The Book Adept

One good turn

Can you be simultaneously enthralled with and utterly bewildered by the same book, the same author? If you read Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, the answer is yes.

goodturnI reviewed Case Histories, her first book starring Brodie, a month or so back, and noted at the time that while I felt like Brodie was a great anchor for the three disparate cold cases being explored in that book, the mysteries were composed of equal parts frustration and intrigue. Little did I know the foreshadowing in which I was participating when I assayed to read the second Brodie book, One Good Turn.

In this book, Jackson is even less involved, in some ways, than in the last; he isn’t hired by anyone to do anything until more than two-thirds of the way through. For most of it, he is a hapless bystander forced into participation by circumstance, as are the other four (six? it’s hard to say) significant characters. You almost couldn’t call this “his” story, except peripherally.

The setting is the Edinburgh Festival (Fringe?), and Jackson is there to support his girlfriend, Julia, an actress appearing in an existential play in a grotty venue on an unappealing street at the heart of the city. He is not entirely comfortable in this mostly passive tag-along role, and in fact has been uncomfortable in general for some time—ever since he inherited big money from one of his clients and retired from his private detective gig to buy a villa in France. He feels at loose ends wherever he is, although being with Julia at least puts him in a committed relationship. He still reacts like a policeman, and is hard pressed not to act like one when the opportunity arises, as it eventually does in this book.

First, though, we meet the other significant protagonists in this crazy casserole of a story, who are on parallel tracks that converge at unexpected intersections as the book unfolds. There is Martin, a meek and reclusive writer of cosy mystery novels, who uncharacteristically intervenes in a road rage incident and is caught up in undesirable relationships with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders as a result; there is Gloria, whose dicey husband is in a coma after a night with a Russian prostitute; and there is Louise, a Scottish police detective, who is present on the scene of most of the significant events of the story. As they and Jackson each attempt to do the right thing, the “one good turn” for another person, the casualties mount up and the circumstances become ever more ridiculous. Instead of “one good turn deserves another,” it’s “one good turn deserves a murder.”

matryoshka

I guess you could say there is a larger mystery that encompasses all the smaller, bewildering coincidences that occur in the course of this tale; but the mystery isn’t really the point. The development of characters is the point, and the action is reliant on the personality quirks of each individual who enters the story to leave footprints, large or small. I would venture to say that Atkinson is evolving a formula, but it’s definitely not one that would be recognizable to mystery readers who are looking for logical plots, clear indicators of right and wrong, and a satisfying conclusion (although there is a final twist in this one that is definitely gratifying).

Atkinson does have a bad habit of introducing her characters and then going off on rambling revelations about their back story while the reader is hung up in the dramatic moment left in freeze-frame until she is done. But the jerky, start-and-stop momentum of this book seemed congruent with the atmosphere of a city overwhelmed by distracted holiday-makers, and we do eventually get to the point (or points).

There was less of Jackson in this one than I would have liked, and also less of Louise the police detective, who is obviously meant to be a love interest at some point (and if she’s not, I’m going to be unhappy with Kate). But the writing is a joy, and I will continue on with the Brodie saga, out of sheer curiosity about what choices he will make next.

 

The Hideaway

Lauren K. Denton’s book was one of those that popped up as “recommended for you by Amazon” while I was shopping for other things (velcro fasteners and washi tape, so go figure), but it sounded appealing and I love “discovering” debut authors, so I bought it for my Kindle.

It was pleasant, well written, and ever so slightly generic. The story is about two women from the same family in different time periods, experiencing revelations about their lives while ensconced at The Hideaway, a large, rambling old Victorian bed and breakfast in the deep South.

hideawayMags was the grandmother, recently deceased, who ran away
(as a young woman) from her upscale Mobile, Alabama debutante lifestyle to a tiny town by the shore when she realized that her cheating husband was never going to change. Sara is the granddaughter, owner of a smart antique shop in New Orleans, who left her past in that tiny town behind, but now inherits the B&B from her grandmother and is left with the task of rehabbing it and bringing it back to life. The Hideaway is inhabited by an eccentric crew of seniors who arrived when they and Mags were young and ended up staying until they were old.

Each of the women is also given the opportunity of a life-changing relationship and has to decide whether to choose true love or solitude.

The story is told from the two women’s viewpoints, although in the third person, and jumps back and forth between the 1960s and the present. The characterizations are good, and there are some details (such as the wood-working suitor who engraves a key somewhere on every piece of furniture he makes as a symbol of his love) that are engaging. But there is a vagueness about some of the details that makes the story less than credible, and though none of it goes so far as to be ridiculous, the lack of explanation keeps the story from having as much impact as it could have had.

