The Power and Exit West

The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been rough, y’all. Not good at all. And since comfort reading is one of my big coping strategies, I have spent the past few months reading mostly romance novels, Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (still working my way through all those, Murder Must Advertise was loads of fun), and the occasional true crime story. But recently two well-reviewed literary books snuck in that both tell stories about a world much like our with just the slightest fantastical shift. They were also both beautifully written and slightly terrifying, which might be a good fit for all our feelings in this deepest, darkest winter?

The Power is also a good fit for our current #MeToo culture, since it is based on the idea that one day, women all over the world suddenly begin to manifest the ability to shock/attack people with electricity. If women have no reason to fear men physically, what could happen? In this story, piece by piece, place by place, this shift begins to upend society. The narration moves between characters, including women who are able to exercise this power in their lives, and men who begin to understand what it is like to live in fear. The premise is excellent, but what makes this book so genius is the subtlety with which the author approaches all the possible different ways that this change in the power balance affects politics, sex, school kids, the workplace, and every other bit of society.  The Power has gotten all sorts of accolades in the U.K., where it originally came out, which was honestly surprising to me because it feels so subversive I can’t believe it’s had such mainstream popularity. Also, the framing conceit of the book–letters between scholars talking about a draft manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book–is just absolutely genius and may raise some painful memories for any women who have spent much time with men in the workplace.

Exit West has also received rapturous press and was on a number of Best of 2017 lists, and it was all deserved. This story revolves around a couple in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who are falling in love and starting a tentative relationship right as their country is beginning to destabilize and eventually descend into war. (The parallels with Syria feel unavoidable.) At the same time, all around the world, an unexplained phenomenon is occurring where suddenly a normal door can begin to open to some random location in another part of the world. Now that people can move around the world without crossing borders, countries have lost control over immigration and the world is in upheaval. The book is clearly making statements about refugees and political states in the modern world, but for me the more haunting part of the story was the descriptions of the small, incremental changes in a society that can lead to one day waking up in a war zone. While the plot is heavy, the writing here is very light and poetic and the book is not overly long, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read.

Neither of these is what I would call a comfort book, and neither of them made me feel particularly more hopeful about the future. But if you’re looking to be captivated by a story and slightly horrified about what the world could come to, one of these might be for you.

As I Descended

517Jbn75RULThis isn’t a full review, but I wanted to pop in and say that readers who enjoyed Anna’s post in the spring about seeing Sleep No More, the immersive theater take on Macbeth, might like As I Descended by Robin Talley. It’s a YA version of the story, set in a Virginia boarding school, with two teenage girls positioned as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. I really enjoyed seeing how the grand story of kings and battles scaled down to the stakes of high school–theoretically smaller, but still life and death to the characters. And if every version of this story has to decide which of the more fantastical elements are happening in the characters’ heads versus which are real, this one leans heavily towards the spirits and ghosts side of things. Which makes it a great, creepy read for this time of year, as we edge into the dark of fall and winter.

Strange Practice

61KZB80mVgLAnyone who spends ten minutes reading this blog would be able to tell pretty quickly that Strange Practice was going to be right up my alley. This initial entry in a series of magical mystery stories by Vivian Shaw follows Greta Helsing (yes, yes, her family dropped the van some time ago), a London physician dedicated to treating the city’s magical inhabitants. Mummies with feet problems? Vampire anemia? Ghouls who need psychiatric assistance? She herself may be human, but she has a calling to provide health care for mystical creatures likely to have issues accessing the NHS. There is an actual mystery here (crazy monks are murdering people, there’s a sort of nameless power from the dawn of time, etc.) but the real draw of this book is the assortment of characters that end up surrounding Greta. Some of the magical creatures she knows fit better into the modern world than others, but they all have to work together to save London and protect the secrets of its less-well known inhabitants.

This is Shaw’s first novel and the writing isn’t always effortless–there were definitely times when it felt like she was trying too hard to be clever and was getting in her own way. And I found that the point of view switched around too much for me to ever really feel settled into the story. Greta is nominally the main character and she is definitely the reader’s entry point into this world, but other characters (vampires, humans, demons, the villains of the story) also get so many chapters told from their perspectives that the ratio felt off to me. I’m hopeful that Shaw was trying to cram as many cool ideas and cool characters as she could into this first book, but that as she goes along she’ll start letting things breathe a little more.

But despite those quibbles about some elements of execution, I really enjoyed the book. The overall world created here was fascinating and very specific. I was left with the impression that this version of London has many more creatures with complex lives ad backstories that need Greta’s help, and that the group of vampires, demons, and humans that circles around her is well on the way to be becoming an odd little family. My Kindle version of this book included a teaser for the next one in the series, so it looks like I’ll have the chance to see what Greta and her team are up to next.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Entertaining urban fantasy

You might also like: Anything by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews–I think the official Biblio-therapy position is that we are strongly in favor of those series. But Ben Aaronovitch’s supernatural mysteries, also set in London, would be good companions to this.

The Essex Serpent

61U76uN5PHLI was in London earlier this summer and the book of the moment, the book piled up in store displays and advertised in posters around town, was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I was worried that this would be another of those Kinsey Tells You About an Already Wildly Popular thing entries, but I haven’t heard much about The Essex Serpent here in the U.S., which is a shame, because it’s really quite a good book.

