Friday, December 29, 2017

Nonfiction: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

For the second time, Jesmyn Ward will close out another year at Door Stop Novels with one of her works. Last December, 2016 ended with a post on The Fire This Time, a collection of essays about race, edited and put together by Ward. This year, it is her memoir from 2013, Men We Reaped.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book, or memoir, detailing Ward's early life growing up in Mississippi. More specifically, Ward focuses on what it was like growing up poor and black in America's south. As she tells the story of her childhood, she also talks about the death of five black men from her community, one of which is her only brother, Joshua. The deaths, however, are told in reverse order, beginning with the most recent, and going back to the first in 2000, which is where she ends her own story. Switching between the two, Ward gives the reader a detailed look into life in De Lisle and Pass Christian, Mississippi, starting from the early 1970s, all the way to 2004. There are even occasional stories that take place in New Orleans. Also, Ward manages to touch a little bit on her time in Michigan, where she went to college, and also New York City, where she would eventually land a job after graduation. Men We Reaped is not the usual, straight forward memoir in that it is not all about the narrator. She makes it a point to have the men she talks about be the focus of their own individual stories. It is about more than just her life in the south, but that of all poor black people who find themselves straining against systemic racism, economic inequality, social injustice, and the fracturing of families that seems to be rooted in our history in this country.
My Verdict: Ward does exactly what could be expected from a memoir: she tells her story and she tells it honestly. Events and revelations are not sugar-coated, and they are not ignored or conveniently glossed over. Instead they are confronted head-on, but not in a way where the author is clearly hoping to see the reader flinch...though you probably will. Ward tells the story with the confidence, and also the heartache, that comes with knowing something needs to be said, even though there will be pain on both sides. But that pain has been a part of her experience, and sharing the stories is a difficult but hopeful step towards change.    

Favorite Moment: When Ward stands up to a group of boys at her predominantly white school who have made comments/jokes about lynching.

Favorite Quote: The title comes from a quote by Harriet Tubman: "We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."

Recommended Reading: Ward's Salvage the Bones received the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. It is the story of a poor black family in Mississippi that culminates in the terror that was Hurricane Katrina.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is one of those books that has spent the better part of the year on my to-read list, but for whatever reason I kept passing over it. I am excited to finally read it and be able to talk about this different take on the immigrant experience as young Fabiola attempts to find her own way on the streets of Detroit.

The Situation: The time has finally come for Fabiola Toussaint and her mother to make the move from Port-au-Prince, Haiti to Detroit, Michigan. It is in Detroit that they will join Fabiola's Aunt Jo and her three daughters, Chantal, Primadonna (Donna), and Princess (Pri). But plans immediately get interrupted when Fabiola's mother is held up at JFK airport in New York, while she is sent ahead to Detroit. The family will later learn that not only did Fabiola's mother not make another flight out of New York, but she is also currently being held in an immigration detention center for overstaying her visa on a previous visit. Now Fabiola must face harsh cold weather, strange food, loud family members, and a new school all without her mother beside her. It is only with Aunt Jo's assurance that things will be worked out that she is able to continue forward.

The Problem: Time moves on for Fabiola without any indication that her mother's situation will be resolved. And while her new life comes with many distractions, not all of them are welcomed, especially when it comes to Donna's tumultuous relationship with Dray, and older boy from the neighborhood. While knowing Dray may also come with knowing Kasim, a much kinder boy who takes a liking to Fabiola, she still recognizes that Dray is trouble and it would be better if he weren't in their lives. Then an offer presents itself that could potentially solve a couple of problems for the family, including her mother's immigration issues, but this offer may come with its own problems. The longer Fabiola stays in America, the more she learns that obtaining "the good life" may come at an extremely high cost.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction book told from the perspective of Haitian-born Fabiola Toussaint. For years, her Aunt Jo has been sending money to her sister, Fabiola's mother, so that the two of them could leave Haiti and join her and her daughters in Detroit, Michigan. So not only is this book about the immigrant experience, but also about what it is like for a young girl living in one of the toughest neighborhoods in one of America's toughest cities. From the beginning, Fabiola is able to draw comparisons from life in Port-au-Prince to life in Detroit. In both places she must watch herself, protect herself, always be aware of her surroundings, make sure people know she is not someone they can easily mess with, and draw on her faith in Voodoo to give her strength. There are many scenes with people attempting to teach her how to say common words and phrases, while simultaneously laughing at her accent while she tries to do so. But there are also many scenes where Fabiola takes care of herself, and still other scenes where she looks out for other people. This book is just as much about immigration as it is about the cycle in which many people find themselves caught when it seems there is no other way. 

My Verdict: If there is one fault with this book, it is that maybe it tries to do too much in such a short length. Fabiola's stories about her mother and life back in Haiti, and their dream to ultimately come to America work great. Add in her problems getting used to living with a larger and louder family in Detroit, and it becomes an interesting take on the immigrant story. And then there are drug dealers, abusive boyfriends, Aunt Jo and her mysterious illness, her three cousins that apparently no one messes with, as well as an entire cast of incredibly well thought-out characters, and things start to get a little muddled while also feeling rushed. One things is for certain: The book is never boring, and is almost sure to hold any one's attention. Maybe if it were a little bit longer, all of the different elements could have more space to work themselves out. 

Favorite Moment: When Fabiola makes a decision to stand up for her friend, even if it means she has to stand against her cousins.

Favorite Character: While Chantal seems to be the one of Aunt Jo's cousins that is the most put together (and she is), she also has her own issues, and has her own way of dealing with life on the west side of Detroit.

Recommended Reading: Both The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Dear Martin by Nic Stone would be fantastic follow-ups.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Nonfiction: Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

The full title of today's selection is Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Bren é Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, is once again writing about courage, vulnerability, and shame, and this time she has extended the discussion to include what it means to truly belong and what it looks like when we dare to stand up for ourselves, even if that means we stand alone.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction, self-help book and the latest addition to Brown's already impressive and influential body of work. Themes from her previous work, including courage and vulnerability, still make their appearance here, but with the primary focus on the paradox of true belonging while standing alone. Brown asserts that to stand alone, we must brave the wilderness, and that can be hard, even painful. Brown not only pulls from her research, but also her personal experience, the personal experience and stories of others, as well as current events and today's political environment. The tone of this book differs slightly from previous ones in that, at least to me, it seems more direct, but still without being punishing. That is not to say that what she says will not be hard to hear for some (or most), or even cause some hurt feelings or anger, especially when she discusses politics. But like her previous works, Brown is extending the conversation on true courage and how ultimately, vulnerability is still at the root of it.