For instance, the original owner of the B&B walks away, leaving it in the hands of the youthful Mags, but there is never a detail about deeding it over. Likewise, with all the people who move in and never move out, it’s nebulous how Mags manages to make a living and keep the house together, since she’s not bringing in regular profits from turning over B&B guests. Likewise, Sara is left the house with the expectation that she will rehab it, yet we don’t learn how she is supposed to meet this expense—did Mags leave plenty of money to do so? because Sara’s small business in New Orleans certainly can’t support that kind of project; but again, we don’t know and are not told where Mags would have found the resources to leave.

I mildly enjoyed the book; it falls into that “new” category of relationship fiction that is my coined term to avoid using the to-me-perjorative “women’s fiction” label. As Liz Kay says in her excellent essay, “What Do We Mean When We Say Women’s Fiction?”: “We get stories about how to be better mothers, or how to understand our own mothers, or how important the bond between sisters is. We get romantic comedies that remind us that we too can be chosen if we just fix whatever it is that’s broken—our workaholic tendencies? Our distrustful independence? Our slutty ways? Something is broken in us, and if we fix it, we’ll be rewarded with the love that tells us, yes, we have value.” Denton’s book definitely falls squarely in the center of this description. But Kay maintains that if we as women desire to read books about mothers and sisters and lovers, they should include those whose flaws never get fixed.

“Fiction, all fiction, should challenge and expand our empathies, not simply reinforce the same assumptions, the same rules.”

Her ultimate conclusion about so-called women’s fiction is, “I don’t want to talk about how to be a woman in the world. I want to talk about the world we’re being women in.” I would have to agree.

One of Denton’s recommenders says, “…the perfect book for an afternoon on the back porch with a glass of sweet tea.” Although this presents an image that’s a little cloying, it’s not all wrong. I wouldn’t go so far as to denigrate this book, but it’s not stepping up in the manner that Kay advocates. I did love all the detail about the house itself, and the descriptions of the furniture carved by William. Sometimes, although reading the story doesn’t do it for you, the small details of the daily life being depicted are nonetheless seductive!

Afterthought: One curious point about The Hideaway is that it was published by the Christian house Thomas Nelson Zondervan; yet there was virtually no overtly religious message anywhere in the book. At one point, one of the inhabitants of the B&B persuades Mags to attend her Baptist church, which Mags describes somewhat derogatorily as “just what she expected,” which is to say singing, praying, and a fire-and-brimstone-wielding minister. You think she is going to have a moment when the minister calls for silent prayer and Mags wonders if she is finally ready to give up the past, but just as she is descending into her first-ever communication with God, the minister breaks into the silent prayer time, and Mags concludes to herself, “Just as well, I wasn’t ready to give it up anyway.” That, and a nod to God in the author’s acknowledgements, was it. One cynically wonders if this tidbit was added simply to qualify for publication?

 

Call Down the Hawk

The mind of Maggie Stiefvater is a strange, labyrinthine forest of compelling characters, lyrical prose, and tantalizing half-formed truths not quite available to anyone but her.

HawkThis much-anticipated book is the first of a new trilogy that nonetheless revisits some familiar characters. Starring in this series are the Lynch brothers—Declan, Ronan, and Matthew—previously seen in Stiefvater’s Raven Boys books, plus a new dreamer, Jordan Hennessy, and her creations, a host of doppelgangers pulled from her sleep-time. All of these actors—familiar and unfamiliar—are fascinating, fallible, and easy to like or at least to follow.

Less sympathetic because harder to fathom are the “Zed” (dreamer) hunters who are on a mission to kill due to some nebulous vision that a dreamer will end the world if not stopped. The only one of these we get to know in some measure is the enigmatic but sympathetic Carmen Farooq-Lane; the rest of her “crew” by uneasy association (Lock, Ramsay, etc.) are mere names and occasional paragraphs of words, all hired, paid, and spurred on by an unnamed organization about which we are fated to know nothing, at least in this volume. Equally puzzling are the Visionaries who are in on the kill by association, in that their visions lead the hunters to the dreamers.
But it’s hard to understand where they came from, what was their original purpose, and why they are cooperating in the death of people who are, let’s face it, more sympathetically aligned with them than are these killers.

You will get from this description that there are parts of this book that are clear, linear, and engaging, and other parts that are frustrating, tangential, and confusing.

I was happy to see Ronan in the driver’s seat. I was less happy with the few glimpses we get of his paramour, Adam, away at college, but there are implied promises that Adam will reappear down the road. I loved the revelations about Declan’s persistent efforts to present a false face to the world, because in The Raven Boys and sequels I found his stance unbelievable and knew there was something better underneath the smug, preppy exterior. The new character(s) Jordan Hennessy, with her skills and her plight, are interesting and endearing and make you hope for their salvation. The exterior details surrounding everyone—the art forgeries, the black market, the odd foreshadowy people who turn up here and there, the bizarre real estate—give an extra depth to the story.

