Friday, December 9, 2022

Nonfiction: Solito by Javier Zamora

Once again, 2022 comes through with an engaging piece of nonfiction. Solito by Javier Zamora chronicles the author's journey at the tender age of nine from El Salvador to the U.S, where he was to be reunited with his parents. The 'trip' as it was always described to him is long, hard, dangerous, and full of uncertainty.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a memoir that takes place almost entirely within the weeks between April 20 and June 10 of 1999. During this time, young Javier made the 3,000 mile journey from his small town in El Salvador to the U.S, where he would reunite with his parents. He was nine years old, and entirely alone, except for the group of strangers that were also making their journey for their own reasons, to be reunited with their own loved ones. Using nearly every mode of transportation, Javier will make a trip that was supposed to take only two weeks. But there are setbacks and countless dangers, and the fear and uncertainty about what happens next only grows as the weeks go on. With both English and Spanish used for the dialogue, Zamora tells of his experience with the utmost attention to detail, giving readers access to memories that many may never forget.

My Verdict: For those readers that are looking for a memorable journey, and also for a detailed, first-person account of the often difficult trek across the U.S. and Mexico border, this is absolutely for them. The fact that Zamora is only nine years-old when he is sent off to make this trip alone is enough to astound or even impress many people. I can only vaguely recall what I was like at nine years old (my memory has never been the best), but I am fairly certain that something like this would have broken me. Many times throughout the book, young Javier worries that he is being a nuisance to the adults in the group, or that he is annoying the older kids. It is an understandable concern, but it is eventually buried in the magnitude of everything else that is going on. It is the kind of story that is hard to believe, but it did happen, and Zamora relays it well with specifics and honesty, and the kind of observations and thoughts that only a small and vulnerable child would have.

Favorite Moment: At one point, it is determined that it is easier for Javier to pretend to be part of a family with three other travelers. It does not take long for the young boy to realize that this new and made up family is actually quite real, despite the fake papers that declare it to be true. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. 

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Winners of the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards

After two rounds of voting, the readers have spoken and the winners have been chosen. It is time to reveal the victors of the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards. There is usually at least one surprise and more than a few close calls, but more than anything, it is exciting to see which books came out on top.

It is no surprise to me that Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow took the top prize for Best Fiction. It is one of those books that I felt like I could read forever, and it has received so much attention since its publication. It is a good feeling when a DSN I voted for has taken the first category. 

And while I may not have voted for the winner for Best Historical Fiction, it is again no surprise that this book has been voted the reader favorite. Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid has won it, which means it joins Reid's two previous books as winners of this category for the Goodreads Choice Awards. 

It seems that Emily St. John Mandel has still managed to entertain science fiction lovers and her Sea of Tranquility has won it for Best Science Fiction. Personally, I loved the tie-ins to her previous book and another Goodreads Choice winner, Station Eleven

And finally, I am pleased to see that The Office BFFs by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey has won for the Best Humor category, and given that the show The Office was popular during its initial run, and has now been rediscovered by a new generation, this is not at all surprising. Add to this the incredibly popular and award-winning podcast, The Office Ladies, and this book was certainly going to have its supporters. 

Four DSNs, three of which I voted for, have won in their categories, along with a couple books that I read but did not cover on this blog (more on that later this month). All there is to do now is discover more new books and get ready for 2023. My only hope is that next year will provide just as many delightful selections as this one did. 


Friday, December 2, 2022

Young Adult Fiction: The Weight of Blood by Tiffany D. Jackson

Author Tiffany D. Jackson is known for her mysteries and thrillers geared towards young readers, and her latest offering, The Weight of Blood, was absolutely perfect reading during the Halloween season when I first picked it up. A re-imagining of the story of Carrie, by Stephen King, Jackson takes the classic and places it in 2014 in small-town Georgia.

