The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

The WanderersI have so many things I want to say about this book, but I’m finding it hard to phrase any of those things in ways that won’t give away, you know, all the things I have things to say about. So let me give you a little plot summary up top, and then if you’re intrigued you can go read the book and come back to this.

PLOT SUMMARY: We follow along as three astronauts are selected for a potential future Mars mission, of which the first part is a real-time simulation in the Utah desert. We get to see this simulation mission from the eyes of the astronauts and certain of their family members, and we get to learn not only how the mission works practically but also physically and emotionally for all of these characters. There’s an older American woman who’s a bit past her prime and knows it, along with her daughter who doesn’t really know how to exist outside of her mother’s shadow; a Russian man who’s decided to go through a divorce at the same time as this simulation mission and his son who’s using this time in America to explore his sexual identity; and a young (for an astronaut) Japanese man who seems pretty normal, although he and his wife, some kind of bigwig in companion robotics, have a very strange and superficial relationship.

Kinda cool, right? I thought so! If you think so, stop here. Seriously, stop. Here’s a recommendation for you, so you don’t even have to scroll to the bottom:

Recommendation: For sci-fi fans who like a little existential crisis in their narratives.

Okay, but, seriously. Spoilers ahead!

SPOILERS: Okay, so, the plot up there really is the basic plot of the story, but there’s also this really really weird subplot that had my brain breaking for most of the book. Pretty early on the author starts dropping hints that there’s something weird about this simulation mission. Everything feels really… real. Exceptionally real. Too real. But it’s only hints here and there until near the end, when she kind of drops the act and has one of the characters be like, hey, are we actually secretly in space right now?

Which, of course not, because why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars and not even tell the astronauts they’re going? Why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars for them to stay like two days and then come back? Why would you bother to create an elaborate Mars simulation to put on top of ACTUAL MARS?

But, on the other hand, you could, right? And if you did, wouldn’t that look exactly like this?

SPOILERS WITHIN SPOILERS: You know that movie A Beautiful Mind? I thought this book would end up like that movie, where I was totally on board with the weird government spying shenanigans (or whatever, it’s been a while) and then the movie was like, psych! He’s got a mental illness!, and then I was like, whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

SERIOUSLY ALL THE SPOILERS WHY ARE YOU READING THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS: Except that this book never gets to a whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat. It leaves you hanging. And so instead of being able to be like, oh, book, look how you tricked me, I am now, weeks later, still coming up with conspiracy theories about how they totally did go to Mars, but now they’re dead, or that they totally didn’t go to Mars but this whole thing was an incredibly elaborate psychological experiment about the effects of simulations on humans, or that Mars isn’t even a planet and scientists have been lying to us this whole time. I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE.

I kind of love that the book starts out like it’s going to explore the themes of what’s real and what’s fake and what’s performance and whether we can tell the difference between any of that, even our own realities and such, through the various characters we meet and their inner and outer dramas… and then it’s like eff it, let’s get completely literal here. It’s a serious hit-or-miss move, and I can imagine that it’s going to miss for a lot of people, but it hit me square in the existential feels.

But seriously. Is Mars real? Asking for a friend.

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Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

Before the FallI was pretty interested in this book when I first heard about it, as it’s by Noah Hawley who is responsible for the excellent TV series Fargo (and the weird series Legion, but I watched that well after reading this book). The holds list was surprisingly long for what I thought was a fairly obscure book, so I decided to leave it alone and just grab my library’s copy when it finally came back for good.

And, honestly, that kind of sums up my feelings about this book. Pretty good, wouldn’t wait in a long line to read it.

I liked a lot of things about this book, and I think (for better or worse) that my favorite bit is the premise. A private jet crashes on the way from Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland and two people survive — the young son of a fabulously wealthy Rupert Murdoch type, and some random dude who was invited by the Murdoch type’s wife to join them. These two are left to grapple with life after a harrowing incident that is compounded by the kid’s dad’s celebrity. How did this happen? Does it have to do with [insert scandal here]? Who’s this schmuck who just so happened to save this kid’s life? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW AND WE WONT STOP ASKING ‘TIL YOU TELL US. That sort of thing.

And for that, the book does take an interesting look at the world of pundit-based news and the 24-hour news cycle and the public’s seemingly unending need to know things that literally no one actually wants to know. This is where the book is very good.