SaintMagsThis is definitely not a stand-alone work, what with all of its many implications left hanging. Truths are almost but not quite revealed about so many puzzles left over from The Raven Boys books or opened up for speculation in this one—the origins of Niall and Aurora Lynch, the disembodied voice of Bryde hocking Rowan from his dreams, the as-yet-unknown Dreamer X who is responsible for the hypothetical apocalypse…. This book is made of dreams and, like the dreaming mind, it all seems to make perfect sense until you wake up and realize you have a lot of questions! Can you please write a little faster, Saint Mags?

 

Crossover novels

Two of my favorite YA books of recent years were written by the same person. She’s not a well-known author, and not that many people have read her books compared to the overwhelming numbers who buy every book written by realistic fiction writers Sarah Dessen, John Green, or Rainbow Rowell. But if you haven’t read at least two of her books, you’re really missing out.

illbethereI just did a re-read of her first,
I’ll Be There. Previous to writing this realistic YA novel, Holly Goldberg Sloan was a screenwriter for family feature films, and some of that particular skill comes across in her first novel. It’s told in third person omniscient, so there isn’t nearly as much dialogue as you might expect, but you do find out a lot about the characters from the inside out, as you follow their thoughts about those with whom they are interacting. And these insights are a big part of the magic of this book.

Emily Bell is just a regular girl. Her mother is a nurse; her father is the choir director at their church; and she has an endearing little brother and a dog. Up until her 16th year, Emily’s life has followed a fairly conventional path. But as a result of taking one risk, she meets a boy unlike anyone she has ever known before, and this boy is going to change Emily’s destiny in a multitude of ways.

I know what you’re thinking: A meet-cute, followed by insta-love and some kind of semi-fake drama that throws them together or tears them apart or whatever. But this book, while written simply and clearly with largely knowable and understandable characters, is anything but typical.

Sam Border and his little brother, Riddle, have lived a life that is the polar opposite of Emily’s prosaic suburban existence. Their father, Clarence, a narcissistic grifter, stole them from their mother when Sam was in grade school and Riddle was little more than a toddler, and they haven’t had a home since. They travel wherever the luck takes Clarence, living in condemned houses and broken-down trailers, sometimes sleeping in Clarence’s truck. Sam never made it past second grade, and Riddle has never attended school.

When Emily and Sam meet and get together, each one is a conundrum to the other. Sam may see Emily more clearly than Emily sees Sam, because he knows the circumstances in which she was raised, while Emily has no clue about a life that doesn’t include a clock or a cell phone, in which people forage for leftovers from the trash at the fast food place and never know when they will be moving on. All Emily really knows about Sam is that he is different from anyone she has ever met, and she wants to know more. Their worlds are bridged by their attraction for one another.

Emily’s parents, concerned about their daughter’s fascination with this stranger, encourage her to bring Sam home to dinner, and when they begin to figure out what Sam’s life must be like, and then meet Riddle for the first time, their concern shifts to a desire to help. But the paranoid Clarence, who has trained his boys in how to remain invisibly under the radar, interprets this attention as a threat, and once again the boys are launched into the unknown, dragged at Clarence’s heels. This time, however, someone knows, someone cares, and someone is looking for them.

The book is filled with whimsy, pathos, humor, tragedy, and love. I have read it three times, and can imagine reading it again a few more. The book reminded me a bit of Trish Doller’s book Where the Stars Still Shine, because of the similar circumstances of a parent who lives his or her life with almost total disregard for the well-being of the children.

Sevens

Sloan’s other notable book is called Counting by 7s, and was Amazon’s best novel of the year for middle grade when it came out in 2013. Although it, too, highlights a child who is different from everyone around her (the one fish swimming against the current), it could scarcely be more different a story than the romance between Emily and Sam.

Willow Chance is a 12-year-old genius, a quirky obsessive-compulsive whose life was saved when her parents adopted her as a small child. Although she doesn’t fit in well with her peers, her multitude of interests (medicine, gardening, languages) keep her happy, if solitary. (Think of Sheldon Cooper as a small mixed-race girl.) Tragedy strikes when both her parents are killed in an automobile accident and Willow has to confront the possibility of foster care while doing without the love of the only two people who ever made an effort to understand her. What she does to reconstruct her life and find a family will keep you riveted to the end.

