Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

There are no Monsters left in the town of Lucille. Long ago, in a time not often spoken about, the Angels rid the town of Monsters and left the inhabitants with a peaceful existence. But when Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a picture that comes alive when accidentally touched with Jam’s blood, it appears that perhaps not all of the Monsters in Lucille are gone after all. It appears that “Pet” has come hunting a Monster, and it is closer than anyone would like…

The book’s description did not prepare me at all for the vibrant, powerful, writing. It is vivid and visceral — the kind where every phrase says far more than its constituent words would suggest. Strong themes of righteous vengeance against evil combined with realistic and subtle explanations of what people do. “Monster” is the epithet for people who do bad things, but “Angels” and “Monsters” aren’t pretty or ugly like the pictures in a book: “It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

The plot is actually a bit simplistic (aimed at a middle school audience), but the characters, writing, and themes make it impossible to put down. Emezi is going right on my “follow” list.

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Jam always felt lucky when she stood in the path of her father’s joy.”

“Everyone, everything deserved some time to be. To figure out what they were. Even a painting. Bitter finishing it was just her telling it what she thought it was, or what she’d seen it as. It hadn’t decided for itself yet.”

“You humans and your binaries, Pet said. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.”

“It built a stone of guilt in her chest, and Jam added it to the pile that had been forming there since she told Pet to stay.”

“That’s precisely the point, little girl. Your knowing, you think it gives you clarity, sight that pierces. It can be a cloud, a thing that obscures.”

“Jam nodded, even though the fear was still a tangled necklace in her stomach, heavy and iron.”

“The creature growled low in its throat and changed its body language, small shifts that bled naked menace into the room.”

“But Jam could still feel the anxiety and fear like a spilled sourness soaked up by the floor, circulating through the house.”

“Not one of my concerns in this life, to be nice, to sound nice, what is nice.”

“Your world is unpleasant, your truths are unpleasant, the hunt is unpleasant.”

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

Red Birds by Mohammad Hanif (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 /5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A satirical and somewhat surreal modern day Mouse That Roared taking place in an unnamed desert refugee camp in a place where Americans are simultaneously active in both destruction and Aid. A US pilot crash lands in the desert outside the very camp he was meant to bomb. He is rescued by 15-year old Momo — a singular character — crafty, entrepreneurial, and utterly focussed on finding his brother “Bro Ali” who disappeared into the mysterious Hangar at the center of camp and never returned. The narrative cycles between the first person perspectives of these two and Momo’s dog Mutt. Yes — the dog is one of the narrators and is by far the most erudite of the three, serving as a more abstract philosophic commentary on the action and The Way Things Are. Only Mutt sees the red birds who suddenly appear off in the corners as a bit of emphasis on events.

Other characters represent types: Doctor cares only about saving the Desert and not too much about the humans. An American aid worker — nicknamed Lady Flowerbody — wants to save the world — as long as she has a sufficient supply of Perrier. She is pursuing a PhD on the topic of the Teenage Muslim mind. Momo goes along with it — he has been studied many times for studies like ‘Growing Pains in Conflict Zone,’ ‘Tribal Cultures get IT,’ and even ‘Reiki for War Survivors.’

The writing is beautiful. At heart are themes on the importance of being loved and not forgotten, at living a life of significance, and the deep and individual horrors of war and craziness of America’s policy. This quote kind of sums it up — as the pilot thinks of his own American role juxtaposed with that of Lady Flowerbody he says: “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? Why would you need somebody to throw blankets on burning babies if there were no burning babies? If I didn’t take out homes, who would provide shelter? If I didn’t take out homes who would need shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, how would you get to set up refugee camps? Where would all the world’s empathy go? Who would host exhibitions in the picture galleries of Berlin, who would have fundraising balls in London? Where would all the students on their gap years go? If I stop wearing this uniform and quit my job, the world’s sympathy machine will grind to a halt.”

I loved the writing and the story was intriguing, hovering at the border of reality. The satire was apt although by nature left out any positive attribute about Americans and American aid. The tone was not depressing, although the subject matter and conclusion certainly was if you settle back from the tone and examine what lies underneath.

Other great quotes:

“For every wad of cash being pocketed, for every sack of grain or sugar being stolen there is a pile of paperwork to prove that it’s not being stolen.”

“They had trained themselves to be brave, they were ready to lay down their lives for their God and country but they didn’t know that bravery comes with a high noise levels and then an abrupt silence that lasts forever. You can’t be brave when you are dead. And then promptly forgotten.”

“She has the air of a permanent do-gooder who will just leave when they stop feeling good about doing good.”

“Making some moolah and thanking our creator is the only ideology that works here.”

“I can tell you that if he is a spy he is not very good at it. He is the kind of spy who wishes that they owned a cafe and ran a book club.”

“When my folks don’t have a real explanation, they blame it on war. As if before the war we were all a brotherhood and didn’t throw our trash into our neighbor’s yard. As if war gave us bad breath and crude manners. “

“Three parallel wrinkles on her forehead speak of an intelligent mind. The ones who came before her never smelt this nice. And they stopped coming anyway when the Hangar shut down. It was simple, they bombed us and then sent us well-educated people to look into our mental health needs.”

“Sad mothers are made of compulsive, reckless optimism.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5

Great adventure story! Love, betrayal, and a panoply of creatures, cultures, and “magical” objects that leak through Doors: the thin boundaries between our world and innumerable others.

