Tag Archives: science fiction

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

The Literary Elephant

cowboys, clones: my first brushes with 2021 lit

As usual, I’ve kicked off my reading year mostly with titles I already owned, mainly releases from the year before that I just hadn’t quite gotten around to. But shiny new books are too exciting to resist for long, so I’ve got a couple of 2021 releases to review now!

Outlawed

First up is Anna North’s Outlawed, a January publication that reinvents history. Set in the 1890s west, the US has been torn apart and rebuilt as something new in the wake of the Great Flu, which decimated the population enough to inspire a total societal fixation on reproduction. Women are valued only for their ability to bear children- many children. Ada, our MC, is in her late teens when she faces trouble: she’s been married for a year, tried a second partner in desperation, but her womb remains empty. She joins a convent to escape being hung as a witch, discovers that there’s a whole community of barren women just trying to survive, and joins the Hole in the Wall Gang to reclaim some of what’s been lost to her and to others marginalized by a zealous society with its cornerstone in bigotry.

Outlawed is tricky for me to talk about, because I don’t think it really has anything new to say and yet it has been the most fun read I’ve picked up so far this year. The writing isn’t anything flashy- I marked only three quotations, and all of them were chosen for their ability to capture the story’s essence in various ways, not on the basis of remarkable wording. The format is straightforward, chronological with a single first person narrator in a book that would probably have been served better with a wider range of perspectives- North apparently wants to deliver these characters’ backstories and rationalizations, but doing so through one primary MC means that Ada asks a lot of nosy questions and the reader gets to roll their eyes as her companions just… tell her whatever she wants to know. But there’s such a playful tone to it all that I found it to be an utterly addictive read nonetheless. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that spins out a theme in a mildly ridiculous way and just has fun delivering its messages, which are good one even if you’ve heard them before. Not for content, but my experience with Outlawed had a lot in common with my experience of My Sister, the Serial Killer; I loved them both for being theatrical, entertaining, a bit absurd.

It takes two chapters to get past the character introduction and plot setup, but then we’re thrown into a world of women and non-binary characters dressed up like men, running heists and getting into trouble and helping each other out again. The cast is lovable and diverse; I had a slight reservation at first about barrenness being highlighted as The Ultimate Persecuted Thing when there’s still racism and homophobia active in this world as well, but in the end I think North does a fair job of highlighting one issue without belittling others. There are squabbles and particular alliances among the outlaws, but the complicated dynamics between them all adds to the strength and appeal of this diverse found family.

“‘It’s a way of holding us up,’ Elzy said. ‘It’s how the Kid reminds us who we are.’ / ‘And who are we?’ / We heard hoofbeats in the distance. / The Kid appeared at the lip of the gulch then, nose and mouth already covered by a scarf of purple silk. Elzy smilied at me, then removed a checked bandanna from her pocket. / ‘Didn’t you hear?’ she asked. ‘We’re kings.'”

Other slight hangups for me included the brevity of the world building and a glossing over of morality. In the case of the former, small details are scattered throughout the book, leaving the politics of this setting feeling half-finished; we get small hints about the Great Flu and the Independent Townships that formed after America fell and the sheriffs who police them, but it’s bare bones- only enough to understand the logistics of the plot. As for the latter complaint, North delivers here a band of outlaws who are fully willing to kill any man who gets in their way, and there’s very little personal reckoning over this state of affairs. Of course the entire Hole in the Wall Gang has been cast out and persecuted, but it seems there should be a distinction made between recognizing harm from society as a whole and taking individual lives. Especially for a group with prices on their heads who are endeavoring to create a safe haven, I expected some deeper examination into the decision to murder, but instead its taken largely as a matter of course. The whole book, perhaps, could have been served well by an extra 50-100 pages in order to tease things out properly. That I never wanted the book to end probably serves as an indicator that I found it lacking in some ways even while the story engrossed me.

For all my little quibbles, I loved picking this book up every time I had a chance to read, was shocked at some of the twists, and heartbroken over a particular death. Outlawed has great energy. I was invested. I had a good time.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I could see myself potentially bumping this down to 4 in time, as it wasn’t a flawless read, but I was completely hooked all the way through and sad to reach the final page. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author.

The Echo Wife

Next is Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, which is a February 16 release- I received an eARC via Netgalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review. All of my thoughts and reactions come from the advance edition of this book.

