Books: A History of Loneliness

22318411A History of Loneliness by John Boyne
Published February 3, 2015
star-4
A powerful novel about silence, complicity, and guilt, John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness is a fictionalized, unflinching account of the Irish Catholic Church practice of covering up allegations of abuse among its ranks by transferring abusive priests to another parish, where they were likely to re-offend, instead of reporting them to the gardaí (Irish police). In doing so, the Church opted to place the survival of the institution above the safety of its parishioners.

As he does in both The Absolutist and The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Boyne opts to tell the story from the perspective of a man looking back on his life. Each chapter is set during a different year of Father Odran Yates’ life, but the story unfolds non-chronologically, shifting back and forth through time. A History of Loneliness spans Odran’s early family life and his seminary schooling during the 1960s and 70s through to twenty-first century accusations made against the Catholic Church and Odran’s recognition of the role his silence has played in allowing the abuse to continue.

Odran is a sympathetic character, a man pushed towards the priesthood by his mother but who genuinely believes in his vocation. Like some of Boyne’s other protagonists, Odran has a boyish quality of innocence that isn’t quite extinguished until the novel draws to a close. Although Odran is a good man and has never abused another individual, he is not wholly innocent either. Boyne masterfully depicts the feeling of melancholy and heavy guilt that hang over Odran’s later life as he comes to terms with the consequences of his inaction and willful blindness. I found Odran’s plight incredibly moving and felt for the character, even as a part of me was screaming ‘how could you not do something?!’

“What kind of life was this, I wondered. To what sort of an organization had I dedicated my life? And even as I searched for blame, I knew a darkness was stirring inside me concerning my own complicity, for I had seen things and I had suspected things and I had turned away and done nothing.”

As in The Absolutist, I guessed where the story was going long before the characters themselves did, but Boyne’s guilt-ridden prose and narrative voice are so captivating that it didn’t matter.

As someone who is not Catholic or an Irish citizen, I came to A History of Loneliness as an outsider. I was aware, of course, of the history of abuse and scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church in Ireland, but I had no personal connection to the material. I imagine this haunting novel is infinitely more poignant for those who have a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church and its impact on Ireland, but even without that personal history, A History of Loneliness is a compelling and sympathetic account of a troubled time in Ireland’s history, and its message about being complicit through silence is one that I won’t soon forget.

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Get To Know Me Tag

I’m still trying to catch up on reviews from last month and this month, but it means tags have been failing by the wayside, so I’m trying to inject a little more fun stuff into the blog recently to counter the constant reviews. I wasn’t tagged in this one, but Rachel of pace, amore, libri did it recently and it looked like a lot of fun.

Favourite colour and do you have a book in that colour?
Blue and green, and everything in between!


Describe yourself in three book characters.


To be honest I always get stuck on this question! Eliza Mirk from Eliza & Her Monsters – shy, creative, and anxious. Kirsten Raymonde from Station Eleven – a firm believer in the importance of art and that “survival is insufficient”, nostalgic for the world that was. Irene from The Invisible Library series – not nearly as cool as badass as her, but an intelligent librarian whose strength is the written or spoken word.

Hyped books yay or nay? If yay, what was the most hyped book you ever read? If nay, what was the most hyped book you decided not to read?
It really depends on the book. Sometimes there’s a really good reason for the hype and the book is every bit as good as you were lead to believe. I recent read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and thought it 100% lived up to the hype. I’ve also read some hyped books that I really hated, like Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, or decided not to read a hyped series because I don’t think it’s something that would appeal to me personally, like Sarah J. Maas’ books.

Recommend one book per season. Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter.


Spring.
 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion by Morgan Llewellyn. Although it spans a period from 1912 to 1916, the primary event is the Easter Rebellion of 1916, which makes this an excellent spring choice.

Summer. Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. It’s a little lighter than I usually like my fantasy, but an absolutely delightful historical fantasy populated by charming PoC main characters bucking the system in Regency England.

Fall. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. The Scorpio Races practically demands to be read during the fall. It’s an incredibly atmospheric story, set on a gloomy Irish-inspired rural island during the month of November, and a sense of foreboding hangs over the island. I can’t imagine a more perfect fall read.

