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Review: Recursion

CW: suicide, death (including death of a child), gun violence, nuclear attack, Alzheimer’s diesease

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter may very well have been one of the books that “broke” the thriller genre for me. I read it in early 2017, only a few months before every thriller I picked up started to seriously disappoint me (with the major exception being Riley Sager’s Final Girls). It was my first sci-fi thriller, and such an all-around fun experience that there was no way I could miss Crouch’s 2019 release, another sci-fi thriller, titled Recursion.

recursionIn the novel, Barry is investigating a suicide in which the victim (prior to jumping) claims to have been affected by False Memory Syndrome- a new “disease” slowly sweeping the world that leaves those affected with two sets of memories, one “real” and one “false.” His investigation soon becomes much more hands-on than he intended. Meanwhile, Helena has been forced to switch her life’s focus from saving memories for those with Alzheimer’s to erasing all traces of her invented technology from the world; she learns the hard way that manipulating memories- even with the best of intentions- can only go horribly awry.

” ‘What’s more precious than our memories?’ he asks. ‘They define us and form our identities.’ “

Much in the spirit of Dark Matter (comparisons are inevitable), Recursion is also a story of what-ifs, in which some of the main characters are able to re-live parts of their lives as though they’d made different choices. Both titles examine some of the moral and emotional consequences of altering reality, as well as dissecting the science (in a novice-friendly way) that might lead to these possibilities. And of course, both are fast-paced adventures full of unique threats and psychological twists and turns.

Recursion opens on Barry’s first brush with False Memory Syndrome, which provides a perfect introduction to a concept that is, at first, as mysterious to the protagonist as the reader. When the time is right, the story doubles back to Helena’s research efforts, switching to a new protagonist with more knowledge on memory and the pertinent technology to guide the reader through a phase of discovery. Of course the two plotlines eventually merge, as Helena and Barry meet and unite against a common enemy- someone who wants to use Helena’s invention to change the world in the name of progress, no matter the consequences.

“Memory is … the filter between us and reality. You think you’re tasting this wine, hearing the words I’m saying, in the present, but there’s no such thing. The neural impulses from your taste buds and your ears get transmitted to your brain, which processes them and dumps them into working memory- so by the time you know you’re experiencing something, it’s already in the past. Already a memory…We think we’re perceiving the world directly and immediately, but everything we experience is this carefully edited, tape-delayed reconstruction.”

If the science sounds intimidating or you think sci-fi just isn’t the genre for you, rest assured that it’s largely a conceptual backdrop to a fairly accessible thriller plot. Crouch throws in a few sentences that must be based in fact- statements about neurons firing in the brain, memory storage, and déjà vu- but the rest is one big thought experiment mainly featuring the fictional logistics of time travel via memory. As long as you understand the gist (the heroes and villains are obvious enough), it’s really not strictly necessary to pay close attention to all of the specifics. In fact, even the scientists in Recursion require plenty of trial and error with the equipment in order to understand what it’s capable of. There’s no need to worry about getting bogged down in details.

It’s a smart, exciting ride that balances right on the edge between realistic and fantastic, with just enough realistic detail to ground the reader while allowing the imagination plenty of room to run free.

“Time is an illusion, a construct made out of human memory. There’s no such thing as the past, the present, or the future. It’s all happening now.”

But there are a few ways in which the layering of timelines frustrated me. Note: these are fairly small issues that come down to stylistic preference.

First is the repetition. There are moments, days, and even years that some characters experience repeatedly; in a few instances, a particular event is written out numerous times, back to back, highlighting variations. This tactic does lend credence to the matter of false/dead memories causing insanity, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts, but I nevertheless found it annoying to know I was reading scenes that were ultimately not leading anywhere productive.

Second, once it becomes clear that characters who possess the proper knowledge and equipment can revisit key moments limitlessly, the stakes are lowered. It is infinitely harder to worry about heroes dying or villains causing irreparable damage when one only has to make provisions for re-entering the moment if things turn sour, and try another path.

Third is the way that these relationships are skewed by the lack of chronology. There are several occasions in which a character must introduce him- or herself to someone they already know well, which allows for alliances to be formed with proof of knowing someone else’s secrets rather than a gradual rapport built from circumstance and personality. As a consequence, I can recall many of the events of this book, but I would struggle to tell you what kind of person any of the main characters are beyond basic motives- doing what is right, saving the world, making a name for oneself with a life-changing invention. Unfortunately, I did find it harder to invest in characters that I wasn’t able to fully understand, and books in which the characters feel like afterthoughts to the plot (even a stellar plot) never have quite the same strength that character-driven narratives do for me.