My Verdict: Opinions on this book seem to be split. It may be Brown's most polarizing work. Some praise it just as they did Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. Others believe Brown phoned this one in, citing how short it is (with only 163 pages of actual narrative content), the somewhat extensive use of quotes and other people's research, and the often seemingly repetitive nature of the message. I suppose that leaves me somewhere in the middle. The shortness of it is what first made me suspect that this book may have been a cash grab, or at least something that was published just to have something to publish, if that makes sense. With a little more time and a bit more research, the book could have been fleshed out to at least make the 200 page mark. Even as it stands, the last ten pages or so felt forced and a repeat of what was already covered. However, everything before that I found to be just as insightful, thought-provoking, and of course, helpful as her previous books. And yes, she does get political, sort of. But with things the way they are in this country currently, it would seem like an act of cowardice to ignore the topic completely, and Brown's research is about showing up and standing up.

Favorite Moment: When Brown tells several short stories about collective joy and pain: those moments we share with strangers during some of the most joyful or the most painful events.

Favorite Quotes: "They tell you to develop a think skin so things don't get to you. What they don't tell you is that your thick skin will keep everything from getting out, too. Love, intimacy, vulnerability. I don't want that. Thick skin doesn't work anymore. I want to be transparent and translucent. For that to work, I won't own other people's shortcomings and criticisms. I won't put what you say about me on my load." - Viola Davis

"There's an unspoken message that the only stories worth telling are the stories that end up in history books. This is not true. Every story matters. My father's story matters. We are all worthy of telling our stories and having them heard. We all need to be seen and honored in the same way that we all need to breathe." - Viola Davis

Recommended Reading: Of the three books I have read by Brown, Rising Strong remains my favorite. I also recommend Susan Cain's Quiet.    

Friday, December 8, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When the 2017 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced, I was glad to see that Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 had made the cut. Also on that list was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a story of the relationship between two people and their decision to leave their homeland as it is torn apart by war.

The Situation: Saeed is a thoughtful, dutiful boy who lives with his parents. Nadia lives in an apartment by herself after deciding that living under her parent's roof was not for her. The two meet in an evening class, and although it took more than one attempt, Saeed eventually convinces Nadia to come have coffee with him. While their country implodes around them, the two young students manage to foster a relationship, and eventually Nadia moves in with Saeed as she realizes the danger of a woman living alone as the situation outside becomes more intense. And as things escalate, it becomes clear that the idea of leaving the entire country will have to be more than just a passing thought. More and more, the two begin hearing about  doors that open up into other parts of the world. If this is true, then there could be hope to escape and begin a new life in a safer location.

The Problem: The doors may make it easier to get to a safe location, but the usual issues regarding refugees and immigration still persist. With the amount of countries experiencing war and conflict, the locations the doors lead to suffer overpopulation and their own brand of conflict. There are many doors of course, but the ones to the best locations are heavily guarded, while the others are ignored due to lack of interest. After the first move, Saeed and Nadia soon find the need to move again. It is one thing to gain safe passage through a door that leads to a better location, but it is another thing to be allowed to stay in that location. Also, there is the strain that the situation can put on Saeed and Nadia's relationship. There may be a natural sense of loyalty to each other with every decision and step they take in their journey, but it may not be enough to hold them together forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often categorized under magical realism, fantasy, and literary fiction. Human beings migrating from one place to another is nothing strange or new, but being able to use a door to quickly go from a Greek island to the city of London is not something we are familiar with. Hamid gives a twist to the story of the refugee fleeing their homeland in search of a safer place to live. And while he may have made the actual journey a bit easier, everything else stayed the same, from the hostilities they face from those who inhabit their new location, to the hoops they have to jump through in order to gain access to the doors. Also, Saeed and Nadia's relationship proves to not be immune to the stresses of being a refugee. They always look after each other, and stay close to each other, but the romantic feelings are certainly difficult to maintain. While they are certainly the focus of the novel, the story does often move away from them in order to briefly talk about someone else in another part of the world and their experience with either a door, war, or the migration situation.

My Verdict: This is certainly an inventive and interesting take on a story we have heard before. Instead of having the characters make the long arduous journey across a country and a border, Hamid allows them to simply step through a door, though the argument could be made as to whether this actually makes anything easier. Just because a journey is made quicker does not mean it is safer or better. My only issue is that while Saeed seems fully fleshed out, Nadia seems to be little more than the cliched fiercely independent girl that no one (including Saeed sometimes) seems to know how to react to. But their relationship feels real, as well as the issues that come with it. It is a fairly short novel, so even if you find yourself less than interested about a quarter of the way through, I suggest continuing if only to find out where the couple's journey through various doors finally lands them.

Favorite Moment: When Saeed's father begins to regard Nadia as a daughter rather than just his son's friend.

Favorite Character: Saeed is as steadfast and loyal as they come. His consistency serves the pair well as they go on their often perilous journey.

Recommended Reading: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini also tells of choices made that take characters around the globe and how their lives are altered as a result.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Winners of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards

This is it! The winners of the annual Goodreads Choice Awards have been determined. After three rounds of voting, you the readers have made your voices heard as to which books have been your favorites for 2017. So let's get to it.

Unfortunately no DSNs took home the top prize for Best Fiction, but when it comes to Best Mystery & Thriller, Paula Hawkins has done it again with Into the Water, two years after winning it for The Girl on the Train. Honestly, I am surprised, as I figured Dan Brown's Origin had it for sure. 

Although I was really pulling for Dot Hutchison's The Roses of May, I cannot say I am surprised at Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King taking home the win for Best Horror. When it comes to horror, it's hard to beat that guy, who has had many wins over the years for Goodreads Choice Awards. But this is his son Owen's first win. 

I could not be more excited for Kate Moore and her win for The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women in the Best History & Biography category. This is a truly fascinating book, though it can be hard to read as many of the women literally fall apart before their loved ones' eyes after continuous and sustained contact with radium. This is truly a well-earned win and I am excited for those readers that will discover this book as a result. 

Sarah Andersen has won the award for Best Graphic Novels & Comics for the second year in a row. Last year she won for Adulthood is a Myth, and this year it is Big Mushy Happy Lump that takes the category. Clearly her observations about life as an introverted artist and bookworm resonates with people. 

If someone asked me what I would name as the book of the year, I would have to answer with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This book absolutely smashed the competition in the Best Debut Goodreads Author category, while also taking a second win in the always incredibly competitive Best Young Adult Fiction category, beating out usual regulars and favorites such as John Green (Turtles All the Way Down) and Sarah Dessen (Once and for All). Add the fact that it spent nearly a year on the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and you have one powerhouse of a book. Congratulations to Ms. Thomas!

And there you have it. Four DSN books took home wins in five different categories, and I could not be more pleased. And of course, more than anything, these awards help to introduce to me other books and authors that I may have missed. So until next year's awards, I will be reading and discovering more books. I know I will never be able to read and cover every book that ends up being nominated, but I will have a hell of a fun time trying.    

