The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the TreesI love my online book club and the fact that it forces me to stay in contact with people I love and who love books. And even though my last selection for this book club was a total slam dunk, I still feel like I have to make up for the selection before that, which was a… um… thing that is bad in basketball (this metaphor would be better if I actually watched basketball).

I knew I couldn’t drop the ball (is that a basketball reference I HOPE SO) on this one, so I got some help from the good folks at The Morning News and their Tournament of Books. Two books that I loved, The Goldfinch and Life After Life, both went up against The People in the Trees, and in both matchups this book sounded absolutely fascinating. Three point shot! (I have no idea what I’m talking about.) (I’ll lay up off the basketball metaphors now.) (I am so sorry.)

Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway. This book. Fascinating.

What I remembered from the writeups, aside from the fact that my books kept losing, was that the story revolved around this scientist dude who went off and explored a little-known island and studied the people and found out that some of them were living almost literally forever and something something ethics something. I may have skimmed a bit.

I thought this would be a book about anthropology and the effect of an outside world on an insular world and the ethics of science and what it means to do research, and it absolutely is that book. Yanagihara makes note of the line between studying and respecting people and judging the heck out of them early on, and makes it really easy to do both throughout the story — to the U’ivuans and to our scientist Norton Perina himself.

Perina is an interesting subject of study; you find out at the very beginning of the story that he has been convicted of sexual abuse and statutory rape of some of his many (many many) adopted children. He never directly addresses these charges in the text but that knowledge hangs over his actual writings, which focus on his work with the U’ivuans and later with the turtles that make them live forever (poor turtles). Not in focus is the fact that Perina is a strange, awful, hurtful, self-obsessed person, but that part is pretty obvious anyway.

Y’all know how I love an unreliable narrator, so reading Perina’s memoirs of his life while knowing the “truth” behind them is totally fascinating to me. But this book is even better — these are Perina’s memoirs as edited and footnoted by a close personal friend, who at the end of his introduction notes that he has “cut—judiciously—passages that [he] felt did not enrich the narrative or were not otherwise of any particular relevance.” Oh, DID you now.

I said earlier that Perina never addresses the pedophilia in the room, but [spoilers?] it turns out that this is just one of the things that his friend judiciously edited, and this part of the narrative is included after the epilogue because it “should not make a difference” to the story, but of course it does, and really, even if you’re expecting the gist of this entry, it’s going to give you way more feelings that you anticipate. One of them may be the “I must throw this book across the room” feeling. (Seriously, what the fuck, Norton Perina?)

But with some time to process my emotions, it turns out that I really liked this book. Enjoyed, maybe not? But it is a really great work of fiction that is going on my “to be read again someday” pile.

This is probably a really great pick in general for a book club, because anyone who gets to the end is going to have SO MUCH to talk about. I don’t think my book club appreciated it quite as much as I did, but I can guarantee it was better received than that LeBron James book. I can guarantee that about a lot of books, actually.

Recommendation: For people who haven’t been uncomfortable or angry enough recently, and those who want to practice being nonjudgmental. (Good luck.)

Rating: 9/10

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenI have been hearing so many good things about this book lately, well deserved good things, but back when I picked it out of the advance copy lineup all I knew was that it had a neat cover and was written by Emily St. John Mandel, who, like Jo Walton, I should have started reading ages ago. And I think that’s a pretty good way to go into the book, because it is so hard to describe the book well and I think whatever you hear about what the book is about is necessarily not going to be the whole story. All you really need to know going in is that it’s not going to be a page-turner, but if you’re in the mood for something you can sit and savor and that will make you think about life, this is just the ticket.

But if you need to know more, I’m happy to oblige. Station Eleven fits primarily in that genre called post-apocalyptic that I know gives people hissy fits, but in a world where literally can mean figuratively I think that’s not the worst name we could have for a book that takes place after a big, world-changing event. In this case, the world-changing event is a flu that takes out something like 90 percent of the world’s population along with all of the important services like electricity, water, gas, and the Internet. How does anyone survive??

But of course people do, as people have always done, and the primary story line we follow is that of Kirsten Raymonde, a member of the Traveling Symphony, whose slogan is “Because survival is insufficient.” The Symphony, still going twenty years after the flu, puts on Shakespeare’s plays and performs concerts for various settlements on a circuit in the northern Michigan area, and those settlements seem generally glad to see them until the Symphony rolls in to a town where they dropped off two members a couple years back. The members are nowhere to be found, no one wants to talk about it, and things are generally creeptastic in the area. When the Symphony leaves, they decide to wander off their usual circuit to see if they can’t find their friends and maybe explore some new territory, but of course it’s not as easy as that.

