Friday, September 15, 2017

Nonfiction: You Are Here by Jenny Lawson

This is not Jenny Lawson's first rodeo, but this is the first chance I have gotten to pick up one of her books. Instead of going for either Furiously Happy or Let's Pretend This Never Happened, I decided to read You Are Here: An Owner's Manual for Dangerous Minds. After reading the description, I decided I would save this book for my trip to Europe, which would involve a stay in both Prague and Vienna, with a train trip in between. It seemed like the perfect book to relieve travel jitters, and I was right. 

Genre, Themes, History: I decided to place this book under the nonfiction heading, but I have seen it placed under self-help, as well as graphic novel, though that one may be a bit of a stretch. What Lawson has done here is create a book that is half narrative, half drawings and doodles that you can color in yourself. The sheets are even perforated to allow for easier coloring. Also, if you just want to take a few pages with you and not the entire book, tearing them out is naturally the way to go. But good luck picking which pages to take. Many of the drawings may be similar, but none of them are the same. The drawings, or doodles as Lawson refers to them, are a result of her efforts to do something productive with her mind and her hands when what she wants to do is freak out. After sharing a few of them online and receiving some positive feedback, she decided to make a book of them that is humorous, while also serious and helpful, and will provide hours of entertainment long after the actual words have been read. 

My Verdict: This is indeed the perfect book to take to the airport while knowing full well that it will be over 12 hours before you will be anywhere you will be comfortable again. And while I started reading it in the JFK airport, I did not start coloring pages until the train ride to Vienna, which proved to be an ideal setting for such an activity. The text is both funny and encouraging, and the drawings are creative and beautiful, even without any color added to them. As Lawson says a few times throughout the book, it really is whatever the reader wants to make it. Even outside of the coloring sheets, there are a few places where the reader can add in their own stories, secrets, and memories. It is certainly different, but it is also certainly awesome. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys humorous nonfiction, even if you are not all that into adult coloring books. Practically anyone can find some enjoyment in the pages of this book.

Favorite Doodle: Page 48 was the first one I decided to color. It is a drawing of the tail end of a whale above the surface of the water, with a small human figure in a boat near it. The text in the water reads, "She always felt far too afraid for adventures,but that was okay, because misadventure was her true calling." It felt fitting as I was traveling in Europe alone, and had just managed to find my train to Vienna from Prague. It was by no means my first time traveling by myself, but I am afraid every time, though I always push forward.

Recommended Reading: There is no other book like this in my collection. So I will recommend either comic collection by Sarah Andersen: Adulthood Is a Myth, or Big Mushy Happy Lump

Friday, September 8, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Oh Goodreads, how did I find new books and authors before you came along? Seriously, I cannot remember how I did that before. Though to be fair, I was in graduate school for forever before I started this blog, so what I read was often dictated to me by my professors, leaving little time to read anything for fun. But I digress...today's selection is When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. I am all for discovering new YA authors. I am also all for books with diverse voices that involve cultures I am not all that familiar with. This book allowed for both, so this is going to be fun.

The Situation: Dimple Shah knows exactly what she wants in life, and it happens to be the direct opposite of what her mother wants. Dimple's mother would love it if her daughter were more interested in make-up, dressing nice, and finding the "Ideal Indian Husband." But Dimple is focused on starting at Stanford in the fall, and attending Insomnia Con this summer, where she will get to compete against others while creating an app, with the winner getting a chance to make the app available to the public. It is at Insomnia Con where she will meet Rishi Patel, in incredibly practical and dutiful boy who loves the idea of an arranged marriage, and wants to honor his parents by becoming a successful corporate business man, getting married, and having a family. He loves the idea so much that he agreed to attend Insomnia Con, even though he has no interest in coding or web development. He knows it is there that he will meet Dimple, as both his parents and her parents have already arranged the marriage.

The Problem: Everyone is pleased with this plan...well, everyone except Dimple, who did not even know about it until Rishi approached her outside of a Starbucks. Needless to say, that first meeting did not go well, and while Dimple is incredibly angry with her parents, Rishi is the one who incurs her wrath. And if things were not awkward enough, the two of them have been made partners for the entire six weeks of Insomnia Con. Eventually, the pair will get to know each other enough to relax into an easy relationship. But Insomnia Con is still a competition, and one that is incredibly important to Dimple. Together, they must endure encroaching family, snobby competitors, and flaky roommates. It is enough to make Dimple rethink her future, which just a few weeks ago was one thing she was absolutely sure of. Even Rishi begins to wonder if the life he mapped out for himself is truly what he wants.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in and around San Francisco, California. The program that Dimple and Rishi attend, Insomnia Con, takes place on the San Francisco State University campus, where the participants stay for six weeks in the student dorms and work on their own idea for an app. The winning pair will get the chance to develop their app for the market, and work with one of Dimple's idols. Dimple is at Insomnia Con because it is important to her and she wants to win. Rishi is at Insomnia Con because he wanted to meet Dimple, whom he solidly believes is his future wife. Tradition and history are important to both the Shahs and the Patels, but while Rishi embraces these things, Dimple could not care less, and wants nothing more than to be allowed to live her own life and follow her own dreams, without her mother's interference. It is these opposing viewpoints that will pit Dimple and Rishi against each other, and Dimple against her parents. It does not help that some of the other Insomnia Con participants are less than friendly, and have no problem showing how superior they believe themselves to be. It becomes a more complex issue beyond Dimple not wanting her only purpose in life to be finding a husband. And Insomnia Con becomes more than a competition about web development. 

My Verdict: Delightful. Absolutely delightful. Which I am glad for because I had high hopes and was incredibly excited to start this book. Dimple is headstrong and fierce without being tiresome or a cliche. Rishi is genuine and sweet in a way that will endear him to the reader, without coming off as desperate or cloying. The setting of Insomnia Con is perfect in that it gets the students away from their parents, who would otherwise just be in the way, while also keeping them in a somewhat high school-like setting with other students who are not nice people, and authority figures that give them cause to behave and obey a somewhat loose set of rules. Tradition and history of the Indian culture is presented without the plot becoming burdened in details, and the tension between Dimple and her mother feels real. If I had one issue, it would be the character of Celia Ramirez, Dimple's roommate at Insomnia Con. I do not even know if I can put my finger on it, but something about her was just...off. Parts of her personality felt forced and fake, and there were moments where it seemed her only purpose was to push Dimple to put on make-up or wear nicer clothes once in awhile. But her presence did not mar the book in any significant way, making this an awesome new read for any YA lover.

Favorite Moment: It is the moment depicted on the back cover: when Dimple throws her iced coffee in Rishi's face immediately upon meeting him for the first time.

Favorite Character: I am actually having a hard time choosing between Dimple or Rishi. I like that Dimple knows what she wants and is not easily swayed. But I also like how earnest Rishi is and how he manages to not be bothered by the crappy behavior of others.

Recommended Reading: The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon also explores the clash that can occur when a college-bound teenager is not too thrilled about honoring their parents' wishes for their life.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Science Fiction: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Ah...science fiction I can actually follow. It is good stuff I must say. Jeff VanderMeer's Borne tells of a world where cities have been trashed, no one is safe, and to care about anyone or anything is to not only risk your own safety, but your sanity as well as all things can be taken from you. Sure, it is another book exploring a dystopian alternative, but with an interesting spin on it.

