Friday Bookbag, 7.19.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m still cleaning out my backlog, so this is another long post. (I seriously need to stop buying/borrowing books. Good gravy.) This week I’ve got a gritty novel about a school shooting, a suburban short story collection, a novel about being sick, a surprising retelling of Robin Hood, and three novels that use fantasy and fiction to interrogate very real-world injustices. Let’s dive in!


Bloomland by John Englehardt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Bloomland Cover
cover description: An abstract design of cutouts in a black background that reveal a bright floral pattern.

source: received an ARC from the publisher

the premise: From Goodreads:

Bloomland opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire. When he stops shooting, twelve people are dead.

In this richly textured debut, John Englehardt explores how the origin and aftermath of the shooting impacts the lives of three characters: a disillusioned student, a grieving professor, and a young man whose valuation of fear and disconnection funnels him into the role of the aggressor. As the community wrestles with the fallout, Bloomland interrogates social and cultural dysfunction in a nation where mass violence has become all too familiar.”

why I’m excited: Dzanc Books compared this novel to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room when they sent an ARC to me, which sold me on Bloomland instantly. (You might remember that I loved The Mars Room.) It’s going to be tough to stomach reading about a school shooting, but it sounds like the emotional payoff will be more than worth it.

Bloomland will be released on September 10th, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order.

Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sherwood Cover
cover description: A girl in a green cloak looks out over a medieval town while holding a bow and arrows.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.”

why I’m excited: Everything about this delights me. Robin Hood isn’t exactly my most cherished myth or legend, but this update to it has me completely hooked. A grieving Maid Marian who’s also a badass? Sign me up. I’ve also heard that this book has a fairly realistic medieval setting, which intrigues me. I like the idea of a non-fantasy-inflected Robin Hood story.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

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The Book of Night Women Cover
cover description: An 18th-century style illustration of a Black woman wearing a white turban.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they and she will come to both revere and fear. 

The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link. 

Lilith’s story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently–and the secret of that voice is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been interested in Marlon James’s work for a long time, but I’m also someone who doesn’t do well with long novels, and both A Brief History of Seven Killings and Black Leopard, Red Wolf are extremely weighty tomes. The Book of Night Women is a little shorter (448 pages), and its premise is a little more intriguing and approachable to me. I love stories about magical women, especially about the dark side of that magic. This looks intense and gripping.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

An Unkindess of Ghosts Cover
cover description: an illustration of a Black woman’s face covered in glittering stars.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda’s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

why I’m excited: This is the kind of high concept science fiction novel I’m here for. This sounds like something Octavia Butler might have written. A prickly protagonist, a mystery, social commentary, deep space…I couldn’t ask for more out of a sci-fi novel.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Golem and the Jinni Cover
cover description: A dark figure stands in a misty archway.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. 

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899. 

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free. 

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.”

why I’m excited: Sorry (not sorry) to mention Octavia Butler twice in one post, but this premise reminds me so much of the immortal love story in Wild Seedthe first of her Patternist series, except with a different cultural twist. This came out in 2013, but it seems like an essential fantasy story for this moment, when Islamophobia and antisemitism are being set up in opposition to each other rather than being seen as interlinked oppressions. Most of all, this book looks fun. I can’t wait to read it.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Body Myth Cover
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Mira is a teacher living in the heart of Suryam–a bustling metropolis and the only place in the world where the fickle Rasagura fruit grows. She lives a quiet life, binge-reading the French existentialists and visiting with her aging father, until the day she witnesses a beautiful woman having a seizure in the park. Mira runs to help even as doubts begin to creep in. Was the seizure real? Or had she glimpsed the woman waiting, until just the right moment, to begin convulsing?

Soon, Mira is drawn into the lives of this mysterious woman, Sara–who suffers a constellation of undiagnosed maladies–and Sara’s kind, intensely supportive husband Rahil. Striking up intimate and volatile friendships with each of them, Mira discovers just how undefinable both illness and love can be.”

why I’m excited: I’m a chronically ill person who’s always interested in reading stories about other people being sick. It’s my life, so it fascinates me. I’m not sure whether chronic illness in this case is taken seriously or if it’s more of a metaphor, but this looks like an interesting novel regardless.

