“Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy”

Eleanor Oliphant

 

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. Unless you’ve never in your life opened up a work of fiction, you can probably guess that Eleanor is the opposite of fine. However she spends the first half of the book telling herself, and consequently the reader, that she is. She has a perfectly ordered life working five days a week and on nights and weekends eating frozen pizza and drinking wine and vodka to pass the time (our first hint that things aren’t “fine”), and talking to Mummy every Wednesday night on the phone. Two consecutive events occur to shake up Eleanor’s world. First she attends a concert after winning a free ticket in a work raffle and falls in love with the singer. Second, she and a coworker assist an old man who collapses in the street in front of them. Once Eleanor find her life intertwined with other people, she starts to realize there better things to be than “fine.”

My immediate thought about Eleanor is that she may be somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. She clearly has issues with social interaction and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking and tends to be overly literal about things. That may still be true, but the more I learned about Eleanor and her Mummy, the more I realized she had much more reason to hide from the world than ASD. As Eleanor pursued her crush on the singer and became closer to her new friends, I became equal parts nervous and hopeful for how things would turn out for her. And that’s what opening yourself up to other humans feels like; nervous and hopeful. I don’t want to spoil anything but Eleanor experiences some serious ups and downs with these new changes in her life, but because of a chance meeting on a street corner, she doesn’t go through them alone.

I am suddenly living on my own in the first time in my life so this book rang a lot of emotional bells for me. Obviously my situation isn’t the same as Eleanor Oliphant, but it definitely drove home the importance of keeping up my current friendships and even forging some new ones so that I can more better than just “fine.”

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“Stand up and do better”

oathbringer

Hoo boy! This 1200 page tome is going to be a doozy to try to review without spoiling but I’ll give it the old college try. Brandon Sanderson’s third installment of the Stormlight Archive is full of its share of world building, plot twists and some honest to goodness character development. I’ll try to keep things vague and broad but A LOT happens in this book.

*some spoilers for the first two books ahead*

Oathbringer picks up shortly after the events of Words of Radiance. Dalinar and his allied forces have used the newly discover oathgate to set up camp in the vast fortress of Urithuru. He is attempting to unite all the kingdoms in Roshar and dealing with a past he has largely forgotten. Adolin is living with the secret of having killed Sadeus, his fathers enemy. Shallan is learning to live with what it means to be a Knight Radian. Kaladin is still doing what he always does, being generally humorless and carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But most importantly, Jasnah is alive! Everyone’s favorite heretic scholar is back and still has no time for fools. There are some major revelations and a couple of serious battles in this installment. There are also some serious revelations regarding Dalinar’s aforementioned past and the true nature of the dreaded Voidbringers. Kaladin also spends some time with the newly freed Parshmen and sees that their dislike of humanity is quite justified.

Overall I enjoyed the hell out of this book. I had some issues getting through it because it was an EBook from the library and it kept getting auto returned before I could finish it. Then I’d have to wait in line on the hold list until I could get it back. I could have done with a lot less time plodding through Shadesmar (about 3/4 through the book). But otherwise it’s a great addition to the Stormlight Archive.

Enchanted and Spellbound, In the Silence they Lingered

wylding hall

 

This book had already ticked off so many boxes for me before I’d even opened it: Crumbling and isolated English manor, 1970s acid folk band, possible Wicker Man-like pagan horror. I was intrigued before I even started the book. This short novella by Elizabeth Hand slowly amps up the weirdness and dread and, though it leaves the reader with more questions than answers, it’s a deeply satisfying ending.

The book follows the the story of fictional folk band <i>Windhollow Faire</i> a small folk band who are sent to the titular country manor to record their next album. Though the album will be their greatest work as a group, the lead singer, Julian Blake, disappears in the course of recording it. The book is told in a documentary style as the former band members and associates gather together and recall the events at Wylding Hall that led to Blake’s disappearance. It is broken up into small vignettes as we see some incidents from varying perspectives. The elements that add to the feeling of unease are familiar but no less unsettling. The dimensions of the manor seem somewhat fluid (though it’s nowhere near House of Leaves territory). The townsfolk are standoffish and seem to cling to weird old pagan traditions. And Julian Blake himself has a fascination with the occult. These, and several other elements culminate in the vanishing of Mr. Blake.

I loved this book so much! I literally found myself sneaking off to read just a little bit more on the Kindle app on my phone. The feel of this book invoked the kind of general unease you get while watching old 70s occult movies. Things just seem a little skewed in a way you can’t always put your finger on. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the Folk Horror sub genre, this book is a great recommendation at less than 200 pages.