The Situation: Rachel lives with Wick in the Balcony Cliffs. Together they have carved out a sufficient existence as she scavenges for materials, and he creates and maintains valuable biotech that adds to the security, food source, and quality of their lives. For the most part they trust each other, but whether they did or not, they must depend on each other for survival. The city around them is more or less a wasteland, with every being for themselves, human or otherwise. There are plenty of threats around, the greatest of which being Mord, a created monster that terrorizes the city, and the Magician, a woman who seeks to contend with Mord for ultimate control of the area and its resources. For a long time, Rachel and Wick have only had to worry about each other, but that is until she finds Borne. He is small, seemingly helpless, and could be valuable, so Rachel takes him and keeps him, with no idea as to what she has possibly gotten herself into.

The Problem: Rachel has no clue what Borne is or what he is capable of, and neither does Borne. As time goes on and as Rachel cares for him, Borne will grow, get bigger, and learn language, among other things. From day one Wick is not a fan, and Borne knows it. He repeatedly demands that Borne be given to him so he can be taken apart, destroyed, as salvage. Wick continually asserts that Borne is dangerous, but Rachel will hear none of it. But as Borne gets bigger and bigger, it becomes difficult for any of them to ignore what is happening. Plus, Borne is not their only concern. Mord is still ruling the city with teeth and claws, while the Magician  is pulling her own tricks in an attempt to gain total control. Meanwhile, Rachel and Wick fight more often, keep more and more secrets from each other, and Borne continues to grown and learn at a terrifying rate. The already delicate balance that they kept over their lives is beginning to tip, and not in a good direction.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel set in an unknown time in an undetermined location, because ultimately, neither of those things matter, given the state of the world. The city where Rachel and Wick have made their home in the Balcony Cliffs is no longer recognizable as what it once was. An entity only referred to as the Company is often mentioned, mostly for its hand in the destruction, as well as its creation of Mord, a terrifying giant bear-like creature that roams the city and eats/destroys what it pleases. And if avoiding Mord is not enough of a task, there is also the Magician, who seems to serve not only as Mord's rival, but Wick's as well. Both of them are worth avoiding, but their growing presence make it fairly obvious that life in Balcony Cliffs cannot last forever. When Rachel finds Borne, she seems to find another purpose of life beyond scavenging. Eventually she will admit to seeing Borne almost like her child, which explains her compulsion to defend him endlessly against Wick, despite her longer relationship with the latter, and the obvious danger behind the growth of the former. In this book, what you see in someone or something is not necessarily what you get. Everyone has secrets; everyone has a hidden history that even they may not know about.

My Verdict: While the story may be incredibly original, even despite the dystopian setting, something about the story's pacing or the amount of internal dialogue threw me off. I liked the setting, I liked the characters, and I liked the action that took place. But Rachel's constant need to pick apart every little instance, every interaction, every shrug, every question, every answer, every silence...it becomes too much. The surprises came out less surprising, and excitement was hard to come by. With that being said, it is still a great book with interesting characters and a compelling story that made me wander how the ever-growing issue of Borne was going to be handled or dealt with. VanderMeer presents a problem with a seemingly simple solution, but that solution is hard to execute when someone refuses to see the obvious truth in front of them, while the problem only gets bigger and bigger. 

Favorite Moment: When Rachel is able to take firm action when dealing with the Magician.

Favorite Character: This is difficult, because Rachel's blindness and need to take care of something or have something of her own, despite the obvious issues, makes her hard to like. Wick seems more clear-sighted, but is difficult to trust. And Borne is innocent and ignorant, but also a troublemaker. 

Recommended Reading: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel tells the story of a world after a terrible epidemic has wiped out most of humanity. There are not enough human beings to run the bigger cities, and survival is a tenuous thing.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Historical Fiction: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Since I am forever on the search for historical fiction that is not about World War II, I was thrilled to come across The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. Not only is it not set during WWII, but it set during my lifetime, which initially made me hesitant to put it under the historical fiction label. But because of the story it tells, and the way it is told, that label seems both appropriate and fitting.

The Situation: Li-yan grew up in a remote Chinese mountain village among the Akha people. She did not grow up wealthy or well-connected, and her culture prized sons above daughters, sees the birth of twins as a tragedy that requires a thorough and severe cleansing ritual, and what little money they make during the year relies heavily on how much tea they can pick and process to be sold. As the only daughter in her family, Li-yan will inherit the private tea grove that has been passed down the female line in her family. It is so private that no man is allowed to enter it, for it is believed that if he does he will die. The tea made from the trees in this grove is thought to be the best in the world, and not just by Li-yan and her mother. If Li-yan follows her culture's traditions, as well as her mother's footsteps, she will grow up to be village's next mid-wife and healer. But Li-yan wants more for her life, especially as she learns that the world outside of her small village is changing rapidly.

The Problem: The trouble starts when Li-yan falls for a boy her parents do not approve of. San-pa is known to be lazy and a troublemaker, but Li-yan insists she loves him and wants to marry no one else. When San-pa leaves the small village to work hard so he can return and gain Li-yan's parents' approval, she finds that she is pregnant with his child. A child born out of wedlock is considered a human reject that must be killed immediately after birth, but instead of following the tradition she grew up with, Li-yan manages to have her baby dropped off at an orphanage, where the little girl is eventually adopted by an American couple. It is an action that will bring Li-yan much relief and sorrow, as she will spend much of her energy both grieving over the daughter she lost, as well looking for her in the face in every Chinese girl she sees. Both women must move forward with their lives, one wondering about the daughter she gave up, and another wondering about the mother who would give her away, and if there is any way to find her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that is actually set in the not at all distant past. Starting in 1988 and going all the way to 2016, the story begins with Li-yan's childhood and continues until she is an adult living in California, far away from her small mountain village in China. She will come a long way from her incredibly humble beginnings as an apprentice mid-wife to her mother. Possibly the one thing that will always have a presence in every chapter of her life is tea. Her family picked it and sorted the leaves as their primary source of income. And after attending a trade school, she will then be accepted into programs that will help her build upon the knowledge she already has, allowing her to eventually open her own tea shop and join the modern world outside of her village. As Li-yan gains more education, and sees more of the outside world, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to reconcile the Akha beliefs and traditions she grew up with, and what she observes in the world outside of her village. The book also delves into China's history with communism, the one-child-policy, and of course, the tea trade. And while the majority of the book is told in first-person through Li-yan, there are small sections that include information about Haley, the daughter that Li-yan gave up. Whether through letters, school assignments, or group therapy transcripts, little bits of information about Haley's life are given to the reader, which show a young girl struggling with her identity as a Chinese girl with white adoptive parents.

My Verdict: This is an incredible story and a spectacular way to talk about the history of the tea trade and industry in China. Through Li-yan, the reader learns a great deal about tea: how and when it is picked, sorted, processed, packaged, sold, and even brewed, down to the best type of water to use when doing so. For the most part, the characters are fully developed and become real people dealing with issues most anyone can relate to, such as family expectations and obligations, and the desire to protect what is precious from those who wish to possess it for their own profit. My only issue with this book is its pacing. Sometimes the story moves at a steady pace, and at other times it moves quickly, even through settings or scenarios that would seem important to overall story development, but instead end up coming across as more of a means to an end, if that makes any sense. I also wish more time was spent learning about Haley and what her life is like with her adoptive parents in California. Otherwise, this is a great book that I still believe would be suitable for fans of historical fiction, despite it taking place during the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

Favorite Moment: When Li-yan finally realizes the truth about the man she married. 

