The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyI saved this book to read with my book club because it seemed like the sort of book that would have a lot of thinky bits to talk about, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to said book club meeting due to unexpected depressing vacation, so I didn’t really get a chance to refine all the thinky thoughts I wanted to about this book before committing them to the internet. Oh, well, it’s the internet, no one will notice!

But really, this is just the sort of book you need to unpack with a friend or two. It’s a fairly quiet book and for most of the book it doesn’t really seem like anything is happening, but by the time you get to the end you’ve learned a lot of things about the characters and about life in general and you’re like, huh.

A lot of details are parceled out piecemeal over the course of the book, so there are probably unintended spoilers ahead as I forget what we know at the beginning of the book and what we learn later. Fair warning!

Okay, so, this girl who fell from the sky is our protagonist, Rachel, who literally survived a fall off the top of an apartment building — a fall that killed the rest of her family and left her to be shipped off to Portland to live with her grandmother. After a childhood in Germany and an all-too-quick stint in Chicago, Rachel, daughter of a black American father and a white Danish mother and now living with her father’s mother, finds it difficult to navigate the racial complexities of middle and then high school. She also finds it difficult to properly remember her parents, who left her under very different circumstances, neither of which Rachel can understand.

Rachel’s story in the present is told in a pretty linear fashion, following her as she grows from a child to a teenager. Her story in the past, on the other hand, is largely told through other people’s eyes, specifically her mother’s, in the form of her mother’s diary of their life in Chicago, and those of a young boy who saw “the girl who fell from the sky” as a child and who becomes kind of obsessed with her in the mostly non-creepy way of a child. All of these points of view weave together a story that is incredibly sad and makes me want to hug all the people and pets and inanimate objects that I like a lot.

I’ll admit that that’s not quite what I was expecting when I picked the book — with a title like that I was ready for more action and intrigue than quiet reflection, but I quickly got over that and enjoyed the book quite a bit. I would still love to talk thinky thoughts with other people about some of the specifics, though, so if you read this book, share yours with me!

Recommendation: For thinky thought thinkers and those who enjoy a multiple-point-of-view story.

Armada, by Ernest Cline

ArmadaNote: If you are super excited about reading this book, go read it and then come back here. It’s a very spoilable book and I don’t want to ruin your adventure!

So. A couple years back the husband and I listened to Ready Player One on a road trip and liked it quite a bit, and then earlier this year my book club read it and the discussion got me excited about it all over again. So when I had a chance to read Armada, I jumped right on it, and it became my featured reading for a recent plane journey. Tellingly, although I didn’t finish the book on the trip out, I was perfectly content to wait until the return flight to crack it open and finish it.

Armada opens with our main character, Zack Lightman, seeing something that he couldn’t be seeing: a giant warship from his favorite video game zooming around outside his school. Zack thinks he might be going crazy like his father was before he died, his father being convinced that the government was using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion. But of course, just as Zack convinces himself that everything will be fine if he just lays off the video games for a while, it turns out that, well, the government has been using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion, and that Zack’s prowess at those games is getting him recruited into the military to fight an invasion starting in, oh, hours.

And that’s a peachy keen plot, as plots go, and I certainly found myself eager to get to the next page and find out what would happen next. But the style and characters? Oof, I just could not even.

The biggest problem that I had with the book is that it knows that it’s ripping off The Last Starfighter and every other movie or book with the same plot, and it tells you that it knows that it’s ripping them off, and so you think it’s going to neatly subvert the tropes and failings of those stories but it just… doesn’t. Everything that you think is going to happen in this book happens, and any time a character is like, “This thing that is happening is very predictable” you can rest assured that it will remain so. Which, okay, that’s unpredictable in and of itself, so points to you, Ernie Cline, but goodness it is boring.

Also boring are the characters, pulled directly from stock and dropped in this novel. Nerdy video gamer protagonist? Check. Nerdy video gamer best friends? Check. Nerdy video-game-store owner who hates his customers? Check. Loving single mother? Check. Uber-nerd computer hacker? Check. Mission-focused general? Check. The one unpredictable thing in the whole book is that the author actually respects his female characters, all two of them, giving them the same agency he gives the dudes (admittedly, not much) and leaving out any potential damsel-in-distress scenes.