The only similarity of this book to the first one is Sloan’s multi-character-driven storytelling, which makes Willow’s story particularly vivid. The writing is spare yet incredibly dense in detail, if that’s possible. Although this book received a lot of attention from a multitude of literary awards geared towards writing for young people, I have always argued with my librarian colleagues that while it is about a middle-school-age child, the story is more sophisticated than can be appreciated by children of that age. One Goodreads reviewer conceived of Willow as “an American Matilda,” that beloved heroine created by Roald Dahl, which I thought was particularly insightful; and another character of whom I am reminded is that of Flavia de Luce, the amateur chemist and sleuth from Alan Bradley’s mystery series that began with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. There, as here, while the protagonist is a young girl, the story is for adults.

Don’t miss out on these two stories. Whether you are a teen or a grown-up, they are well worth your reading time.

 

B & B #2

I was delighted, upon browsing the seven-day checkouts in the Los Angeles Public Library
e-book catalog, to discover that there is already a new book out from Michael Connelly. That guy is prolific! It’s another that combines the efforts of long-time detective Harry Bosch with relative newcomer to the LAPD late shift Renée Ballard—Bosch #22, Ballard #3, and Connelly #33.

I was cautious about my feelings for Renée in The Late Show, the first book in which she appeared; after Connelly introduced Lucia Soto as a young partner for Harry a few books back, I was certain that she would be the next direction in which Connelly’s franchise would go, so I didn’t want to invest too much in yet another new character before knowing that person was around for the duration. But it’s looking like Ballard is the eventual successor to the world of Bosch, although that ascension is hopefully still at least a few more books in our future.

nightfireAs I said in my review of Connelly’s previous book, Dark, Sacred Night, Connelly solidified Ballard in that book and began to build a bridge between the old veteran and the young fanatic. In The Night Fire, the two detectives train their shared gleam in the eye on another compelling cold case. John Jack Thompson, the mentor who bequeathed to Harry his motto “Everybody matters or nobody matters” back when Harry was just a rookie,  instructed his wife, upon his demise, to seek out Bosch and hand over a 20-year-old murder book of an unsolved case. Now John Jack has passed, and the murder book has been passed down to Harry. It’s a puzzle, though, what the retired detective’s motives were in sequestering this case, since it doesn’t appear that he attempted to solve it. The murder book detailing the shooting of a young addict in a dark alley has been sitting stagnant in Thompson’s study for all this time. Enter Harry, who figures let’s get on it already and see what shakes out.

Harry is, however, fresh out of the hospital following knee surgery, and is hobbling around with a cane. Furthermore, he is all but suspended as a temp detective for the San Fernando Police Department due to shenanigans in his last outing with them, so he doesn’t have much pull or credibility left in any police venue. Ballard, however, is enough of a maverick to help him out, and is also a workaholic, restless soul just like Bosch, so she is ideal to pull in as the official part of this pairing.

In addition to sharing this case, Ballard has, as an active detective, cases of her own to pursue. And Harry has been tagged, mostly against his will as usual, to help his half-brother, defense attorney Mickey Haller, with a case in which Haller is convinced his client didn’t do the deed (as opposed to just arguing that, which is what he usually does). Getting his client off is the height of Haller’s expectations, but Harry can’t let it go at that; if Haller’s guy didn’t do it, somebody did, and Bosch wants to know who and put him or her in the crosshairs. So each of the detectives is busy on a couple of fronts, keeping things varied and exciting throughout.

This “partnership” is beginning to work smoothly in this volume, with both Bosch and Ballard coming to appreciate, understand, rely on, and enjoy the other’s working style. The moments when they meet up for a coffee, or a late lunch at Musso and Frank, and eagerly present their accomplishments, theories, and next steps to one another are among the best in the book, as you see these two intuitive and intelligent minds come together to combine their power. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re working on a school or business project with someone and they say just the right thing to spark your thoughts in a new and exciting direction. There are definitely sparks flying here. The Night Fire is a solid, entertaining, and forward-looking chapter in the Bosch iconography.

titus

Titus Welliver as Bosch

Michael Connelly recently revealed in a speaking engagement for the L.A. Times Book Club that Harry (and Renée) will be taking a holiday this year. In his next novel he intends to revive the character of Jack McAvoy,
a reporter who appeared in two of his previous books, as a way to present the positive side of journalism in the current “fake news” climate; and the book after that will feature “Lincoln Lawyer” Mickey Haller. Hopefully this hiatus won’t spell the end of Bosch. At least we have the sixth season of television Bosch to which we can look forward.

Big Library Read

From November 4th through November 18th, the e-book and audio book platform OverDrive, which supports digital formats in most library systems, sponsored what they called the Big Library Read. For this reading initiative, OverDrive selected a book and provided unlimited copies to all library customers to download for free, with no wait-list.