This plot follows a renowned woman scientist who learns her husband is having an affair- with a clone he built from his wife’s research, programmed to be docile and accommodating in all of the ways Evelyn is not. At first Evelyn cuts her losses and keeps her distance, but soon the clone has as much reason to hate the man as Evelyn, and the two women bond over an attempt to cover up his murder.

I was under the impression that this book would be a fast-paced, plotty sci-fi, perhaps even a sci-fi thriller, but instead found it to be fairly slow and introspective. Part of what makes it drag is the narration’s tendency to over-explain, pausing each scene to tell the reader outright what each gesture, expression, and comment means, leaving nothing for the reader to decipher or interpret. The careful detailing of minutiae makes it easy to see which direction the book is going at almost every turn, before it gets there. It takes a full quarter of the book for the plot to progress beyond what’s stated directly in the synopsis, and each new piece of information (the affair! the clone! the murder! *gasp*) is presented as a plot twist even though it’s all setup, primarily, for what is in actuality a very character-driven story in which one woman grapples with who she is and who she could have been under other circumstances and who she could never have been at all- as well as an inquiry into that which makes us human.

I mostly agreed with and appreciated the book’s feminist commentary but didn’t feel it pushed any boundaries- that some women desire to reproduce, others do not, and both choices are valid is not new to me, nor is the narrative of a man taking advantage of a smart/successful woman in a quest to secure his own power both personally and professionally, though they’re nice points to see made in mainstream lit and I know there will be other readers newer to the nuances of both who will likely find these themes more exciting than I did.

Ultimately this story just wasn’t quite as punchy and innovative as I expected, though I did enjoy the focus on morality, on personality, on what (if anything) differentiates a human from a highly successful clone. The writing style never managed to win me over, though it’s competent enough and clearly shows that Gailey has put some effort into the science. To be honest most of the scientific details meant nothing to me without much of a background in the field myself, and thus some suspension of disbelief was required, but having them in the story did lend a sense of authenticity to Evelyn’s lab and increase my willingness to follow Gailey through that setting. In the end I’d say this is sci-fi for fans of books like Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife and/or Helen Philips’s The Need, both lighter on the actual science and heavier on feminist and woman-centered commentary; I’d recommend it to readers who like attention to detail and no questions left unanswered. Those who already know they like Gailey’s writing will probably fare well here, too.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, my expectations from the synopsis got in the way of fully enjoying what is actually presented here, and I suspect that in the end Gailey’s writing style is just not for me. This was my first time reading their work and I won’t rule out an exciting premise in the future convincing me to give them another go, but I don’t plant to read further for now.

Are either of these books on your radar for 2021?

The Literary Elephant

Review: Mexican Gothic

I’ve had Mexican-Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia on my radar for a while and when her latest release, a gothic-style mystery with a sci-fi element, Mexican Gothic, made such a big splash last month, I couldn’t hesitate any longer! Luckily Melanie also had her eye on the book and suggested a buddy read, which was a great fit for this adventure- a new author for both of us. Be sure to check out Melanie’s well-crafted review today as well.

mexicangothicIn the novel, fun-loving Noemi is called out of a party in the 1950’s by her father, who’s received a worrying letter from Noemi’s recently married cousin in the Mexican countryside. Noemi packs her bags and travels to the isolated mansion where the money is running dry and the house hasn’t been updated in decades- giving it a Victorian aura. The entire entourage at High Place seems sinister, sheltered, and unwelcoming, and the once-grand but now damp and moldly house is hardly a luxurious accommodation. Noemi’s cousin has brought the family a reasonable sum with her marriage, which is why Noemi has arrived to investigate whether her mysterious illness is as it appears or requires her removal from the house. Of course her search is impeded at every turn, and the deeper Noemi digs, the harder it seems to manage an escape from High Place.

“Of course he had a point. Catalina was his wife, and he was the one who could make choices for her. Why, Mexican women couldn’t even vote. What could Noemi say? What could she do in such a situation? Perhaps it would be best if her father intervened. If he came here. A man would command more respect. But no, it was as she’d said: she wasn’t going to back down.”

Mexican Gothic was a read full of ups and downs for me. The major positive is that I was able to sink almost immediately into the atmosphere of the tale and enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s storytelling enough to overlook a lot of small issues I had with the writing and plot choices. I liked the many references to gothic classics scattered throughout the book though some felt too blatant- nevertheless, recalling classic favorites to mind while reading a fresh take on the genre proved a good fit for me. I also liked that Noemi was a strong lead despite the limitations that existed for Mexican women in the 50’s; characterization may have been a bit basic all around, but I liked that Noemi is intelligent AND loves having a good time, and isn’t shy about being recognized for both traits. She’s not perfect, but I found her human and endearing and pleasantly modern without any aspect of her personality going over the top of believability.