The Situation: It was a fairly usual day at Springville High School. No one may have expected the rain that came down during first period, especially Maddy Washington, who made it a point to check the weather at least three times before leaving her house. The surprise downpour has wreaked havoc on her hair, leading to two reactions from her fellow students in her next class. The popular girls in the back cannot hold back their laughter...they even begin to throw things into Maddy's afro. But this also makes everyone realize something no one knew, even the teacher - Maddy Washington is black. When a video of the teasing makes it onto social media, Springville must do serious damage control, while also confronting its racist history.

The Problem: One solution to help both the school and the town's image is to hold the first integrated prom at the end of the month. Of course, there is significant resistance. Many believe things are fine the way they are, that this integration of one of the high school's most sacred and long-held traditions is not necessary, maybe even a little extreme. But popular class president and head of the prom committee Wendy is determined to save the day, and even has a plan to get Maddy to attend the event. When everything seems to be going well, even better than perfect, some of Maddy's classmates decide enough is enough, and ruin an evening where the poor girl started to feel almost normal. Unbeknownst to them, this is just the thing to cause this night to truly be one no one will ever forget...well, the ones that live anyway.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction book that takes place mostly during May of 2014, which is the height of prom season for many high schools in the U.S. The book also contains segments from episodes of Maddy Did It, a fictional show on NPR that is exploring the event, interviewing witnesses and experts, and going through old records in an attempt to piece together what exactly happened the night of the prom. Of course, those that are familiar with Stephen King's Carrie more or less know what happens, but Jackson brings the horror story into the 21st century by introducing a plot with themes of institutional racism, privilege, and how the act of protecting history and tradition can quickly reveal how people really feel about progress and reconciliation, while also indicting those who stand by and do nothing. 

My Verdict: I knew this was going to be a tough one - books that deal with racism usually are on some level - but I let my apprehension allow me to forget how fun Jackson's books can be. Poor Maddy is a complex character, raised in a household by a man who was determined that she would not be exactly who she is. Add in a town that is desperately trying to hold onto its racist roots, and a significant event is bound to happen. Not only is the situation incredibly tense, but each chapter brings new discoveries of different characters, and different pieces of the story. My only issue would be the ending. While I understand that not every mystery needs to be solved, there were some loose ends that bothered me. But whatever. I still say lovers of horror will have fun with this one.

Favorite Moment: As someone who works at a large university, I know that it is possible to rescind a student's admission. I will just say that it happens in this book, and it is glorious. 

Favorite Character: Mrs. Morgan does her best to help Maddy, as well as be of assistance to the other black students at Springville High School. She does what she knows the principal cannot (or will not), and has no issue standing up against popular students and their powerful parents. 

Recommended Reading: Monday's Not Coming still remains my favorite of all of Jackson's books that I have read. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Goodreads Choice Awards 2022 Final Round

With the first round of voting closed, each of the 17 categories of the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards has cut the list of nominees down from 20 to 10. It is always interesting to see which books will continue on, and which ones did not quite gather the votes to be considered for the top prize.

When it comes to Best Fiction, there were originally three DSNs that were nominated, but it looks like Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez will not be advancing. And the same is true for Brendan Slocumb's The Violin Conspiracy in the Best Mystery & Thriller category, which was the only DSN in that group.

While my favorite for the Best Historical Fiction category, Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson, has advanced, the same could not be said for either Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow, or Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang. And I could not be more pleased (or surprised) the three out of the four DSNs that were nominated for the Best Science Fiction category are still in this thing. Only Station Eternity by Mur Laffterty will not be moving on. 

There are no changes to report in the Best Humor category, with both The Office BFFs by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, and Hello, Molly! by Molly Shannon holding strong. However, the same could not be said for Best Nonfiction, as South to America by Imani Perry did not gain enough votes, and neither did The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, which was originally nominated for Best Memoir & Autobiography. But both Oddball by Sarah Andersen and Ducks by Kate Beaton remain in the running for Best Graphic Novels & Comics. 