Favorite Character: Li-yan's mother, or A-ma, is a proud and often stubborn woman, but she is also respected and has done much to earn that respect throughout her community. Like many mothers, she knows more than she lets on, causing Li-yan to have revelations later in her life about events that happened decades before. She may be committed to her culture's beliefs and traditions, but her commitment to her daughter will ultimately come first.

Recommended Reading: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran is a different kind of story that also deals with the adoption of an immigrant child by parents that do not share his ethnic background.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

At long last, I have finally come around to reading and posting about Paula Hawkins' second novel, Into the Water. Her first thriller, The Girl on the Train, delighted (and also troubled) many and was eventually made into a movie. I was already made aware that her follow-up, while not quite like the first one, was also a thrilling mystery that may keep the reader guessing.

The Situation: When Nel Abbott's body is found in the river, the reaction to the news is mixed. For some, the news comes as a relief, mixed in with a little joy if some are honest. For others it is distressing. And for still others, it is a little bit of both. Understandably, Nel's 15 year-old daughter Lena is distraught and finds reason to be angry with nearly everyone, including herself. A good amount of her wrath is focused on Jules, Nel's estranged sister, who is now being dragged back to the one place she never wanted to see again. Upon returning, she learns that her sister was not well-liked in the small community, mostly because of her work and research into what she called The Drowning Pool. It seems the river has a history of claiming the lives of "troublesome" women, with Nel being the most recent addition. Now Jules, as well as nearly everyone else in town, must once again confront their own history and what they are each capable of and responsible for.

The Problem: Dealing with a sister's death, even an estranged one, is difficult enough. But Jules finds herself having to deal with the death that occurred before Nel's as well. It seems a friend of Lena's also committed suicide at the river, something that Nel was blamed for by the girl's mother. While that investigation has been closed for some time, it seems that Nel's death has served to bring new evidence, as well as old emotions and old stories. Not everyone in town believes that Nel killed herself, or that the whole story was told concerning the other deaths at the river. There are even a few who believe the person responsible is still a threat, and the women in town are still in danger. But it seems everyone is hiding something, and almost anyone connected to the women who died feel some amount of pain or grief, whether they are actually guilty or not. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in present day in a small town in England. If there was one main character it would be Jules, the sister of the most recent woman to die at the river. But there is also the daughter, Lena, who is now grieving the loss of her mother, while also having not gotten over the death of her best friend, Katie. There are many other slightly less prominent characters, though still important, such as Sean Townsend, the lead investigator into Nel's death, as well as his wife, Helen, and father, Patrick. The local psychic, Nickie, claims to know things, and also commune with the dead, but mostly she gets on people's nerves as they do not believe her. And when it seems she does have something helpful to offer, she is cryptic and vague, causing most people to give up on her. The story switches between the points of view of nearly everyone involved, allowing the reader to get a glimpse into why people do what they do and say what they say, especially in times of tragedy. This town has a history it would rather ignore, and perhaps that is why it keeps repeating itself.

My Verdict: While this is a good story, it is not necessarily a good mystery. It is fairly easy to see in what direction this book is headed as soon as it is understood that Nel Abbott was not a well-liked person. And after reading at least one chapter from the point of view of each key player, it was easy to know what actually happened and who is responsible. The mystery part just was not there for me. And while the character development may have been on point, their relationships with each other were often hard to believe. In the end, there were more than a few loose ends that were not properly tied up, at least in my opinion, and the big reveal did not feel that big. There were many missed opportunities that would have made this book a bigger page turner than its predecessor, but something just was not there. Many details seemed tacked on, as if they were an afterthought. If anything, the one motivation the reader has to keep turning the page is to see if justice is brought to the right person, or at least to the characters that we do not like.

Favorite Moment: When Louise, Katie's mother, was forced to the realization that she did not really know her daughter.

Favorite Character: There was not one character in this book that did not aggravate me in some way, but in the end I will pick Jules for gathering the strength to return to this community and confront her own mistakes.

Recommended Reading: The Girl on the Train is much more suspenseful and certainly worth the anxiety that comes from reading such a disturbing story.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Nonfiction: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The full title of today's selection is The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. In it, Kate Moore tells the true story of the women who worked as dial-painters in America during World War I. It was a somewhat prestigious, well-paying, and often fun job for young women in the early 1900s. The book is full of stories of the girls getting along well with each other as they sat at their stations and painted tray after tray of dials using a paint mixture made from radium. Of course, those of us living in the 21st century are well aware of the dangers that can come from being exposed to radium, even to a small amount for a short period time. But during WWI, radium was still being hailed as a miracle substance that was perfectly safe to be around, though there are some people who knew the truth.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that gives detailed accounts of the lives of several women who worked as dial-painters in early 20th century America. These women went to work in one of two cities, either Orange, New Jersey or Ottawa, Illinois, in factories that specialized in the production of clock faces painted with the mysterious and glowing substance of radium. They had been told the substance was safe, so there were little to no safety precautions in place to protect the girls' health. In fact, they were told it was so safe that the technique of lip pointing was employed to make sure the brushes they used achieved the perfect fine-pointed tip. Basically, to keep the hairs of the brush from spreading, which would make them unable to achieve the fine lines necessary for dial-painting, the girls would put the brushes in their mouths before dipping them into the paint. And because radium often made the hairs on the brushes stiff and hard to work with, the girls would put them in their mouths several times throughout their shift. Although the regular exposure to the radium would be enough to cause problems, the fact that the girls were putting the radium covered brushes into their mouths led to serious health concerns that many of them would never recover from. Most often the substance attacked their mouths and jaws, often moving to bones and joints throughout their body. As more and more women fell sick, and people were finally realizing why, the women would not only fight for their lives, but also against the companies that helped put them in this terrible position. Cases that came out of both Orange and Ottawa would set precedents regarding worker's rights and holding companies accountable for occupational hazards. 

My Verdict: There are other books and articles that talk about the dial-painters of America and what they went through as a result of the work they did, but what Moore wanted to do was write a book that told a story specifically from the women's point of view, and I think that is what makes this book so interesting and engaging. It does not simply list facts and figures, names and dates, court cases and cities. Instead, Moore goes into the women's daily responsibilities as dial-painters, who they married, how they lived, what their hometowns were like, and later, how each one suffered, what treatments they endured, how they found a lawyer (if they found one at all), and ultimately how they died. Though it is a true story, it does not read like one, and often felt more like political intrigue or a courtroom drama. But these were real people who endured real suffering, and had to fight real corporations who were more interested in making money than in keeping their workers safe. It is an interesting story that was often hard to read, but ultimately it was worth it to learn about a fascinating piece of American history.

Favorite Moment: When a high-profile lawyer from Chicago decides to take on the women's case for free.

Favorite Character: Grace Fryer was perhaps the most fierce of the group from Orange who decided to sue the United States Radium Corporation. She often led the charge when confronted with a new barrier and was never intimidated into backing down.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell, which tells the story of the only family internment camp in American during World War II.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Graphic Novel: Big Mushy Happy Lump by Sarah Andersen

I love reviewing comic collections, mostly because they are the easiest thing for me to read and review, but also because they are so much fun. After reading Sarah Andersen's Adulthood is a Myth earlier this year, I could not wait until the second collection, Big Mushy Happy Lump, hit the bookstores. 

