Friday, April 21, 2017

Science Fiction: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

Graphic Novel: Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Graphic Novel: Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Andersen

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

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

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

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

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

    

Friday, March 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Nonfiction: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

Classic Fiction: Sula by Toni Morrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Historical Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I first took notice of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles when it was nominated for Best Historical Fiction in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards, although after reading the premise I immediately wished I had taken notice of it much sooner. For me to find historical fiction not centered around World War II seems to be a small miracle these days, so this book, with its focus on a man under house arrest in early 20th century Moscow, easily made it onto my to-read list.

The Situation: In the summer of 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by a Bolshevik Tribunal and ordered to never leave the Metropol Hotel in Moscow under the penalty of death. The Count had only recently returned to Moscow from Paris, but now he can never leave a building, much less the country, or he will be shot. While such a sentence would devastate almost anyone, the Count seems to approach the situation with the same class and good humor he attended his trial, somehow managing to not give the authorities the satisfaction of seeing him downcast or hurt. Even when he is moved from his previous hotel room to a closet of only 100 square feet, the Count shows no distress. Instead, he simply immerses himself into the hotel and its inner workings, as well as the people who run it. 

The Problem: While Russia, and indeed the entire world, continues to change all around the Metropol Hotel, the Count's life continues from year to year with very little change, at least in comparison. Over the years he will receive visits from old friends, receive news of the deaths of others, experience his own moments of despair, and even eventually become a waiter in the hotel's best restaurant. His one constant source of agony will be a zealous comrade who insists on doing what little he can to make the lives of those around him incredibly difficult, first and foremost being the Count's. But when a small child is left in the Count's care, everything pales in comparison to the duty he feels to give her the best future possible, despite his circumstances. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in Russia during the 1920s thru to the 1950s. Most of the novel stays focused on the Count, though there are a few chapters that will follow some of the people he has come into contact with, such as an actress, an old friend from the Count's childhood, and of course Sofia, the Count's adopted daughter. It is the Bolsheviks who sentence the Count to house arrest, and all because of a poem he wrote that appears to be a call to action against the Bolshevik Revolution, although the Count's insistence to make jokes during his own trial certainly did not help matters. The Count will end up occupying the Metropol Hotel through two World Wars, and will have to witness the myriad of ways Moscow will change under communist rule from the confines of a building. As grim as that may sound, the Count is able to approach his situation (for the most part) with humor, and relies on his good manners and breeding to bring him through almost any situation, no matter how small or great the annoyance. Even confined to one building, a lot can happen and change for a person in 30 years.

My Verdict: I need only say this: had I read this book before the voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards began, I certainly would have voted for it. To me, Towles pulls off something that I would think is incredibly hard to do. He wrote a book that reads like a Russian classic (like from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky), despite having been written in 2016. And he did so while also somehow avoiding the confusion most American readers encounter regarding Russian names in literature, while also acknowledging that difficulty and how hard it can be to get past. There are footnotes that are not annoying or interrupting, or even all that frequent. But more than anything, the characters are delightful and well-presented, while the story itself is funny, engaging, interesting, and captivating. I could not recommend this book enough.

Favorite Moment: When the Count, along with the maitre d, and head chef, manages to pull together an extravagant meal for the three of them despite many of the ingredients being hard to come by in communist Russia.

Favorite Character: Though the Count is fairly young when he is first sentenced, he is already wise, observant, well-mannered, and maintains a great sense of humor. He will actually learn to loosen up even more as he gets older, while also becoming more accustomed to making mistakes and realizing that other people do know better than him, sometimes.

Recommended Reading: If I had to pick one Russian classic to recommend to someone, it would be The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. However, I am a somewhat realistic person, and I realize most people are not going to read something nearly 800 pages long, so I will also recommend Crime and Punishment, which is a much more reasonable length. But for a modern historical fiction book, I recommend Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.        

Friday, February 3, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I have finally gotten around to reading and writing about the final installment in The Rat series by Haruki Murakami. Dance Dance Dance is the fourth and final book, coming after Wind, Pinball, and A Wild Sheep Chase. It seems like a year cannot go by without me reviewing at least one of Marukami's novels, and 2017 is proving to be no different.