Winter. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This is another book that creates such a vivid atmosphere, in this cause a frigid medieval Russian winter, that it’s difficult to picture reading The Bear and the Nightingale during a heat wave. From the first page its lyrical prose, sensory writing, and richly developed characters captured my attention and made me want to curl up under a blanket with a cup of tea.

Name one book that wrecked you emotionally.
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Never have I been more wrecked than I was by Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense. The Lymond Chronicles offer their share of emotional turmoil for the reader throughout, but it’s the climax and aftermath in this fourth volume of the six-book series that had me sobbing. Afterwards I felt numb, to the point where I felt like I couldn’t clean the house or just carry on. Rarely have I had a book hangover like this one!

Name one book you would recommend with tea and cookies.
JonathanStrange
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke. Combing a dry sense of humour, a great deal of research (it has footnotes!) and a touch of magic, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a dense but rewarding Regency-set read about the resurgence of English magic during the Napoleonic Wars. Perfect for tea and a biscuit!


What is your guilty pleasure book?

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I don’t really have one. In the past I was a little embarrassed about showing my love for the Captive Prince series by C.S. Pacat on goodreads because I had aunts and co-workers on there and it’s a little more risque than my usual reads since I’m not a romance genre person, but it’s a well-written series that I enjoy and squee over and will re-read.


Favourite dessert and a book that reminds you of that.

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My favourite dessert is a Canadian concoction known as a nanaimo bar, which consists of a wafer crumb-based bottom layer (sometimes with coconut), with a middle layer of custard flavoured butter icing, topped with a solid chocolate layer. I’ll say Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery because it’s Canadian, sweet, and reminds me of my childhood, just like a nanaimo bar!

Are you a procrastinator? What book have you been procrastinating reading?
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I am a big procrastinator. If there is no deadline, I will probably not do the thing. When it comes to books, I have been meaning to read Jane Eyre for quite literally more than a decade. I fully intend to get to it next month though! Hadeer and I are going to tackle it together, which should help our resolve!
Not tagging anyone in particular, but please feel free to do this and pingback to me!

Books: The Girl in the Tower

34050917The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Published December 5, 2017
star-4
Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale cast such an atmospheric and enchanting spell over me last year that it became one of my favourite books of 2017. I hoped to be similarly captivated by its sequel, The Girl in the Tower, when I picked it up last month, but while I enjoyed the continuation of Vasya’s story told through Arden’s skilled prose, I doubt that The Girl in the Tower will be anywhere near my top ten favourite books of 2018.

Forced to choose between marriage and a life in the convent, Vasya instead opts to leave her village and family behind for a life of adventure. Disguising herself as a boy, she sets off into the woods on her horse Solovey to explore the vast world of Medieval Russia. When a chance encounter with a party of bandits earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, Vasya must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces, and to protect her sister Olga and brother Sasha, a monk, who have been sucked into her deception.

The Girl in the Tower is too closely linked to its predecessor to be read as a standalone, but it suffers in comparison to The Bear and the Nightingale. By far the biggest issue I had with the book was how long it took for me to feel invested in the plot and the characters. Vasya spends the first hundred or so pages (mostly) alone and out of her element, so it takes awhile for anything to happen. Once she reaches Moscow and reunites with her family things pick up, but it takes nearly a third of the novel to get to this point. Some of my favourite books are dense, slow-moving narratives, so this isn’t usually a quality that puts me off, but I remember being so instantly hooked by the atmospheric setting and the lyrical prose in The Bear and the Nightingale, that it was a shame to not get that same feeling of enchantment from this volume.

It’s a little disappointing to see the book rely heavily on such a frequently used trope – young woman disguised as a boy – but The Girl in the Tower uses it great effect, commenting on the constraints society placed on women. Playing the role of a young man, Vasya experiences the freedoms and respect afforded the male gender and is intoxicated, finding it difficult to leave behind. As she demonstrates her skill with horses and her assistance in catching the bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside, we’re left to wonder, as in Disney’s Mulan, why Vasya can be so respected for her talents as a man, but is immediately discredited when she is revealed as a woman.

