Big Little Lies
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The central event in Big Little Lies is something that, in a different book or story, could be summarized in two or three pages of exposition. It’s a dramatic sequence, to be sure, but the trick of Liane Moriarty’s cunning novel is to tease this moment, then back away and rewind, then slowly peel back layers until the full context and complexity of the moment can be understood. Thus, when the scene finally happens, the impact of it and the shocking, fascinating, deliriously entertaining chaos of it are keenly understood and richly felt. It’s a master class on building tension.

The event in question is an unspecified tragedy that takes place at a fundraising function (a Trivia Night) for a public school in a small Australian beach town. The introduction teases the Trivia Night from a remote point of view and then backs up six months and focuses on the stories of three of the night’s key players, each of whom take turns with a deeply intimate third-person narrative style that I can only describe as arresting. As the story unfolds from these distinct points of view, Ms Moriarty takes great care to skip to just the most pertinent or character-revealing moments, and while the book is long and detailed, it has short, punchy chapters and is never, ever a slog to read. Throughout, reality-show-style confessional transcripts appear, discussing the events leading up to the Trivia Night, the night itself, and its aftermath in cleverly obscure language from the perspectives of some of the people involved.

These flashback-y transcripts are a gimmick, sure, but they’re one of the most effective gimmicks I’ve seen. The book reads like a screenplay, with sharp directorial cuts and a phenomenal sense of pacing. But don’t mistake this book for a disposable summer beach page-turner quickly forgotten once the back cover is closed. Ms Moriarty uses her ability to capture the reader’s full and suddenly ravenous attention to open the door wide for her remorselessly bladed and often downright hilarious insights. This may be one of the finest satires I’ve read since Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and the book’s commentary about the politics of public schools, the collective hallucination of suburban existence, and the messy necessity of true friendship is so on point it pricks and draws blood. It’s scathing, laugh-out-loud funny, and absolutely horrifying all at once. There are so many insights on the inner lives of women: working mothers, single mothers, stay-at-home moms, women with supportive husbands, women in terrible marriages, directionless women, women with dark secrets, dark pasts, dark thoughts, personas, nuances, layers, contradictions, fears, truimphs. Big Little Lies’s characters are alive in ways most authors only wish they could manage and it’s all done in such an insightful, delightful manner that you don’t see it happening until it’s done.

The book is not utterly flawless. Ms Moriarty takes liberties with her three central protagonists when several of them appear on page together, hopping sometimes confusingly from viewpoint to viewpoint. She occasionally structures sentences in ways that tripped me up, and I found a bit of the transcript gimmick and a lot of the early character-introduction sequences needlessly confusing and overwhelming with lots of new names and relationships. Eventually the key names and connections did sort themselves out but there are places where a minor character reappears at a key moment and there’s a few minutes of disorientation until something re-contextualizes them. But it’s worth noting that there is another version of this novel that could have been written at twice the length wherein it might rival a Russian novel in terms of characters with their own point of view chapters. And next to the scope and skill on display everywhere else in this book, these are very minor complaints indeed.

I’ll say simply that I loved this book. I tore through the last two hundred pages at a breakneck (for me) pace, completing them in a single evening, and was thrilled to see the conclusion met every one of my sky-high expectations. I’d recommend this book to anyone, but I kind of especially want to recommend it to male readers specifically for the way it draws attention to the multifaceted ways that women view each other and themselves. After so much pop culture time spent distilling and generalizing women down to a set of simple stereotypes for the sake of “comedy” it’s so refreshing to see the real unpacking of women’s thought processes and self-aware complexities. And, it happens to result in genuine laughs that are much funnier than any of that other reductionist crap you usually see. It’s refreshing, dark, honest, hilarious, thrilling, heartfelt, and completely satisfying. Put it on your to-read list and thank me later.

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Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So how do you get a notoriously slow reader to rip through a 260-page book in under a day, in the midst of a busy week planning for a birthday and a party and putting the finishing touches on a mile-long, post-move to-do list?