Same Song; Different Tune

bluebird bluebird

 

This is the first book I’ve read by Attica Locke and it definitely won’t be my last. Bluebird Bluebird is a complex and gripping mystery with social commentary that never feels ham-handed or preachy. I enjoyed it so much I may even check out Empire on Hulu (Ms. Locke writes for the show).

Darren Matthews has a lot going on. He is a black Texas Ranger is East Texas. His career is in jeopardy after sticking his neck out for a family friend. His marriage is in jeopardy for the same reason. He might also be a high functioning alcoholic. As a favor for a friend, he goes to the tiny town of Lark to look into two murders. A black lawyer from Chicago, followed a few days later by a white local girl. The prevailing theory put forth by the local authorities is that the white girl was killed as retaliation for the black man. If the patent ridiculousness of this story wasn’t already apparent, it becomes clear as soon as Darren arrives in town that there is a lot more going on. He must look into secrets that the small town is unwilling to give up to an outsider, along with the generations old ties between the black and white residents of Lark. We also see that, despite the reverence with which the Rangers are held in the state of Texas, they can’t protect Darren from the violent racist elements in town.

If you are a fan of mystery and suspense and you haven’t picked up an Attica Locke book, I highly recommend that you do. If I had the free time I feel like I would love read through her entire scope of work in a week or so, even if it left me a little more cynical about the state of race relations in the U.S. that I already was.

Get to the Next Screen

altered carbon

 

What does society look like if your consciousness can be saved to a device and installed into a new body making death theoretically impossible? While this sounds like the plot of an episode of Black Mirror, it’s actually the main conceit of Altered Carbon, published in 2006 (and adapted into a series on Netflix this year). At birth, every human has a cortical stack implanted at the base of the skull that contains their consciousness. Only the destruction of the stack results in what’s known as Real Death. It’s in this world that we meet Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite soldier who has fallen on the wrong side of the law. Kovacs’ stack has been put on ice which is what now serves as a prison sentence in the 25th century. He is brought to earth and put into a new body by Laurens Bancroft, an ultra rich business man who wants Takeshi to solve his own murder. The police have written it off as a suicide and are unwilling to put any more time and effort into investigating the “death” of a man who can never really die. The ultra-rich are able to have their consciousnesses backed up to a secure facility every day or two, so that even if their stack is destroyed, they still live. Death is no longer the great equalizer.

Takeshi’s investigation takes him through all levels of society and naturally, nothing goes smoothly. There are twists and turns and sex and violence throughout this hard boiled cyberpunk detective novel. I’m not even halfway through the Netflix adaptation so I can’t tell you how how true to the source material it is, but the book follows in the footsteps of cyberpunk authors like William Gibson.

“The Sky is Falling. Life is Apalling”

the obelisk gate

Reading this book was a bit of a chore. Not because N.K. Jemison’s work isn’t amazing, but because I checked it out as an ebook from my library, not realizing that I couldn’t renew it if other people had it on hold and it would be automatically returned before I could finish it. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did its predecessor, The Fifth Season, but it is still an intense read that gives us a deeper understanding of Essun, the main protagonist along with her allies in the underground city of Castrima. It also adds the point of view of Nassun, Essun’s daughter who it was believed was lost or killed in the Season that started at the beginning of the first book.

The action does slow quite a bit in this second installment of The Broken Earth trilogy. Essun spends the entire book learning to navigate her new surroundings in the city of Castrima, which is unique not only in the fact that it exists underground using ancient technology but because it contains Orogenes and Stills (non-Orogenes) living side by side in relative peace. She also must deal with her former lover Alabaster, who was revealed to be alive at the end of the previous book. Nassun’s story fills us in on where she was at the start of The Fifth Season and catches us up until both mother and daughters stories are on the same timeline. We see her come upon her father, Jija, after he has just beaten her younger brother to death after discovering that he is an Orogene. Much of the emotional impact that was contained in the first book is to be found in Nassun’s chapters. Though we understand her motivations, it is frustrating to watch this young girl try to maintain her father’s extremely conditional love. She also unwittingly allies herself with an old nemesis of her mother’s.

Though it may not have the action of the first book, we learn so much more about the characters who inhabit the world of The Broken Earth trilogy and see the setup for what promises to be a stunning finish in The Stone Sky.

And the worms ate into his brain

surfacing

I would have liked to read this book over a day or two without interruption so that I could immerse myself in it. Reading it in fits and starts while I was on hold at work (I have the Kindle app downloaded to my desktop) and before bed it at night really didn’t allow me to feel the growing feeling of unease and dissociation that Margaret Atwood’s book conveys. Though I wouldn’t call it my favorite work by Ms. Atwood (Cat’s Eye wins that hands down), it’s a thought provoking short novel.

