Mary Jane

For those of you who grew up, as I did, in the ’60s and ’70s, no, this isn’t a book about marijuana. But that recreational herb does figure into this book, in more ways than as a code name it shares with the protagonist.

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau, is one of the most charming coming-of-age stories I have read in decades. It’s not a book with a driving plot, it’s more a slice-of-life story about a particular kind of girl from a specific era and community; but the trans-formation she experiences over the course of one summer of baby-sitting is such a pleasure to witness.

Mary Jane is 14 years old, and the epitome of a sheltered, white, upper-middle-class girl, raised by two correct but cold parents in a respectable lifestyle that includes all the necessities and some of the luxuries of life but lacks passion, humor, and spontaneity. Mary Jane’s daily life consists of an unbending routine in which her lawyer father goes out to work and comes home expecting dinner at six and a quiet atmosphere in which to read his paper and enjoy his drink, while her mother stays home, cleans obsessively, gardens fanatically, adheres to a weekly menu that Mary Jane is required to help prepare, and rigidly polices Mary Jane’s behavior, schoolwork, clothing, and contacts. Aside from a weekly outing after church to lunch at the (all-white) country club to which they belong, there is little deviation from schedule. Mary Jane is a quiet, well-behaved girl with few friends, who finds solace in music (although that is mostly limited to the show tunes her mother enjoys and the religious music she sings in church choir) and reading.

But this summer, the Cone family up the street has asked if Mary Jane will babysit their daughter, five-year-old Izzy, all day every day. They plan to have guests staying with them, and need someone to be a nanny for their daughter while they are busy entertaining. Impressed with this request from Dr. and Mrs. Cone, who seem respectable and well-to-do, Mary Jane’s parents allow her to say yes. Little do they know what awaits Mary Jane behind the doors and windows of a house that seems much like theirs.

Dr. Cone is a Jewish psychiatrist who works from his home office with clients who suffer from addiction. His project for the summer is to be a full-time counselor and presence to rock star Jimmy, a recovering heroin addict, and Jimmy and his glamorous actress wife Sheba will be living with the Cones to facilitate this. Given their celebrity status, their presence in the household is a secret that Mary Jane must keep. Since she has been sheltered from all contact with rock and roll, Jimmy isn’t so familiar to her, but Sheba has been a weekly highlight on TV, for which she hosts a variety show.

Life at the Cones’ house is nothing like anything Mary Jane has ever experienced. Although their daughter, Izzy, is a well-adjusted, loving child, Mary Jane is initially shocked to learn how neglectfully she is treated: There is no meal-planning and they all seem to subsist on junk food and takeout; Izzy wears what she wants, goes to bed when she wants, and bathes irregularly, while her mom avoids the housework in favor of hanging out with Sheba. Mary Jane is gradually integrated into the household as its most necessary member, as she takes over the marketing, meal-planning and cooking, establishes regular bath- and bedtimes for Izzy, and begins to organize the chaos in every room of the house. A quiet, tidy child, Mary Jane is happy to provide these services for the family, especially in return for experiencing a bohemian lifestyle the like of which she never imagined.

Gradually, Jimmy and Sheba introduce her to all the music she’s been missing, while the doctor and his wife show her what a relationship between two loving spouses who adore their child (even though they neglect her sometimes) can be. It’s a household where there is regular hugging, kissing, and verbal expressions of affection, all like water to a parched plant for Mary Jane. In order to keep enjoying this foreign but welcoming lifestyle, however, Mary Jane must begin, for the first time in her life, to tell lies to her parents, from the big one denying the presence of Jimmy and Sheba to little ones that keep her at the Cone house for longer hours every day. As things around her get ever more out of control with the passing weeks of summer, Mary Jane dreads a reckoning.

The character development in this book is delightful, with the naive but realistic Mary Jane as its charming centerpiece. The author knows how to write people—Mary Jane sounds 14, Izzy reads as five years old, and the adults are all individuals with unique yet believable personality quirks. Likewise, the setting of the 1970s is fleshed out accurately, from the pervasive musical theme to the avocado green kitchen appliances and the exclusion of Jews and people of color from the country club. Mary Jane’s father includes President Gerald Ford in his nightly grace before dinner, and the actress, Sheba, is reminiscent of no one so much as Cher in her glory days.

