Friday, May 20, 2022

Historical Fiction: On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark

Of course I am aware that we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but goodness me, the cover art for todays' book is absolutely stunning. However, it was the premise of On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark that initially caught my attention. Set in two different years, over 20 years apart, a young woman discovers the long hidden history of her family and its position during Argentina's "Dirty War."

The Situation: It is 1998, and a young Argentine American college student is leading a charmed and somewhat sheltered life. Paloma Larrea is currently away from New York, spending time with her family in Buenos Aires. Just as her father, Santiago, a wealthy Argentine diplomat, is about to be assigned as the country's UN Ambassador, Paloma receives a hint from an old family friend that there is more to her father than she ever knew. And when it becomes clear that Santiago has no interest in revisiting the past, Paloma only becomes more curious, though she may not be prepared for what she is about to uncover.

The Problem: The 1970s were a tumultuous time for Argentina. Santiago is a wealthy and attractive young law student who is next in line to take over the family estate and business, though he is currently more concerned with conquering attractive women and enjoying his life. It is not until he meets Valentina Quintero that a woman has ever made him even begin to consider settling down. But Argentina's challenging political climate, along with a few other factors, will work against the couple. And as Paloma continues to dig into her father's past, she may unwittingly unearth an old threat to her and her family's safety.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set both in 1976 and 1998, in and around the city of Buenos Aires. In 1998, Paloma Larrea looks into her family's history during 1970s Argentina, particularly in the years leading up to the military dictatorship of 1976. It is during this time that many civilians became a target of the government, and not just the most obvious and outspoken protesters and activists. Eventually, writers, musicians, artists, even those that were known to heavily read and discuss books became targets, along with anyone close to them. The word "disappeared" became an adjective to describe those that would seemingly vanish one day, impossible to find unless someone had connections, and/or a lot of money. When Paloma begins her search, she thinks she is only looking into her father's past activity as an activist, but she uncovers an entire hidden history.

My Verdict: When I first began reading, I found myself far more interested in what was taking place in 1976 than in what was happening with Paloma in 1998. In the beginning, there simply was not much about the naive, unconcerned, and somewhat unexceptional Paloma that held my interest. However, the two timelines eventually come together to create an intriguing story that they both contribute to equally. While the Argentina in 1976 is in a different place politically from the Argentina in 1998, Clark manages to marry the two to create one attractive and interesting story. With Santiago and Valentina in 1976, and Paloma in 1998, everything comes together to present an Argentina that is all at once tragic and redemptive. 

Favorite Moment: It is hard for me to point to any one moment in the book. In general, I enjoyed Paloma's journey and her growth as a character over the course of the novel. 

Favorite Character: As I already mentioned, Paloma came into her own and I enjoyed watching it happen.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, as well as Furia by Yamile Saeid Mendez. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Science Fiction: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

No doubt many will recognize the name behind today's novel as the author of the wildly popular Station Eleven. Now, Emily St. John has returned to science fiction with Sea of Tranquility, and I know her readers could not be more excited.

The Situation: In 1912, Edwin St. Andrew finds himself on a trip away from his family and home in England, though he knows to think of it as a 'trip' would mean he hopes to return, but that probably will not happen. One day, he takes a walk through a forest, and over eight decades later, a young girl will take a similar walk through that same forest, recording on a camera as she goes. In the year 2203, writer Olive Llewellyn will be participating in a book tour on Earth, talking about her latest science fiction novel, as she misses her husband and daughter at their home in one of the colonies on the moon. Little does she know that she has something in common with Edwin St. Andrew in 1912, and the teenage girl in 1994. She may not find out everything, but what she learns will be enough to change the direction of her life.

