Thursday, July 2, 2020

Book 240: The Girl With All The Gifts

"In most stories she knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus. Sometimes they have teachers too, but not always, and they never seem to have sergeants. So this is a quetion that gets to the very roots of the world, and Melanie asks it with some trepidation."

Dates read: June 8-12, 2018

Rating: 8/10

My husband plays a lot of video games. When I tell people this, they often make a vaguely sympathetic face, but as far as I'm concerned, he's an adult and he can get entertainment however he'd like. I like books and movies. He likes sports and video games. Neither one has more inherent merit than the other. Anyways, the point here is that since I'm around when he's playing games, I often watch and while not all of it particularly interests me, some of the games tell really interesting, multilayered stories, like Mass Effect or The Last of Us. The latter, in particular, is a really engrossing experience centered in the bond that develops between a young woman and a parental figure during a post-zombie apocalypse scenario. It's honestly a great piece of media and I see frequent requests on book recommendation sites looking for a book like it.

Zombie apocalypse stories are, at their heart, about the fear of social breakdown. A zombie doesn't have the internal struggle to contain their own demons that a vampire or werewolf does. At least not traditionally. But M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts isn't a usual zombie story. I guess it's technically a spoiler to say it's about zombies at all, but it's been out for long enough that most people are already familiar with the idea. It introduces us to Melanie, a girl undergoing a strange sort of schooling. Some of it is familiar: there's a class, a rotating group of teachers (Ms. Justineau is Melanie's particular favorite), lessons. But the children, when not in school, are locked in cells and collected for class by armed guards (like the harsh Sgt. Parks) who move them into special wheelchairs that restrict their movements at gunpoint. And the members of the class are sometimes wheeled into a medical lab, run by the ruthlessly efficient Dr. Caldwell, never to return.

That Melanie and her classmates are zombies (or "hungries", as they're called in the world of the book) is obvious fairly early on. But they aren't the typical kind: more like the vampire or werewolf, they're conscious, self-aware, capable of learning and some level of restraint. Obviously this isn't normal zombie behavior, not even in this world, and the lives of the students are being studied in the desperate hope that finding what makes them different could help lead to a vaccine for the fungal infection underlying the transformation into brainless and violent automatons. All of that is interrupted when the base is attacked by the regular kind of zombies, along with renegade humans that roam the wilderness because they refused to quarantine themselves in cities like most people. Melanie, Justineau, Parks, Caldwell, and a young soldier escape the chaos and set off for the city, but the world outside has dangers they might not be fully prepared for.

The heart of the story is the bond that forms between Melanie and Helen Justineau over the course of the book. Justineau is fond of Melanie from her time in the classroom, and Melanie all but worships the only person she's ever met who treats her with the slightest bit of kindness. As they're forced into closer quarters and more dire circumstances, that connection deepens and they become fiercely protective of each other in their own ways. The ways that Caldwell and Parks change (or don't, significantly) in their feelings about her in their turn reveals their true characters as well. There's an interesting, compelling adventure story with some quality world-building, but the book is really based in the relationships between people, how they view others, how they cope with the tremendous strain of living in a world so completely decimated by the unexpected.

My criticisms are mostly fairly minor: I think the book is a bit too long, some of the exposition is a bit too clunky, I wanted more of the past life of the characters to fill them out even further. I did appreciate that while the suspense level gets pretty tense, the gore level is relatively minimal for a zombie book (I'm not a fan of gore but found that what was there felt un-gratuitous). That being said, I don't know that I think this is a book that would be a match for everyone...if you're not into post-apocalyptic narratives, really can't deal with any gore at all, or want a super thriller, this probably won't be your preferred reading experience. But if you're willing to experiment a little with a book that might be outside your usual comfort zone and think a smart, character-driven take on zombies could be interesting, I'd definitely encourage you to read it. I liked it much more than I thought I would!