Genre, Themes, History: Just like its predecessor, I placed this collection under the heading of graphic novel, though there is no one storyline to follow. However, unlike Adulthood is a Myth, near the end of the book, Andersen does include three short essays, providing illustration for them along the way. Once again, the book covers a variety of issues and scenarios that the introverted and creative among us would be able to relate to. My personal favorite from this category is "How to Become Good at Drawing," which is essentially a cycle of drawing, followed by self-loathing. I would say that oftentimes the same is true for becoming better at writing. Of course, the book also has many comics that deal with women's issues, such as being on vacation or traveling during that time of the month, and the ability (or inability rather) many men have of completing missing any and every social cue that lets them know a woman is completely, and utterly not interested in whatever they are offering. Andersen's rabbit sidekick friend does not make as many appearances in this one as he (she?) did in the previous one, but they are still there on occasion to make the snarky side comment or point out the obvious. And the three essays at the end deal with Andersen's inability to socialize, her adventures to becoming a cat lover, and her confession of being a sweater thief. None of them are terribly long, but they do give more insight into the woman behind the drawings.

My Verdict: Again, my one contention with this collection is that it is so short, though longer than the first one. I want to keep turning the pages, possibly for forever, and continue finding more comics to laugh at, laugh with, and generally relate to as a fellow introverted creative type. This is a fantastic follow-up to Adulthood is a Myth and continues the story, even without there being an actual narrative. Even if a comic touches on a topic Andersen has covered many times before, it is always done in a new way, from a new angle, or even with a different approach. If anything, it is a good collection to have for anyone who feels socially awkward, or tends to drown themselves in self-doubt or over thinking, as it is an excellent reminder that you are not alone, and there are many others like you.

Favorite Comic: "How I Spend Money" speaks to me on levels I am not entirely proud of, but are hilarious in comic form. It shows Andersen being quite frugal when it comes to groceries, clothes, and household items. But when it comes to buying books, she walks up to the counter in the bookstore wearing a fur coat and sunglasses, and proceeds to take the cash from her pockets and throw it in the air. Yep, accurate.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, you don't need to read Adulthood is a Myth before picking up Big Mushy Happy Lump, but why wouldn't you want to?   

Friday, July 28, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: American War by Omar El Akkad

A book that features an imagined dystopia in which the U.S. is going through another civil war? Um...okay, sure. As uncomfortable and unsettling as reading such a story can be, especially given our current political climate, I decided to go ahead and pick up American War by Omar El Akkad. It is another one that seemed to be making its rounds on Goodreads, so I gave in to my own curiosity.

The Situation: Sarat Chestnut once lived with her family in a house by the Mississippi Sea. The year was 2074 when her father left home in an attempt to secure the family a place in the north. The U.S. had just recently began fighting its second Civil War, but instead of slavery serving as the default reason for the disagreement between the north and the south, this time it was the use of fossil fuel. The states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia make up the Free Southern States, while South Carolina remains a quarantine zone due to the outbreak of a deadly virus after a terrorist attack. With fighting so close to home in the Battles of East Texas, and the disappearance of her husband, Sarat's mother decides to move her family somewhere safer, somewhere they will be taken care of and provided for. It is in Camp Patience in the northern part of Mississippi where Sarat will spend the remainder of her adolescence, and where her life will continue on a path from which there will be no coming back.

The Problem: Of course, war is an ugly thing, no matter which side you are on. Camp Patience may provide relative safety, but it is still incredibly close to the Blue border. If that were not enough, there is also the tension between the Reds and the rebels, who are supposed to be on the same side, but cannot seem to get along. Sarat's fearlessness and independence sets her apart from the rest of the children in Camp Patience, bringing her to the attention of a mysterious and well-dressed foreigner. After a massacre kills of most of the residents of the camp, this foreigner will take this opportunity to turn Sarat into his own weapon, one that the Blues will never see coming. As the war goes on, Sarat becomes smarter, harder, tougher, and more vengeful. It is this thirst for vengeance that the mysterious outsider will feed on, while aiming to hurt more than just the opponents of the free southerners.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a novel that takes place mostly between the years 2074-2095, during the America's second Civil War. Told from the point of view of a third party, whose identity is not revealed until near the end of the book, it is the story of Sarat Chestnut, her family, and how she became an important and key figure in the war. It was tempting to label this book as science fiction since it is set in the future, but I decided against it as there is little beyond that to recommend it for that category. As the novel unfolds, Sarat will go from being a fairly typical happy and carefree child, to a hardened and dour teenager, to a vengeful soldier, a broken prisoner, and finally, a broken and nearly empty shell of a person. In between chapters, interviews and documents concerning the war are inserted, giving different angles and perspectives to the war that Sarat would never have, or even consider. It is the story of the potential journey one child can take when their country is at war. And while Sarat would like to imagine that she is making these decisions for herself - choosing her own destiny and for what and whom she would like to fight - and that her mysterious tutor sees something special in her, the truth is actually far less complimentary. Those who side with neither the north nor the south are fighting for their own interest, looking out for anyone willing to do their bidding under the guise of exacting their own justice. It is a story that Egyptian-born El Akkad would certainly be able to imagine and tell as an award-winning journalist who has covered stories from the war in Afghanistan, to the Black Lives Matter movement.

My Verdict: As I mentioned in the introduction, this book was uncomfortable to read at times. For one, while it is set in the future, it is not set all that far in the future. If any of this were to happen, it is plausible that people who are alive now in 2017 could potentially live to see it. Second, it is not a civil war occurring in some far off land that a citizen of the U.S. would have to take a plane to visit. States that we can drive to would be closing their borders against each other, and deploying troops to fight fellow citizens. Yeah, it's scary. And oftentimes, books that imagine a future where the U.S. has turned against itself feel like they are pointing a finger, but this one does not feel that way. It also does not feel like it takes sides. El Akkad takes an innocent girl and makes her the center of this story, and the unfortunate product of a problem she did nothing to create. The book could be taken as a warning, but ultimately, it is a story exploring the nasty effects of war.

Favorite Moment: When Sarat shaves her head after completing a dare that no other child would have had the courage to complete, but completing it will still earns her unending teasing and ridicule.

Favorite Character: There are none righteous here. Nope, not even one.

Recommended Reading: The only other books I have read that imagine the U.S. being broken up by war and fighting are from the the young adult genre. Both The Hunger Games and the Legend trilogies involve a country torn apart by in-fighting, with some areas suffering more than others.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Science Fiction: Grond: The Raven High by Yuri Hamaganov

As part of a blog tour hosted by Reading Addiction Blog Tours, I agreed to read and review Grond: The Raven High by Yuri Hamaganov. The book promises to be the first in a series, exploring a world in the not too distant future where Earth's resources have run dry, feelings about and towards androids are tenuous, and we must find alternate methods of providing for the most basic of human needs in order to survive.

