Tag Archives: Books

Review: A Crime in the Neighborhood

The Women’s Prize for Fiction just announced yesterday that it’ll be promoting all past winners throughout 2020, culminating in a public vote for a “winner of the winners” in honor of the prize’s 25th year! (And if you’re curious about the history of the prize, definitely check out Rachel’s massively impressive FULL LIST of every title ever nominated!) I’m not confident about being able to read all of the past winners before the vote- there’s already so much I want to read this year. But earlier this month I did cross another past winner off of my list: Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood…. one of my least favorite winners so far!

This is part of a group buddy read, so I’ll link the other reviews as they appear- here are Sarah’s thoughts!

acrimeintheneighborhoodIn the novel, adult Marsha looks back on the summer of 1972 (though some jacket copy erroneously touts that we’re looking at 1973). She was nine years old, living in a suburb of Washington D.C. Her parents were just splitting up, and a boy who lived nearby had been molested and killed in an empty lot behind the local shopping mall. Neighborhood residents could hardly believe it had happened on their safe little streets, and the possibility that the perpetrator might be one of the familiar faces living amongst them seemed absurd. But Marsha needed a project, so she took detailed notes of everything happening in the neighborhood that summer- until she believed she had found the murderer.

” ‘But I know he did it,’ I said, kicking the coffee table with my good foot.’ / ‘You don’t know,’ my mother said, folding her arms as she turned away and headed toward the staircase. ‘You only think you do.’ / ‘I do know.’ / ‘You only want to know. That’s all it is, Marsha,’ she said bitterly, turning back to me for a moment, her mouth a sharp line.”

A Crime in the Neighborhood wants so badly to be a mystery, though ultimately it fails to provide one. The reader may ask two questions based on the book’s premise- “Who killed Boyd?” is the first, and perhaps the one that mystery/thriller readers will be more interested in; unfortunately, it’s shunted aside early on as the focus shifts to Mr. Green, Marsha’s new neighbor, as her only suspect. In the end this is not actually the story of a mysterious murder, but an examination of Marsha’s nine year-old life and relationships, which limits how much of the murder case the reader is actually able to see. Despite the fact that Marsha is looking back on this event from many years later, we don’t see more of the murder investigation as a result of that distance- we only see Marsha realizing the extent of her own mistake. With the book framed this way, the second question of interest to the reader- “Did Mr. Green kill Boyd?” is answered early on, thanks to foreshadowing and a pervasive tone of regret in the narrative.

In place of a mystery, we’re left with a historical look at suburban America. Marsha’s is a “family neighborhood,” her parents’ divorce is a quiet scandal, gossip is rampant, and the children run free from block to block in the pre-cellphone era. Watergate is a hot topic.  Marsha is a nosy kid often left out by her older siblings; a broken foot this summer also holds her back, leaving her home alone with her notebook in order to record everyone’s comings and goings. Surely this aspect of the book is likely to attract some readers, though personally I wasn’t very interested. Somehow (despite not having been alive to witness it firsthand) I seem to have acquainted myself well enough with the white suburban 70s well enough already that I just didn’t take much from this experience.

Furthermore, I couldn’t seem to invest in any of these characters. Marsha’s dad is a weak and absent man, her mother held just far enough out of sight that she seems aloof and unreachable. The older siblings are, frankly, irrelevant. Marsha doesn’t have any meaningful friendships with other neighborhood kids, and no one liked Boyd while he was alive. Mr. Green is so shy and awkward that he almost seems to be sabotaging his own social life. Marsha herself is not particularly likable; she sees everything (or so she thinks) but does very little of import, and what she does accomplish doesn’t encourage much sympathy from the reader.

“Once I have lied, I’ve propelled myself into a story that has its own momentum. It’s not that I convince myself that I’m telling the truth, it’s that the truth becomes flexible. Or rather, the truth appears to me as utterly relative, which is a frightening thought but also inevitable if you examine any truth long enough, even reassuring in a cold way.”

