As I noted in a previous post, I had been plagued by the memory of a book I had read some years ago that should have been on my dystopian/post-apocalyptic list, or maybe in historical fiction, but wasn’t. That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and after I finally dredged up the memory of the title, I discovered she had, since I read it back in the ’90s, written two sequels. I finally got around to revisiting Benson’s creation this week; my initial intention was simply to read the sequels, but I felt the need to refresh my memory of the first book, so I did a reread first, which changed my plans.
I finished the book this morning, and went to the library website to obtain the two sequels for my Kindle (neither was available); but after then browsing through some reviews on Goodreads and further pondering what I had just read based on some observations I found there, I decided the story, while intriguing in many ways, wasn’t something I wanted to pursue beyond the first volume.
Although I write this review blog and can be analytical about a book, I think I have confessed before that sometimes I am not a particularly discriminating reader. Certain things will turn me off immediately—repetitious word usage, bad grammar, lousy world-building, clichéd characterizations, wince-worthy love matches—but I am all too prone to be swept up by a story that has compelling elements without fully recognizing its flaws until I take a minute, and that was the case here.
I did love the set-up, which was a future/past double narrative of the Black Death in 1348 England and a post-“Outbreak” world in the future (which in the 1990s when it was written was actually 2005) after an antibiotic-resistant disease has decimated the population of the United States and done lesser but still severe damage to England.
The protagonist in the 1300s narrative is a Jewish doctor named Alejandro Canches, who is masquerading as a Spanish Christian after an unfortunate event necessitates he flee his home and conceal his identity. He becomes caught up in the priority of the Catholic Church to preserve the heads of state in Europe from the virulent plague that is ravaging every country, and is sent by the Pope across the English Channel from Avignon to the court of Edward III to impose draconian measures of quarantine and hopefully keep the large and contentious royal family of Plantagenets alive and healthy.
The narrative in the near-future section is carried by American Janie Crowe, a former surgeon who has lost her husband, daughter, and career to the recent pandemic and is starting over by attempting to qualify as a medical archaeologist. She travels to London with her assistant, Caroline, to take a variety of soil samples she will use in her doctoral dissertation project. The world in England post-pandemic is a closely monitored one with bureaucracy impeding every move, particularly those of foreign nationals, and Biocops on watch for the slightest infraction of health protocols. In the course of her work, Janie will unwittingly dig up an artifact that has the potential to release an ancient plague for which there is no modern cure.
The story-telling is absorbing and keeps up a fairly brisk pace, but the editing left something to be desired in terms of anachronistic and repetitive language, plus some scenes that are unnecessarily drawn out with superfluous amounts of detail; it’s not exactly obvious that this is a first-time writer, but the narrative could definitely have been tighter. It was easy to invest in the personalities and individual quirks of the two main characters, but less easy to overlook some of the anomalies that take a good premise and make it slightly ridiculous as less-than-believable events transpire one after the other. And while introducing a romantic element into the 1300s part of the story worked nicely, the one in the near-future sections was just awkward.
The thing that bothered me the most—which is odd, because I am usually a fan of magical realism or mystical features—was the source of the remedy, the midwife Mother Sarah and her centuries-long legacy. We never really learn how she came to develop her healing knowledge, and the mysterious natural elements that conspire to conceal or reveal her presence remain likewise unexplained. I would have enjoyed all these details if they had been integrated into any kind of logical system but, as they are written, they are merely frivolous and unsatisfying window dressing that ultimately detract.
If you like this kind of story I wouldn’t tell you not to read it; there is much to enjoy here. But while the details of the past are more believable (and better written), the way the future tale plays out is hard to swallow and also kind of silly.
If you are looking for a better version of these events, even down to the past/future component, I recommend you seek out the award-winning Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, instead. That one I can unreservedly recommend! (And then follow it up with some or all of her other time travel fiction.)