The Situation: In the year 2080, Olga Voronov is born and almost immediately sold to The Corporation. Her birth parents made a deal in exchange for money to have their daughter taken from them, raised by an android, and trained to manufacture advanced nanomaterials that will be used in an attempt to save Earth's sharply declining ecosystem. As one of seven bioengineered post-humans - also known as The Changed - Olga's mind works differently from that of a normal human, and by six years old she can already run complicated programs and simulations that aid in her training. At ten years old she will be declared fully mature and can work to earn her own money. Forced to live in isolation, she must remain at the High House, out in space but close to Earth, with only her android nanny, Arina, and all of the advanced technology she could ever want.

The Problem: Even with Olga's help, and the help of the other Changed beings, the earth continues to die, and the people on it continue to suffer. There are now only two classes of people: the very rich and the very poor. While Olga may know that the earth is in trouble, as that is the reason she exists, the full details of the horror are often kept from her. She laments the loss of Earth's oceans, as she dreamt of one day being able to swim in them for real, instead of in a simulation. But human suffering is of little concern to her, as she sees beings like herself as the next logical step in human evolution. But not everyone shares her view, and there are even some with the resources to reach her who would prefer she did not exist, and that humanity would be made to suffer the consequences of the world they have created.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that begins in the year 2086, and continues until Olga reaches the age of 12, at which point she has the appearance of a fully grown adult woman. Earth is in such terrible shape that a new class of human beings were bioengineered in order to save it. However, the process seems to be slow going, and while human life continues on the surface, many people suffer, and unemployment remains incredibly high. Those that are wealthy enough can choose to practically live in virtually reality, perpetually ignoring that chaos and destruction around them. And the continents and countries as we know them today are all but erased due to war and famine. When the book opens, Olga is only six years old, but she is already extremely intelligent and The Corporation trains her hard. In many ways she is like a normal kid, as she loves hot chocolate, dreams of swimming in oceans with dolphins, and often neglects her homework in favor of video games. But her intelligence sets her apart. It also helps to make her cold towards the people she was born to help, but smart enough to realize that even she may not be immune to the chaos that is taking place below.

My Verdict: It is always difficult to enjoy a book where the protagonist is not likeable. And if her enemies are not sympathetic either, then who does the reader root for? Unless the story is incredibly inventive and captivating, the result is either profound indifference or annoyance, or perhaps both. Once I realized that Olga was not much interested in the plight of the human race - something that is only a natural result of her upbringing, intelligence, training, and extreme isolation - I stopped being interested in Olga. The future that Hamaganov created is, however, inventive and interesting. Earth's history from the year 2030 through Olga's birth is full of wars and fighting, as well as the controversial invention of androids. Of course, any alternate history (or future) that deals with conflicts between countries where there is a clear winner and a clear loser is going to anger and annoy some while delighting and amusing others, and the one presented here is no exception. 

Favorite Moment: When Olga begins to realize that her situation and status is not as secure as she once wanted to believe.

Favorite Character: Everyone in this dystopian future has their faults, and they are all hiding something from someone. I even hesitate to pick Arina, Olga's android nanny who is nurturing and patient, while also firm and resolute.

Recommended Reading: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty presents another version of Earth's future, but this one introduces cloning and the many moral and ethical questions that can come from it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

I decided to tackle Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 as my first fiction book after YA Fest, and I feel like I went directly into the deep end instead of wading through the shallow end first. Not only is this book a door stop, but it is also not something that I could imagine anyone lugging to the beach as a light read. If you are looking for a book that will take you some time and also require your full attention, 4 3 2 1 might be for you.

The Situation: Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born on March 3, 1947 to Rose and Stanly in Newark, New Jersey. He is a fairly ordinary Jewish boy, with a father who owns and works at his own appliance store, and a mother who enjoys taking portraits. But once the story of his birth is told, the novel splits into four different stories about four different Fergusons, as he is referred to. Each Ferguson has its own distinctive and independent path. Some characters outside of his parents will appear in all four stories, while others may only be in one or two. Sometimes his relationship with his father will be close, other times it will be strained. In one story, basketball will be his sport of choice, while in the rest, baseball will be his first love. The only thing that all four stories is guaranteed to have in common is that Ferguson is at the center of them.

The Problem: Playing the what if game does not always mean that the possible outcomes will be positive. Because all four Fergusons had their life begin in 1947, that means that their adolescents must take place in America during the tumultuous 1960s. Each Ferguson will have its own thoughts and feelings and reactions during a time when it may seem like the country is ready to tear itself apart. But often, the events that are happening within Ferguson's own family are enough to keep him busy. In every story, Ferguson's uncles are not the best people in the world, but how they affect his family, particularly his father, depends greatly on how Stanley handles them. The outcome of other events seems to depend little on the actions that precede them, but instead they come out differently only because a different story is being told. Each Ferguson has his own problems, struggles, and hangups. But each Ferguson also has his own friends, ambitions, joys, triumphs, and desires. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a contemporary fiction novel that could really be considered as four different novels, all about the same person. It is tempting to add the heading of historical fiction to this novel, as there is much detail concerning historical events in each story, and how they affected Ferguson and his simple life in New Jersey. Probably the event that dominates most of the novel, especially as Ferguson leaves high school and enters college, is the war in Vietnam, and the tensions it set off on our own soil. Every part of Ferguson's life, in  all four stories, receives a fair amount of attention. But because the Vietnam War is gaining traction right at the crucial moment when the Fergusons are approaching adulthood, it is the event that dominates the latter half of the novel. But beyond the historical aspect of the novel is the ambitious approach it takes to telling the story of Ferguson's life. Each Ferguson is different from the next, which even means some are more likeable then others. One Ferguson might be relatable and sympathetic, while another may be hard to read about, and still another may not be as interesting to read about, though a perfectly nice person. The stories begin the moment Ferguson is born, and continue until the fourth one graduates college, though not all of them are granted that luxury. The novel is a study in how different our lives could be if one minor detail were changed, or if fate simply decided to do things a little differently. And *spoiler alert* the title is somewhat of a countdown clock: As the novel continues, the Fergusons die off one by one, until only one is left and is revealed to be the real story.

My Verdict: First things first: This book is long, like Infinite Jest long. But given that the novel is really four novels in one, I suppose 800+ pages is not too much to ask for from the reader. I am always drawn to a book with interweaving narratives. While the characters in each story do not necessarily cross paths with the characters in others, it is interesting to see where different people show up in the four Fergusons' lives. And of course, it is just interesting to see what happens to each Ferguson and where he ends up. If I had an issue with the novel, it would be that it often gets lost or gets a little too deep into the historical context. Or that it will often take too much time in exploring every small detail that leads up to a momentous event or decision in Ferguson's life. I appreciate knowing every minor thing that led to Ferguson doing something, but often I would rather just get on with the event and move on with the rest of the story. But the four different stories are not simply an excuse to write four different novels and put it in between the covers of one. Auster manages to bring them all together in the end and also makes it clear that 4 3 2 1 is not just four different stories, but four lives of one person.

Favorite Moment: A well-placed blank page is a powerful thing, even when you know it is coming.

Favorite Character: Ferguson's mother Rose is more or less the one constant through all four narratives, which is probably a statement about her and her steadfast nature, as well as just how important she is in the young man's life.