Friday, December 1, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus just might be worth my time. I do not know how many times it I saw it on the New York Times Bestseller list before I finally added it on Goodreads. I also do not know what it was that made me ignore it for so long. The premise is interesting, it's YA, it has a decent rating...what was wrong with me?

The Situation: On a fairly regular Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High School have managed to score themselves some time in detention. It is a veritable The Breakfast Club situation with Bronwyn Rojas, the Brain; Addy Prentiss, the Beauty; Nate Macauley, the Criminal; Cooper Clay, the Athlete; and Simon Kelleher, the Outcast. All five go in, but only four come out alive. Simon goes into anaphylactic shock after taking a drink of water, and is taken to the hospital. Moments later, everyone is informed that he didn't make it and was pronounced dead. There is much suspicion as Simon had a severe peanut allergy, but all he did was drink water; all of the epipens were mysteriously missing from the nurse's office; it is later revealed that Simon's cup had peanut oil in it; and the epipen he usually keeps in his backpack was also missing. Oh, and there is also the small detail that Simon ran a gossip app that ruined many of his classmates' lives, and his next scheduled post was going to reveal secrets about the four people he was in detention with.

The Problem: High School is hard enough when you aren't being investigated for murder. But not only do the Bayview Four now have their lives under a microscope, but someone is still posting messages on Tumblr regarding the murder and the most likely suspects. Though Simon is no longer around to post to the app, someone is still spilling secrets, and insisting that not only were they in the room when it happened, but that they are the one responsible. Each one of the Bayview Four had a reason to hurt Simon, but so did everyone else in school. Everyone also has something they want to keep hidden, and Simon knew that. With more secrets coming to light with every passing day, and the police no closer to finding Simon's killer, Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, and Cooper realize they will have to figure things out for themselves, and hope they get to keep some secrets hidden in the process.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel in which the action begins in September, just after the semester begins, and ends before Thanksgiving. The first-person narrative switches between the four prime suspects as the time moves along. Only two of the Bayview Four can be said to be close, as Addy is dating Cooper's best friend, Jake. The two of them, along with Bronwyn, may have the most to lose from Simon's gossip, with Nate having the least. Nate already has a record, and reputation, although getting caught dealing again would land him in serious trouble. Naturally, a murder conviction wouldn't help either. Possibly the biggest theme of the book, if you can call it a theme, is that high school sucks and teenagers are awful. Also, being innocent until proven guilty seems to be something people just say but do not actually believe. And real friends are a precious resource. Going through a hard situation will quickly show you just how many you actually have.

My Verdict: This book is a crazy ride, but not so crazy that it becomes hard to follow or believe. A student ends up dead and of course everyone wants to know how and why. But it is absolutely nuts how quickly people are willing to turn on someone wants they attract the wrong kind of attention. I would attribute this to the whole high school sucks and teenagers are awful thing, but really, adults do it too. McManus' portrayal of just how quickly things can spiral seems painfully accurate. And even more painfully accurate is the character of Simon: A student who creates a gossip app and posts terrible things about people, all because he actually craves what these students have, and wants nothing more than to be the center of attention at Bayview High. He feels like he is owed something he never earned, and then dies because he went too far. Entitlement is a thing people. I highly recommend this book to all lovers of YA as well as murder mysteries.

Favorite Moment: When Addy's sister rents an apartment that has built-in bookshelves. It may or may not be my dream to have such a thing in my house one day.

Favorite Character: While I never would have guessed it at the beginning, Addy becomes my favorite character. At first she is the typical girl with the high school jock boyfriend that she can't stand to be separated from, but through some painful trials, she begins to get the hang of thinking for herself and choosing what kind of person she wants to be.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. It may not be a murder mystery, but it is a YA novel that deals with death, secrets, and those who stick by you when times are tough.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues by Edward Kelsey Moore

Today's selection is a sequel to 2013's The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat. Edward Kelsey Moore has decided to continue the journey of Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean in The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues. Now that readers already know the stories behind the three main characters, the sequel lets a new character come back to Plainview after a long absence.

The Situation: El Walker has returned to Plainview, Indiana only as a favor to an old friend. When El was a younger man, he regularly played at Forrest Payne's club, the Pink Slipper. His singing and guitar playing always brought in the crowd, but the musician's lifestyle helped turn him into an unpredictable drug addict. And after one fateful incident involving his young son, El left Plainview and vowed never to return. As soon as he receives his payment for the wedding gig, his plan is to leave Plainview once again and never look back.

The Problem: Unfortunately for El, complications from diabetes force an unplanned hospital visit. It seems the city he is ready to leave behind has decided to hold onto him for a little while longer. During his stay, he meets Barbara Jean, one of the three Plainview Supremes known for their regular table at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat, and the daughter of one of his foster sisters. He recognizes her face immediately, and the two begin an unlikely friendship that centers around memories of the past, even though most of them are not exactly happy. El still wants desperately to leave Plainview, knowing that the longer he stays, the more trouble he is likely to get into. But he is not the only one in Plainview with trouble coming. Clarice has an upcoming piano concert in Chicago that is making her more nervous by the day, and a newly-attentive husband she is not sure she wants to be with. And Odette will soon struggle to help a husband as he confronts his feelings about the return of an unwelcome visitor.

Genre, Theme, History: This is a fiction novel set mostly in the small town of Plainview, Indiana, and continues the story of the three Supremes, as they are known. Odette is still round and resolute, prone to speak her mind when it is least wanted and not caring in the least. While Clarice and Richmond are doing better in their relationship, she still is not sure if a traditional marriage is what she wants from him, even though for the first time, it is what he is willing to give her. And while the beautiful and kind Barbara Jean seems to have finally received her happily ever after, she still must confront the life of a mother who constantly humiliated her. Once again, Moore confronts the issues of generational sin, anger and forgiveness, and how family will always be able to remind you of where you came from, especially when you would rather forget. El wants nothing more than to continue outrunning his past, but it seems it has finally caught up with him and is determined to make him face what he did, even though he is not the only one who will suffer in the process. By the end it is fairly clear the story of the Supremes will continue into a third book, as there are still stories to tell and small town life to explore.

My Verdict: I adored the first book, and I adore this one as well. I loved being able to visit again with Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, and see where their lives have lead now that Odette is cancer free, Richmond is still treating Clarice the way she deserves, and Barbara Jean has reconnected with an old love. The format of having Odette narrate some of the chapters, while a third person omniscient narrator takes care of the rest, can still be confusing, but not to the point where it is annoying or gets in the way of the story. Moore has a knack for portraying situations and stories that may seem ridiculous (and they are), but the characters are so well thought-out and believable that it comes off more like gossip than a crazy tale. Even the characters that are larger than life are people I can see myself being introduced to during a visit to the small towns my parents grew up in. There is a level of authenticity to everything that happens that not every writer is able to pull off.