Meanwhile, we get to know some other people who are all connected through this one fellow called Arthur we meet at the beginning of the book (Kirsten was in a play with him). We meet Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda and learn about her relationship with him and his relationship with fame, we meet a paparazzo turned entertainment journalist turned paramedic called Jeevan who once documented Arthur and later worked to save his life, and we meet Clark, Arthur’s old friend who just manages to avoid the flu and who lives in probably the nicest settlement in northern Michigan.

I love the way the stories interconnect at different points, allowing you to learn about these people and their lives before and after the flu in little pieces spread throughout all the narratives. I also like that although Mandel connects all these characters together through Arthur, none are close enough in relationship or location for it to feel contrived that they’ve survived this flu.

I appreciate that although this story falls into that post-apocalyptic category, it seems so much more realistic — it’s twenty years later, so the characters are past any looting, panicking, killing stage that might have happened, and no one crazy person has stepped in to realize his utopian vision or whatever. Instead it’s just regular people living out a pioneer life with a few minor altercations here and there but generally just trying to live, or in the case of the Traveling Symphony, trying to increase awesome. I can only hope our future post-apocalyptic world is as nice as this one.

Recommendation: For people who are tired of plot-driven apocalypses and those who want to know that everything’s going to be okay, ish.

Rating: 9/10

RIP IX

RIP IXGuys, I just can’t even. RIP IX?? IX?? It is amazing to me that Carl has stuck with this challenge for nine years, let alone that I’ve stuck with it and with this blog for six. I am sooo old, guys. One foot in the grave (see what I did there?).

If you haven’t been around this blog for six years, or one year, or whatever, you can get more info on the event at Carl’s site, but for those who hate clicking links, here’s the deal with RIP: It stands for Readers Imbibing Peril, it takes place in September and October, ish, and it involves reading any story that you feel puts you in a sufficiently mysterious or Gothic or fantastical mood. It’s basically the greatest event ever, is what I’m saying.

Carl offers different “Perils”, or levels of participation, so that everyone can have fun in their own special way, and while in the past I have been perhaps a bit dismissive of Carl’s participation trophies, I am happy for them this year, because the way I read and blog has changed quite a bit since the last RIP.

I will definitely be participating in Peril the First (read four books on the theme), Peril of the Short Story (read short stories on the theme), and Peril on the Screen (watch TV and movies on the theme), because of course I will. But since I don’t know when I’ll get around to reviewing any of these things, my plan is to pop in here on Sundays and let you know what I’ve been up to RIP-wise, with brief thoughts and links to reviews and whatnot.

For instance, this week I reviewed The Secret Place, by Tana French, which you should go read immediately because it is a perfectly suspenseful and creepy and Gothic read and then you should go read her other four books, too, and then you are super done with Peril the First! I also reviewed The Last Child, by John Hart, which I didn’t like as much but would be an appropriate read for RIP if you’re into that sort of thing.

In current reads, I finished The Silkworm, by J.K. Galbraith (Robert Rowling?), which was just as awesome as The Cuckoo’s Calling and which you should see a review of soon.

In current listens, I am still enjoying Welcome to Night Vale, which is just as weird and creepy as ever and which you should totally be listening to, right now.

In current watches, I’ve been mainlining the second and third seasons of Grimm over the last few weeks, and it’s been… an adventure. The first season finale left me kind of angry, which is why it took me so long to get around to the second season, and although the second season is pretty good monster-wise I was pretty ready to kill the writers and Nick over the whole Juliette thing, which dragged on approximately fifteen episodes too long. Luckily things went the way I wanted them to, and this third season has been really entertaining. I’m getting a bit concerned again, this time that the show is starting to veer off into Dresden Files territory with Royals and Councils and whatnot, but it’s hanging on to my interest for now.

What are you all reading/watching/listening to for RIP this year?

The Last Child, by John Hart

The Last ChildOne of the best things about being in a book club, even with the same members coming every month, is that you can never guess how everyone is going to react to a book, even yourself. One of the weirdest things is when you think a book is kind of okay and then everyone else LOVES it, and you’re like, but, seriously? Such was the case with The Last Child. I found myself in a room with ten people who loved the book and I just couldn’t figure out why.

