Reviews: All Systems Red, Follow Me to Ground, All This Could Be Yours

Three recent reads:

I picked up Martha Wells’s All Systems Red, the first book in her Murderbot Diaries series, while working on my Spotlight on Sci-fi post last month. I was simply looking through sci-fi titles on my shelves and picked this one up to glance at the first page and decide when I might be ready to read it- and ended up speeding through the entire story in one sitting the same night.

allsystemsredIn the novella, a part-human part-robot SecUnit is tasked with keeping a group of humans safe on a research mission to an uninhabited planet. The group of scientists works well together and the environment seems relatively safe, so it should be an easy job- Murderbot (as it calls itself) settles in to marathon hours of serial television via its hacked interface. But then the second research group on the planet goes suddenly quiet, throwing Murderbot and its human charges into a fight for survival on a planet that has suddenly become hostile. Of course the humans are going to learn a thing or two about Murderbot in the midst of the emergency- things Murderbot would rather keep to itself.

This is an accessible sci-fi jaunt that paired well with The Martian for me- both are interplanetary survival stories, though the plot and cast are entirely different. There’s some futuristic technology, labelled clearly enough that definitions are hardly needed. There are a few fight scenes and physical challenges for the characters. There’s a bit of commentary on bureaucracy and corruption, and the interesting possibility of technology becoming slavery. For such a brief story, it’s not missing anything I’d expect to see from a book in this genre.

But what I loved most was Murderbot’s character; Wells doesn’t give the SecUnit a gender, which is refreshing, and an easy way for the reader to see him- or herself in the extremely introverted android. It is repulsed when asked to share its emotions, it prefers to cover its face (and body) when in public, it would rather keep its head down and do its job quietly and efficiently and leave again as soon as possible than participate in idle chatter. And, of course, there’s the obsession with serial television. I would’ve followed this character anywhere.

“The HubSystem that controlled their habitat, that they were dependent on for food, shelter, filtered water, and air, was trying to kill them. And in their corner all they had was Murderbot, who just wanted everyone to shut up and leave it alone so it could watch the entertainment feed all day.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was just such an unexpected delight. I’m excited to dive into the rest of the series.

 

Sue Rainsford’s Follow Me to Ground was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and my last read of January.

followmetogroundIn the novel, Ada and her father live on the outskirts of a village, where people come to them for magical cures against their bodily ailments. Ada and “Mr. Fix” are not human, and though their skill is respected the villagers are otherwise wary of them. They make sick humans sleep with a touch or a glance, open them up to see what’s wrong inside (the various maladies appearing differently to their senses than to a modern doctor’s) and burying them in the Ground beside their house, when necessary. It’s an odd life but a fine one, until Ada becomes entangled with a human boy, and the relationship threatens to upset her family, her magic, and the entire village.

The writing is absolutely visceral, playing with the tangible and intangible especially in relation to the human body, adding a firm layer of grit to a brightly colorful world. I can’t possibly do it justice with a description, so here’s a sample:

“It sounded like her spine was shaking and the sound was coming up through her. I’d never heard such a sound, a body trying to ground some portion of itself to dust. / -Why are you trembling, Lorraine? / And then her head snapped back and her mouth opened fully. I could see the large teeth near the root of her tongue gleaming wet and silver where the air had not yet seen the spittle dried. She opened her eyes and they were wide, unseeing. She reached up to me, her square fingers carrying the lightest touch of yellow.”

But despite the captivating language used, the story is in many ways abstract. There is a plot, but the reader must sift for his or her own meaning. Themes drawn from the book will vary. For me, this is a story of a girl whose parent appreciates her and yet also limits her future to one option- following in his footsteps. It’s the story of a girl discovering there is more to her than her parent sees, and reaching for something she wants that he may not want for her. Both make arguably poor, hasty choices as their relationship falters, learning that to love someone and to agree with them are not necessarily the same thing. Even though both are inhuman, a fact that does influence which choices are available to them, there are moments of recognition (or at least insight) for the reader in Ada’s (and her father’s) actions and emotions.

Though I  loved both the surface level of this story for its evocative writing and the buried themes underneath, the predictability of Ada’s relationship with the human boy and the general abstractness of the story made it somewhat difficult for me to keep up momentum while reading. I struggled with it as much as I enjoyed it, though I appreciated what I was left with in the end.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wavered between 3 and 4 here, but ultimately I do think I’ll remember this one favorably. The writing alone would’ve made this worth the read for me, and I did take a little more from the experience than that.

 

And last but not least, Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours, my most recent read and a Tournament of Books contender.

allthiscouldbeyoursIn the novel, a man lies dying in a New Orleans hospital. After a life of criminal and morally reprehensible activity, it’s not exactly a heartfelt reunion as the family gathers (or refuses to gather) from near and far to say their goodbyes and try to close this chapter of their lives. His children may never forgive him, no one may ever understand why his wife stood by him all those years, and every life he’s touched even tangentially may be worse for it. Will his family honor him in death anyway? Or will they consider his death their freedom?

“Her gut told her he should be in jail right now, he really should. If he weren’t dying.”

