The Prisoner

By B. A. Paris

I’m not even sure how to review this book, quite frankly. I definitely enjoyed it, but it was listed sort of vaguely as psychological thriller, and while it is that, it also read as decidedly YA. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing!

Well, not all the way, at least. The characters are two-dimensional enough that I kept waiting for a reveal beneath the surface that never came. However, a plot switcheroo halfway through the book reminded me strongly of Gone Girl, only as it would be written for children. It’s not a sophisticated book, so the switch didn’t come as a total shock, but it was still very satisfying, which I think represents the book well.

This would be an amazing book for a young teen or precocious tween, who feels ready for adult books but should still be somewhat eased into them. There are a number of tricks and schemes that weren’t the most subtle, but I still really enjoyed them, just in a sort of bemused way. There is no sex (though some non-specific mention of sexual assault in the past), no drug use, or even much swearing. There is violence, as befits a mystery and psych thriller, but not gruesomely described. I would have loved it and felt so mature if I’d read it at 14 or 15! (I was not a precocious tween.)

Once I had a clearer realization of the proper audience for the book, I enjoyed it even more and stopped looking for hidden meanings or nuance that wasn’t there. That said, I was pleasantly surprised that the author gave serious attention to the protagonist’s trauma response, instead of brushing it aside or romanticizing it, which I’d half expected.

Lavender House

By Lev AC Rosen

This mystery novel had shown up on several recommendation lists over the last few months, and it is well justified! Rosen beautifully takes the noir sensibility, which imbues generalized disenfranchisement, and applies it very directly and acutely to the LGBT community in 1950s San Francisco. It becomes a somewhat pointed critique of noir in general, I think, by contrasting what has typically been a general mental oppressiveness in the great noir writers like Chandler and Hammett, with actual systemic and malicious oppression against specific people.

Traditional noir characters sense a true darkness in the world that the general populace ignores or is blind to. In Lavender House, the gay characters only wish they had the option to ignore the ugliness of the world, instead of having it thrust upon them if they drop their defenses for a second. While San Francisco was just starting to be a budding haven for gay people, so there were more underground clubs and the like, the whole of the United States remained very dangerous.

Our protagonist, Levander “Andy” Mills is as aware of this anyone else. As a (closely closeted) gay cop, he is both threatened and the threat, and straddling that line, can trust no one. Before the start of the novel, however, he was discovered in a club raid, kicked off the force, and all but run out of town. He is getting drunk in a bar before throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl comes to ask him to investigate the suspicious death of her wife. Pearl is the surviving matriarch of the Lavender House, where the now deceased scion of a wealthy soap family created a home where a handful of gay couples can live freely, while showing a much different face to the outside world.

Andy moves into the house in order to investigate, mostly with the idea that he has nothing left to lose at this point, but it opens his mind to a whole different world. And this is what I really loved about the book: it explores the seductive but false appeal of noir and cynicism. It’s a really interesting play on noir – the detective himself has bought into the ideological grimness, but the novel makes the effort to show that his cynicism, though not unfounded, is a blindness of sorts. He expects the worst from people, and while this protects him to a point, he closes himself off so no one can either hurt him or care for him. And then, worst of all, believes that is all there is to life.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book before that did such of a good job of criticizing its genre so validly, while also perfectly exemplifying it. A very minor spoiler: the end is both satisfying and a poignant summary of the overall themes, with a hopefulness that would feel jarring after a traditional noir but feels like the point of the whole book here.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters
by C. S. Lewis
1961

Having enjoyed The Great Divorce and found it extremely thought-provoking and had a casual book club with various members of my family, it was proposed that we read The Screwtape Letters next. It was just as thought provoking, if not more so, although somewhat less enjoyable. It consists of 31 chapters/letters plus one toast, and it’s all told from the perspective of a demon, the titular Screwtape, who is giving advice on how to lure humans into sin.

Despite having been written 80 years ago, it is decidedly timely today, as it addresses the devil’s goal of keeping humans constantly focused on doom scrolling and headlines and thoughtless denigration of anyone who disagrees with you, while avoiding humility, charity, respect, or thoughtful consideration. I felt decidedly called out at various points. I should be better! I will try to be more thoughtful and focused and enjoy the pleasures that are available to me in the present and worry less.