I wonder if this story might have been more interesting from Marsha’s mother’s perspective. For me the most interesting part of this book was the implication that in her father’s sudden absence, Marsha dislikes Mr. Green primarily because her mother takes an interest in him. She misses her dad, and she doesn’t want to lose her parents’ attention. Whereas it takes Marsha years to understand the causes and consequences of her actions over this summer, her mother would likely have had a more immediate grasp of and emotional response to all of these events. For her, it may have come down to a difficult choice of deciding whether to side with her daughter or speak up for an innocent stranger, which could have supplied the novel with a lot more tension than Marsha’s belated contrition. I would’ve loved to see more of the mother’s personality and opinions here.

” ‘Ask for what you want,’ my mother has always prodded me. ‘Make your case. If you don’t get what you want, then at least it won’t be because nobody knew what you wanted.’ “

But despite my general dissatisfaction, I must say I did find this book very readable. Even though I wasn’t excited about the plot, I had no trouble picking the book up and committing to each of the chapters. The writing is rather plain and preoccupied with quotable morals, but I found it to be an easy read, which certainly cannot be said for all of the Women’s Prize winners. If accessibility is important to you, and you’re more interested in 70’s suburbia and the particular blindness of childhood, you might find A Crime in the Neighborhood a better fit!

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This rating feels harsh, but I can’t help reading a prize-winning book with a more critical eye and higher expectations than I might otherwise. I didn’t hate this book and wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, but I did unfortunately find it disappointing on pretty much every level. Better luck with the next winner, I hope!

 

The Literary Elephant

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

 

Review: Long Bright River

I grabbed Liz Moore’s new mystery novel Long Bright River from BOTM and managed to pick it up in January, right around the time it was released. I had such a good time reading this book (which should make it a good place to start catching up with reviews)!

longbrightriverIn the novel, Mickey is a Philadelphia policewoman, patrolling a neighborhood where opioid addictions and deaths are tragically commonplace. She cares about the people there, building a rapport with those who live and work in the area rather than training up to become a detective. Complicating matters, Mickey’s own family has brushed close to the opioid epidemic; her sister still uses and abuses in Mickey’s district. Their relationship is rocky, but Mickey can’t help panicking when Kacey goes missing. It doesn’t help that someone seems to be murdering women on the street at the same time- so Mickey decides to do a little of her own investigating.

Don’t do anything stupid, Truman said to me yesterday. But it isn’t stupid, I believe, to follow through on leads. In fact, it only seems reasonable.”

For a book nearly 500 pages long, Long Bright River is a surprisingly quick read (and I’m not a fast reader, so you can trust me on that). The entire story is told in Mickey’s first person perspective, dancing between her familial history and the present, in which she patrols, takes care of her son, and investigates her sister’s disappearance, with the recent murder spree often on her mind if not an actual facet of her daily job. I wasn’t stunned by the prose- I marked very few passages while reading, and most of them I saved for content rather than beauty. Even so, once I started I had a hard time putting the book down. Mickey is a flawed character and not someone I particularly related to, and yet I found her narrative so easy to settle into and follow wherever it would go.

I’ll be honest: the mystery elements (where is Kacey, and who is killing women like her?) are not this book’s strong suit. The plot is slow paced, Mickey makes obvious mistakes, and some of the red herrings are obvious. Enough is going on in Mickey’s life that the book dips in and out of various lines of inquiry and concerns, which can disrupt the tension. Furthermore, Mickey is worried about her missing sister, but as more of her past is revealed it becomes increasingly clear that even finding her will not ensure her safety; this murder spree is one danger among many in the difficult life of an addict, and Mickey knows that when/if she finds Kacey it won’t necessarily be a joyous reunion and a happy ending in rehab, which means Kacey’s uncertain status is not the vehicle propelling the reader through the story. If you’re looking for a thriller, you won’t find it here.