This book is a wonderful exploration of class, race, lifestyle, and gender stereotypes from the era. But it’s also fast-paced (sometimes), often funny or poignant, and a brilliantly rendered view of the transformation of one girl’s life as she witnesses and experiences new things. Some readers complain that nothing much happens, and on a purely event-based level that’s true; but so much happens in the evolution of the individual characters and their relationships with one another! The publishers are trying to hype it as something akin to Almost Famous, but honestly, it reminded me more of Betty Smith’s classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s definitely worth the read.

Missing the mark

I read two books this week about which I was kind of excited, both of which didn’t pay off in the way I was hoping they would.

The first was The Final Girl Support Group, by Grady Hendrix. I hadn’t read anything by Hendrix, but people rave, so since I’m not much of a horror reader but am trying to keep up with some new books in that genre that I could recommend, I decided to try this one, which didn’t sound as terrifying as some.

The premise was interesting: In slasher movies, the “final girl” is the one who’s left standing at the end, after having fought back and defeated the killer, cutting short his terrifying rampage. This book purported to explore what happens to real-life final girls after the trauma is ended. The answer is, the trauma never ends. There may be an actual threat offered by a surviving villain (one who, for instance, has gone to jail rather than dying, and could therefore escape or be released) or from a crazed fan; or the ongoing villain could simply be the PTSD that lingers long after the events are history.

This book focuses on six “final girls” (women) and their therapist, who have met for more than a decade to try to exorcise their demons, and the action in the book is triggered by one of the women going missing, followed by other events that indicate someone knows who they are and is stalking them, one by one. The premise goes on to promise that the “girls” will stick together and have each other’s backs.

I’m not going to waste a lot of time on this review. I struggled to find a description for the book: It was supposed to be horror…but the emotion of fright was never once evoked. The scenes were so disjointed and the red herring got passed to so many different people that in the end, I just didn’t care that much. Add to that a bunch of intensely unlikeable characters and a somewhat boring narrative and all I can say is, interesting idea, poorly executed, don’t bother.

The second was the book Grown, by Tiffany D. Jackson. I had selected this book for my Young Adult Literature class in the mystery category without having read it, because it was a book that included diverse characters, written by a credible (and award-winning) author of color.

The blurb on Goodreads said: “Author Tiffany D. Jackson delivers another ripped-from-the-headlines mystery that exposes horrific secrets hiding behind the limelight and embraces the power of a young woman’s voice. When legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots Enchanted Jones at an audition, her dreams of being a famous singer take flight. Until Enchanted wakes up with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night. Who killed Korey Fields? Before there was a dead body, Enchanted’s dreams had turned into a nightmare. Because behind Korey’s charm and star power was a controlling dark side. Now he’s dead, the police are at the door, and all signs point to Enchanted.”

First of all, whose idea was it—the publishers, the author’s?—to try to position this book as a murder mystery? That is specifically what the blurb on Goodreads promises: It makes it sound like the book is all about “Who killed Korey Fields?” In that blurb, Enchanted (the main character) almost serves as a set-up rather than as the whole point of the story. But (spoiler alert) the murder doesn’t happen until you are almost 80 percent through the book, and is, compared to the rest, a minor plot point. The author specifically says in her author’s note at the end, “This book is about the abuse of power. It’s about the pattern of excusing grown men for their behavior while faulting young girls for their missteps. It’s about the blatant criticism of girls who were victims of manipulation…. About the individuals who were meant to protect and serve never believing victims in their moments of bravery.” So why not position the story directly? Why promote what amounts to deceit? I am honestly surprised that more reviewers aren’t calling this out.

The book is a vivid and sometimes horrifying depiction of a teenage victim of “Me Too,” who is stalked, groomed, essentially held captive, and abused by a 28-year-old celebrity. Korey Fields prefers young girls, and uses his celebrity as a music star to draw them in by promising them assistance with their singing careers. Enchanted Jones has an amazing voice and dreams of stardom, and she is captured by the twin allures of that and the personal attention Korey begins to lavish on her. She ends up leaving school and her family behind at age 17 to go on tour with Korey, supposedly protected by a guardian (who is in Korey’s employ and is possibly one of his former victims), only to encounter the crazy, jealous behavior and punitive actions of an exploitative sociopath who must be the center of attention no matter what.