The Situation: It seems our nameless narrator is just as aimless and lonely as we left him at the end of A Wild Sheep Chase. Work has been going well, though he still does not care much for what he does and only does it to put money in his pocket and food on his table. There isn't even anyone in his life for him to be excited about. So he decides to search for the woman who disappeared on him years ago, who now has a name, Kiki. The narrator retraces his steps back to where Kiki first left him, at the Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo, back when he was investigating an entirely different matter. He arrives at the Dolphin Hotel just fine, except it is nothing like he remembered it. The hotel he remembered was small, shabby, and not at all glamorous. The place he is now staying at is the exact opposite, but the narrator's strange connection to it seems to be the same, and finding Kiki will prove to be another adventure without a clear-cut path and direction.

The Problem: The narrator manages to make contact once again with the mysterious Sheep Man. Unfortunately, the information he receives is vague and hard to understand. The only thing he does know is that he is in fact connected to the Dolphin Hotel, and the path he is on is the right one, even though it may be hard to see and follow, which leads to more feelings of lacking direction. But as the months roll by, the narrator meets up with old friends, while also making new ones, and they all somehow move him forward in his adventure. Every person and every event is connected, which should be encouraging. But progress also seems to mean people must die, which is what starts to happen. And even progress without loss of life does little to cure the narrator of his loneliness and lack of connection.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that appears to be set in the 1980s. I only say that because tapes are mentioned, along with musicians such as Boy George, Talking Heads, and Phil Collins. As I mentioned, the narrator still does not have a name, but the people around him receive more names than they did in A Wild Sheep Chase. But it seems that if someone receives a name, even if it is a fake one, it means they will die at some point during the novel, with only a few exceptions. The narrator does not seem to have changed or grown much since the previous novel. He is still obsessed with Kiki's ears, and does not have many interpersonal relationships that are important to him. He does not even work at his old company anymore, so even those ties have been more or less severed. He embarks on another adventure that, from the outside, would not seem to have much action in it. But that may be the point: instead of waiting for something to happen, we move forward just by agreeing to continue living our lives. And being a Murakami novel, there are details regarding cooking and eating, strange dreams that may or may not be actual dreams, weird but intense sex, and the blending of lines between the real and imaginary.   

My Verdict: For whatever reason, I was not as invested in this adventure as I was in A Wild Sheep Chase. Granted, that adventure had more of a sense of urgency about it, while this one seemed to unfold at whatever pace the narrator felt comfortable with, sometimes even taken longer than he would of liked. Many of the same elements were present, but it just was not as interesting, and the ending may not have felt rushed, but it also did not feel fitting for the conclusion of the four-book series. Even so, the story was not terrible, and I never wanted to abandon it and move on to a different book. It was interesting enough that I wanted to know how everything was going to turn out, even though the further along I got, the more sure I was that things were going to come out in a less than satisfactory way.

Favorite Moment: When the narrator is able to outsmart the police, even after they manage to hold him for three days without a warrant and without officially arresting him.

Favorite Character: Yuki is a stubborn but sensitive 13 year-old girl the narrator ends up meeting by chance, but their paths turn out to be somewhat connected. She becomes one of the few people the narrator becomes concerned about and goes out of his way to look after, and they end up forming a strange and unlikely friendship that does them both a lot of good.

Recommended Reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is still my favorite Murakami book, and I recommend it to anyone as an introduction to his work. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Kids of Appetite by David Arnold

About one year ago I read David Arnold's Mosquitoland after it was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards. I enjoyed it a great deal, which made my decision to pick up Kids of Appetite (or, They Lived and They Laughed and They Saw That It Was Good) an easy one. Sure, getting me to pick up a young adult novel is like shooting fish in a barrel, but still. Mosquitoland left me wanting to read more from Arnold, so Kids of Appetite was an easy selection.