“Noemi’s father said she cared too much about her looks and parties to take school seriously, as if a woman could not do two things at once.”

While I had fun reading this book, I did struggle a bit with the writing and some of the technical choices in the novel. In all honesty, Mexican Gothic read like a debut for me; Moreno-Garcia seems to switch genres with every publication so this makes sense despite it being her sixth (I believe) novel- I understand this to be her first gothic mystery, and I think that shows. The pacing is rather slow in the first half; it took me a full 150 pages to understand what the hype was all about. I realized after finishing that the only passages I marked while reading pertained to plot or characterization; I was never impressed by the wit or beauty of any particular sentences.

I also had a few quips with some of the technical details. Aside from Noemi (who is, perhaps, not so unique herself), most of the characterization in the novel feels cheaply done and flat, with the exception of Francis, the closest Noemi comes to having a guide and sidekick in her search for answers at High Place- I found him fascinating as a character if not as a person, but I wonder now whether he stood out simply for being the only living character in the book with a bit of complexity to his personality. You’ll notice I said ‘living’- there are a handful of dead characters equally significant to the solving of this mystery, most of them related. The family tree is somewhat challenging to memorize.

Melanie and I discussed a few more downsides- the completely unnecessary romance side plot, the fact that the love interest’s most memorable attribute is that he’s “not as handsome as that other guy,” and the fact that the English immigrants at High Place do not really seem very English. One of them seems to have learned fluent Spanish in young childhood without losing a word of it into adulthood despite infrequent use, which I found more plausible than the fact that none of the rest of the family seems interested in the furtive conversations in a language they don’t understand supposedly happening within their hearing.

But, despite their number, all of these were small complaints that didn’t give me much pause: I was completely invested in discovering what was going on at High Place and how Noemi was going to get her cousin and herself to safety. What really makes the novel work, I think, is that it starts with the implication of a simple whodunnit case of poisoning and then takes a sharp left into supernatural territory that changes the entire playing field. (I have historically loved otherwise realistic stories with a bizarre, otherworldly twist.) It may start slow, but for the patient reader I think the climax will be worth the wait. I’ve never been and know embarrassingly little, but I found the setting and its details a helpful learning experience toward some of the Mexican landscape and culture that I was previously unfamiliar with. And Moreno-Garcia plays into some pleasing commentary by bringing the selfish English settlers into question rather than the Mexican natives (especially as conversations of eugenics enter the narrative), and by using Noemi’s self-confidence and determination to emphasize feminism. Despite a few hang-ups, I found plenty to like here.

“She thought that men such as her father could be stern and men could be cold like Virgil, but women needed to be liked or they’d be in trouble. A woman who is not liked is a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.”

And of course I liked chatting with Melanie about the book- we did a video chat to compare notes, so I feel like I finally “met” her after many months of virtual acquaintance! It was all around a lovely and adventurous experience that my small complaints aren’t really marring. I know this review has been somewhat erratic, but I enjoyed the read enough to speed through it in one day, which is I think what I’ll remember most, and fondly. If the premise appeals, and you don’t mind a dash of the supernatural in your horror, I’d highly recommend giving this one a try.

CW: threats of rape, rape-adjacent bodily violations, mentions of eugenics (recognized as racist/xenophobic within the text), rampant disregard for others’ lives and well-being.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll happily read more of Moreno-Garcia’s work despite my nitpicking issues with the details in this one; I like her storytelling ability and am curious to see how her writing fluctuates across the genres she’s chosen. Please recommend your favorite title(s) from her backlist below! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties was one of my most productive reads so far this year: it was a 20 in ’20 title, a follow-up to Machado’s memoir In the Dream House which I read earlier this year, a June TBR book that I didn’t get around to on time, an own-unread book on my shelf for over a year, and I got to cross it off all of these (arbitrary) lists by doing a buddy read with Donna @ Donna’s Reading Chair! The stories in this collection are so bizarre that we had plenty to talk about. We’ve decided to wrap this up book club style with some questions we picked up from this very helpful post, which I’ll answer after saying a little about the book.