I can see all the reasons why so many people embraced this book and gave it high marks. It deals with issues that need to be shouted about—loudly. And its focus is about and from within the Black community, where these issues are even more perilous. But there were so many problems with it that I couldn’t give it the credit I wish it fully deserved.

I feel like the author punted in some ways. She starts out with a clear idea of where she wants to go, but then doesn’t follow through in areas that matter, and that’s too bad, because there was real potential. The story gets confusing when her characters don’t know, act, and do as the real people in this situation would. There’s way too much random here.

Some specifics:

The main character was all over the place. I can see her initial star-struck reaction when this man shows interest in her and supposedly wants to promote her career, but honestly, her ongoing level of naiveté, given her background and family dynamic, was flat-out ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that a teen girl could get herself into this situation—but not this teen girl, the way she is initially written. And the mistakes that she makes in attempting to defend herself, after the murder occurs…anyone who had ever watched five episodes of any police procedural TV show would understand such concepts as chain of evidence and illegal search and find another way to make sure that somebody paid attention to the things that would exonerate her.

And looking at that family dynamic: There are certainly hordes of teens out there with parents who aren’t paying attention and/or just don’t care, but that’s not how these parents were set up. Sure, their life was pictured as busy and full of worries (primarily financial), and they placed a lot of reliance on their eldest to help out and babysit the rest of their children, but this is painted as a household in which everyone acts responsibly, and even if their daughter insisted she leave school and go on tour with a male musician who is 11 years older than she is, there’s no way that these parents were going to allow that. These parents, the way they were drawn (and the father’s lay-off and financial woes are not sufficient distractions) would have been all up in her business to find out how she got to know him that well in the first place, and stuff would have come out that would have waved all kinds of red flags on the way to the big one, which is, Are we really letting our daughter, who we care enough about to send to an expensive private school and harangue about her homework and college prospects, be a dropout and go away with this man? No. Sorry. I just didn’t buy it. And if you are saying Yeah, but the girl was determined—again, not this girl. She wasn’t described as someone with the self-confidence, bull-headedness, or fortitude to demand and get her way, or to leave without permission. On the contrary, she is nervous, unsure of herself, all of the characteristics that would lead to the initial situation of his being able to groom her, but would not promote the action she then takes. It just happens, somehow, and that’s one of so many things that just happen, without enough back story to create believability.

There were a lot of things to appreciate about this book, but there were so many small details that jangled that the cumulative effect was an atmosphere of disbelief for the reader (or at least this reader), which is the complete opposite of what the author was trying to achieve with her thesis of “please believe the victims.” I admire her desire to write about girls being sexually coerced and exploited by adults who know better, and to focus specifically on black girls, who continue to be the most disregarded, but the way she went about it was simply inadequate. There were elements that rang true, but just as many that made me say “Oh, c’mon!” more times than I should have during a narrative such as this. I give her respect for her attempt, and her storytelling kept me reading to the end despite all the missteps…but it could have been so much more powerful.

(I do love the cover…)

Romance and more…

My friend Judi commented that when she was at a loss for something to read or wanted to experience the comfort of a familiar story, she returned to the four-part Chesapeake Bay Saga by Nora Roberts. I had never read anything by Nora Roberts, but she is a prolific author and her books are ubiquitous, so I decided to check out this mini-series.

These books fall into what I would call the “relationship fiction” category, in that there is romance present that is a big feature of the story, but there is also some kind of content that reflects a family dynamic beyond just the true-love part. Roberts’s vehicle for these four novels was clever, in that she created a family of four “boys” who were turned into brothers by the charity of one couple who saved them from difficult beginnings, and then she wrote each book by focusing on the perspective and relationship of one of them.

Each of the boys, previously in an untenable situation, was discovered (in various ways) by Ray and Stella Quinn and adopted away from their pasts to be raised in a supportive and kind environment. As adults, the eldest three—Cameron, Ethan, and Phillip—have gone their own way, Cameron to a glamorous lifestyle mostly located in Europe, where he races fast boats and fast cars and lives on the prize money; and Phillip to a big-city career as an advertising executive with a generous income and an enviable lifestyle. Only Ethan has remained at home (although now in a house of his own) in the small fishing village of St. Christopher on the Chesapeake Bay, trapping crab for a living but investing time and hope into a boat-building business. Then, the acquisition by Ray of 10-year-old Seth, a fourth brother to join their family, is quickly eclipsed by the unexpected and tragic death of their father, who makes the brothers promise, before he dies, to rally around and raise Seth the way he, Ray, would have, given the chance. Although there are various levels of grudging reluctance to give up their chosen lifestyles to return home to take up this challenge, the three are all conscious of just what Ray and Stella (deceased some years before) did for them, and are resolved to honor their father’s memory and wishes by doing the same for young Seth.