This is starting to look like a list of complaints rather than a recommendation to read a book that I had an excellent time with, but that is only because I can’t help comparing my Recursion reading experience to that of Dark Matter, which I enjoyed slightly more- possibly only because I happened to read it first. In the end, both are great books that I can’t see disappointing many readers, including those who are wary of the sci-fi aspect. My only gripe here is that when I have read a book that I loved (Dark Matter), I don’t hope for the author to write a very similar book that will give me a repeat experience (Recursion); I hope for something that raises the bar. Though I think Recursion is an excellent book on par with Dark Matter, it  wasn’t quite the step up into new territory that I was most hoping for.

“We have made it far too easy to destroy ourselves.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been an extremely difficult book to review, because 1) everything is a plot twist so it’s hard to talk about without spoilers, and 2) I struggled to find the right balance between explaining why I both had a great time reading it and yet also didn’t. I believe this is a personal quirk, that for something to impress me enough for a 5-star rating it has to be great but also hold an element of surprise; sometimes greatness itself can be a surprise, but with a follow-up title I definitely need something new to supercede the greatness that I was already expecting based on the first book. (Does this make sense to anyone other than me?) In any case, I’m still on board to read more of Crouch’s work- I’m hoping to pick up Pines this October, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future publications as well.

Have you read any of Blake Crouch’s novels? What’s been your favorite so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: The Killer Across the Table

Two of my current reading goals are 1) to read more nonfiction, and 2) to catch up on the BOTM titles still waiting unread on my shelf. Picking up The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker this month contributed toward both.

thekilleracrossthetableIn the book, former FBI agent / criminal profiler John Douglas looks back on his conversations with convicted serial killers in an attempt to explain why they do what they do.

“Because let’s be honest: the fascination with ‘true crime’ is actually fascination with what writers and philosophers call the human condition. We all want to know and understand the basis of human behavior and motivation, why we do the things we do. And with crime, we are seeing the human condition writ large and at the extremes…”

Right out of the gate, Douglas and Olshaker make clear that this book was written with the intent of showing readers what the human mind is capable of, for the purpose of understanding what causes violent crime and perhaps recognizing the signs to prevent history repeating itself. The book is divided into four sections, each of which examines a different “type” of serial killer, though Douglas flips between cases frequently and with ease wherever they fit his arguments.

In the first section, a would-be serial killer finds himself behind bars after only one crime; his victim’s death ultimately results in the national adoption of Joan’s Law. The second section examines a killer who chooses victims disturbingly close to home. The third, a hospital orderly the likes of whom you’ll never want to meet. And the fourth, a killer whose crimes do not seem to follow any pattern. The first two are the strongest, in my opinion, but my attention and interest never wavered. The Killer Across the Table is a great introduction to true crime, and offers such a wealth of psychological insight that readers already familiar with the genre will probably find something new here, as well. 

If, like me, you’re fairly new to true crime and aren’t sure about your interest level in serial killers, let me assure you that this volume is beginner-friendly. Though it does not read like a novel, it does touch on a wide variety of cases and motivations that will probably help you decide whether you want to read about anything or anyone specific in more depth. My only previous experience with true crime lit was In Cold Blood, so I did appreciate this broader overview. I’ve also watched a couple of recent true crime Netflix films, which is how I came to be reading The Killer Across the Table– I saw Netflix’s Mindhunter, a new adaptation of another book by these authors that uses the same style of approach to accomplish the same purpose, and became intersested enough to pick up this quasi-related work; the two make for great companion pieces. 

John Douglas, the first listed author, is the agent who pioneered this method of criminal profiling that’s become so familiar from detective shows and novels in the last couple of decades. He’s the basis for Jack Crawford, the senior FBI agent from The Silence of the Lambs. There’s no doubt in these 300-some pages that he’s an intelligent person, and good at what he does. And yet, it’s still worth bearing in mind that there’s some subjectivity involved with presuming to know what goes on in another person’s mind. Douglas’s arguments are easy to follow and always backed up with evidence, but this is still a fairly new branch of criminology and Douglas’s word seems to be as close to proof as we can get within this volume.