herbodyandotherpartiesIn Her Body and Other Parties, eight collected stories feature LGBTQ+ characters, psychological horrors, sci-fi/fantasy/fabulist elements, and female traumas of a wide variety. The stories are visceral, provocative, imaginative, and eerie. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I want to briefly touch on each of the stories, and for fun I’ll rank them in order of my personal favoritism:

“Especially Heinous” –  this story lays out every episode of Law and Order: SVU, using a sequential episodic format to highlight different points and implications from the popular TV series while also telling a wider story of the effects of the investigations on the main characters’ lives. I haven’t ever watched L&O:SVU so I can’t speak about any creative liberties taken, but I can say you don’t need to know the show to enjoy the story.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), two years before this book was published I took a class at the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where Machado did her MFA, in which I was assigned to write a story that used and/or was inspired by a list from pop culture; I used Grey’s Anatomy episode titles. The assignment came from a TA who was a grad student in the writing program. I’m not positive Machado was there yet at the time, but it’s interesting (to me at least) that we might have received similar assignments, or at least spoken to the same person about this idea, wherever it originally came from. It’s a small world after all.

“Inventory” – this is a list of the protagonist’s lovers, which takes a sinister turn as illness sweeps the nation, affecting her every encounter. I was not prepared for the timeliness of this story, but loved it. (Has everyone been writing about pandemics all along??) This one is tricky, in that I can see it a new way every time it crosses my mind; the meaning of the story could be that human existence is lesser without human contact, or that contact is inextricable from danger, or perhaps there’s even a deeper metaphor in which the illness is a stand-in for something else about these sexual encounters that is driving the protagonist slowly but steadily out of society- promiscuity as alienation? Lots to ponder, and I don’t think I’ve uncovered it all yet.

“The Husband Stitch” – the main relationship here feels more realistic than it does healthy so it took me a while to get into this one, but I was constantly wondering about the mysterious green ribbon the protagonist wears and the reveal did not disappoint! This story depicts ways in which women are threatened by those who want to or feel entitled to own them, and the dangers that come from policing women’s rights and autonomy.

“The Resident” – a writer secures a spot on a secluded retreat to work on her novel, but doesn’t get along well with the other artists. Not much goes on here, but I loved the atmosphere and generally enjoy stories about writing, so I had a good time with it.

“Eight Bites” – a woman who loves food but is taught to hate her food-loving body undergoes a surgery that makes it impossible for her to eat more than eight bites at a time. To gain the image she wants, she must lose part of herself. The themes are straightforward here, but I loved the fabulist element; it’s a little creepy, but also made me laugh out loud.

“Real Women Have Bodies” – in this story, women literally cease to exist when their bodies stop matching societal norms. They vanish and are gone. I think there’s more to unpick about female desires and expectations that I haven’t fully unraveled yet with this one.

“Difficult at Parties” – a man and woman with a strained relationship are working through something that they won’t talk about. I had a lot of unanswered questions with this one, but Donna and I assumed that the man has abused the woman in some physical way and this story is the aftermath, as they attempt to reconcile. I may have struggled here mostly out of a desire to not see them reconcile.

“Mothers” – two women have a biological child just as their romance fails, largely due to abuse within the relationship. The concepts were more exciting for me than the execution with this one.

 

On to the questions!

1) The synopsis of the book describes it as a collection of “startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” Such violence can be intentional, self-inflicted, unrealized, or without any identifiable culprit. Which of these types of violence do you personally find more frightening?

I think each type is disturbing in its own way, but for me unrealized violence and violence without an identifiable culprit is most frightening because in those cases it’s unknown/unexplained while it’s happening. Intentional and self-inflicted violence feels more tragic and sometimes infuriating to me (as with intentional violence) rather than scary.

2) Would you be more likely to recommend this book to a certain gender? Why?

No. I’d recommend it to different genders for different reasons though- I think women are more likely to find details to relate to personally in these pages, but anyone else would be able to use these horrors as a way to learn about experiences they may not be living themselves; being able to understand each other’s perspectives is important!

3) Were there any specific times you personally felt unsettled, creeped out, or genuinely frightened?

Genuinely frightened, no. I did feel unsettled by some of these stories, mostly as a result of the concepts and their real-world applications rather than by the otherworldly aspects themselves; Machado’s themes and ideas are grounded in real traumas and concerns that women face, so while her sci-fi elements didn’t terrify me directly I think they do help give a face/name to real concerns, and bring those to life in the process.

4) Do you think the final order of the published stories is a strong one, or would you have rearranged them? How would changing the order of the stories have changed your reading experience of the collection?