The first, Sea Swept, is the story of Cameron, who was discovered as a runaway and car thief when he tried to boost Ray’s car at a young age; after realizing that his motivation was to get away from an abusive alcoholic father who beat him, Ray and Stella Quinn took him in. Now he has made a deathbed promise to his adoptive father to assist in the upbringing of new boy Seth, whose mother beat and neglected him, and Cameron is determined to bring the suspicious and untrusting Seth out of his shell and into the family the way Ray did for him. But an unexpected opponent is Anna, Seth’s social worker, who is playing by the rules of the child welfare system by assessing Seth’s living situation and determining whether it would be more appropriate to either place him in the foster system or reunite him with his real family. Despite his determination not to let this happen to Seth, whose psychological scars he recognizes as akin to his own, Cam is unbearably attracted to the spirited and determined Anna, as is she to him, and their involvement complicates an already fraught situation.

The second, Rising Tides, follows the story of Ethan, the quiet, reflective brother who has made a life for himself as a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay. Ethan’s mother, a drug addict, gave Ethan an unspeakable childhood that, despite his subsequent rescue by the Quinns, has made him determined never to marry or have children of his own, for fear of passing on some random evil gene. Local woman Grace, who despite her former marriage and the birth of her daughter has always cherished an unrequited love for Ethan, is determined not to let this be Ethan’s final word. Their romance plays out against the background of the campaign to keep Seth. In addition, the necessity for all the brothers to move back home in order to create a proper foster environment is the catalyst needed to involve Cam and Phillip in Ethan’s plans for a family boat-building business.

The third, Inner Harbor, is Phillip’s journey. Phillip is perhaps the most successful in terms of career, and also has separated himself the most thoroughly from his small-town origins. But after the Quinns gave him a life (almost literally—he was a gang member who was shot in a drive-by and was saved from death by Stella, the emergency-room doctor, before being adopted), he certainly can’t bring himself to turn down the opportunity for Seth to benefit from the same experience. Somewhat at loose ends after his move from his big-city lifestyle back to the tiny fishing village of his upbringing, Phillip notices Sybill, an intriguing writer who is making the town of St. Christopher the subject of her next book about the psychology of human interaction. But what he doesn’t know is that Sybill has a secret relationship to Seth that threatens everything the Quinns have tried to do for the boy.

The last book in the quartet, Chesapeake Blue, explores Seth’s own story in adulthood. Since it would reveal much about the way things went when Seth was 10, I won’t comment too much on this one, except to say that it, too, contains a romantic relationship, and the quartet is concluded with a happily ever after for many of its subjects.

There is much to like about this series. Yes, it contains multiple clichés or tropes—the macho, muscular, and ruggedly handsome brothers and their uniformly gorgeous love interests, the sex that is always incandescent for all parties involved, the meet-cute aspect of some of the relationships—but the thing that saves it is the back stories of the brothers and their sincere (and tender) determination to help a troubled 10-year-old boy the way that they themselves were aided by their adoptive parents. The thread that holds the book together is the development and transformation of the boy Seth and the creation of a welcoming family dynamic by all the other characters. The characters are nicely defined and feel, for the most part, like real people who express genuine emotions, and the small-town vibe is painted fairly realistically, with the charming offset by gossip and insularity. Wrapping it up as Roberts did with the story of Seth as an adult, showing the vulnerable cracks that remain in anyone who has survived a background such as those of these brothers, was the perfect way to end the story.

Although I don’t know that I would continue reading Nora Roberts as a favorite author (I am not a tropes and clichés fan, unless it’s Georgette Heyer!), I definitely enjoyed this foray into her genre and style.

It may end with this

After reading Verity, by Colleen Hoover, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read any of her other books; although there were certain aspects of that book that were enjoyable, parts of it also decidedly put me off a further experience. But, as with that book, so many people in the Facebook group “What should I read next?” lauded It Ends With Us that I decided it deserved a look-in.

