Tables Turned: A Review of Junot Diaz’s “This is How You Lose Her”

(A word from our sponsor: Not sure how to avoid plagiarism? I use Grammarly because copy and pasting is for kids that eat Elmer’s glue.)

Image courtesy of Goodreads.com

Image courtesy of Goodreads.com

This book made me miss my train stop.  ‘Nuff said.  Oh, you actually want to hear what the book was about and what about it kept my attention rapt? Well, then I will continue.

I was introduced to Junot Diaz by a friend a little over two years ago. Since then, I’ve read one novel and two short story collections of his, including “This is How You Lose Her.” I’ve loved his sassy, authentic, Dominican characters.  This particular collection focuses on Yunior, a twenty-something born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York. He can’t seem to help but cheat, and I was worried that this entire collection would just be tales of his escapades. But, of course, Junot Diaz is too good of a writer to simply create one-dimensional characters.

I was delighted to find that Yunior has a rich backstory since, on the surface, he seemed like the stereotypical macho Hispanic man. This book served to remind me that everyone acts the way they do for a reason or several reasons.

This collection chronicles Yunior from the teenage years and above. There are women he’s loved and lost, some of which he actually cared about. Diaz also develops the relationship between Yunior and his brother, a macho man idol in Yunior’s eyes. The brother becomes ill with cancer, devastating our main character. It is these bumps in the road that mold and harden Yunior.

These bumps can be seen, and are fully explored, in the last short story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love.” In this tale, Yunior’s fiance finds out he has been cheating on her during all the years they’ve been together. They split, and the journey begins. Diaz divides the story into 6 parts, each representing one year of Yunior’s life post-breakup. Karma catches up with him, which had the vengeful Latina in me cheering. And yet, by year 2 or 3, I found myself feeling sorry for him. By then, I felt like he got what he deserved and should be able to move on. But he couldn’t. Any attempts to genuinely start a better life for himself were thwarted not only by mental anguish, but by physical pain and friend problems as well.

Is there such a thing as too much pain or punishment? Diaz subtly poses this question and many more in his book. He makes the reader question “right” and “wrong” because he paints the human experience in the richness of gray and complexity.  Another aspect of his writing that I appreciate is the fact that he includes Dominican history and snippets of the Spanish language. While some may argue that this makes his work inaccessible to some, I’d argue that it lends another layer of authenticity to his stories.  Personally, while I am half Dominican, I am not familiar with that part of my heritage, and I’m thankful to Diaz for filling me in. His use of Spanish and Spanglish makes his writing feel like home to me. It is the kind of writing that makes me break the surface of reality two train stops late…and I’m ok with that.

I’d recommend this book to those who would like Latin-inspired fiction that is by turns conversational and profane. Also, if you want another good Diaz read that gives backstory on Yunior’s father, I recommend “Drown.”

Lastly, below is a speech/Q&A given by Junot Diaz. In it, he talks about “This is How You Lose Her” and Yunior’s character. I was surprised to find that there are still more layers to the character that have yet to be written about.

The Real Fabric of Reality: A Review of “Crewel” by Gennifer Albin

I haven’t posted a book review since January. I have been reading quite a bit since then but haven’t written down my thoughts. I’d like to change that.

My goal is to catch up on my book reviews, both of Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) and other books I think are worthy of note (sometimes I just like to read without thinking that I later have to write a review for all to see), by the end of the year.  Right now, I have about 10 reviews (8 books, 2 albums) with 3 more coming down the pike as soon as I finish the books. With about 6 and a half weeks left in the year and my goal of posting at least twice a week on the blog, this is totally doable. So here goes!

Photo courtesy of rainydaybooks.com

Photo courtesy of rainydaybooks.com

I’m kicking off this end-of-the-year goal with a review of “Crewel” by Gennifer Albin, which I received an ARC of. While I read this about a year ago, I actually think of the premise quite often as it is one of the more intriguing concepts I’ve encountered in a while (And it’s dysopian. I love dystopian).

In this novel, the world is made of “time” fabric that only a certain few can see (This book is very appropriately titled since “crewel” is a type of embroidery). These few are typically girls, and they are recruited. If you can see the fabric, you can weave it. These recruited few are whisked away to live a life of luxury with pretty dresses and banquets. Or so it seems.

The book focuses on one girl in particular: Adelice. She is one of the very few (I’m talking one in every few decades) that has exceptional vision for the this “time fabric” and can weave it with stunning ease and dexterity if she chooses to.  And yet, she doesn’t want to. She wants to live a normal life, not one away from her family, no matter how glamourous it may seem.  She knows there is something off about weaving the literal fabric of time. Deciding what to do with others people’s lives, and even ending them, or erasing society’s memory of a particularly heinous event is not what she’s into. But because of her exceptional ability, she is recruited anyhow.  To add to the cast of characters, Adelice meets Jost and Erik while assimilating to her new life as a weaver.  Thus begins Adelice’s adventure…and the downward spiral into romance.