That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carianne Leung

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“Writing with incisive nuance and dark humor, Leung enlivens a singular group of characters sharing a new subdivision in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Scarborough, Ontario. The uniformity of the neighborhood is uncanny, with its smooth sidewalks and shiny cars, the streets differing only in their fruit trees–Winifred Street bears crabapples, Maud Street cherries, and Clara Street sour plums.

With teeth clenched behind fake smiles, the residents bear the truth beneath a fast clip of shocking deaths…[]

When a series of inexplicable suicides begins to haunt the community, no one is more fascinated by the terrible phenomenon than young June. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she sits hawkeyed at the center, witness to the truth of it all: the hushed affairs, the overt racism, the hidden abuses.”

why I’m excited: I love this kind of suburban fiction, especially when it’s not written by men, especially when it’s written by women of color. This looks sharp and funny and interesting, like a cross between Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s a short story collection, but apparently the stories are linked, which is another thing I love. I’m excited!


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of Alif the Unseen and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, after Annihilation and before Acceptance. Rather than clarifying the mysteries of the first novel, Authority only adds more: we get a new main character, more exposure to the mysterious (and dysfunctional) Southern Reach organization, and a bunch of freaky new imagery. I didn’t love everything about this book–in particular, I thought it was a little too inscrutable and dense–but I’m coming to believe that the Southern Reach trilogy is an experience more than it’s a story. In the same way a trip to an interesting place can be life-changing without being pleasant every minute, diving into Authority is vivid and unforgettable even when it’s also confusing and occasionally a slog. And if you can tolerate the leadenness (intriguingly leaden, mind you–it feels like a deliberate choice rather than a failure of craft), you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely electric ending that has me on tenterhooks till I can start Acceptance.

Spoiler note: If you haven’t read Annihilation yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably skip the body of this review. It’s difficult to talk about Authority without spoiling some details of Annihilation‘s ending.

You can read my full review below.


Authority Cover

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: FSG Originals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: May 6, 2014
  • length: 352 pages

In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light. He is staring from a cliff down into an abyss, a bay, a cove. It always changes. He can see for miles into the still water. He can see ocean behemoths gliding there, like submarines or bell-shaped orchids or the wide hulls of ships, silent, ever moving, the size of them conveying such a sense of power that he can feel the havoc of their passage even from so far above.

–from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

After Annihilation, you’ll likely notice immediately that something with Authority isn’t quite right. First, you were probably expecting Authority to be told from the perspective of the biologist, Annihilation‘s unforgettable central character whose alliance seemed to lie with the eerie natural world of Area X more than it did with her human companions: the surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist.

Next, if you remember key plot details, you might be surprised that Authority re-introduces us to the surveyor and anthropologist at all, seeing as both died memorable, horrible deaths in Annihilation. But here they are in the first chapter of Authority, in a lineup right next to the biologist. Our new narrator, Control, is taking stock of them.

Most of all, you will be perturbed for the same reason Control is perturbed: despite the miraculous resurrection of the surveyor and anthropologist (a resurrection Control doesn’t even realize has occurred) and return of the biologist, the psychologist is still missing. Control is supposed to figure out why–and to get to the bottom of the deeper mysteries of Area X.

Despite his moniker, Control is never in control. Right away he’s established as a troubled man with an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment right under his surface. He’s following in the footsteps of his mother, a talented government agent. She’s the one who got him the director’s job at the Southern Reach, the job recently vacated by the psychologist. All is not well at the Southern Reach. In fact, the top-secret government organization is crumbling and demoralized, and Control’s staff is incompetent, hostile, and…not quite right, to put it lightly.

Then there is the biologist, the only returnee from the twelfth expedition who seems to remember it. Control quickly becomes fascinated. Their fates intertwine, as you suspect they will from the start.

In my review of Annihilation last July, I described it as a novel that works on many levels: woman-versus-wild, a deep meditation on selfhood and grief, and an inversion of the traditional sci-fi idea that humanity must be protected at all costs. Area X threatens to catastrophically disrupt humanity, and in the view of the biologist, that outcome doesn’t seem so bad.