It took me three tries to get past the first 30 pages. Ordinarily I would give up after two, but a unique set of circumstances made me go there again: I was reading the third book in the turbulent and engrossing Nevernight series by Jay Kristoff on a night when my insomnia seemed like a last-all-night kind of thing, and my Kindle tragically ran out of juice; the only other book sitting on my night table was It Ends With Us, and it was so cold that night that I didn’t want to get out of bed to rummage around for something else to read! So I picked it back up and pushed through my initial reaction, which was that these characters—Ryle, and Lily Bloom, for godssakes—were so disingenuous, so superficial and coy, so self-consciously meet-cute that I simply couldn’t deal with the cheesiness.

I honestly didn’t become interested in anyone until the flashback part of the book, when Lily harks back to her teenage years by reviewing her journal entries about meeting and getting to know Atlas (the names in this book are truly ridiculous), the homeless boy hiding out in the vacant house behind hers. At that point, a spark of interest was fanned to a modest flame, so I kept going.

The book turned out to be a revelation of sorts; what seemed like it was going to be a somewhat frothy romance took a dark turn into interesting territory, as Lily confronts her past and has to question whether she will allow herself to be doomed to repeat it. I won’t say more than that, but the book shifted all in a moment from something that didn’t interest me much to a compelling story whose ending I really needed to know.

I can’t honestly say whether this will lead me to read any more Colleen Hoover books, though. The makeup of this one was initially so contradictory that the effort involved to get to the “good parts” required a denial of what I usually value in a story. The second half of the book proved to me that this author can deliver something compelling and genuine; but it evolved from such a ridiculously idealistic and unlikely set-up that it almost spoiled the rest. I ended up being mostly glad I read it, but also feeling manipulated and a little resentful. That doesn’t seem to be a recipe for becoming a fan.

Children for sale

The book Sold on a Monday, by Kristina McMorris, starts with a picture: Reporter Ellis Reed is killing time along a country road while his overheated Model T cools down, by snapping photos. He has just attended a rural quilt show, where he has documented the display for a newspaper story, and he has a few frames left on his roll of film. He approaches a farmhouse and sees two young boys sitting on the porch. They are both red-headed, both blue-eyed, both dressed in nothing but overalls, and he remarks to himself that they look like the same child at different ages. But after he takes the picture, he sees something in the background that he didn’t note at first: A hand-lettered sign that says “2 children for sale.” Even though he is inured to the sight of heartbreaking poverty in this post-crash year of 1931 in America, he is horrified. He has heard tales of people farming out their children to relatives or dropping their kids off at orphanages and churches because they can no longer feed and clothe them; but the concept of a parent selling their own children to keep themselves afloat? That was a darker scenario.

His picture of the two boys was personal—not meant for publication—but when he leaves all the photos from his shoot to dry in the newspaper darkroom, Lillian Palmer, enigmatic young secretary to the publisher, sees the picture in question and shows it to her boss. The photo thus becomes an instrument in the advancement of Ellis’s career as a newspaperman, but the simple action of publishing the photo has devastating consequences.

This book was a page-turner. I liked the parallel development from Ellis’s and Lillian’s points of view; I also liked that, except for the prologue and epilogue, the story was told in third person, even though it was alternating viewpoints. It made it personal enough yet not too internal, if that makes sense. The storytelling was nuanced—the author knew when to set things up and when to reveal them, and was also good at end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

This is, in essence, an historical novel, in that it documents a particular time that was heavily influenced by events of the day; but it’s not one of those books that either pretentiously or self-consciously proclaims itself as an historical document. The small details of dress, morés and mannerisms, social class and financial status are seamlessly woven into the scene-setting and characterizations, making it simply a good story told within a particular context.

I read it with a certain degree of horror that poverty could so decimate the conscience and devastate the family construct, but also knowing that similar acts no doubt go on to this day, swept under the rug by the possibly more timely intervention of social services—still not an ideal solution, but at least evidence of a more robust social contract than was present in 1931. This book was the perfect marriage of thought piece and suspenseful tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The closest I can come to a read-alike would probably be This Tender Land, by William Kent Kreuger; if you enjoyed that, definitely try this one.

