Books: Moloka’i

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Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

“She realized now how wrong she’d been; the pali wasn’t a headstone and Kalaupapa wasn’t a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most, and people here went to their deaths as people did anywhere: with great reluctance, dragging the messy jumble of their lives behind them.”

A beautiful, bittersweet novel about life, death, love, loss, family, and a dark smear in the history of the United States and humanity that so few know about. I don’t think I have ever cried so much over a book. I shed all sorts of tears: heartbreak, happiness, anger, relief.

Moloka’i follows the life of Rachel Kalama from her days as a carefree 5-year-old living in Honolulu, to her diagnosis with leprosy at age 7, to her life as an exiled leper on Moloka’i and all the love, loss, joys, and sorrows that come with it. Rachel’s life and the lives of all the people who come into and out of her life help paint a fuller picture of the experiences of those afflicted by Hansen’s disease in Hawaii. As Rachel grows up, she struggles to come to terms with her disease and the status it has given her: the inhabitants of Kalaupapa have all been arrested, and are treated like prisoners. She struggles with the loss of family that comes with social ostracization and a misguided notion that the diseased and their family are “unclean,” tainted not only by bacteria, but also by some moral illness. Moloka’i isn’t so much about the disease itself as it is about life in the face of disease and death, a notion of family and ‘ohana that transcends simple blood ties, and the transformation of Hawaii itself as it becomes a place that slowly sheds its culture and is overtaken by the United States and all the historical events that surround the turn of the nineteenth century.

Brennert manages to fit so many themes into his novel without it becoming pedantic or too long. He explores the disappearance and resilience of native Hawaiian culture in the face of incoming waves of Christian missionaries who view the indigenous traditions as pagan, hedonistic, and sinful. He touches upon not only the experiences of those afflicted with Hansen’s disease and exiled to Kalaupapa, but also the unafflicted people who spent their lives trying to care and cure them, as well as the tensions and struggles in the colonization of Hawaii and erasure of Hawaiian culture. He fits so much history into a story that feels individual and personal.

Moloka’i is incredibly well-crafted, compelling, and heartbreaking. A great, eye-opening read on an often-overlooked part of American and Hawaiian history.

Books: Snow Like Ashes

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Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch

Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch is a fairly standard YA fantasy romance. There is nothing revolutionary or incredibly original in terms of plot: the premise and all the plot twists have been seen before, but it is executed very well.

If you’ve read a lot of YA fantasy, you’ve probably seen something like Snow Like Ashes before. The plot is quite similar to books like Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass or Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock. One kingdom is conquered by another, its people enslaved, but a small band of resistance fighters seeks to reclaim the kingdom. Snow Like Ashes main character Meira is a 16-year-old girl orphaned by such a conquest, and struggles to find her own place among the small band of refugees that is attempting to reclaim the Winter kingdom from Spring.

Snow Like Ashes features great world-building and good writing. Each kingdom is distinctive and the world features some interesting magical backstory. There is also some convincing political conflict between the different kingdoms, particularly between the Rhythm kingdoms (which have multiple seasons because they are not situated close to a magical source) and the Season kingdoms (which only have one season because they are on top of a magical source.)

There are also some well-thought-out characters and depth to the characters’ struggles and character development. What I found particularly compelling was Meira’s struggle to connect with a kingdom and people she is expected to sacrifice everything for, but has never known beyond taught history. This struggle is encapsulated particularly well in this quote:

“Even though I’ve never seen Winter or its enslaved people or set foot on its soil, I’m expected to sacrifice everything, because until Winter is free I don’t matter.”

The novel also gets a bonus point for a well-made love triangle, with two likable characters and not too much drama over “Which one do I choose?!”

I did struggle a bit to get into the book. Ironically, the action of the first few chapters in which Meira tries to recover a locket half from Spring did not appeal to me at all. Perhaps I just can’t get into the way Raasch writes action. I didn’t start enjoying the novel until Meira became more introspective and we saw more of her internal struggles. Lately, I’ve also been struggling to connect with YA novels where the main characters are incredibly young but try to do very adult things. That is the case here.

I’m not sure if I will be reading the second one, but Snow Like Ashes is a good read, particularly if you haven’t read too many YA fantasy novels so the plot may still feel fresh. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but is saved by the depth and nuance in the execution of plot, political conflict, and character development.

Books: Fight Club

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Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

“We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.”