The other part, the part with the answering of the questions… it’s all right. I like the way Hawley looks through all of the characters’ points of view, even the ones who end up dead, and connects all their lives together to get them on the plane. But, and this is kind of a spoiler, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph, he spends all this time building up the characters and their backstories and then the big whodunit reveal is not any of those people we’ve spent time getting to know. I mean, I’m glad none of them are plane crash causers, but… seriously?

My other problem with the book, and I will grant that others probably see this as a benefit, is that the book is written very visually. You could copy and paste most of this book straight into a film script with no problems. It’s kind of cool in small doses — I did enjoy a scene in which a dude in the bathroom uses the soap dispenser (hand dryer? Something like that) — but after a while I was like, come on dude, let’s just get on with the story!

But let me be clear that overall I quite enjoyed this book. The writing is great, the characters are interesting, and Hawley knows how to keep you turning pages. It just, for me, had just enough issues to leave me wanting to have read something very slightly different.

Recommendation: If you like Hawley’s stuff, you’ll certainly like this. Unless you only like Legion. This is nothing like Legion.

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

The Collapsing EmpireGUYS JOHN SCALZI HAS A NEW BOOK OUT! I mean, did. Like three and a half months ago. But I am behind on my reviews, and maybe you are behind on your John Scalzi books, and if so, we can meet together here!

If you’ve read even one John Scalzi book — well, maybe two, there’s one that’s very different and I never finished it — you know the Scalzi oeuvre: One part science fiction, one part snarky humor, and a dash of F-bombs. This first book in a new series follows that formula pretty well, except for the F-bombs. There are a LOT of F-bombs in this book, such that even I, with my mouth resembling a sailor’s, was like, dang, dude, can we dial that back a bit? So. Forewarning.

If you’ve read any of the Old Man’s War series, you’ll be even closer to this new series, which includes much of OMW’s military style and crazy intrigue and crazier subterfuge, but in a whole new universe with new exciting characters to get to know and a fascinating quasi-scientific plot.

On one end of this universe you have the capital of the planetary system, where a new and rather reluctant Emperox is being crowned. She is meant to keep the Interdependency working smoothly, but from the time of her coronation it is obvious that that is going to be rather difficult, what with warring noble houses and also a terrible scientific secret.

On the other end of the Interdependency, at a planet smartly called End, you have the man who discovered this secret, living with his kids and trying to stay under the radar. When a member one of those aforementioned noble houses on End starts doing some odd political machinations that don’t make a lot of sense, the scientist realizes it’s time to send his son to the capital to explain just what exactly is going on with the space highways (vast oversimplification on my part) that rule the system.

In between these places we meet an F-bomb-loving noble-house type who really just wants to sell her dang plants but who gets drawn into the plots on both ends of the system when she takes the scientist’s son aboard her ship.

Put these all together and you have the beautiful space opera brain candy with a little bit of social consciousness thrown in that I love from John Scalzi. It’s super fun, kind of ridiculous, and I already can’t wait for the next in the series.

A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab

A Conjuring of LightMan. I was suuuuper excited for this book to come out earlier this year, and very upset that it took my library like three whole weeks to process it and get it in my grubby little hands so that I could devour it whole. I mean, not really, eating library books gets expensive. But my plan was to read it in, like, one sitting, and also to love it and cherish it forever and ever.

Best laid plans, and all that.

A Conjuring of Light picks up right after A Gathering of Shadows, with the Triwizard Tournament (still too lazy to look up its real name) just ended and Kell kidnapped to White London, where Holland is trying to pawn off the magic inhabiting and controlling him onto Kell. As one does. Holland fails, which seems good for Kell, except then the magic demon whatsit called Osaron decides to take over Red London, which is decidedly bad for Kell.

This leads to the pretty decent part of the book, which is all the plotting and planning on the part of pretty much everyone who’s ever been in this series to figure out how to save Red London, and by extension Red London’s whole world, from Osaron, who is off collecting bodies to control and using citizens as weapons against their own people. There’s machinations and sabotage and intrigue and I am so many kinds of for that. But then there is also this quest plotline where our pirates go off to find a MacGuffin to defeat the magic monster, which we know where it is because one of our characters sold it a while back and you just have to go to this mysterious floating market and trade away the thing you hold dearest in the world and ohhhhhhhhhhhhh my goodness why are we doing this when we could be plotting and planning and punching things in the face?

