Xenogenesis Series, Octavia Butler

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Anytime anyone asks for science fiction recommendations, I'm always sure to tell them about Octavia Butler. Winner of numerous awards, Butler was the first black woman to make a name for herself in this notoriously male-dominated genre. Her books explore issues of race and gender and the ways they intersect in the experiences of women of color. Perhaps best known for her masterpiece of time travel, Kindred, she has also written two major series, Patternamsters and the Xenogenesis series.

The Xenogenesis series starts with the book Dawn, and includes the novels Adulthood Rites and Imago. In Dawn, Lilith Ayapo had just lost her husband and daughter when the earth is destroyed in a nuclear war. She wakes up two hundred years later on an alien ship that is orbiting the now lifeless planet Earth. Just as the bombs were dropping, the aliens transported thousands of humans to their ship to save humanity from extinction, and to repopulate the Earth once it is safe to do so. But the aliens aren't just doing it out of the kindness of their hearts (or whatever organ stands for goodness in their culture). The race of aliens that has saved the humans survives by traveling the stars, interacting with other species, and taking some of their genetic traits into themselves. Basically, they mean to procreate with humans to capture their genetic material, and the reward is the continuation of the human species. As you can imagine, this does not sit well with many of the humans, who see the aliens as their jailers, not their saviors.

Superior alien technology means that while the aliens try to get consent, they can basically take what they want, so humanity's resistance is pretty futile. Adulthood Rites and Imago take the story from the ship down to Earth, and through at least two generations of both humans and aliens. The story explores the idea that humanity has two fatal flaws that will always cause violence and destruction; intelligence and a desire for hierarchy. Because humans believe in hierarchy, they will always try to assert dominance. Because they are intelligent, their attempts to dominate each other can be incredibly destructive. The novels also explore the idea that humans feel threatened by anyone who does not resemble themselves, which in this case leads to some memorable conflicts with the aliens, but is also a symbol for the way humans have used everything from the shape of someone's eyes to skin color as an excuse to "other" people who are different than them. This "othering" allows humans to justify their domination, repression, and genocide against each other.

Unlike some of Butler's books, the message behind this story is pretty clearly stated by the aliens as they strive to teach the humans how to overcome their violent natures. There are plenty of examples of this human flaw, from when Lilith fights against her alien captors on the ship to the so-called resistors on Earth who try to escape the influence of the aliens. The human tendency for violence is starkly contrasted against the alien culture, who do everything in their power to avoid violence, and who are constantly at a loss for why humans would do so much that undermined their own existence.

The aliens are not perfect, though. While they are a less-violent people, they do have their own caste system. There are three basic types of aliens, and each has its own specific role in their society. To some extent, these roles are in fact defined by their biology-the three types of alien are different in form and function. But any deviation from those roles is met with disapproval and sadness on the part of the others, and extreme cases of dissatisfaction with one's purpose in life are dealt with through exile back on the ship.

Butler's creation of the alien race is unlike anything I'd read before. So often, aliens in science fiction are portrayed as inhuman monsters, or they are created in a human's image. These aliens felt just that-alien. Their cool assessment of human nature is something that is hard to deny, given our millennia of history and their almost incessant wars. Once again, Butler has shown us something about ourselves that is discomforting at best, and monstrous at worst, but that we must confront if we ever hope to move past the divisiveness of racism, classism, sexism, etc...that has defined our societies thus far.

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth GIrl, Barry Lyga

Monday, February 26, 2018

I first discovered Barry Lyga at the Illinois Reading Council Conference. My best friend and I were I Hunt Killers. As a lover of mysteries and thrillers, how could I not bring it home with me?
browsing the booksellers' stalls (and let me tell you, the exhibit hall at the IRC Conference is children's/YA book heaven), when I was stopped in my tracks by a book with the provocative title of

That book, and the two that followed it completing the trilogy, gave me a lot of respect for Lyga's storytelling and character writing. Imagine my excitement at discovering that the I Hunt Killers books were only a few of the many books he's published. Diving into his body of work, I decided to go back to the beginning, and start with his debut novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. 

The book's narrator is Donnie, a nerdy sophomore who loves comics more than anything else. While his school years have never been easy for him, this year is becoming especially challenging. His parents are divorced, and his mother remarried a man who could not be more different than Donnie. She is currently awaiting the birth of her first child with the man Donnie calls "step-fascist". His best and only friend, Cam, has started loving lacrosse and his new-found popularity more than the Donnie and the comics obsession they used to share. The icing on the cake is the bully in his gym class who has taken to punching Donnie so hard in arm or shoulder every day that he's developing a permanent bruise. Donnie's only salvation is the graphic novel he's been working on, called Schemata. But even that starts to suffer, when the drama going on in his life interferes with his time and creativity. Into this dismal existence comes Kyra, aka Goth Girl, a loner with an "eff you" attitude about anyone or anything that she disdains-which is pretty much everyone and everything. She challenges Donnie to stand up for himself, and thus begins a friendship/relationship that allows Donnie to grow and become more assertive. Over time, Donnie begins to realize that Kyra's rough exterior is protecting a vulnerable girl working to be tough, and his ability to help her makes gives him more agency in his own life, and to change his general attitude towards certain things in his life.