Instead, what drives the narrative is the commentary on addiction and the opioid epidemic. Mickey is not an addict, but through her we see what it is like to live with an addict, what it is like to love someone who refuses to be helped, who may try to get clean but repeatedly falls back into bad habits. We see how addiction broke their family apart, how it drives their choices as children, as adults. We see how addiction can land a person on the streets, how it can entrap a person in bad relationships, etc. Moore does an excellent job of depicting how very much of addiction is outside of anyone’s control.

I also loved the complicated character dynamics at the heart of this story. Mickey may be an outsider in that she cannot tell the reader personally what addiction is like, but she is very close to the epidemic and can share a lot of firsthand experience nonetheless. She has taken care of her sister when possible. She remembers her mother, before the overdose that killed her. She remembers her father leaving. She remembers (and still interacts with) the grandmother who raised Mickey and her sister, the ways she attempted to pick up the pieces and the rules she wouldn’t bend on after seeing her own daughter ruined by drugs. Through other perspectives, we might still have gotten a decent plot and plenty of insight into widespread opioid use, but Mickey adds an extra layer to the dialogue, the layer of a non-user who still can’t escape the web of this epidemic. Opioid addiction is a problem that affects not only those who use the drugs, but all those who are in their lives, by choice or blood or circumstance. It affects whole communities, and Mickey is the right narrator to convey that.

“When it is necessary to do so, I gently place handcuffs on the wrists of my sister, and I tell her the particular offense for which she is being arrested (usually, solicitation and possession of narcotics, one time with intent to sell), and then I narrate her rights to her, then I place a gentle hand on the crown of her head to ensure that she doesn’t obtain an injury as she enters the backseat of our vehicle, and then I quietly close the door, and then I drive her to the station, and then I book her, and then the two of us sit silently across from one another in the holding cell, not speaking, not even looking at each other.”

The details that affected me most are spoilers, so I’ll say only that there’s even more commentary and emotion here than is apparent on the surface. For me, that was enough to make up for the lack of a twisty plot, though for others it might not be; ultimately, while coming to this story with the wrong expectations could ruin this experience for some, I do think it is an excellent book for what it does accomplish, and I hope it’ll see plenty of attention this year. If you’re on the fence, let me reassure you: this one’s worth the read.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I suspect I’ll end up bumping this down to 4 in time due to the weak mystery element, but for now my rating reflects how readable and engrossing I found the book, and how valuable its commentary seemed. Honestly if all mysteries had as much to say about difficult topics in the real world, I’d be reading a lot more of them. I like a good plot as much as the next person, but gaining a new perspective on opioid addiction will stay with me longer. I would definitely read more from this author.

Have you read this one, or are you planning to pick it up? Let me know what you think!

 

The Literary Elephant

TBR 2.20

After an unexpectedly busy week, I’m far behind on blogging; here’s my monthly TBR to help me get back on track!

Every month for 2020, I’ll be setting my TBR with five of the books I expect to read throughout the month. I won’t mention extras even though I may pick up other things, and at the end of the month, finished or not, each five are barred from future 2020 TBR appearances.

This worked so well for me in January; I was able to read all five books on the list, plus pick up several extras, without feeling bad at the end of the month for anything I might not have gotten around to (a common issue for me with planned TBRs- I get too ambitious).

In that spirit, I’m hoping for an equally positive result this month, and once again have carefully curated my list based on various goals and commitments. The list:

  1. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne. This is a library checkout, a group buddy read, and a previous Women’s Prize winner. It’s a literary mystery following a woman looking back on an upsetting crime and the events from her childhood in the 1970s. I’ve actually finished this one already! Review to come.
  2. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. A romance classic set in 1800s England, featuring a trio of sisters and their adventures in love. This is one of only two Austen novels I have left unread and one of the titles from my 20 in ’20 list. This will also be great to read in preparation for my Spotlight post this month, which will focus on the romance genre.
  3. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This is an LGBTQ+ romance featuring the Prince of Wales and the son of the (female!) US President. I’m slowly working through my backlog of unread BOTM selections, and this title will also be great to read in conjunction with my Spotlight romance post.
  4. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Structured as a series of vignettes from around a Russian community, this is a novel about the mysterious disappearance of two local girls. It’s the only book I acquired in January that I haven’t read yet, it’s on my list of 2019 publications I should’ve read last year, and it was shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, so I’m eager to (finally!) get to this one!
  5. Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown. This is a historical/contemporary fiction novel following a housewife who finds a cookbook in her home with notes written in the margins about its previous owner’s fraught marriage. It’s a library checkout for me and an anticipated 2020 release; I’m also hoping it’ll be a nice counterbalance to all the romance this month.