Favorite Moment: When Veronica, a somewhat rival to the Supremes, thoroughly embarrasses herself after patting herself on the back for shaming them in public.

Favorite Character: Still Odette. It will probably always be Odette.

Recommended Reading: Obviously, there is the first book, The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat. But I will also recommend The Sellout by Paul Beatty. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: The Speaker by Traci Chee

Last year, I covered Traci Chee's The Reader, the first title in her Sea of Ink and Gold series. Today I am happy to cover the follow-up, The Speaker. I may not be much of a fantasy reader, but something about this series appeals to me, and I am excited to see how the story continues.

The Situation: Sefia and Archer have managed to escape the Guard and are now back out on their own, though they are being expertly chased. It is not only them that they Guard wants, but the Book as well. In a world where no one reads or writes anymore, words are powerful  and stories can be used as weapons. Fortunately, Sefia is able to use the ability she inherited from her parents to keep herself and Archer safe, while he can use what he learned while in captivity to fight almost any battle he comes across. Together, they make it their mission to free as many other boys as they can from the dreadful Impressors: men and women who have made a job out of capturing young boys in an attempt to find the one who will bring about the Red War. With Sefia's power and Archer's skill, it seems they cannot lose, and their worst enemy may be themselves.

The Problem: If Archer's time in captivity taught him how to fight, it also taught him to want to fight. The only thing that seems to help silence the nightmares and the ever-present tension and thirst for revenge he always feels as a current running inside of him, is being able to punch, kick, stab, and shoot, anything that causes hurt and pain. Freeing captured boys helps Archer feel better about what he has become, but as he gains followers, and the team becomes a well-known gang to be feared, he fears he is becoming exactly what the Impressors are looking for. Sefia feels the same, but she would do anything to stay near him, though she is already afraid she may be losing the boy she loves. Add in the fact that the Guard is still after them; the Book continues to be cryptic and withholding when telling its secrets; and that there is a much bigger plot with control over all of Kelanna as its goal; and it seems that Sefia and Archer's story is far from over. But will it end with both of them alive? Will it end with them together?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fantasy book set in the fictional world of Kelanna. In this sequel, Archer and Sefia travel mostly in the land of Deliene, though they do find themselves in Oxscini for a time. Sefia is once again the primary protagonist, but there is almost an equal amount of attention given to Archer and his thoughts as he attempts to fight his guilt and blood lust. Readers do get to see the return of Captain Cannek Reed and the rest of the crew on the Current of Faith, as well as the members of the Guard who continue to hunt down Sefia and attempt to bring their time of reign to pass. Everyone in this story is ultimately attempting to change their own fate, while seeming to simultaneously run right into it. The Book that Sefia has in her possession holds all of the answers, but consulting it is tricky. It seems to reveal only what it wants to, and you have to be able to ask the right questions. Sefia and Archer want to be able to live their lives, but fear they have a bigger part to play in everything - parts that may separate them, even kill them. The Guards want ultimate power over all of Kelanna, but will they be able avoid killing each other off before their plan comes to fruition? It is all written in the Book, and they all agree that what is written will come to pass. But they either don't trust it, or they don't want to wait, as everyone is still fighting for or against their own destinies.

My Verdict: While I do have the same issue with this one as I did with the first book, in that sometimes there are just too many characters doing too may things for me to keep track, I will say that the confusion was much less, and I was better able to almost let go of all of the details and just enjoy the ride. And what a ride it is, though granted, the map of Kelanna at the beginning of the book does help. Sefia and Archer's adventure alone would probably be enough to fill an entire series. But Chee does not stop there as she always goes back to what the Guard is up to, as well as Captain Reed and his crew. It is evident that the story is working up to something big, and The Speaker does well to build up the excitement for what is to come in the next book. It contains exactly what every fantasy book should contain: magic, fighting, conspiracy, intrigue, adventure, travel, and an ending that opens the door to incredible possibilities. The only thing missing is some sort of monster, but who knows? That may be coming in the next book. And naturally, I love that this is a world that emphasizes the power of books and words and how easily we can take them both for granted. 

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Archer manages to cut off one of Serakeen's hands in the middle of a fight.  

Favorite Character: The more I learn about Captain Reed and his story, the more I like him and want to see more of him.

Favorite Quote: "You don't get to be a slave-owner and a hero." - Captain Cannek Reed

Recommended Reading: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor may be a good adventure for many young fantasy readers, though I really enjoyed The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.     

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 Final Round

Oh man, here we are. The final round of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards. I am both excited and scared to find out if my favorites did or did not make it into the top ten of their categories. Every year seems to contain at least one surprise for me. So might as well end the torture and dive right in.

Thankfully all seems well in the Best Fiction, Best Mystery & Thriller, and Best Historical Fiction categories. All of the DSNs that were nominated in each are hanging strong. It is in the Best Science Fiction category that we first run into trouble. Looks like Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes, which was a write-in vote added in at the second round, did not quite make it into the top ten, which means I am back to voting for American War by Omar El Akkad.

Things return to normal for Best Horror, but another write-in, this time for Best Nonfiction, failed to make it into the final round. The exit of Brené Brown's Braving the Wilderness from the competition means I do not have anything to vote for in this category. Granted, I cannot say I am surprised, but I still like for the books I cover to at least make it through to the end.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore continues to hold its own in Best History & Biography, and the same can be said for both picks in Best Graphic Novels & Comics, and the three picks in Best Debut Goodreads Author.

And then we come to my favorite category, the one I seem to take the most personally for some reason. Of the seven DSN YA fiction books that were nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction, only five made it into the final round. Given, that is pretty amazing, that half of the finalist for one category were featured on this blog. Even so, I am sad to see Jeff Zentner's Goodbye Days did not make the cut, along with Robin Roe's A List of Cages. Whew! This is a tough category, every year.

The Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category remains the same for both DSN books that were nominated, which ultimately means that of the 22 books originally nominated (including the write-ins) for an award that were also featured on this blog (or at least, there is a solid plan to feature them), 18 of them have made it into the final round, and I think that is awesome. Really, this all only serves to make me super curious about the nominees I did not read that people seem to love. It would be nearly impossible for me to read every book that is nominated, or even just the ones that make it to the final round. But I always have a blast trying to read and write about as many as I can. And if I end up discovering new ones after the fact, I just consider it a bonus.      

This final round of voting does not end until Monday, November 27th, so you have a full two weeks to make your voices heard. The winners will be announced on Tuesday, December 5th, and will receive their crown as readers' favorite books of 2017.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Historical Fiction: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

This may be my last attempt at historical fiction for 2017, and of course, it deals with World War II. Not only that, but it also deals with World War I, because it seems no matter what I do I am bound to pick up a book that has to deal with at least one of them. With Kate Quinn's The Alice Network, an unlikely trio travels through Europe searching for answers they may not be ready to find.