The characters remain a major part of what makes this series so engaging. Although I wasn’t quite so enthralled by Vasya in this book, as her stubborn and even foolhardy choices sometimes put her and those she cares about in danger, she’s still a protagonist I care deeply about. I also love the familial relationships here, with sister Olga and, most of all, with her brother Sasha, who loves Vasya but also longs to protect her. I also found scenes between Vasya and her niece Marya, who shares her gift/curse for communicating with spirits, very touching. In his brief appearances, the winter-kind of folklore, Morozko, continues to delight as well.

Although I didn’t get the same strong sense of atmosphere from The Girl in the Tower as I did in the first volume of the trilogy, Arden’s blend of history and the fantastical continues to be compelling, and I loved the folklore aspects once more. Arden also effectively maintains a sense of tension throughout, particularly when it comes to the precarious nature of Vasya’s position at court.

The Girl in the Tower didn’t capture me from the very first page like its enchanting predecessor, The Bear and the Nightingale, but once I was engaged, I didn’t want it to end. It may suffer a little from second book syndrome, but The Girl in the Tower is still an enjoyable follow-up that left me eagerly awaiting the third book of this planned trilogy.

Books: Penance

31423183Penance by Kanae Minato, translated by Philip Gabriel
Published April 11, 2017
star-3-half
In a rural Japanese town, five elementary school students play in a nearby park, unaware that only a few hours later one of them will be dead. When a strange man asks for help from one of the girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuko each compete to be the one chosen, but it’s their newer friend Emily who he leads away. A few hours later Emily is found murdered, and none of the girls can remember what the man looked like. Emily’s mother, Asako, curses the surviving girls and makes them promise that they will either find the man responsible or do penance in some other way.

Shortly before the fifteen-year statute of limitations on murder runs out, each of the girls and Emily’s mother reflect on the events of that fateful day, the aftermath of the murder, and its impact on them.

Penance is a quick-paced, engaging read that you’ll undoubtedly finish in a few hours. Each of the five chapters is set more than a decade after the murder takes place and is told from a different character’s point of view as author Kanae Minato slowly reveals how the events of that day have shaped each girl differently based on their personalities and the role they were asked to play (staying with the body, fetching the police, finding a teacher, or informing Emily’s mother). The characters are clearly differentiated from one another and exhibit believable and unique responses to the trauma they have undergone, but the real draw here is the book’s thorough examination of themes of blame, responsibility, and guilt.

Unfortunately, while I found the characters and their voices completely believable, the unrealistic twists and turns took me out of the story and kept me from being wholeheartedly absorbed in Penance. I don’t always mind when coincidence is used with a heavy hand by an author or when the book requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief (as evidenced by the fact that The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Little Life are two of my favourite books of all time), but here it struck me as disingenuous for some reason.

Penance was so squarely a three-and-a-half star book for me that I agonized over whether to round up or down on goodreads. Ultimately I rounded up because, despite its faults, Penance is a gripping, well-paced read that never drags. I don’t think it’s a book that will stay with me, but I certainly enjoyed the journey.

Not Good Enough Tag

I wasn’t officially tagged, but Steph of Lost Purple Quill recently did this tag and where the book blogging squad goes, I follow (also it looked like a lot of fun)!

HOW IT WORKS:

  1. You write down the names of 30 fictional characters on pieces of paper.
  2. You pick two names at a time and answer each of the 15 questions. For each question one of the two characters will be the one you believe fits best and the other is “not good enough”.

YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MORE SPOT ON YOUR SPELLING BEE TEAM, WHO WOULD YOU PICK TO COMPLETE YOUR TEAM?

Vasya (The Bear & The Nightingale) VS. Gert Yorkes (Runaways)

Gert! Despite being only fifteen(ish?) she’s super bright and bookish, plus Vasya is from medieval Russia so I think a lot of contemporary English words would completely escape her.

BOTH CHARACTERS WANT TO KILL YOU, WHICH ONE WOULD YOU KILL FIRST SO YOU HAVE A BETTER CHANCE OF SURVIVING?

Shara (The Divine Cities) VS. Damen (Captive Prince)

Oh man, I am going down! Damen poses more of a threat in hand-to-hand combat with his skills and size, but I hate the idea of giving Shara, an intelligent spy, more time to plan! I’d try and take out Damen first, but I don’t think I stand a chance here.

YOU’RE ON THE BACHELOR/BACHELORETTE AN YOU’RE DOWN TO THESE TWO CHARACTERS, WHICH ONE ARE YOU GOING TO GIVE YOUR ROSE TOO?