One thing I believe OverDrive is hoping to do with these kinds of initiatives is to get library users accustomed to the idea that if they check out a digital book, it returns itself to the library at the end of the lending period, so there are no late fees. Another incentive I have personally found appealing since I no longer work full-time and find myself increasingly reluctant to leave the house is that if you finish the book you are reading at bed-time and haven’t got another book lined up ready to go, you can hop on your library’s website at 2:00 in the morning, if need be, find an e-book you want to read, and 60 seconds later (unless it’s wait-listed) it’s on your Kindle or other device, ready to go. Even Amazon Prime can’t beat that.

notdyingThe book OverDrive selected for November’s Big Library Read was I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. The book looked intriguing to me, with its theme of race relations—I am always looking for new books with teen appeal to include in my Young Adult Literature class as examples of inclusivity and the outing of privilege. I liked the idea that the book was written from two separate perspectives, one black girl and one white, by two authors with diverse experiences dictated partially by race.

The book begins with newcomer Campbell reluctantly agreeing, under pressure from a teacher, to work the concessions stand at the Friday night football game. The teacher presents it idealistically as a chance to get to know others at the high school to which Cameron has just transferred—both the kids with whom she will work the stand, and the ones who come to buy—but Campbell has her doubts. She was sent to this school when her mom moved overseas for a job, leaving her to live with her dad, and it’s a different experience for her—the school is in a predominantly black neighborhood, whereas her last school had only a handful of black students. Since Campbell hardly knows anyone, the teacher assures her father—who is leaving that night to go out of town for the weekend—that she will drop Campbell at home after they wrap things up at the stand.

Unfortunately, things at this concession stand are neither planned out nor conducted in the same efficient way to which Campbell was accustomed at her old school, where she worked with a bunch of her friends. She is stuck with a couple of people who are patently not interested in being there (or helping), and the burden of the labor falls on her. As the line lengthens at the window and the increasingly desperate Campbell falls further behind, the people waiting begin to verbally abuse her.

Enter Lena. Campbell has seen Lena around school, but they know each other only well enough to say hi. Lena’s initial reaction to the milling crowd around the concessions stand is to tell Campbell to get her butt in gear, but she soon realizes that what’s going on isn’t Campbell’s fault. Then an altercation breaks out between a couple of people standing in line, and what begins as a minor food fight abruptly escalates. Lena jumps inside the stand with Campbell, and they decide to just ride things out in there…until shots are fired. Lena’s cell phone is dead, and Campbell’s is in her backpack in a classroom far from where they are, so they can’t call for help. This is the set-up for a night of escalating violence and chaos in which Lena and Campbell have to rely on and trust one another to get themselves out of this mess, which has turned into a town-wide race riot.

I liked this book, but…it felt like something was lacking. It will be a winner for sure with teen book clubs (and maybe some adult ones too), because there are so many things to discuss—the precon-ceptions, the white and black perspectives, the differing attitudes, the connectedness (or lack of) to the community, the whole boyfriend thing (to what lengths will I go to keep my man), etc. But I almost felt like it was written specifically with this purpose in mind—to provide lots of fodder for a discussion group—and not simply as a novel.

There’s no real story arc; it’s more of a slice of life-type thing, with documentation of two girls’ experiences of the same events over the course of one night. It’s intense and fast-paced, and keeps you reading, and it’s not bad…but I think I would have appreciated it a lot more had there been more development, more interplay between the girls, maybe even some continuity beyond this one night. There wasn’t enough “there” there. People have been citing this as the natural follow-up book to The Hate U Give, but while it focuses on some of the same issues, has great characterizations, and raises lots of questions, it’s not a STORY the way that book was, and that’s disappointing. While I wouldn’t turn you away from it, if you want a more comprehensive treatment of these issues I’d say to read The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, How It Went Down, or Lies We Tell Ourselves instead.

 

The Testaments

The Handmaid’s Tale is everything you would expect from the dystopian genre. It is at once spare and low-key and at the same time terrifying. It is a beautifully written piece of literature, sufficient to itself, leaving the reader with ambiguity about the fate of the individual characters but with a satisfyingly clear picture of the narrow and punitive theocratic world it depicts.

I was, therefore, quite ambivalent about a sequel, especially one coming out 30 years later and after the equally dynamic and engaging (although horrifying) visual depiction of the Hulu television series.

The publishers amped up anticipation for this book by making some promises:

“In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades. When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death. With The Testaments, the wait is over.”

testamentsFor the most part, I would say that these promises are not kept. Offred is not present in this book, except for some oblique references by people who don’t know her. Neither the beginnings nor the ending of Gilead are sufficiently detailed as to give the reader significant new insights into the rise and fall of this so-called religious obscenity of a government, although the theme of fascism—and the fact that it’s the low-level enablers who keep the system going, and not necessarily those at the top—is well documented. Apart from acknowledging that there is a resistance, and noting some of the actions of individual members, there is no cohesive picture of how it began, who is in it or runs it, or how they operate, beyond a few specific examples that still leave you wondering about the organization as a whole. If you have watched the television show, then you are unsurprised by the venality and corruption of the leaders of the republic, and even if you have not, if you are an astute reader with an imagination, you could easily extrapolate.

