Friday, March 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Graphic Novel: Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Andersen

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

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

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

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

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

    

Friday, March 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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