I suppose you could call this a neo-Victorian novel–it’s set in England in late 1800s, and focuses on a woman named Cora. Her husband has just died–not a terribly sad occasion for her–and being a widow has allowed her the freedom to start walking the marshes and looking fossils and getting muddy and generally ignoring nice society. In the course of all this she meets the vicar of a small town on the English coast and they strike up a friendship, which is at least partly based on Cora’s interest in rumors of a sea monster (the Essex Serpent) that has been plaguing the town. What will this relationship bring? Will they ever find the serpent?

This description makes it sound like plot-driven, exciting tale! But it’s not, really–it’s not a romance, and it’s not a supernatural mystery/adventure. The basic plot description doesn’t account for how the story’s point of view moves from character to character, not only Cora and the vicar, but also their children, the vicar’s wife, and a doctor friend of Cora’s, among others. The book is really a character study, illuminating the inner lives of a variety of people that, for various reasons (gender, class, intelligence), are marginalized or limited within society.  Plus, the tiny villages and marshes of English seaside basically serve as one of the characters, giving the whole book a sort of damp, salty feeling to it. All this makes it seem odd, honestly that this is such a book of the moment in England–it’s about as far from The Girl on the Train as you could get, but it’s a lovely book and I’m glad it’s gotten so much attention. The cover is also just gorgeous.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Atmospheric Victorian tale

You might also like: The Historian or The Thirteenth Tale; or Kate Morton’s books, including The House at Riverton; or Sarah Waters’s books, especially Fingersmith.

Six of Crows

Six of crowsIf I told you that a book was like a YA Game of Thrones crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, would I even need to say anything else?

I haven’t been reading a lot lately–due to a combination of work and personal events, I’ve been so busy and distracted and stressed that I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to read much beyond Twitter. Which is unusual for me, but it does mean than when a book manages to break through the fog, it’s something to note. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is actually the first in a set of two books (and it’s basically just one big story, so you might as well go ahead and get Crooked Kingdom at the same time, because you’re going to need to start it right away) that I just thought were terrific. Tense and dark and sweet and magical and twisty–the kind of story that drags you completely out of your world and into a new one.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, this story has an ensemble cast with a crafty leader who is always one step ahead of everyone else. In this case, the ringleader of the group is Kaz Brekker, an up-and-coming gang boss in a city that reads like an alternate universe Amsterdam where magic is real. When he gets offered a can’t-say-no job breaking into an impenetrable ice palace, he has to assemble a group of other disreputable underworld teenagers with the skills–including sharpshooting, demolitions, and magic–needed to pull off the heist. But this is not a simple theft, and the gang gets swept into disputes both international and interpersonal. Reading Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom was like a roller coaster–I would get more and more tense as things went wrong and situations got dire, and then there would be this rush of glee as all the double-crosses and plans were revealed.

Now, this isn’t a comedy. As appears to be the thing in YA books now, there is violence and death and things do get very dark. I should also note that this story is set in the same universe as another trilogy of books, starting with Shadow and Bone. I haven’t read those yet (they’re all waiting on my Kindle) but they happen some time before Six of Crows. So if you’re very intent on reading things chronologically and not getting any hint of other story lines, you might want to start there.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Gritty, magical caper

You might also like: We’ve already raved here about Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, but I really think that if you liked one of these, you’d like the other. Kaz and Gen have an awful lot in common. And this is great opportunity to tell you that Turner just came out with a new book in her series (technically, a stand-alone story in the same universe) called Thick as Thieves. Quick like a fox, go check it out!

The Tearling Trilogy

I read the first book in this trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling, almost a year ago, but I was too scared to recommend it until the final book was released because I’ve been burned before. I wrote a blog entry about The Fifth Wave before I had finished the series and you guys–that one was not good. It got so convoluted and nonsensical at the end that I read all three books but am still not 100% sure if the aliens or humans won. But this trilogy did not descend into madness!  It really held up and kept me hooked the whole time.

Trying to describe the plot of these books makes it sound like every other YA/fantasy-ish series out there. In a land that sounds a lot like medieval Europe, a teenage girl is about to become queen of a country under attack, and will have to learn confidence in herself and how to wield her power in order to protect her people. I know, I know, this could describe half the things I read. But there are a few things about this story that I think make it different than some other versions:

  • It’s dark. I know that YA these days leans dark, but this is pretty darn dark. Kelsea, the main character, doesn’t just have to save her people from looming threat, but from some truly terrible things happening in her kingdom.
  • This is not a romance. Some people like each other, and some people have sex, but this is not a story where you spend the whole time waiting for two key characters to realize how much they love each other. These characters have so much to deal with that love is pretty secondary to them, and the books treat it that way.
  • There is an interesting treatment of time. I don’t want to give too much away, but especially when you get to the second and third books, the concept of time becomes somewhat malleable in a way that I was not expecting.
  • This may connect to the first bullet (the darkness), but there is not a lot of redemption in this story. Bad things happen to people–tough. People do some bad things–they don’t always get to make up for it. Even people who do great things don’t necessarily get rewarded for their efforts.
  • There are a few subtle magical elements in this world that are pretty much never explained. I am still torn on whether I am annoyed about a few things that we all apparently just have to accept as a given, or pleased that the author didn’t try to make up “reasons” for magical occurrences.
This all made these books sound horribly depressing, doesn’t it? Well, they’re not light and fun. But I was completely hooked on them and I was surprised with where the story ended up–the author took what could have been a familiar, maybe even overdone YA trope, and took it in a newer, darker, more subtle and complex direction.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dark, moral coming-of-age

You might also like: A number of adult sci-fi fantasy books, such as Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, The City and the City by China Mieville, or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. In the YA area, this was similar in a lot of ways to The Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.

A Monster Calls

Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books.  But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:

The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.

In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.

The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.

A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.