Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunI know I say this a lot, but I am so thankful for my book club for introducing me to fascinating historical novels that I would never otherwise read. I am getting a bit better, though — I knew well before picking this book up that I was going to have to miss my book club meeting, but I had already checked it out of the library and I figured I might as well read it anyway, since it was there…

And I was mostly not disappointed, though I liked different parts of this novel than I was expecting to when I started it.

Half of a Yellow Sun covers the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, during which a small but significant part of the country broke off and became the country of Biafra. As usual, this is something I never learned in history class, so I was glad to have this book around to educate me on the many forces at play in Nigeria at the time, from fading British rule to Nigerian nationalism to religious and cultural clashes to anti-education sentiment and so on.

The main characters are Ugwu, a young servant boy who leaves a small town to work for a university professor; Olanna, the lover and then wife of said professor, whose family is quite important but who won’t leave her new home and family for safety when the fighting starts; and Richard, a British transplant in love with Olanna’s twin sister who adopts Biafra as his home but who has to straddle the political and cultural lines very carefully.

At first I was really intrigued by the characters, but as the book went on I almost felt like their actions and emotions were getting in the way of the real story of Biafra and the vagaries of war. These are serious vagaries, too, ranging from characters having to beg for food or to move house due to the whims of officials to random attacks on towns and buildings to a woman carrying around a severed head. It is so heartbreaking to read about the bad things that happen in war when there’s so much war going on right now, and so those boring character things like infidelity and depression fall completely off my radar.

I didn’t get 100 percent behind the war parts either, though, as much of Adichie’s plot relies on some very predictable turns and some moderately unbelievable ones as well. But most of it was solid and the history lesson was well appreciated, so overall I think this book is a win. It maybe could have been 100 pages shorter, but Adichie writes lovely enough sentences that even those pages are worth a read.

Recommendation: For history nerds and avoiders alike with lots of hours to spare.

Rating: 7/10

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine

Woman with a Blue PencilI’ve got two words for you: mystery metafiction. If you like either of those words, you’ll probably like this book.

The conceit: this book is set up as if someone has found two manuscripts by an author and some letters sent by his editor and published them together as this new book. One manuscript, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.

The book starts with the first chapter of The Revised, which is a fairly traditional mystery except that it’s set in 1941 riiiiight before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And has a Japanese protagonist. And a white villain. And a Japanese author, writing the book at the same time it’s set. So when the US jumps into World War II, well, the book has to change.

The author’s editor sends over a letter saying that the story’s got to change or go, and we can see that he decides on change, as the next bit we get is the first chapter of Orchid, with a completely different writing style, a Korean protagonist, and Japanese antagonists. But meanwhile the author is wondering what might have happened to the protagonist from his first draft, Sam Sumida, and we get the rest of Sam’s story woven throughout this book, and, we find, throughout the new novel as well.

It’s a little complicated to explain, but it reads just fine, with bits of each manuscript and the letters from the editor (the titular woman) trading off easily to form a story far more complex than its parts. You get the main mystery of Orchid, of course, but then you get a sort of science-fictional story in The Revised, as the author chooses to have Sam go into a theater before Pearl Harbor and come out of it afterward into a world where he no longer exists. And of course you get a story about how Americans treated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and how they treated anyone vaguely Asian, and how this played out in direct and casual prejudice. And then on top of that you get a sprinkling of the fight between writer and editor to create the best story versus the most sellable story.

This is a really cool book, guys. The stories themselves as written are a little rough, as a consequence of their conceits and of the fact that we don’t actually get a complete story out of either of them, but put together they form something really intriguing. I have a feeling this is not going to be the next blockbuster novel, but if you can get your hands on it it’s a fun, quirky, and short read that is more than worth the time you’ll put into it.

Recommendation: For people who like their books a little thinky and a little weird, but not too much of either.