Surfacing follows a nameless protagonist as she returns to her childhood home on an isolated island in Quebec after the mysterious disappearance of her father. Though very little as far as action happens in the novel, the woman’s experience of suddenly being immersed in a a past that she fled from slowly drives her into delusion and madness. Many of the themes, such as not fitting in with your childhood world or your current one and the societal expectations put on women, I found very relatable. I must confess that running theme of Canadian independence was beyond me.

Surfacing is one woman’s story of leaving home because she did not fit in, only to find the new life that she’s constructed is equally foreign to her. She confesses that she does not love Joe, the man she lives with, and that her career is something she fell into. Though most of us aren’t driven mad by alienation, most of us can relate to it.

Lost in a parallel existence. Lost in a nightmare I retrace

THE LIKENESS

 

I read Tana French’s first first novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods a little over a year ago and immediately fell in love with her writing style. In the Woods was the dark, complex and gritty murder mystery that filled the season one True Detective sized hole in my heart. The Likeness has cemented my love for Ms. French and this mystery series. This second book hits many of the same notes that made the first one so great without being repetitive.

The Likeness begins picks up about six months after the events of In the Woods have concluded. The protagonist, Cassandra Maddox is the former partner of Rob Ryan who was the protagonist of the first book. Despite these close ties, it is not necessary to have read In the Woods to follow along with The Likeness, though I would highly recommend it. Detective Maddox has transferred out of Murder Squad and into Domestic Violence. However she is called to a murder scene to find that the victim is not only her doppelganger, but that she has been identified as “Lexie Madison” an identity that Detective Maddox used when she was working Undercover. Her former boss from Undercover convinces her to move in with “Lexie’s” flatmates and pose as her in order to help catch the killer.

Tana French’s ability to put you inside the main character’s head is phenomenal. Often I would catch myself missing the same things Cassie would miss because I was looking at everything through her eyes with all the baggage from her past that colored it. The conclusion of this book (like its predecessor) was an emotional gut punch. In addition, French makes Dublin and the small village where the main action takes place into secondary characters. The conflict between history and modern life weigh heavily over the events of the story. I can’t recommend this book, or any of the other books in the series enough to anyone who loves a mystery with some serious meat on its bones. Yes, I just recommended books I haven’t read yet. FIGHT ME!

It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty.

the passage

 

I enjoy post apocalypse fiction. There is something about the society and all its excesses breaking down and mankind being stripped to its bare essentials that appeals to me as a literary trope. The means in which the world ends is simply a MacGuffin, the device that propels the story forward and tells us what happens to mankind when it has to focus solely on survival. The Passage is similar in that regard, though the concept of a viral vampire apocalypse is intriguing. In the end it’s the story of what mankind is when boiled down to its essence.

As with most apocalypse stories, the government is the catalyst. After finding a vampire-like virus carried by Bolivian bats that can greatly extend life, the U.S. Government uses death row inmates as guinea pigs for a top secret military operation known as Project Noah. Things to horribly wrong as they must for this story to continue. A young girl named Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has also been infected with the virus escapes with an FBI agent and lives through the end of the world, also outliving her savior. The story then jumps forward approximately 93 years to a small outpost in California which has been cut off from the rest of the country for decades and encounters Amy by chance. Though they don’t realize it, Amy holds the key to ending the plague that has destroyed most of humanity.

Though this book hit many of the same plot points followed by books like The Stand and Swan Song, it still surprised me in quite a few places. At over 700 pages the book is long but rarely drags. No character is unimportant to the plot. The book ties up many loose ends in the conclusion but still leaves a nice cliffhanger for its sequel.

“You left me alone but you’re still my own.”

pretty girls

 

The key to a good suspense/mystery novel is similar to that of a good horror film. The characters reactions to things have to be realistic and make sense. That doesn’t mean they have to necessarily be smart or follow basic common sense. It means they have to make sense given what we know about the character’s past experiences and personality. That way, when everything goes pear shaped, it feels like these things are being experienced by a real human and not merely a vessel to move the story forward. Pretty Girls hits the nail on the head. I hate to use a cliched term like “non-stop thrill ride,” but reading this book was a lot like riding a roller coaster. I found myself having to take a breather from this book every once in awhile because it got too intense.

Lydia and Claire are two sisters who have not spoken in twenty years. Their relationship slowly deteriorated after their sister Julia disappeared without a trace from her college campus one night. The incident destroyed their once happy family. As the book begins, Claire’s husband is killed in what appears to be a botched mugging. This sets in motion a series of events that throw the two sisters back together as are drawn deeper into the mystery, not only of her husband’s death but of their missing sister.

Aside from being a hell of a good mystery, this book depicts the emotional toll taken on a family when a child goes missing. It packed an emotional wallop throughout. I will give a warning for extremely graphic depictions of murder and rape. It’s rough material but given the themes of the book I don’t think it’s extraneous.