Recommended Reading: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson takes the one life, many stories idea, but does it a little differently. Instead of having one life split into many, Atkinson's protagonist keeps reliving the same life, but different choices lead to different outcomes.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Nonfiction: Here We Are edited by Kelly Jensen

If I had one regret from this year's San Antonio Book Festival, it is that I missed out on attending the panel discussion titled The Future Is Female: Feminism for the Real World with Kelly Jensen, Jessica Luther, and Siobhan Vivian. The thing is, I was volunteering at the time of the panel. But I was able to buy the book, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, and have all three women sign it. The book includes 41 other voices as they write and draw about what it means to be a feminist today.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is a collection of essays, letters, comics, web posts, and drawings, all about feminism and what it means to be a feminist. Most of the entries were written specifically for this anthology, while a few were taken from other publications and online entries. At the beginning of each chapter or section, there is a brief introduction to the subject. Sprinkled throughout the entire book are short but informative FAQs about feminism, and nothing is left out. Nothing is left untouched. The chapters are broken out into subjects like getting started on your own feminist journey; the body and mind; gender, sex, and sexuality; culture and pop culture; relationships; confidence and ambition; and finally, finding your own feminism that works for you. Ultimately, you may not be the type who will hop onto a podium and given an impassioned speech at a rally (Lord knows I'm not). But you may be someone who is good at listening; good at expressing themselves through writing or singing or drawing; good at seeing someone who is hurting and simply offering them your presence. All of these are helpful. All of these are necessary. Feminism does not belong to any one type of person or any one group of people. If you're willing to fight for change, you can join the movement.

My Verdict: Although this book is geared towards the young adult crowd, it would be good for pretty much any adult to read it too. Though I suppose that isn't too terribly surprising; in my opinion it would be good for adults to read most of the young adult novels I come across. Here We Are is a great anthology offering a wide range of voices from different cultures and backgrounds, all speaking on the issue of feminism. Courtney Summers, a YA author whose books I have featured on this blog, wrote a fantastic essay about the likability rule that is unfairly applied to female characters in literature, especially when that character is hurting or attempting to speak out about an injustice. Actress Amandla Stenberg makes a couple of contributions, but my personal favorite is an Instagram post of hers titled "Do Female Black Lives Matter Too?" Muslim blogger and YA author Kaye Mirza wrote about how faith and feminism can go together and are not at all mutually exclusive. YA author Brandy Colbert wrote about something I could certainly relate to: growing up without a sister, while also not having many female childhood friends who were also black. And of course, there is the excerpt from Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, which basically confirms the fact that all of the accomplishments you may have had in high school are immediately forgotten about and lose all relevance upon graduation. There is a lot of material here and a lot to take in. Wherever you are in your feminist journey and wherever you stand, there is something that can be gained from this collection.

Favorite Essay: A Thousand Paper Cuts by Shveta Thakrar.

Favorite Quotes: "Get sliced open enough, bleed enough, and you start to hold back. You ball yourself up tight, so there's less of you showing." - Shveta Thakrar

"When talk of reproductive justice  by white feminists focuses on abortion access and ignores the way the right to reproduce has throughout history been taken from communities of color, from disabled women, or from anyone who doesn't fit a narrow mold, it's not just ignorance at play. It's the very real problem of being immersed in a culture that positions motherhood as something only certain women should be able to access and protect." - Mikki Kendall

"While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips, and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally." - Amandla Stenberg

Recommended Reading: All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister was my favorite nonfiction book of 2016, and the author was also a guest at last year's San Antonio Book Festival.     

Friday, June 30, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

At last, the Door Stop Novels YA Fest has reached its conclusion, and I cannot think of a more fitting author to end with than Sarah Dessen. And quite naturally, there was a great deal of excitement over her latest release, Once and for All, the 13th book in her already impressive collection. I have enjoyed being able to commit my favorite month to my favorite genre, but in July, I must return to giving my other categories some love, starting with some fascinating nonfiction. But first, one last YA novel. 

The Situation: Louna Barrett is once again working with her mother and her business partner, William, as they tackle another season of weddings. While the trio works very hard to give the bride her perfect big day, or as close to perfect as they can get, all of them are somewhat jaded when it comes to happily ever after. Louna's mother, Natalie, has long believed that that part of her life is over. William cannot seem to find a man that makes him want to settle down for a long-term commitment. Louna is only 17 years-old, but even she has experienced enough to know that true love can be hard to come by, and even if she does find it, it can be easily taken away from her.

The Problem: An event like a wedding comes with its own problems. Sometimes the bride and/or groom has cold feet; sometimes the mother of the bride is overbearing; sometimes the bartenders get snippy; sometimes people insist on trying to sit in the front row at the ceremony, even though that is traditionally reserved for family; sometimes the child that is supposed to throw flower petals decides to throw a tantrum instead; and sometimes the annoying ring bearer son is too busy chatting up the cute girl outside to be on time for his mother's wedding. This last one is the case for Ambrose, whom Louna has to physically drag inside. Even though his mother's wedding may be over, his sister's is still to come, and when Natalie decides to hire him in an effort to keep him from driving his sister crazy, Louna now has to deal with him on a nearly daily basis. Even if he was not prone to being distracted by every pretty face he sees, Louna could never consider him as someone to be with. Though it has been a year, she continues to nurse her broken heart over the only boy she has ever loved. But while Louna is determined to remain closed off and alone, while never taking Ambrose seriously, Ambrose is determined to change her mind.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that begins at the end of Louna's senior year of high school, and continues into the summer, which is also the busy wedding season. For much of the novel, the many details that go into making a successful wedding, as well as the things that can make everything can wrong, are discussed and poured over as Natalie, William, and Louna attempt to give the brides what they want, while also maintaining their own sanity. This is no easy task, whether the wedding is a big and grand affair, or a small and intimate event with only a few family and friends. Throughout the book, Louna has to run all sorts of errands, ranging from picking up flowers from the florist, to picking up clowns for a circus-themed wedding after their car breaks down. Her best friend Jilly does her best to make sure her friend maintains the semblance of a normal teenage life by dragging her to parties. But after what happened the previous summer, Louna is genuinely not that interested in looking for someone. And working in the wedding industry does not help her much when it comes to being jaded about love. Ambrose, however, has a decidedly different outlook on life. He may not be big on commitment and the long-term, but he loves the fun beginnings of relationships, and seems to start as many as he can. He is annoying, arrogant, persistent, and seems to take nothing seriously. Still, Louna gets stuck working with him, and even makes a bet that he cannot stay with one girl for a long period of time, while he bets that she could not possibly go on several dates in an attempt to meet people and put herself out there. They are both sure they will win of course, but the bet will have consequences that neither of them saw coming. 

My Verdict: Well, it did not end up becoming my new favorite Dessen novel, which is fine. It would take quite a bit to unseat Along for the Ride. And while Dessen did a great job - like incredibly good - of making Ambrose annoying and hard to like, she also did a great job of making Louna relatable, even if someone has not quite shared her experience of heartache. Some of the aspects of the overall story were hard to get behind, but I will say that I for once enjoyed reading about a mother/daughter relationship that was not incredibly strained and tense. With most Dessen novels, the relationship between the mother and the daughter causes me to wince more than smile. But while Natalie may not be all smiles and cuddles and hot cocoa, she is not so cold or at all neglectful or condescending that she and her daughter do not get along. Not only do Natalie and Louna get along, but they also work well together, which is definitely not true for even some of the closest mother/daughter pairings. This book was certainly a little different (at least to me) than other recent Dessen novels. It also eases up on some of the darkness from Saint Anything, though sometimes it may have eased up a bit too much. But overall, any Dessen fan will enjoy this book. 