At other points, however, it feels dated in the way that it appears to be arguing about social trends that I’m not even aware of. At one point the devil is recommending that people should stay focused on government policies rather than prayers since those are so much less important and I really hope that Lewis had no expectation of “thoughts and prayers” becoming such a catch phrase for politicians refusing to update policies. As Screwtape presents himself as the arbiter of what is evil, Lewis comes across as an arbiter of what is good, and that is, occasionally, rough. Historians, modern artists, and unions are all mentioned as being misleading to Good Christians.

Lewis definitely takes the opportunity to call out some of his personal most and least favored theologians, placing them either as godly agents or thoroughly controlled by the devils’ temptations to sin. This book also has a nearly Ayn Randian Objectivist perspective on the world: what is Good is very clear and natural and unaffected by different lives, perspectives or understandings. Devils provide temptation and people provide false information but a Good Christian will just know what is right due to God, much the same way that Ayn Rand’s protagonists will know what is right due to Logic, despite any lack of education or resources for either. Peak individualism, despite the differences in both methods and goals.  

I found that I needed to read this book one chapter at a time and take at least a little break between. They were thought provoking and inspiring and occasionally quite funny, but they were also quite dense and more than occasionally rather florid.

This book also made me think that I should get around to reading Lolita, at some point, as the only other book I can think of that has the protagonist/narrator also be the unrepentant villain of the story. I did wonder how many people read this book and think Screwtape is an anti-hero instead. Some of his advice came across as fitting right in with big business and some of my least favorite managers at my job, so it’s not out of the question.

I got a lot out of this book and enjoyed talking about it with Anna as we progressed through, but the book started out strong and then got progressively more wearying as it continued. It’s worth reading, but be prepared to decide what you take seriously. (Note: Cherry-picking what to take seriously is also advice that Screwtape would offer a human and C.S. Lewis specifically rejects when it comes to religious contemplation. So, you know: Enjoy!)

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis

Rebecca and I both enjoyed The Great Divorce so much that we decided to read The Screwtape Letters, another Christian fantasy by C.S. Lewis (her review to follow). This novel is a collection of letters from Screwtape, a demon, giving guidance to his nephew on how to corrupt people’s souls. And it comes out of the gate swinging!

“Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.” (p. 2!)

C.S. Lewis is scolding me for wasting time on social media from beyond the grave!

“But the best of all is to let him read not science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. (p. 3)

80 years ago, C.S. Lewis was dunking on do-your-own-research guys!

So, it’s been a real eye-opening seeing the ever-green traits of humanity that I used to ascribe to the digital age. I initially enjoyed the novelty of it, but the narrative structure of letters leads to far more proselytizing than The Great Divorce, which took a more show-don’t-tell approach. As Screwtape enumerates all things that can lead a person to hell, the path to heaven becomes narrower and harder to define. The reader gets all sorts of negatives (just going through the religious motions will surely lead you to hell, but so too will interrogating your faith too thoroughly), and no positive directions, as far as I can tell.

Of course, this falls in well with the conceit of letters from a demon. Lewis even gives himself a clever and all-encompassing disclaimer in his preface by saying that all demons lie and even have their own bias, so any issues with the letter lie solely with the fictional demonic letter-writer. So, while it’s hard to argue with this, Lewis clearly intends the book for Christian instruction, and for me, at least, this type of negative direction is not so helpful.

After a while, as the ways humans stray kept piling up, I started bracing myself for some ugly prejudice or another to rear its head. However, nothing overt emerged, though Lewis is pretty dismissive of women, when he gives them any thought at all, and it’s probably all for the best that he doesn’t give any thought to anyone non-white, non-Christian, or even non-English. It was hard to escape the feeling of just being constantly scolded, though.

The book contains 31 letters in all, each only being 3-5 pages, and it made me wonder if it was intended to read one letter a day, to allow the reader some time to really think through each one. But Rebecca read that they were originally released in serial on a weekly basis, which is an even better, longer break between each one! It ends with a longer essay, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which Lewis wrote years later, and in which Screwtape is addresses a new graduating class of demonic tempters. In it, Lewis once again expresses a surprisingly current sentiment, though more retrograde with a “kids these days, with their participation trophies” hack.

The Half Life of Valery K

By Natasha Pulley

I really like Natasha Pulley, but man, it feels like she is in a challenge to make her readers root for the most problematic character possible. I had some serious issues with her previous book The Kingdoms, but I think she might have outdone herself this time. (Unlike her other books, The Half Life of Valery K doesn’t include any magical realism and is even based on real events, which makes it worse, quite frankly.)

