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.