One year ago, I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Disgrace (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: My Antonia

Four years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking forward to the rest of the year. I've said a million times before that I'm not a big frontlist/new release reader, but here are ten books that I have been lucky enough to get my hands on advance copies of that I am looking forward to reading!

Axiom's End: I love Lindsay Ellis's Youtube videos (she's more or less the only Youtuber I regularly watch, it is not a format that appeals much to me) and am very excited for her debut novel, about what would happen if we found out aliens had been around for a while now.

The Mall: This YA novel is set slightly before my time (in 1991, when I was 6), but I remember whiling away many an hour at the mall as a teen so this looks like a delight.

Afterland: Sometimes women joke about how a world without men would be paradise, but of course the reality is that it would be bad for any number of reasons. This is a story about a woman whose teenage son is one of the last men alive and who goes on the run to protect him from those who would take him away: including her other child, a daughter. This seems like an intriguing twist on gender relations!

Must I Go: This is about an old woman who get ahold of the diary of a man with whom she had a brief affair and annotating it with her own memories, which sounds like it will either be something that does not work at all for me or will be amazing.

A Saint From Texas: Twin sisters from Texas go on to wildly different becomes the star of Parisian society and the other heads to Colombia as a nun. This seems like extremely my jam.

White Ivy: This story about a Chinese-American young woman who manipulates her way into the life of the scion of a powerful political family promises a compelling anti-heroine at its core and I am ready for it.

Can't Even: I really love Anne Helen Petersen's writing and so I am very much ready for her second book, especially since it's about millennial burnout and boy do I have feelings about that!

Snow: I am not always into mysteries, but the plot of this one (a detective investigates when a priest turns up dead in the ancestral estate of a secretive noble family) seems like it might be one I would like!

The Preserve: A future in which the robots take over and herd the humans onto reservations does sound like the kind of speculative fiction/sci-fi that I enjoy

The Orchard: People discovering the wider world after having been isolated for whatever reason is a storyline I like, so this one about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenage boy plunged into the world of elite private schools is definitely up my alley.

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Month In The Life: June 2020

Congrats, y'all, we've made it halfway through 2020! I don't think any of us had any idea what this year would bring when it started, and it's been a doozy. I should be writing this after a fun girls long weekend in Charleston, and instead I haven't had a day off (besides Memorial Day) in months! Things in Nevada are trending in a not-great way, virus-wise, so it's hard to imagine living a life that resembles normal anytime soon unfortunately.

In Books...
  • Year of Wonders: This is the second epidemic book I've read during this time of actual real-world disease crisis, but I think being a little more removed from the height of the issue helped this one work better for me. Based on a real-life story of an English village which had an outbreak of plague in the 1600s and closed itself off entirely to prevent spread to other towns, it's mostly a sensitive and realistic look at what the twin pressures of isolation and illness can do to social structure until a WILD turn at the end that I did not love.
  • The Moor's Account: My book club read for the month! Another based-on-reality historical fiction, this one imagines the life and times of a Moorish slave who was one of only four men to survive an early Spanish expedition to Florida. I found Mustafa a sometimes irritatingly passive protagonist, and I felt like Lalami hammered her theme of the power of storytelling a little too hard at times, but her writing is gorgeous and this was an enjoyable reading experience.
  • A Dirty Job: I loved Christopher Moore's Lamb when I read it in high school, but I did not find his humor charming this time around. I found myself unable to ignore the weird gender politics of both the main character being constantly described as a Beta Male and the way young women working out at the gym are blithely, repeatedly referred to as "fuck puppets". There were some funny moments, and even some touching ones, but as a whole it fell flat for me.
  • A Perfect Explanation: Based on a truly bananas story of the author's own grandmother, who sold her own son (the author's father), the heir to an enormous fortune, to her sister for 500 pounds after a decade-long custody battle. You would think it would be fascinating, but the characters are never really rounded out and the plot just kind of plods along. The prose and style is pleasant enough but it never captured my attention. 
  • Daughter of Fortune: I'd somehow never read Isabel Allende before, and I enjoyed my first experience with her work. I do love a coming-of-age story, and this one about a young Chilean orphan raised by British expats in Valparaiso who follows her lover to California during the Gold Rush was a well-told one. Never knocked me out, but kept my attention and I found it entertaining and informative. 
  • The Queen of the Tearling: In a time when my mental energy reserves are running low, a plot-heavy young adult fantasy book seemed like it might do the trick. While it did keep my attention, I found it pretty lacking in a lot of ways: it left too many unanswered questions to be addressed in a sequel, and the character work was spotty at best. I'm unlikely to pick up the sequels.