The Problem: An anomaly has occurred in North America, back on Earth, and Gaspery Roberts has been hired to investigate it, though it really isn't his area. This kind of thing is really more Zoey's deal, his older sister. But Zoey is the one who brought him in, and after extensive training and research, Gaspbery is sent away from his home in Colony Two of Earth's moon, also known as the Night City, to find out more about what is going on. If Zoey is right, what happened to Edwin, the young girl, and the science fiction writer could be more than a simple coincidence. Instead, it would change everything about how we view life and the universe.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel set across history (as early as 1912) and as far into the future as 2401. For the first half of the book, the events occur in a chronological order. But once the primary characters are introduced and their situations are established, the story begins to move around, changing locations as it changes time. Gaspbery does not become the focus of the story until about 100 pages in, though his presence certainly brings a fair amount of focus and clarity to what is going on. And readers of The Glass Hotel, another one of Mandel's novels, may recognize a handful of characters.

My Verdict: I was somewhat anxious about jumping into this book, mostly because it is science fiction, but I was excited that it was one of Mandel's, and that it was also less than 300 pages. The simple, yet extraordinary and vivid settings that I have come to expect from Mandel were immediately clear and present. Each shift in time has been given its own distinct feel, with the scenes that are closer to our own time feeling familiar, and those far off in the future feeling both strange and possible. And as someone who had issues with one character in particular from The Glass Hotel, I was glad for the callback. Mandel takes a subject and theme that is often overdone, or simply not handled well, and not only managed to craft an absorbing story, but one that is clever and original.

Favorite Moment: I have already mentioned it, kind of...but I enjoyed reading about Paul Smith, a character from The Glass Hotel, and seeing how he is managing his life. It is a brief encounter, but it is something.

Favorite Character: Gaspbery's sister Zoey is the person in your high school class who you know is going to do something great with their life. They will excel at whatever they choose to do, and it is accepted that they simply know more than everyone else, and they somehow aren't annoying about it. 

Recommended Reading: I wonder what it would have been like to read this book first, and then read The Glass Hotel...someone out there must tell me about it. Of course, I also recommend Station Eleven, though be warned, it is about a deadly virus that nearly wipes out humanity.  

Friday, May 6, 2022

Young Adult Fiction: Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor

This year is proving to be one where I explore more than my usual number of young adult fantasy books - there will be a few more appearing on this blog in the coming months. Today, Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor will take the spotlight, a book that promised to remind readers of Emily Morgenstern's The Night Circus.

The Situation: Jani's life has one mission: to take care of her younger sister, Zosa. This mission is how she and Zosa ended up in the small port town of Durc in the first place. But with their days being spent working in a tannery, not quite making enough to keep their stomachs full, Jani is looking for another escape, and she hopes to find it in the Hotel Magnifique. While it is known that magic exists and that some have it in their blood, it is also acknowledged to be dangerous. Within the walls of Hotel Magnifique, magic is on full display, but only a select few are allowed to enter as guests. Jani's plan? Get her and her sister through the door as staff. The plan works, and the sisters embark on an adventure that may change everything.

The Problem: Simply getting into the hotel was an ordeal, but surviving it may be a whole other matter. As Zosa takes the stage as a singer, Jani is relegated to being a lowly maid. But from her first few days, Jani begins to see that the place is not as lovely as it has always seemed. There is certainly something dark and sinister hiding beneath the hotel's enchanting surface, and its something that explains the hotel's ability to travel, as well as the staff's loyalty. Then there is Alastair, the powerful leader of the hotel, who is certainly hiding something. With only the handsome and enigmatic doorman as her ally, Jani has to put everything she has in uncovering the hotel's secrets, and getting herself and her sister out of danger before it is too late.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fantasy novel set in an undetermined time and in a fictional world full of magic, and incredible danger. Sisters Jani and Zosa decide to try their luck working in the mysterious Hotel Magnifique, and get way more than they could have ever bargained for. The hotel is a place where magic can more or less run free, dazzling the wealthy guests, as the hotel itself travels to a different location every night. Throughout the adventure, Jani will meet people of every shape and color, some who can use magic, and some who cannot. And while not every person who helps run the hotel is dangerous, there are a select few who wield their terrible power as a means to control and punish.