As usual, I have something to say about the cover: The scenario in the book is two children for sale, so why in the world would the publisher choose to portray only one in the cover photo? I throw up my hands.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

The Kitchen House

I’m having trouble processing this book.

On the one hand, Kathleen Grissom found the raw materials for a rich and powerful historical novel, with the perfect illustration of white privilege over black, even in the most extreme of conditions. It’s an interesting angle—an orphaned Irish child whose parents died owing the ship’s master for their passage is taken and put to work among the slaves on his tobacco plantation, in order to pay off their debt. We get to see by turns the lack of color and class perception on her part, as a naive and frightened seven-year-old who embraces the people around her first as refuge and then as family without understanding status or life situation, versus the total privilege that even a juvenile white indentured servant would be granted above the rights of the adult slaves with whom she lives.

Unfortunately, although the writing is good (if a little repetitive), with several narrative voices meant to showcase the story from all sides, the story quickly slips into stereotype and melodrama. The most genuine part of the book is the voice of the child Lavinia, while the contrapuntal voice of the slave, Belle, who is given initial charge of the young intruder, seems put there simply to fill in background information of which Lavinia wouldn’t be aware—a big flaw in the flow of the narrative. There is a level of personality that doesn’t sufficiently emerge to make Belle a truly compelling character, especially as she mostly disappears from the story in the latter half and only snippets of her thoughts are shared from that point on.

Then, although many (many!) tragic and shocking events take place, the author never seems to get past what is happening to the characters externally. Even though there is some reflection by Lavinia, because she is a child for the first part of the book none of it reflects the truly horrific plot points in any in-depth emotional or philosophical way. It’s observational rather than analytical, and after a while all the bad things become repetitive and predictable, making the reading a slog to get through them and out the other side.

Another big issue I had with the book is the herding of characters into stereotypical positions—inept, passive, hysterical white women; evil, abusive, or at best oblivious and officious white men; black women whose focus is to be mothering; black men who are either pacifist and ineffectual or rebellious and dead; and although some of these stereotypes were assuredly true, this writer presents them all as extreme cases that don’t allow for alternate behavior.

Ultimately, for me there was too much sequential telling about too many events with little reflection or nuance, and it turned into a horror show to be endured while hoping for a happy ending, which of course isn’t going to be there in a book about slavery! So while the details held my attention enough that I finished the book, and it discussed well-illustrated examples of events that typically took place in the antebellum South, I don’t think I could recommend it sheerly as a story, which is a shame, given the themes that could have been developed to better advantage.

The birthday of the world

…is the title of one of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s short stories, and today is (or would have been) Ursula Kroeber LeGuin’s 91st birthday (she passed away in 2018 at age 88). I am moved to talk a little about her legacy on this significant date because she is one of my favorite authors and has had a profound affect on both my reading tastes and general philosophy over the decades since I began devouring her stories, novels, essays, and writing manuals.

LeGuin was the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her fantasy and science fiction, going on after that to win seven more Hugos, five more Nebulas, and 22 Locus Awards. In 2003 she was honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, after a controversial career in which she defied many of the traditions of this organization and its members.

She was perhaps best known for her fantasy series about the land of Earthsea, which embraces the theme of equilibrium in a coming-of-age saga, and for her extremely forward-looking book about gender and identity, The Left Hand of Darkness; but she wrote more than 20 novels and 100+ short stories, as well as poetry, essays, translations, literary criticism, and children’s books. Prominent social and political themes ran through most of these, including race, gender, sexuality, and political/social structure, and her named influences were varied: cultural anthropology, Taoism (she made her own translation of the Tao Te Ching), feminism, and the work of Carl Jung.

Some of the seminal ideas in her books include the concepts of equilibrium or balance, the reconciliation of opposites, and the necessity for leaving things alone, exploring sociology, psychology, and philosophy through her characters’ experiences. Likewise her writer’s voice was distinct, using unconventional narrative forms. Literary critic Harold Bloom described Le Guin as an “exquisite stylist,” saying that in her writing, “Every word was exactly in place and every sentence or line had resonance.” According to Bloom, Le Guin was…

…a visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation.