In Life...
  • I celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary: While it seems like just yesterday that I was suffering through wedding planning, it's been four years since my husband and I got married now! There's nothing like sheltering in place and both working from home during a global pandemic to made it clear whether you've married someone you can really make it work with in the long term, so I'm even more happy to have married such a wonderful guy lately. Since neither of us is comfortable eating out right now, we didn't do much, but we got champagne and watched a movie and hope to enjoy a nice restaurant (or maybe even trip!) whenever it's safe again.

One Thing:

I've never been big into sci-fi, but my husband and I have been slowly making our way through Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix for the past couple months. It's often silly (the fight choreography is just straight up terrible) but very fun to watch. I'd definitely recommend it if you're looking for something light to keep you entertained!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Book 239: Motherless Brooklyn

"Minna Agency errands mostly stuck us in Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street, in fact. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill together made a crisscrossed board game of Frank Minna's alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers- like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)- to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland- or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard."

Dates read: June 5-8, 2018

Rating: 3/10

One of the things that writing this blog over the years has done is help me get a better sense of who I am as a reader. Thinking about my reactions to a book in a critical way has really done a lot towards making sense of what appeals to me and what doesn't. Even writing out the plot summaries that I do helps me figure out what aspects of the stories were most salient and important in my memory (as well as trying to give anyone that reads here enough of a preview that they can figure out if the book might be right for them). I used to comb through lists of what other people were reading and add to my own list books that they liked, but now I usually skim, looking for key words (like "character-driven", "spellbinding", "beautifully written") that usually correlate with my own tastes. I still take chances on things that are outside my usual wheelhouse, but I know my own preferences much better.

Jonathan Letham's Motherless Brooklyn was a book that I'd originally added to my list because I'd seen something positive about it on the internet. Then I came across a copy when I was browsing for a buy and reading the back and skimming the text, decided it might not actually be for me. A couple years later, it was selected as a book club read, so this felt like a good test of my own ability to predict whether or not a book would work for me. And it turns out I do know myself: this subversive take on a noir detective story fell completely and totally flat for me. Part of it, I think, is due to my own lack of depth in the mystery/detective genre (the enjoyment in watching tropes get undermined is best enjoyed when you're already familiar with the tropes), but part of it was just that I didn't think it was very good.

The story centers on Lionel Essrog, one of four men who grew up in an orphanage taken under the wing of Frank Minna, a small-time gangster in (pre-gentrification) Brooklyn. Despite the criminal acts into which Frank draws him beginning when he's just a teenager, Lionel is deeply loyal to Frank, one of the only people who has ever shown compassion for and understanding of his severe case of Tourette's Syndrome. When Frank is murdered at the beginning of the book, Lionel puts all his sleuthing skills to work to find the killer: could it be Frank's mysterious wife, Julia? Could it be "the clients", the old Italians who dole out tasks to the team? Could it even be another member of the team looking to create a leadership vacancy? And how does the Zen Buddhist center where Frank was last seen alive tie into everything, if it does at all?

I'll start with the positive, as I often like to. Even with a relatively limited reference point for the cliches of noir, I could understand the way that Lethem was playing with them: the silent, repressed detective hero is completely turned on its head with Lionel's Tourette's making him fidgety and unable to keep quiet. The femme fetale, Frank's wife Julia, instead of tempting Lionel with her sensuality, reveals she's slept with every member of the team besides him and doesn't intend to change that. Lionel at one point gets bounced from a Buddhist meditation session by obvious criminals and no one lifts a finger to stop it because they're too absorbed in their practice. It's over the top and ridiculous in a way that's clever and meant to be funny.