But this is where it gets a bit controversial. My favorite part of the Mindhunter adaptation (so far) comes toward the end of the first season- agent Ford, the character based on Douglas, seems to become a bit mentally unstable as he spends more time interviewing and deciphering notorious killers. The lengths he goes to in the interviews become more extreme, he lies to cover up an action he knows others will see as morally wrong, he makes serious decisions in both his relationships and career based on deductions from behavior rather than listening to others. Perhaps I read more into it than the writers of the show intended, but in any case this questionable impression of Ford/Douglas’s character was fresh in my mind when I started The Killer Across the Table. For this reason, I was perhaps a bit paranoid in my reading. After cold descriptions of gruesome crimes, Douglas does occasionally admit that the details of the crime were difficult for him to stomach and he feels only disgust for the people who would do such things. But for me, these quick, infrequent statements were not able to penetrate the sense of absolute detachment and indifference in the writing. The grammar is perfect, the words chosen carefully, and behind them… I felt no emotion.

Of course Douglas (and Olshaker, who never seems to be the “I” in the writing here though he must undoubtedly be present behind it) has no need to prove his emotions to me or any other reader. This is a book about what makes serial killers tick, not Douglas’s personal life. But I can’t deny that this sense of detachment in the writing affected my reading experience. The deaths of the victims are described in as tasteful a way as possible, but even in concept these acts are abhorrent; I expected to find an emotional connection, as I did with In Cold Blood. I might have managed to shrug this absence off in the end, if not for this passage:

“Perhaps the most-discussed exchange in the first season of the Netflix Mindhunter series occurs in episode 9 […]. In an effort to get past Speck’s contempt and get him engaged, Holden [Douglas’s character] rhetorically asks him what gave him the right to ‘take eight ripe cunts out of the world.’

It was actually pretty much like that in real life. We were in a conference room in the prison with Speck and a corrections department counselor and Speck was consciously ignoring us. I turned to the counselor and said, ‘You know what he did, your guy? He killed eight pussies. And some of those pussies looked pretty good. He took eight good pieces of ass away from the rest of us. You think that’s fair?’ “

This is exactly the scene in the Mindhunter film series that I began to strongly question the inherent goodness of agent Ford’s character and his motivations behind the criminal interviews. Seeing the same action repeated here, with an attempt at explanation but still no remorse, did nothing to shake my discomfort, though I know that Ford is a character, played by an actor, in what is probably a more fictionalized account. In the interest of keeping things fair, I’ll also point out that Douglas is only acting in the way he believes to be the best, most objective way to extract important information from criminals who don’t entirely want to play along:

“My role is to get these guys to talk, to find out what is, and was, going on inside their minds. Confrontation and moral indignation do not achieve that. In the end, talking to killers is about playing the long game, with every move a deliberate one- outrage, anger, these emotions are ever present in the background, but they work against you only if they come to the surface.”

He admits only one instance when emotion came to the surface for him during an interview.

I am so very curious about what Douglas would have chosen to do with his life if he hadn’t found such a perfect fit as a pioneer of criminal profiling for the FBI. His understanding of the human mind- in all its complex variations- is uncanny.

“We had proved we could think like the worst of’em.”

But whatever your eventual opinion of Douglas’s morals, there’s plenty of reason to read this book if you have any interest in the workings of the human brain. Douglas is undoubtedly an expert in his field, and he does an excellent job of shedding light on the dark side of humanity without glorifying these killers.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this is a good moment to mention again that I choose my star ratings based on personal enjoyment. Fortunately, my level of enjoyment is often pretty equal to the amount of merit I find in a book, but this is not always the case. By rating nonfiction, I am using the same scale of enjoyment as with fiction, by expressing a completely subjective summary of my experience; I am in no way attempting to pass judgment on the writer’s life or person. While I did find The Killer Across the Table a worthwhile read, it also taught me that I do tire of reading about serial killers. Though I’m still looking forward to the eventual release of Mindhunter‘s second season, I am not at this time planning to read any of Douglas and Olshaker’s other books, or any other serial killer books for the foreseeable future. I’m fairly new to nonfiction, and serial killers are only one small niche of a much wider interest for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing what else is out there and moving away from this topic for now. That said, if serial killer nonfiction is your niche or a budding interest, I do recommend checking out this author duo!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Early Riser

It’s happening. I’m falling behind with my Book of the Month books again. I’m not too upset about it (I’ll get to them eventually), but it does mean that I just finished reading one of my February selections, a very wintery book, in the warm spring weather of April. (Oops.) Fortunately, the Winter of Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser is such an otherworldly setting that it feels more like a fantasy world than a season.

earlyriserIn the novel, a young Charlie Worthing will work just about any job that’ll pay in Morphenox, the dreamless drug that eases almost every member of the human population (who can afford it, at least) through winter hibernation. A brave few serve as Winter Consuls, overseeing the sleeping masses through the three harshest months of the year. Charlie takes a chance on the Consul service (whose members get their sleep in the summer and stay awake through the inhospitable winter storms) and ends up in the worst sector of Wales without a proper mentor during a raging blizzard, right in the middle of the biggest mystery in Morphenox history: a mystery of viral dreams.