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this book. On the other hand, it did absolutely nothing at all for me.

This book takes place over the course of a day, Victor’s last day alive. The day is divided by interactions between various family members and other nearby characters on his final day, dipping into each of their perspectives (though never Victor’s). Through these POVs, we also see key moments from each of the characters’ pasts, to gain a complete look at Victor’s life as well as the damage that has radiated out from him. There are certainly interesting moments, and some occasional lines that I found resonant, but ultimately the themes I saw here- that men and power can be a disastrous combination, that the system is as much to blame as any individual, that the patriarchy is a long-standing disease sunk deep into every consciousness it’s touched- just aren’t anything new. The fact that we know from the beginning that Victor is going to die and how his family feels about it left me wondering what I was actually reading for. I never found a satisfactory answer.

But again- there’s nothing wrong with this book. I just wasn’t the right reader for it (and I suspect anyone else who already knows a thing or two about feminism will feel the same). Nevertheless, I want to end on a positive note here by talking about the way this book brings New Orleans to life. All This Could Be Yours touches on the major landmarks of the city, but it also offers an insider’s glimpse into NOLA’s culture. We see the social affects of Katrina, the summer heat, the streetcars, the people. Some of the chapters take place elsewhere, and yet Attenberg manages in under 300 pages to bring this main setting to life, beautifully. The novel’s saving grace.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked bits and pieces, but for the most part I was unfortunately bored. But if you want to read about New Orleans, if you want to read about all the ways the patriarchy has f-ed things up for everyone, if you get on with (plotless) contemporary better than I do, this may be a better fit for you.

 

Have you read any of these books? Are you planning to? Let me know what you think!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

10 thoughts on “Reviews: All Systems Red, Follow Me to Ground, All This Could Be Yours”

  1. Great reviews! I totally get what you mean about Follow Me to Ground. I loved the visceral writing, but its oddities meant there was always an elusive quality. I also settled on 4 stars, and it has stayed with me pretty well, which is definitely a good sign!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Elusive is a great description for Follow Me to Ground. Despite the writing making the story so easy to visualize, there was always a layer of meaning hidden just out of reach! But I did find it very unique and worthwhile, so I hope it’ll stick with me as well! I’m glad to hear it has been staying with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s so wild to me that there is nothing wrong with a book other than it came too late to one’s life. I’ve encountered many books like that, especially Bitch Planet, a comic book series that would have rocked my world when I was in high school, and the now numerous books about body positivity, again, which I could have used in high school. I always wonder if I should review those books because my gripes come from the book being at a beginner’s level for a subject with which I am very familiar. Perhaps instead of reviewing, I’ll just describe why it’s the perfect book for someone who is early in his/her journey with an idea or subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good idea, presenting your experience as a basis for recommendation rather than reviewing. And a good point, about some books being good for other people earlier in their journey with a topic even if it’s not for you. That is something I’m really sad I missed out on with YA especially, as there’s so much more diversity and open-mindedness and just CONTENT that wasn’t available when I was at the right age for it and could’ve really used those messages, though I’m glad it exists for young (and old) readers now.

      But I also think there’s a difference between a book that’s a good beginning point for someone less informed, and a book that just seems… outdated, even when it is new. I guess I wouldn’t say All This Could Be Yours felt outdated exactly, just not right for its intended audience, perhaps? Its messages are subtle enough that I think it would be hard for feminism beginners to catch the point, and yet I don’t think it adds anything new to the conversation for those familiar enough to spot the nuances. I think someone just getting into feminism might be less bored with this one than I was, but they might see it as a dysfunctional family story rather than a social commentary. I’d probably recommend this one to someone who wants to read about New Orleans before I’d suggest it for its subject matter! But you’ve given me a great idea for a recommendations post in which I can try marketing my low-rated-but-not-bad reads to audiences that might appreciate them more, so this has been a very helpful discussion!

      Like

      1. I’m so glad! It’s a fine line between “this book was too young for me now” and “this book has harmful messages or panders to the intended audience.” You have to be so discerning. For instance, I did not love the book Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. I know it’s YA and it’s by a Latinx author, so again, I’m not the target audience. But there were elements that I found problematic nonetheless.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree! About the fine line, at least- I have not read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, but I know it can sometimes be hard to determine when something is not right for you or just not right. And ultimately I think if the answer is BOTH, that’s probably the most difficult case to judge!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I LOVE MURDERBOT!!! I am a bit obsessed really. Follow me to Ground was a five star read for me. I think the writing style is what tipped it into that range. It was just so evocative. I am not a visual person and yet the descriptions felt so raw and tangible. The other things I have loved about it were how much I think about it and all the differing opinions about what the book meant. I have truly been loving all of the reviews of this book and the commentary around it. Loved this post.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      Murderbot is such a compelling character, I can’t wait to see where its story goes next!

      And I’m glad you enjoyed Follow Me to Ground so much, I can definitely agree that the writing is EXCELLENT. I remember reading your review before I picked up the book, and your response to it made me more excited. 🙂 I also really enjoy seeing many opinions on what a book means to different readers, especially when it’s as mysterious as this one!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s