Authority has a narrower focus than Annihilation, and it’s a good-bad thing. The diary conceit is dropped for a more traditional first-person narration. Control is less intriguingly cold and alienating than the biologist, though every bit as weird and idiosyncratic. And rather than being set in the wide-open wilderness of Area X, Authority takes place mostly at Control’s workplace, the Southern Reach.

Where Annihilation felt a little like Star Trek, an expedition boldly going somewhere (although not quite where no one had gone before), Authority is more like Alien, a claustrophobic haunted house of a workplace drama.

I both missed Annihilation‘s open ends and was grateful for a firmer place to land.

Jeff VanderMeer is enormously skilled, and one of his most interesting qualities as a writer (at least in this and Annihilation) is the way he plays with density and opacity of narrative. Large sections of Authority felt like banging my head against a wall. I was confused and frustrated and there seemed to be no end in sight.

And yet…it was good? Yeah. It was good. It added to the experience of reading in ways I’m struggling to put my finger on. Of course Area X and the Southern Reach are confusing! That’s the point. For the sake of the new territory VanderMeer is forging here, I’m willing to be confused.

In manipulating the ways the reader can absorb information, VanderMeer keeps us in the same foggy state of mind as the biologist or Control, meaning that as revelations are slowly doled out, they hit us with full force. (The ending in particular feels like a sudden, gorgeous parting of clouds.) We are never one step ahead of the characters; we’re right along with them, or even a little behind. Even though we know (or think we know) what happened to the biologist on the twelfth expedition, we can’t make the wider connections any better than Control can.

Or…maybe I’m overreading all of this. It could just be that I don’t jive with VanderMeer’s style, even though I appreciate the skill and craft behind it. Either way, I always felt that VanderMeer was fully empowered here, making choices about how to tell his story instead of being overwhelmed by it. You’ll either like it or you won’t, but you’ll know you’re in expert hands.

I’m so, so curious about what answers will ultimately lie in Acceptance. Either it’s going to be the mother of all payoffs, or it’s going to disappoint me, given the immense mental energy I’ve already invested in Annihilation and Authority. 

I would be remiss in finishing this review before I talked about Authority‘s character development, which is terrific. Despite the fuzziness of the plot, each character in the novel–from the protagonists to the periphery–was crystal clear and real. VanderMeer effortlessly commits to diverse characters, both in the sense of having characters from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, disability statuses, and sexual orientations, and in the sense of having characters with a variety of personalities.

In particular, Control was a fascinating character to spend time with. I loved his vulnerability mixed with bravado, his alternating anxiety and numbness, and I particularly loved the tension between the softer, more artistic side of his personality encouraged by his father and the harder, more militaristic side encouraged by his mother. VanderMeer writes about how it feels to grow up as a child of divorce better than maybe anyone else I’ve read. And a character twist we get late in the novel throws Control’s intense guilt over his status as a nepotism hire at the Southern Reach into sharp and fascinating relief.

Authority ultimately feels like anything but authority. It’s chaotic and overwhelming and frightening. That tension between name and reality is what makes Authority a true novel for the 21st century, a kind of Rorschach blot for anxieties about war, government malevolence and ineptitude, and climate change. Love it or hate it, you won’t leave feeling like it has nothing to say. ★★★★☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Authority and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WARCROSS by Marie Lu

In Warcross, troubled teenage hacker and bounty hunter Emika Chen steals a power-up from a Warcross tournament, Warcross being the virtual reality sensation that’s taken over Marie Lu’s fictional vision of the future. Instead of getting arrested, Emika gets invited to Tokyo to help Hideo Tanaka, Warcross’s mysterious and handsome inventor, catch a dangerous hacker named Zero. What follows is an absolutely dazzling sci-fi adventure novel that’s both rollicking fun and a thoughtful exploration of the ever-increasing role tech plays in our lives. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

You can read my full review below.


Warcross Cover

Warcross by Marie Lu

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • length: 368 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Some people still say that Warcross is just a stupid game. Others say it’s a revolution. But for me and millions of others, it’s the only foolproof way to forget our troubles. I lost my bounty, my landlord is going to come screaming for his money again tomorrow morning, I’m going to drag myself to my waitressing job, and I’m going to be homeless in a couple of days, with nowhere to go…but tonight I can join in with everyone else, put on my glasses, and watch magic happen.