Ingray Aughskold (Provenance) VS. Iyone Safin (The Magpie Ballads)

I feel like Ingray would be the safer choice since she’s a little more transparent, but I have a pretty big girl crush on Iyone. She’s manipulative and ambitious, but so damn intelligent, and I’d like to hang out with her friend group (Savonn and Hiraen) and get into trouble with them, plus canonically she does get wooed by her girlfriend with a rose, SO I’m going with Iyone.

YOU’VE BEEN CHOSEN FOR THE HUNGER GAMES, WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY VOLUNTEER IN YOUR PLACE?

Eliza (Eliza and Her Monsters) VS. Sansa Stark (ASoIaF)

This is so cruel, I just want them both to be happy! Eliza’s anxiety would definitely prevent her from volunteering or standing much of a chance though. I think Sansa would step up, and she’s survived this long in Westeros, I’m pretty sure she stands a shot in The Hunger Games!

YOU’RE STRANDED ON AN ISLAND. WHICH CHARACTER WOULD YOU SACRIFICE TO ENGAGE IN CANNIBALISM?

Savonn Silvertongue (The Magpie Ballads) VS. Laurent (Captive Prince)

Oh My God, they’re so similar though! I feel like I’d probably be the sacrifice since I couldn’t take either one of them (and then they’d probably get together). Savonn is built more in the Lymond mold of self-sacrifice though, so I could see him giving up his life, and Laurent is more likely to find a way off the island.

YOU’RE THE NEXT DC/MARVEL SUPERHERO (WITH YOUR OWN TV SHOW OF COURSE), WHO IS YOUR SIDEKICK?

Lada (And I Darken/Now I Rise) VS. Lila Bard (Shades of Magic)

I’m 100% sure I’m the tag-along sidekick in both scenarios! Neither woman takes instruction well or is likely to play second fiddle to anyone, but they might let me tag along… if I prove to be useful. Lila is slightly less likely to kill me. Slightly. I’d be her sidekick.

YOU’RE A MANAGER OF AN AVOCADO ADMIRING COMPANY, WHO WOULD YOU FIRE FOR LACK OF COMMUNICATION SKILLS?

Philippa Somerville (Lymond Chronicles) VS. Miles Vorkosigan (The Vorkosigan Saga)

I feel like Miles would just constantly get himself into trouble. I mean, he’d get himself out of it again too, probably by talking, but Philippa would be a more consistent employee, so I’d fire Miles.

YOU’VE JUST FINISHED A BOOK IN WHICH YOUR FAVOURITE CHARACTER DIES, WHICH CHARACTER IS MOST LIKELY TO COMFORT YOU?

Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows) VS. Eowyn (Lord of the Rings)

WELL, obviously it’s not going to be Kaz, so Eowyn it is!!

UGH, IT’S HIGH SCHOOL. WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY BE PART OF THE POPULAR CLIQUE?

Inej Ghafa (Six of Crows) VS. Mildmay (Doctrine of Labyrinths)

Neither is really popular kid material, but Mildmay, with his scar, glower, and lack of self-confidence is most likely to be the outsider here. Inej could be a popular kid if she wanted to, maybe if Nina was by her side, but mostly people are probably a little intimidated by her.

THE DAY HAS ARRIVED; YOU’RE FINALLY A YEAR OLDER! WHO WOULD HAVE THE NERVE TO FORGET YOUR BIRTHDAY?

Turyin Mulaghesh (Divine Cities) VS. Breq (Imperial Radch)

Breq has probably remembered but she won’t let on or acknowledge my birthday except in some roundabout way that makes it look like she doesn’t actually care, while secretly being a softie. Turyin forgets and swears a lot about it, but she has a damn good excuse for forgetting.

YOU’VE JUST FOUND AN UPCOMING BOOKTUBE STAR? WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY BE?

Francis Crawford (Lymond Chronicles) VS. Kell (Shades of Magic)

It’s totally Francis. His obscure references and throwaway quotes in other languages mean that you only ever understand a quarter of what he’s saying, but he’s so handsome and charismatic, and what you do understand of his reviews is so engaging that you’re addicted anyway. Kell’s more of an oddity. I think people would watch him more in hopes that he’d perform a magic trick than for his reviews or thoughts on books.

