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.