I wasn’t super on board with that part, is what I’m saying. Also not super on board with the continuing and completely unnecessary romance subplot, or the big boss fight at the end, or basically any time Kell and Alucard interact in this book. One thing I am totally on board with is the way Schwab handles the Big Reveal I’ve been waiting for this whole series, in that it just happens without a ton of fanfare and everyone’s like, yeah, no, that makes sense.

Overall I liked this book just fine; it’s a decent conclusion to a decent series that is mostly fun brain candy. But I wouldn’t read the series just to get here, is what I’m saying.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

KindredI thought this would be a pretty slam-dunk book for me. The internets love it, it’s got time travel (!), it’s got complex social issues, somebody loses an arm… I mean, these things are catnip to me. Maybe not the arm thing. A little bit the arm thing. Whatever.

And, I mean, I found this book interesting, and compelling, and fascinating, but I just can’t bring myself to say it was a good book.

The story, and this is definitely the best part, involves a black woman from 1970s California who finds herself randomly and inexplicably transported back to early-1800s Maryland, when and where slavery is alive and well and not terribly friendly to educated black women. At first she goes back for brief periods, to save the life of a young white man when he gets himself into various types of trouble, but her visits get longer and she finds herself actually living in the household of this white man, as not quite but essentially a slave. She soon realizes that this household, and this man, are part of her lineage, and she feels obligated to protect all of it to protect herself, but that’s incredibly difficult when she can’t actually, you know, protect herself. Throw in her white husband who hitches a ride with her during one of her trips back and ends up playacting as her master, and you’ve got yourself a crazy, twisty, complex story about race.

So that’s great, right? It is. It’s sobering and fascinating to see how easily the 1970s characters adapt to life in the 1800s, how easy it is to do something you know is absolutely wrong when you know that doing what is right will probably get you killed. It’s awful to watch a child grow into a slave owner, and to see slave families broken up. It’s frustrating to see parallels in the characters’ thoughts and actions with the thoughts and actions of seemingly reasonable human beings today. This is a super important book.

But. For as much as I appreciated the issues of the book, and the crazy plot that tied them together, I couldn’t ever really get into the characters outside of their assigned places in the story. I didn’t really care about Dana, our heroine, or everyone else whose names I’ve already forgotten; they were just pawns in the greater chess game of the book. This is possibly the fault of, or just in addition to, the fact that my reading brain has never really gotten into the writing style of books from the 1970s, which rely heavily on the telling and are generally quite unsubtle. This book had a little more subtlety going for it, but I never found the writing especially exciting.

And possibly that’s on purpose, of course, and perhaps the point is that, hey, this whole thing that’s being written about race relations is really important and pretty sentences and deep characters are going to take a backseat to that. But the heart wants what it wants, and it didn’t quite want the book it got here.

Recommendation: Even if it’s not up to my apparently exacting standards of “good”, it is a book that you should read and that you should make everyone you know read, too.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeI’m pretty sure we’ve established in this space that I love a good World War II book, and especially one of this recent spate of “World War II books about places that are not London or a concentration camp”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that fascinates me and pretty much everyone else about this time period, but it probably has something to do with the whole good vs. evil thing and how, ideally, this is a time never to be repeated and from which we can learn many dozens of things. One hopes.

The first part of that, the good vs. evil thing, is of course not that simple, and this idea is explored pretty interestingly in this book. We have two main protagonists: a young blind girl living in France with her father, and a young mechanically-minded boy living as an orphan with his sister in Germany. Both leave their regular lives very quickly, she to coastal France to help her father hide a very valuable stone, and he to a military school to become a good German soldier.

The girl’s story is rather a bog-standard World War II story, with the hiding and the rationing and the French Resistance and et cetera. Doerr tries to dress it up with this valuable stone business, but that’s a really weird and unnecessary side plot so let’s pretend that never happened.

The boy’s story, on the other hand, is more of a bog-standard coming-of-age boarding school story, except for the whole “becoming a good German soldier” thing, and I found that absolutely fascinating as someone who also loves a good boarding school story. Trying to do well in school and fit in and not succumb to peer pressure are such universal sentiments, and it’s hard not to sympathize with this boy who really just wants a better life and this is his only way to get one.