The Situation: Bruno Victor Benucci III, or Vic, is a 16 year-old kid in Hackensack, New Jersey. He is smart, funny, loves opera, loves art, loves his mom, and his holding on tightly to the memory of his dad. Many people miss out on the awesomeness that is Vic because of their first impression of him, which, because he has Moebius syndrome, often makes then uncomfortable. Moebius syndrome is a rare congenital neurological syndrome that causes facial paralysis. Vic cannot smile, or frown. Any emotion that shows through his face comes out only in his eyes. But if you take time to know him, or simply pay attention, you can tell what he is feeling. Of course, people could also talk to him like they would with any other person. That also works. And the book opens with someone wanting very much to have a conversation with Vic, but the situation is less than ideal. The pages that follow tell us the story of how exactly Vic ended up in a conversation with Sergeant Sarah Mendes of the Hackensack Police, in interrogation room #3.

The Problem: Eight days before Vic ends up in the interrogation room, he fled his home where he lives with his mother, clutching his father's urn, with little more than his backpack and his iPod. He even forgot his cell phone. During those eight days, he will manage to meet four people who treat him like the family he feels he no longer has, not since his father passed away. The four strangers - who include the beautiful and independent Mad; the quiet but observant Zuz; the protective and level-headed Baz; and the fierce and always hungry Coco - not only take Vic in without knowing anything about him, but they also help him spread his father's ashes, with only a somewhat vague list of clues to go by. But when the unlikely group discovers that one of their own may be in very real danger, the already strange adventure takes a surprising turn, and lands three of them in police custody. Now they must explain themselves, but slowly, and without giving away too much too quickly, otherwise everything will fall apart, even more than it has. There is really only one rule, they can let the police think what they want, but they cannot lie.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in Hackensack, New Jersey in middle to late December. The main protagonist is Vic, though the point of view for the narration switches between him and Mad. After opening on the scene between Sergeant Mendes and Vic in interrogation room #3, the story then goes back eight days before to reveal how the group got themselves in their current position. Periodically, the story will go back to not only interrogation room #3, but also interrogation room #2, where Mad is being questioned by Detective Bundle. Obviously, something serious has happened, and chapter by chapter, what occurred is revealed, as well as how, along with the mystery of where Vic's father wanted his ashes spread. This novel is many things. There is a crime mystery, a scavenger hunt of sorts, a love story, a lesson about our often unwarranted fear of the outsider, and even a story about refugees and the horrors many of them have had to face at a young age. My point? There is a lot going on in this novel, making its story as diverse as the characters within it.

My Verdict: I think I actually enjoyed Kids of Appetite more than I did Mosquitoland. Despite the feeling I often had of having read a story like this one before (the interrogation reminded me of The Butterfly Garden; the switching points of view reminded me of All the Bright Places; the main protagonist with a condition that alters his appearance reminded me of The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko; and the scavenger hunt reminded me of Paper Towns), all of the different elements combine nicely to make a story that was never boring, rarely frustrating, and often endearing while somehow remaining fun and not too heavy-handed, despite some of the stuff these characters have been through. I feel like Arnold just went for it, and did the research necessary to pull off a book like this. At times it could get overwhelming or confusing, but having the Cast of Characters list at the beginning certainly helped.

Favorite Moment: When Vic attempts to spread his father's ashes at one of many locations and the wind ends up blowing the ashes back in everyone's faces.

Favorite Character: Nzuzi Kabongo, or Zuz, is Baz's younger brother. He only responds and communicates by snapping, but always manages to get his point across if you are willing to pay attention. Also, dude can throw a punch.

Favorite Quote: "And in the ongoing debate between ridicule and pity and which was the greater offense, here were the sides in short summation: ridicule was generally thoughtless, but intentional; pity was generally thought through, but unintentional."

Recommended Reading: Of course, Mosquitoland goes pretty much without saying. But also I will recommend The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. It is Mad's favorite book, one she is constantly reading, and she even has a theory named for it: The Hinton Vortex. Also, Arnold himself may have employed said theory in writing Kids of Appetite, but that may be me looking too far into things...maybe. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Camp 80 by Lee DuCote

As part of a blog tour, I received Lee DuCote's Camp 80, a story about six senior citizens preparing to move into a retirement community, but before they do, their new place of residence has a road trip planned to help everyone get to know each other. 