Quite a bit has happened in the Best Debut Novel category. There were six DSNs that were originally nominated, but only two remain. It seems The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb, Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow, and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu will not be moving on, but the last book in that list is still in it for Best Science Fiction. 

Oh my young adult fiction...the Best Young Adult Fiction category is always an interesting one, and that still remains true for 2022. Only three DSNs remain in that group, and I am surprised that not one of them is either You'll Be the Death of Me, or Nothing More to Tell, both by Karen M. McManus. Tiffany D. Jackson's The Weight of Blood will also not be advancing. And as for the Best Young Adult Fantast & Science Fiction category, neither nominated DSN made the cut, so the journey ends for Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor, and A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin.

There are 16 total DSNs that remain as contenders in the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards, and really, anything can happen. The final round of voting ends this Sunday, December 4th, and the winners will be announced the following Thursday, December 8th. It will be interesting for sure. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Graphic Novel: Incredible Doom: Volume 2 by Matthew Bogart and Jesse Holden

Oh my graphic novels...so easy to read, hard to put down (even after reaching the end of the story), and often crazy expensive to buy. I mean, I get it, all that work on the illustrations, story, and the actual paper and binding are a project in themselves, but still. I was pleased to see the sequel to last year's Incredible Doom: Volume 1 so soon, as I had a ton of questions, and readers can now catch up with the misfits at Evol House.

The Situation: Time gets weird when you do not go to school...at least that is according to Allison. She has not attended classes since she began living in the attic at Evol House with her boyfriend Samir. After escaping her abusive and overbearing father, Allison is desperate to make this new life work, no matter how chaotic it often is. For Tina, Evol House is really the only option, so she continues to work tirelessly, even if no one else seems to care. And Richard still has not quite cracked the mystery of the bully at school who hates him, seemingly for no reason. 

The Problem: While Tina wonders if life at Evol House is the answer she always believed it was, a new friend provides a potential escape, though it would mean giving up on everything she has worked so hard for. Samir grows less sure that life at Evol House is any better than what everyone had before with each passing day. Granted, he is mostly there because of Allison, but now he worries if it was a mistake helping her get here. Sure, she seems happy, but she is also picking up terrible habits. Her latest adventure gains the attention of Richard's bully, who is more determined than ever to get payback...but for what exactly? Richard must follow clues and speak to various people in order to get answers. Hopefully a solution is found before someone gets seriously hurt.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a graphic novel that continues the story from the first installment, following four teenagers who are now living together in Evol House...an unassuming house where lost kids can find a different kind of family. Most of the kids there found it through the latest tech craze, the internet. It is 1994, and teenagers everywhere are discovering a new favorite pastime, allowing for a different kind of connection that was not possible before. Samir may have a solid home life, but Allison has no plans to return the house she lived in with her mother and manipulative father. For her, Evol House means safety. For Richard, it means protection. And for Tina, it is simply home.

My Verdict: I finished volume 1 desperate for answers, and volume 2 has certainly delivered. With the same simple, but beautiful artwork (honestly, it is perfect for the story it represents and for what the characters are going through), Bogart and Holden present these kids who are navigating problems that they are probably too young to be dealing with, but such is the world they live in. Allison's need for belonging and safety can be felt every time she shows up on the page, as can Samir's concern, and Tina's frustration. I believe that anyone who has ever suffered through high school will be able to find something to identify with here, especially if those years were during the 1990s.

Favorite Moment: There is no one moment in particular, but flashbacks and memories are light blue...something I find to be incredibly effective.

Favorite Character: Last time I picked Allison, but this time I will go with Richard. Instead of simply retaliating, he makes serious attempts to understand what is going on with the boy who insists on hating him.  

