Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Writing: 4/5 World Building: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A “wow” book for me — a blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Real noir. I hadn’t heard of Lauren Beukes before but can’t wait to read more — luckily she is prolific.

Zinzi Lelethu December is our first person narrator — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment. Hints of being a post-apocalyptic, or at least a post-civilized world, it frankly sounds pretty close to parts of South Africa today — Zoo City is full of the hustle vibe. “Zoos” refer to the intense people-animal pairings that come unrequested to many of those who have committed a crime — Zinzi’s animal is a sloth; boyfriend Benoit’s a mongoose. Zoo City is the area of Johannesburg that has become a hustler ghetto for the animalled.

Zinzi is a finder of lost things — the “talent” that came with the acquisition of her animal. This helps her see webs of connection between people and the things they have lost. While this brings her some remuneration, she works off the bulk of her large drug debt by writing the form letters and processing the responses for current affairs sympathy scams. She is depressingly good at it. In the midst of her self-loathable existence as a petty criminal, she is offered a great deal of money to find someone. And then things start going very wrong.

Although there isn’t a great deal to like about Zinzi, we can’t help but root for her the whole time. I believe this is because we love flawed characters who have or are developing a strong moral sense. While Zinzi makes her way through an unsavory underground, she starts to gain a real sense of right and wrong and develops an interest in actually making something better.

The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks

Thanks to NetGalley and Tin House Books for an advance review copy. The Orphan of Salt Winds will be published on Jan. 16, 2019.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

A dark and moody historical drama set against English marshes on the eve of WWII. Virginia — a ten-year-old orphan — comes to live at Salt Winds as the adopted daughter of Clem and Lorna. Clem is the author of wildlife books and Lorna a somewhat reluctant housewife. Tension unfurls at a steady and insidious pace as Virginia works to makes sense of the strain between her adoptive parents and the perfidious and disagreeable neighbor Max Deering. When a German aviator crashes into the marsh, events unfold that lead to a terrible denouement. Alternating chapters take place in 2015 when Virginia, in her dotage and still haunted by past events, spies a young girl clinging to the marsh wall in the bitter winds.

The writing is very good and the tension palpable. The descriptive prose brings the marshes and the time to life. The pacing is a bit slow for my taste with not enough story to warrant the length, and I would have liked a more upbeat ending. One of the more interesting aspects of the book for me is the way Virginia’s (and therefore our) understanding of individual characters changes over time. For example, Clem is the sympathetic character at the start — he behaves like a father while Lorna doesn’t seem to know what to do with the role of mother that has been foisted upon her. However, over time Virginia begins to see, and understand, how circumstance shaped Lorna and how she finally pushes through a learned submissiveness to become the person she needed to be. It’s interesting to realize that we see everything through the eyes of a ten- to twelve-year-old, and later through the eyes of the (somewhat bitter) old woman she becomes.

Good for fans of Kate Morton.

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Characters: 4 Plot: 3 Writing: 3.5
Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an early review copy of Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg, which will publish November 13, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

A feel-good, women’s fiction book following further adventures of the folks in Mason, MO. Lucille Howard, the crotchety octogenarian supporting character from last year’s The Story of Arthur Truluv, is the star of this installment. She is being haunted by a fairly friendly Angel of Death while her neighbors Jason and Abby are being haunted by a terrible diagnosis and her new employee, Iris Winters, finally finds herself finally in a place that feels like home. An uplifting tale — some small town romance, great scenes between Lucille and some precocious and well described kids, and some fantastic descriptions of baking (both the physics behind and the tasting thereof). A thoroughly enjoyable read, however a little disappointing after The Story of Arthur Truluv (https://bibliobloggityboo.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/the-story-of-arthur-truluv-by-elizabeth-berg/) which I found far more beautiful, insightful, and inspiring.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for an early review copy of Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, which will publish October 2, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5+ Story: 5 Characters: 5

A wonderful book — perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner. I hope that it is nominated for (and wins!) the Pulitzer Prize. It is that good.

The story takes place in Greenstone, Minnesota — a fading town in the Northern wilds of Minnesota, near Lake Superior. It is the story of the fading town, the fading men in it, and the opportunity of redemption and resurrection for both. While there are strong, interesting, female characters as well, the real focus is on the men — not the stereotype of men, but real individuals at different stages of life with their own internal struggles and desires. I loved the insight into each and every one of these characters.