tbr2.20

Last month I was hoping for 5 5-star reads from my TBR, and ended up with an impressive 3 5-stars and 2 4-stars; this month I’m less confident, but still hoping for at least 2 5-stars. I have some other hopeful titles I’d love to pick up this month, including some library checkouts that I’ll probably get to and some titles relating to Black History Month that I should get to, but I don’t want to muddle the TBR system this early in the game. I will of course review what I end up reading as I go.

In the meantime, here’s a list of February releases I have my eye on! These are not necessarily books that I’ll be picking up this month (though I’d really like to) or even at all (I ended up crossing two of my January releases off my TBR entirely); they’re new releases I’m interested in at the moment, and will be checking out reviews for throughout the month and am hoping to learn more about! Since my TBRs are limited this year I thought this would be a nice way to share the news of some upcoming books and perhaps put some great titles on your radar. These are the new titles I’ve got my eye on for February:

  • The Regrets by Amy Bonnaffons. Supernatural romance in which a woman strikes up a relationship with a man who is dead. He’s not supposed to become involved with any living people while he waits to join the afterlife, which results in a string of bizarre consequences for the pair. Out Feb 4th
  • Things in Jars by Jess Kidd. Historical fantasy following a female detective in Victorian London who pursues the case of a kidnapped child rumored to possess supernatural powers that various “collectors” have taken an interest in.
  • Smacked by Eilene B. Zimmerman. Nonfiction autobiography/memoir of a woman discovering that her (now deceased) ex-husband was a high-functioning addict and workaholic- without anyone noticing the drug abuse until his death. Out Feb 4th
  • The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams. Historical fiction in which a school for young women is rocked by a mysterious illness; the single female teacher can advocate for the students only by confronting the male authorities in charge. Out Feb 11th
  • Weather by Jenny Offill. Literary fiction about a librarian woman who is also a fake shrink, called upon to answer a popular podcast’s influx of mail about the state of the modern world. Out Feb 11th
  • The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. LGBTQ+ historical fiction about a Norwegian storm and 1600s witch trials. Out Feb 11th
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor. LGBTQ+ literary fiction about an African-American man from Alabama at a Midwest university, where various encounters reveal “a lifetime of buried pain.” Out Feb 18th
  • The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson. Nonfiction set in WWII Britain, following Churchill’s personal and political life. Out Feb 25th

Is there anything here you’ve read, or that catches your eye? I’d love to hear more thoughts! Tell me what you’re most excited to be reading this month!

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 1.20

January. What a month to start the year! To be honest, I’ve been at a mental and emotional low for a few weeks, for reasons and no reasons. I think it’s affecting my reading speed, but not my reading experiences, and I think that every month I tend to read a little less than I expect going in so it’s hardly worth dwelling on here. Other than feeling a bit off, it has actually been a great reading month, as far as content! My goal for the year is to read more books that I will enjoy (as opposed to books that I’m generally happier to have read than to have enjoyed reading), which of course is hard to judge in advance, but it’s going well!