Lyga has done an admirable job in this novel creating characters that feel real, with problems that I think a lot of young people can relate to. Certainly issues like divorce, exclusion, isolation, and mental illness are common enough. Even the "popular" kids in high school can feel as though they are not enough; that if someone uncovered the "real" them they would reject them, much as Donnie feels rejected for his love of comics.

I wonder how much of Donnie is modeled on Lyga's own experiences. Lyga spent many years working in the comics industry, and before the last decade or so, comic shops were essentially seen as the natural habitat for nerds, geeks, and weirdos. Lyga's love of and knowledge about comics is clear in the book, and it helps give the story authenticity. The story itself is a fairly common YA trope-two misfits find each other and fall in love while thumbing their noses at conventional popularity-but it is written with such compelling characters and enough nuance as to not feel formulaic. I'm not sure I can say I loved it as much as I loved the I Hunt Killers series, but I can say I loved it differently, since The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and I Hunt Killers are so different in theme, mood, and tone they could almost be written by two different authors. But I did love it.

The Courage Tree, Diane Chamberlain

Saturday, February 24, 2018

As women's fiction goes, Diane Chamberlain's is serviceable. If nothing else, she creates the most intricate (some might say convoluted) plots, plots that suck you in and keep you reading, but which
end up being mostly empty of deep meaning. I like to call this type of book "popcorn" books because, like popcorn, they lack substance but are oddly satisfying.

The Courage Tree is no exception. The story begins with a disappearance. Sophie, the daughter of Janine, disappears on her way home from summer camp. What makes this already alarming disappearance even more tragic is that Sophie has a medical condition that requires regular medicine; medicine which she won't get in time if they don't find her soon. Janine's ex-husband, Joe, is furious with his ex-wife for letting Sophie go to camp in the first place, and with the experimental treatment Sophie has been receiving without his blessing. Janine's new boyfriend, Lucas, supports her decision, and the two men grow to suspect and dislike each other more and more as the search goes on.

To be honest, I had to look up the finer points of the plot to even write this review-that should tell you something about the book. The plot includes a car crash, a reclusive actress, an escaped murderer, and more unlikely circumstances than should be able to fit in one story. The story was engaging enough at the time to keep me reading, but clearly not impactful enough for me to remember it a couple of months later. I do remember thinking that the Zoe character (the actress) was especially unbelievable and that Sophie is definitely more mature than I would expect any eight-year-old to be. If you're looking for a popcorn book, one where you don't have to think too much that reads quick, then you might want to check this out. Otherwise, I say "meh".

My Year of King #4: Rage, by Richard Bachman, AKA Stephen King

Thursday, February 22, 2018

There was another school shooting last week. Another loss of life, students and teachers cut down to satisfy some young man's need for power and control. These shootings have become all too regular these days. It seems as though every other day I am getting a news alert that students and teachers are in danger, somewhere in the United States. I say United States, because this is the only developed nation where mass shootings are common enough occurences that eventually they plend together in my mind. Columbine, Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, and now Parkland. We're having the usual debates right now about gun control and mental health, and I suspect when the next shooting happens (and it has become depressingly obvious that one will), we'll start all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat, over and over.

(I do have hope that the youth who are standing up and demanding change will be the catalyst for real conversation and real solutions. Political statement: The NRA has got to get out of our political system, our society needs to stop fetishizing guns, and toxic masculinity has to be replaced with a kinder, gentler way to "be a man".)

Other than the weapon of choice (AR-15) and the location (institutions of learning), the school Rage, these types of shootings were almost unheard of. Sadly, this is a novel that feels more relevant today than it probably did when it was originally published. The main character, Charlie Decker, is a kid who just can't catch a break. Living with an abusive father, watching his mother be repressed daily by her husband's machismo and derision, and being the outcast at school has Charlie to be filled with a rage so powerful that he cannot express it with words. After beating up a teacher at school, Charlie is assigned daily counseling sessions with the school psychologist, but nothing helps. So one day, he enters his English classroom, shoots his teacher, and holds the rest of the class hostage for several hours. During that time, you learn more about his life, as well as his classmates.
shooters seem to have something else in common-rage. Regardless of where the rage comes from (abuse, an inflated sense of entitlement, or real mental illness), these young men are filled with a rage so powerful that it overrides their conscience and reason, causing them to do horrific things in order to express it. In 1978, when King (writing as Richard Bachman) wrote

I think that King really tapped into the intense emotions of adolescence with Charlie's character. Teenagers tend to feel all of their emotions more intensely than adults, especially strong emotions like love or anger or shame.Charlie was so up in his own feelings that no consequence, no threat, and no appeal was going to talk him down until he had done what he needed to do. Charlie's actions are dark enough, but what takes this story to another level is that in a Stockholm Syndrome-type of phenomenon, the other students in the room start to express their own secrets, their own rage. It's as though Charlie's extreme action has given them permission to admit things that they would otherwise keep hidden deep down in their private thoughts.

