Sometimes I read things that aren't fanfiction, and in 2021 I'm trying to do better at this. Here are my totally unsolicited opinions on the books I'm reading. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
If you have a book to recommend, drop me a line. I favour science fiction, magical realism, fantasy, dystopia, speculative fiction, contemporary romance, crime thrillers*, mysteries and the occasional classic or historical fiction. I do not enjoy paranormal romance or Westerns, but I'll try anything if it has good prose and finely written characters.
*note: I'm sick to death of crime thrillers featuring a beautiful dead woman and the rest of the cast is a sausage party. Give me feminist takes on that trope, especially queer lit, and if you're gonna kill the gays or the girls, there had better be a damn good reason for it.
science fiction, speculative fiction & dystopia
Micaiah Johnson - The Space Between Worlds
Oh my God. Oh my sweet loving mother of God.
Maybe if I'd kept up the prodigious rate at which I devoured books throughout my childhood, teens and twenties, I'd have come across this kind of book more often. You know, the kind of book that makes you weep and gasp and want to offer your firstborn as sacrifice to the word gods, in the vain hope you might ever write with a fraction of that kind of talent.
Or maybe I'd still appreciate Space Between for the masterpiece it is.
Yes, it has its flaws - there are a number of plot threads left hanging a little bit, but I'm not one who needs it all tied up in a pretty bow, and nothing felt wrong or confusing to me. Just ... left to the imagination. And yes, the motivation of the Big Bad is a little bit questionable, and in a less amazing book that might have bothered me.
But that doesn't sour the beauty of Johnson's lyrical prose, absorbing world-building, tightrope pacing, and characters I couldn’t help falling in love with. I love Cara, the protagonist, with everything inside me, and the people she loves, I love, too. Her fear and love and hate and desperation feel visceral, and her view of herself as defective makes me want to hug her.
As for that plot, parallel universe theory is one of my absolute favourite devices in science fiction and any book that explores it automatically gets a point from me. Johnson's hook - that you can only travel to a parallel world where your counterpart is dead - is one I hadn't ever thought about before, and I love that it means the opportunity of traversing to other versions of the world is offered mostly to those who usually don't get opportunities. Then, cleverly, the book explores the dystopian nature of Earth Zero and how the traversers and the poor and unfortunate are still exploited for everything they have to offer, and how sometimes love triumphs, anyway.
Space Between actually feels like two or three books in one – at a couple of points I was surprised to realise there was quite a bit more book to go - but the ending is so very satisfying that I'm glad it wasn't truncated or split up. And it’s so refreshing to read a sci fi that handles the science deftly while bringing the humanity to life. I can’t wait to read more from this author.
Suzanne Young - Girls with Sharp Sticks
I suspect I’d have loved this book when I was 13. All those pretty girls in perfect dresses? I’d have lapped up that superficial shit and held out a metaphorical begging bowl for more. Now, though? I don't think so. I can enjoy a movie like Paradise Hills or Gattaca for the aesthetic styling (and they were both intriguing as well as pretty), but it doesn't work so well on the printed page. Really, it just comes across as shallow.
Aside from the book's obsession with perfectly groomed appearances, the narrative pacing is pretty ponderous, the random boy interest is a stereotypical teen hero, the likes of which I seriously doubt exist in reality, and the ‘mystery twist’ is just ... kind of dumb. The book's saving grace is a (heavily and murkily expressed) message about transcending your upbringing, but given the aforementioned twist, it loses all impact.
I have no desire to continue the series. Sometimes YA really should be left to teenage readers.
Rory Power - Wilder Girls
I was unprepared for the level of body horror in this YA dystopian coming-of-age survival tale. It’s truly gruesome. I grew up reading Stephen King, so I can handle quite a lot of squelching innards and dismembered body parts ... or so I thought. Maybe I've just lost my tolerance for it. I thought I'd grow inured to the extremely vivid descriptions as the book wore on, but instead I found myself wondering what the point was. My mother used to complain about gratuitous violence in literature/movies/TV and I used to scoff, but this really did feel gratuitous.