My Verdict: With the comparison's to Stephanie Garber's Caraval and Morgenstern's The Night Circus, the bar was set fairly high, and I am so pleased that Taylor delivered. Jani may be foolish, and more than a little naive, but her stubbornness serves her well as she tackles every obstacle that comes her way. Everything she does is for her sister, and she is willing to take every risk and face off against even the most powerful of enemies if it means keeping Zosa safe. The world Taylor has built is full of magic and wonder and incredibly scenery. But the danger is also seen and felt in every chapter, no matter how the situation may look on the surface. With a fast pace and incredible detail, this book delivers on the adventure it promises. 

Favorite Moment: It is incredibly difficult to pick a favorite moment without revealing a crucial spoiler. It is almost as if ever scene serves a purpose, and nothing is wasted. 

Favorite Character: Issig is a tragic character who has been consigned to live in the hotel's freezer. He does not get to say much, but he has an incredible presence that commands the few scenes he is in. 

Recommended Reading: I hesitate to recommend The Night Circus, if only because the ending was such a let down. But I will recommend Garber's Caraval series, as well as Traci Chee's Sea of Ink and Gold series. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Nonfiction: The Impossible City by Karen Cheung

Memoirs that are written by someone in another country, and explore that place and what it is like to grow up and live there get me really excited. And I certainly do not read enough of them. I was all too happy to take on The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir by Karen Cheung, a book that promised an inside view of a remarkable city.

Genre, Themes, History: In the preface, Cheung sets the readers' expectations by stating that her book will only cover the years between 1997 and 2020. July 1, 1997 marked the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China. But until 2047, Hong Kong will continue to operate under its existing government and economy, though there are certainly tensions regarding this point. The sort of middle ground that the city has since occupied is certainly one primary focus of Cheung's book, especially towards the end, and other prominent topics include an often uncomfortable middle ground the author feels she inhabits within the city; Hong Kong's 'land problem'; the lack of access to mental health resources; and the struggle for artists, musicians, actors, and writers to find a place. As the book comes to a close during the final seconds of 2020, Hong Kong's future is uncertain, and the author's former belief that she will never leave is shaken.

My Verdict: Maybe it is because of my own experience with buying a house, or the crazy housing market that is almost all of Texas right now, but I especially enjoyed the chapter where Cheung explores how difficult it is to find and hold onto a 'home' in Hong Kong, especially for the younger generation. Cheung meticulously goes through each move, and the 22 different roommates she had as a result. And the further I got into the book, the more the title made sense. Hong Kong seems like an 'impossible' city in more ways than one, and that view is coming from someone who grew up there. There is so much packed into less than 300 pages that it made this blog post difficult to write. The book is eye-opening, and interesting, and frustrating, and often hard to read, because it is so honest and thought-provoking.

Favorite Moment: As I said, I enjoyed the chapter about the struggles to find housing in Hong Kong. But I also found the chapter about the somewhat unconventional spaces, namely the warehouses, that artists would use to showcase their talent incredibly fascinating. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend both Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos and Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa. 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Contemporary Fiction: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

When it comes to thrillers and suspense, only the occasional book from that category will grab my attention, and The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb was one of them. When a young black man finds out he possesses a rare and valuable violin, his life changes as his dream of becoming a world-famous violinist is now possible, even though greed and racism chase him everywhere he goes. And then violin goes missing...

The Situation: Ray McMillian is young black man who loves playing classical music on the violin. That sentence alone is not something that is often said or heard, but it is true. Even though all Ray could afford to play on in high school was a cheap school rental, he made it work. And while his mother was less than encouraging - always insisting that Ray get a real job to help with bills, and even harassing him to get his GED early so he can work more, sooner - his grandmother, Nora, has been the support he always wanted and needed. During one visit in particular, his grandmother surprises Ray with the gift of her grandfather's old violin. Ray knows this is a big deal, but he did not conceive everything that would come next.