Donna and I actually talked about this one a bit already, and we both would’ve liked the first and last stories to be switched! Personally I really like a strong ending because that can make the reader (read: me) forget about (or at least be more willing to overlook) earlier complaints, whereas a weak ending can emphasize them, no matter how strong the start. The first story as is (“The Husband Stitch”) really ends with a bang and I think it would’ve made a great final piece; perhaps I wouldn’t have been hooked on the collection quite as quickly with a more nebulous story (“Difficult at Parties”) to start it out, but I’m more open to having a lot of unanswered questions in the beginning than the end. Otherwise the stories feel disconnected enough that I don’t think meaning would change much for me with any shuffling; my favorites and least favorites were well mixed so that I was excited to start each new piece and didn’t have any large chunks of the book that didn’t work for me at all.

5) The main characters of these stories trend toward passivity- strange things happen to them, outside of their control, while the few choices they do make are either glossed over or portrayed with a weighted inevitability which suggests there was no real choice to begin with. Do you think this style was effective?

Yes, for the points this book had to make, I think the passivity fits. Generally I do want  to read characters who have and exercise agency, but here I think Machado serves her stories well by conveying that trauma makes its visits unprovoked; to exist in this world as a woman is to be constantly wary of what will happen to you, with the sense that there’s little that can be done to stop it from happening. The passivity of these characters lends them a sort of innocence that makes the horrors they face that much more frustrating. The inevitability of suffering is one of the greatest frights on display here, I think. Furthermore, the lack of agency means that most of these characters don’t have a lot of personality, which makes them easier to project oneself upon and to see as the everywoman rather than a specific, fictional person to be read and then forgotten.

6) Did you ever find yourself irritated or bored, and if so, why?

There was one story that bored me: “Mothers.” This story had a couple of great ideas at its core: the possibility of two women having a biological child of their own, and the exploration of abuse in a same-sex relationship. The latter I found interesting because I had already read Machado’s In the Dream House and so could see how some of her own experience was manifesting in this fiction. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m just not very interested in reading about motherhood, and so little happens in this story that I was not hooked on the plot the way I was by the premise. But this was one of the shortest stories of the set, so the boredom was short lived. The two longest pieces, “Especially Heinous” and “The Resident,” were actually among my favorites, so most of the book really did seem to fly by for me.

7) What is your opinion on the author’s depiction of sex throughout the collection?

To be honest I was a bit taken aback at first by how frequently sex comes into these stories; there are a lot of lovers, and Her Body and Other Parties is a book that embraces physical details. Once I knew what to expect though I liked that Machado was so open about it. Many women are shamed for their bodies and what they do with them, so it’s a relief to see celebrations of the physical in fiction. Here’s one ironic (and nsfw) quote I really liked from “Inventory:”

“She wanted cock and I obliged. Afterward, she traced the indents in my skin from the harness, and confessed to me that no one was having any luck developing a vaccine. ‘But the fucking thing is only passing through physical contact,’ she said. ‘If people would just stay apart-‘ She grew silent.”

Gender =/= sex, but I do want to add that I liked that Machado didn’t set this book up with a simple “women are victims, men are villains” dichotomy. I thought her representations of men and women were very human and appropriately flawed all around, which is remarkable considering how large a role gender plays in highlighting “the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” The problem lies primarily in power imbalances, not a war between genders. It can seem that way because it is often men who hold disproportionate power, but this is not always the case (as in abusive same-sex relationships, for example). Machado digs into the nuances.

8) In “Especially Heinous” the doppelgänger Henson tells the following story to the DA: “The sixty-fifth story is about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop, but they won’t, so we can’t.” Why do you think Law and Order: SVU is such a popular show, given that it concerns itself specifically with “sexually based offenses” which “are considered especially heinous?”

I have a few thoughts about this. The first is simply that humans are fascinated by what humans do. It isn’t only sexually based offenses that grab the attention- we like true crime, murder mysteries, sensational headlines. Anything gruesome. Maybe “like” is the wrong word, but there seems to be a morbid draw to understanding the extremes of humanity. Perhaps as a way to feel relief for those of us who don’t experience it, and perhaps as a way to feel less alone for those of us who do. That’s the optimistic answer. The pessimistic answer (these are not mutually exclusive) is that women are often objectified by society and art- I think there’s a disgusting interest in female pain, or the pain of any vulnerable person, for the enjoyment of those who don’t have similar trauma to compare it to. This, I wish we could put a stop to.