First off, I’m using a new TBR system again this year, where I focus on 5 specific books I want to read that count toward goals/commitments, and then fill in the rest of my reading time with whatever I please. This was my selection for January:

tbr1.20

…and I’m happy to say I’m off to a good start, because I’ve completed the list this month! Three of these were 5-star reads for me, and the other 2 were 4-stars. Here’s a little breakdown of my reading this month:

  1. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi – 5 stars. Though this story got off to a rough start for me, I ended up loving the unique structure and meta element of this book, and felt it worked so well with the book’s themes of sexual abuse of students from teachers/mentors. I can see why it won the 2019 National Book Award for fiction!
  2. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder – 3 stars. I loved the magical premise of forgetting / losing memories of objects, and the themes of conformity vs individuality certainly made an impression. But ultimately I was disappointed this one didn’t dig a little deeper into its magical element, and I felt like opportunities were missed in unanswered questions.
  3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier – 4 stars. I read this along with Melanie! It features a young Englishman and his enchanting cousin who may or may not be a murderess. I couldn’t quite sympathize with the male narrator, but loved the ambiguity of the plot and nuance of characterization. I also watched the 2017 film adaptation this month, and for a movie that follows the story fairly closely, I was surprised how disappointed I was with basically every aspect of the film, right from the beginning!
  4. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – 5 stars. In an experience similar to that of Trust Exercise, I wasn’t sold on this one until the structural shift halfway through the book. It ended up being an emotional and convincing read that plays with time and intent very well! A great end to my 2019 Booker Prize journey.
  5. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey – 3 stars. I loved the messages I pulled from this read about the quiet ubiquity and internalization of abuse and manipulation women suffer at the hands of men, but the layout of each chapter as a different conversation/story from the narrator’s life never quite worked for me the way it seemed like it should’ve.
  6. The Martian by Andy Weir – 4 stars. This is a modern sci-fi staple that I’m several years late with, but have finally picked up and fully agree with the positive reviews! The narrative POV didn’t work quite as well for me as I’d expected after watching the film several years ago, but I still immensely enjoyed this interplanetary survival story, science and all.
  7. Long Bright River by Liz Moore – 5 stars. My BOTM selection from December, and an anticipated 2020 release, I had such a good time with this mystery about the opioid epidemic. It’s not flawless, and it might over time get bumped down to a 4-star rating for me, but I was completely sucked in by the complicated family dynamic and the challenges that come with addiction. Review to come.
  8. All Systems Red by Martha Wells – 5 stars. I’ve seen sci-fi readers raving about this novella, and now I understand why. I picked this up one evening out of curiosity, just intending to read the first page or so and get a feel for when I might like to read it, and ended up finishing it the same night. I loved the personality of this part-robot SecUnit whose job is to protect humans and whose passion is avoiding all contact to watch serial television. Review to come.
  9. Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford – 4 stars. This was actually close to a 3-star for me simply because again, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions and vague ideas where I tend to like more concrete magical elements and directly implied messages, but the themes I drew from this brief plot really made an impact, and I adored the writing style. Such a weird, wonderful little book. Review to come.

Honorable mention: I (finally) started reading Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible this month as well, but it’s a bit textbookish so I’m fine with taking it slowly and wasn’t trying to finish it this month. I really love that this exists and am looking forward to reviewing. Maybe February! …Maybe March.

wrapup1.20

All in all, a quality reading month. I read 4 library books, 2 BOTM selections from my unread shelf, a couple of 2019 releases I was sad to miss last year, 3 2020 releases, a buddy read, a translation, and a couple of backlisters I’d been meaning to get to for ages. And ratings were so high!

Some stats:

Average rating – 4.2!

Best of month – Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Owned books read for the first time – 5. Out of 9. More than half! And I only acquired 3 books this month, one of which I’d already read and simply received a free copy to own, one of which I read this month, and the last of which I’m planning to read in February. This is a great start to the year for my own-unread TBR! Hopefully it’s the start of a longer trend.

Year total – 9. I’m on track for my Goodreads goal of 100. Even though it’s a slightly lower number than I was hoping for in the longest month of the year, it’s a great number for me. Yay!

 

Since I’m mentioning anticipated releases in all of my TBR posts this year (February’s list coming soon), I’d also like to note here that I read 3/12 of my featured releases for January within the month. I have library holds on a few others that have recently come available, and I’ve crossed two books off of my TBR entirely, at least for now. The two I’m no longer interested in are: Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, which has been the subject of much recent controversy; Hannah sums up perfectly in this post! The other is Raymond Fleishman’s How Quickly She Disappears, which I could end up changing my mind about but for now Naty’s review post has convinced me this isn’t what I’m looking for at the moment.