Rating: 8/10

Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Welcome to Night ValeI have mentioned before in this space my love of Welcome to Night Vale, the super weird and wonderful podcast that takes place in a subtly Lovecraftian world where the weirdest and creepiest of things are just another boring day in Night Vale.

If you’ve also been listening to this podcast, even on just a semi-regular basis, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you haven’t been listening, but you like stories that are bizarre and a little creepy and that seem to pluck new details out of thin air, both the podcast and this book are worth a shot.

I think the biggest draw of this book for podcast listeners is that while Cecil and his radio show make appearances in the story, the narrative is led by two Night Vale residents, Jackie and Diane, and we actually get to follow along in their adventures rather than just hearing about how everything was solved during the weather break. Jackie is a 19-year-old pawn shop owner, and has been for decades, and Diane is an office worker and mother to a shape-shifting teenage son. So, completely normal by Night Vale standards.

What is strange for Night Vale is the presence of the man in the tan jacket, who has made appearances on the podcast in the past and who is impossible to remember. But in this story, Diane does remember him, or at least a version of him, and Jackie can’t help but remember the name of his town, King City, which has been written on a note that Jackie is incapable of dropping or even destroying. Also weird is the reappearance of Diane’s ex-boyfriend, Troy, in several places around Night Vale, and his reticence to talk to either Diane or Jackie. Diane is curious and Jackie is obsessive about both Troy and the King City note, and they end up working together to find out what the heck is going on.

I enjoyed reading this book quite a bit, primarily because so much of it has subtle or completely blatant callbacks to the podcast, and because I got to see what the people of Night Vale think of the radio show that I enjoy so much. It’s cute and fun and there’s a whole scene set in the library, the most dangerous place in Night Vale, and how can I not love that? Impossible.

It does get a little slow in places, which is to be expected, I guess, when you turn a half-hour radio show into a 400-page book, but these slow parts had enough bemusement density to see me through. I’m not sure a person brand-new to the show and its concepts would be able to make it quite so easily. But who knows? Stranger things certainly happen in Night Vale.

Recommendation: For fans of the show and of slow-burning Lovecraftian horror.

Rating: 7/10

Ghostly, ed. by Audrey Niffenegger

GhostlyUm, ghost stories? Audrey Niffenegger? I was so obviously sold on this collection, even after I realized that Niffenegger didn’t actually write all the stories in it. There’s one of her stories tucked in there, and she wrote the introduction, and some shorter introductions before each ghost story, so there’s a lot of her in the book, but it’s possibly more awesome that my attachment to Niffenegger has now led me to some other amazing authors.

Now, Niffenegger makes a point at the beginning of the book that it is not diverse or representative but just full of stories that she thinks are cool, which, I mean, okay, I guess, but it’s kind of weird you brought it up, you know? I have not checked the diversity credentials of the authors in this collection, but when it turns out it’s all white dudes and chicks I will not be surprised. If you’ve got a more diverse collection of ghost stories for me, let me know!

But I can see why Niffenegger thinks these stories are cool. The first story in the book is “The Black Cat”, by one Mr. Poe, which I have read several times for fun and school, but every other story in the book was completely new to me. There are some classics, including the Poe and “They”, by Kipling, and then some newer works by Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. They all have ghosts in common, or sort-of-ghosts, though the best ones, in my opinion, make you sort of doubt whether there are ghosts at all. Uncertainty is weirdly terrifying.

My favorites of the collection: “The Beckoning Fair One”, by Oliver Onions, in which a writer decides to move into part of a strange old house and finds that his writing is completely stymied and his friendships falling apart, and also there are some strange things happening inside the house but surely that’s just a coincidence. Also “Playmates”, by A.M. Burrage, in which some weird dude adopts an orphan as, like, a social experiment, and is kind of disappointed when she makes friends with ghosts, and “The Specialist’s Hat”, by Kelly Link, in which some kids learn the difference between playing Dead and, well, you can probably guess.