9) Did you like this book? Did you find it beautiful? Is there a difference between your answers?

Yes, yes, and apparently not. I can see how someone might find it beautiful while not enjoying it, because there are some painful topics here. Personally I appreciate books that leave me a little broken. Maybe I shouldn’t “like” that, but I won’t apologize for it either. Machado’s a strong writer and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next!

“It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right… It is my right to be unsociable and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around. Do you ever listen to yourself? This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.”

If you’ve read this book or have any thoughts on the discussion points raised through the questions here, feel free to weigh in below, and be sure to check out Donna’s review and answers as well, which I’ll link again here in case you missed it at the top! We had some different opinions on this one. If you’re into thrillers, romance, and/or adult contemporary she reads a lot from those genres and is fun to follow! 🙂

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this collection was nominated for so very many literary prizes, and I will absolutely be reading Machado’s next publication, whatever it may be. I’ll enjoy a reread of these stories at some point for sure as well!

As a final note, I’d also highly recommend Daisy Johnson’s short story collection Fen to anyone who particularly enjoys Her Body and Other Parties; Fen is also a somewhat magical and horrifying account of female experiences that I think will appeal to much the same audience. If you’re getting impatient waiting for Machado’s next book, give Johnson’s a go!

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Riot Baby and The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Tochi Onyebuchi’s adult sci-fi novel, Riot Baby, and Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, a short essay collection on race, feminism, and more.

 

riotbabyIn Riot Baby, a contemporary novel by Tochi Onyebuchi with a sci-fi/fabulist element, a young girl with the ability to see the fates of those around her witnesses the 1992 race riots in LA at the same time as her brother is born. Kev is healthy and whole, but the city is on fire, and Ella sees the racial injustices taking place. She does what she can to protect her brother, but as they grow up, Ella’s power increases in many ways, and the more she can do, the more she learns about the world, and the more it hurts her to see how much hate is aimed at Black people. She grapples over her responsibilities toward justice in light of her unique capabilities. Meanwhile, her brother suppresses his own rage and falls victim to a system stacked against him, buoyed onward by his sister’s dedication to change.

“I see Ella walking through Milwaukee’s North Side, past makeshift memorials to dead black kids: teddy bears, browning flowers, ribbons tied to telephone poles waving in the breeze, and I know that she’s been touching the ground around those memorials and closing her eyes and seeing the whole of it, whether the bullet came from some other colored kid’s gun or from a cop, watching the whole story unfold before her. She does the same with the Confederate monuments that rise from the ground in the South like weeds. Tributes to treasonous generals and soldiers serving Big Cotton. She touches their bases, feels their mass-produced faces, runs her fingers over their inscriptions. She wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten here. In whose name they were violated. She’s gathering it within her. All of it.”

This is a very short and powerful book, but it took me a while to get into it.

There were two reasons for that: the first is that Ella’s powers are an anomaly, and until the last section of the book (there are four) I didn’t feel that this otherworldly element was necessary to the story beyond giving the narration an easy way to depict Black experiences more broadly than two non-empowered characters would have been able to show alone. Ella’s ability to head-hop and see pasts and futures gives a much wider scope to the brutality and systemic racism against Black people on display here, but it takes most of the novel for that breadth of perspective to mesh with the specific experiences of the two main characters. However, I did eventually think they fit together very well.

The other hang-up for me reflects my own privilege and limited experience; it is not Onyebuchi’s job to cater to me as a white reader, it is my job as a white reader to learn about experiences beyond my own in order to be able to understand the conversations about racism that are taking place (both in this novel and beyond). In Riot Baby, the narration takes big jumps between scenes, characters, and even years. The problem I had was some difficulty keeping up; the pacing moves very fast, with the expectation that the reader will inherently understand the nuances of the barrage of injustices on display and be able to contextualize them without pausing for breath. Certain gaps in my own knowledge (Black prison life, the LA riots,  Black-on-Black crime) made this a challenging read for me in places because I could see there was significance and a greater history that I wasn’t fully grasping. I’m mentioning it not because this is in any way Onyebuchi’s or Riot Baby‘s “fault,” but simply because I think other white readers might want to brush up on some nonfiction before diving into this one, or at least keep an internet tab open and be willing to take breaks while reading to ask necessary questions.