As far as the objective quality of the book and the story, I was disappointed to some extent. This book doesn’t speak with the same voice, take the same tone, or carry the same weight as the original. It reads more like a mainstream, action-driven novel, highly accessible, and thus may appeal to more readers. But it also suffers from something I doubt Atwood anticipated: The fact that two of the three narrators are young girls gives it a quality of immaturity that makes the book occasionally come off like a well written Young Adult novel. You can’t fault the writer for this, since the truth of Gilead is that they raise ’em “right” and push them into their roles as women while they are still barely nubile girls, so that there is less chance of self-awareness or rebellion. But the result for the narrative is that the girls occasionally present as typical whiney teenagers, which sometimes doesn’t seem right for the context. Furthermore, because one girl’s point of view is from the comparatively privileged space of a Commander’s daughter while the other’s is as an outsider raised in Canada, neither the narrative nor the sense of the plight of the women so ill-used by the hierarchy—the Handmaids, the Marthas, the Jezebels—is nearly as dramatic. Despite some sacrifices, the girls are more focused on self-interest and their personal lives than on the big picture of bringing down the government.

The saving grace of the novel is the third narrator, the nefarious Aunt Lydia who has become so prominent a figure in the Hulu series. Most of the material written from her perspective does give the promised insights into the underpinnings and back-door deals of the corrupt government underlying Gilead’s sanctity, and the two-faced, manipulative, passive-aggressive way she goes about achieving her objectives is positively Machiavellian, as is the long game she is playing. Her portion of the novel is truly a delight, but can’t quite carry the rest. I also disliked the ending.

My reaction, upon turning the last page, was to feel a little flat. I subconsciously expected lyrically written prose with a subtle plot, some substantial heroines, and a more revealing take on the Republic of Gilead. Instead, I discovered a fairly straightforward, occasionally witty thriller that gave me a bit more information, and added somewhat to social commentary. Perhaps that will be enough, or even preferable, for some readers. You will have to judge for yourself.

Fresh look: old books

In the realm of science fiction writing, it mostly seems like the guys get all the love, so for this foray into older reads, I’m going to focus on some interesting and talented women writers, those who specifically address the interaction between humans and “aliens,” or between races of people, with a psychological, cultural, religious, and/or philosophical bent. The fact that these books, some of them decades old, are also completely relevant to many of our current circumstances is the mark of a good speculative fiction writer…

sparrowFirst up are two books by Mary Doria RussellThe Sparrow, and Children of God. Russell has a background as a paleoanthropologist, and she makes excellent use of it in this two-book tale of humans’ first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The action in the first book jumps back and forth between 2016, when an expedition is being put together in response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life (obviously a 2016 more advanced than our own!), and 2059, when the leader of that expedition, a charismatic Catholic priest and linguist who is its sole survivor, is being examined by the Vatican in search of an explanation for how first contact could have gone so horribly wrong. In the second book, Father Emilio Sandoz is forced to return with a second expedition to discover all the ways in which the impact of the first mission has shifted the cultures of the dominant and submissive races on the planet. Russell writes a good story, but also explores sociological, spiritual, and scientific aspects of the situation she has postulated, resulting in a compelling read.

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors ever. She wrote the entire spectrum from fantasy to hardcore science fiction, but all from a philosophical, sociological, and anthropological viewpoint that makes them particularly fascinating answers to “what if?” (Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer.)

earthseaOn the fantasy end of the spectrum are the Earthsea books, which started out as a trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), but then got added to with a book of short stories (Tales from Earthsea) and two more sequels (Tehanu and The Other Wind). I point that out because while the original trilogy is completely satisfying, you wouldn’t want to miss the other two books; and the short stories add depth to the world she created, a world that is deceptively simple but that contains timeless and sophisticated themes.

dispoAmong Le Guin’s many other books, my favorites are The Dispossessed—about a group of utopians who left their planet’s surface 100 years ago to settle on the moon so they could pursue their chosen lifestyle, and what happens when a physicist on the moon decides that he will break the forbidden silence between the two planets—and The Left Hand of Darkness—about a planet that is being considered by an Envoy (a person who travels to new civilizations to check them out) for membership in a vast intergalactic association. The sentient species on this planet is both male and female, and can switch genders, depending on various environmental and emotional factors, so that one person can be both a mother and a father in the course of their lives. The Envoy is the only person on the entire planet who is one-gendered, and it’s a strange experience for him, needless to say. LeGuin was always “fashion forward” in terms of the themes of her books, so for her to explore gender issues so thoroughly before the rest of us took notice is no surprise.