I was actually not that excited about Niffenegger’s own story, “Secret Life, with Cats”, but it was one of the ones that lacked any sort of questions or ambivalence, so if you like your ghost stories wrapped up nice and neat you will probably like it very much.

Overall, this is a solid collection, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more from these authors, like that young upstart Poe but also like Link and Onions. I wish my reading experience hadn’t been tainted by that note on diversity, but on the plus side it will make me seek out the collections that have it. There’s still time for more ghost stories this year, right?

Recommendation: For fans of ghosts and stories.

Rating: 7/10

The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and TechnoI read Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book club a few months back and it was such a surprisingly awesome novel that I absolutely had to snap up this follow-up. More of Marra’s Chechnya? Extra Russia? That cover? I was sold.

This novel is one of those fancy linked-short-stories books, where the stories could conceivably be read on their own and still make sense, but where the combination of the stories makes everything so much better.

The first story was, for me, the strongest in that stand-alone sense. In it, the main character is a Russian art censor whose job it is to “fix” paintings so that people who shouldn’t be there, people who are non-entities, are no longer in those paintings or that people who should totally obviously be in paintings can take their rightful place. His story opens with a trip to his sister-in-law’s house to get her to scratch her dead husband out of some photographs and to impart some wisdom to his nephew, and then later centers on his poorly thought-out half-censorship of a painting of a prima ballerina. You can’t censor by halves, it turns out, and the story shows us just what exactly happens to people accused, rightly or wrongly, of treason against Russia. It is a fascinating and moving story, and I could have read just that and been happy.

That’s not to say that the rest of the novel wasn’t excellent, but that the rest of the stories in the novel rely heavily on references to the other stories to get their heft and depth across. After the censor’s story, we move on to the story of the prima ballerina’s granddaughter, and to the stories of people in the village where the granddaughter grew up, moving forward and backward in time to pick up the history of that corner of Russia (near Scandinavia) and of Chechnya. It is an incredibly bleak history, but it has its delightful moments, most especially finding out that the Chechen president used to have an apparently amazing Instagram account, with photos of him and various adorable animals. Why did I not know this when I could have followed it??

On the whole I quite enjoyed this novel, if enjoyed is the right word for all that depressing awfulness. The characters are interesting, the story is intriguing, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous. But still the book lacked whatever qualities made me love Constellation so hard and so it suffered by comparison. It’s still definitely worth a read, but maybe lower your expectations first?

Recommendation: For fans of Marra, Russian history, and books that will give you feels, but not too many.

Rating: 8/10

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes LastI’ve been having a lot of fun with Margaret Atwood recently, so when I saw she had a new book coming out I snatched it up right quick. I’m not sure I even read the description, actually, but I figured it couldn’t possibly matter, I was going to enjoy it anyway.

And, of course, I did. I don’t think it was one of Atwood’s greater works, but it will definitely fill any Atwood-shaped holes in your heart.

In this iteration of our future, the world has gone into a serious recession, probably larger than our most recent one but not quite Great Recession. Our two main characters, Stan and Charmaine, are living out of their car and on Charmaine’s meager income, so when Charmaine sees a commercial for a community called Positron that promises stable jobs and housing and life in general, she convinces Stan to apply. They are quickly accepted and make a life in Positron, which turns out to be a community where the residents spend half their time as jailers and half as prisoners, ensuring those stable jobs and making life actually pretty nice for the prisoners. But as in all good dystopian communities things aren’t nearly as happy or well-oiled as they seem.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story at the start, as the main focus after Stan and Charmaine get accepted to Positron is their failing marriage. Stan is lusting after the woman who lives in his house while he’s off being a prisoner, a woman he’s never met, and Charmaine is lusting and more with that woman’s husband, whom she has totally met. Biblically.

That’s kind of strange, and I was like, um, okay, this is a weird marriage thing to be sure but, like, there’s gotta be something going on in that prison. What terrible things befall those prisoners?? What inhumanities are they subjected to? My priorities are clearly in order.