 

And a few of the non-review posts I’ve shared this month, in case you missed them!

 

Is the reading year off to a good start for you? Let me know below!

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Science Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share what Science Fiction means to me, filling the post with iconic titles and recommendations, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

I know I’ve basically missed January already, which I don’t intend to make a habit, it’s just how it worked out this time. Without further ado…

What is Science Fiction (Sci-Fi)?

In my opinion, this is a genre of fiction that uses real or imagined science to explore unknown aspects or questions from the real world. It can lean toward the speculative, the fantastic, the sociopolitical, the philosophical, and more, but the defining characteristic is that these books attempt to explain their otherworldly aspects with facts and logic drawn from reality. Often, but not always, sci-fi tends toward the futuristic. It endeavors to explain something we don’t yet understand, or suggests that because there are things we don’t yet understand, more is possible than we know or accept. It can deliver a sense of foreboding.

I consider dystopia/utopia a subgenre of science fiction. These books usually have political leanings and are often futuristic, with logical explanations as to how the world might have evolved to reach a certain extreme. They also tend to have themes common among sci-fi books: that humans should be cautious with knowledge we already have, that discovering new scientific knowledge can be dangerous, or that we might be able to accomplish something momentous if humans are able to solve a currently unsolved problem.

I also sometimes consider supernatural and paranormal as subgenres of science fiction (other times as horror, depending on the book’s themes and use of the otherworldly elements). This includes ghosts, vampires, zombies, etc.

 

My History with Sci-Fi

The City of Ember (Book of Ember, #1)Early brushes with the genre for me included books like Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember, Eoin Colfer’s The Wish List, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Vivian Vande Velde’s Heir Apparent, Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, and of course, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (though sci-fi is not the only genre I’d use to categorize this one). My taste has certainly evolved, but these are just a few of the books that kept me interested in dystopia, paranormal, and science fiction in general; in them I can see some of the sci-fi aspects I’m still fascinated with today. They paved the way for the YA icons of my high school years: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (which was published earlier but saw a fresh heyday when the movie was released). The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

YA exploded in popularity and availability around the time I was in jr. high and high school, partially thanks to the phenomenon that was Twilight. Hate it if you want, but that book had a big influence on what was getting published and what was getting read, as did The Hunger Games and Divergent. Dystopia saw such a huge wave of popularity in the 2010’s, and even though that’s died down, it was a big part of what kept me reading science fiction. I’m sure there are many more middle grade and YA options in this genre than I remember being available during my teenagerhood, probably in part because books like The Hunger Games sparked a wider interest, even among adult readers.

CarrieI also started reading Stephen King around this time. Though he’s widely known as a master of the horror genre, a lot of his work is indeed science fiction. As a teen I picked up Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone, Hearts in Atlantis, Carrie... King’s writing certainly has its flaws, but he’s a great gateway author, easy enough for younger readers to understand and enjoy. He was actually one of the first “adult fiction” authors I read, who helped convince me I was ready to stop browsing exclusively in the “teen” section at the library. He deals in extraterrestrial life, telekinesis, super powers, time travel, bizarre creatures, and so much more. From these topics, I ventured into:

 

Sci-Fi Classics

FrankensteinBy the time I graduated high school I had a lot better access to books than my small hometown library had afforded. What might have been lacking in my early years, I found in college and beyond. I reached for such titles as:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, one of my all-time favorite books, dealing with mortality and morality. (Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein is an excellent recent homage dealing with many of the same themes, also tackling gender issues and robotics.)

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, featuring a group of pre-adolescent boys who attempt to form their own society on a deserted island.

Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, in which a fireman whose job it is to burn books begins to question his conformity.

19841984 by George Orwell, a political critique of government’s increasing ability to see (and thus police) its citizens’ private lives.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, an antiwar narrative following one man’s life through a WWII bombing, time travel, capture by aliens, and more.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which features a dystopian society in which humans are genetically modified prior to birth and assigned careers based on their intelligence level.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, following a scientist who creates a time machine and uses it to discover humanity’s downfall and earth’s dire fate.

even Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, though my appreciation for this game-like approach to alien warfare is much higher than my consideration for its anti-Semite author.