Aside from the gross factor, this island society - the setting is a school for girls in Maine that is placed under quarantine when the inhabitants develop a virulent disease - is savage and raw and brutal. Half the girls at the school have died and only two teachers are left; the school receives daily deliveries of food (which we later learn is contaminated) and essentials, but it's never enough, and the girls are forced to fight for enough food to survive. The school grounds are gated, which keeps out the forest animals grown wild and crazed with the same virus that's infected the humans.
Maybe the hardest part to take about this book, though, is how ultimately pointless it all seems. Every day is grimmer than the last, the girls suffer losses and agonies that are almost unbearable, and ... this is a spoiler, but ... in the end, it turns out they've been left to fend for themselves as part of some unexplained - perhaps inexplicable - navy experiment? I think? There's no reasoning behind this. There's also confusing and hand-waving allusions to the virus being caused by climate change (seriously?). Honestly, I was just really confused about the science here, not to mention the message Power seems to be trying to convey.
The writing veers between gorgeous and ridiculous; Power's weird sentence structure is often poetic and dreamlike, but can be jarring and affected. The characters are so hard-edged and stylised they are almost unknowable. Despite that, I loved the main trio of girls' staunch loyalty to each other. In a world gone insane, Hetty, Reese and Byatt are each other's only anchors, and there are times when that's beautifully understated.
Weird book ... and one I probably (despite this review) enjoyed a lot more while reading than I did on reflection.
Amie Kaufman & Meaghan Spooner - These Broken Stars
I find YA fiction so much more intriguing on preview than I do most books written for grown-up audiences, even though the melodrama of YA can pull me out of suspension of disbelief. YA just seems to explore so many different universes and possibilities. Even so, I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.
Lilac and Tarver both hooked me right from the start; they both seem acutely aware of their own flaws and privileges, but still view each other through a tarnished lens that they eventually learn to polish. I would have liked more world building, but Kaufman and Spooner struck a fine balance between the protagonists' backstories and growing love story, set against their struggle for survival and the increasing mystery of the planet they get stranded on. And the twist toward the end was both unexpected and heart-rending.
The only other thing I wish we’d had more time for was getting to know Swann. I love a badass woman, especially one in princess disguise. Great book. I’ll be reading the next one.
Amie Kaufman & Meaghan Spooner - This Night So Dark
I love this interlude. It fills in some gaps I didn't know I wanted filled, and it's a lovely moment between Tarver and Lilac. Also introduces a character I fell instantly and completely in love with - Dr Sanjana Rao - who becomes important later in the Starbound trilogy-and-a-bit. This novella made me love Tarver even more.
Amie Kaufman & Meaghan Spooner - This Shattered World
If Puddleglum the Marshwiggle was a planet, he'd be Avon.
At first I thought the whole book was just going to depress me with its grey gloominess, but then it threw in occasional bouts of violence and topped me off with instalove between the improbable teenage rebel hero and the even more improbable teenage soldier. I couldn't feel much for these characters or their miserable planet, and I couldn't bring myself to care much for the Mystery™ either. I almost DNF'd a couple of times and was ready to ditch the rest of the series, until Tarver showed up and gave me hope.
Hope that was somewhat misplaced, as it happened; the ending was so overly dramatic and yet inconsequential that I probably should have put this book down halfway through.
You can tell this is a 'filler' novel between These Broken Stars and the final instalment.
Amie Kaufman & Meaghan Spooner - Their Fractured Light
The con artist and the hacker are a much more interesting pair (to me) than the rebel and the soldier, and Corinth, with its Fifth Element vibe, is way cooler than Avon. Seriously, I want a movie of this book solely for the setbuilding.
The action in this book is almost non-stop, and just when you think you're approaching the climax, you realise there are a couple hundred pages still to go and you wonder how on earth Kaufman and Spooner can keep up this breakneck pace... but they do. There's so much going on here, and when the characters from previous books start showing up it only gets more frenetic. There's not one but two Big Bads, alien possession, spaceships crashing, zombies and battles, and it's pretty damn cool.
And I always knew there'd be a happy ending to this series, but it's not a corny one; it's satisfying, and it makes me glad I persevered through the pretty dismal middle book of this trilogy.
