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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

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

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 The two boys could not be more different, with Adam being outgoing and popular, and Julian being withdrawn and awkward.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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