Virgil Wander, the eponymous protagonist, is a fading man himself. He describes himself as “a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.” He runs the town’s Majestic theater — badly in need of a new roof and a more significant audience. The story opens when his car takes a dive off a bridge and he sails into the frigid water. Rescued by happenstance, he is a teetering, tottering, slightly damaged version of himself. He doesn’t recognize his clothes, has trouble finding the right words, and has inexplicably lost his fear of speaking up. He has become “impervious to sarcasm.”

It is full of wonderful characters such as Rune, a kite-flying, pixie of an elderly man from Tromso, who arrives to find out more about the son he never knew he had; Tom Beaman, the Samoan journalist and owner of the local paper (and Genghis, a pet raccoon); Shad Pea, an elderly fisherman with a wife in care and a disturbed son; Nadine and her son Bjorn, the wife and son of the missing Alec Sandstrom, and Adam Leer, son of the town’s original founder who made good in Hollywood, but has somehow come to embody all that is negative in the town — a smiling predator.

The language is beautiful — the description of places, people, and the things that are important to them (fishing, kite-flying, baseball) is suffused with a kind of magic that captures their very essence in just a few choice words. Every page is delightful with both despair and hope somehow tangled together.

Great lines:

“Yet it was also true he had a headful of spiders which woke now and then and altered his personal scenery.”

“It was disconcerting to think it might’ve shown itself at last, only to be swaddled in the bubble-wrap of concussion.”

“What I suddenly missed as Bjorn talked away, was the easy arrival of interests. Of obsessions.”

“ He had the heartening bulk of the aging athlete defeated by pastry”

“His gentle baritone came at me like elbows.”

“Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups.”

“He had a hundred merry crinkles at his eyes and a long-haul sadness in his shoulders.”

“I appear briefly as a ‘sun-deprived projectionist’ with ‘a degree of forbearance approaching perpetual defeat.’ “

“It’s never been hard for me to fall in love, a quality that has yet to simplify one single day of my life.”

Shivering World by Kathy Tyers

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Fast paced sci-fi novel about the various people involved in trying to create a new viable planet (Goddard) through terraforming in the year 2134. In this universe, gene manipulation is both illegal and considered a denial of “the perfection of God’s creation” by the Universal Church. However, the Hwuite colonists have long been suspected of maintaining the technology to do just that. Women form the majority of the governing bodies as men have been deemed “too aggressive” to be fit leaders. And the Religious Liberty Act has made it illegal to proselytize any religion without a duly registered inquiry.

Graysha Brady Phillips suffers from a genetic disorder which both limits her lifespan and makes it inadvisable to have children. She goes to Goddard as a soils engineer in the hopes of unearthing illegal gene manipulation techniques that might save her — or at least enable her to have children without passing on the defect. What she discovers, however, is a viper’s nest of clashing agendas and a terraforming effort that appears to be going horribly wrong. Goddard appears to be cooling, rather than heating up.

Each character is the star of their own story, with their own goals and their own approaches toward others who don’t share those goals. No “good guys” vs “bad guys” (though some characters are a lot more irritating than others). I was originally put off by the “Christian / SF fiction” billing but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was mostly SF with a smattering of philosophical and heart felt Christianity. I loved the pioneer spirit embedded in the colonists.

A good read for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, Tyers combines science (terraforming, gene manipulation, hostile planet survival) with political and cultural clashes to make for a compelling narrative. Plenty of surprises throughout.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Writing: 5+ Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A powerful novel and I don’t use that word lightly. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The story takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Jojo is a thirteen year-old boy learning to be a man. He lives with his grandparents (“Pop” and “Mam”), his 3 year-old sister Kayla, and his mother (whom he calls Leonie) when she bothers to show up. Mam, Leonie, and both children have the “sight” — an ability to see and hear things that others don’t — and this filters into the story in significant and lyrical ways. The action centers around a trip to Parchman prison to retrieve Michael (the children’s white father) at the end of a three year sentence. However, the real story is about how a person can grow into an honorable and ethical human being when they are in a poisoned environment.

Jojo, Leonie, and Richie — the spirit of a young boy incarcerated at Parchman with Pop when he was 15 — are alternating narrators. The stories they tell weave together haunting tales of the past with their parallels in the present. Hints of voodoo and the thin veil between this world and the next suffuse the interlocking narratives.

The book is equal parts disturbing and heart warming; the end is quite glorious.

Some good lines
“Pop says a man should look another man in the face.”

“But it follows, even as I follow the trail of tender organ blood Pop has left in the dirt, a trail that signals love as clearly as the bread crumbs Hansel spread in the wood.”

“Even now, my devotion: inconstant.”

“I wait until the nicotine laps at my insides like a placid lake.”