Fascinating. Haunting. Disturbing. One of those novels that makes you think and unable to sleep at night. Or maybe that’s just me. I’m not going to try to dissect what Fight Club is all about, since countless people and academics have tried to do that. If Palahniuk’s afterword in the 2005 paperback is anything to go by, it can pretty much be about whatever you want to say it is about.

I really enjoyed Palahniuk’s writing style in Fight Club. I haven’t read any of his other works (yet) so I can’t compare, but his writing is simple, but the way the story is crafted with writing is not. Lines echo previous lines, jumping from one scene to the next, bringing back flashbacks of previous chapters an scenes. It’s this circular, echo effect that adds so much of the haunting, disturbing quality to the novel.

The novel also sends some interesting messages and critiques of middle class dissatisfaction, cult culture, and masculinity. The fight clubs are a manifestation of middle class unrest and dissatisfaction with the culture left to them by capitalism. Why must they atone for the damages done by the generations of industrializing and capitalizing giants before them? They have been lied to and led to believe that they will “be millionaires” but they never will. The fight clubs also show how social movements can radicalize until their momentum cannot be stopped by even the creator himself. They are built on the fear of emasculation, castration, and the need to create uber-masculine “fight clubs” in order to validate the masculinity of “a generation of men raised by women.”

I could spend days trying to pick this novel apart. Or, I can just sit back and enjoy it.

Palahniuk calls his work a contemporary Gatsby. He says that no one has called it a romance, but it very much is: the narrator tells us in the first chapter that this love triangle between him, Tyler Durden, and Marla Singer is what started the whole mess. It is where everything begins, and where everything ends.

At times funny, at times satirical, jaded, and full of irony, Fight Club is a fascinating and worthwhile read. I can see how it has (ironically) become a cult classic.

Books: Six of Crows

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Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows is very, very good. I love stories about heists, spies, thieves, anything that involves stealth, trickery, and mind games. Pair that with interesting characters I can care about who have distinct personalities, backgrounds, and their own quirks, flaws, and growth, a fantastic plot, great writing, and great action, and then we have a winner. The story takes place in the same Grisha world as Leigh Bardugo’s previous trilogy, but does not require reading that series (I only read the first book.)

Our story begins in Ketterdam, the main city of Kerch, an island in the middle of the ocean between two continents. Ketterdam is known for being a center of commerce and trade, neutral in the politics of the world because it is the center of the world economy. Recently, a new drug, known as jurda parem has been developed. This drug amplifies Grisha’s magical powers, giving them virtually unlimited power, but makes them completely dependent on the drug–without it, they will suffer from withdrawal and die. Kaz Brekker, thief, criminal mastermind, and ruthless manipulator, is tasked with breaking the drug’s creator out of the impenetrable Ice Court in Fjerda in order to keep him out of the hands of greedy governments that would want his knowledge in manufacturing more of the drug. He assembles a ragtag crew of five other young criminals to accomplish this impossible task. In order to succeed, the group must not only face whatever external threats there are, but also the complicated relationships and bonds of uneasy trust that exist between them, for they all come from the Barrel, the roughest, most dangerous district in Ketterdam, and have all been hardened by the cruelties of life.

It’s hard to give a good overview of what Six of Crows is all about because there is just so much: so many characters, so many perspectives, so much backstory, so many connections between all the characters–love, hate, trust, betrayal, truth, and lies. The story appears to depend heavily on plot, with the great heist and action at its core, but Bardugo is a great writer and storyteller. The story is told through multiple third person perspectives, and naturally weaves in so many flashbacks that allow us to get to know all the characters so well. Each character is distinctive, even if their motives and intentions are not always clear, through the limited perspective that we see through. They are all made likable and unlikable, have their quirks and flaws, but in the end come out so multi-faceted and alive. Books are just so much more enjoyable when I find myself caring about every character, even if I don’t necessarily like each and every one of them.

The romance is subtle, developing naturally with the characters’ growths, and aids the plot instead of overwhelming it. Love grows as a sign of humanity, as a weakness, out of reconciliation, or out of hope.

Bardugo also appears to comment on the market economy, capitalism, and greed with her exploration of our characters and their respective roles in the bustling market hub of Ketterdam. Our characters appear to be motivated by greed and money: money is the reason why they would agree to such an impossible and deadly job. But as we get to learn more about each one, we see how their lives have been tainted by the greed and capitalism of Ketterdam’s market. Is it a critique of capitalism? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but it definitely is showing the ugly side of a society that centers so heavily around money, the power it can bring, and all the dealings of it.