The setting of this realistic young adult novel by Jennifer Mathieu seemed so appropriate when I began reading it a couple of weeks ago, and even more relevant at this present moment. It takes place at a high school in a small East Texas town, and the atmosphere there reverts back to the 1950s with its misogynistic focus on football players who can do no wrong and girls who are expected, for the sake of “school spirit,” to put up with their endless immature sexist bullshit as well as their overbearing sense of entitlement.
One junior girl, previously something of a nonentity at the school, starts to get fed up and looks for inspiration to her mother’s past. Although she and her mom returned to Texas to live close to her grandparents so her mom could afford to support them, in her youth Vivian’s mother was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in 1990s Seattle, and the vestiges of her rebellious lifestyle reside in a shoebox on the top shelf of her closet. Although Vivian has previously sorted through the contents of this box, one night after the most egregious offender from the football team—the quarterback, who also happens to be the school principal’s son—takes out his sick sexist humor on the new girl in class, Viv hauls it out again and looks for inspiration. She ends up creating a feminist ‘zine she calls Moxie, gets copies made at the local printshop, and hits campus super early to anonymously leave stacks of them in all the girls’ bathrooms.
Although she mostly did it just to let off steam (and isn’t even sure that she herself will take the action that she is advocating for others in its pages), Vivian’s ‘zine provokes a response from other girls that carries it far beyond what she ever intended, and Vivian is caught up in a movement she feels she may have started but ultimately doesn’t own. The validation from her classmates helps her develop a more solid sense of who and what she is (a person with options and a feminist), and the concluding chapters of the book are particularly gratifying in their empowerment of these girls. This is an excellent portrayal of grass roots activism for teenagers in this fraught political climate.
It also tackles white privilege regarding feminist issues, and features some people of color who fill Vivian in on the differences they experience when it comes to being feminist. And it avoids cliché in that it also doesn’t completely stereotype all the males in the story—Viv has a love interest who is doing his best to support, understand, and participate in her experiment, and he is portrayed realistically—sometimes he just doesn’t get it, but he listens and he learns. It’s great modeling.
Finally, it features a lot of fun music from the ’90s Seattle scene.
Although the story and writing are somewhat low-key, the entire effect of this book was a vital exploration of the awakening of girls to a situation in life that need to be changed and the tools they can pick up to do so. Although the things they do, set in the context of high school rituals, might in some cases seem trivial, the result of their actions is to propel them on to bigger goals, and in the process to include more and more people in the awakening. I’d love to see this on high school reading lists, although taking into account the contrariness of teens, that would probably mean it wouldn’t get read. So I will just say, if you are a librarian, a sister, a parent, or a teacher who wants to inspire some girls to think more of themselves and each other, hand them Moxie.
I followed through on my intention to read more young adult books by Elle Cosimano, by checking out her duology about Nearly Boswell. Yes, that’s her name, although she makes her friends call her Leigh, because she thinks a name like Nearly makes her stick out too much. Nearly is a girl who likes to operate below the radar for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that she has a special “gift” (or curse): If she touches someone, skin on skin, she can feel their emotions, and can usually tell whether they are lying or being truthful. Although this sounds useful, functionally it can be overwhelming, giving her a bunch of information she doesn’t really want to know. Other reasons include that she lives in a run-down trailer park with a mom who makes her living as an exotic dancer, and Nearly doesn’t want to give anyone more reasons for verbal target practice at her expense.
Nearly’s father left them five years ago, and (a pivotal plot point) Nearly reads the personal ads daily, searching for a message from him (since he communicated with her in that way once before). But what crops up instead are a bunch of weirdly worded clues that end up being the precursors to murder—all of people somehow associated with her life. Now she’s in a race to interpret or solve the clues to try to beat the murderer to the next victim, assisted by Reece, a new love interest who may not be someone she should trust.
This mystery is solved in the first book, but events begin to repeat themselves in book #2, as Nearly navigates her way through an internship at the town crime lab (although the clues appear as chemistry formulas rather than as personal ads) in a weirdly familiar way that just can’t be happening, given that the person most likely to be tormenting her is now locked away in prison. It also doesn’t help that Reece is working as an informant for the police and is involved with another girl as part of his undercover personna. When a skeleton is exhumed from the local golf course, Nearly has to wonder: Could it be her con man father buried there? or is it someone he murdered?