The Situation: It is 1947 and Charlotte "Charlie" St. Clair has just burst into the home of Eve Gardiner. All Charlie wants is answers regarding her cousin Rose, whom she has not seen for many years and fears may be lost to her forever due to WWII. She decides Eve may be a good place to start since the woman used to work at a bureau that helped locate refugees. Unfortunately for both women, Eve is as ornery and drunk as Charlie is determined and persistent. Add Scotsman Finn Kilgore as Eve's personal assistant/driver/minder, and the three of them take off on a journey that has as little chance of success as Eve does of staying sober every night. Charlie is more than willing to defy her mother if it means finding Rose. Mrs. St. Clair only wants her daughter to take care of her "little problem" (i.e. she's pregnant), return to America, and marry someone respectable. But Charlie wants more out of life, and unbeknownst to both her and Finn, Eve wants more out of their search than to simply find Rose.

The Problem: Eve has her demons, that much is clear. If she is not drunk, she is hungover and looking forward to getting drunk. And when she cannot sleep, anyone who enters her room is met with a gun leveled at their face. While Charlie searches for a cousin who may have been part of the Resistance in WWII, Eve relives her life as a spy in WWI. It may have been something she signed up to do, even something that allowed her to end up a decorated war hero, but it is also what has given her the demons she currently lives with. With lies, betrayal, and experiences that give her dreams and memories she will never forget, Eve's life as a spy has yet to let her go, even 30 years later. And when Charlie barges into her home with a name she has not heard in decades, Eve decides it is time for some closure, and also a little bit of revenge.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set both during WWI and just after WWII. Charlie searches for her cousin Rose in the year 1947, while the woman she hired relives her life in 1915, when she served as a spy against the Nazis in a small town in France. It is in Lille that Eve will end up employed as a waitress at a restaurant known to be frequented by German officials. As they enjoy the food they horde only for themselves, Eve discreetly listens to their conversation and passes useful information to her superiors, one of which being the head of the spy ring with which she is currently employed. Along with Eve, there is Lili, the head of the Alice Network, and her Lieutenant, Violette. All three women are based on real people, but the story is still fiction. There was a ring of female spies who were able to collect and pass on important information while pretending to be completely different people. In the novel, Eve pretends to be a young girl named Marguerite, and she does her best to pretend that she does not speak and understand either English or German, but only French. While living a lie for the war effort, Eve manages to make friends with her fellow spies, making what happens later that much harder to swallow. Even with moments of glorious victory, the defeats still manage to nearly destroy all three women, and turn Eve into the bitter and hateful woman she has become once Charlie finds her. But with Charlie's search, Eve seems to have a renewed purpose, even if it is focused solely on revenge.

My Verdict: As much as I gripe about wanting to stay away from books that deal with WWII (and WWI for that matter), there is a reason that I keep picking them up...I mean, there just has to be...because it just keeps happening. In the case of The Alice Network, it is probably close to the same reason I picked up both The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls. Some part of me wants to know more about what women did during that time. In The Alice Network, Quinn tells an emotional, suspenseful, often terrifying, but ultimately incredible story of one woman's experiences as a spy, and how those experiences shaped the rest of the her life. Eve and Charlie may not have made choices that someone else would make, but it was up to them how they would deal with the war, and they leaned into their choices as resolutely as they could. I often found myself eagerly turning the page while also shaking my head like I would at a modern horror film after someone suggests that the group should split up, or head upstairs, or run into the forest. The point is made several times throughout the book that war chews people up, never ends quickly, and is always happening in some part of the world, and the stories we find here are an example of how true that is, even if it is through a work of fiction.

Favorite Moment: When Charlie defies her mother for the second time and decides to finish what she has started.

Favorite Character: Eve is tough, but she is tough to a fault. She is the kind of tough and stubborn that often leads to her snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, you would rather have her on your side than against you.

Recommended Reading: I have already mentioned The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls, but Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is also worth checking out. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 Semifinal Round

Today the semifinal round of voting for the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards opens to the public. Readers have until Sunday, November 12th to vote in this second round, with the final round of voting scheduled to open up next Tuesday the 14th.

This is the round where five more books have been added for consideration to each category. Goodreads has taken into account the write-in votes, and have added the most popular ones to be a part of the running. For one category, this will make my decision even harder, while in another, it simply means I will actually have a book to vote for. 

I am incredibly thrilled that Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes has made it into the Best Science Fiction category, and it will consequently take my vote away from Omar El Akkad's American War, which is still a fantastic book. Six Wakes was the perfect combination of science fiction and murder mystery, with six crew members waking up in outer space after their previous bodies were apparently brutally murdered. But they are the only six people on board the ship. Who committed the horrifying act?

A new addition to the Best Nonfiction category ends up being another case where I will be voting for a book only because it is the only one that I have read out of all of the nominations. Brené Brown's Braving the Wilderness is not a bad book. In fact, there is a lot of good stuff in there, as Brown once again discusses vulnerability, along with the importance of learning to stand up for yourself, even if it means you stand alone. The book just comes off as a bit rushed, almost unfinished. It clocks in at under 200 pages, and does not contain the same amount of Brown's insightful truth that her readers have become accustomed to. But as I said, there is good stuff in there, so it gets my vote. 

All nominees I wrote about previously are still an option of course, and will remain so until Sunday, where the list in each category will be cut in half so you can make your final decisions. It is important to vote now to make sure your favorites make it into the finals. And of course, it is important to vote in the finals so your favorites can win the ultimate prize.

It will be exciting to see who comes out on top.  

Friday, November 3, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Readers have been asking questions like "Should I read Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, or Dear Martin by Nic Stone?" And the answer is yes. There is no need to choose between the two. Just go for both and end up twice as blessed.

The Situation: Justyce McAllister is an A+ student, captain of the debate team at Braselton Prep, and pretty much set to attend Yale next fall. But all future plans take second place in his mind once he is wrongfully arrested for a crime that never even happened. Although Justyce is released, he cannot get over the incident and the way he was treated, all because he is a young black man who was trying to help out a friend, and a cop got the wrong idea. It does not help that some of his classmates believe that racial equality has been achieved in America, and that black people are too sensitive. It also does not help that Justyce's best friend, Manny, is never willing to stand up to his white friends when it comes to their wrong attitudes about race. Justyce decides to write letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whose teachings he studied in school. If there is anyone who would understand what he is going through, it would be the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Problem: If Justyce has his ignorant classmates on one side of him - always making inappropriate jokes, comments, and assertions - he also has the people from his old neighborhood, calling him "smarty-pants" and saying that he will return to the hood once he realizes the white people he goes to school with will never accept him. Justyce feels pressed in on all sides, but there is one saving grace. His debate partner Sarah-Jane is never shy about speaking her mind and standing up for Justyce. He would love nothing more than to date her, but his mother would never approve of him being with a white girl. There is also Manny, who may have grown up with more privilege than Justyce, but is still a young black man living in Atlanta, and attending a prep school. Unfortunately, this is all an off-duty cop sees when the two of them are driving around together. Justyce began writing to Dr. King in an attempt to be more like him, but now he wonders what good it will actually do, and will it be enough to save him.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in modern day Atlanta. Justyce is in his senior year of high school when the book begins, and it ends shortly after he goes off to college. In that year he will have many of the usual teenage experiences that can be found in most movies, books, or TV shows. But his experiences take darker turns simply because he is a young black man. Most of the book is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, but in between some chapters are Justyce's letters to Dr. King. Also, some of the storytelling in certain chapters reads more like a play. When there is heavy dialogue, or a rapid exchange between characters (such as a heated discussion in Justyce's Societal Evolution class, or a cross-examination by a defense attorney), Stone does away with the quotation marks and the need to you use "says" or "explains" or "asks," etc. The effect is a definite sense of the tension and discomfort that these types of conversations can create. The primary theme is of course race, and more specifically how young black men are treated in this country. What Justyce tries to do is to go back to the teachings of Dr. King and see how they can be applied today.

