The Truth According to Us

By Annie Burrows

Truth_According_to_UsI loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so much! It is the sweetest, funniest story you will ever read about an isolated community trying to recover from Nazi occupation in WWII.

When I saw that one of the authors had written a second book, also set in a small community and character-focused, I was immediately engaged. And it is super engaging! It just isn’t quite so sweet and funny. (I may have cried multiple times when reading it late at night.)

It is significantly longer, with a much larger cast of characters, just about all of whom I grew to care about, even as they got tangled into conflicts that cannot end satisfactorily for them all. Ostensibly it is about a small town trying to recover from World War I, the Great Depression, the downfall of the factory that employed most of the citizens, and the anti-union movement.

The novel cycles around the family that used to own the factory, but is now falling to ruin along with the rest of the town. Much of the story is told through one of the very young daughters in the family, trying to make sense of it, and in that narrative, it is a bit of a coming-of-age story. From the older generation, it is more of a story of laying ghosts to rest and moving on. A significant chunk, though, is also told from the outside perspective of a wealthy young woman sent to write a pamphlet about the town, as part of the Federal Writers Project, who almost immediately blunders through the various small-town quarrels due to ignorance, and it is a coming-of-age story for her, too, though a more serious one.

It is just a huge mess of family loyalty and betrayal and forgiveness, and the different types of relationships we have with the different people in our lives, and I’m just in awe that the author was able to fit it all into one (long) book!

The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick deWitt

Sisters_BrothersI really like Western movies, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book in the genre, actually. I love to see the long shots of empty vistas and close-ups of horses, but am not quite so keen to read about them. I have a suspicion that The Sisters Brothers is not your normal Western, but I absolutely loved it!

It was the title that caught my attention, of course, and I checked it out, just to figure out how to parse it (it is two brothers with the last name Sisters). The Sisters Brothers are infamous gunslingers hired by a mob boss to track down someone who ran with his money. Along the way, they run into various misadventures, and discover that things are not exactly as they’ve been told.

It’s not for everyone, I’d say; the writing was similar to Faulkner’s, I thought, with a plainness that highlights the sort of general absurdity of life, but more plot-driven than Faulkner usually is, which is probably why it is a genre novel, not capital-L Literature. It reminded me a lot of the Fargo television show, actually: a fair amount of extreme violence, but balanced with a quirky humor and some unexpected heart.

Speaking of television shows…

Pocketful of Bones

By Julie Frayn

Pocketful_of_BonesPocketful of Bones is straight-up Bates Motel! Within the first chapter or two, a young prostitute accidentally gets pregnant from a john; when he discovers the baby and threatens to take the child from her, she kills him and buries him the backyard She continues to support herself and her son through sex work, which complicates the son’s adolescent sexual awakening (to put it nicely).

Per the description on the back of the book, eventually things come to a head, when the mom has to rebuff the son’s advances, and he leaves, only returning to the house (and yard) much later. The first half constantly increases the sense anxiety, as the bodies pile up, but tempers it with moments of humor and pathos. As it neared the middle, though, I was sort of gritting my teeth, trying to get past the impending incest-adjacent scene, hoping for a respite from the claustrophobia of the house and yard.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and the second half just doubles-down, with two different narratives of disturbed people with the potential to wreck havoc on everyone around them. The anxiety became unsustainable, and I found it increasingly difficult to finish. As an aside: this book is not kind to men in general; almost all victims are men, and while it is debatable whether they deserve to be killed and buried in someone’s backyard, I certainly understood why someone might be tempted to do just that.

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.

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.

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

61ku6qro0cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2016

Bujold is one of the few authors who I absolutely trust. I enjoy every single thing she has ever written. Some more than others, of course, but everything is good. One of the amazing things about her is that she clearly refuses to let herself or her writing stagnate. She’s constantly exploring new styles and genres.

This is particularly obvious in her Vorkosigan series, which is currently at sixteen books (of which this is the most recent) plus a number of short stories and novellas. They’re all in the same science fiction universe and to a large extent about the same characters and yet they are often written as wildly different genres: light science fiction, hard core science fiction, murder mystery, psychological exploration, comedy of manners…. Bujold has tried it all and succeeded at it all.

Most of the books follow Miles Naismith Vorkosigan in his various adventures around the universe, getting himself into and then out of a variety of troubles. The first two books that I read, however, are about his mother, Cordelia Naismith, before and immediately after having Miles. This book returns to Cordelia, giving an interesting perspective on what has gone on before that Miles just never noticed, but focusing on where she is going now.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Memory, the eleventh book in the series, in which Miles, age 30, must confront a drastic change in his life and decide how to deal with it (while investigating shenanigans in the capital city!). Except that this time, it’s Cordelia at 76 who is looking at changing her life while in the center of small town life. Admiral Jole, who has previously been an extremely minor character, is also brought into focus as he is confronted with a crossroads of his own as he is swept up in the changes she is making.

One of the really amazing things about this book is that it reads more as character-driven non-genre literature than science fiction. While it’s set in this science fiction universe, it’s also set in what is essentially a backwater boomtown. There are a large number of moderately eccentric but utterly relatable characters. Our two main characters are both mature adults with successful careers. This isn’t high adventure, it’s living your life and making choices and dealing with other people.

It’s beautiful and I loved it.