That said, I appreciated being pushed out of my comfort zone and loved the heart of this story. Ella’s power and Kev’s suppression of his power present as a metaphors for rage under oppression; one embraces the emotion and endeavors to channel it into productive changes, and the other tries to squash it down just to survive in a white-washed world. Their relationships with each other and their powers show how people beaten down by racism struggle and cope both internally and externally. They are individuals to empathize with, but they are also carrying a world of pain on their shoulders and stand as representatives of a much larger whole. Onyebuchi strikes an incredible balance, and when the pieces fall into place it’s astoundingly effective and emotional, conveying decades (and centuries) of accumulated despair while also inspiring the fight for a better future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone intrigued by the idea of social issues explored through a fabulist element. I think Riot Baby has a lot to say and says it well; any difficulty I had with it is the result of my own lack of knowledge, but if you’re willing to do the work, I think you’ll appreciate where this book will take you. For such a small volume, it digs deep.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I cannot overemphasize how blown away I was by the last section of this book. Parts of the read were difficult for me, but they were supposed to be. I really liked Onyebuchi’s style and the themes explored here, and I’m excited to pick up more of his work in the future. I’ve already ordered Beasts Made of Night, and hope to get to it later this summer. I see it has some lower ratings on GR, but I think having learned a bit about Onyebuchi’s style here and how I need to approach his books as a white reader, I’m eager to give it a try.

 

themaster'stoolswillneverdismantlethemaster'shouseIn The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, five of Audre Lorde’s essays are collected. They are: “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” and “Learning From the 1960’s.” All were written between 1977-1982, and still apply perfectly today.

“Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”

These essays are fairly short, and the entire book amounts to just over 50 pages. Since it’s so brief, I won’t go into much detail about each of the individual pieces; if you’re looking for that breakdown of info let me recommend Callum’s excellent review from earlier this month (which reminded me I had this volume on my shelf and motivated me to pick it up, thanks Callum!).

The first essays here, on poetry and eroticism, appealed to me the least. There will certainly be readers more interested in those topics who will likely find them more inspiring and vital. I thought both were well-written and worthwhile though they didn’t speak to me quite as personally.

But the latter three essays, all of which deal with racism in various ways, and all of which are filtered through the lens of Lorde’s perspective as a Black lesbian woman specifically, felt so very powerful and crucial to this time (which is worrying, as it shows how little progress has been made since they were written). In these pieces, Lorde touches on feminism, and how hurtful racial divides within that movement can be. She talks about discrimination based on sexual orientations. And of course, racism and civil rights. She argues about how people can be oppressed in different ways, to different degrees, and none of the oppressed groups will find their peace until they unite under the common cause: justice and equality for all. She acknowledges those who have been hurt, and calls out those who have done the hurting, and it’s especially impressive to see her handle this where those two groups overlap, as with white feminists who ignore black women’s needs in favor of their own. It’s important that none of us get too caught up in a single cause to overlook the ultimate goal. As a woman and a feminist I found these essays a helpful reminder on how to be a good ally and advocate by respecting differences AND the shared cause. That’s particular to my experience, but I can’t think of an audience that wouldn’t benefit from Lorde’s words in some way.

“I am a lesbian woman of colour whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with a woman of colour whose children do not eat because she cannot find work, or who has no children because her insides are rotted from home abortions and sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is one of those books I think EVERYONE should read. With this one to judge by, I look forward to getting back to the other volumes from the Penguin Modern set that I’d forgotten about, and to reading further from Lorde! This was a great place to start with her work, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to say.

 

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

 

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

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Firestarter

(My last belated review from November reading! I’m so close to being caught up again!)

I picked up Stephen King’s Firestarter in preparation for reading King’s newest release, The Institute. I heard somewhere along the line that the two novels share a key element or two, and I love a good comparison. I’m also just very interested in the fact that King can find such success in using “recycled” content. But this post will be a single, focused review since I’ve only just started The Institute– any comparisons between the two will appear there.

firestarterIn the novel, a man and his daughter are on the run from a top secret government branch known as “the Shop.” Several years previously, Andy met his wife in a paid study where they were both given experimental drugs. Neither can quite be sure whether they hallucinated the events that followed, or actually tapped into a range of psychic abilities as part of the test- some residual power to manipulate the minds of others and close doors without touching them suggests the latter. Even so, they’re both surprised when their daughter Charlie, is born with the ability to start fires with her mind, and only grows stronger with time. The Shop wants to study her badly enough that they’d kill to get their hands on her; they’re not above kidnapping either. But no one understands the pyrokinetic power they’re up against- not even Charlie.

“You sit here and make your plans for controlling a force beyond your comprehension. A force that belongs only to the gods themselves…and to this one little girl.”