The book is really novella length (149 pages), so it's good that the scope is only a few hours of one day. It does mean, though, that King had to be economical with his character development, and while Charlie is certainly a fully-fleshed out protagonist (antagonist? King is so good at writing characters that are both), the events that have led to this particular act are not as developed, weakening the reader's understanding of the connection between what happened then and what is happening now.

I almost didn't finish reading this book, after the Parkland shooting happened. I wasn't sure I could stand for my mind to continue to occupy that sad, horrified place. But I'm glad I did. It is still good storytelling, and the themes should not be something we forget-that our young people are vulnerable to rage and despair, and we must provide them with the tools they need to manage their feelings and survive their childhoods.

Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Not gonna lie-I specifically went to Audible looking for an audiobook narrated by Maya Angelou. I recently finished listening to Toni Morrison read her novel God Help the Child, and it was such a treat to hear the story told in the author's own voice, I knew I had to see if Maya Angelou had narrated any of her books prior to her passing. I could listen to her read the phone book.

Luckily, I discovered that not only had she narrated at least one of her books, it was one I hadn't yet read! Win-win! The book I found was Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou's memoir of her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter.

Angelou famously wrote about her early life in the memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. We learn that her mother sent her and her brother from California to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother Henderson when Maya was only three. Maya and her brother Bailey spent the next ten years living in Arkansas. When Maya was 13, her mother called for her and Bailey to come back to California, and it is that this point that Mom & Me & Mom picks up the tale. Maya and Bailey traveled to San Fransisco and moved into their mother's large Victorian house. They realized very quickly that their life in California would be much different than sleepy Stamps, Arkansas.

As a long-time fan of Maya Angelou, I knew that she was an exceptional woman. But after listening to this book, I know that there can never be another woman like her. Because learning more about her life, I can't believe that anyone will ever have the unique experiences again that formed Angelou into the wise, insightful, brave woman she was. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we learn about many of the transformative events in Maya's life, but Mom & Me & Mom provides a broader context for understanding those events, and details some stories we've not heard before. Vivian Baxter,  was a palpable presence in all of the decisions Maya made in her teenage and young adult years, not least because she was such a presence, period. She was a strong women, sharply intelligent, who suffered no fools. She was a woman of stormy passions, who could love you up one minute and slap the mess out your mouth the next. She was a realist, a pragmatist, someone who recognized that a woman needed her own power to prevent her from becoming beholden to some man for protection. She dressed impeccably, had marvelous manners, and expected everyone else to rise to her high standards. While Maya and Vivian had a complex relationship, at its core was the deep abiding love of a mother for a child, and a child for its mother.

Artemis, Andy Weir

Friday, February 16, 2018

In the next century, people have colonized the moon. The city of Artemis was built by the Kenyan
space agency and runs through international cooperation from most of the major economies in the world. Pretty much everyone in Artemis is an immigrant from somewhere else because apparently, it is not healthy for babies or mothers to be pregnant on the moon (who knew?).

Jasmine Bashara, aka Jazz, has lived on the moon for as much as her life as it's possible to. She and her father moved to the moon when Jazz was six years old. Mr. Bashara is a welder, and a devout Muslim, and tried to make Jazz into both. Let's just say he did not succeed. She is now a smuggler, working as a porter so she can meet shipments as they arrive at port, giving her access to contraband smuggled up from Earth. When one of her richest clients asks her to help him sabotage the oxygen-making operation of a company he is hoping to buy, Jazz can't resist the prospect of quick money. But her get-rich-quick scheme quickly falls apart when she discovers that the company she's been tasked with putting out of business is owned by organized crime. She finds herself on the run, trying to figure out a way to stay alive and on the moon.

For all of the science in Weir's novel, this is essentially a good, old-fashioned thriller. And there is a LOT of science. I learned more about how things work (or don't) in the lunar environment than I even knew there was to learn. The tension was only increased by the fact that Artemis is basically inescapable. You can't just run off to some non-extraditing country to avoid capture, nor can you lay low in a place where almost everyone knows you. There are long scientific explanations of engineering, welding, and the imagined tech that allows people to go outside of Artemis without dying. Weir definitely knows his stuff-or at least, I assume he does, because I couldn't tell you if any of the science was real or not. But if not, he's pretty convincing. Given how meticulously The Martian was researched, I'd have to say he's probably not bluffing.