The Situation: Derrick St. Clair, the lead social worker at the Cedar Branch Retirement Community, is preparing to take the newest set of residents on a road trip. Karl and Betty, a grumpy husband and forgetful wife from Alabama; Gerald, a quiet but incredibly wise widower from Atlanta; Jack, a five-times divorced ladies man from Manhattan; and June and Violet, eccentric sisters from Arkansas, are all getting ready to move in and start the next phase of their lives. All are in fairly good health, all are in decent shape, and they are all over 80. Derrick, with the help of Katlyn Rose, or Kat, another social worker at Cedar Branch, and the 20-something Simon, is to drive these senior citizens through the southern states, stopping at various tourist attractions and hotels along the way. He knows he will have his hands full, but even so, he is not prepared for the adventures this trip has in store.

The Problem: Keeping up with six octogenarians is hard enough when you stay in one place. Trying to do so on a road trip, and keep them all from killing each other or bickering all of the time is a different matter entirely. Simon keeps having to load and reload the luggage in the van because of Violet's fixation on the vehicle being "balanced." Betty can barely keep Karl from grumbling in annoyance about everything, but mostly over Jack, who is always looking for a bar and friendly female smile. Gerald, who lost his wife nearly eight months ago, mostly sticks to himself and only speaks when asked a question, but somehow Jack has taken a liking to him anyway, making them a pair of unlikely friends. And all six of them cannot help but notice how nice of a couple Derrick and Kat would make. Every stop brings a new adventure, and thankfully an opportunity to visit a bathroom. But it may also bring a new opportunity for someone to get annoyed, or even possibly hurt or arrested.     

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that includes a different kind of road trip. There is a van, and two chaperones, but the campers are all above 80, which does not mean the trip will be any easier or any less exciting. All six of the senior citizens have their quirks and charms, but the most charming may be Jack, and the most quirky may be Violet, and they both get on Karl's last nerve, who is easily the most grumpy of the entire group. They make their way from what I assume to be Florida, all the way to the Gulf Coast in Texas, stopping at museums, restaurants, aquariums, and hotels along the way. Derrick and Kat, with the help of Simon, do their best to wrangle everyone, or at least just keep everyone alive. But although they may be above 80, that does not mean that keeping up with them is an easy task. And often, they are just as mischievous and crafty as any other group of campers. 

My Verdict: This novel is incredibly cute, and funny, and sweet, and also a little sad. I like the originality of the idea of a group of 80 year-olds being taken on a road trip in place of the usual group orientation that comes with moving into a new community with people you do not know. Obviously, this is not going to be the usual type of road trip, at least not the kind we are used to reading or seeing movies about. The fear here is that there will be too many obvious jokes or references to the fact that these people are over 80. And sure, there is some of that, but it isn't so much that I felt like I was constantly being reminded that these people are senior citizens getting ready to move into a retirement community. And much like if I was stuck in that van with them on this trip, I felt like I got to know each of them and really started to like them, which makes the ending of a trip like this that much harder. There could have been more detail added to the descriptions of people and places, and overall I really did not get the point of Simon's character since it seems he does not add much to the story, but it is still a fun novel worth reading.

Favorite Moment: When the group decides to take revenge on a group of young men who regularly harass a young waitress at a restaurant.  

Favorite Character: Gerald is the quiet widower who carries around a picture of the wife he misses, frame and all. Though he keeps to himself, he knows how to speak up at the right moments and is knowledgeable about the most unlikely subjects.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Although it is a collection of short stories, some of them can be linked together and involve older people and couples and their lives after retirement.   

Friday, January 13, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is one of those books that I kept hearing about, but never actually picked up until now. After seeing that it had been nominated for Best Mystery & Thriller for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards, I finally searched for it at the library and was able to pick it up. Even though it did not end up winning the award, I had heard enough good things that I was sure to be in for a decent ride.