My Verdict: If you are all about comfort, and keeping things light, and not having difficult conversations that allow for confronting hard truths or the way you think, then this book is not going to be for you. But it should be. Really, it is for everyone, but many will intentionally avoid it because of what is written on the book jacket. Stone pulls no punches and gets to the heart of the subject right away. Once Justyce is wrongfully arrested, the book does not let up. The challenges that the main character faces are many, and they do not all come from the police. In fact, most of them don't, as his main antagonist sits with him in his classroom. The amount of judgment, and criticism, and general negativity he has to endure seems relentless, and to him it certainly feels that way too. But in this, the point certainly makes it across to the reader that this is an issue that needs to be faced, and talked about, and dealt with, and books like this can certainly play an important role in that discussion.  

Favorite Moment: When Jared, one of Justyce's classmates, unwittingly exposes to the entire class, and possibly himself, just how deep his own prejudices go...even though everyone pretty much already knew.

Favorite Character: Manny is not perfect, but he is the kind of friend Justyce needs. He is willing to call his friend out on his nonsense (especially when it comes to a certain ex-girlfriend), and ends up coming to terms with his own issues.

Recommended Reading: Of course I am going to say The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but I also recommend Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Goodreads Choice Awards 2017

So, Goodreads surprised at least me today by starting their 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards before November officially starts. But you know what? That just means the fun will begin a little earlier this year.

Voting has officially begun, so you can go ahead and start making your opinions known by supporting your favorite books of the year. These awards are decided completely by readers, which makes it the only book award of its kind.

As usual, I must start with the Best Fiction category, which for me ends up being tricky because while two DSN books made the cut, neither of their posts has gone up yet. I have read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and can absolutely attest to how good it is, so it will be getting my vote. It is a story of two refugees whose adventure takes magical turns as they enter through doors that take them to different locations around the world. Unfortunately, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is still in my perpetually growing "to read" queue and will have a post in early January. I am sure it is fantastic, but voting for a book I have not actually read feels incredibly wrong. 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins will get my vote for Best Mystery & Thriller, but only because it is the only one of the nominated books that I have read. It is not a bad book, it just is not as good as it could be. Also, it seems to suffer from readers remembering just how good The Girl on the Train was. Usually I do not have any books to vote for in this category, so getting even just one is a good showing for me.

Finding historical fiction that I actually wanted to read was a bit of struggle for me this year. Even so, I managed to pick two novels that have shown up in the Best Historical Fiction category. Lisa See's The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores the deeply revered tradition of tea making in China, but my vote will actually be going to The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Sure, it is another women in World War II book, but it is a good one. However, I can see fierce competition coming from both Moonglow by Michael Chabon and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. 

Best Science Fiction is another category I tend to be hit or miss on, but this time I managed to pick American War by Omar El Akkad and Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. One is a story of the U.S. after its second civil war, while the other takes place in a sort of post apocalyptic Europe where a giant bear terrorizes everyone (no, really). Although I did not place it under the science fiction heading when I wrote about it, I will go with American War on this one.  

I am pleased to see Dot Hutchison's The Roses of May in the Best Horror category, a sequel to The Butterfly Garden, which was nominated last year. Once again Hutchison has created a mysterious and terrible serial killer that puts its victims in seemingly impossible situations. Her ability to create realistic, but strong heroines is one of the many reasons I have become a faithful follower of her work. I have high hopes for this one, but with Stephen and Owen King's Sleeping Beauties also nominated, I have to admit that chances of a win for Hutchison are slim.

There will be a write-in vote for Jenny Lawson's You Are Here for the Best Memoir & Autobiography category. Part self-help, part graphic novel, and part adult coloring book, Lawson provides coloring pages that she herself created and used in the past when she was feeling particularly out of control or lost. It makes for a fantastic travel companion.

And for what is possibly the first DSN to make it into the Best History & Biography category ever, I pick The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It is the story of the women who worked as dial painters during World War I, using radium to do so. Today we can all immediately realize the problem with this, but at the time, radium was still being billed as a wonder substance that was even safe enough to ingest. Yeah, awful.  

Choosing for Best Graphic Novel is tough because I have to choose between Sarah Andersen's Big Mushy Happy Lump, and Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer. Andersen's second collection of comics once again explores life for the modern book-nerd animator as she hilariously attempts to ward off procrastination, self-doubt, body-image issues, and unwanted body hair. Wires and Nerve is the first entry into a new graphic novel series that follows the events of The Lunar Chronicles. I actually think I will go with Andersen on this one, though both have the potential of making a decent showing.

The Best Debut Goodreads Author category is always fun, and this year proves to be no different with El Akkad's American War making its second showing in the nominations, and it is joined by Caraval by Stephanie Garber - the story of a young woman attempting to navigate a dangerous game in order to find her sister - as well as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas - the story of a young unarmed black man killed by a police officer and the tense aftermath that follows. For me, and I imagine for many actually, it is no contest. Thomas gets my vote and I pretty much expect it to win, though I could be proven wrong.

And of course, my favorite category ends up having the most DSN books nominated. Best Young Adult Fiction has a record seven books nominated, with Thomas' The Hate U Give leading the way. The first to join it is Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. In his latest novel, Green explores mental health in today's youth as his protagonist almost constantly fights the urge dress and redress a wound she herself recreates so as to avoid infection. And then there is Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner, a book that follows Carver Briggs as he attempts to live his life without his three best friends after they were tragically killed in a texting and driving accident. Sandhya Menon's When Dimple Met Rishi is such an utter delight that it makes me wish I could vote for two books. Rishi is a boy who cannot wait to meet someone, get married, and start a family, all of which are things that Dimple would rather stay away from. So when these two must work together at a camp for students interested in coding, it is a near constant push and pull as they attempt to make it through the summer. YA queen (at least to me) Sarah Dessen also makes a showing with her latest, Once and for All. Louna Barrett knows from working for her mother's wedding planner business that happily ever after is hard to come by, and she is no less skeptical when distracted and unreliable Ambrose attempts to change her mind. A List of Cages by Robin Roe is a bit of a heart breaker, but it is worth braving Julian's troubled life at home and Adam's ADHD to experience this one. And finally, there is One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, which I actually do not have a post for, but one will be coming in early December. After high school student Simon dies mysteriously during detention, the primary suspects are the four other students that were in the room. But nothing is as its seems, and everyone has a secret that Simon was ready to expose.