These are suspenseful reads, a little dark, and rather brilliantly plotted. Teens who enjoy the Naturals series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes would probably love them. The books are Nearly Gone, and Nearly Found.
I just read two delightful books in a planned series by young adult author Elle Cosimano, although these books are intended for adults. I checked out the first, Finlay Donovan is Killing It, based on a “best books” email from Goodreads; my brain kept nagging me that I should recognize the name of the author, but it wasn’t until I finished that book and the sequel and went looking for her on Goodreads that I realized she was the author of a wonderful YA book, part paranormal and part gritty realistic fiction, that I had read back in 2016. That book was Holding Smoke, and I had forgotten all about it but certainly remember it now, because it was one of my favorite books of that year, to the point where I raved about it and gave it five stars.
Her YA books seem to be similar in content (mystery/thrillers) but completely different in execution from these first two books for adults. The YA books are deadly serious, while the Finlay Donovan books are deadly but also funny, sort of a mashup of thriller, French farce, and relationship fiction. Those elements may sound incompatible, but Cosimano makes them work, and keeps you in both suspense and in stitches all the way through.
Finlay is a newly single mom; her husband, Stephen, left her and her two young children for his real estate agent, Theresa, and is now using his vastly greater income and resulting stability as a weapon to try to win custody of the kids. Meanwhile, Finlay, who is a novelist with a string of almost-successful romance/thrillers that have garnered small advances and insignificant royalties, is way behind with her latest manuscript, for which her agent and editor are both hounding her, and she has maxed-out credit cards and nothing coming in to cover the copious bills piling up on her porch. To top that off, her husband has just fired her nanny without telling her, and she’s late to a meeting with her agent due to a catastrophic incident with a pair of scissors that left her daughter, Delia, half bald with a bloody scratch on her head.
Absentmindedly stuffing the scissors and the bloody rag she used to stop the bleeding into her diaper bag, Finlay rushes the kids off to their father for a couple of hours so as to meet up with her agent for a late lunch at Panera, to discuss deadlines Finlay already knows she’s not going to be able to meet. A woman seated next to the two eavesdrops on their conversation about how to deal with a dastardly man and provide a safe haven for a nice woman (part of the plot of her latest book), catches a glimpse of the scissors and the blood-spotted diaper in Finlay’s bag, and jumps to a wrong conclusion. After taking a trip to the restroom, Finlay discovers a note left for her by the eavesdropper, offering $50K if Finlay the contract killer will “off” the woman’s husband.
In a book that promises mystery, intrigue, and laughs, we get everything we are promised as this crazy but nonetheless somewhat plausible story unfolds. The coincidences are epic, but I embraced them whole-heartedly as necessary to the continuation of the saga of Finlay, her errant nanny, Vero, and the love interest—a hot young bartender studying to be a lawyer who unwittingly gives Finlay a much-needed alibi when her bad decisions blow up on her.
I finished the book in two days, and couldn’t wait to grab the sequel, Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead, which was, if possible, even more fun, bringing a plot so convoluted that only Finlay and Vero could figure it out…eventually. The third book, Finlay Donovan Jumps the Gun, is due out in 2023, and I can hardly wait. In the meantime, though, I am going back to explore Cosimano’s young adult novels to see if the others measure up to Holding Smoke. If so, there will be more raving to come.
Back in 2012, I read Malinda Lo‘s science fiction book, Adaptation, and gave it a four-star rating and a good review. It was good storytelling, had romance both gay and straight, and hey, aliens!
Ever since then, I have meant to go back to her and at least read Ash, her Cinderella retelling with a sapphic twist, and this week I finally did so, as part of my preparation for my “speculative fiction” unit at UCLA for my Young Adult Literature class.