Another big idea explored in this book is the importance of the radio (and communication in general) during the war and beyond. It’s amazing that in this time, broadcast radio is so ubiquitous that the Germans are confiscating radios and creating their own stations and broadcasts to keep people from knowing what’s really happening, but meanwhile resistance fighters were communicating via the radio and German soldiers have to take radio receivers out and scan the dial and hope to happen upon the right channel at the right time to hear the right words that would help them take down their enemies. It’s not unlike the current ubiquity of the Internet and the way that some countries censor it or create their own version of it to give to their people. It’s fascinating and also incredibly frustrating to see history repeat itself like this.

I will admit, though, that for all that intriguing content I didn’t end up being super into the book. That stone business is kind of really very awful, as I said, but also I had a hard time getting into Doerr’s writing. The best thing he does in the book, I think, is make his chapters very short and snappy so that when the point of view changes you keep reading to get back to that other narrator, and then the other, and so on until you’ve read the whole book and are like, huh.

On the plus side, after discussing this twice at book club I can say that it is a very good pick for your next book club meeting, as you will get a lot of different opinions on the book and there are a lot of different aspects of the book to talk about. I’m not sure I’d read it again, but I’d definitely go to another book club or two about it!

Recommendation: Read it and then make all your friends talk about it with you.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The NamesakeMy library picked this book for their Big Read title this year, and so of course I picked it for my library book club to read and talk all about!

The discussion turned out kind of awkward, as only two people (neither of them regulars!) came, and one hadn’t read past maybe page ten, but the book itself was pretty darn good and I think had more people come it would have been a decent discussion as well.

The Namesake takes place over about 30 years, following the lives of a Bengali family from Calcutta to Boston to New York and beyond. The three main characters are Ashima, a woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage that will take her from her Calcutta home to far-off Boston but strives to make the best of it; Ashoke, the man Ashima marries who is very happy to be so far from home and who once very nearly died in a train accident; and (mostly) Gogol, their son, who gets his weird name from the author of the book his dad was reading at the time of the accident and who spends all of his life trying to reconcile his Bengali roots and his American upbringing, with more or less predictable results.

“Predictable results?” I hear you saying. “I thought you said this book was pretty darn good.”

Well, yes. The plot, what little there is, is pretty standard. Immigrant parents have American kid, he rebels against his parents’ values and goals for him, he has a series of relationships (some ill-advised), at the end of the book he has more respect for his parents and their lives than he previously had.

But! The characters are super interesting, Gogol foremost to me because he follows a similar path with his name as I did, shunning the name he grew up with to choose his own name and create his own identity. I was going to say I never went so far as to legally change my name and then I remembered that in fact, I got married and changed my last name, so. I am fully on board with the story of how a person’s name impacts their life.

And it’s a fascinating topic in this book, especially, as Gogol’s name comes out of a Bengali naming tradition that I can’t quite wrap my head around, which is that a person gets a “good name”, like Ashima, to put on birth certificates and passports and school papers and whatnot, and a “pet name”, like Monu, that everyone who actually knows you calls you. In this book, Gogol is meant to be a pet name, but Gogol’s parents take too long coming up with an acceptable good name and they, and he, end up stuck with this one, at least until Gogol turns 18 and can fix it himself.

But back to the characters — I love Gogol’s parents, too, who could easily have been left out in favor of Gogol’s story, but whom we see adapting in their own ways to American life and carving out a semblance of home with the apparently fairly large Bengali community in eastern Massachusetts. Ashoke’s train accident story and his reticence to share it with his son rings very true, as does Ashima’s propensity for feeding too much food to family, friends, and strangers.

Also delightful is Lahiri’s writing, which isn’t beautiful in the “here, look at this particular sentence and adore it” sort of way, but which, when all those sentences combine, is a subtly descriptive and engaging sort of writing that I just fall for every time. If Lahiri’s writing were a voice, I would probably listen to that voice read the phone book, as they say. Is there a better analogy for that? I bet there is, and I bet Lahiri could tell me what it is.

I’d read and loved Lahiri’s story “Interpreter of Maladies” in some collection I can’t even remember ages and ages ago, but somehow never read any more of her work until this book. This vast oversight is going on my “Vast Oversights to Rectify in the Soon-Time” list, for sure.

Recommendation: To read when you’re looking for a quiet family story, or if you want to think to hard about what life would be like if your parents had just named you something different.