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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

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

Top of the TBR 1.27.20

Top of the TBR is a (now biweekly) post that showcases some of the books recently added to my Goodreads TBR, with a short explanation of why each caught my interest. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re looking forward to reading! 🙂

Here are some of the books I’ve added on Goodreads recently:

36365112. sy475 Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (Pub: March 2018- UK)

How I found it: I read Rachel’s excellent review!

Why I added it: I’m very curious about this book as a driving narrative; driving in poor conditions is something I’ve experienced but not really read about, and I’d be interested to see how well Park captures it (very well, according to Rachel!). I’m also interested in the grief angle.

Priority: Low, because I don’t have a copy on hand and by the time a Book Depository order would arrive I think I’ll be less inclined to read a snow story- perhaps next winter!

10560393The Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier (Pub: Jan 2011)

How I found it: Callum mentioned this one in the comments of my recent review for du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.

Why I added it: I’d like to pick up some short story collections this year, and I definitely want to read more of du Maurier’s gothic/horror fiction this year. In particular I’m very attracted to the idea that these are “lost” stories published before her Rebecca fame and gone out of print for years.

Priority: Middling. It doesn’t look like this one’s at my library so I’ll have to find a copy, but I’d really like to read this in 2020.

46263943Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Pub: Feb 2020)

How I found it: I’ve seen this one around, mostly in anticipated releases posts but also a couple of advance copies. But I hadn’t really looked into it until I came across it again in the Goodreads list of Feb. releases.

Why I added it: It’s LGBTQ+ fiction about an African-American man at a Midwestern university whose encounters with other various other people “conspire to fracture his defenses, while revealing hidden currents of resentment and desire that threaten the equilibrium of their community.” It sounds like a potentially fantastic read.

Priority: Middling. This one doesn’t seem to be on my library’s radar yet, but I’m making a point to keep checking on 2020 releases that I’m interested in. If I find it there, I’ll definitely pick it up. If not, I’m not sure when I will get to it.

41933195100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism by Chavisa Woods (Pub: May 2019)

How I found it: I read Karissa’s compelling review!

Why I added it: This is a book in which the author recounts a hundred times that she’s encountered/experienced sexism. I suspect it’ll have a similar effect on me as Not That Bad did, though the subject matter is slightly different.

Priority: Middling. I want to read this very badly, but again, it doesn’t seem to be available at my library so I’ll have to keep an eye out for it elsewhere.

36429751. sy475 Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (Pub: 2016)

How I found it: Gilana mentioned this one!

Why I added it: Gilana’s post was a First Line Friday meme, but even just the first line managed to catch my interest. I wasn’t sure right away after reading Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World whether I would venture into more of the author’s work, but something about this one appeals to me. It takes place in one evening, the narration apparently split between present terrorist attacks and memories of a scandal in the narrator’s past.

Priority: Low. This one is available at my library so I should be able to pick it up easily- my reading schedule is packed already for February though, and the Women’s Prize longlist will be coming up in March, so I’m not ready to focus on this one yet.

43352954. sx318 This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I’ve been seeing this one around for months, but it first caught my interest based on Naty’s wonderful review!

Why I added it: In all honesty I am not really sure what this book is. I’ve read the synopsis, I’ve read reviews, and something about it remains elusive. But I keep seeing it come up with rave reviews and high ratings, and I love a good genre-bender, so I think I need to give this one a chance!

Priority: Middling. I’ve been reading (a little) and thinking (a lot) about sci-fi this month, in preparation for a post I’ve got coming up this week, so this one fits my current reading mood. However, I’ve been reading slower than I’d like and I don’t have time to pick it up in conjunction with that post. It is available at my library though, so I’m hoping to pick it up later this year! It’s a short book, so it should be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere.

26883528Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Pub: March 2016)

How I found it: This book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2016, which is probably what put it on my radar. I recently read another Levy book (The Man Who Saw Everything) and highly enjoyed it, so I went looking for more info on this one!

Why I added it: Liking another one of the author’s books is generally enough to convince me to pick up a further title. This one’s about an anthropologist who travels to Spain with her mysteriously ill mother, seeking a last-chance cure.

Priority: Low. Available at my library when I’m ready for it.

 

This might be the first time there were no high priority books on the list! That’s not because I’m not highly interested in these books, but because I call a “high priority” book something that I’m trying to pick up immediately, which is hard to do when I’ve got my February TBR already planned and am expecting to read the Women’s Prize longlist in March and April. Still, I’m looking forward to picking up these books when I can!

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: The Memory Police and Topics of Conversation

Another round of “short” reviews, featuring two of my recent reads!

I picked up my first Yoko Ogawa novel this month, The Memory Police (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). After seeing it nominated for the National Book Award last year and loving the synopsis, it seemed like a good place to start with her work- and even though I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as expected, I’ll certainly be reading further!

thememorypoliceIn the novel, an author lives on an island where things have a tendency to “disappear.” Islanders wake in the morning with a sort of hole in their memories, ponder until they realize which object used to fill that space in their hearts and minds, then destroy all physical traces of the thing that has “disappeared.” The Memory Police hunt down forgotten items, and  remove those people with perfect memories who resist the disappearances. The novelist becomes concerned when she realizes her editor is resisting, but she can’t hide everything that’s important to her; as she sadly complies with devastating disappearances, the editor tries to trick her memory into holding on to the things that are essential to her.