While this book was very promising, the development of the idea fell short for me.  I love the concept of the world’s events and lives and everyday occurrences being literally wrapped in a fabric that can be shaped, cut, and added to. I thought it was a very nice metaphor for life in that we all collectively form a tapestry, a work of art (that a select few want to keep control of because they are power hungry. A good villain is always needed). However, I felt as if the book focused more on the typical teenage romance than the (very dangerous) circumstances surrounding wanting to rebel against a tightly-woven (pun definitely intended) society with veiled yet impenetrable security.

As mentioned in my review of “Divergent,” I’m very picky when it comes to romance. I’m ok with it as long as it seems necessary. For me, the love triangle in “Crewel” wasn’t necessary and fell more in line with “this is what needs to happen in a YA novel, so here it is.”  I wanted to see more action, by which I mean more explosions and fighting and sneaking around, but I got kissing instead. This made Adelice, while not a weak character, appear wimpy and, at times, one-dimensional.  This is not to say that literary women in relationships are weak, I just prefer female characters that spend most of their time kicking ass rather than making out.

The ending also seemed a bit rushed, though I think it was more intended as a cliffhanger. Although there were some flaws with this book, the writing was solid, and I’m interested enough in the world to see what happens next.  I just found out that the sequel (“Altered”) is now out, and I’ll be picking that up soon.  Sometimes book series can have a slow start with the first installment since it is the introduction to the world. It’s certainly possible (and I’m hopeful) that Gennifer Albin picks up the pace with “Altered.” Here’s hoping for more explosions!

Simple Question. A Myriad of Possibilities: A Book Review

MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD

MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)

I don’t always publish posts in a series, but when I do, I like them to have a theme.

I thought it would be appropriate to begin the new year by publishing three posts that have to do with bucket lists. A while back, I found two blogs that published their bucket lists. I wrote down mine, and they have sat as drafts in my WordPress account for far too long. I’ll be unleashing the goods later this week.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

I’ll start with a book review. Some of the best books I find while randomly browsing library shelves.  A few months ago I browsed the “New Book” shelf at the library and found “What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?”  The cover intrigued me, and I found myself not really knowing how to answer this question because so many ideas came to mind.

It turns out that this book came about because four guys, who named themselves “The Buried Life,” became dissatisfied with how their lives were going (graduate college, get a 9-5 job, etc).  They decided to forge their own road and go on a road trip armed with a list of 100 bucket list items.  This trip turned into a movement. Everywhere they went, they not only tried to cross off items on their list, but also on the lists of strangers they met.  They’ve asked countless people “What do you want to do before you die?” and the answers are by turns comical, outlandish, and heart-warming.

The Buried Life

The Buried Life (Photo credit: University of Central Arkansas)

The book is a mix of Buried Life testimonials giving account about how these four guys have achieved their own bucket list items as well as how they helped others achieve something of their own.  Some accounts are directly from people they have helped.  But what I found most interesting is that most of the book’s pages are comprised of collages illustrating a single bucket list wish.  Pages and pages are filled with wishes, both extravagant and simple, rendered in a very quirky ways.  I loved flipping through this book again and again just to look at the artwork.  A few of these wishes have even made it onto my bucket list because they sound like so much fun.

This book is a fairly quick read, but  it’s so rich.  I’d recommend this book for anyone looking for inspiration, both personally and creatively.

Explosions the Book: A Review of Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris’ “Phoenix Rising”

A new star is added to my shelf of fame!

A new star is added to my shelf of fame! (Photo credit: Paulette Jaxton)

This book, like Big Machine, took me about a year to read.  And again, it’s not the that book was bad, I just have reading ADD.

“Phoenix Rising” is a book in the series “Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.”  It is a steampunk novel that takes place in the late 1800s.  Enter Agents Braun and Books, a lady with a wild streak and an uptight nobleman who has a knack for research, respectively.  You meet these two at the very beginning of the novel.  But it was this quote that really caught my attention:

“‘The Ministry remains rather underfunded by the Crown, Books, and I was given the choice of either more backup or more dynamite.’  She held up the stick. ‘I went with what I could trust.'”

After reading this, I was hooked.  A girl who likes explosions is my kind of protagonist.

But this book isn’t all mindless entertainment.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that we join our daring duo on a deadly mystery.  They research a secret society that was thought to be long gone, but is, in fact, very much alive.  I know, I’ve seen that movie too.  But what makes the plot interesting is the characters.  Yes, they are mismatched, but they learn from one another.

Perhaps what I enjoy most in fiction is characterization.  The two authors of this novel really hit the mark with Books and Braun because they are at once likable and flawed, leaving room for growth.  You know characters are well developed when you talk to the characters.  There is one scene when, on an undercover mission, Books tells  the people he is with that Braun is mute.  Given that Ms. Eliza Braun is a brazen, corset-wearing woman who likes to speak her mind, I immediately said, “Oooh, you’re going to get it later, Books!” (Wait, you don’t talk to book characters?   …I guess I’m just weird).

Another aspect of the story that I liked was the fact that it does not take place in contemporary America.  It is set in late 1800s England.  Sometimes the dialogue took some getting used to, but I enjoyed hearing about analytical engines and reading about horse-drawn carriages.  Call me old fashioned, but it was refreshing to read a book that didn’t include iPhones and the Internet.