The Situation: If you were to ask Scott, he would confess himself to be somewhat of a failure at life. On paper he is a full-time painter, but in reality his work never quite brought him enough attention so that he could hit it big. But it did give him just enough access to alcohol and money, until he finds himself middle-aged with very little to show for his time on Earth. Only after making a concerted effort to pull away from how he had been living his life does he start to really paint again and pull himself together. Living a somewhat secluded and simple life on Martha's Vineyard allows him to concentrate, and after some good fortune, he has managed to schedule some meetings back in New York City. An acquaintance with Maggie, the wife of a television executive who is at Martha's Vineyard on holiday, gives him access to a ride on a private plane back into the city. Things appear to be looking up, right up until it is clear that they are not.

The Problem: The private plane that Scott boards never makes it Martha's Vineyard. After it crashes into the Atlantic Ocean about 16 minutes after take-off, Scott finds himself swimming for his life, though he has no idea if he is swimming towards the shore or away from it. And it isn't just his own life that he is trying to save. Maggie's four year-old son has also somehow survived the crash, and now Scott must fight the water, the wreckage, the night, and the cold temperatures as he struggles toward land. And while that is hard enough, Scott will have another fight on his hands once the two of them make it to safety and the world begins to piece together the story. Most everyone will see him as a hero, but of course, there are those that will wonder why he was even on the plane, and how he managed to be only one of two to survive. Plus, even those that believe him to be a hero will not be willing to give him his privacy. With a full investigation underway, and the suspicious being incredibly eager to talk and throw out wild accusations, the reader of this mystery is fed the stories of those who were on the plane in little bits, leading up to a final reveal that answers nearly everything.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is heavier on the mystery than on the thriller, if only because the terrible thing has already happened, but now we are trying to find out why, with no real threat of another terrible happening. While those in the media and those investigating the crash are interested in why Scott was on the plane, the reader already knows the answer, so the full attention is turned to why it went down, and who exactly is responsible. There are many motives to choose from, the least of all would belong to Scott. David Bateman is a high-powered television executive who has plenty of reasons to be paranoid and worried about his family's safety. And his friend, Ben Kipling, seems to have been involved in some less than favorable business deals with some less then favorable governments overseas. Add in some complex relationships between crew members on board, and things tricky. But Hawley illustrates just how easily the media, and people in general, like to grab hold of the most available explanation, despite there being no proof that it is the right one. And with freedom of speech and the 24-hour news cycle, people are allowed to throw out their theories and make accusations with little regard to the people they are affecting. Information becomes currency, and those who have the most win. Scott becomes a victim of this cycle, knowing that to try to clear his name by going on a popular talking head's news show would only make things worse. But staying silent does not seem to help either. In between chapters that deal with the present, the reader is given the stories behind the other people who were on board the flight - the Batemans, the Kiplings, the security guard, the flight attendant, pilot, and co-pilot - filling in gaps that even Scott himself could not have known.

My Verdict: I will say this: there is a certain point in the story where you do not want to put the book down, and instead would rather power through to the end, sleep and work obligations be damned. But I am not sure it is for the reason the Hawley intended. Sure, I wanted to know what caused the plane to go down, but more than that, I wanted justice to be done to Bill Cunningham, the awful human being who took it upon himself to make a villain out of Scott just because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cunningham is the kind of TV figure that many people wish everyone would just stop paying attention to so that maybe he would go away, but we know that is not going to happen. As long as the guy talks loud enough, and says enough crazy things, people are going to continue to watch him. I doubt he was supposed to take up as much space in the reader's mind as he did in mine, but the result of the investigation became secondary to me. Which then led to the ending feeling somewhat, well, meh. And many of the reveals did not feel much like reveals, but more like ways to simply keep the story going beyond 300 pages.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Emma, Maggie Bateman's sister, throws her greedy hipster-idiot husband out of the house for being, well, basically a greedy hipster-idiot.

Favorite Character: No one in this book is a decent person. Even Scott. Sure, he swam for eight hours in chilly water and ended up saving four year-old JJ's life, but other than that, the guy is no saint. But on that heroic act alone, I suppose it's right to choose him.