Warcross, page 27

The line between “young adult” and “adult” seems to blur more and more every year in publishing, and if you need hard evidence that that’s a good thing, you need look no further than Warcross.

Warcross‘s premise manages to be straightforward and thought-provoking all at once: an impoverished New York City bounty hunter, Emika Chen, commits a crime by hacking a Warcross tournament and is then plunged into a world of immense wealth and intrigue when she goes undercover in the tournament herself to uncover the identity of a dangerous hacker. It’s not hard to follow the action, which frees you up to think even more deeply about a world where our economy and our free time are completely controlled by a video game. (That world certainly doesn’t feel very far away.)

Author Marie Lu worked as a video game designer before her turn as a successful YA sci-fi author. That means that she intimately grasps the incredible rewards of gaming. This is definitely a “fist pump” novel: one where the action, both in game and out, leaves you as breathless as a superhero movie might.

That also means her critiques of tech can go way deeper than knee-jerk, dime-a-dozen “the future = bad” takes on virtual reality. In Lu’s future, Warcross is empowering as well as dangerous: underdogs from around the world become overnight superstars who can provide for themselves and their families. Lu’s characters feel effortlessly diverse to the reader, but you can still sense how much thought she’s put into it: How might international stars react similarly or differently to online superstardom? (I loved how many countries were represented, from Kenya to Germany and far beyond.) How might a gamer who uses a wheelchair in the real world adapt to an able-bodied avatar in-game? How would translation work across languages?

I could list dozens of other questions the novel raises, and it makes the whole experience far richer and more immersive than a skin-deep, U.S.-centric novel with a similar premise would be.

Warcross‘s protagonists, Emika and Hideo, are on the older side for YA: Emika is 18 and Hideo is 21. This is where the blurring between young adult and adult comes in: this novel is perfectly appropriate for even young teens (there’s no intense violence or sexuality) but was still completely engrossing for me, a 23-year-old adult. This would be a perfect book for parent or mentors to share with tech-savvy teens: it will lead to great conversations about safety online and be super-fun, to boot. There’s such a dearth of books starring 18-to-25-year-olds out there (it’s like fictional characters just…stop living their lives between 17-30) that I would have been happy to find Warcross regardless, so it’s a nice bonus that it’s so clever and well-crafted, as well.

In Warcross, Lu writes with a light touch, equally comfortable with vivid action, painful emotion, butterflies-in-the-stomach flirtation, and thoughtful observation. Her rich imagination fairly leaps off the page, and her characters are distinctly and lovingly drawn. (There’s a huge ensemble supporting cast in this novel, but I had no problem telling them apart.) She’s preternaturally gifted, and Warcross is a treat.

Perhaps this novel’s only downside is its cliffhanger ending. Thankfully, it manages to feel genuinely open rather than exploitative, but the wait for the second book, Wildcard–coming September 18th, 2018–is killing me. In the meantime, I’m tempted to flip back to page 1 and lose myself in Warcross all over again. ★★★★★


My copy of Warcross came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 7.27.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week in my bookbag, I’ve got a sober meditation on climate change, a literary take on Korea’s Gwangju Uprising from the author of The Vegetarian, a futuristic video game-themed YA adventure, and more. Let’s dive in!


Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore by Elizabeth A. Rush

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New American Shore Coverthe premise: Author Elizabeth Rush reports on areas on the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and beyond that are threatened by rising seas and climate change. From worsening natural disasters like hurricanes to islands literally drowning beneath incessant waves, Rising is a polyphonic portrait of a world on the brink of change.

why I’m excited: Excited is perhaps the wrong word for this one, as climate change is an issue I’m deeply worried about, and I think this book will cause me no small amount of anxiety. But I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Rush’s reporting and educating myself on what’s happening on the coasts. I currently live in Minnesota, which is about as far from an ocean as you can get in North America. (We have Lake Superior, but that doesn’t count in this case.) I’m not affected by climate change with as much urgency as the communities Rush documents are, and I consider it a duty to inform myself. Every review I’ve read of this book does praise Rush’s skillful, lyrical writing and interviewing, so I hope it won’t be an entirely self-flagellatory exercise.