Next on my list is Sheri S. Tepper, who had a varied career as an executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a guest ranch owner in Santa Fe and, later in life, a prolific science fiction author.

famtreeMy favorite is The Family Tree. Police officer Dora Henry is looking into the murders of three geneticists who were working on a secret project. But while she is conducting her investigation, bizarre things start to occur: Plants start taking over the city, and dictating where people can and can’t drive by blocking the roads with trees. The weirdest part is that Dora can somehow communicate with the plants. Dora comes to realize (through an agency that I can’t reveal because it’s such a spoiler) that there is the potential for a civilization-ending catastrophe that she may be a key figure in averting. This is such a quirky and entertaining read, not to mention environmentally relevant for all of us in this particular moment.

Tepper has her own entry in the “alien contact” trope, and it’s a good one. It’s called The Fresco, and it starts out with a hilarious sequence in which Benita Alvarez-Shipton, the abused wife of an alcoholic loser, runs into two aliens in a remote wooded area of the New Mexico mountains, and they designate her, despite her protests that she’s “not anybody,” to take their message to her leader. So she hops on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tries to explain it all to her congressman. She thinks that’s an end to her involvement, but the aliens have more in mind for her to do. The book is a vehicle for cultural, political, and religious issues, and Tepper does, to be fair, have a particular agenda. But since I mostly agreed with her agenda, I enjoyed the book! You might, too. It’s wickedly humorous, as well.

snowAnother great sci fi writer is Joan D. Vinge. Her epic series is contained in three volumes: The Snow Queen, World’s End, and The Summer Queen, which are about a backwards little planet called Tiamat that happens to be a key transition point at the core of a galaxy, and the so-called primitives whose quaint society is maintained without change by the powers-that-be on other planets, simply to keep the transition point open for their trade ships, none of which stop at this planet. Every 150 years the “star-gate” closes, and then the primitives reign, but this time there are political moves being made to maintain the status quo. The theme of exploitation of a native people to maintain use of their natural resources lifts this trilogy beyond simple fantasy.

5thA classic book about what can happen when natural resources are treated with respect and what will happen when they are not is The Fifth Sacred Thing, by ecofeminist and permaculture teacher Starhawk. A group of spiritually and politically enlightened old women start a radical movement in the streets of San Francisco designed to result in a utopia in which water runs freely, everyone has enough to eat, and perfect equality is more than just a goal. By contrast, Los Angeles has adhered to the old ways, in which the people in power are privileged and everyone else is starving. What happens when these two cultures clash, the one an advocate of nonviolent resistance, the other a society with drug-reliant soldiers enslaved and trained to destroy? Walking to Mercury and City of Refuge are the sequels.

irustanFinally, although I’ve mentioned it here before, I’d like to remind readers of a particular book by Louise Marley, The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.

This concludes our tour of some powerful speculative fiction writers and their tantalizing works. I hope you will consider them when you are in the mood to be entertained but also want something of substance to occupy your mind.

 

Buh-bye, Jack

A brand-new Jack Reacher novel came out in October and, lulled by my positive experience of reading the last one, I enthusiastically put my name on the holds list at the library and jumped right on it as soon as it appeared on my Kindle. That’s the last time I will be doing that.

bluemoonThe book starts out like a typical Reacher story: Reacher is riding nowhere in particular on a Greyhound bus. A man on the bus exits, and is about to be mugged for his money; before the mugger can get away with it, Reacher is off the bus behind him and taking care that the mugger gets away with nothing. Then, with (previously) charactistic kindness, he offers to help the old man, who is shaken up and injured slightly, to get home. In the course of the action, he gets the old man’s tale, which is a sad one, and decides to see if he can help him in some small way.

The interesting part of the plot, to me, was that the old man’s money troubles were due to a sick daughter with no medical insurance, and the parents were struggling to pay her bills, ultimately resorting to borrowing money from the local mob as each test and treatment mounted up into the tens of thousands of dollars. Ah hah! I thought, Child is going to address some actual drama from real life, the way he did in the previous topical Reacher novel about opioid addiction, only this time Reacher’s going to take on the relentless rule of insurance companies over healthcare in America. Good for him! Alas, that theme disappears rapidly into a battle, instead, between Jack (on behalf of the impoverished family) vs. the loan sharks.