The main character is just that; a character. Jazz is brash, sarcastic, overconfident, incredibly smart, and pretty good at self-sabotage. Because the novel is told from her first-person perspective, you get a lot of information about her inner life, and that definitely makes her more endearing as a character, even when you think she's being reckless or just plain stupid. My one criticism is that Weir writes her as though she is a man who just happens to be female. I don't mean in the trans* way; I mean her attitude, way of speaking, reactions to events, etc...just felt stereotypically masculine to me. I'm certainly not one to believe biology is destiny, and I applaud anyone, male or female, who can break the bonds of expected gender roles. But I spent most of the book thinking that Weir decided to write a female character without actually figuring out how that would change the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the said character. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed following Jazz on her (mis)adventures, and if you are a fan of science fiction that is heavy on the science, this book is for you.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, because I read that Rosario Dawson was the narrator, and she did an admirable job. I'd give her an eight out of ten for her performance, so audiobook-lovers, check it out!

My Year of King, #3: The Shining

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

If you're tracing my Year of King journey (and why wouldn't you be?) you'll know that I was a little disappointed in 'Salem's Lot this time. That experience made me very concerned to read The Shining. I wasn't sure I could stand it if The Shining, which I remember being one of King's best books, and one of the few that actually scared me for real, was not as good 30 years later. But crisis averted! The Shining still stands as a true masterpiece of the genre, and one of the best books of the 20th century, in my humble opinion. <BIG SIGH OF RELIEF>

In case you have somehow not read it, or have only watched the Kubrick movie, here's the breakdown. Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and their five-year-old son Danny move into the Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado as winter caretakers. Jack, a recovering alcoholic, is fresh off of being fired for physically assaulting a student at the exclusive prep school where he was an English teacher. An old drinking buddy arranges for him to get the job at the Overlook, and the plan is for him to spend the winter doing minor upkeep while finishing a play that he's been writing. No sooner do they arrive to take the tour at the end of the season that the scary begins. Danny, unbeknownst to his parents, has what he comes to call "the shine". He can read people's thoughts, can speak telepathically with other people who "shine", and can sometimes see the future. He can also, unfortunately, see visions of the bad things that have happened in the past, and the Overlook has seen its share of tragic events over the years. Once the snows come and strand them in the hotel, without any communication with the outside world, the malevolent forces in the hotel start to work on Jack and Danny in terrifying ways, culminating in an explosive ending.

If you have only ever seen the Jack Nicholson movie, don't think you know The Shining. Kubrick took the source material and adapted it for the time, including the limitations of the special effects industry of the 1980s. While there are many elements in common-the hotel itself, REDRUM, and Jack's eventual insanity-the book and the movie are different enough that reading it will be worth it. Also, the book is WAY scarier than the movie. Both highlight this idea that the most terrifying monsters are the ones that live within all of us, there are truly terrifying scenes in the book that just aren't done sufficient justice in the film, if they are present at all.

This is the second of King's books where he explores the idea that buildings become repositories for the evil done in them, and that as that evil grows it brings more madness and mayhem to the characters who live/work/visit said building, until the building itself becomes a malevolent force in its own right. In 'Salem's Lot is was the Marsten House, which soaked up the psychic energy of the people who had inhabited it, and reflected that back to anyone who ventured in. King develops this idea further in The Shining, where the hotel itself becomes a character, with an evil spirit that acts of its own will to entrap and destroy Jack and his family.

Like many of King's characters, you can't help but feel sympathetic towards Jack, despite the fact that he ends up being the villain of his family's story. I suspect I found him slightly less sympathetic this time than I did when I read this 30 years ago, because the casual sexism that probably seemed super authentic back then was just irritating now. I hope and pray that there aren't too many people who still hold the same views of marriage and gender roles that Jack does in the novel. But that was a minor annoyance and didn't take anything away from how creepy and scary the plot becomes. King also further develops his "children as heroes" theme, with Danny being the most well-developed child character so far, more so than either Carrie or Mark Petrie from 'Salem's Lot.

Because I'm reading in publication order, I have to jump to the first of the Bachman books next, Rage, which is really only a novella at a slim 149 pages. But after that, it's on to The Stand, my favorite of King's book, the one I consider his magnum opus, the one that I think is highly underrated because book snobs consider it "just" a genre novel. It is almost 1100 pages of tiny print goodness, and I can't wait to read it again! But it's gonna take me a minute!