Human Acts by Han Kang

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Human Acts Coverthe premise: Set against the backdrop of the bloody 1979 Gwangju uprising in South Korea, Human Acts is a series of interconnected stories about people desperately trying to make a difference–and survive. It spans three decades of lead-up and follow-up to Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law that led to the deaths of anywhere from 160 people to around 2000. (For more information on the premise of the novel, the history of the Gwangju uprising, and Han Kang’s personal connection to both, I recommend reading Min Jin Lee’s excellent article, “Korean Souls,” in the New York Review of Books.)

why I’m excited: I remain obsessed with Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, which I reviewed a few months ago as “extraordinary and…nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.” Where The Vegetarian was almost claustrophobically personal, Human Acts appears to break wide open, encompassing more stories and larger events. Also, I know embarrassingly little about the history of Korea (especially South Korea), and I’ve recently found fiction to be a good way in. From Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum (about Japanese occupation and comfort women) to The Hole by Hye-young Pyun, which I wrote about in a previous Friday Bookbag, I’ve been striving to read more works by Korean and Korean diasporic authors, and I look forward to adding Human Acts to that list.

Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back by Melissa Stephenson

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Driven Coverthe premise: For Melissa Stephenson, cars are (and were) an escape, from her blue collar childhood in Indiana, to her brother’s suicide, to camping trips with her kids in a VW bus. Driven is a memoir of her relationship with her brother and her healing after his death, structured around the cars she’s loved over the years.

why I’m excited: I can’t say that the “cars” part of the premise sets me on fire. My partner’s a mega-gearhead, but I’m not. This memoir seems to be about more than cars, though. It seems like it’s also about family, and healing, and independence, and how sometimes running away from something can also mean running towards our better selves. It’s being billed as similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a book I adored. I certainly hope it scratches the memoir itch I’ve had recently.

Warcross by Marie Lu

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Warcross Coverthe premise: Warcross is an immersive international video game sensation: think Fortnite meets Overwatch meets World of WarcraftEmika Chen is a hacker and bounty hunter who scrapes out a living hunting down people who bet on Warcross illegally, but she risks it all when she decides to make quick cash by hacking into the Warcross championships. She’s caught–but instead of getting arrested, she gets an appointment with the elusive founder of Warcross, who offers her a job in Tokyo as a spy…where she uncovers fortunes and dangers greater than she’d ever imagined.

why I’m excited: It’s hard to beat a good YA sci-fi thriller–they’re like a surprise trip to an amusement park in the middle of a dreary reading schedule–er, work week. I’m especially excited about this one because I loved Marie Lu’s Legend series (Goodreads) when I was a teen, and also because Lu worked in video game design before she was an author, so I think Warcross will be full of cool (and maybe even accurate!) details.

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh

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The Occasional Virgin Coverthe premise: Two women–Yvonne and Huda–were raised in restrictive households in Lebanon: one Christian, one Muslim. When they meet on vacation in Italy, their complicated pasts threaten to interfere with the powerful and successful professional lives they take pride in now.

why I’m excited: I enjoy fiction that delves into religion and its effects on our lives, and I especially enjoy that one protagonist is Christian and one Muslim. Christianity and Islam are so often set up as an either/or that a novel that deals with their similarities is hugely exciting to me. I also love novels that explore how the values we’re raised with can interfere with the values we wish to have now. This novel could turn out to be sloppy or melodramatic in execution a la The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (which has a semi-similar premise), but I like the idea enough to give it a shot.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Fear of losing one’s self and one’s mind drives a lot of fiction these days, but I can safely say that Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Annihilation is one of the most original and thought-provoking takes on the theme I’ve read. Somewhere in the American South, an ecological mystery zone is spreading, governed by the top-secret Southern Reach organization. Some who enter kill themselves; some kill each other. The last expedition materialized randomly back at their homes, dying of aggressive cancer within months. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition, told from the perspective of the an idiosyncratic biologist. The expedition quickly unravels amidst ever-eerier encounters with the natural (and unnatural) world, leaving the biologist to uncover devastating secrets…and to wonder if Area X is truly a disaster, or a blessing in disguise. While parts of the story feel almost hypnotically dull, it’s also, somehow, unputdownable. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll recognize the mixed sensations of dread and wonder that Annihilation inspires. VanderMeer’s vision is breathtaking here, and my quibbles with his execution pale in comparison to the vast feelings of awe and possibility I felt while reading: exactly what I go to science fiction for in the first place.