The Problem: Years later, with the Tchaikovsky Competition fast approaching, the violin that was Ray's grandfather's goes missing, which turned out to be a valuable Stradivarius. Ray is gutted, and the suspects are many. The two most obvious are the Marks family, who are suing Ray for the violin, claiming that it belongs to their family; and Ray's own Aunts and Uncles, who wanted to sell it and split the money between them once they found out how valuable it was. Without his grandfather's violin, Ray feels lost, convinced that he has no chance at the Tchaikovsky Competition without it. While his coach and his girlfriend do their best to convince him otherwise, Ray does choose to move forward, but the search for the violin remains his priority.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a thriller/suspense/mystery novel set in the present-day. Ray grew up in North Carolina, but once he goes off to college and graduates, he begins to travel all over the country, playing in various venues and with a few symphonies. As a young black man in the south, Ray experiences the expected amount of racism. But as a young black man attempting to make it as a classical violinist, the attempts to have him excluded from an industry that has never had many black participants look different, but also the same, complete with looks of derision and claims that his 'kind' has never been good at this 'type' of music. The story begins with the theft, and then goes back through history to show how Ray even got to this point, with a valuable Stradivarius in his possession

My Verdict: I probably say this about more books than I mean to, but I am going to say it again here anyway: This book is stressful. Sure, it's a mystery novel about a valuable violin being stolen from a black classical musician who experiences racism, seemingly at every turn, but my goodness. For whatever reason, I had it in my head that the search for the violin would dominate the story, but then the book resets to Ray's high school experience and proceeds to slowly go through his history from that point. While it is interesting, and many of Ray's experiences are directly from Slocumb's life, the actual theft and investigation take a back seat, and the ending feels rushed. Mystery lovers may feel cheated, but even so, what is there is worth reading.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* After a difficult conversation with his mother, Ray decides to attend college, and everything inside of me cheered. 

Favorite Character: Janice is a woman who saw Ray's talent before he began playing with the Stradivarius, and believed in him enough to offer him a full scholarship for college. She is there for Ray every step of the way and is key in his progression. 

Recommended Reading: Two very different books come to mind: Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour, and Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Contemporary Fiction: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

I know, I know...judging a book by its cover is generally frowned upon, but come on. The cover of today's book, Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson, is too gorgeous and captivating for me not to bring it up. Thankfully, the story found inside is even more engaging and interesting, as two siblings learn of their mother's startling past.

The Situation: Byron and Benny have not spoken in years. The two siblings used to be extremely close, despite the nine year age-difference between them. When she was little, Benny would follow her older brother around constantly. But somewhere along the way, she separated herself not only from her brother, but from her entire family, as she moved from place to place, job to job, and relationship to relationship. Byron does not know if he can even speak to his sister, as he is still holding grudges from years ago. But their mother's lawyer has a recording they need to listen to, one that their mother insisted they listen to together. Despite their grief, and their differences, the siblings meet at their mother's house in California, though they are not quite ready for what they are about to hear.

The Problem: When Eleanor Bennett's voice starts speaking from the recording, telling Byron and Benny the story of her life, she immediately begins with some startling news, something that will make the brother and sister question everything they knew about their mother, and she is just getting started. Over the course of the recording, Byron and Benny will hear about their mother's difficult past, the places she traveled, and the choices she had to make. Included are instructions to her children regarding the last black cake their mother every made, a cake she wants them to share when the time is right. But this cake, and this story, may not be enough to bring her children back together.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a work of fiction that spans over five decades, while crossing oceans and continents. In 2018, Byron and Benny are hearing their mother's story, which begins in the Caribbean in the 1960s. The story Eleanor tells involves, swimming, surfing, food, friends that act more like family, family that act like villains, love, assumptions, discrimination, and the difficult choices we all have to make to simply move forward. The chapters are short, and often switch between characters, as well as time and place. Eleanor, Byron, and Benny remain as the focus, but even a seemingly minor character will get a chance to talk about things as they see it.