 

Modern Sci-Fi Staples and Recommendations

Station ElevenBut as with any genre, science fiction isn’t all stuffy classics. Here’s a look at some popular science fiction I’ve been reading more recently and would not hesitate to recommend to many newcomers and old fans alike: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, an 80’s pop culture and video game fest; Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser, in which most of humanity hibernates through increasingly unbearable earthen winters; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a Shakespeare-focused post-apocalyptic survival tale; Caroline Kepnes’s Providence, the story of a kidnapped boy with a superpower that endangers the girl he loves; Andy Weir’s The Martian, an interplanetary quest to bring a stranded astronaut home from Mars; Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a feminist dystopia in which objectified women rebel against the status quo; Stephen King’s The Outsider, which features a shape-shifting villain who lives off of human fear; All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)Martha Wells’s All Systems Red, following a human/robot whose job is human safety but whose preference is avoiding all human contact in favor of watching serial television (review coming soon).

 

If you’re new to the genre and don’t think reading a lot of science is going to appeal, let me make some recommendations based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below!):

If you like YA: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Wilder Girls by Rory Power

If you like mysteries and thrillers: Recursion by Blake Crouch, The Oracle Year by Charles Soule, Origin by Dan Brown

If you like history: Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H Wilson, The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom MillerThe Clockwork Dynasty

If you like fantasy: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Red Rising by Pierce Brown

If you like supernatural: The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater, The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

If you like literary: Severance by Ling Ma, The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

If you like romance: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

If you like comics: Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins

 

Like any other genre, categorization of sci-fi is not determined upon hard rules. You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something sci-fi that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of science fiction will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next in the genre find something that appeals!

 

Sci-Fi on my TBR:

Jurassic ParkI don’t expect my own sci-fi adventures to stop here! These are some other exciting titles I’m hoping to read in the future: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Exhalation by Ted Chiang, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar, The Seep by Chana Porter, Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh.

 

And just a few extras that aren’t currently on my TBR that you may be familiar with or might want to read: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Dune by Frank Herbert, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.

 

Why read science fiction?

I read sci-fi because it makes me look at the real world in a new light. It’s full of big ideas, concepts that I wouldn’t necessarily consider on my own, as well as hope (and yes, fear) for the future. It’s a stretch of imagination on a grand scale that often considers humanity as a whole in a way that character-specific narratives usually do not. It encourages thinking outside the box.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about the genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for sci-fi, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Martian

This was one of those tragic cases of neglecting to read the book before watching the movie, and so I’ve been waiting YEARS to forget enough of the details to pick up Andy Weir’s The Martian– this year, the time finally seemed right.

themartianIn the novel, Mark Watney and 5 other crew members are on a 31-day NASA mission on Mars. When a sudden storm cuts their stay short, Watney is left behind in the evacuation, believed dead. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself in dire circumstances, injured, running out of oxygen, his suit breached, his contact with Earth severed, and the exit spacecraft gone along with all of his colleagues. But Watney isn’t ready to give up. If he can find a way to stretch the crew’s 31 days of supplies for a couple of years and travel to the site of the next Mars mission, maybe he can hitch a ride back home.  And so begins an interplanetary quest for survival.

“The answer is: I don’t know. I suppose I’ll think of something. Or die.”

I hated math and science classes in school. I managed to avoid calculus and chemistry completely in both high school and college so I’m as amazed as the next person that I found a story so rooted in science to be such a good time. I can’t speak at all for the accuracy of the numbers and equations and details in this book, but Weir states in an author’s note that people in the know mostly agree with The Martian‘s accuracy, and I’m inclined to believe that. It turned out to be a slower read than I expected despite the easy-going first person narration and constant threat of death, because I’m not a reader who can skim sentences/passages without comprehending them- I didn’t pull out my calculator to double check Watney’s math, but I did take the time to absorb the information and understand how he was getting from point A to point B. The good news is that The Martian is a science-heavy book written for the layperson, and there’s enough of a narrative behind the technicalities that I can see why this book appeals to science buffs and novices alike.