Courtney Summers - This Is Not a Test
Okay, I do not enjoy zombies. They're gross and boring and I just have no interest in them. There are so many kinds of apocalypse you can hang a story on that are far more disturbing and compelling... I just don't do zombies.
Imagine my delight at finding that Summers doesn't really try to make the zombies compelling, and that protagonist Sloane's non-zombie-related trauma is more disturbing than undead, flesh-eating loved ones. She's abused, terrified, abandoned and suicidal, and it has little to do with the apocalypse.
How do you even do that? How do you write a book about a group of terrified teenagers trying to survive a world where everyone they loved is dead and trying to kill them, and make that the least interesting part of the story?
The dynamics are so rich between the six survivors - the mistrust and alliances and pecking order and hard choices. The scenes when they're uneasily co-existing in the abandoned high school are more tense than when they are running and fighting for their lives. And the way Sloane finds herself still living despite the incremental losses, large and small, despite the way she just wants to die... God, I just love the way Summers writes.
Courtney Summers - Please Remain Calm
How do you keep going when everything you've ever known is gone, twisted into something out of your worst nightmares?
How do you even want to keep on going?
This time around we get Rhys' point of view on his and Sloane's desperate flight from their ravaged world toward what the voice on the radio tells them is some kind of safe haven. The little bit of hope Sloane had at the end of This Is Not a Test has been smashed in the most devastating way, but conversely, it seems to strengthen her; she finds an inner fortitude she never believed she had. Rhys, on the other hand, is floundering, even more so when he and Sloane are separated and he's taken under the wing of Jess and Lisa, who are fleeing the zombies with their traumatised, mute daughter Ainsley.
I knew all along what was going to happen to Jess and Lisa. Yet Summers still manages to shock me with the devastating ending to this novella, and like all good horror stories, she leaves herself open for a sequel.
I really hope she writes one.
N K Jemisin - Emergency Skin
I loved this novella. I don't think I've read anything quite like it, and I enjoy a skilfully executed surprise.
The second person perspective works well as a tool to build suspense before the reveal. First it distances the reader by imposing the narrative voice on you, with all the prejudices and misconceptions that accompany it, and then it pulls you right into the action as the unseen and unvoiced protagonist takes control of his own destiny.
The narrator's casual misogyny and racism put me off at first - I wondered if I was reading a sci fi written by a white man in the 1940s - but I'll never mistrust Jemisin again. She clearly knows what she's doing.
I can't say too much more without spoiling the surprise - just read this story.
The only bit that didn't ring true for me is post-climate-emergency Earth as utopia, but maybe I'm just a cynic.
Rebecca Bowyer - Stealing Time
DNF'd at about 45%.
I really wanted to like this book, but it did not live up to its promise. Any excitement that should have been sharpened by the frankly inventive plot was dulled by the plodding prose and uninteresting characters.
Here's an excerpt from what was meant to be a climactic moment in the story (I think) but was dragged into snoozeville by the heavy mundanity of Bowyer's style:
Varya moved with lightning speed and snatched the black square out of Connor's hands. She placed it carefully on the table and bent her knees as she lowered herself slowly back into the chair. She cupped her hands protectively over the device.
Don't get me wrong - I love a good adverb. But there's a line between just enough and whoa, way too much and Bowyer scuffed through that line with Doc Martens.
The scene continues with some bland conversation between protagonist Varya, her shady business partner Marisa and the mysterious Connor, during which the mysterious device is revealed to be - spoiler alert - some kind of highly illegal VR stasis chamber housing Varya's should-be-dead son and her mother. Yet Varya doesn't keep it somewhere logical, like... I don't know ... an impenetrable safe?
Varya held the device flat in the palm of her hand and carried it over to the shelf above the coffee machine. She placed it carefully next to a small cactus, then stood back to gaze at the montage.
I guess there's something to be said for hiding in plain sight, but really?
Incidentally, the coffee machine is the real hero of this story. Marisa drinks approximately eight cups of its brew in one sitting, which I can understand considering coffee beans are among the many things so rare as to be almost extinct in this dystopian future. And frankly, that's not a future I want to inhabit, even for another 120-odd pages.