“The only evidence I had that this wasn’t real was that I knew it wasn’t. Nothing else.”

Early Riser is the first book I saw BOTM advertise with a warning, as a challenging read. I thought, “well, I’ve been around this reading game long enough, a challenging read doesn’t bother me,” and promptly forgot about the warning label. I remembered it as soon as I started in on the book, however; Early Riser is DENSE.

Though set in a sort of parallel world near modern day and with similar geography to our present reality, the history of Fforde’s world is not exactly the history we’re familiar with; the characters still play scrabble and view the Mona Lisa, but Morphenox has shaped society for decades and skewed connotations and perceptions. Every cultural reference comes into the novel with its own history or definition, there are a lot of new words and systems, some crucial to the story and some thrown in for world-building. Like the schtumperschreck, a gun so high-powered it can barely be lifted for use. Most of the names are imaginative like that, terms that require memorization rather than self-evident rewordings of existing objects and ideas. There are instances where the characters speak or think in ways that are meant to recap important details or plot points, but even so this is a book that requires a reader’s complete attention. There are also a lot of characters: some who aren’t who they say they are, some who are basically zombies, some who are actually two characters rolled into one. Part of the plot takes place in Charlie’s dreams. All in all, a warning label is not remiss.

” ‘We’re all something we’re not,’ he said. ‘Every one of us is stuck between the person we want to be and the person we can be.’ “

But if you are the sort of reader who likes to fully immerse in fiction, Early Riser is a wild ride. From the nightmare creatures who may be real, to tampered dreams, to corporate espionage, to gunfights in white-out blizzard conditions, I guarantee you’ll never know quite where this story is going next.

Perhaps the most intriguing element, however, is that Fforde leaves the gender of the main character up to the reader. “Charlie” is one of those names that could fit a male or female, and many would probably fill in that blank without noticing that this choice is made in the reader’s mind. Other characters are given gender pronouns, but not the main character. Charlie seemed more like a man to me, but I wonder whether this is simply due to the fact that I am a woman, and the lack of female-specific concerns made me feel that Charlie was not a woman. I waited through all 400 pages to see some indication one way or the other, but Fforde never provides concrete evidence. Which is a neat idea and it’s intriguing to peruse other reviews and see all the disparate ways readers have imagined this blank-slate character. On the other hand, if (like me) you notice early on that no gender is specified, you may have a hard time picturing Charlie. This was a small point of frustration for me throughout the story, though I do not begrudge Fforde’s attempt.

Also of interest is the formatting of the book, which includes footnotes (which I thought were fun but not strictly necessary) and excerpts from fictional historical texts at the start of each chapter (which I found very amusing and generally helpful in envisioning this world but also very distracting from the main plot). Both of these elements, though not entirely effective for me, do help immerse the reader in this wintery world and in Charlie’s mind.

“It’s the loneliness. In the Summer it simply makes you glum, but in the Winter it can be fatal. I’ve seen strong people collapse inside.”

The only real setback for me came from a lack of danger. The reader is told over and over that Charlie’s chances of survival are slim, but there’s no real worry of Charlie dying an untimely death. Unexpected saviors intervene, or Charlie is lucky, or someone sacrifices themselves for the sake of the mission- which requires Charlie staying alive, of course. In most books, the reader expects that the main character will live through most of the narration, so this shouldn’t have been a problem, but there’s a disconnect between the stakes claimed loudly in the narration and the actual likelihood of Fforde allowing Charlie to befall even a minor injury. This killed some of the tension and excitement for me, as I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters more likely to meet their demise.

“As long as I had value, I was safe.”