What worked best for me, essentially, is the puzzle of it. Having already a sense of the basic story line and quickly realizing that the film didn’t capture all the details, what kept my attention in this book was a constant curiosity about how Watney was going to solve each of the problems Mars throws his way. Not enough water? No worries, he’ll make some. Accidentally create a bomb? No worries, he can defuse that. Get stuck in a sandstorm that makes recharging his vital power supply impossible? No worries, he’ll chart his way out just in time. But I would have no idea how to do any of those things, which made his solutions fascinating to discover. Watney’s light tone as a narrator makes this dire situation surprisingly fun, and also prevents the reader from worrying too much about him dying amidst all of these setbacks. Until the final sequence is in motion, The Martian is more a tale of when he’ll escape, not an if. Thus, the method becomes the most interesting element.

Actually, as readable as Watney’s log entries are, the parts of the book that held my attention best were the glimpses of the other characters trying to help Watney, watching him via satellite and worrying about launch deadlines while they have very little communication with him. There isn’t much of a psychological exploration in this book, but most of it comes through in these third-person sections. Here, we can see just how alone Watney is even though it seems all of Earth is following his progress. We see how all of the technology and intelligence available at NASA is limited in its ability to help him and how frustrating that can be. We see leaders and captains making expensive, life-or-death decisions based on how their astronauts may be affected mentally.

” ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’ “

But as much as I enjoyed The Martian, it wasn’t quite a perfect read. As one of the laypeople, I appreciated the extent to which the science was painstakingly explained, but it didn’t feel organic to the story. It’s framed as Watney leaving a detailed log so that anyone who might eventually find it will know what happened to him, in case he doesn’t survive. I had some difficulty believing someone with a low level of expertise was going to be the one to find Watney’s log on Mars. Additionally, the simplification goes beyond Watney’s circumstances and personality- we do see other characters and locations in the novel: the rest of Watney’s crew and the high-ups at NASA mainly, and they all have a tendency of speaking to each other in a way that seems redundant to their perspectives, the dialogue obviously aimed toward the reader rather than realistic for the characters.

Even so, these insights into the team working on Earth and in orbit to bring Watney home were largely my favorite parts of the novel, mainly because Watney’s humor didn’t translate as well for me on the page as it originally did in the film.

Image result for the martian filmI remember liking Watney’s personality a lot when I first watched the film (4 or 5 years ago), but it just wasn’t coming across for me in the physical book. (A few people who knew I was reading this suggested the audio, but it’s currently checked out from my library. I’ll still look into that at least to sample it, but wasn’t able to get to it in time to finish reading.) However, after reading the book, I rewatched the film (my second viewing ever), and was less charmed there too. So, perhaps the change was me and not the medium. I found the jokes rather man-ish, repetitive, and often focused on the wonders of duct tape or Watney’s dislike of disco. There’s a bit of a formula to it, every serious moment broken up with an irreverent comment about death, NASA’s safety regulations, or one of his crew members. It didn’t take long for this to feel forced, or at least, predictable. He would’ve gotten along well with my high school science teacher.

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

But, humor aside, The Martian is still one of my favorite survival stories, both in print and film. I do think it’s worth experiencing both mediums, but if you only go for one I’ll add that the film goes more for emotional impact while the book goes for impressive scientific depth. You may find yourself more interested in the science than you expect!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I usually don’t go for survival stories, because they seem a bit “if you’ve read one you’ve read them all” to me, but this one is pretty unique. At least, in my experience. Having seen the movie already, I did know the broad strokes of the narrative going in, but I still found myself pleasantly caught up in the minutiae. I’ll definitely be reading Weir’s Artemis at some point because I have a copy, but I’ve seen enough disappointed reviews that I’m not in a hurry to get to it.

 

The Literary Elephant