Friday, July 21, 2017

Science Fiction: Grond: The Raven High by Yuri Hamaganov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Nonfiction: Here We Are edited by Kelly Jensen

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

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

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

Favorite Essay: A Thousand Paper Cuts by Shveta Thakrar.

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Piecing Me Together by Reneé Watson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls...welcome to what I am calling the Door Stop Novels YA Fest. Through complete accident and little planning of my own, every post for the month of June will cover a young adult novel. That's right. For the next five weeks, every Door Stop Novel will be a young adult fiction novel. It is no secret to anyone who reads this blog regularly that young adult is my favorite genre, and this year, I have certainly had my pick of YA books to choose from. There have been so many in fact - so many that I wanted so badly to read - that I am letting YA take over the entire month of June, which is also my favorite month. And starting things off will be The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

The Situation: Starr Carter is from the hood, and that is no exaggeration. It is not something she just says, and no one can call her a liar. She lives in Garden Heights with her mother Lisa; her father Maverick, or Big Mav; older half-brother Seven, and younger brother Sekani. To most people around the neighborhood, Starr is known mostly as "Big Mav's daughter who works at the store." While her father owns and runs the local grocery store, and refuses to move his family to a safer neighborhood, Starr and her brothers are still sent across town to attend a school in her Uncle Carlos' neighborhood. After Starr's best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting when they were ten, Big Mav and Lisa decided they needed to do what they could to keep their children safe.

The Problem: After a Spring Break party is broken up, Starr leaves with Khalil, another childhood friend. Not long after they leave, the car is pulled over, and a routine traffic stop over a busted tail light turns into Starr's worst nightmare, and it is one she has already lived. Khalil ends up shot in the back, and the officer, whom Starr will continue to refer to as One-Fifteen (his badge number) for the remainder of the book, continues to point the gun at Starr as her friend bleeds out in her lap. The event will make national news, and Starr will have more difficulty than ever balancing her two identities: the one she has in Garden Heights, and then one she has with her friends at school, where being black automatically makes her cool by default. With her neighborhood being torn apart, not only because of what happened, but also because of rival gang violence, and the judgment she fears she will receive at school, Starr tries her best to remain anonymous, and not be revealed to be the only witness, other than One-Fifteen, to Khalil's death. But if there is any hope of Khalil receiving the justice he deserves, Starr will have to speak out, despite the danger it could bring to her friends and family.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set mostly in Garden Heights, a neighborhood in a city that is never named, because really, it could be any city of substantial size in the U.S. At the center of the novel is the incident that claims Khalil's life, and the aftermath that follows...but it is not everything. Once the event makes national news, everyone is naturally giving their two cents, but Starr was actually there. Khalil may not have been armed, and he may not have done anything wrong, certainly nothing to deserve what happened, but labels such as thug and gangbanger are thrown around anyway, even by one of Starr's best friends at school. As if she is not going through enough, her family must deal with King, the biggest gang leader in Garden Heights, who has major issues with Big Mav. And what Starr knows about Khalil could put her family and friends in danger if she tells the wrong people. While keeping her family safe and alive is certainly a priority, so is getting justice for a friend who was killed for all the wrong reasons. This novel deals with unmerited violence against black people at the hands of law enforcement; gang violence; the seemingly endless cycle of drug dealing and drug abuse in the hood; the exhausting nature of being able to be one way at home, but having to be someone almost completely different when around people who do not look like you; and even the ever-present question of whether leaving a neighborhood means turning your back on it, even if you have a good reason to do it.          

My Verdict: Three words: I cannot even...I just cannot. There is a reason, several actual, for why this book made it to the top of the best-seller list for several weeks in a row. It is a book that approaches a subject that is painful for many people, black or otherwise, but sadly, it keeps coming up in today's society due to unarmed black people being shot by police. However, despite the subject matter, people do pick it up, and then they recommend it to their friends, who also pick it up. And then teachers buy it for their students, who then recommend it to their friends, and the cycle continues. And it is because it is not just a book about a difficult subject that is painfully relevant, but it is also incredibly, ridiculously, ludicrously, and almost unbelievably well written. This is a story. Thomas does not hold back and instead goes for broke, and it works in every way that it can. She even dares to address that one person in every one's life who is so blindly ignorant, but also so self-righteous that it induces a kind of rage that cannot even be identified, that they have the gall to insult some one's culture and/or how they feel about an issue, and then feel like they are owed an apology when they are called out on it. I could easily get on my soapbox right now and go on at length about why that kind of nonsense happens, but I will spare you...this is simply a wonderful book. And I try not to say this too much, but I am saying it here: everyone should read it.      

Favorite Moment: Anytime Starr's mother, Lisa, breaks down some one's name when they need to quit. We all know that moment when we have gone too far by how our parents say our name. My mother would middle-name my brother and me. And when she did, we knew we were pulling at her last nerve.

Favorite Character: It would have to be a tie between one of Starr's best friends, Maya, and Nana, her grandmother on her mother's side. Maya is small but mighty, and sticks by Starr through all of the drama. All of it. And while Nana may be a little off, she does not play around, and she loves her grandchildren.

Favorite Quote: "Daddy claims the Hogwarts houses are really gangs. They have their own colors, their own hideouts, and they are always riding for each other, like gangs. Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on one another, just like gangbangers. Death Eaters even have matching tattoos. And look at Voldemort. They're scared to say his name. Really, that "He Who Must Not Be Named" stuff is like giving him a street name. That's some gangbanging shit right there."   

Recommended Reading: Goodness, this is tough. I guess first, for the nonfiction side, I recommend The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. But for fiction, I will suggest The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It is a completely different kind of book, but like Thomas, Diaz went for broke and it paid off.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Door Stop: Ulysses by James Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Graphic Novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

Historical Fiction: Before the Rain Falls by Camille Di Maio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 28, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Science Fiction: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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