black in post antebellum America. Even though Nel and Sula do not live in the south, which is commonly acknowledged as being openly hostile and dangerous for black people in the early 20th century, it seems the northern state of Ohio was not much better. Black people were still made to occupy the least desirable land in a city, regularly harassed by cops, and often had a hard time finding work for a decent wage (I could go into how times really haven't changed all that much, but that is a rant for a different post). Morrison's story is full of young black men who leave their families, not much caring about the destruction they leave in their path, while single black women have no problem sleeping with someone else's husband, and the husbands have no problem sleeping with someone who is not their wife. With a string of strong female characters - from Nel and Sula, to Nel's mother Helene, Sula's mother Hannah, and also Sula's grandmother Eva - a story is told that illustrates how strong women can be when they have no choice, and how independent and strong-willed they can be even when they do. But it also shows how one generation can heavily influence the next, even when there is a desire to do things differently from those who came before.

My Verdict: As usual, Morrison does not disappoint or fail to both shock and surprise. Stories about black people in America during the 1920s and 1930s can easily become depressing or maddening, and while Sula certainly had moments of both, it was also engaging, and even exciting, while also being heartbreaking and sad. Much like Beloved, there are moments of intense tragedy, moments that would make most wonder how anyone can do such a thing, especially to family. But without saying too much, or describing too much, the reasons for Morrison's characters come through clearly, and though condoning such actions is impossible, dismissing them somehow seems like an easy solution, despite their full horror. It is this sort of complexity that Morrison has always been so good at, and Sula simply proves this yet again.  

Favorite Moment: There are two fires in this novel, and while both end in tragedy and are unbelievably horrible, only Morrison can write about such things and make a reader feel sympathy for the ones who caused them, or even the ones who stood by and watched them burn.

Favorite Character: Eva is Sula's grandmother, and manages to hold herself and her family together after her husband leaves her for another woman. She then raises two more generations, as well as a steady stream of children and boarders who filter through her large house, before eventually becoming senile (or so it seems) in a home for senior citizens.

Favorite Quote: "The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well, but not despair, and they didn't stone sinners for the same reason they didn't commit suicide - it was beneath them." 

Recommended Reading: My favorite Morrison novel is still The Bluest Eye, though to me, it may also be her saddest.