Oh goodness, so many choices that I had to start a new paragraph. I may have already voted for it in the Best Debut Goodreads Author category, but even so, I will once again go with Thomas' The Hate U Give. It is just that good.    

Garber's Caraval shows up again in the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category and is joined by Laini Taylor's Strange the Dreamer. While I had to make the difficult decision to not continue with the series, I will still vote for the latter as it is incredibly imaginative and unique. Lazlo Strange gets the amazing opportunity to travel to the city of Weep as part of a team attempting to save it. But it turns out that while he knows a lot more than people realize, he actually knows very little about who he is.

And there you have it: 20 books over 11 categories have made it from the DSN family. Plus, the second round will see the addition of five more books for each category, so that will be interesting. 

The first round of voting ends Sunday, November 5th, with the second round starting the following Tuesday. Happy voting!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Horror Fiction: The Roses of May by Dot Hutchison

I was excited to find out that last year's The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison had a sequel, The Roses of May. While The Butterfly Garden had a definite ending, it does make sense to continue the story, even if it is in a different way with new lead characters, while the reader is able to learn about what is going on with the other ones. Either way, I knew I would be treated to a suspenseful story and some decent follow-up for the previous one.

The Situation: Priya Sravasti is a fairly ordinary high school student currently living in Huntington, Colorado, though she is taking her classes online, mostly in preparation for her eventual move to Paris. She is used to moving every couple of months due to the nature of her mother's job, so not being able to establish roots or make lasting friendships is nothing new to her. Also, since her sister's gruesome murder nearly five years ago, Priya has not felt much need to reach out to people. Her small circle contains her mother, the small group of military veterans who play chess in the park, and the three FBI agents that worked her sister's case, along with the cases of the other women that were killed by the same guy. The three FBI agents happen to be Victor Hanoverian, Brandon Eddison, and Mercedes Ramirez, the same three that are still working on the Butterfly Garden case that came to light four months before.

The Problem: Priya's sister's murder was never solved, and the killer is still loose, managing to give the FBI another victim every May for the last 16 years. Agent Eddison has stayed close to both Priya and her mother after being assigned to their case five years ago. So while he has the still very much active case of the Butterfly Garden, he also stays worried about Priya and how she is doing. Now it seems her sister's killer has followed Priya and her mother to Colorado, and intends to continue his streak. With the FBI agents stationed on the east coast, it is difficult for them to guarantee Priya's safety, even while coordinating with authorities in Colorado. They would love nothing more than to arrest this guy and put him away forever. But after watching the aftermath from the Butterfly Garden, Priya is not sure if that is the kind of justice she can be satisfied with. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that most would categorize as a thriller, and it certainly is, but I like it under the horror subheading, because it is indeed horrifying. While the Gardener liked to collect girls, mark them as his own, and then rape them until they reached adulthood, when he decided to kill them and preserve them, the man who killed Priya's sister stalks his victims, and decides that they are either too pure to continue living and risk corruption, or they are corrupted already and deserve to die. Either way, whoever he locks onto is almost guaranteed to be dead before summer. The narrative switches between a third-person account of Eddison's life, and a first-person account of Priya's. Eddison is still his anxious and somewhat emotionally closed off self from The Butterfly Garden, but now the reader gets to see what he is like around people he genuinely cares about, and not just his colleagues or the suspects they haul in. As hurt and crushed as Priya was after her sister's death, she has managed to grow up to be almost as fierce and terrifying as her mother. She is certainly not interested in being a victim, whether that means ending up dead like her sister, or having to look over her shoulder for the rest of her life. While the novel is certainly tense and suspenseful, it is also a good look at how the hurt and pain of a tragic event can continue long after the actual event is over. It also looks at just how much girls and women have to put up with from creepy men from a young age. 

My Verdict: This is a story. I may have said the same thing about The Butterfly Garden, but whatever, it is true. The nice thing about The Roses of May is that it was not as hard to read as its predecessor, but was still just as powerful, if not more so. Priya is a fantastic protagonist, and getting to follow her around was a pure delight, even with the danger coming closer and closer, making the book all the more tense right up until the end. Also, it was nice to be allowed a view into Eddison's world, even though the seemingly obvious choice for that space would have been Hanoverian. In many ways, Eddison is the smarter choice, as he was almost an antagonist in the first book, but now we get to see why he is the way he is, and that ultimately, he is one of the good guys. Thriller and suspense lovers would enjoy this series and the direction it is going in. I also loved hearing from Bliss and Inara and getting even more closure from the events in the first book. 

Favorite Moment: It comes from one of the updates regarding a villain from the previous book. I will not say more in a restrained effort to not let out any spoilers. 

Favorite Character: Priya's mother reminds me a little of my own, perhaps without the disarming smile and grace. Everyone seems to know to stay out of Ms. Sravasti's way as soon as she enters a room. 

Recommended Reading: Obviously, it would help greatly to read The Butterfly Garden before picking up this one. But also, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton would be a strangely appropriate choice.  

Friday, October 20, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Feels a little unreal to say, but today's post is actually going to be about a new John Green book. Turtles All the Way Down came out a little over a week ago, but it has been five years since his previous novel, the incredibly popular and deeply moving The Fault in Our Stars. To say I was excited would be an understatement, and I know I am not alone.

The Situation: Ava and her friend Daisy have decided to take on the latest scandal to hit Indianapolis. Construction billionaire Russell Pickett has disappeared, shortly before he was to be arrested by authorities. The two teenagers are not usually so interested in white collar criminals, but there is a $100,000 reward for any information leading to his whereabouts, and Daisy has decided that they could be the ones to earn that money. Ava and Daisy are already thinking about college, which is expensive, and Ava actually knows the oldest Pickett son, Davis. Well, she went to camp with him once, years ago, but it is enough. 