Extraordinary Means, Robyn Schneider

Monday, February 12, 2018

I don't know about you, but when I think of tuberculosis patients, I think of pale, waifish invalids lying on fainting couches wanly coughing up blood until they waste away in Victorian politeness. Truth is, tuberculosis is far from being eradicated worldwide. In fact, it is estimated that up to one-third of the world's population is infected with TB. While most tuberculosis cases can be cured with antibiotics (something those Victorian sanitarium patients could only dream of), for people with impaired immune systems, such as those with HIV, tuberculosis is still a killer. And, of course, overuse of antibiotics has led to new, tougher strains of lots of bacterial infections, including TB.

Why do I need to give you a primer on the prevalence of tuberculosis in the modern world to review a YA love story, you ask? Because Robyn Schneider used a drug-resistant strain of TB as the context of her novel, Extraordinary Means. In some near-future time, a strain of TB has developed that does not respond to any conventional treatment. It is so infectious that anyone found to have the disease is sent to live in quarantine conditions. For Lane Rosen, that means a private boarding school, Latham House, that is now a sanitarium for teenagers with the dreaded Total Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis. Before TB, Lane was an AP student, preparing to apply to the Ivy League. He is used to working hard, compulsively so, and plans to continue his studies at Latham House. However, his doctor soon informs him that things will be different-his day will be filled with yoga, health walks, and rest time instead of study sessions. Lane does his best to stick with his self-imposed study schedule, but soon finds that in the struggle between his illness and his determination, his illness always wins.

As he is getting acclimated to Latham House, he notices a group of students (patients) who don't seem to follow the rules. Granted, students are left to wander around pretty much on their own most of the time, and if you miss class, everyone assumes you were too sick to make it. But this group, including a girl named Sadie that he happens to know from summer camp, sneaks off into the woods, dresses provocatively, and generally seems to thumb its nose at the rest of the students (patients). Sadie, for her part, has accepted that she is probably going to die, and so lives each day with reckless (in this case, literally reckless) abandon. Lane ends up a part of the group, and he and Sadie fall in love. Sadie teaches Lane that there is more to life than AP classes and Ivy League collges. Because of Lane, Sadie decides she does have something to live for after all. When news of a possible cure makes its way to Latham House, both Lane and Sadie begin to think about what a future for them outside of the sanitarium might look like. But will the cure come in time?

As epidemic stories go, this one is pretty low on action. No brave doctors risking their lives in disease-ravaged countries to track down the elusive plant/chemical/scientific whatsit needed to find a cure. No rampaging infected to contend with ("28 Days" is my favorite zombie movie). It is, indeed, a story of first love, with all of the conventional elements: meet-cute, miscommunications, obsession, late night phone calls. But in the background, for the characters and for the reader, is the knowledge that unless a cure is found, this particular love story is doomed. Schneider keeps reminding the reader of that fact throughout, with students who were there one day, and quietly gone the next. Finally, the reality of the "death" part of tuberculosis hits their little group, which really brings it home to the reader.

What the novel isn't low on, however, if good characterization and emotional impact. Lane and Sadie are both well-rounded, realistic characters. The rest of their merry band of misfits are also well-written, and each provides a necessary aspect to their little group. Charlie, especially, is endearing, as a gay teen trying to write as much music as possible before the inevitable end of his music writing career. If you are a fan of John Green novels, you will definitely enjoy Extraordinary Means.

All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Boy meets girl-on a ledge. Violet was considering throwing herself off, but then Finch, who is no
stranger to suicidal thoughts himself, convinces her not to. Thus begins the love story of Violet and Finch, two smart, troubled teenagers living in small-town Indiana. Finch has lived with the darkness for a long time. He's basically been bullied by everyone in his life, starting with his father, for as long as he can remember. Living with a physically abusive parent doesn't exactly make for a rosy childhood. Violet has recently descended into the dark places Finch knows so well. Her sister was killed in a car accident, and it seems like everyone and everything she loved before is meaningless to her now. She and her sister hosted a blog together, which means that even writing, which used to be an escape for her, is tainted. Because of a school project, Finch and Violet end up spending a lot of time together, and before long they are deeply in love. But sometimes, love isn't enough to keep the darkness at bay.

Without going into too much more detail, let's just say this book is tragic. Like, "ugly-cry" tragic. Finch and Violet are both excellently written as characters, and you root for them to overcome their issues. Finch especially seems almost too good to be true. He is pretty consistently more considerate and kind than I'd expect most anyone to be, but especially a mentally ill 17 year-old boy. Finch really helps Violet see that to go on living is the only way to honor her sister, and that rather than withdrawing from the world until she can escape her small town and its painful memories, she should focus on living each day to the fullest. For her part, Violet helps draw Finch out of himself, getting him out of his own head and back into the world of the living. Sounds great, right? It is-for a while (cue ugly-crying).