My main qualm with Six of Crows is that it doesn’t feel like young adult–the characters’ lives, actions, experiences, and decisions are all rather adult–but we’re supposed to believe that they are all seventeen. If you think about it, it’s a bit disturbing and also, to some extent, unrealistic, even with the suspension of disbelief that is required in reading young adult fiction. But I suppose there is something compelling about believing that a handful of teenagers can experience so much in life, become so hardened, yet also grow and soften and pull off these ridiculous heists in the face of fully-mature adults. But why not make them young adults and not just teenagers?

I also feel a bit ambivalent about the ending. I don’t mind that there is a bit of a cliffhanger ending and a lack of resolution, because it is so hopeful and positive and a great note to end on. What I feel ambivalent about is that things happen because of a girl. I think that it does serve some purpose, since caring about a girl shows character growth and humanity, but also why? I suppose money, love, and power are some of the greatest motivators in the world, and if our team was first motivated by money, why not make it love next?

Regardless, September 2016 has never seemed so far away.

Books: Calamity

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Calamity by Brandon Sanderson

“The robots, on the other hand, acted like a bunch of youthful dreams and got thoroughly crushed.”

I love instant gratification, for example when I finish the second book in a trilogy and the final book is just sitting downstairs waiting for me. Calamity left me feeling gratified. It is a great conclusion to a great trilogy that doesn’t lose any of the action, bad metaphors, or witty banter of the previous two books.

In Calamity, David now leads the few remaining Reckoners after Tia disappears (and is presumed dead.) He starts by having them attack the Knighthawk Foundry, in an attempt to steal some Epic-powered tools that he believes is necessary in order to defeat the Epics. Afterward, the Reckoners head to what was formerly known as Atlanta, and what is now known as Ildrithia, where the new Limelight has holed up, plotting some nefarious plan that is a continuation of Regalia’s legacy. David’s goal is not to kill Limelight, but to do something infinitely harder: free him from the Epic darkness and make him become the man he once was.

Looking back at the series as a whole, it feels like Sanderson has created his own superhero origin story. So many of the plot elements and powers have been seen before in superhero comic canon, but Sanderson executes so well to create a fresh, interesting story. My friends mentioned that the ending felt rushed, and I agree. In some ways, the ending felt too neat, a lot of the why’s behind the Epics explained away too easily. We get a satisfactory conclusion to all the questions answered, but I don’t feel convinced by the answers we receive. In a way, I feel like everything is explained away with too much simplicity and not enough complexity that reflects a lot of the questions that David was asking, or that Sanderson had me asking.

Regardless, Calamity is a thrilling conclusion to a very solid series, and I will definitely be looking for more Brandon Sanderson to read in the future, since from what I hear, his other works are even better.

Books: Firefight

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Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

I needed to say something. Something romantic! Something to sweep her off her feet.

“You’re like a potato!” I shouted after her. “In a minefield.”

Potatoes weren’t romantic. I should have gone with a carrot.

So, so good! This sequel to Steelheart does not suffer from Second Book Syndrome and does not disappoint. It is full of the same action, humor, and bad metaphors that made Steelheart so great.

In Firefight, we follow David Charleston and the Reckoners to Babilar aka Babylon Restored aka what used to be known as Manhattan. In Babilar, an Epic named Regalia rules, and she seems to have some nefarious plan brewing. It may or may not involve destroying the whole city using an Epic known as Obliteration (since that’s what he did to the other 3 cities he visited), but David and the rest of the Reckoners can’t really be sure. As they fight to kill Regalia, David must also struggle with his own conflicting allegiances: he desperately wants to believe that Epics can become “good” again–he wants to save Megan–but Prof and the rest of the team seem convinced that this is an impossible and dangerous way of thinking, forcing David to make some tough choices about who he will trust more.

I think part of what made Steelheart so great was that in addition to the action, humor, and plot, Sanderson was able to raise some lightly philosophical questions about human nature. He continues to do that in Firefight. Now that David has fulfilled his lifelong goal of killing Steelheart, what’s next? He starts to learn that revenge isn’t everything, and reconsider his mindset on Epics, after having met a few “good” ones. At their core, corrupt Epics appear to exemplify human nature at its worst, or what people would be if they had no inhibitions. What does that say about humanity and human nature? David is also obsessed with heroes and becoming a heroic figure or painting Prof as a hero. But what really makes a hero, and do they really exist, or are they really what people need?