Initially, I picked this book up because I was interested in its viral dream aspect; earlier this year I loved Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and was hoping for another weird sleep saga. Early Riser is certainly weird and does have some Inception vibes, but I found the Winter far more compelling than the dreams in this case. Don’t let my middling rating fool you- I’m sure I will remember parts of this story for a very long time, and the world stands out as one of the most thoroughly-imagined settings that I’ve ever read. I’m glad I picked this one up.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I had a good time reading this and loved the rich world and unpredictability of the plot, I also had a hard time reading very many pages of this book at a time. The lack of fear for Charlie and the constant need to parse new terms and concepts distanced me from the story, even though overall I would say I found the plot impressive. I wish I had made time for Early Riser back in the depths of winter, as much because of the book’s density and length as its setting.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Night Tiger

My favorite Book of the Month selections are almost always the ones that take me by surprise. In that spirit, I’m trying to choose 2019 selections that seem a little outside of my norm. In January, that meant Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger, a Malaysian historical fiction with magical realism elements.

thenighttigerIn the novel, a dying doctor charges his young houseboy with finding the finger he had amputated many years ago and returning it to his body by burying it in his grave. Meanwhile, a young woman pulled from her education has begun working in a dance hall to help pay off her mother’s debt, and finds a preserved finger. Both characters want to return the item to its rightful place, but the boy does not know where it is and the girl does not know where it needs to go. According to superstition, they have only 49 days to reunite the finger with the body before the doctor’s soul is barred from moving beyond the living world to the one beyond.

“Why did he have the finger? It was like a curse, one of those dark tales when you try to discard something but it always returns to you.”

The story shifts between the houseboy’s life with his new master (who is also a doctor with a connection to the finger) and the girl’s adventures at the dance hall and beyond. To add to the intrigue, both Chinese characters are named after one of the five Confucian virtues; both have a sibling with another Confucian virtue name, but the fifth person remains a mystery to them both. Choo’s beautiful writing makes clear that words and names are important to Chinese- not only literal definitions, but homophones as well. This sort of thoroughness for detail brings the setting- both time (1930’s) and place (colonial Malaysia) to life.

Interestingly, my favorite magical realism elements always seem to involve tigers. From Julio Cortazar’s short story “Bestiary” to Fiona McFarlane’s novel The Night Guest, something about a wild jungle cat roaming where it shouldn’t always seems to work for me. The weretiger superstition in The Night Tiger was no exception. Choo leaves it to the reader to decide whether the tiger lurking around Batu Gajah is the old doctor’s restless spirit, interspersing this recent drama with revelatory flashbacks that reveal either dangerous magic or insanity in the old doctor’s final months.

What didn’t work for me quite as well were the “dreams” that take our main characters to a mysterious train station between worlds, and the boy’s “cat sense” that starts as a connection to his twin but becomes something more. This sort of magic feels like no more than a convenient way for characters to learn things that they haven’t been able to discover without extra help from the author. Even the connection these five characters share through their names felt a bit weak, especially in light of the fact that they do not act as their virtues dictate that they should. Magic is not as effective when used as a crutch.

The other aspect that I didn’t like was the “forbidden romance.” There were times these characters’ affection and anxiety for each other felt wonderfully sweet and angsty (respectively), but it did seem overall like a romance for the sake of including a romance, when one wasn’t particularly needed. I was never quite convinced as to why or how this couple had fallen in love other than the obvious proximity over time. But then again, I could never picture Ji Lin’s mother gambling enough to rack up a high debt, either, so maybe my dislike of the romance was part of a greater problem I had with understanding Choo’s characters. Ji Lin’s modern level of confidence also threw me off a few times, as well as those around her.

” ‘You really are blunt,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know how to act like a girl?’ “

I’m all for strong women, but moments like these were the only times I had to double-check the time period in an otherwise very immersive book.

Fortunately, these issues didn’t begin to nag at me until near the end of the novel. Through most of the book, I was completely hooked on this unique mystery and the historical/cultural insight wrapped within. I found Choo’s writing engaging from the first page through the last; its villains managed to surprise me, its depth kept me guessing, and the tiger in the background of the story kept the action moving and the tension high. Though not without its flaws, I do think this book is worth the read for anyone piqued by its premise.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a solid 4 for me until near the end of the novel, but rating aside I did have a lot of fun reading it. I would absolutely be interested in checking out another book from this author; I see Choo has one previously published novel, which I’m tentatively adding to my TBR though I might be more interested in future publications than The Ghost Bride. In any case, I’m pleased with my first BOTM selection for 2019, and eager to see how my other recent selections will turn out. Fingers crossed.