Recommended Reading: I recommend the graphic novel for A Wrinkle in Time. It is a great way to revisit a classic.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Young Adult Fiction: Gleanings by Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman's The Arc of a Scythe trilogy was easily one of the most entertaining, imaginative, uncomfortable, and fascinating book series I had ever read. I enjoy reading books that seek to answer seemingly impossible questions, and with The Arc of a Scythe, Shusterman attempted to answer a question that many have asked: What if humans could live forever? What exactly would that mean for life on Earth? Gleanings: Stories from The Arc of a Scythe is somewhat of a continuation of the series, but this time includes short stories from the time before, during, and after the events in the initial The Arc of a Scythe series.

Genre, Themes, History: Set during a distant (but not that distant) future, this collection of stories brings readers back into a world where the human population is controlled by Scythes, people who have been given the authority to kill (or glean) pretty much whomever they please, with the Thunderhead controlling every other aspect of life. There are rules and regulations, but as the stories prove, many Scythes find ways around them, or they simply glean those they find annoying, or those that manage to get in their way. In "Never Work with Animals," Scythe Fields makes sure his small community is just as he likes, and anyone who irks him risks having their life taken. And then there is Scythe Dali in "The Persistence of Memory," who prefers to turn his gleanings into elaborate public works of art in an attempt to win both love and respect from the people around him. Readers of the previous book will notice familiar names and faces in stories like "Formidable" and "A Martian Minute," which may provide key insights into events that were merely mentioned before. The stories may not be presented in chronological order, but the clues are there to allow readers to know exactly where in the timeline each tale belongs.

My Verdict: This collection of stories is just as unnerving and intriguing as the first three books, and I foolishly thought they would not be. I figured they would be incredible and a great read, but I did not expect to feel unsettled while reading them. I found myself once again imagining what life under the Scythedom would be like, with the Thunderhead controlling everything else, and I have once again decided that it is not for me. Having my fate be in the hands of what is essentially little more than sanctioned serial killers does not sound like a life worth living. Each story, even the ones that do not reveal some previously missing piece of information from the time of the previous books, is not only entertaining, but also eye-opening to how some people choose to behave in the face of some unusual circumstances. Sure, it is fiction, but I have learned that we often both over and underestimate what humans are capable of.

Favorite Story: For me, it is a tie between "A Death of Many Colors," and "Meet Cute and Die." In the former, a group of teenagers debate the existence of Scythes during an annual Halloween party that is about to take a turn. In the latter, a young woman must figure out what she wants out of life, which is not easy, considering the aunt she lives with is a Scythe and insists on keeping her close. But there is also "The Mortal Canvas," which may not have been my favorite, but was oddly moving, and also heartbreaking.

Recommended Reading: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez is not YA, but it does explore a future for humanity that includes many different options for how we will live. I also recommend Shusterman's Dry, which asks the question of what people would do if they suddenly lost access to water. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Goodreads Choice Awards 2022

Almost as if it were another holiday to celebrate, the Goodreads Choice Awards have once again come around, giving readers a chance to vote for their favorite books of the year. It is always a thrill, at least for me, to see which books are being considered, and just how close the race can get. So let's see what options voters have for this year.

Three DSNs have made it into the always highly competitive Best Fiction category, and they are Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, and Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. Honestly, I would be good with any of these winning, but my personal vote goes to Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. As was promised on the book jacket, Zevin wrote a love story like no other, one that spanned decades and moved across the country. Oh yeah, and there was video game development involved. It was intriguing as it was interesting, and also incredibly moving.

I am always surprised when I manage to get a book on this blog that ends up being nominated for the Best Mystery & Thriller category. This year it was The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb. When his precious, not to mention priceless, Stradivarius violin goes missing, musician Ray McMillian begins an intense and manic search to get it back. Granted, it has caused him immense trouble since he found it in his grandmother's attic, but he cannot play anything else, and desperately needs to find it before a big competition. The book is a great ride, but it is up against the likes of The Maid by Nita Prose, and The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley.