SLEEPOVER TIME! UNFORTUNATELY YOU CAN ONLY INVITE ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?

Alec Campion (Swordspoint) VS. Jonathan Strange (Jonathan Strange & Norrell)

Alec would definitely be more fun, but then again it’s also entirely likely that he starts some kind of a fight and causes mayhem. Strange is far too distracted for a slumber party though. He would spend the entire time somehow engaged in magic and books and not paying any attention at all, so Alec it is! At least Alec’s sharp tongue would amuse.

BAM, YOU’RE PREGNANT. WHO’S THE FATHER/MOTHER?

Ronan Lynch (The Raven Cycle) VS. Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter)

I mean… biologically neither of these scenarios would ever happen. I’d like to co-parent with Luna though. She’d be a little spacey, but kind and creative and I think we’d get on. I’ll leave Ronan to Adam and Opal and his farm.

YOU’VE JUST WRITTEN A SUPER IMPORTANT TEXT. WHO WOULD ‘SEE’ IT, BUT NOT REPLY?

Cyril Avery (The Heart’s Invisible Furies) VS. Jean Valjean (Les Miserables)

I feel like running away is kind of Cyril’s M.O., so I could definitely see him doing this. If Valjean doesn’t respond it’s more likely to be because he doesn’t know what to say or he’s unfamiliar with texting.

YOU’VE JUST WOKEN UP AND IT’S TIME FOR BREAKFAST. YOUR MUM’S BEEN REPLACED BY WHO?!

Maia (The Goblin Emperor) VS. Adam Parrish (The Raven Cycle)

Oooh, I think Adam would be a more practical and effective parent but Maia is such a cinnamon roll that he would always have my best intentions at heart. I have to go with Adam though.

This was a tremendously fun tag! I wasn’t tagged by anyone, so I won’t tag anyone in return, but if you feel like doing this, definitely pingback here because I’d love to read your answers!

Books: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone

30339479You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Published January 2, 2018
star-3-half
I was wrong about You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone. Somewhat. I tried to keep an open mind, but the first fifty pages were distinctly underwhelming. Dual first person POV? Check. Male romantic interests revealed in the first few pages? Check. Tell, don’t show info-dump approach to the characters? Check. I expected to write this off as just another young side of YA, romance-centric novel. Instead I found a darker and more adult story, populated with flawed, realistically teenage characters.

The plot revolves around twins Adina and Tovah Siegel, who have grown apart over the years and have little in common. Viola prodigy Adina longs to pursue music professionally, while studious Tovah is awaiting her acceptance to Johns Hopkins to pursue a career in medicine. One thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, the disease that is slowly destroying their mother. When the test results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s, but the other tests positive.

I didn’t always like the twin narrators, but I did find them consistently interesting. It was easier for me, a shy, bookish person, to relate to academically-inclined Tovah, but as someone who majored in the humanities during my undergrad, I found Adina’s jealousy and bitterness over society and family valuing her sister’s STEM aspirations over her gift for music very relatable as well. Both sisters are well-developed characters. Adina is confident in her sexuality, but her whole-hearted devotion to music has left her with few friendships. I found her prickly, and often infuriating, yet I continued to root for her. Tovah’s innocence when it comes to boys is endearing, but she’s insecure, jealous, and throws tantrums when life deviates from her carefully thought out plans.

The focus here is on Huntington’s, an incurable genetic disease that slowly kills the brain’s neurons. You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone deals with the disease on two fronts. Ima, Adina and Tovah’s mother, was diagnosed four years earlier and exhibits symptoms including clumsiness, forgetting conversations, and jerky uncontrollable movements. Both teens are still coming to terms with the fact that Huntington’s is fatal and will slowly rob them of the mother they know. For one of the sisters, there is the additional weight of knowing that she will succumb to the same fate one day. The honest and raw exploration of guilt, responsibility, and confronting your own mortality is what makes You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone worth reading.

I also loved the way that the book incorporates religion. The Siegel family at the heart of the book includes practicing Jewish characters, who keep kosher and observe Shabbat. I haven’t read a lot of contemporary novels with practicing Jewish characters, and this representation is important.