“Nothing comes back now when I see a photograph. No memories, no response. They’re nothing more than pieces of paper. A new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again. That’s how it is when something disappears…”

Structurally, this one reminded me of Blind Assassin, in which the novelist’s current manuscript appears occasionally between chapters of her own life. There are certain similarities between the two plots, with the novelist’s emotions and fears coming out plainly in her written story.

It’s an evocative, atmospheric tale full of secrecy and fear, an all-too-powerful government, a public that quietly acquiesces (following the path of least resistance) and a few rebels who fight back. The Memory Police is a novel that asks how much of our lives should be decided for us, and how much should be left to our own control. It’s a question that goes beyond what we are expected do, to what we are expected to feel. The magical element- the disappearances are not a choice- keeps the story from feeling like a direct parallel to any particular place or body of government, and yet it is otherworldly enough that many aspects of it feel widely applicable, linked easily to any place. It’s a story that frightens and demands further thought.

But I had a few hangups. I found the disappearances rather arbitrary and confusing through most of the book- some things, for instance, aren’t entirely gone: the ferry is “disappeared,” and yet it is still docked, its operator still lives on board, and he remembers the days when he happily ferried people across the water. The disappearances seem to be more of an emotional response, and thus are somewhat difficult to understand and to define; I prefer magic with clearer limits. I was also left with many questions about how things started disappearing at all, and why, and how the disappearances affected some people and not others, and who the memory police even are- designated islanders? Volunteers? Outsiders? Where are they taking the people who still have their memories? How do they know when someone or something is being hidden? Why do they care? Etc. These seemed to me like basic world-building and title-explaining questions, and instead of answering any of them, Ogawa asks the reader to trust and follow along blindly. In a way, this is exactly what the islanders must do- most of them don’t question anything and have no qualms about complying, and so the reading experience is a bit like the novelist’s life in that regard. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that opportunities were missed when the novel failed to delve more deeply into the particulars of its world and constraints.

“I had only to surrender to each new disappearance to find myself carried along quite naturally to the place I needed to be.”

Ultimately, though I enjoyed the writing, the plot, and many of the ideas driving this story, I was left wishing for more. More from this novel, but also more of Ogawa’s work. This book does seem to be a better fit for many other readers, so don’t let me dissuade you if you’re interested in the premise.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad to have finally read one of Ogawa’s translated works, and I’m certain it won’t be my last. I’m aiming to read more translations throughout the year in 2020, and even though this one didn’t excite me quite as much as I’d hoped, it was an encouraging start.

Additionally, I flew through my January BOTM selection- Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is a slim literary fiction volume just over 200 pages. It was also a mixed experience.

topicsofconversationIn the novel, a woman recalls various encounters and conversations she’s had over the course of about twenty years. Most of these conversations take place privately between women, though not all. In a series of vignette-like chapters, we follow the narrator from place to place as she carries the burdens of each confession throughout her life.

This is a novel that shows how quietly but relentlessly gender-specific abuse can affect women. When I say abuse, I mean that there’s a woman who is stabbed in one of these stories (though not on the page), and at least one who is raped (also not on the page), but much of it is more subtle. It’s seen in the women who admit they liked being told what to do, or who tell themselves that an affair with a professor was mutual and fair, or who feel guilty staying in a relationship with a nice guy. Women tell each other privately about the men who’ve hurt them, and the part that cuts to the heart the most is that the book is not a rage-fest but a quiet sharing of shame, acceptance of blame in many cases, and at times even a manipulation tactic. Our narrator, whether she knows it or not, is internalizing these horrid little stories and it’s obvious that they are shaping her idea of what is normal and acceptable, even desirable.

“I was pretty sure I knew where this story was going, not only because the man in the story had been identified as a sexual predator but also because it was late and it was only women and we were all a little drunk and under those conditions there is only one place a story about a boy and a girl ever goes.”

Though I loved the intent I saw behind these conversations, the persistant toxicity of a male-dominant power imbalance, the execution simply did not work for me. The writing style is a bit experimental, sometimes using quotation marks and sometimes not, flowing freely from dialogue to thought to exposition and back again in a single sentence. It’s not impossible to follow, but I couldn’t pinpoint any reason for using this sort of erratic style, and ultimately it did nothing for me. It’s also not entirely clear whether these conversations are all being told in retrospect- there are comments about future events woven into the narration, though the stories seem to offer very little of the reflection or that should come with twenty years of contemplation. Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear whether the narrator is reliable or not. There are moments when she’s all but bragging about her bad experiences, or inventing bits of her stories as she goes, or telling them for the sole purpose of making her listener react in a certain way. Of course these are all realistic ways in which women react to their experiences, but if our narrator here can admit to being untruthful and using her conversations to invoke a certain impression in her audience, how can we trust anything that she’s saying? And what is the point of the book if we can’t? With the possibility that the narrator is lying about ALL of her experiences, is there anything to learn from them?

“I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so often boring.”

I marked so many thought-provoking lines and passages from this book, and each chapter did eventually manage to  capture my interest. But ultimately, the pieces just didn’t add up as a whole. Each “conversation” is more or less a monologue from one character or another (mixed with the narrator’s commentary), and feels complete in itself, making the transitions rough and the stories disjointed. The common denominator, the narrator, remains too elusive to provide a sense of purpose. Though I really liked the themes I drew from this book, I did not particularly enjoy/appreciate the read, and am left wondering whether this one was worth my time at all.

“And yes I know no one keeps blogs anymore.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I hope BOTM will keep offering experimental lit fic selections this year, even though this one did not quite live up to expectations.

Please let me know if you’ve read either of these books, I’d love to hear some different opinions!

 

The Literary Elephant