Recommended Reading: If you are looking for other books that are more mystery than thriller, then I recommend Shelter by Jung Yun.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Graphic Novel: Habitat by Simon Roy

I received Habitat by Simon Roy as a winner of a giveaway on Goodreads. I am always looking to include more graphic novels on this blog, so naturally I was delighted when I was notified that I had won. Plus, free books! It is also nice to read something with pictures for a change instead of what can often feel like endless pages of uninterrupted text (Infinite Jest, I am looking in your direction).

The Situation: Hank Cho is a new soldier in the Habsec army. The Habsec are a people group living in the distant future. Yet, despite their access to technology such as a 3-D printer that prints weapons, and man-amplifiers that serve as robot suits that can be put on and used in combat, the Habsec are also reminiscent of ancient civilizations due to their love of formal rituals and cannibalistic tendencies. Although he is a new recruit, Cho proves to be a quick study after he makes his first capture. He is subject to the usual teasing that comes from being the new guy, with other soldiers insinuating that he is a "civvie," the group of people Habsecs capture, kill, and eventually eat. But Cho manages to hold his own and impress his superiors.

The Problem: After his first capture, Cho is encouraged to take a souvenir from the victim as a way to remember the occasion. Cho takes what appears to be some sort of token that was simply hanging around the man's neck, but after breaking open the already damaged outer shell, the item is revealed to be a print card similar to the ones used to make weapons from the 3-D printer. But what ends up coming out of the printer is a weapon like nothing Cho has seen before. And when his superiors attempt to take it from him, things quickly escalate, causing Cho to run for his life into enemy territory. The Habsec want that weapon, but the Engineers that now have Cho want it as well, and will not be giving it back without a fight. The two groups have been in an ongoing war since civilization inside of the Habitat collapsed, and this weapon would certainly serve to help one group finally bring about the end of the other. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a graphic novel set in a futuristic dystopia, with a civilization that resembles Mesoamerica in both its architecture and culture. While average everyday citizens are dressed in little more than loin cloths and rags, they have the ability to build and use man-amplifies: suits of armor that people can climb into and use for combat. But despite such advancements in technology, the Habsec have reduced themselves to cannibalism as there is a general shortage of food. Most of the story centers around Hank Cho and his discovery of an incredibly powerful weapon that either side would love to have, but there are brief moments where explanation is offered as to how exactly mankind came to be this way, why there is a war, and if there is any hope that things will ever get any better. Due to a rebellion, the Habitat has since been cut off from other worlds, as well as outside help and resources, which is an interesting and new take on the ejection from the Garden of Eden that takes place in the Bible. From the outset it is clear that the Habitat is a place where people are dying all of the time, though usually at the hands of someone else. This is a world that is ending in more ways than one, and the discovery of this powerful new weapon is not going to be the savior everyone thinks it is.

My Verdict: Sure, plots centered around futuristic dystopias are not new, but Habitat does take it into a new direction; or at least it is new to me. At first this appears to be a story about an ancient civilization, such as the Aztecs of the Mayans. But then the 3-D printer appears and it is clear this is a civilization that reached its zenith, and then somehow regressed. That alone impressed me a great deal. If I had any one real issue with the story is that it isn't long enough, and sometimes the rushed pace made it hard to follow what was happening, and which side was doing what. I felt like there could have been more explanation of the Habitat's past, and the ending is a little too quick and neat given the amount of carnage that comes before. Still, Roy's creative and imaginative story is worth checking out for any graphic novel lover.

Favorite Moment: Anytime the reader was offered even the smallest bit of insight as to how the Habitat came to be what it is today. 

Favorite Character: When escaping the Habsec, Cho ends up falling into the hands of the Engineers, with Joan as his accidental protector. She has every reason to simply get rid of him, but she takes him with her as she searches for help and ultimately, a solution to their crumbling way of life.  

Recommended Reading: For another graphic novel, I recommend Patience by Daniel Clowes. It is longer, and handles the future in a very different way, while still taking old ideas and giving them a creative presentation.