Favorite Moment: When Crawford, Jilly's socially awkward and straight-talking brother, lets Louna know what his sister has really been up to.

Favorite Character: As strange of a pick as it may be for a favorite character, I choose Natalie, Louna's mother. Wedding planning is decidedly not easy. But for someone who is pretty jaded when it comes to love, Natalie and her partner William are really good at it. The pair manages to give the bride their big day, while also standing their ground against pushy mothers and cranky guests.

Recommended Reading: Of course I recommend Along for the Ride, but if you are looking for a Dessen novel with more of an edge to it, I recommend Saint Anything or Lock and Key.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Piecing Me Together by Reneé Watson

YA Fest continues with Piecing Me Together by Reneé Watson. I had hoped to hear Watson speak at the 5th Annual San Antonio Book Festival, but unfortunately, due to terrible storms in the northeast, her flight was canceled and she could not make it. Even so, I bought Piecing Me Together anyway and decided to give it a place during the month of June.

The Situation: Jade is determined to make it out of her neighborhood on the north side of Portland. She is already on the right path to do so by attending St. Francis High School, a private school in the nicer part of town. It may mean not attending Northside with her best friend, Lee Lee, but being a student at St. Francis means access to many opportunities Jade is constantly being encouraged to take advantage of. Sometimes that encouragement comes her guidance counselor, other times her own mother. But the opportunity Jade would like to take the most advantage of is the chance to travel outside of the country with the study abroad program. This is the opportunity that convinced Jade to attend St. Francis in the first place, and this year she is a junior, which means she is finally eligible to be nominated.

The Problem: Being one of the few black people in a predominantly white school comes with its problems, for sure. First is the difficulty of making friends. Then there is the potential of being judged for who you are and where you are from. Sure, it is nice to have people looking out for you, ready to provide "opportunities" for you, but that can also feel cheap and exhausting. And this latest opportunity - a mentorship program called Woman to Woman - looks like it will be joining the list. The only reason Jade agreed to it is because it comes with a college scholarship. But she does not feel as if her mentor really understands anything about her, or even cares to. Just because Maxine is black, it does not mean she can relate to Jade, which is a shame because Jade could use someone she can really talk to, someone who can understand her. Opportunities are nice, but what Jade would like more than anything is to be heard.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction book set in modern day Portland, Oregon. Jade lives on the north side of Portland, in a neighborhood that the rest of the city is often wary of. But while others do not see the beauty in her neighborhood, Jade certainly does. In the little free time she has in between school, friends, family, and the Woman to Woman program, Jade makes collages out of pretty much anything she can get her hands on. She has mastered the art of taking what most of us view as garbage or junk, such as bags from fast food restaurants or free newspapers, and turning them into something beautiful and impressive. It is through her art that Jade is able to communicate the best, and her lack of willingness to simply open her mouth and speak up for herself is something she will have to reconcile later in the book. She is finally able to make friends with one other person at St. Francis, but that friendship is tested when Jade feels like Sam is just another person who not only does not understand her, but also constantly downplays incidents that occur due to Jade's race. And when it seems that Maxine is both proud of Jade and also completely out of touch with her, our protagonist feels misunderstood on all sides, frustrated by the feeling of not being seen or heard.

My Verdict: The characters are well formed and relatable. The setting of Portland is well done and a great choice. And the issues brought up are both timely and important for us to talk about and address. But I did not quite buy the interaction between the characters, nor was I able to easily follow much of the narrative, due to its choppy nature. The pacing of the story did not move as smoothly as I would have liked. It is well organized and the story follows a well-thought out timeline, but there are issues brought up that see little follow-up or closure, and some of interactions between the characters seem to come out of nowhere, with little background given as to how they got to where they are in the relationship. A little more time could have been taken to develop the characters and their backgrounds. With that being said, I did not feel like the story was rushed, just that some things were left out.

Favorite Moment: When Lee Lee talks about what she is learning at Northside. Even though it is not a prestigious school like St. Francis, Lee Lee's homework sounds much more interesting and relevant than Jade's.

Favorite Character: Lee Lee is someone who sticks by Jade despite the obvious challenge of not going to the same school as her. She is not jealous of any new opportunity Jade has, or even of the new friend Jade is able to make. Lee Lee simply lives her life and is there for her friend.

Favorite Quote: "Here I am, so focused on learning to speak another language, and I barely use the words I already know." - Jade

Recommended Reading: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has become a YA powerhouse since its release earlier this year. Everyone should read it, especially if you are looking for more books with protagonists of color, and that deal with real issues in our current political and social climate.   

Friday, June 16, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Welcome back to YA Fest! For the entire month of June, all of the books I will be covering will be from young adult fiction. And today, not only is the book young adult, but fantasy as well, which is a genre I rarely cover. I had the opportunity to hear Laini Taylor speak, not only about her latest book, Strange the Dreamer, but about writing in general. The cover alone is enough to make nearly anyone at least pick up the book and read the jacket in anticipation of a beautiful but unique story.

The Situation: Lazlo Strange is an orphan. At first it seemed he would grow up to be a monk, much like those who take care of him at the Zemonan Abbey. But then he took a fateful trip to the Great Library and never returned, with no one making him. It was not too hard to believe that Lazlo would become enraptured in books. He was known around the abbey to be prone to fantasy: a dreamer. And one thing he often dreamt of was the city of Weep, whose true name Lazlo used to know, but not anymore. Lazlo dreamed of Weep so much that he wrote books about it, and became an expert in a subject that was practically of little use to anyone. Of course, that would change when the Godslayer himself would come to Zosma in search if its best scholars to take back to Weep. Of course, Lazlo is no scholar, only a lowly librarian. But fortunately for him, the Godslayer had an interest in hearing some new stories.

The Problem: Lazlo not being a scholar is not so much an issue, except for some of the others who feel he has no place in their group. Thyon Nero certainly believes as much, and takes almost every opportunity to say so, bringing up numerous reasons and examples as to why. Even so, the Godslayer, Eril-Fane, is pleased to have Lazlo's company. And despite the young librarian's innocence and lack of a specialty, he is allowed to be a part of the mission, the reason Eril-Fane came to Zosma to recruit the scholars in the first place. It seems the citizens of Weep are living in a literal shadow. The home of the gods that used to torment their existence - the ones that Eril-Fane struck down years ago - hovers above the city, keeping it in a constant shadow. Eril-Fane wants nothing more than to be rid of the citadel forever, but what he does not know is that the day he slayed the gods, he missed a few; five to be exact. In the coming days, Lazlo will learn the entire history of exactly what happened in Weep, why no one remembers its true name anymore, and why ridding the city of the floating citadel is not as straightforward an issue as it seems.