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Far Field

I kept up with almost all of my Book of the Month selections last year, and it felt good. But I did fall behind in December while I tried to catch up with some other reading priorities, so I made an effort this month to pick up both of my December BOTM picks. I read Severance earlier in January and now I’ve also finished Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, which was a longer conquest.

thefarfieldAbout the book: Shalini’s outspoken mother died while she was in college. After finishing school, Shalini returns to Bangalore to live with her father, where she spends an aimless few years in an unfulfilling job of his choosing and has few meaningful interactions. When he pushes her to try harder, Shalini decides to take a trip to Kashmir, where a friend from her mother’s past had lived. She’s not sure which village she’s looking for, and she hasn’t seen the man in eleven years, but those factors aren’t enough to stop her- and neither is the precarious political state of the area.

I would primarily recommend this novel to readers looking for cultural fiction depicting recent/present India. There are so many descriptions of Indian life, both from a city perspective (Bangalore) and more rural (Kishtwar, and a smaller unnamed village built directly into the mountainside). Shalini stays with families that can barely afford to house her, a far cry from her life in Bangalore where her father’s money is always there should she need it. The reader sees Shalini approach the Himalayas for the first time, and note the different languages spoken in different parts of India. She learns to milk a cow. She eats with and sleeps near and walks among people whose lives she never understood.

At the heart of her journey, however, is the political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir. All she has known from Bangalore are the news reports released to the public, which turn out to be only a shadow of the truths she discovers when she visits in person.

“But how can I explain to you what it was like, the time of the militancy? It was a very strange time, and one I hope I never have to live through again. It made people turn into the opposite of what they were, made them do all kinds of things they would never have otherwise done.”

In my last review, featuring the fantasy novel The City of Brass, I mentioned disappointment over my failure to learn anything about the book’s Middle Eastern setting through the customs and behavior of Chakraborty’s characters. I’m so glad I picked up The Far Field immediately after, because in the interest of reading around the world this book is a win. Vijay immerses the reader in this vibrant and unbalanced India, bringing the good and evil that Shalini finds in Kashmir (and beyond) to vivid life.

The ultimate strength of this novel lies in its depiction of ruinous ignorance- ignorance and assumptions made from it- but also how helpless misconceptions can make a person. There is utter devastation in Shalini’s recognition of how small she is, and how very powerful the adversary. Vijay handles this aspect beautifully.

But unfortunately, this book didn’t offer much beyond that brilliant cultural insight for me. Shalini is such a passive character, which may be understandable in the wake of her mother’s sudden death, but it makes for a slow and rather shiftless narrative. Shalini holds her emotions so close that it’s difficult to ascertain whether she cares about any of the characters she meets in her travels. She is kind to them and appreciative of the help they offer her, but expresses little to no attachment toward them even in her private thoughts. She follows where her companions lead, more or less. Even the idea to search for her mother’s friend is barely creditable to Shalini, and when the time comes she almost doesn’t go after all. Shalini narrates all of these events from some future point at which she has calmed, but this is used to offer an unnecessary air of mystery and a preview of Shalini’s sadness rather than worthwhile reflection. The story lacks a driving force.

“Without action, there is only waiting for death.”

Though Shalini’s journey seems an attempt to disprove these words from her father, they resonated with me throughout the reading experience. I hope that other readers will find Shalini’s emotions more reachable than I did, and that such a connection to her character would mean greater payoff.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad that I learned about northern India’s political unrest, but since I struggled so much to engage with the other aspects of the novel, it ultimately just felt much too long for its purpose. Vijay’s prose is easy to digest and her descriptions evocative, but I my motivation to keep reading flagged early on and didn’t come back until the final chapters. January is usually my ideal time to read longer, edifying fiction, but my disconnect with these characters- especially Shalini- was alienating.

Further recommendations:

  • For more reading around the world (with more gripping characters), try Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a family saga full of tragedy set in Afghanistan.
  • Or Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, an Irish-set story about a miraculous girl who seems to have lost the need to eat.
  • Or Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, a dark mystery about a child’s death and an exploration of Communist Russia.