My Verdict: Books that attempt to move back and forth through time can be tricky. If done badly, it can ruin the story. If done well, it is an accomplishment worth applauding, but it does not necessarily mean the story will be good. With this book, the switches between the two timelines were not only well-timed, but both stories were compelling in their own right, which is rarely the case with stories that are structured like this. And I was eager to hear from each character, even the most minor ones, as well as the most annoying ones. It is a book that gave me that rare feeling I sometimes get of not wanting it end, even though I also desperately want to know how it all resolves. I simply love being with the characters where they are. It is hard to explain, but it is a feeling I relish and always hope to find again.

Favorite Moment: There is a moment when Benny comes to the realization that not everything is about her. What is happening is not plainly spelled out, which happens a lot throughout this book. Many significant moments are not obvious or plainly states, but they are there and they are meaningful. 

Favorite Character: Mr. Mitch is Eleanor's lawyer, and the man that is tasked with handling her estate after she is gone. He is patient, understanding, observant, dutiful, and knows what he has to do, no matter how difficult, and awkward. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Young Adult Fiction: A Thousands Steps into Night by Traci Chee

It was a few years ago that I finished Traci Chee's Sea of Ink and Gold series, so I was excited to see that she was publishing another young adult fantasy book, A Thousand Steps into Night. In a world full of magical and dangerous creatures, vengeful demons, and powerful gods, one girl attempts to find her way back to the home where she never quite felt like she belonged.

The Situation: Being the daughter of an innkeeper, 17 year-old Miuko has never expected much from her life. Being part of the servant class, as well as a female, Miuko is expected to do little more than help her father manage the inn, one day get married, and hopefully produce a son that will eventually take over the business. To make matters more difficult, Miuko has always been a little too loud, too clumsy, and not beautiful enough to hope for much in the way of marriage. It is on a night when she is making her way back home that she is cursed, and slowly begins to transform into a deadly demon. Now, the life she never expected much from has suddenly given her too much to handle.

The Problem: Before the curse, Miuko was mostly ignored and cast aside. Now she has the attention of humans and beasts alike, and it is bringing her nothing but trouble. But with that trouble has also come incredible, though dangerous power. As Miuko makes the long journey to hopefully remove the curse before the transformation is complete, she will meet a mischievous magpie spirit, a horse that seems to be able to understand the speech and moods of humans, a demon hunter, helpful priests, terrifying gods, and a demon prince who wants to destroy her plans, as well as her world as she knows it. It certainly is not the life Miuko thought she would have, but she is not sure if she would trade it for her old one.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fantasy novel set in an unknown time, and in an unknown world...or at least unknown to us. It is a world where magpie spirits can shapeshift (only when no one is looking) to resemble humans, and then just as easily take the form of a bird so it can fly away from danger. In this world, girls like Miuko cannot go anywhere unless they are escorted by their husbands, or a male relative. There is also an unspoken rule regarding females riding horses, and owning property is certainly out of the question. On her adventure, Miuko will enjoy the freedom and power she has received, though dangers are around every corner. It is a Japanese-influenced fantasy for which Chee drew inspiration from a trip to Japan.

My Verdict: What I love about Chee's writing is the fast-paced adventure...and I do mean fast. There is never a dull moment, though there is often a frustrating one. Chee's characters are never perfect, and often relatable on some level, though that can lead to scenes and decisions that result in readers rolling their eyes or gritting their teeth. And the sharp changes in the story's direction can often feel arbitrary, or even unnecessary, and seemingly out of nowhere. There is one big shift that takes place in this book that honestly baffled me and was hard for me to recover from (I won't spoil it, but when it happens you will know what I am talking about). But with all of the chaos, Chee brings everything back together almost effortlessly.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* In the book there is an adorable cat-like creature that is too dangerous to let roam around like a normal cat. I was happy when Miuko was finally able to find it a suitable home.

Favorite Character: Geiki, the sly magpie spirit, is annoying but helpful, and funny. And Afaina, the God of Stars, may take the form of a giant being covered in eyes that lives in the water, but his manner of speaking, moving, and even looking at something was something I wish I could have enjoyed for longer than he appears on the page. 

Recommended Reading: For another, longer adventure, I recommend Chee's Sea of Ink and Gold series.