The Problem: Ava decides to go along with Daisy's plan, and it kinda works. The two make in onto the Pickett property; Davis remembers Ava enough to invite her in and the two reconnect; and the two girls even manage to collect clues and find some interesting information on the infamous Russell Pickett. The things is, Ava has a different narrative going on in her head that may not be as exciting or interesting as the one Daisy is insisting they play out. It would be fun to focus on the mysterious whereabouts of a missing millionaire, if she could simply stop worrying about getting sick. Actually, that is putting it a bit too simply. What Ava is worried about is getting Clostridium difficile. And once the worrying starts, she has a hard time stopping it, no matter what else is going on. It is the reason she keeps band-aids in her jeans pockets; it is the reason she obsessively cracks open an ever-present cut on her finger to, in her mind, prevent infection (hence the band-aids); it is the reason the simple act of eating can gross her out; it is the reason she sometimes drinks hand sanitizer. Ava wonders if she is truly in control of her life, because if she was, this is not what she would have chosen.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that takes place in modern-day Indianapolis, Indiana. There are several instances where Indianapolis is noted to be a decent city, though not a great one (I've never been so I really cannot argue for or against it), but the setting does play an important enough part so that the book would be a bit different if it were set somewhere else. The primary theme is certainly mental illness, and while Ava's diagnosis is never said outright, she seems to suffer from anxiety, with sides of obsessive compulsive disorder (or OCD) and mysophobia (commonly known as germaphobia). For most of the novel, Ava's focus is on not getting Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. However, once she thinks she has it, or is in danger of getting it, it is difficult for her to think of anything else. Ava is the first person narrator of the book, so the reader is allowed complete access to how these thoughts play out, but there is also considerable insight into how her behavior affects those around her. She has a mom who worries, and a friend who adores her, but as much as they care for her, sometimes it is not enough, for any of them.

My Verdict: We can never be inside of someone's mind so much so that we know exactly what it is like to be them. I will (maybe) never fully know what it is like to have have thoughts I cannot control and threaten to consume my everyday life. I do have OCD tendencies that mostly involve things like checking and rechecking doors that I know I closed and locked, and touching the knobs on the stove when I know they are off, and have been for hours. What Turtles All the Way Down has done is given me a glimpse of what it would be like if this was all I did and I could not fight through the thoughts enough to function in my everyday life. At first I found the way Ava thinks and talks to be jarring, then I found it despairing, and then, eventually, there was hope. In other words, I think Green has done it again. 

Favorite Moment: When Ava and Daisy actually take a canoe out to an island in order to have better access to the Pickett estate.

Favorite Character: Russell Pickett's son Davis has not had it easy, but manages to stay grounded enough that he can still be there for his younger brother. Also, it does not seem that he has let his access to incredible wealth make him spoiled or unable to appreciate the things money cannot buy.

Recommended Reading: Naturally I recommend both The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. But I will also recommend Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton, A List of Cages by Robin Roe, and You Are Here by Jenny Lawson.     

Friday, October 13, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

I was intrigued by Julia Walton's Words on Bathroom Walls as soon as I came across it on Goodreads. Add in yet another unplanned trip to Half Price Books, and here we are. I was not exactly sure what I had signed up for when I picked this story following a teenage boy diagnosed with schizophrenia, but at the very least, I figured it would be interesting.

The Situation: It is the start of a new school year and Adam is preparing to attend St. Agatha's, a private K-12 Catholic school where he will have to wear a school uniform, attend Mass, participate in an Easter play...the full deal. New schools are always a little intimidating and cause for some anxiety. But if meeting new people, making new friends, and getting around a new campus were not enough to worry about, Adam also has the knowledge that every adult in the building knows he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He attends weekly therapy sessions (where he refuses to talk) and is even on a new experimental medication known as ToZaPrex that is supposed to help with the hallucinations. Still, he is worried about the other students finding out about his secret, and even a little bit about the people who already know. 

The Problem: Everything seems to be going fairly well...or at least about as well as life in high school can go. School is what it is; Mass is boring; Adam's mom and stepdad are always supportive and there for him; he has met a cute girl; made a talkative friend; and made his way onto the school bully's hit list. All fairly standard stuff. But then the ToZaPrex does not seem to have the same effect it used to, and when the doctors managing the study recognize that Adam's body is building an immunity to it, they decide to bring him off of it, slowly. Since his diagnosis, Adam has been well aware that there is no cure for what he has, but he would like to at least be able to manage to a point that he does not hurt anyone, or give anyone reason to be afraid of him. Even at the height of ToZaPrex's effectiveness, the hallucinations do not go away completely, but he could handle them. Now, he risks losing everything he has spent the school year working so hard to gain, things that he never knew he needed or wanted until now. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in the 2012-2013 school year, which is Adam's junior year. The setting of the private Catholic school gives Adam some opportunity to talk about religion, though often the discussion is just him criticizing the Catholic church, their beliefs, and how they do things, rather than simply criticizing Christianity or religion in general. Since he refuses to talk in his therapy sessions, the story is told through the journal entries he writes to his therapist, telling everything important that is happening to him. Even the poor therapist is not free from Adam's scrutiny, as he often calls him out for his clothes, hair, even the line of questioning he sometimes chooses in an attempt to get Adam to open up. But given what Adam has been through, and what he is still going through, it is understandable that he would be unwilling to talk, even angry. Walton acknowledges that ToZaPrex may not be a real drug, and that this story is fiction, but schizophrenia is not. The book may be a peek inside of the mind of a fictional person diagnosed with schizophrenia, but it is still a window into someone who is hurting and makes a point of acknowledging that he may never be "fixed."

My Verdict: This one left me a little bit on the fence, but I am certainly leaning more towards the positive. Adam is a great character who embodies that always fascinating issue (at least it is fascinating to me) of how much support can be given to someone who is legitimately suffering, when a lot of what they offer back is pain and heartache. Adam is not quite to the point that the people in his life want to walk away for good, but he has his moments, and these moments sometimes made the book difficult to get through. Of course, that could have been the point. The format of reading the story through Adam's entries to his therapist works extremely well. It may be a one-sided conversation, but not allowing the therapist to interrupt works to let Adam say everything he wants, albeit only in written form. If there is any issue I have with the story it is that the villain, Ian, is almost a little too over-powered. He is not necessarily physically strong, but he has a little too much power and access. Because of his position as the son of the wealthy head of the school board, he does what he wants and gets away with it, right down to being able to know confidential information about his fellow students. But other than that, this is a solid story that would be good reading for anyone who is afraid of being found out for who they are.

Favorite Moment: When Adam's mom confronts her mother-in-law regarding things she said about Adam and his condition.

Favorite Character: Often in YA novels, parents are non-existent, completely useless, or part of the problem. In this case, Adam's mom and stepdad are none of those things. They are helpful, present, and by his side whenever he needs them. 

Favorite Quote: "It doesn't really matter that no one else can see what I see. That doesn't make my experience any less real."

Recommended Reading: You Are Here: An Owner's Manual for Dangerous Minds by Jenny Lawson is an awesome combination of self-help and an adult coloring book. In between the coloring pages, Lawson talks about her own struggles with mental illness. For a fiction book, I recommend All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.