I have to say I was underwhelmed. There are nice things to say about the book: The writing is sometimes lyrical, and the scene-setting imagery (descriptions of forests, countryside, hunting on horseback, etc.) is lovely. Some of the characters are attractive, at least in their physical descriptions. But it seemed like Lo didn’t quite know how to both present/exploit the original fairy tale and then deviate from it effectively (or provocatively, as most readers would be expecting).
The details of the original that were retained were clichéd, with the stepmother being almost a cartoon caricature and the daughters’ personalities left unformed beyond the usual, which is to say, the elder is egocentric, frivolous, and mean, while the younger (less attractive and therefore less valuable?) retains a smidgen of humanity. The father likewise becomes the bum who didn’t pay the bills and left everyone in the lurch. And the prince (central to the original tale) has barely a cameo appearance in this book. The character of Aisling’s absent (dead) mother was so much more fully formed than most of the people in this story who were alive—it was both disconcerting and not ultimately useful.
You would think, against this backdrop, that the main players—Aisling or “Ash” (Cinderella), the King’s Huntress, Kasia, and the mysterious Fae suitor, Sidhean, would shine. They don’t, and nor do their relationships. Although Ash regards Sidhean with awe and wonder and looks forward to his visits and his company, there is little emotional involvement visible from either side (except for one or two extremely brief repressed moments on Sidhean’s part), and the prospect of going away with him does not fill Ash with joy, despite her miserable lifestyle from which one would think she would be desperate to escape.
Likewise, the meetings with the Huntress only hint tentatively and subtly at there being any kind of fascination (on either side), let alone attraction, and are so quietly and decorously handled that you keep wondering if you imagined reading the synopsis of the book in which these two supposedly fall in love. There are moments…but they remain unarticulated until almost the very end, and there is little sense of who the Huntress is, with few glimpses into her past and present and almost no indication of her feelings. There is no love story here, except in the vague dim recesses of the two characters’ minds—no verbalization, no wooing, no physical manifestation.
In effect, this book has an almost totally flat affect. Although there are conflicts (as Ash learns from her rather obsessive reading of fairy tales, it’s a big deal to go away with a fae into his land, where time moves differently and people can become trapped forever), they are not ultimately dealt with as if they are that significant. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but the resolution with Sidhean was puzzling, abrupt, and unsatisfying.
In this setting/world it also seems that a relationship with a fae prince is so much more scandalous than is a lesbian one—which seems almost completely taken for granted—that the reader is denied even the frisson of forbidden love, and when the two women eventually get together, it verges on mundane. And I mean, we all say we want books in which same-sex relationships are accepted and taken for granted, but…this is a fairy tale retelling in which “Ash” supposedly ends up a princess, married to a prince, so…shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks when that doesn’t happen?
I was just puzzled by this book—especially all the ways the author chose not to go. It’s not exactly a pan—it’s a pleasant enough read, and has some interesting moments—but it was so much less than I hoped or expected.
My UCLA class of masters students who are studying Young Adult Literature with me this quarter are a sharp bunch, and I have been thoroughly enjoying both discussing the books we are reading for class, and reading their synopses and review comments on Goodreads, where they post their conclusions for class credit.
One recent option for our unit on the paranormal was Akata Witch (The Nsibidi Scripts #1 of 3), by Nnedi Okorafor, and since it was the only assigned work I had not yet read, I picked it up last week along with a number of my students. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it; I read Okorafor’s book Who Fears Death and had a decidedly mixed reaction, partly admiration for its ambition, partly frustration for its all-over-the-map plot that felt like it never settled to one coherent story line. But I had enjoyed her novella Binti, so I trusted that this one might have similar appeal.
I was not disappointed by Akata Witch. I found it fresh and original, immediately bonded with the outsider status of its protagonist, Sunny Nwazue, and enjoyed the juxtaposition of her real world’s clash with the new system of magic she discovers through an unusual personal experience and the intervention of a friend from school and a neighbor to whom he introduces her.