The protagonist, the titular Valery K, is a radiation scientist in Russia in the 1960s, which simply can’t be anything but problematic given the field of study and time period. When the novel starts, Valery has been in a Siberian work camp for 6 years, and has only survived that long due to some lucky circumstances. The description of the work camp is devastating, especially given how well researched it seems to be. Valery has every expectation of starving to death in the following year when he is released and brought to ‘City 40’ to help study the effects of radiation on the general ecosystem. City 40 is kept in deep secrecy to hide it from the western countries (the US in particular), and once in the city, no one leaves.

Valery quickly befriends the head KGB officer that holds them all there, another strangely sympathetic but deeply problematic character. It is a much more comfortable imprisonment than the work camps, so Valery is content until he discovers deeper secrets that even his very compromised morals cannot accept.

And that gets to the crux of the book – it is all about the evils that people have to accept to survive in impossible situations. And also when people reach a breaking point where they can’t accept any more, and fight back, often becoming evil in their own opposing way. This obviously makes for a very difficult read, and I think I’ll be wrestling with the questions this book raises for a while.

I haven’t read much about the Soviet Union, so this book more than any other I’ve read gave me insight into what the Soviet communist government was trying to achieve as an ideal and some of the ways it failed so badly in practice. Anti-west Soviet propaganda is a pervasive background throughout the novel, with most characters living in constant fear of US bombing, especially after Hiroshima. Soviet citizens would ascribe most unexplained explosions to US bombing, and I realized that I had no idea if the United States had bombed the USSR in the 50s and 60s, and that I likely wouldn’t know.

Though the US is somewhat more sophisticated in how it influences its citizens,* it made me really interrogate the degree to which I’ve bought into western propaganda (the Soviet characters are shocked by the strict gender roles imposed in western cultures, for instance). Awareness is all well and good, but there’s no clear answer for how individual citizens can combat this ideological warfare, which left me feeling a little hopeless about the state of humanity in general.

*I was reminded of a joke I’d heard a while ago: A Russian and an American get on a plane in Moscow and get to talking. The Russian says he works for the Kremlin and he’s on his way to go learn American propaganda techniques.

“What American propaganda techniques?” asks the American. “Exactly,” the Russian replies.

At the Feet of the Sun by Victoria Goddard

At the Feet of the Sun
Lays of the Hearth-Fire, Book Two
by Victoria Goddard
2022

If I had any sort of self-control, I would not have finished this book quite so quickly, because it’s essentially five books all presented together in one omnibus. Which I’m glad of! Because otherwise there would have been some real cliff-hangers. But, it’s really long with multiple interlinked plot arcs and side quests that are massive enough to be regular quests all on their own. And, also, the book (that’s really five books) does come to a satisfying emotional conclusion at the end, but it doesn’t actually conclude the original plot that was set up at the end of the first book. So I’m already looking forward to Book 3, but am glad enough to have a breather before presumably reading another 1000+ pages.

This book starts up soon after the end of Book 1: The Hands of the Emperor, and the first part runs parallel to The Return of Fiztroy Angursell, and then just keeps going with the adventures and development of Cliopher “Kip” Mdang. Kip is a wildly successful bureaucrat who has spent his life successfully dismantling an empire and replacing it with a more egalitarian system of government. And now he’s retiring. He’s not yet officially done, but he’s transferred the majority of his work and responsibilities to others and has the space to figure out who he is now that he’s not so driven anymore, and that’s not an easy path. And also, this whole universe is an amazing creation where there are nine interconnected worlds, magic and gods are real, religion is complicated and diverse, and time fluctuates wildly. Kip’s career is somewhere between 45 and 1100 years long, depending exactly where you stand, and his own personal experience varied as well as he experiences long periods of timeless effort. The story moves seamlessly between practical struggles and legendary adventures; travels on the sea around Kip’s home archipelago and travels on the Sky Ocean between the stars; searching for Kip’s lost cousin Basil and going to get a new fire from the Palace of the Sun.

Kip is amazingly and wonderfully competent in achieving his goals for the greater good of the world, but still struggles to find his place and self-promote when it’s about him and not some greater achievement. And figuring out how to communicate with his emperor as a person whom he loves after spending decades/centuries working with him as an untouchable god is an ongoing struggle, even as they both want equality between them. Through all the struggles, there’s a sense of certainty that it will all work out, or if it doesn’t, then it will be a loss of what could have been but what already is, is still sufficient.