I guess you write like Lindy West does.

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Signal to Noise
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re thinking about reading this book, the first thing I recommend is that you check out either this Spotify playlist (created by your humble reviewer), and/or this YouTube one and familiarize yourself with some of the songs featured in the novel. In fact, you should probably do that even if you’re not going to read the book because it’s a very good soundtrack.

Anyway, the reason for the homework is that Ms Moreno-Garcia’s coming of age fantasy novel is set in part against the mixtape-and-vinyl music scene in the 80s. The book doesn’t require a comprehensive knowledge of the songs mentioned within (and you can tell from the length of the playlists that there is a lot of music featured), but certain scenes will make more sense if you’re familiar with key tracks. Being familiar with “En Algun Lugar” by Duncan Dhu, for example, will give a better insight into protagonist Meche’s state of mind during the 80s flashback sequences that take up half the novel. Knowing the melody and lyrics of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” will speak volumes about the relationship between Meche’s parents and crystalize a particular scene late in the novel. That sort of thing.

Because music in the book isn’t just a bunch of pop cultural references tossed in to give Meche a memorable quirk, it informs the book’s magical element. Once Meche learns she can use records and dance and music to cast spells, she draws her two outcast friends Daniela and Sebastian into a growing obsession with overcoming their teenage difficulties. This arc is the basis for the 80s sequences, all of which inform and tie into the present (or recent past I suppose, as it’s set in 2009) where Meche finally returns to Mexico City after a long absence to attend to her father’s funeral. It’s worth noting that neither the 1988-89 nor the 2009 segments are necessarily stronger than the other. Sometimes in split timeline novels one or the other will be more interesting which gives the other a filler quality where the reader is impatiently waiting to get back to “the good part.” Not so with Signal to Noise.

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SirensToday we’re going to dive into a new ironSoap feature meant to help spread the word about new or upcoming books by digging in a little with the authors or contributors on some key storytelling aspects: world-building, character, and editing. Since this is the first such feature—for fantasy anthology Sirens—we have all three being discussed by different contributors to the project.

So what is Sirens? It’s part of Rhonda Parrish’s Magical Menageries anthology series, which also includes Corvidae, Fae, and Scarecrow. She sums it up thusly:

Sirens are beautiful, dangerous, and musical, whether they come from the sea or the sky. Greek sirens were described as part-bird, part-woman, and Roman sirens more like mermaids, but both had a voice that could captivate and destroy the strongest man. The pages of this book contain the stories of the Sirens of old, but also allow for modern re-imaginings, plucking the sirens out of their natural elements and placing them at a high school football game, or in wartime London, or even into outer space.

Sounds great, right? Now let’s check in with a few of the contributors to hear their thoughts on some of those elements of storycraft.

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Half-Resurrection Blues
Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Half-Resurrection Blues is the kind of novel that’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. Superficially, it’s the story of Carlos Delacruz, a partially (or previously) dead bounty hunter working the gray area between the world of the living and the world of the dead. There’s a shadowy Council calling Carlos’s shots, a fantastical plot afoot, a lot of intriguing and memorable characters, a love story, elements of noir and mystery and magic and romance and horror all mashed together.

Which all sounds well and good enough, but it’s not entirely fresh on the surface, excepting that for the most part HRB avoids the heavy religious under- (or over-) tones from a lot of other life/afterlife/death urban fantasies I’ve read. But even beyond that, what sets HRB apart is the phenomenal pacing, the expert character crafting, and the spot-on plotting Mr Older manages. There are a lot of events, a lot of characters, and none of it feels overwhelming or sketchy. Each major development is well-earned, the wildly imaginative sequences outside the vibrant Brooklyn he creates are all crisply narrated to avoid the muddled description issue that plagues some other writers in this space. But at no point does the book bog down, belaboring the machine underneath the plot. There is always something happening, something looming, something just about to surprise the reader. Some of this is probably due to the way the plot is delivered primarily through a lot of crisp, real-world-feeling dialogue instead of overblown narration. Carlos is a terrific guide through Older’s world, and even when he’s making mistakes, it’s impossible not to root for him to come out on top.