Two of my students mention in their reviews how the book harks back to Harry Potter for them, or that they saw this parallel that has been pointed out by some reviewers. I’m assuming this is because it’s a group of children being inducted into a magical world, with a main protagonist who previously knew nothing of this world or her heritage or place in it. While it’s true that previous to seeing the end of the world in a candle flame (and setting her hair on fire), Sunny had no idea of the extra dimensions to which she was soon to be welcomed, which I guess you could see as parallel to Harry’s experience in going from an orphan under the stairs to a student at Hogwarts through the agency of an admissions letter and the abrupt appearance of Hagrid at his door, that is where the similarity ended for me. In the Potter books, once the children are transported to Hogwarts they enter a closed world, and they rarely set foot outside it for their subsequent years of education, having no contact with Muggles (regular people) except for their summers at home (which are mostly not portrayed in the books in any detail). Conversely, in Sunny’s world the Leopard People (those who possess magical abilities) live in the midst of the Lambs (regular people), and must be diligent to both keep up appearances in that world and keep their juju, their extra dimension of skills, beliefs, and magics to themselves.
This brought up yet another interesting point, from one of my students, Natalie M., who advanced the theory that Akata Witch is magical realism. I initially balked at that idea—it’s paranormal fantasy, I said—but then, as we discussed and tried to pin down the various aspects of magical realism, I realized that the story did fall into the classic definition: A book that is essentially realistic, into which magical elements are introduced as matter-of-factly as the day-to-day. I liked this quote I found in an excellent article by Kelsey McKinney in Vox:
Unlike in fantasy novels, authors in the magical realism genre deliberately withhold information about the magic in their created world in order to present the magical events as ordinary occurrences, and to present the incredible as normal, everyday life.
Some of the things I liked about the book:
The outsider status of the protagonist. She is different from those around her in so many ways: She was born in the United States, but to two Nigerian parents, who later return with their family to Nigeria (when Sunny is nine), so she has been raised as some hybrid of the two and is ostracized for it; she is an albino, with yellow hair and skin “the color of spoiled cream,” so one difference is constantly on display; she is a girl who excels at soccer but isn’t allowed to play, for both misogynistic and physical reasons (she burns too easily in the sunlight).
The world-building: The story-telling felt so fresh to me, I think, because the world is so obviously not America-centric. The day-to-day events, the culture, the places they visit and the descriptions of those places, the clothing, felt distinctly like something I had never previously experienced, and I enjoyed that.
How the magic works: While the four main characters—Sunny, Orlu, Sasha, and Chichi—are expected to adhere to certain standards in their magical learning and practice and not trespass on forbidden areas, there is not the feeling that their teachers or mentors are attempting to impose conformity on them—rather, they are celebrated for their diverse aspects, and their talents actually follow from them. (For instance, Orlu’s dyslexia makes him an adept at unworking or undoing spells.) There are certain messages here that are often neglected in worlds in which people somehow attempt to master or dominate magical abilities; in this one, the pursuit of power for power’s sake is discouraged, as is perfectionism, particularly comparing one’s own mastery to the progress of others. While there is some system to the magic they practice (gaining knowledge through books, through personal instruction, and through experimentation), there is never any complacency about “how things work,” because the juju can go rogue at any moment, setting up both the magical world and the world as a whole as unpredictable and not to be taken for granted. And I loved some of the details, such as the “chittim” (currency) that rains down on someone for learning something new, having a valuable insight, or successfully performing in a challenging moment. It seemed just the right method of positive reinforcement.
Although some reviewing this book find disturbing the disregard the older Leopards, the mentors, seem to have for the safety of the four when it comes time for them to confront their Oha challenge by defeating Black Hat Otokoto, I actually found that an additional piece of evidence that this is a world based on realism: The mentors fully realize the danger into which the children go and, granted, seem a bit ruthless when considering their fates, but they also recognize that the unpredictability and serendipity of sending these mostly untried practitioners up against this powerful villain may have a good result where calculated measures have failed.