Harold Bloom

If you are unfamiliar with her writing, I urge you to seek it out. I have probably read the original three of the Earthsea trilogy half a dozen times (and the subsequent sequels at least thrice), and I re-read her book The Dispossessed, a moving personal treatise on anarchy and utopia, at least once a decade. Her Hainish novels are delightfully engaging story-telling, and the last one, The Telling, was the catalyst that sent me off to library school in my late 40s. Her short stories, mainstream fiction, and poetry are likewise intriguing, and as an essayist she can’t be topped. Introduce yourself to her books, or recall the ones you remember fondly and revisit them as a tribute to a giant of literature with, as author Michael Chabon wrote after her death…

the power of an unfettered imagination.”

michael chabon

Monk and Robot

A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers, was my first experience of reading a book with a protagonist who is nonbinary. That is to say, when the character is referred to by name, it is Dex, but when the character is referred to in the third person, it is they or them.

Although in theory I applaud the notion that one should not have to be constantly identified by one’s gender, the reality of referring to an individual in the plural drove me kind of crazy. I knew this book was supposed to be at least partially about robots, and when Dex was introduced and referred to in the plural, I initially thought that perhaps Dex was one of the robots and that they had a hive mind, so to speak, with all of them experiencing what Dex did and reflecting upon it as a group.

I eventually figured out that it was simply language intended to bypass gender and, indeed, when Dex meets the robot Mosscap, one of the first questions asked is, “Do you have a gender?” Mosscap answers no, and Dex replies, “Me neither.” So that was settled. But once the two met up and were sharing an adventure together, the third-person plural became particularly confusing because when the sentence talked about “they” or “them,” I couldn’t tell, except by concentrating hard on every surrounding word, whether that was referring to Dex and Mosscap, or just to Dex “themself.” (And is themself even a word?)

I have to say that the fact that this grammatical twist didn’t completely put me off the book is a testament to the author’s clever story-telling. I have spent my life as a grammar tyrant, and this new attempt to level the gender barrier is a difficult one for me to take on board. But once I got (somewhat) used to this narrative, I was wholly caught up in the life story of Sibling Dex, a devotee of Allala, whose current mission in life is to be a tea monk.

It’s not like working in a café and offering someone a top-up, it’s more like a mobile Japanese Tea Ceremony combined with therapy. Basically, Dex travels from town to town in a laboratory/home they pedal like a bike (but with solar motor assistance), sets up in each market square by creating an altar of sorts, puts the kettle on to boil, and waits for the people to come. Then, Dex asks each person what they need, the person responds with their exhaustion, their troubles, their questions or fears, and Dex blends them the perfect cup of herbs and spices to address that issue, along with offering such advice as they can muster for whatever the person requires. Sometimes it is concrete advice, but many times it is simply to sit with the issue and drink their tea and solutions will present themselves—or at least they will have had a nice rest and a hot cuppa.

The world-building in this book is so gradual that you don’t realize it’s happening. You come to find out that the planet is not Earth (although the description on Goodreads confusingly says that it is), it’s called Panga. But it shares a past similar to Earth’s, in that it was a technological world in which robots did a lot of the industrial work. At some point (a couple hundred years ago) the robots became sentient and decided that they did not wish to do this work any longer, and the humans (wiser than we would probably be) let them go. The robots dispersed, making a departing Pact that they will check in on the humans from time to time.

One night, just as Dex is anticipating a well-cooked dinner as soon as they finishes (finish?) their shower, that’s just what the robots do, in the person of Splendid Speckled Mosscap (Mosscap for short), who shows up and startles the wits out of Dex. This seven-foot-tall metal robot has a familiar question for Dex: “What do humans need?” and since Dex can’t even answer that question for themself, this begins an ongoing conversation between the two, as they also pursue other goals together.

I won’t say more than that about the story line; but the relationship and the dialogue between these two is both delightful and insightful. I wouldn’t go nearly so far as to compare this book to the late great Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but the conversations did remind me a little of the ones between Genly Ai and Estraven as they endured the dark night of winter alone together.

One Goodreads reviewer characterizes this author’s work as “comfort science fiction,” or “cozypunk,” because the worlds she builds are the idyllic ones in which people learned from the mistakes of the past and moved on in better directions. The reviewer describes it as “a philosophical dialogue in the setting of ecological paradise, a cozy version of Plato’s symposium held in the wilderness with some tea.” I had to quote this (thank you, Nataliya) because it so perfectly describes this good-natured novella. But just as many of us gravitate towards cozy mysteries or cozy love stories, there is a place for the optimistic science fiction novel in the midst of dystopian and post-apocalyptic nightmare, and this book fills that place. I look forward to the sequel, when Dex and Mosscap take their question to a wider audience. (Now, did that “their” refer to both of them, or only to Mosscap’s question? A grammarian can never be sure!)