There is so much to like here, including the fact that even though I was worried the ending would be unsatisfying or rushed based on how much was left unresolved and how quickly the end of the book was approaching, but Older manages a neat trick of hitting the peak of all the major story arcs at once right when it needs to and then tidies up in just a handful of concluding pages. This is a complete book in and of itself, which is a relief even though there is at least one sequel; I’ve been burned a lot recently by series books that, by virtue of their ongoing nature, don’t feel inclined to find a legitimate conclusion.

I heavily recommend this book. It’s dark, fun, spooky, surprising, fast-paced, and wonderful. I can’t wait to read the next in the series, because I can’t wait to spend more time in the world and with these memorable characters.

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Adulthood Rites
Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I’m enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it’s very best, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of wild speculation. It’s post-apocalyptic and full of invading space aliens but it’s not grim, fatalistic or even swashbuckling. It’s about relationships, about potential, about sex and gender and adaptation and growing up. It’s about change. Change happens all the time, Butler points out, but can we—as humans—ever really embrace it?

Compared to Dawn, I kind of missed the presence of Lillith, who is relegated in this volume to a supporting role. Instead we mostly follow her son, Akin, the first male construct (hybrid oankali/human—basically the new generation of oankali) and the first to look almost completely human, at least in his larval stage. Lillith and the other human survivors introduced in the last part of Dawn have been transplanted to a repaired Earth and though some humans are working and breeding with the oankali, others have splintered off into human-only villages. They are bitter at being sterilized, at being at the mercy of the aliens, and early on Akin is kidnapped by a group of them. Fortunately, Akin is a wonderful character in his own right, and is absolutely the right person to see this chapter in the broader story through.

He spends enough time among the humans to develop a fascination with them, which informs the bulk of the book’s conflict. Oankali direct their evolution by “trading” genes with species they encounter. The constructs like Akin will be a merging of the two species but will call themselves oankali. Older branches of the oankali are allowed to continue as part of the alien society, but what of the humans? They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.

The brilliance of Butler’s work is that despite there not being a ton in the way of action or obvious tension, there is a gripping quality to the story. Much of the driving action is a series of small calamities and momentary dangers. But the underlying concerns are as big as they come, full of the sorts of thought exercises the very best SF can ignite. I loved thinking about this book. Did I sympathize with the Resisters? Would I be the sort of person to see the larger vision of the oankali? What would Akin’s solution near the end of the book mean to the people who were almost convinced but couldn’t get over the hurdle of being forced into breeding themselves out of existence? What did it say about humanity that the people originally selected to be re-awoken by the oankali in Dawn were potentially amenable to re-integration and so many of them chose to be Resisters?

As with Dawn, the set-up is deliberate but fascinating. The ending where things happen is a bit rushed and a lot of the relationships don’t develop in a comfortable way, which is to say it unfolds in an unpredictable manner and not all readers are really going to cheer for how it shakes out. Unlike Dawn, which felt like it had room to continue but was complete in itself, Adulthood Rites has a much less self-contained feeling. It’s book two of a trilogy, though, so I can forgive it that. Put another way, there’s no scenario in which I won’t read book three. I’m all in with the series at this point.

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Station Eleven
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it’s really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when life is stripped down to—essentially—bare survival. In that way, Station Eleven ends up being far more hopeful and beautiful than most novels that take place after or during civilization-ending catastrophes.

There are lots of overlapping elements in play, and it’s impressive to see it take shape. This is sort of the novel I read and realize it was something I wanted but never would have been able to describe or guess was an unscratched itch. It helps that Mandel realizes this ground has been trod before and doesn’t necessarily shy away from the obvious comparisons (The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, etc) and therefore isn’t defined by trying to either mimic or distance from those stories.