Based on this first book, I think this is a wonderful tale to add to the “canon” of magical systems in teen fiction, and look forward to what the other two books in the series will reveal (if I can ever access them from the library’s extensive holds list!).
As a huge fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, I can’t believe this book never came up on my radar until now! I think I might have heard of it before, but never clocked exactly what it was about, and its title doesn’t reveal much about the contents. Then when I read that it was about a traveling troupe of actors, I may also have discounted its appeal to me. But so many people mention it on “What Should I Read Next?” (a Facebook group) when asked for good end-of-the-world fiction that I put it on my “want to read” list and finally got around to it this week.
Although the seed of the book is a worldwide flu pandemic, we don’t really learn much about that flu, because it is so deadly that there is no time for doctors to ponder origin, discuss cases, analyze it to reveal symptoms, search for a cure, or produce a vaccine, as people have done during our own pandemic that is (hopefully) slowly winding down.
In this iteration, the flu arrives in New York City on a plane from Russia; within hours, everyone who was on the flight is dead, and within another day or so almost everyone who came into contact with those carriers is also dead or dying. Medical personnel inform their loved ones, who tell their friends, and there is a mass exodus out of the city, which ends as each exposed person is overcome and passes it in turn to the next. Other planes come into other cities from other countries, all of which were exposed to the flu prior to the United States, and soon, even for the immune or the lucky, there is nowhere to flee. The entire world has been infected and overwhelmed, and civilization rapidly comes to an end. Planes are grounded, trains and cars cease to run as fuel runs out or becomes stale, the failure of electricity takes down all forms of communication and creature comforts, and soon the one percent of the population left standing is isolated wherever they happened to end up, in a dark and silent world.
The story begins when an elderly actor experiences a heart attack while onstage playing King Lear, on the eve of the pandemic. Strange connections to this man—the paramedic-in-training who leaps to the stage to try to revive him, the little girl who plays one of Lear’s daughters, his first ex-wife, who is the author/artist of a strange set of apocalyptic graphic novels called Station Eleven, his best friend from boyhood, and his second ex-wife and son—are the characters who tell the story, which reaches from the actor’s distant past on an island off the coast of Canada to 15 years into the future in the territory surrounding the Great Lakes, after the pandemic has decimated the world. The vehicle for the story is a band of musicians and actors (including that child actor who played a daughter of Lear) who have teamed up to travel a small route from town to town around the shores of Lake Michigan, alternating musical concerts and productions of Shakespeare every other night to keep themselves fed and give them purpose. The thing that makes the story so involving is how all the initial characters, so tenuously connected by this one man, end up in associations of which they themselves are unaware, and in possession of artifacts of one another’s lives. What is nice about the story is that although a few of these connections are revealed, thus providing some closure between certain players, the story doesn’t wrap up with a bow, but ends leaving some ironies intact.
I loved how the story jumped from person to person and told their part of the story without pointing out the obvious connections, instead allowing the reader an “Ahah!” moment every once in a while. I loved the scene-setting descriptions of how the world has devolved, and how people respond to it depending on who they were and how old they were when the pandemic hit, and therefore what they remember. It seemed so realistic when parents would argue about whether they should continue to teach their children about the past with its internet, cell phones, and moon launches (or hey, ice cream and air conditioning!), or if there was little point in trying to explain such foreign concepts to those who would probably never experience them in this world that has returned to travel on foot, sleep cycles governed by the sun, and lives that are focused almost solely on survival. I loved the portrayals of lawlessness and violence set against the kindnesses and native courtesies preserved against all likelihood.
I love that I have discovered yet another post-apocalyptic story worthy of adding to my collection! And I am also excited because this book made me think of one that I read a long time ago but never remembered to log into my Goodreads list, and when I finally dredged up the author’s name from my sometimes spotty memory and went in search of the book, I discovered that after I read it, she wrote two sequels! That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and my intention is to read the sequels (Burning Road, and The Physician’s Tale) just as soon as my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA is over and I am no longer keeping up with my students’ reading schedules. June, here I come!