So, I mean, I liked it. I enjoyed the reading experience and I liked the suspense of wondering how things would play out. But I hated the way it actually did play out, and if throwing my Kindle across an airplane wasn’t such a terrible idea in so many ways, it might have actually happened. Part of me wants to go back and try it again (it’s not a terribly long book) and see how I so badly managed to miss whatever the point of the book was, but the rest of me is like, no, life is too short, so I’m going to need those of you who have read and loved and/or gotten this book to tell me where I went wrong!

Recommendation: For fans of video games, Ernie Cline, and books that are only plot.

Rating: 6/10

The Never List, by Koethi Zan

The Never ListI first heard about this book on the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast, when they had Zan on as a guest to talk about the novel and the writing of it. It was a bit of nepotism, as Zan’s husband is one of the Gabfest… panelists? contributors? talking people?… but I was really interested by what she had to say and so I’ll allow it! I made a mental note to check out that book at some point, but then I started hearing about it in other places from people probably not married to Zan, and everyone was excited enough that I made sure my library ordered it so I could read it.

The premise was interesting, and incredibly marketable in light of recent events — three girls who were kidnapped and tortured for years escape their captivity and more or less readjust to life, until their captor is up for parole. Our narrator, Sarah, who has become a work-from-home shut-in, is concerned that with just the kidnapping charges proved, the guy who killed her also-kidnapped BFF will make parole and come terrorize the surviving girls again. She breaks her stay-inside-all-the-time rule to fly across the country and see if she can do some amateur sleuthing and find Jennifer’s body, or at least enough evidence to keep a horrible person in jail.

I wanted to like this book a lot, and I certainly kept flipping pages to find out what was going to happen next, but even though I found the book readable and sometimes intriguing I just didn’t like it overall. Zan does a good job setting up the plot, and I quite like her writing and the voice that she gives to Sarah, but a lot of the big reveals that happen depend on having concern for or just opinions about the characters, and I really didn’t care about them at all. I found Sarah weird and off-putting with the whole Never List thing, designed by her and Jennifer to protect themselves from bad things and clearly imperfect, and while her overly analytical personality lent an interesting style to the narration, her convenient abandonment of it for the sake of the plot left me indifferent to her. And since it’s a first-person, mostly present-tense narration, it was hard to know anything about the other characters except what Sarah was willing to share, which was not much.

The plot definitely kept me going; it had its painfully predictable “twists” but also had some unexpectedly realistic moments that kept the book from going too far off the rails. With a past-tense narration or maybe some third-person omniscient, anything to give me more details about the people involved, I could see this being a book I would like a lot. But sadly, that is a different book for another time.

Recommendation: For those who love crime procedurals and want a view from a victim’s mind, and those who don’t mind some boring characters.

Rating: 5/10

an RIP read

The Weatherman’s Daughters, by Richard Hoyt (5 May — 11 May)

Um. Well. Maybe I should learn to read the flap more closely. I picked this one up at the library because of its interesting title and the image on its cover — fish raining down. I looked at the flap. “Two daughters of a Portland weatherman have been killed for no apparent reason and John Denson and his Native American partner, Willie Sees the Night, are called from their remote cabins on Whorehouse Meadow in the Cascade Mountains to help. But for once Denson is stumped—this is a trail he can’t seem to follow.”

Okay, cool, right? Murder, interesting-sounding detective, let’s go! And the first part of the book is cool like that. Denson is out driving when a waterspout causes a rain of salmon; when he pulls off to take some photos and video, he finds a dying body whose last words are “Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle ther. Gurgle, gurgle, ister. Gurgle, gurgle ill gurgle.” Yeah.

So then, there’s some stuff about the ethics of releasing the salmon storm video, and then eventually we get back to the mystery at hand, and then someone else is dead, oh no!, and then Denson goes on some acid-tripping spirit walk and meets his creator (no really, he meets Richard Hoyt at his house in the Phillipines) and something about owls, and then there’s an exotic dancer and a militia and then more killing. I kept going because I really did want to know who killed the weatherman’s daughters, but then the mystery got “solved” and I still don’t really understand what happened. Blast.

And if I had just read the rest of the flap, wherein the out-of-body flying and exotic dancers, and bear gall bladders are mentioned, I might not have picked it up and wasted that week of reading. Oh well.

Rating: 4/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2003, Support Your Local Library Challenge)