This novel isn’t ground breaking, but it is fun.  Ballentine and Morris do a great job balancing action, suspense, and humor.  I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a light, enjoyable read.

Doubt, Faith, and Heroine: A Review of Victor LaValle’s “Big Machine”

Cover of "Big Machine: A Novel"

Books rarely take me one year to read.  This one, for whatever reason, did.  When I finished it in October, I could not remember what it was that first drew me to read it.  This all makes this book sound terrible.  It’s not the book, it’s me.

Usually when I put a book down, I pick it up again and finish it.  Since I borrowed it from the library, it kept coming due and, eventually, other books took its place on my reading shelf.  I’m glad I picked this book back up.

The story follows Ricky Rice, a guy with a janitor’s beat-down life and an addiction to heroine.  But he’s given a second chance in an unlikely way.  I know, sounds cliche.  He’s chosen to be an unlikely scholar at the Washburn Library in Vermont.  What do said luminaries look for?  Voices.  Yes, the unlikely scholars look for signs of a divine voice in newspapers and magazines.  Sounds kooky.  And I bring that up only because it is part of the premise, but it is not the larger story.

Yes, Ricky becomes a part of this rag-tag group of elites and dons suits instead of a janitor’s uniform, but it is his journey when he is placed on the field that I think makes this book worth reading.  He is given a second chance that he thinks stops at the living in the library and, perhaps more importantly, he thinks he knows what he needs to do in order to turn his life around.

His time in the field is by turns trippy, gritty, and heart-wrenching.  Through a series of vignettes that flop back and forth from Ricky’s memories of the past to the present time of the book, Ricky becomes three-dimensional.  He learns that his turn around may not be as simple as he thinks.  As a reader, I enjoyed seeing Ricky come to the realization that difficult and messy answers are not always a bad thing.  Through his transformation, the reader learns that doubt is the “big machine” as Ricky rethinks his faith and what it means to be a man.  I’m still on the fence about the time flip-flops.  They weren’t confusing, but traditional me likes to read a story in order.

Author photo of Victor LaValle

Another aspect of this book I liked was the writing.  Victor LaValle has a very keen eye for detail without bogging the reader down with needless fluff.  His writing is expansive where it needs to be, yet it always feels precise.

There is also mystery, action, and explosions in this novel.  For me, however, the most important aspects of the story were the writing and Ricky Rice’s emotional journey.  Ricky is joined by an ever-changing, colorful cast of characters, which definitely added a lot of different flavors to the book.  I would certainly recommend this book to anyone looking for a little action peppered with a lot of depth and attitude.  Because of this novel, I’m excited about reading LaValle’s other books.  I’m in the mood for short stories.  So I think “Slapboxing with Jesus” will have to be next on my LaValle reading list.

I’m Just Not Into Romance in Book Form: A Review of David Levithan’s “Every Day”

English: A photograph of a heap of candy heart...

All the candy hearts. Yes, all of them.

I received my first Advance Reader Copy (ARC) in the mail about three weeks ago.  I subscribe to an e-newsletter called Shelf Awareness Pro.  I saw the add for “Every Day” by David Levithan and thought the premise was interesting.  A 16-year-old boy named A wakes up in a different body and a different life every day.  This is how it has always been for him.  So, he just coasts through life (or, in A’s case, multilife) and tries to make as few waves as possible.  Until he meets Rhiannon.

Ok, let me stop here.  Generally, I’m not into romance books.  But because of A’s unique situation, I decided to give it a shot.  I figured, “Hey, what if this Rhiannon chick becomes the catalyst for him to find out why he jumps from body to body and they become tangled in a search for a conspiracy?”

But this does not happen.  A is not interested in figuring out why he is the way he is or trying to stop it.  He’s not interested in finding out if he has a body all his own.  He’s only interested in seeing Rhiannon every day after he meets her.  This need comprises most of the book.  It was fun at first to see how Rhiannon would react to all of the different forms A takes.  But after a few encounters, I found these meetings to be a bit tedious.

That being said, there are a few qualities that I liked.  A says quite a few things that ring true, such as (and I’m paraphrasing here) that sometimes a moment or a situation just is and that’s ok; you can be content without struggling to change it.  He has quite a bit of experience what with living a different life every day and I found that really intriguing.  Though, since his circumstances are constantly changing, I had a hard time believing he could have all of the life experience and insight he claimed.  There is something to be said for routine and having the same parents/friends/significant other for an extended period of time.

Usually I have no stomach for romance, as I mentioned before.  But I thought the progression of A and Rhiannon’s relationship was done well.  Ultimately though, it lacked the adventure and curiosity I expected from these two youngsters.  It ended at a juncture that I thought was actually a good starting point (with A hungry to experiment with staying in a body longer than one day and delve deeper into what makes him the way he is, albeit with help from a somewhat shady character.  Lots of grist for the novelist’s mill here!). Also, there were no explosions.  I love explosions (Expendables 2 anyone?).

“Every Day” is well written and has the start of a really cool idea.  It just wasn’t fleshed out in a way that suited my taste, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. While it was not my cup of tea, I would recommend “Every Day” for those who like a good teenage romance story.