It’s not a bad book, by any means, and it’s got a pretty decent plot going for it. The story takes place in a rural North Carolina town wherein two girls have gone missing about a year apart. One of our protagonists, Johnny, is the twin brother of the first missing girl, Alyssa, and he’s spent the last year trying to figure out what happened to Alyssa and watching his family fall apart around him — his father left, his mother turned to drink and drugs, and a horrible man stepped in to boss Johnny and his mother around. Noooooot fun. Our other main protagonist is Clyde Hunt, the detective who caught Alyssa’s case and didn’t solve it. He is now on the case of the new missing girl and is hoping, mostly for his own sake, that solving it will also bring Alyssa home.

So, interesting. And the mystery itself is pretty cool, with the appropriate twists and turns and oh-I-should-have-seen-thats. But everything else? Not so great. Hart’s characters are pulled straight from the mystery-character vault; there’s the trouble-making but mystery-solving kid, his only partially willing sidekick, the detective with a vested interest in solving a case, the same detective with feelings for a victim, and, possibly worst of all, the giant black man with the mind and temperament of a child but also mystical powers (see: The Green Mile). And the writing is tough to get through, with every sentence about twice as long as it needs to be and a whole prologue that doesn’t have anything to do with anything, really.

So, less interesting. There were lots of pieces of this book that were really fascinating, like the relationship between Hunt and Johnny and the whole discussion of rural life and politics, but the rest of the book just kind of fell down on the job for me. But there are ten other people, just in Jacksonville, even, who completely disagree with me and want to marry this book and have its babies, so clearly your mileage may vary.

Recommendation: I’d recommend a lot of books over this one, but if you like mysteries and have this one handy it’s not the worst choice you could make?

Rating: 5/10

The Secret Place, by Tana French

The Secret PlaceI wrote a little blurb about this book for a program called LibraryReads where librarians nerd out about the best books coming out every month, and it goes a little something like this:

“French has broken my heart yet again with her fifth novel, which examines the ways in which teenagers and adults can be wily, calculating, and backstabbing, even with their friends. The tension-filled flashback narratives, relating to a murder investigation in suburban Dublin, will keep you turning pages late into the night.”

And, I mean, seriously. If you’ve read any of Tana French’s other work, you probably don’t need me to tell you to GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW WHY ARE YOU NOT READING THIS RIGHT NOW, but just in case, I will tell you that this ranks right up there with Broken Harbour and a second reading of In the Woods as one of her best. Sooooo good, guys.

The story: Holly Mackey (of the Faithful Place Mackeys) shows up at our favorite police station with a Post Secret-style card from the Secret Place at her fancy-pants boarding school where kids can post anything they want anonymously with minimal oversight from the adult types. This card says that someone at her school knows who really killed a student who was found dead on the school’s campus a year before. Stephen Moran, to whom Holly entrusts the message, is a Cold Cases cop eager to make the Murder squad, and he jumps at the opportunity to work with the currently partner-less Antoinette Conway who headed up the case in the first place.

He thinks he knows what he’s getting into, but when he gets to the school he realizes he’s forgotten how ruthless and cunning teenagers can be, especially in an isolated boarding school. He’s also conveniently forgotten that the games these kids are playing are the same ones he should be playing at work, which is why he’s stuck in Cold Cases.

Interspersed with Moran’s story is the story of Holly and her friends starting a few months before the death of Chris Harper, during which they decided to skip over the pettiness of high school and stop caring what other people think, which is a great idea but really hard to implement when you spend your entire life with the same people. French drops in hints here and there about how Holly and her friends’ actions and the actions of other students will eventually lead to Chris’s death, but as always she keeps you wondering up to the end.

Also as always, French’s writing is perfect and amazing, and her characters are all completely believable and somehow sympathetic, even the ones who are kind of terrible people. In this book she throws in a new Gothic idea, that Holly and her friends have magical powers, and although I was like, no, of course they don’t, at first, by the end of the book I was ready to believe whatever French wanted me to believe. There’s really no arguing with her.

Now I just have to wait patiently for the next novel. That’s coming out soon, right? Please?

Recommendation: For all the people, but especially those who like a little Gothic mood in their crime procedural.

Rating: 10/10

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

My Real ChildrenThis was kind of a sneak-attack book for me — I had heard good things about Jo Walton when her book Among Others came out but never got around to reading it, and then suddenly this book was out and I was like, sure, maybe I’ll read that one, and then I had a gap between books I needed to read for one book club or another and this book sitting on my desk and it was obviously fate.

Which is an appropriate sentiment for this book, actually. The story starts off with a woman named Patricia stuck going senile in some old-folks home in England with only her family’s visits to break the monotony of the building. Except that it’s not just one family that visits her, but two. When one set of children visits her, she can’t imagine how she ever thought there were others, but in between visits she remembers both sets, and her respective lives with them, equally well. She starts to wonder — why does she remember two separate lives? Where did her life split apart?