Three things to be aware of right off the bat:

  1. This book was published in 1980, and feels very much like a product of its time. Between the mad scientist, the psychedelic drugs, the ease of hitchhiking, the slow spread of information (predating the smart phone era), and the secret government agents destined to stay ahead of the Russians, it’s definitely a throwback.
  2. This book was published during Stephen King’s addiction years. In his own On Writing (and probably elsewhere), he admits that he doesn’t have clear memories of his writing projects from this time, including the entire novel of Cujo, if I remember correctly. I haven’t read Cujo yet, but I have read quite a handful of King’s works, and this is the first one that felt genuinely sloppy to me. It is coherent, but gave me the strong impression that King was riding on his fame and churning out ideas without polishing them.
  3. This book is very obviously one of the main sources of inspiration for the Stranger Things TV show. Charlie is clearly an earlier rendition of Eleven (though with a different power), and the Shop paves the way for the Hawkins Lab. The set-up for the drug experiment is very similar to the set-up of the experiment in Suspicious Minds, the first official Stranger Things novel, which stands as a prequel to the TV series. Many small details match up as well, character traits and motivations, etc. I feel confident in saying that Stranger Things would not exist- or at least, not as it does today- without this novel.

In a nutshell, if you’re interested in science fiction stories from the 80’s, in King’s writing in general, or in Stranger Things, you’re more likely to find this a worthwhile read. Because I was very interested in 2 of those categories and indifferent about the 3rd (80’s sci-fi), I did enjoy the underlying concept and quite a few of the details. That said, I did have some larger issues that are more likely to bother readers who aren’t interested in this book for one of the above reasons.

“Of course, an eighth-grade science book teaches that anything will burn if it gets hot enough. But it is one thing to read such information and quite another to see cinderblocks blazing with blue and yellow flame.”

The first issue I had was with characterization; most of the characters in Firestarter feel like archetypes rather than nuanced people. The assassin was probably the most interesting, though even he turned out to be predictably evil rather than morally gray. Andy, the father, is a typical wrong-place-wrong-time hero who just wants to do the right thing so badly that he’s boring, and Charlie just feels entirely inauthentic as a 9 year old girl: her dialogue is corny and cringe-worthy, her reactions strangely detached, and she’s given no personality- no favorite toys or pastimes, no best friends she misses, no self-expression in her clothes or behavior. It’s like when she’s not in the current scene, she doesn’t exist, and even when she is in scene she’s so transparent that it’s hard to invest in her plight. It’s the situation they’re in rather than the characters themselves that drives the story forward.

And on the topic of momentum, the second main issue I found with this book is that the pacing lags right in the middle. The story starts with Andy and Charlie on the run, which is interesting enough, but there’s a sort of stalemate in the middle of the story between the end of the chase and the big climax. In this pause, King spends hundreds of pages (out of the total 500) just moving his characters into place for the final act. It’s a slow, largely plotless section full of helplessness and prophetic dreams and no one quite sure where they’re going anymore or how they’re going to get there. The concept has lost its novelty by this point, the characters have proven themselves uninteresting, and literally nothing is happening. Even though I knew King was going to end this one with a bang, it was such a struggle getting through that middle section.

Which isn’t to say the book’s all bad. Even though I would not have liked this story if I wasn’t interested in reading for reasons that extended beyond the plot, there are certainly some fun elements. Andy’s power, for one: he can “push” people into believing things- convincing a cab driver that the one-dollar bill in his hand is actually a hundred, for example. The drug experiment he participates in and the Shop itself is fascinating, if you’re into government conspiracies. The increasingly large fires Charlie can set without breaking a sweat add an extra layer of intrigue. And there’s an interesting afterward in which King notes that while he’s not trying to persuade anyone that psychic powers are real, there was actually a time when the government spent time and money trying to discover whether such powers might be harnessed for use.

“Do not fear, you are wrapped snuggly in the arms of Modern Science.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It was so fun to see what was clearly a source of inspiration for other creators, and to weigh this early story against some of its notable recent counterparts (Stranger Things and Suspicious Minds). Though the story itself did not quite satisfy me, I did appreciate its premise, and I’m so intrigued to see where King goes with the psychic powers in The Institute. I hope the latter will be a more polished and entertaining work in its own right, but Firestarter has not discouraged me or lowered my expectations. I’ll definitely be reading more from King, and I’m now very much in the mood to rewatch Stranger Things!

 

The Literary Elephant