This YA novel deals with some pretty heavy adult issues, namely mental illness and suicide, but Niven makes them understandable for younger readers. And really, as recent studies have shown, more and more teenagers are dealing with exactly the kind of depression and anxiety disorders that plague Finch and Violet. The story is a testament to anyone who has ever felt despair and overwhelming desperation. It also shows that even when you love someone, that person is ultimately responsible for their own choices. I think one of the messages Niven is sending to young people is that it is not your job to fix someone else, and that some problems are too big for one person, no matter how deeply they love the other, to deal with on their own. One of our protagonists learned this lesson a little too late, but because of a message left behind, they are able to let go of some of the guilt they'd been holding onto. While there is not a happy ending, Niven does leave us with a sense that, at least for one of the characters, things will eventually be OK.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Thursday, February 08, 2018

In the town of Shaker Heights, everything is orderly and perfect. The sprawling houses with the
neatly trimmed lawns, the golden-haired children playing in the parks, the upper-middle class parents and their shiny late-model cars and meticulously planned garden parties. Into this idyllic place drop an artist named Mia and her daughter Pearl. They rent an apartment from the Richardsons, a well-to-do family with four teenage children. Enigmatic and mysterious, with a past they keep to themselves, Mia and Pearl prove irresistible to the Richardson children, who each become drawn to one or the other like moths to a flame. Pearl, for her part, is amazed by the privilege the Richardson children have, and the easy way they move through the world. Mia is disquieted by the conventional ideas and opinions of the Richardson parents, but for Pearl's sake, she tries to make peace with Shaker Heights and the people in it. She tries, that is, until she instigates a custody battle between a co-worker and the Richardson's best friends over a baby of Chinese descent, abandoned by the co-worker in a moment of weakness and adopted by the wealthy, white couple. Mrs. Richardson delves into Mia's past to uncover whatever dirt she can find to discredit the artist, and these two acts set off a chain of events that leads to dramatic results for everyone.

This is the plot of Little Fires Everywhere, the latest novel by Celeste Ng. Ng does a good job of evoking the feel of an upper-middle-class suburb, both in her descriptions of Shaker Heights itself, and in her portrayal of the characters of the Richardsons. The Richardson children are nice enough, but have no idea how much privilege they actually have. At least, not until they observe the way that Pearl and her mother have drifted from place to place with very little in the way of possessions. The elder Richardsons, on the other hand, recognize their privilege and assume that of course, everyone would want to live like them, especially someone as seemingly destitute as Pearl and her mother. Of course, Mia wants to be nothing like them. She only desires to make her art and to keep her daughter safe from the influence of the Richardsons and what she sees as their selfish, unthinking lack of empathy towards anyone not like them.

All of the main characters are well written, and at one point or another, you find sympathy for all of them, including the snooty Mrs. Richardson, who's liberalism takes the form of paternalistically thinking she knows what's best for anyone she perceives as below her station. There are some cringe-worthy passages where the adoptive parents of the baby in question try to explain how they will ensure their daughter learns about her Chinese heritage (frequent visits to the local Chinese restaurant seems to be the extent of their plan), but otherwise it's not hard to see the issues presented in the novel from all sides.

The real heart of the book is in the relationships between the children, however. Pearl has an effect on each of them in a different way, and her lack of experience navigating the turbulent waters of sibling rivalries causes her to make decisions that ultimately drive her away from them. She herself really just wants to stay in one place long enough to have stable friends, and she sees the Richardsons of the perfect example of how a family should be. This sets up both unrealistic expectations in Pearl, and her mother's disquiet and ultimate decision to go behind Mrs. Richardson's back and instigate the custody battle. My favorite character of the children was Izzy-poor, misunderstood Izzy-who's outsider nature in the family made her the perfect target for her siblings' abuse and her mother's disapproval.

There is a faint feminist feel to the book, as Ng describes what Mrs. Richardson wanted her life to be like, before she gave up her dreams to become a wife and mother, as well as in Mia's restless wandering and ability to make a life out of the cast-off things of other families. But in the end it is less about women's empowerment than it is about the devastating consequences of being judgemental and/or prying into a person's past without their consent. Both led to hurt feelings and fractured relationships.

My Year of King, 'Salem's Lot (1975)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Eek! It's already the beginning of February and I am only on #2 of the many books of Stephen King that I want to re-read this year. I'm going to have to up my reading game if I hope to finish.

The second King book to come out was 'Salem's Lot, published in 1975. I first read it as a teenager in the 80s, and I remember being pretty terrified by the story. Reading it as an adult 30 years later, however, I found myself mildly disappointed that it didn't live up to my memory of it (a phenomenon I expect will encounter again as I revisit the King books I read as a young person). Don't get me wrong-'Salem's Lot is still an enjoyable, worthwhile read. It's just not quite as mind-blowingly scary to me as it once was.