The prose isn’t really anything special; It’s clipped, with characters commonly speaking in short, clear sentences. You get the impression that it would be really easy to skim. While I would have preferred a more lyrical approach, Solomon’s writing style is generally fine, if unremarkable. There are some occasional cringe worthy turns of phrase though. Exhibit A:

“I force a smile, turning my lips into a sideways bass clef.” (pg. 106)

I found it difficult to believe that even someone whose whole life is music would think like this. A sideways bass clef, really?!

Additionally, be warned that although the novel is not erotica, it is more graphically sexual than I expected from a YA book, and the novel involves instances of cutting and suicidal thoughts.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone is an honest and, at times, dark account of genetic illness and how it shapes a family. It’s not perfect; The prose is clipped and occasionally tries too hard. However, the way the characters wrestle with relationships (platonic, familial, and romantic) is engaging, and the novel is ultimately a bittersweet, yet hopeful story about flawed, interesting characters.

Books: Borne

31451186Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Published April 25, 2017
star-4-half
Borne shouldn’t work. At all. But not only does it work, it’s one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. Post-apocalyptic stories are nothing new, but Borne makes even zombies look tame by comparison because its main antagonist is a giant, insane, flying grizzly bear! Other threats include his normal-sized, but still terrifying, bear followers (who also happen to be venomous), bio-engineered feral children, and an enigmatic drug dealer known as The Magician. In short, it’s weird, BUT Borne is somehow also intensely believable, offering thoughtful commentary on what it means to be a person, and on how we co-exist in the world with animals/others. Often eloquent and beautiful, Borne is a melancholy, but ultimately hopeful, exploration of humanity, the environment, and non-human intelligence.

It’s probably just as well that I picked Borne up on a whim from the Library because the pitch is just plain weird. I imagine reactions to reading a plot summary of Borne would be a lot like telling someone circa 1995 about SpongeBob SquarePants. Who would have guessed that a happy-go-lucky anthropomorphic sea sponge that lives in a pineapple under the sea and works as a fry cook would become so popular?!

Borne follows Rachel, a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic city, who finds a creature entangled in the fur of a massive (multi-story), malevolent, flying(!) bear that terrorizes the city and brings it home with her. She names the sentient being, who looks like a cross between a sea anemone and a squid, Borne and raises it as a child, much to her roommate and sometimes lover, the drug-dealer Wick’s, displeasure. As Borne continues to grow and learn, questions arise about Borne’s purpose.

I’ve been reading a string of YA books lately, which made VanderMeer’s writing style a welcome change. The prose is by turns lyrical, eerie, and thoughtful as its characters contemplate what it means to be human and the cost of survival. I especially loved the creativity that went into Borne, a non-human character who changes shape, colours, textures, and scents over the course of the novel, and whose language and understanding evolves as he grows. As thrilled as I am that Borne is a novel – I’d hate to be robbed of Jeff VanderMeer’s gorgeous prose – I’m a little surprised that Borne wasn’t selected for a more visual format. The writing is so sensory and the world building so involved that a graphic novel or film seems like a natural fit.

…a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.

The world building is also superb, both through the few fragmented memories of Rachel’s past before she arrived in the city, and in the descriptions of biotech that populates the collapsing world. Rachel’s relatively carefree childhood, including the island where she attended school, playing in tide pools at recess, and the upscale restaurant where she celebrated a birthday with her parents, are juxtaposed effectively with her survival-based existence now, in a world where resources are scarce.

VanderMeer’s descriptions of biotech are inspired. Clusters of fireflies are the main source of light in Rachel’s home, alcohol minnows can be consumed for a buzz, and diagnostic worms diagnose and assist with illness and injury. Yet there is always an underlying ominous quality to the world, appropriate for a city in decline. These aren’t people trying to fix or restore the city, they are fighting for existence in a dying world.

Then there’s Borne himself. Through the character of Borne, and Rachel’s efforts to raise him, VanderMeer offers a moving exploration into what it means to be human. Initially appearing to be a glorified house plant, Rachel upgrades her initial analysis of Borne from an “it” to a “him” when she realizes Borne creeps around when she’s not watching. After Rachel is viciously attacked, Borne begins to speak to her and Rachel’s love for him becomes filial, even as Wick fears what Borne might actually be. Like an adolescent, Borne’s growth involves experimentation, exploring new environments, and even independence as he moves out of Rachel’s room and into his own apartment.