But for me, all of that humor failed to land. I didn't get involved at all in the story because I didn't care for a second about any of the characters. I couldn't have cared less who killed Frank or even Lionel's journey, because Lethem didn't bother to write Lionel (or anyone else) as remotely compelling. The entire book felt like an exercise in intellectual masturbation, in which Lethem decided he wanted to engage in wordplay and wrote the Tourette's into the story to give him the opportunity to do so. After a while I found myself skimming virtually all of the dialogue because it got tiresome to read. And don't even get me started on the sex scene, one of the most cringeworthy ones I've ever read and that I dearly wish I could un-read so as to never think of again. Y'all, I hated this (though I was definitely in the minority of my book club in so doing) and I recommend avoiding it at all costs.

One year ago, I was reading: Amsterdam (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Spook

Four years ago, I was reading: Zero K

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Celebrating TTT’s 10th Birthday!

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week marks ten years of Top Ten Tuesday! I've only been doing it for about 3-4 years myself, but it's become a favorite part of my book blogging experience...I love putting the lists together, and then seeing what other readers have chosen for theirs! This week, we're celebrating by looking through the archives to either re-do a topic or chose a topic we hadn't done before! I'm doing a twist on a topic I did before. Just about two years ago, I told you about series I'd given up on. So here are ten series I have not yet finished but intend to!

Foundation: A nonfiction series! This one is about the history of England, and I liked the first well enough to keep going through the five volumes.

Shatter Me: I am not usually a YA fantasy-type person, but this one hooked me enough that I'm interested in reading at least the next two to see how I feel about continuing through all...six, I think?

Oryx and Crake: Margaret Atwood + post-apocolyptic series = something I am into. Only read the first, but have the other two already!

In The Woods: Lots of people have told me that this series about Irish police detectives doesn't necessarily have to be read in order but I am a traditionalist and will only read them that way. Only read the first so far but have heard the second is the best so I'm looking forward to that one!

The Tudor and Plantangent Novels: I've read several of these books about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty but not all of them! They're not actually like high-quality literature but they're cheesy reading fun.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: The movie version is enjoyable so I don't know why my expectations were so low for the original book. Turns out the book is great too and I want to read more about Ripley!

Wolf Hall: I found the first one a little sloggy but the second excellent and have heard rave reviews on the third (which just came out and I have not yet read).

Sloppy Firsts: I'm definitely too old for these books, but loved this diary of a cynical New Jersey teenager and am very much interested in the four following books!

Sabriel: I've read the original trilogy repeatedly, but I haven't yet read the two new books!

Gilead: I was spellbound by this lovely book, which has three sequels that I'm eager to read.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Book 238: Boy, Snow, Bird

"I looked into his eyes. He couldn't return the gaze steadily, kept focusing on my left eye, then on my right. I could guess what he was thinking: that there were two of me, that was the explanation, that was why I was acting like this. I had applied this rationale to the rat-catcher the first time he punched me. First you try to find a reason, try to understand what you've done wrong so you can be sure not to do it anymore. After that you look for signs of a Jekyll and Hyde situation, the good and the bad in a person sifted into separate compartments by some weird accident. Then, gradually, you realize that there isn't a reason, and it isn't two people you're dealing with, just one. The same one every time." 

Dates read: June 1-5, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I've always thought that being a step-parent would be a complicated situation to deal with. There are the complicated feelings people have about their exes getting into new relationships, and then on top of that there are the feelings of territoriality about one's children. If one tries to form a close bond with the kids, there are accusations of trying to "replace" the parent. But if one doesn't take an active interest in the kids, then you get the mean/bad step-parent label. It's a very fine line to walk, and it takes work and love by everyone involved to balance it out.