That might have something to do with the subject-vampires. When King wrote 'Salem's Lot, vampire stories were mostly found in old-time horror films and pulp fiction. However, since the pop culture juggernaut that was the Twilight series, vampires have steadily been in books, movies, and television shows, in incarnations both classic and completely new (sparkly? really?). I think I've reached vampire overload at this point. King's vampires are decidedly of the classic variety. A super old vampire and his human familiar set up shop in a small Maine town, and slowly turn almost all of the people who live there into almost-mindless killing machines. All of the old vampire foils are at play-holy water, crucifixes, sunlight, etc...culminating in some fairly gross scenes involved stakes to the heart. As a vampire story, 'Salem's Lot is a perfectly respectable member of the genre, but it's really an updated, slightly different version of Dracula. I found myself glad that King generally stays away from movie monsters after this novel (with a few exceptions), and focuses on how evil doesn't always look like evil, and regular people can be monsters. The monsters King invents are way better than the old-fashioned kind.

There are definitely elements of the novel that become staples of King's work, and so far that's been the most interesting thing about this re-reading exercise for me. Reading his works in order is allowing me to trace the development of certain themes and literary devices he uses consistently in his books. 'Salem's Lot is the first place that King explores the idea that physical places, especially houses, soak up the psychic and emotional energy that is expended inside their walls. These houses (or hotels; The Shining is up next for me) become characters in their own right, emanating darkness and evil even when empty of (physical) inhabitants. The Marsten House looms over the town of 'Salem's Lot, sending off such powerful "here there be monsters" vibe that even the local teenagers avoid it most of the time.

King continues an idea that he started in Carrie, and which he probably develops most masterfully in the book It and the story "The Body"; namely, the idea that children are somehow inherently able to believe and confront things that the grown-up mind has trouble processing. His basic premise seems to be that children have not yet let go of the imagination and magical thinking that comes along with being a child, and therefore they can see, hear, feel, and do things that adults sometimes can't. In this case, the child is Mark Petrie, and while he eventually teams up with a group of grown-ups, he is the only character in the book who immediately understands the danger of the people in town who've gone missing.

"Salem's Lot is also King's first attempt at wholesale world building. Unlike sci-fi or fantasy writers, his creations are almost always normal, average small towns, the best known of which is the fictional Castle Rock. Much like the way that houses and other buildings become characters in their own right, the towns King creates, and the people who inhabit them, become as integral to the story as the main characters. I wouldn't say this first attempt is clumsy-King's writing is never that. I will say that I think he gets more efficient at it in later books. I think that 'Salem's Lot probably could have been about 100 pages shorter had King found a way to narrow his focus when it came to describing the town and its people. There are townspeople he spends a few paragraphs or pages on who end up not being that important to either the development of the town as a character or the plot, and he occasionally committed that author's sin of using more words that he needed to get the point across (which I will give him a pass on, because I also write sentences that are long and complex to get a point across that could probably have been stated more succinctly, like this one!). By the time King gets to some of his later books, he's got the world-making part down to an art, and his characterizations are some of the best in contemporary literature, in my opinion.

Given it was the 1970s, I suppose I get it, but his female characters (and really, there's only two who are truly important to the plot) are less developed as his male characters, and both of them meet tragic ends. That's not necessarily a criticism in itself, because pretty much everyone but the main characters Ben (a writer, another common element among King's protagonists) and Mark meet tragic ends, including a few babies, which had to seem almost sacreligious to readers in the 1970s, but still. His female characters in later books have more agency and are much better developed, and since Carrie was such a kick-ass, powerful character, I'm not too mad at him for the way he wrote Susan and Eva in 'Salem's Lot.

I changed my Goodreads review of this one from four to three stars when I finished it, but three stars means this is still worth the read. And now, on to The Shining. Which I hope, hope, hope I still think is creepy and moody and terrifying by the time I am done.

The Broken Earth Series, N.K. Jemisin

Sunday, February 04, 2018

I don't usually write reviews of an entire series all at once, but I'm making an exception for The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. I listened to the entire series straight through on audiobook, and the experience was exactly what I hope and dream about when it comes to fantasy and sci-fi novels. It completely transported me to a different world, and no matter how long or short the drive, I was always sad when I reached my destination and had to stop listening. Beginning with the first book, The Fifth Season (the other books are The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky), Jemisin builds an intricate story full of nuance and emotion and thought-provoking themes.