Mikaela Everett - The Unquiet
My own history is shaped like a little girl, with her big gray eyes and her angry smile. Madame had so much trouble whipping her into shape I wonder now that she ever made it. I was careless with her. I was ruthless, and now that little girl inside me, the one from the ocean, from the sky, is dead. I cast her out, and I buried her in the woods. Sometimes I spy the color of the dirt and how her tears and her bones look underneath it, an old red dress covered in worms, and I wonder, as I step over her hump of earth, how I could ever have been her.
How can you resist a book with lines like that?
How can you not love a story about loveless children, stolen from a mirror Earth and trained as sleepers, trained to kill their identical alternates on this Earth and assume their lives, without anyone ever knowing?
I couldn't resist, and I did love it. But there are times in this book when literally nothing seems to happen. When Lirael, having stolen her alternate's life, moves through her days, tending her grandparents' orchard and delivering weapons to other sleepers and lying, and time passes. And even the momentous events that crack her open seem small and remote at first - like meeting Jack, who becomes her friend and whom she keeps company through his illness, who makes her question and doubt her purpose. Like losing her grandparents - one to sickness, one to murder - and protecting her sister. Like falling in love. Like the beginning of the end of the world.
Because all these things happen, but it's only now that I've finished this book that I realise just how enormous and how personal these events are.
This book is amazing. I really don't know why it's shelved as YA, except that it's written in first person and the protagonist is a teenage girl. It's huge and damning and desperate and poetic. I've had to sit with it for a few days before I could write this review. I had to let it settle so I could accept just how devastating this book is.
The only thing - the sole, solitary thing - that didn't sit right with me in this book is the old man in Lirael's dreams. Who is he? What is his purpose? We never find out, and in a book where so much is hinted, half-revealed and left unspoken, he isn't really necessary. But he doesn't appear often and the rest of this book is so perfect that I'm willing to overlook him.
Blake Crouch - Dark Matter
This book was so much fun.
After slogging through the last read (The Vanishing Half), I was ready for something easy that flowed and pulled me along like all good scifi should. Yes, this book has moments of explain-y physics-y technobabble (how should I know if it actually makes sense? It sounds like it does, and that's good enough for me), but it wasn't hard to follow (or skim, if it was late at night) and of course the plot device (parallel universe hopping! it'll never get old) kept me thoroughly hooked.
Where Dark Matter falls down is in the parts that rely on interpersonal relationships as motivation. Jason Prime is obsessed with returning to his universe and his family, but there are plenty of times when it seems he focuses so much on his wife that he forgets his son's existence. As for Jason-2 - is he really so dissatisfied with his stunningly successful life that he leaves it in exchange for domesticity with a woman he dated briefly 15 years ago and left behind? That part just never felt convincing.
I did, however, enjoy the universe-shifting Jason Prime and Amanda go through - part terror, part wonder - and I really wish we could have spent a little more time in the Star Trek-esque world.
All in all, this book was super entertaining and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bravo.
Emily St John Mandel - Station Eleven
I've just finished reading this. I should probably sit with it for a while, as this review is likely to be incoherent, but eh. We die like Georgia Flu-infected men.
I admit, I found it hard to fall in rhythm with Station Eleven. So many characters, so many plots, so many times to keep track of. So many tenses, even. And yet there's something magical about this book that kept me reading until far too late across several nights, picking the book up in my lunch break, thinking about it while I should have been thinking about other things.
For such a bleak setting - the end of the world as we know it, and twenty years past in a world that's lawless and harsh and often violent - it's really quite lovely, especially in the way the Travelling Symphony and the Museum of Civilization try to preserve the things that must seem wonderful and strange now. In the way that one of the central characters, whose story ends before this one begins, is so pivotal in such small but magnificent ways. In the way that everyone in the post-pandemic world is damaged in a way we can imagine much more vividly post-covid, but they're still living, and still finding joy in it.
Just like its protagonist, Kirsten, this is a book that meanders but always finds its way home, even if that home is somewhere new each time.