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned, this is a young adult fantasy novel, set mostly in the mythical city of Weep, though it had another name once. Lazlo Strange is the protagonist and the subject of the title. As a boy, and even as he grows up into a young man, Lazlo is often ridiculed for being prone to fantasies. But it is those fantasies that will land him a place among the scholars who get to travel to Weep and aid the Godslayer in an attempt to liberate his people. Lazlo may be the main protagonist, but in the floating citadel itself is Sarai, half god, half human. She and four others - Feral, Ruby, Sparrow, and Minya - are all that are left from the time Eril-Fane managed to slaughter the gods that used to rule his people. The five of them stay in the citadel, out of sight, for fear that if the people of Weep find out they are there, they will once again attempt to kill them. Only Minya is old enough to remember the slaughter, but she holds enough bitterness and rage to cover them all, and resents the others for not being as ruthless as she is. But what the rest seem to want more than anything is to be able to live a life outside of the citadel without fear of being killed. This is certainly true of Sarai. And she is the only one among them who has a way of "visiting" the city, without ever leaving the safety of her home. As the book shifts between Sarai and Lazlo, the complicated history of Weep is revealed, making it clear that getting rid of the floating citadel will involve more than a godslayer employing a few scholars.

My Verdict: I always take a gamble when I pick up the first book of what is sure to be either a series, or at least a two-parter. And with this one, I may have lost. But although I lost, this is not a bad book. Allow me to explain: what Taylor has done here is what Sarai talks about nearly halfway through the novel, and this is create a story that is beautiful and full of monsters. Lazlo is just the kind of hero you root for, and Sarai is just the type of heroine who is capable and not at all helpless, but she still needs help. Eril-Fane is the right mix of mysterious and regal, while Thyon is the guy people will love to hate. There are countless other characters I could mention, such as Minya, the vengeful and twisted godspawn whose presence makes the reader uncomfortable, because that much hate and anger can only lead to terrible events. And then there is Weep itself, the city whose true name was lost, and whose people are still hurting from years of abuse at the hands of entities more powerful than they. It is a lovely book, but I doubt I can make myself continue in the series. The issues confronting Lazlo will not be easily solved, and that is fine, but I do not think I can handle a second installment where he will be toyed with endlessly due to his feelings, while also dealing with his newfound knowledge about himself and about Weep. I also am not interested in reading about a villain who is allowed too much control for way too long (I get enough of that in reality, and my nerves simply cannot take it). Granted, for me to abandon a series after the first book means I have to make certain assumptions for the rest of the story that may or may not be true. However, with how Strange the Dreamer ended, I am not hopeful, and may have to let this series go. But it is not the book, it is me. Those with tougher nerves and who love immersive worlds will be just fine. 

Favorite Moment: Anytime Lazlo rises above Thyon's narcissism and pettiness, which is pretty much what happens every time they interact.

Favorite Character: Lazlo is an easy pick, so I am going with it. Generally pure and good, with few faults, which is what makes him so annoying to people like Thyon. Favor has not smiled on Lazlo his entire life as it seems to have for Thyon. But somehow, the former still manages to be the better person in every situation. 

Recommended Reading: As I mentioned, I do not read much fantasy, but I did read The Reader by Traci Chee and enjoyed it a great deal.       

Friday, June 9, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

This week we continue the Door Stop Novel YA Fest - where a young adult novel will be covered every week through the month of June - with Jeff Zentner's Goodbye Days. In late 2016, I read and reviewed Zentner's debut novel The Serpent King, which was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. For his follow-up, Zentner continues with Tennessee as the setting, but this time moving from a small town to the big city.

The Situation: Summer vacation is coming to a close, which means Carver Briggs will soon return to Nashville Arts Academy. He and his three best friends, Blake, Eli, and Mars, will be finishing their senior year of high school, while focusing on their different creative strengths and generally being teenage boys. But when his friends are on their way to pick Carver up after a movie, tragedy strikes, and all three boys are killed in a horrific car accident. Now Carver's world, which was once filled with laughter, love, creativity, and support, feels empty, hollow, joyless, and oppressive. Losing his three best friends in one single motion, and right before senior year is supposed to start, is bad enough. Knowing that the friends and family of the victims, as well as many in the community, point the blame squarely at Carver himself, makes it so much worse.

The Problem: The car accident occurred moments after Carver texts Mars, asking him where they are, and to text him back. Mars was mid-text when his car slammed into the back of a truck, going 70 miles per hour. With some people, it is easy for Carver to see where he stands with them, and what they think of him. Adair, Eli's twin sister, glares at him every chance she gets. And Mars's father, a powerful judge, wants to bring criminal charges against him. But not everyone holds Carver accountable. Blake's grandmother even asks him to be a pallbearer at the funeral, and later asks to spend time with him in an attempt to better know her grandson. The day they spend together will come to be known as a Goodbye Day. And while it may achieve its purpose in that they remember Blake while also learning new things about him, it does not ease Carver's guilt, and it does not mean the panic attacks will stop. It certainly does nothing to stop those who blame him from wanting to make him pay.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in Nashville, Tennessee, and mostly focuses on four students at Nashville Arts Academy. Carver and his three friends all had to apply to attend, with each one having a different creative focus. While Carver is a writer, Eli is a musician, Mars sketches and draws, and Blake has an incredible sense of humor, one that has brought him a massive amount of followers and subscribers on YouTube. While the novel opens just after the car accident and before Blake's funeral, it occasionally flashes back to moments the boys shared together. Sometimes it is all four of them, and sometimes it is just two or three. Carver remembers his best times with his friends, while also doing his best to move forward, which is naturally difficult. It is one thing for Carver to have survivor's guilt, and it is another thing for Carver to blame himself for what happened. It becomes something else entirely when others agree with him, and they want justice. Throughout the course of the novel, Carver will be called a murderer, be told he should go to jail, and that it is not right that he profit's from his friend's death. But the title of the novel comes from the Goodbye Days he will spend remembering his friends and the people they were. 

My Verdict: The rumors were true...this book is heartbreaking. But given the premise, that is to be expected. And it is not heartbreaking to the point of lacking any and all joy or hope. Dealing with the deaths of not one, not two, but three of your best friends is a terrible thing. But everyone also wants to blame you for it? Yikes. I anticipated that I would go through the usual frustrations that I normally do with YA novels, mostly when it comes to teenagers acting like, well, teenagers and mostly being needlessly brutal and vicious, while the victim holds back and does not say anything and works through their own stuff. But this book puts a slight twist on the formula, adding incredible amounts of grief to pretty much everyone involved, as there is almost no one that was not touched by one of the deceased. Zentner manages to present the less than straightforward emotions that come with this sort of situation, especially for Carver. No one is completely in the wrong, and no is completely in the right either, except maybe Blake's grandmother. So instead of being frustrated with the characters, I spent most of the book just grieving with them and wanting everyone to find peace. It's an emotional ride as well as a great story.

Favorite Character: Georgia, Carver's older sister, is the kind of older sibling we all need. Ready to defend her little brother at every turn, and also provide a wet willy, she seems to be the character with her feet most firmly on the ground, despite the terrible tragedy they are all dealing with and the temptation to go completely off the rails.

Favorite Moment: When Nana Betsy, Blake's grandmother, shares Blake's favorite meal with Carver (fried chicken and cornbread) at the close of their Goodbye Day.

Favorite Quote: "I had to teach him that he can be the son of a judge, but if he acts the way young white men do - the way his friends do - he will be treated more harshly." - Judge Edwards, Mars's father.  

Recommended Reading: Zentner's first novel, The Serpent King, is set in a small town, and deals with grief of a different sort. Also, its main character seems to make a quick appearance in Goodbye Days.