It’s a beautiful and optimistic book, and I really enjoy it immensely.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

By Marina Lewycka

“Extremely funny” says The Times.
“Mad and Hilarious,” Daily Telegraph.
“Uproariously funny” from The Economist

Guys, this was one of the most mean-spirited books I’ve read in a long time. Sisters Vera and Nadia hate each other and seem contemptuous of their elderly widowed father. When he becomes attached to a much younger woman, they try to intervene, seemingly more out of immediate hatred for this new woman than any concern for their father. Their father, in turn, disdains his daughters for a variety of reasons, and fights their intervention, even as the new woman turns out to be despicable and abusive.

The back blurb teased that this struggle uncovers long buried family secrets, which is what hooked me (as well as the unusual title). And the central story is interspersed with background vignettes on the parents’ and grandparents’ lives in Ukraine, though there is no big reveal or epiphany. Instead, by spending just a little more time talking about their different experiences growing up, the two sisters reach a basic level of empathy for each other that they probably should have managed a long time ago. Oh, and there are also passages from a short book the father is writing about tractors. The history of mechanical invention is not really my thing, but I actually welcomed the breaks from the central characters.

I wanted to quit a couple of times, but was too embarrassed after the librarian had looked so intrigued by the title when I was checking it out and made a note to check it out herself. Plus, I feel like I’ve been losing interest in books halfway through lately, and that I should really see one through to the end. That said, the ending was surprisingly satisfactory and even a little touching after all the meanness, so that was kind of nice.

The Woman in the Library

By Sulari Gentill

Whew, this book is a trip! It starts off with a scream of terror in the Boston Public Library. In the fuss and speculation that follows, our narrator, a young woman named Freddie working on a novel, becomes friendly with the three other people at her table, one of whom, the book tells us, is a murderer! I was just settling in for a good locked-room mystery when it unfolds that the scream-in-the-library is the first chapter of a book being written by a successful novelist named Hannah, who is sending her chapters individually to a fellow author Leo for feedback.

So, we get the chapters of the library mystery, interspersed with letters of commentary from the other author (interestingly, we don’t get any personal description or insight into Hannah). I was initially a little disappointed because the meta-framework prevented me from getting as fully invested in the library mystery, but I was eventually pulled in despite myself. And then even more thrilled when Leo’s letters started to hint at its own mystery!

Luckily for my comprehension, we don’t read any of Freddie’s book, though she takes notes of people and events she encounters that will influence her novel, so there’s some blurring of lines there as well. I had to periodically pause to remind myself where any given character existed in the layers of fiction stacked in this novel. Gentill (the real author) does a very good job of creating these overlapping worlds that seem to influence each other across boundaries more permeable than one would expect.

Gentill herself is an acclaimed Australian author of novels across multiple genres; Hannah, the mostly invisible fictional first-level author behind the chapters, is also an acclaimed Australian novelist, writing from Australia about winter in Boston (Leo is her contact in Boston, giving her local flavor in addition to general feedback); and Freddie (protagonist of Hannah’s novel) is an Australian novelist on a writing fellowship in Boston, where she gets tangled in a series of suspicious circumstances stemming from the initial titular scream.

I got a little miffed midway through when Freddie started making some dumb decisions (something I’m getting much less tolerant of in books) when I realized that I might be entering a further level of unreliable narrator, which was very exciting!

In the end, I really enjoyed the layers, and how in addition to double suspense, it allowed the author to write about the process of writing in several different ways without being too heavy handed.

Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman

I thought this was a murder mystery with an atypical narrating protagonist, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which I loved) and The Maid (which I liked well enough), so I wasn’t really prepared to for this very literary novel about poverty in the UK. It was very good for what it was, but in this third year of the pandemic, I really need to stick to my low-stress cozies. That said, as much as I felt that I really didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for this, I also couldn’t put it down.

12-year-old Harri lives with his family in one of London’s housing projects, and when an older boy he recognizes from school is found dead, he and his friends decide to investigate.  Harri himself is cheerful, enthusiastic, and generally optimistic in a quite grim world, that his narration kept me pulled in, even when his young London slang was almost entirely incomprehensible to me. As a warning,  there are also a number of slurs, insults, and general ignorance, which seems entirely accurate to the protagonists but also got occasionally tiresome.

However, the hardest part of reading this was seeing how poverty grinds up everyone in it, regardless of how they try to escape or even claw out some bits of joy. It is beautifully written, with some surprisingly poetic narration woven in, but very much a gritty study of often-overlooked communities, framed around this one murder, rather than a mystery novel.