And then she remembers.

The book from there cuts back and forth between Patricia’s dual lives as Pat and Trish (and other name variations, too). In one life, she experiences a happy and fulfilling personal life but lives in a horror show of a world; in the other the world is a progressive wonderland but her personal life is a shambles.

Both lives are equally compelling, though, and I was just as happy about the small gains in Trish’s life as I was about the great gains in Pat’s, and even once I figured out that there wasn’t terribly much plot to the book I absolutely had to know what happened to both of them. Walton’s worldbuilding is amazing as well, especially for worlds that are basically the one I live in. Brief mentions of current events here and famous people there let me know that neither of these worlds is exactly like my own, which I thought was a smart touch. And it’s interesting what really struck me about the different worlds — moon bases are awesome, sure, but in one world there isn’t wifi in Patricia’s nursing home! How can she possibly survive?

And oh my goodness, Walton knows how to stick a landing, with both of Patricia’s lives slowly but surely unraveling into her state at the beginning of the book in only a slightly less terrible way than in, say Still Alice and then a Big Life Question asked and [spoiler not spoiler] totally not answered except that I know what I think the answer is and I don’t like it on an emotional level but on a rational level it makes perfect sense but hmmph. It’s a book that’s kept me thinking about it for weeks now.

Jo Walton, where have you been all my life?

Recommendation: For fans of alternate universes and life-encompassing stories, and those who wanted to like Life After Life but thought it was too complicated.

Rating: 10/10

Lock In, by John Scalzi

Lock InA few months back I wrote about Unlocked, the companion/prequel/whatever to Lock In. Unlocked was a cool oral history thing, and it was followed by the first chapter of Lock In, which was not an oral history thing but which made me really really really excited to read the book.

I may have been a little too excited, possibly? But it’s a really fun book nonetheless.

The premise is really cool — the book takes place post-This Thing That Happened (the explanation of that left mostly to Unlocked) that left some number of people entirely immobile but still capable of thought, and then some enterprising inventors created robot bodies that could interface with those people’s brains and which could be used to allow said people to wander around and do more or less human things, provided that someone was around to feed the paralyzed body and keep it from dying of sepsis or whatever. It’s a bit complicated.

Our hero, Chris Shane, is one of these so-called Hadens and also a newly minted FBI agent with a non-Haden, cynical, self-destructive partner called Leslie Vann. On Shane’s first day on the job, Shane and Vann are called to a murder scene where the suspected murderer is still there, but not entirely sure he did anything wrong — turns out his job is to act as a human version of the robot bodies Hadens use and that someone else may or may not have been in control of his body at the time. It’s… very complicated. And awesome.

It is definitely a Scalzi book. There’s politics and intrigue and odd humor and a plot line that was drawn with a spirograph and quotes for all occasions, like the ever-useful “Not all of my ideas are going to be gold.” There were certain points at which I found myself feeling a bit of Scalzi overload, with too many characters all sharing the exact same sense of humor and political leanings (and those traits matching the ones I see every day on Scalzi’s blog), but the plot kept on moving right along and I was able to let it drag me away from thinking about it too much. And oh, that plot. Intrigue! Machinations! An ending that probably doesn’t hold up well to strict scrutiny but whatever it’s awesome!

Scalzi also does a fancy thing that I am going to spoil, in the real sense of the word because it’s actually way cooler when you figure it out for yourself so go buy the book and read it and then come back here and we can talk about this. Done? Okay. So, Scalzi, by writing in the first person and having his main character walking around in a robot body thing, manages never to use a gendered pronoun in relation to Chris Shane, which I kind of realized while reading the book but which was hammered home when my husband started talking about Shane and what she was doing and how cool she was and I was like, dude, Shane’s a dude. I think. I’m pretty sure. I don’t think it said so in the book, maybe?, but it said so in Unlocked. Orrrrr I guess it was just a weirdly worded sentence. Well. Huh.

So Scalzi deftly tackles gender roles and gets in some good digs at prejudice in general (see: robot bodies not being allowed to sit in chairs at restaurants because humans who actually eat food need those chairs), although he glosses over the class issues that I thought could have been really interesting but hey, you can only fit in so much social commentary between gunfights and chases and cross-country body swaps. It’s still quite impressive.

I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from this world, and when we do I will be there with bells on.

Recommendation: For fans of Scalzi and/or certain dearly departed sci-fi buddy-cop television shows.

Rating: 9/10