“I blink and I see the bullet cleaving the soft butter of him. “

As an aside, I looked up Parchman Prison because I couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading and found the truth to be even worse: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison. Check out the Convict Lease Program.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold

Writing: 3 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A bizarre ride through a coming-of-age story laced with philosophical conundrums on the nature of reality and our place in the world. Noah Oakman is a high school senior equally focused on typical high school matters such as girls and where to go to college and more atypical matters such as the nature of reality and his place in the universe. He is somewhat obsessed with David Bowie and his Pathological Authenticity. Spinning on Bowie’s biography — “Strange Fascination” — Noah has his own four Strange Fascinations. These play an important role when he wakes up after a drunken party to find that the world has changed subtly: his mother has a scar she never had before; his best friend Alan is now a Marvel Comic fan, rather than a DC Comic fan; and his Shar-pei “Fluffenberger the FreakingUseless” is now a highly energetic alternate animal and thus renamed “Mark Wahlberg.”

I found the novel deeply interesting, though a little long winded. To be fair, I read an advanced copy so perhaps it has been tightened up a bit. Thought provoking and appealing characters, plenty of juicy (to me) reflective commentary on the universe, and streaks of sci-fi spread throughout. Great lessons on friendship, family, doing the right thing, honesty, forgiveness, and (my favorite) the understanding that you can love flawed things.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

Richly detailed historical fiction with a convoluted plot pulled from a set of narratives scattered across time but centered on place: Birchwood Manor — a 400 year old house immersed in myth and mystery. Murder, mayhem, stolen heirlooms, and old artifacts form the center of the story, but they exist in a sea of love, loss, and a range of historical settings including Queen Elizabeth and the Catholic persecution of 1586, the (fictional) Magenta Brotherhood artist group of the mid 1800s, the establishment of a school for young women in the late 1800s, London and environs in WWII, and modern day archival work. It’s engrossing but complicated — I found that documenting a timeline as I read was extremely helpful.

The writing is good but a little long winded for my taste. On the other hand, if you love historical dramas you may enjoy the longer opportunity to immerse yourself in the 500 pages of intriguing characters and historically accurate details. Did I mention that one of the narrators is clearly a (compelling) spirit that has been bound to the house for over a century?

 

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser, which will publish September 25, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I loved this young readers book. It is the second in the Vanderbeeker series and every bit as good as the first. It reminds me of some of my favorite series from childhood — the characters became my friends, and I couldn’t wait to go along on the next adventure.

The five Vanderbeeker children live with their parents on the bottom two floors of a brownstone on 141st in Harlem. When Mr. Jeet, the above floor neighbor, has a debilitating stroke, they decide to create a hidden garden in the abandoned lot adjoining the church as surprise for his homecoming. This simple plot line gives rise to opportunities for a whole array of neighborhood kids to contribute while learning about caring, friendship, and the ability to create beauty from nothing.

I love this book for many reasons. These people are regular people. They are neither rich nor poor. Taking place in Harlem, the cast is decidedly multicultural, and there are little hints as to different backgrounds — but that is not the point. Some kids obviously come from loving nuclear families, while others have absent parents, substitute parents, or bits of tragedy in their histories — but that isn’t the point either. These people come together as friends and neighbors; they care about each other and try to help each other out. The book unashamedly models good values and behavior, demonstrating friendship, caring, self sufficiency, and having the agency to make bad situations better. Five stars.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison

I can definitely see why this book won the Hugo Award.  I had never read anything by N. K. Jamison before, but she is clearly a major talent. The craft and thought embedded in the pages are inspiring.

We are thrust into a catastrophic event in the first pages that is likely to launch the next Fifth Season. Fifth Seasons are Father Earth’s revenge for what humanity has done to the planet in this post-apocalyptic world.  These disastrous “seasons,” lasting for months, years, or centuries,  go by names like “Choking Season”, “Shattering Season”, “Acid Season”, and “Madness Season.”  The theme of this dark, intense, and utterly compelling novel is survival and control. The players: Orogenes have evolved to be able to control the massive powers of the Earth; Guardians have evolved to be able to control the Orogenes; Stills do neither.  And then there are the mysterious Stone Eaters who are just odd and not very human, who clearly have their own, hard to decipher, agenda.

The action filled and psychologically oriented plot begins with three distinct story lines that slowly evolve into one, explaining how we got to the current state described in the prologue.  It is a fantastically well developed world, with coherent themes, nomenclature, and social customs. It’s clearly a post-apocalyptic Earth and its fascinating to see how the author extrapolated from our present to this environment clearly millennia in our future. While this book doesn’t quite end with a cliff hanger, there is plenty left to reveal in the next two books (luckily, the third and final book will be available in less than a month).