You can read my full review below.


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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 4, 2014
  • length: 195 pages
  • cover price: $14.00

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Annihilation, page 1

I’m usually a “book first, movie second” kind of reader, but the movie adaptation of Annihilation came out of left field earlier this year and had me completely under its spell before I’d even heard of the novel. The film’s vision of a sci-fi future in which an alien crash landing causes a violent “shimmer” to begin devouring the American South, mutating everything it encounters, completely engrossed me–and while I was warned that it was a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (Annihilation is the first in a trilogy), I knew I had to read it, if only to get another hours-long fix of the eerie world of the shimmer, a.k.a. “Area X” in the novels.

It’s true that the movie and novel are vastly different, but after reading Annihilation, I wasn’t disappointed at all by those differences–far from it. If you’ve read the book and been hesitant about the movie, or vice versa, I’m here to say that I think they both do an admirable job with the premise: a doomed expedition explores a creepy cordoned-off zone that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous, and finds more than they bargained for.

And with that, I’ll stop talking about the movie, since I really do intend this as a book review!

The most striking thing about Annihilation from the very first page is how bloodless and almost bland the narration is. The conceit is that we’re reading the journal of a member of the twelfth expedition known only as The Biologist (for unknown reasons, the Southern Reach strips all expedition participants of their names before they enter Area X). The biologist’s voice is extremely idiosyncratic, cold, and obsessive; I think that’s a polarizing choice on VanderMeer’s part, but it worked for me.

Something I loved about the diary structure is how it exposes the way the biologist has little allegiance to humanity and much more to the natural world. We get the sense early on that she wouldn’t be sad if Area X up and swallowed society as we know it. Pages and pages are devoted to how beautiful Area X is, including unsettling sights like human-dolphin hybrids and a strange moss/lichen/something that grows in the shape of ominous psalm-esque words; more disturbingly, she seems to view terrible violence as beauty, too. Her reaction to the death of a companion has the resigned-cum-awe feel that I associate with watching an osprey snatch a fish from a lake: that’s just the way of things, and at least it’s stunning to watch.

I don’t think that the biologist’s stance on humanity is necessarily wrong; I think a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that humans view other humans as exceptional, and the rest of nature as disposable. It’s just an unusual perspective to read about, especially in science fiction, which often draws from the “humanity must unite against apocalypse” well. Annihilation‘s tack is much more “humanity must concede to the apocalypse, and also acknowledge that it’s nothing personal.”

A lot of other science fiction (looking at you, The Matrix) also proposes that the world might be better off without us; the difference is that in those other movies, books, and TV shows, I always feel like I’m being manipulated into thinking either that of course humanity should survive, or of course I should take the cynical, suicidal view and think we shouldn’t.

Annihilation, on the other hand, poses the question genuinely and almost casually; you’re welcome to feel either way. You don’t have to engage with the philosophical parts of this book if you don’t want to–the woman vs. nature story will be enjoyable regardless–but there’s an abundance of riches here if you’re an overthinker like me, and I love that VanderMeer has created a novel that works on so many levels.

Unfortunately, Annihilation‘s pacing and plot do fizzle at times. There’s a lot of doubling-back, both literal (the biologist hiking back and forth around Area X) and ideological (is Area X good? is it bad? what is it? we just don’t know). Sometimes there’s a heart-pounding action sequence that suddenly stops dead as the biologist reminisces about her life. And there are several revelations that left me scratching my head, and not in an exciting “I wonder what happens next” way: more of a “where could VanderMeer possibly be going with this?” way.

For me, it wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand when characters act stubbornly and/or stupidly, you might find it to be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, some of the vagueness (though not the biologist’s stubbornness) could be attributable to Annihilation‘s position as the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. I haven’t read the latter two books–Authority and Acceptance–yet, but I’ll gladly deliver a verdict when I finish the trilogy, which should be soon. I can’t wait for payday when I can splurge on those two in good conscience.

Ultimately, what I can’t get out of my head is Annihilation‘s drastic (and I think successful) experiments with selfhood and setting. VanderMeer creates a world in which giving up our individual needs to participate in collective systems instead–the human system of the Southern Reach, and the natural one of Area X–seems not only practical, but appealing. When you look at how society (especially Western society) is set up, inverting the reader’s perspective in that way is a tremendous achievement. I love that kind of ambition.