The wicked stepmother is one of the most fundamental tropes of the fairy tale genre, probably most famously exemplified in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White. It is the latter that is subtly retold in Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird. Boy Novak grows up in New York City with a mercurial, abusive father that she calls only "the rat-catcher", and as soon as she can figure out how, runs away as far as the bus line will take her...which turns out to be small-town Massachusetts. Having left behind her childhood sweetheart, she finds herself drawn to Arturo Whitman, a metal smith and widower with a lovely little daughter named Snow. They marry, and things look promising for a while: Boy finds her stepdaughter charming and delightful and soon falls pregnant herself. But when she gives birth, it changes everything. Her own daughter, Bird, is unmistakably of mixed race, revealing that the Whitman family are actually light-skinned African-Americans passing as white.

Arturo's mysterious sister appears, having been sent away as a child when she turned out dark and threatened the family's secret, and offers to take Bird. But Boy doesn't want to part from her own child. Instead, she finds herself increasingly haunted by the adoration lavished on fair-complected Snow by everyone, including the Whitman family, compared to the treatment Bird Snow is sent away instead. As Bird grows up, she and her sister begin a correspondence, and a piece of Boy's past, long since left behind, draws nearer with revelations which could threaten the life she's built for herself.

I'd previously read Oyeyemi's short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and very much enjoyed the way she played with themes, the multiple levels she was operating on at the same time, her richly evocative language. I found many of the same qualities in this novel, and thought Oyeyemi's take on the pervasive issue of race in America was interesting, as she's a black woman but not American. I appreciated the way she subverted expectations by building to what you think is going to be the moment where Boy turns against her stepdaughter by having her inflict the emotional cruelty of exile rather than the usual depiction of verbal and physical abuse. Oyeyemi is a skilled storyteller, and ably walks the line between a story that's interesting and pleasurable to read without sacrificing richer layers of meaning that push you to think. But that ending was...woah.

I'll usually drop some minor spoilers in my reviews if it's critical to my reaction to the book, but even though the ending of this one had a huge impact on my response to it as a whole, I don't feel like it's appropriate to reveal it. But I also can't avoid talking about it, because it honestly made me think less of the book as a whole because of the way it played out. Oyeyemi places a huge, game-changing detail about a character in the last 5-10 pages of the book, barely giving the others time to react to it. The elicited reaction by the other characters doesn't feel quite earned, but the way that this reveal is made, and the details surrounding it are what really bothered me. In particular, I thought it played into some problematic stereotypes about a marginalized community (though I doubt that was the intention). Either way it was a major plot development and placing it where she did in the book was not effective. I thought I'd be able to recommend this book enthusiastically, but while I do still think it's a good book and worth reading, I'm not quite as sure about it as I might have been.

One year ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Sloppy Firsts (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

Four years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Summer 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's summer as of next week, and that means it's time for a seasonal update on my reading plans! There will be book club additions to this list, but here are the next ten books I'm planning on reading!

Daughter of Fortune: I can't believe I've never read Allende before!

Queen of the Tearling: My sister actually recommended this one and I think YA fantasy epic might be the kind of thing my brain would respond to really well right now.

The Borgias and their Enemies: I love drama, and the Borgias were a VERY dramatic family.

Tampa: This book about a teacher-student relationship was very buzzy several years ago, so I am very late to it but am quite curious about it.

Hidden Valley Road: I am a big psychology nerd so super excited to read this one!

Cat's Eye: I love Atwood and stories about the ups and downs of female friendship so this is something I really think I'm going to sink my teeth into.

Pope Joan: This book provides a fictional backstory for the rumored woman pope during the Dark Ages, which sounds interesting!

A Luminous Republic: A group of wild children arrive in an Argentinean city from the jungle and refuse to play by their social rules. Chaos ensues. I'm intrigued.

The Thirteenth Tale: I am a sucker for a story about storytelling and loved Setterfield's Once Upon A River.

Ivanhoe: I do like to work some classics into the rotation and I've never read this!