Our heroine is January Scaller, and the time is ~1900. January is a motherless child of indeterminate color who lives with her father’s employer, the kindly and wealthy Mr. Locke. By comparison, January is told she is “quite improper, willful and temerarious” — temerarious quickly becomes her favorite word :-). However, no thing or person is exactly what they seem in this deliciously complex story that weaves together intricate stories across time and multi-world space.

The Doors represent Change — as January’s father explains it: “Doors are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned… Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified and storyless.” But not everyone is enamored of the “change” the Doors represent, and someone or something is working hard to close them all down, ostensibly to maintain order and bring Progress and Prosperity to our world (but mostly benefiting themselves).

A number of memorable characters step in to help or hinder including: Mr. Locke and his slightly unsettling Archeological Society; Samuel Zappia, January’s only “non-fictional friend;” Jane Irimu, sent from East Africa by way of a predatory Leopard people world by January’s father; and Adelaide Lee Larson “ born of poor luck and poverty and raised by ignorance and solitude,” whose epic love story begins when she meets a ghost boy in an empty field at 15.

Speculative fiction is often used a vehicle for discussing difficult topics through the guise of “other worlds,” and this book is a thinly veiled portrayal of the perception of Change as necessary (liberals) or as something to be feared (conservatives). While I personally favor liberal policies, I don’t appreciate the over simplified and highly stereotyped cabal of rich, white, men that are literally out to rape, pillage, and destroy the happiness and life potential of everyone else. Well-written fiction can feel so real that it is easy for stereotypes like this to be perpetuated without the reader’s conscious awareness. So … great writing and a tremendous girl-power adventure — but a little heavy handed on the definition of the “bad guys” for me.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

The Flavors of Other Worlds by Alan Dean Foster (SF)

This new collection of short stories is classic science fiction. Updated for modern times in terms of access to social media, etc, it nevertheless focuses primarily on old themes: how would human beings react and adapt to new situations.  Stories range from alien takeovers so subtle that nobody notices … to a dangerous addiction to knowledge… to a way of channeling the aurora borealis for unlimited power… to the reaction of a colonized world that is none too happy about receiving the “benefits” of a conquering race (us).

Each story is prefaced with a note from the author about the origins of the story — these are almost as interesting as the stories themselves. The writing is concise and clear — reminiscent of, well, Foster himself — the guy has been around for a long time! Like a lot of good science fiction, the stories allow us to think about many of today’s issues in the guise of “other” worlds, people, and cultures. A nice addition.

The Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander

I took a break from all the heavy stuff I’ve been reading and read three wonderful children / YA novels.  Here is a review of the first (and my favorite) in the trifecta!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on April 30, 2019.

A brilliantly imaginative story combining history, science, and the importance of knowledge into a children’s adventure story centered around the most impressive, awesome, majestic, humongous library of all time.

Lenora — our eleven-year old heroine — escapes from her (luckily) inattentive nanny through a secret arch of her local library and lands in the aforementioned “Library of Ever.” Confronted with a ten-foot tall stern and very pointy librarian who insists that only library employees may enter, she applies for and is immediately granted a job as the 4th Assistant Apprentice Librarian. Her largely self-directed adventures take her through the Calendar help desk, the cartography section, and a live-action diorama of Bubastes (look this up!). She helps penguins find their way home, a tardigrade (yes — this is a real thing — look this up too!) get directions to Alpha Centauri, and a King in the year 8000 unravel some trouble with time. My absolutely favorite part is when she dons a pheromone interpreter (in her nostrils) in order to help her understand a group of troubled ants.

Most importantly throughout, she works to fight off the Forces of Darkness personified as beings dressed in overcoats and bowler hats, who seek to extinguish the light of knowledge in the world around them.

This should be required reading for all middle schoolers — an ode to librarians and a concise and pithy description of the importance of libraries and knowledge freely available to all.

Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Story: 4.5/5

Time’s Convert is a companion novel to Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy featuring further adventures (and backstories) for the de Clermont family and its associated array of creatures (Vampires, Witches, and Daemons). Not your typical “creature” book, these stories focus more on the sociology, psychology, and anthropology of a world simultaneously populated by both humans and such beings, and less on aggression, fear, and battles. It explores the maturation of individual Vampires and of an integrated society as a whole. Diversity writ large.

The three intertwined tales — Phoebe Taylor becomes a Vampire so she can mate with Markus; Markus’ historical tale of becoming a vampire 200 years before; and Diana (Witch) and Matthew’s (Vampire) young twins as they become new creatures with both Vampire and Witch blood — are all about growing up — understanding who you are and how you fit in society. The characters in these different threads are defining and following their own code of ethics, moving beyond the code imposed by the head of the de Clermont family in a clear progression up the levels of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Not what I expect from a traditional (and usually boring) vampire story!

The author is a Professor of History at USC, specializing in the study of science and medicine from antiquity to the present. The book is suffused with intriguing and historically accurate tidbits from the American and French revolutions — characters such as Ben Franklin, Dr. Guillotin, Lafayette, and Marat play roles in the story and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is key to Markus’ development (with great quotes such as “Folks are always in favor of fairness until they have to give up something they have to someone else” spread liberally throughout — I need to reread the pamphlet!).

This book had less action and less romance and more character development, history, and a kind of cerebral world building in it which really appealed to me. A surprisingly good (and fast) read.