Annihilation is an immersive and reliable ticket out of everyday life for a few hours. It’s as visionary and cerebral as it is earthy and grounded, and I’m convinced there’s something here for everyone. Even if you don’t love the trip, it’s an unforgettable view out the window. ★★★★☆


I purchased my own copy of Annihilation and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE MERRY SPINSTER by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.

You can read my full review below.


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The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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  • publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 208 pages
  • list price: $17.00

Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with–if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible.

The Merry Spinster, page 1

I converted to Christianity just before Christmas, 2016. After years of atheism, it’s still something that feels mildly embarrassing to me, like I gave up somehow; I’ll admit that in many ways, I’m not very good at being a Christian, though at this point, God and I have reached the point of no return in our serious, if wary, relationship. (I relate strongly to this piece by Hanif Abdurraqib about why he still fasts for Ramadan despite being a less-than-fully-observant Muslim.)

I write all this because Daniel Mallory Ortberg has created something almost biblical with The Merry Spinster, not in the sense that it is remotely holy, but in the sense that it is polyphonic, inscrutable, and often terrifying. The love, loss, and vengeance in these stories is loud and in your face; it feels like it’s instructing you, though you don’t quite understand the lessons. And I mean these things in the most positive way possible.

The strongest story in the collection is the first one, “The Daughter Cells”; in this retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid is more alien than girl. She goes to land not so much for the love of the prince but out of a bureaucratic desire to improve the efficiency of humans and a more personal one to gain the prince’s soul. In message, if not in tone, it reminded me of films and books like Annihilation and Contact; two species meet and harm each other entirely by accident. The thing is, those examples have hours and many pages to set up their premise; Ortberg achieves the same thing in a scant 25 pages. I’ve never read anything like it.

While in my opinion the collection doesn’t quite return to the heights of “The Daughter Cells” after that 25th page, most of the other stories are nearly as compelling. Ortberg does particularly interesting things with gender, playing with pronouns, names, and titles in intriguing and unsettling ways that meant a lot to me as a nonbinary person. (Ortberg has talked about how writing this book helped him come to terms with being trans.)

In particular, “The Thankless Child”–the second story in the collection and a loose retelling of “Cinderella” among other fables–provoked me to think harder and deeper. Its protagonist is named Paul, but she uses she/her pronouns. (It jarred me at first, but after all, so many “boys’ names” have been reclaimed as “girls’ names” anyway…why not Paul?) She lives in a desert hellscape where salt is currency, and her godmother is a supernatural and vengeful being who is jealous of Paul’s dead mother. Gender roles are fluid–couples fall into the “husband” and “wife” roles depending on their aptitudes, not their genders–and it fundamentally alters the Cinderella story in ways that surprised me. “Cinderella” is one of the most-retold stories imaginable (Ella Enchanted is my personal favorite retelling), yet Ortberg still manages to make it fresh.

Other stories are straight-up terrifying rather than just unsettling. “The Rabbit,” a sinister retelling of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” particularly upset me (in a delicious way). Another story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” is just as creepy, but much less effective because it’s so confusing. (Ortberg has a loopy prose style that usually works well but sometimes seems to waffle and double back on itself.)

Every story in the collection feels like a major risk, and some don’t pay off as well as others. I really didn’t like the “Mr. Toad” story, and others, like “The Wedding Party”–about a couple arguing before their courthouse wedding–were interesting but not emotionally effective for me.

But in a way, I love that uneven, unpredictable quality in The Merry Spinster: because it’s not only a short story collection, but a short short story collection at only 208 pages, everything flies by so quickly that even the parts that drag didn’t drag down my enjoyment too much.

The word that pops up again and again when I think about The Merry Spinster is “unique,” and not in a passive-aggressive Midwestern way–it’s genuinely unique and thoughtful and experimental and wonderful. It scratched an itch I never knew I had, and now that it’s been scratched, I’m sad that there aren’t more books in this niche. Ortberg’s next book will be a memoir (currently titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You) but I hope he returns to this well soon. ★★★★☆


My copy of The Merry Spinster came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.