Firefight tells us a lot more about Epics, their weaknesses, their origins, and what Calamity is really all about. I’m excited to see what will happen next!

Books: Wolf by Wolf

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Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

What if the Axis powers won World War II and took over Europe and Asia? In Wolf By Wolf, that is exactly what happens. 10 years after the war ends, Europe, Asia, and some of North Africa have been taken over by the joint powers of the Third Reich (Germany) and Imperial Japan. Every year, the Axis powers hold a motorcycle race called the Axis Tour featuring 20 of the Axis’ finest youth. The winner receives the prestigious Iron Cross award, prize money, and gets to meet both Emperor Hirohito and Adolf Hitler, the leaders of the two powers.

In 1955, the victor was Adele Wolfe, a girl who disguised herself as her twin brother, Felix, and only revealed herself after winning the race. Hitler took a fancy to her and danced with her at the Victor’s Ball, which celebrated her victory. That was the closest any non-SS person had gotten to Hitler in years, and created the perfect opening for the resistance to plan their own assassination of Hitler in a second take on Operation Valkyrie. Yael is the one who is to take on Adele Wolfe’s identity, win the race, dance with Hitler, and kill him. She is a death camp and science experiment survivor with the ability to skinshift–to change her appearance and become anyone. But Yael’s mission is complicated by the presence of Adele’s twin brother, Felix, and former Victor Luka Lowe, both of whom know Adele way better than Yael could ever study from files and spying. And, of course, winning the Axis Tour is never easy when fame, glory, and gold are on the line: Yael also has to deal with the 17 other racers in the race.

I had very high expectations going into Wolf by Wolf, and it does not disappoint. I was hooked from page one. The writing has the right balance of simplicity and occasional floweriness that fit the alternating action and introspective moments in the story. The novel is obviously plot-driven, given that it centers around an intercontinental motorcycle race that the competitors would do anything to win, and the action and pacing are spot-on.

A lot of my emotional attachment to this novel is not plot-based, but character-based. Yael is an extremely compelling character. She is someone who has lost everything and has a single-minded focus on one goal: winning the race and assassinating Hitler. But the key here is that she has lost everything, including, she fears, her grasp on herself and her own humanity. Yael wears and sheds identities as easily as other people wear and shed clothes, and in all that, she has forgotten her own face. In her work as part of the resistance, she risks losing her own identity and struggles to find the difference between who she is on the outside versus who she is inside. Who is she really?

“Neither boy was what she’d read on paper. Watched on archival films. Expected from swastika-wearing Aryan youth. Things were so different face-to-face. Flesh-to-flesh. So complicated.”

As Yael struggles to remember who she is and hold onto her own values and humanity, she also has to learn how to build relationships and interact with people. As a resistance operative she learned how to manipulate, to see signs of lying or fear in expressions and eyes. She studied her subjects–Adele and all the other racers–day and night, memorized all she could on paper, and judged them, thought them to be flat, because of their Aryan heritage and Hitler Youth affiliations. But relationships and real emotions can’t be faked, and people are never as flat as they are on paper.

“She thought she was ready for this mission. Ready for anything.
But not this. Not relationships.
This wasn’t something she could fake.”

So much of Wolf by Wolf is plot, but there is also so much that is about identity. About the difference between what you see on the outside and what is happening on the inside. So much of it is about seeing humanity in everyone, and Yael testing the limits of that humanity, brushing upon the fringes of the monster she is afraid she is. In her single-minded goal of assassinating Hitler, who and what is she willing to sacrifice? Stranger boys, ruthless racing rivals, or National Socialist patrols she happens upon? Her experiences in the death camps showed her that every life had value, but in order to kill one person to save millions, is she willing to let others die?

I also appreciate that while there are hints of a complicated romance between Luka and Adele/Yael, romance very much takes a backseat to plot in Wolf by Wolf. The next novel has a lot of interesting things to explore, including this romance, but I hope it handles the relationships in the best of ways and doesn’t fall victim to too much romance, too little plot syndrome. It will be particularly interesting to explore identity in the context of this romance: who did Luka really fall in love with? The Adele he first met, or this new, different version of Adele he meets in this second Axis Tour? As more and more people get close to and get to know Yael, there is much more to be explored in terms of Yael trying to figure out who she is. If she has so many different faces and has forgotten her own, who is she really? What face can she wear, and how is that different from the unchanging essence of who she is inside? These are all things that I hope Blood by Blood will explore.