Although there are only a few major characters, it never hinders the novel. All of the characters are so layered, each with secrets they are keeping and things they are unwilling to admit even to themselves, that it makes their interactions engaging, whether they are positive or fraught.

We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.

I have a few minor gripes that kept me from rounding up to a five on goodreads. I wish more had been done with some of the book’s antagonist characters, and I found the last part of the book less gripping and overly Info Dump-y than I would have liked, but that should in no way prevent you from reading Borne.

There is a realness to this fantastical tale, and the underlying focus on the depletion of our natural resources, and the ethical/moral dilemma of using animals will resonate in our current age. Unique and exquisitely rendered, I highly recommend reading Borne.

Books: Things A Bright Girl Can Do

33876596Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
Published September 7, 2017
star-4
Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a charming and heartfelt novel about the suffragette movement in England during WW1. Spanning the years from 1914 through 1918, the novel is written from the perspectives of three young women from different backgrounds. Well-off, sheltered Evelyn joins the Suffragettes as much to annoy her parents as out of any great devotion to the cause; May, a Quaker and pacifist like her mother, is committed to the suffragists but refuses to use violence to further their cause, while Nell, whose family is just scrapping by, seeks an equal wage for equal work. The fight for equality challenges all three women, and as war looms they must ask themselves how much they’re willing to sacrifice.

What a breath of fresh air this book is. I picked it up because it vaguely looked interesting and wound up hooked! All three of the teenage protagonists are engaging and grow over the course of the novel. It’s likely partly the 1914 setting, but Evelyn and May at times reminded me of Sybil Crawley or Rose MacClare, sheltered, but well-intentioned and passionate young women.

Evelyn comes from a privileged background, with a fiancé and a good education, but she loves to learn and wants to broaden her mind at Oxford. As this is not socially acceptable, her parents forbid it, and she falls into the suffragette movement out of frustration and a desire for equality. It’s empowering to follow her journey, as she joins the suffragette movement out of a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the lack of options available to her as a woman and becomes a committed part of the efforts, even enduring a brutal hunger strike when she is arrested.

May is, in some ways, the most worldly of the three, with a mother who is open-minded, even when it comes to May’s romantic inclination towards other women. May’s aware of and accepting of her identity as a gay woman, and has an infectious optimism towards life. But while her stubborn commitment to her principles is an admirable quality, it also makes it difficult for her to view things from another’s point-of-view. It’s only later, with the wisdom of experience, that she discovers things aren’t so black and white as she had always believed.

For Nell, who dresses in boys clothes and has always felt like an outsider, a chance meeting with May opens a door. Nell is a working-class factory girl, one of six children living with their parents in a two-room flat. The suffragist movement was a practical application. She’s paid half as much as male workers and wants to earn an equal wage to support her family. Life is hard, but as Nell discovers her Sapphic inclinations for the first time, she finds some refuge in May.

I felt attached to all three characters and, importantly, to both of the central relationships that develop. Evelyn and Teddy are friends from childhood who have always presumed that they will marry, but as first Evelyn’s growing interest in the Suffragette cause and then WWI threaten their wellbeing, Evelyn and Teddy discover just how deep their feelings for one another run. Nell and May come from different upbringings and hold different values, but their shared identity as lesbians grows into a sweet story of first love. Although I rooted for both couples, I also appreciated the fact that romantic love is not the sole focus of the novel.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is obviously well-researched and sheds a light on different spheres of the suffragette movement, including the pacifist Quakers in the form of May and her principled mother, who refuses to pay taxes until women are represented in parliament, and suffers the consequences. There is a subtly rendered lesson in here about walking a mile in another person’s shoes.

Author Sally Nicholls doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of the suffragette movement, or from detailing the hunger strikes that imprisoned women undertook in an effort to be treated as political prisoners. She is also unflinching in her depiction of the impact of WWI on both soldiers and their families and loved ones , portraying the social consequences and the physical and psychological effects of the war.

Although at times it goes to dark places, the novel is ultimately uplifting. I really enjoyed Things a Bright Girl Can Do and highly recommend it as just the kind of feminist book that can pull you out of a reading slump.