The Best Historical Fiction category is predictable stacked, and I am spoiled for choice with DSNs like Tara M. Stringfellow's Memphis, Jenny Tinghui Zhang's Four Treasures of the Sky, Charmaine Wilkerson's Black Cake, Kate Quinn's The Diamond Eye, and Taylor Jenkins Reid's Carrie Soto Is Back being presented for our consideration. All incredibly strong choices, I personally have the strongest attachment to Wilkerson's Black Cake. Had it been placed in the Best Fiction category (I had placed it under the 'contemporary fiction' heading), I would be free to vote for The Diamond Eye. Last year, Reid took the win in this category for Malibu Rising, and I will not be at all surprised if she does so again.

I have lamented many times that science fiction is one of my weaker categories, and yet, four DSNs have managed to make it in for the Best Science Fiction category. Out of How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, and The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, I pick the last one in the list for my vote. Mandel went back to her science fiction roots for her latest novel, making links to previous one, and giving readers a unique scifi experience that explores the possible future for human beings living somewhere other than Earth.

Both The Office BFFs by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, and Hello, Molly by Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon have been nominated for the Best Humor category. Both approach their respective subjects with honesty and humor. While Fischer and Kinsey talk all about their time on the enduring hit TV show The Office, as well as the friendship that came from it, Shannon's book is about her life and career, which of course, SNL was a major part of. My vote goes to The Office BFFs, though Shannon's book also very much deserves the honor. 

Only South to America by Imani Perry made it into the Best Nonfiction category, and I am certainly glad to see it there. Perry explored many of the South's major cities and areas, as she related not only her own personal experiences in each place as a black woman, but also its history, and how the history of the south as a whole is really the history of the U.S. It is certainly worth a read for American history buffs, and even travel lovers. 

This year, I imagine the Best Memoir & Autobiography category will be an interesting race, and I love seeing both Solito by Javier Zamora (which will be reviewed in a future blog post), and The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingris Rojas Contreras as contenders. Both are incredibly vivid, and honest, and fascinating, and my decision to vote for Solito was not an easy one to make. 

Normally, I am lucky to have one book from the blog show up in the Best Graphic Novels & Comics category, and this year there are two! Neither of which comes as a surprise, as both Ducks by Kate Beaton (future blog post) and Oddball by Sarah Andersen are wonderful. Andersen's humor is always infectious and engaging, but the brutal honesty with which Beaton served up the nonfiction Ducks cannot be ignored, which is why it gets my vote. I implore those who know little about the oil sands of Canada and the people who work there to pick it up. 

All six (six!) books that appear in the Best Debut category have also been nominated in their respective genre categories. The Violin Conspiracy, Olga Dies Dreaming, Black Cake, Memphis, Remarkably Bright Creatures, and How High We Go in the Dark are all up for consideration, and again, I must go with Wilkerson's Black Cake

As usual, there are plenty of young adult DSNs to consider for the Best Young Adult Fiction category. Both of the books published by prolific thriller writer Karen M. McManus have been nominated, which means her readers will have to choose from either Nothing More to Tell, or You'll Be the Death of Me. But there is also Family of Liars by E. Lockhart, Anatomy by Dana Schwartz, The Weight of Blood by Tiffany D. Jackson (future blog post), and I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys that have been nominated. All have their own strengths, but my vote goes to I Must Betray You. Set in 1980s communist Romania, readers go on an adventure with young Cristian Florescu after he is recruited to spy on his own friends and family, while also knowing that he himself is being constantly watched. 

Honestly, the choice between Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor, and A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin is a difficult one for me. Both embody the young adult fantasy genre beautifully, offering readers an incredible experience in places and times very different from our own. The world building is phenomenal, if not exceptional in some areas. But I have to choose one, so I went with Taylor's Hotel Magnifique

And there we have it..a total of 28 DSNs that are in this thing, with the the potential to be named the best in their respective categories. This initial round of voting will last until Sunday, November 27, with the final round opening Tuesday, November 29. I am excited, as I always am, and will be anxious to see the results.