NOTE: I had to come back in and change three gender referents after the fact! Old habits die hard…

This is the future?

We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker, seems like such a likely thing to happen in our lifetime (and keep in mind that I’m getting older!) that it hardly feels like science fiction. It also perfectly highlights the concept of privilege in a new arena.

Val and Julie are a middle-aged same-sex couple with two children: David, who is Julie’s child, and Sophie, who they adopted after the first pregnancy proved so perilous that it was unwise to consider a second. They are a solidly middle-class couple, Val working as a high school athletics teacher and coach while Julie is an assistant to a prominent senator. They are however, by no means well off, so when David comes home from his exclusive school (his attendance only made possible by the fact that Val teaches there) asking for a Pilot, the latest brain-enhancing technological marvel that all his wealthy classmates are getting, they at first treat it as just another fad whose importance will fade in a few weeks or months. But the brain implant instead becomes a fixture, first in schools as a way to enhance learning and performance, and then in the world at large to promote people’s abilities to multi-task, and soon the implications of being without one can’t be avoided.

Val and Julie reluctantly agree that David can get one, but it’s out of the question for Sophie, who has epileptic seizures and is therefore permanently incompatible. Julie secretly longs to adopt the technology to cope with the ever-expanding duties of her job in the political arena, and soon peer pressure makes it possible for her to claim the necessity. Val is suspicious of the technology and decides to hold out and be Pilotless. Thus the family ends up being the perfect microcosmic showcase for the issues caused by the Pilot in the larger society: Those who adopt the technology move ahead, while those without its supposed benefits are left behind. Soon such things as the dividing of students into classes of the enhanced vs. classes of those who are not begins to draw sharp lines that are also echoed in the adult world. Val, as an abstainer, soon finds herself teaching only classes in which the students don’t have the Pilot. Val and Julie begin to notice differences between them specifically brought up by the effects of the Pilot on Julie. Sophie is outraged by the overt classism and gets involved with a protest group. And David, who joins the military, has issues of his own…

The book is written in four voices—the two moms and the two kids—and gives the overall experience of this innovation from each of their viewpoints, as well as illustrating what can happen in the larger world when a technology is universally acclaimed, and the private sector unites with the government to promote it without truly considering all the ramifications. The technology becomes yet another point of contention, with the haves and the have-nots squared off against one another as the acquisition of the Pilot becomes the new normal.

This is not an action-packed book, although quite a bit happens in each of the four protagonists’ lives; it is, rather, a slow uneasy build towards the revelation of the consequences a hastily adopted innovation could have on a society unprepared for its effects. As the family navigate the changes the technology brings, they struggle with both interior and exterior conflicts, the author moving between points of view but always keeping the overall focus on the family as a unit so that the effects can really be seen as a whole. The technology and the secrets surrounding it (let’s face it, public relations and marketing people are hardly going to reveal negative effects of a positively received product!) are the main thread that moves the narrative, but the characters end up being the heart of the story.

As a science fiction fan, I would have liked a little more explication of the device itself—with what part of the brain it interacts, how specifically it was invented and tested, and so on—but this is, of course, where science fiction sometimes punts, particularly in the hands of a less experienced author. We are, ironically, asked to take the science on faith and focus rather on the outcome. But this scenario seemed like such a likely one that I didn’t really mind that much. And I loved the implications of the little blue LED light that indicated the Pilot’s presence or absence in an individual’s brain.

Although two of the characters in this book start out as teenagers and are still young by the end of the story, this book seems primarily geared towards adult readers. It has a certain dispassionate tone, even in moments of great emotion, that might put off some readers. But if you enjoy the adult titles in particular of Cory Doctorow, with their exploration of the sometimes abrupt and divisive effects of technology on the prevailing culture, you will probably equally enjoy We Are Satellites.

Note: I think the cover is so odd—the children are both in their teens at the start of this story, and I can’t figure out why they depicted an adult and child on the cover. I find the title less than descriptive as well.