Jemisin created a world that might be a future version of earth. The world is once again one large continent, surrounded by oceans with a few islands and lots of empty water. Society is divided into factions based on the type of work a person does: manual labor, leadership, storytelling, wood-working, etc...Every community, or "com", has members from each faction working together under a headman or woman. There is one group, however, that no one wants in their com, though they are happy enough to accept their help if there is an earthquake-the orogen. Orogens have the ability to control rocks and minerals, and they protect human settlements from earthquakes and volcanoes and the like. Despite their importance to the society, they are looked down on as violent sub-humans who must be controlled at all times by Guardians, who condition the orogenes to consider themselves tools rather than people.

The main character is an orogene named Essun, though we discover that is only one of her names. She has been hiding her powers by pretending to be a "still", the name for non-orogenes. She is married to the com's stone knapper, and has two children-both of whom are also orogenes. Essun does the best she can to protect them and teach them how to hide their power, but when her husband accidentally sees her son using his, he flies into a rage and kills the boy. Her discovery of his tiny body coincides with a major tectonic event that ushers in what they call a fifth season-a time when humanity must hunker down and do their best to survive the effects of what they come to call the rifting, which spews ash and smoke into the air that completely blots out the sun and covers everything in rock and ash.

Essun takes to the roads, searching for her murderous husband and her daughter. At the same time, there are other forces working in the world that make a showdown between humanity and the earth (literally, the earth) inevitable. Told through a series of flashbacks alternated with present-day action, the series has so much happening in it that I find I'm having trouble summarizing it succinctly.

One of the things I found really fascinating, and effective, was the narrative structure. Much of the novel is told in second-person (yes, I said second-person), and it is only towards the end of the series that we discover who is doing the talking, though the "you" they are talking to is evident from the beginning. It is a unique way to experience a story, and I was impressed with Jemisin's ability to keep it up for three books. The fact that Jemisin carefully builds an intricate story where all of the various strands, including her choice of narrator, come together in the end in a cohesive way is a testament to her talent as a writer, especially given that there are hundreds and hundreds of pages that had to be coordinated.

Even if the writing was not as well-done as it is, the story itself would make it worth the read. I've read a lot of fantasy novels in my time, and it is hard to find stories that are truly different. This series is like nothing else I've ever encountered. And maybe the best part-the main character is a middle-aged black woman. She's strong and smart and powerful, who can do amazing things, but she is so much more than just her power. It's not every day you find a book with a middle-aged woman as the main character that isn't about losing or finding a man, or about finding her purpose post-child-rearing. If you are a fan of fantasy, or strong female protagonists, I can't recommend this series enough.

An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir

Friday, February 02, 2018

I've been a huge fan of fantasy novels since at least fifth grade. That Christmas I was gifted a box set of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and by the time I went back to school after winter break I had read all The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe twice. I devoured the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, battled the forces of Darkness with the elves in the Shannara Chronicles, and sailed the oceans of Earthsea (rest in power, Ms. LeGuin). As such, any new fantasy book I read has a pretty high bar to cross; it's got to take me on a fantastical journey I've never been on before, or take a tried and true fantasy story and turn it on its head. Such was the case with An Ember in the Ashes, the first book in the Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir.
seven of them, and

The story has many common fantasy elements. A poor girl with untapped magic, the son of a noble house who wants to escape from the expectations placed on him, a war for the soul of the empire-your typical fantasy stuff. What's different is the setting. The book is set in a fictional place that is very much like the Middle East-less unicorns and satyrs, more ifrits and jinns. The first book follows two main characters; Laia, a Scholar, and Elias, a Martial Mask in training. The Scholars are a race of people who once ruled much of this fictional world; a people of art and culture and learning. A couple of generations ago, they were invaded by the war-like Martials, who forced them into ghettos and made reading and writing by Scholars illegal. They live in continual fear of the Masks, a group of highly trained Martial assassins who maintain strict control over the Scholars through brutal violence and a complete lack of compassion or empathy.

When Laia's brother is arrested, she goes undercover as a slave in the school where Martials are trained to gather intel for a resistance group who has promised to rescue him. Elias is about to graduate from the school a full-fledged Mask, but he has plans to run away to avoid becoming the souless, violent monster most Masks are. Laia and Elias meet, and their plans become embroiled in even bigger plans the universe seems to have in store for them.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, and the first person narration of both characters adds to the depth of their development. There is action aplenty, but the plot is rich and detailed enough to balance it out. There are some fairly graphic descriptions of violence done to individual people, so the weak-stomached might not enjoy it. It is a rare book that I think would appeal equally to male and female readers; there really is something for everybody (though I generally reject the idea of "boys" and "girls" books, I also live in the real world). As the beginning of a series, it does an admirable job of telling a complete story, and setting the reader up for the next installment. I broke my own "no-binge" rule for book series and started the second book immediately, An Ember in the Ashes was THAT good. I highly reccomend it for anyone who loves fantasy, YA or adult.