I did think the book was a bit slow to get started; the cast is connected by a series of loose coincidences and the book follows a non-linear path so at first it’s hard to reconcile the on-stage death of an actor, the photographer who gets wind of a breaking pandemic, the girl onstage during the heart attack who grows up into a traveling Shakespearean performer after the collapse of society, the actor’s second ex-wife who works endlessly on a personal graphic novel project—and so on—with, well, much of anything. But as the characters are filled in and revealed, as the events or happenstances both big and small that unite them and link them to each other become clear, the pacing starts to make sense. By the halfway point I was all the way into the world of the book, and scarcely put it down from that point until I had finished.

There is nothing, I don’t think, about the progression of the book’s plot that is particularly remarkable. If tracked chronologically, the chapters would tell snippets of stories from various viewpoints about life before, during, and after the end of the world as we know it. The way the book is structured though allows its themes to play off of each other, and allows for Mandel to specifically leave some elements here unresolved in a way that is actually—almost paradoxically—satisfying.

It’s a smart, thoughtful, curiously delightful book that has just the right elements of darkness and triumph and beauty and ugliness. Really wonderful work, and highly recommended.

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Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I finished The Handmaid’s Tale, I was impressed with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Having now finished Oryx And Crake, I’m falling in love with her storytelling.

To a certain extent, this is a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, wrapped in a similar framework of intersecting flashbacks all building toward the action set in the post of a post-apocalyptic (or post-dystopic in the case of Handmaid) world. Where Handmaid fretted about gender roles, Oryx fusses about environmental concerns and genetic/pharmaceutical research gone awry, but they’re really two means to the same end. They show a world not too distant from our own right before everything falls apart and then they show the aftermath. The effect in each case is deeply affecting and grim.

Where Oryx And Crake is, I think, a better book, is that the story is more compelling. The central mystery of how the pieces presented in the flashbacks come to result in the Robinson Crusoe-like existence depicted in the novel’s opening chapter is deepened by the conflicts that twist around each other like DNA backbone. The central characters of Snowman, Crake, and Oryx are all rich and fascinating. The way the whole thing converges into such a magnificent climax where all the pieces—past, present past, present future, and future—collide is like a master class on How It’s Done. It doesn’t feel forced that these three are pivotal to everything, it feels right.

Granted, as with Handmaid, the ending is abrupt to the point of absurdity. Unlike the earlier novel, Oryx has a couple of sequels so hopefully at some point there is a real resolution. But it’s not a complaint, it’s more like a promise.

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Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that’s where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.

So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it’s probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.

This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother’s attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.

The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero’s quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.

There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being “epic” (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don’t know that I finished it thinking, “I’d love a sequel to this.” But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back.

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A few things converged recently to get me thinking about physical spaces, in particular the spaces that we spend the most time in. The first is that I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up“, in which a Japanese tidying consultant suggests her method for getting rid of clutter in one’s home. The second was that I purchased a new eReader, and the third was that I had a series of home storage-based issues crop up during an extended period where I was away from work.
Bookshelf

David Orban via Creative Commons

The core of Kondo’s approach is to get rid of everything you own that you don’t absolutely love. She has some specific ideas about how one should go about this, but the idea is to drastically decrease one’s possessions so that what remains are things that are, in a manner of speaking, indispensable. Her criteria is that only those things that “spark joy” should be kept. I kind of like this idea, although as some critics have pointed out, it’s pretty tough to describe the feeling one gets for, say, a spatula as anything even in the neighborhood of joy. And yet, throwing out every spatula in the house might not be prudent no matter how much space it might save.
But I get the sentiment at the heart of Kondo’s regimen: all that stuff everyone has “just in case” or because it was a gift or because “what if…” is just crowding the things that are actually valued in our surroundings. The picture she paints of having a sparsely decorated and ornamented living space full of only things that facilitate simple joys is, to me anyway, very compelling.

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