Do you have a favorite culture to read about in fiction?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Severance

I was almost caught up with blog posts after my holiday hiatus, but then I got sick last week and now I’m a few reviews behind again. I’ve been having a little trouble staying focused on things because I’m not quite back to my usual energy levels yet, but we’ll just see how this goes… Today I’m talking about my BOTM pick from December, Ling Ma’s Severance, a satirical dystopian novel that’s been getting a lot of interesting buzz and found its way to the 2019 Tournament of Books longlist.

severance2About the book: After months of wandering the streets of New York for the sole purpose of taking photos for her blog, NY Ghost, Candace finds work managing Bibles that are made in China and sold in the US. When Shen Fever begins to infect much of the global population, Candance stays at the office, hoping for a bonus. Work dwindles in the wake of the fever, and Candace resumes her blog, photographing the city’s deterioration until she can’t stay any longer. Out of the city, she meets up with a group of survivors heading for a safe Facility outside of Chicago.

Yes, this is a dystopian/sci-fi novel with zombies. You may think you’ve seen it before.

But in truth, the best part of the book is the satirical parallel drawn between Candace’s adult life of routine and the zombie-like victims of Shen Fever. The fever victims, unlike other zombies in fiction, are only dangerous to themselves: they perform rote tasks at the expense of personal upkeep (hygiene, proper eating,  sleep, etc.) until their efforts kill them. Candance herself denies sensible requests to leave the city for safety in favor of continuing a job that has little meaning or fulfillment for her. The reader follows Candace’s thoughts and reasoning, so her actions always make sense and seem sane, but there are so many ironies and nuances to Candace’s routines and the ways the fever works that the reader is left with a constant undercurrent of doubt about which of the “survivors”- including Candace- might already be infected.

“How do we know, one skeptical reader wrote, that you’re not fevered yourself?”

But the zombies are not entirely symbolic. The narration alternates between Candace’s time in New York leading up to her decision to leave, and her time with the survival group on their journey to Chicago. She has run-ins with infected persons both before and after leaving New York, and while Ma’s zombies are not mindless brain eaters who amass in hordes of undead armies that wage slow attacks against the living, the descriptions of the fevered can still be graphic at times.

Even more brutal is the commentary against corporate work. Though the fate of the one character who does try to make a break from employment under destructive super companies is left hazy, Candace highlights the problems she sees with her job and repeatedly questions her choice to stay there. Her own Chinese background colors her experience with the outsourced laborers who assemble her bibles. Though she may disagree with the practices of corporate America, society assures her she must work for a living, and her employers reward her actions with regular paychecks- so she keeps coming back. One of the most haunting aspects of the novel for me is the way that the job endures even without the personnel. The city’s infrastructure is crumbling, and yet Candace’s key card keeps opening the office doors, the system keeps logging her hours, her bonus can still be earned. Long after the phones stop ringing and the office empties, the routine is the same. If Candace isn’t working for the rest of the world, and she’s not working for her own benefit (what is she going to do with that bonus in a world that operates on strength rather than cash?), who is she working for?

“If you are an individual employed by a corporation or an institution, he said, then the odds are leveraged against you. The larger party always wins. It can’t see you, but it can crush you. And if that’s the working world, then I don’t want to be a part of it.”

And so I conclude that this is not a novel for zombie lovers or even necessarily dystopian fans; Severance is for the young (or young at heart) wondering what to do with their lives and worrying over the state of the modern world. It’s for the readers who are looking for a little extra encouragement to follow their dreams instead of their wallets. It’s a quick read that will stay with you. And the ending is just ambiguous enough that you can change your mind over and over again about how things turn out.

Personally, I like a bleak outlook.

“Just because you’re adequately good at something doesn’t mean that’s the thing you should do.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5 stars. I think this one will stay with me a long time. It certainly stuck with me when I ran a fever of my own after I finished reading. I wish I had managed to read this one before the end of last year, as I think it would’ve been one of my favorite BOTM selections for 2018.

Further reading:

  • For more biological disasters leading to a vastly reduced world population, check out the ultimate dystopian novel, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. In this book, a troupe of Shakespeare actors travel around to small communities of those who are left, the five narrative perspectives crossing in strange and beautiful ways due to a grand mix of choice and circumstance.