Luckily for me, this whole marriage thing is just one part of the super weird, and sometimes bad, but mostly weird stuff going on in the prison. There’s the matter of the prisoners who used to populate the prison but have gone more or less mysteriously missing, but also the matter of how Positron keeps its coffers full (spoiler: it’s sex robots). Certain people want to expose the worst parts of the project, but that won’t be easy, and in fact might require an Elvis suit.

Did I mention this book is weird? Good. It’s also weird in that I’m not sure that the central scheme of the novel really holds together, like, even considering this potential future world how exactly is this thing that is happening actually happening? Would these people really do this? Is there not a better way?

I think part of that is that for all I expect amazing world-building from Atwood, there is almost none of that in this book. The characters are quickly cut off from the outside world, sure, but even while in Positron the characters almost never talk about the place of it, just the things that are happening in it. It’s all very murky and strange and I never really found my bearings in the world enough to be able to dive in to the equally baffling plot.

But no matter my troubles, I would still read the phone book written by Atwood because the woman writes killer sentences and has fascinating ideas about the human condition. And she throws in little details, like the Blue Man Group getting knockoff groups in other colors and the genetically modified future of our chicken nuggets, that could so very possibly happen and that steady even this wobbly setting into something possible.

Recommendation: For Atwood lovers, but maybe not newbies. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other novels to start with!

Rating: 7/10

I Crawl Through It, by A.S. King

I Crawl Through ItTrue story: I am so on board the A.S. King train that when I saw a pile of advance copies of this book at the library conference I went to this summer, I snagged one immediately, even though I already had a digital advance copy and basically no plans to read it in print. It’s just so pretty! And it’s by A.S. King! I wants it!

When I finally did get around to reading it, entirely digitally, I was… confused. I haven’t read all of King’s books (a situation to be rectified indeed!), but all of the ones I have read have followed a similar pattern: normal teenager, normal but slightly heavy teenager problems, weird magical realism element that may or may not directly affect the plot or story.

But in this book, and King acknowledges as much in the, um, acknowledgements (haaa), it’s all the weird, all the time, and it’s more like magical surrealism.

The main character, Stanzi, is our more or less normal teenage girl with unspecified-at-the-outset normal teenage problems. Her friends, on the other hand, are super weird. Gustav is building an invisible helicopter that Stanzi can only see on Tuesdays. China walks around literally (figuratively? figuratively literally?) inside out hoping maybe someone will ask her why. Lansdale has hair that grows when she lies, and so has very very very long hair. Also, there is a dude who hangs out in the bushes giving away crafted letters (like, As and Js and Qs and the like) in exchange for kisses and possibly other things.

So, weird people. Also weird situations. These teens go to a school where someone is calling in bomb threats every day, so the kids are constantly doing bomb-threat drills, and when they’re not wandering in and out of the building due to potential bombs they are taking standardized tests because that’s how the high schools do. And that helicopter I mentioned? Gustav and Stanzi end up taking a ride in it to a land of geniuses from which there are no departures.

And, let me be clear, I have not named all the weird things in this book. It is weird. But it’s also, as is to be expected from King’s books, a smart look into the lives of teenagers. All of the characters have their issues, and with those issues a need both to hide them and to share them with everyone else. But everyone else is so busy with their own issues that there’s not time to play those games until it’s nearly too late. Oh, teenagerhood, how I do not miss you. Of course, the parents in this book are all at least as weird as their kids, so that’s something to look forward to, I guess?

This is definitely not the book I was expecting, and I spent much of it with a look on my face approximating “What even is going on here?” But still it was fun and fascinating and it’s A.S. King so it was wonderfully written and I would definitely not recommend this as your first King book but if you’ve liked her others you will like this one.

Now to go work on her backlist some more until her next book comes out!

Recommendation: For lovers of the superest of super weirdness.

Rating: 8/10