The plot takes a turn that honestly no one—even a diehard fan of these books—could believe. With a little help from a “petite, gamine” bar waitress, her two supposedly laid-back musician friends, and their buddy who used to be in some branch of the military, Reacher takes on two rival gangs, one Albanian and one Ukrainian, who between them have split control of the town and all its under-the-table dirty deeds. He ostensibly does this simply to get the old man’s money back…but he goes about it like an avenging angel focused on obliteration, and that’s what he achieves.

We are used to seeing the Jack Reacher who will take on five bullies at once, and put them down in the interest of making an impression; but we are not used to the Jack Reacher who carries four Glocks on his person and kills indiscriminately. I daresay there are at least 60 corpses in this story directly attributable to him, and maybe 10 of them could have been classed as self-defense. We are used to the Jack Reacher who befriends and has a casual romance with a woman in the course of his adventures; we are not used to the woman being an enthusiastic party to wholesale slaughter—Bonnie to Reacher’s Clyde—with a gun of her own and no apparent moral compass. We are used to the Jack who occasionally makes a friend and turns him into an ally, but in this book he does this with three men so nondescript and so obviously meant as mere foils and backup as to be nothing more than cardboard characters. Every time he referred to one of them by name, I had to stop and think, Um, who is that again? is that a Ukrainian? Oh, no, it’s Reacher’s ally. Right.

By the end of the book I was sickened by the callous and matter-of-fact killing of practically every character to whom we had been introduced. The Reacher of yore would have initiated some discussion at first, at least, but this one is bent on destruction. Where is his measured compassion and sense of fair play? The ultimate decision he makes in the last few pages, once he has achieved what he promised for the old man, was so out of character as to be ludicrous—and disturbing. And then he and his woman enjoy a cozy interlude back at her place and think to themselves, Better them than us! Really?

I am finally done with this franchise. I have been lured back several times by a return to the Reacher who acts for justice, a minor vigilante assisting the downtrodden who can’t act for themselves; but that man has morphed into a monster, and no longer exists. I will never trust his character again. Mr. Child, with this one you have truly jumped the shark.

jumpshark

Love across the Pond

When I heard the plot summary of Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, all I could think was, What a gimmick. And when I saw the cover, I thought, Oh, I get it, “chick lit” for gay guys.

redwhiteblueAlex Claremont-Diaz’s mother is the President of the United States, so her family members are under heavy scrutiny. Alex is inevitably cast as the handsome and charismatic “First Son” that everyone romanticizes.

Prince Henry of England (not the heir, but the spare—the second son) is likewise a glittering image of royalty, close to the same age as Alex and with all the advantages and a similar fixation by the public on his every move.

When word gets around, after a couple of meetings, that the two dislike one another, consternation apparently erupts on both sides of the Pond, and diplomatic relations people hastily put together a meet-cute opportunity for the two to prove that the rumors are false and everything is copacetic between the youth of these two allied nations. But the diplomats had no idea, when they encouraged friendship between the royal and the First Son, what a hornets’ nest they would be stirring up!

When I asked a librarian friend of mine if she’d read the book, she tossed off a casual recommendation, saying simply “It was cute!” so I figured it would be just another lightweight romantic comedy for gay teens. Nope. Red, White & Royal Blue wasn’t what I was expecting…and I’m so glad!

I swiftly got past the first part of the book, which was a little cute, if not cutesy, with the I-hate-him-I-love-him turnaround from Alex, and into the relationship proper, which was intense, deep, and precarious, given that one lover was the son of the first female President of the United States and the other was a Prince of England, and there was a lot invested by both sides in remaining discreet. Henry has, perhaps, the most to lose, since the royal façade doesn’t allow for deviation from the hetero pattern of marriage and babies to keep the descendents coming; but Alex likewise faces a certain amount of jeopardy on behalf of his mother—being the first woman president carries the presumption that everyone in the family will act at all times with transparent perfection. His mother, however, doesn’t cherish the same expectations for her children as do the royals. She just wants them to be sure of themselves, and to be happy.

The author was so effective in writing all the things that needed to be here—the sexual awakening of Alex, and Henry, too, to some degree; the non-awkward, rather compelling sex scenes; the wonderful banter (amongst all the fleshed-out characters, not just between the protagonists); the properly scaled-down but still ever-present politics; the romance and joy of falling in love (not in lust or in crush); and, ultimately, the painful but necessary pursuit of the truth of who these two young men want to be.

Casey McQuiston, well done! I’ll look forward to more books from you.

Readers please note: I didn’t realize at first that this book is aimed more at the new adult (18-25) market than at the teen (12-18), so I was a little taken aback at how frankly the sex was described. Not over the top, not explicit to the point of discomfort, but still real and honest beyond most teen fiction. So if you are recommending it, my advice would be not to drop below the senior-in-high-school mark.