I don’t like the dystopian genre as much lately, but I’m so glad I made an exception for Ling Ma’s wonderfully bizarre book. What’s the last book you read that turned out to be a good surprise after you thought you wouldn’t like a certain aspect of it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Lies We Told

I’ve been having some bad luck with thrillers this year; or perhaps, I’ve gotten too good at seeing through the clues to be impressed with anything mysterious/suspenseful that I’ve picked up this year. And yet, they always tempt me. So from Book of the Month’s October selections, I chose another thriller: Camilla Way’s The Lies We Told. I read this book at the end of November.

thelieswetoldAbout the book: Clara wakes up one morning in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Luke, and discovers that he never came home. He doesn’t show up to work that day, either. Clara checks with his friends and family, and then she calls the police. But things keep getting weirder, especially with Luke’s family. What Clara doesn’t know is that there’s a connection between Luke’s disappearance and another family’s tragedy years earlier. In the 1980’s, Beth notices that her young daughter is behaving strangely, even before the girl learns a devastating secret about her parents. As the two narratives merge, long-standing lies (and more recent ones) might ruin everything for Clara.

“She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong. Despite his colleagues’ laughter, she didn’t really think he’d been with another woman. Even if he had, a one-night stand didn’t take this long, surely. She made herself face the real reason for her anxiety: Luke’s ‘stalker.’ “

My main problem with the thrillers I’ve been picking up in 2018 is that I read them expecting to be surprised, and am let down when I can predict what’s going to happen. Whether this is a fault of the books I’ve been reading or a recent proficiency in mystery-solving, I’ve been disappointed. Fortunately, The Lies We Told was a welcome deviation from that cycle. Though I was able to put some of the pieces together ahead of the characters, none of the clues struck me as so blatantly obvious that the puzzle was all but assembling itself. The Lies We Told kept me thinking, and a correct guess felt rewarding rather than frustrating. Furthermore, the big twists connecting the book’s two narratives did take me completely by surprise.

Another boon is the fact that both story lines held my attention completely, even before they started coming together. Clara’s present-day search for Luke is very different than Beth’s odd experiences with her young daughter, but I never found myself hurrying through one to get back to the other. There are a few clear red herrings meant to trick the reader who tries to figure out the way that the two stories connect, but despite seeing a few answers that were not going to pan out for Clara, I was no closer to stumbling upon the correct answer myself. I would be incredibly impressed by any reader who’s able to solve this mystery ahead of the characters, as the hints are extremely subtle.

But perhaps the best feature of all is the unique, trope-defying details of the crimes involved in this novel. We’ve seen the jealous girlfriend, the abusive husband, the missing wife that many thrillers incorporate. But I can’t think of a single other thriller in which it’s the boyfriend who’s kidnapped, there’s no female-female hate inspired by some unhealthy romance, and the villain’s motives are explained by trauma and disorders rather than unexplored cruelty. The Lies We Told is full of strong women who don’t always make the right choices but do stand up for themselves, and men who get what they deserve when they’ve crossed someone.

” ‘Funny,’ she said, ‘how it’s always us women who are left to deal with the shit men leave behind, isn’t it?’ “

Let’s talk briefly about the quotes that I pulled. Maybe no one pays attention to the lines I like to include in my reviews for a sampling of the author’s writing, but I’d like to point out that today’s quotes were chosen solely for their content. The first gives a glimpse of the book’s premise, and the second demonstrates the kick-ass nature of the women who impressed me in the story. But I didn’t mark a single line in this novel that stood out to me just because it sounded nice or resonated with me. That’s pretty rare. Though the plotting of The Lies We Told is undeniably competent, the writing on a sentence-by-sentence level does not try to impress. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, but it is something I noticed fairly early.

My only real complaint is a lack of suspense. So many of the dangers in this book crop up quickly and don’t give the reader a chance to be scared for the characters before disaster strikes. The villain’s acts are calculated, not crazy. There’s a lot of tragedy in this book, but not many real thrills; until the final, disturbing implication at the end of the novel, I was never worried about Clara’s safety at all. That said, Camilla Way does nail the ending.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though I still haven’t found a new favorite thriller this year (but hey, there’s still time), it was such a relief to read one this solid and engaging after a string of duds. Way strikes me as an author to watch, though I’m undecided about picking up her previous thriller, Watching Edie. I’m curious, but I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other yet so I’ll keep my options open.

Further recommendations:

  • Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go is a great mystery/thriller for readers who like to be surprised. The first half might seem a bit slow, but there’s a twist at the halfway point that’s practically impossible to predict even when you know something’s coming. And then that first part looks a lot more interesting, just as the pace picks up for the second half. It’s wonderfully constructed.
  • But if you’re looking for a bit more suspense, nothing beats Riley Sager’s slasher thriller Final GirlsThis one also has a bold twist that managed to surprise me, but also every weird clue along the way is engaging and intriguing. This one would make a great film.

Any 2018 thrillers that have disappointed you this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant