I started off this year with a fabulous month of reading, and I have four strong novels to recommend:
→ ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders: As a child, Patricia discovers she's a witch who can speak to animals. Laurence builds a very modest time machine from complicated instructions he finds online. When they meet during the hell of eighth grade, Patricia is struggling to understand her mysterious magical powers, Laurence is inventing more advanced machines, and both of them are tormented by peers and parents who want to squash their talents. The two outcasts are drawn together into a complicated friendship that ends badly. By the time they find each other again in San Francisco ten years later, Patricia is a powerful witch and Laurence a technological wunderkind. The state of the world is grim, and they're both determined to save it, but their approaches may be in cataclysmically dangerous opposition.
This book is a wild ride through magic and science and love and the looming apocalypse. The characters are wonderful and complex, not just Patricia and Laurence, but also their eccentric witch and scientist friends and their intriguing antagonist (and one-time guidance counselor). The story kept me turning pages when I really should have been getting some work done, and it kept me guessing through many unexpected plot developments that led to a satisfying conclusion.
While Patricia and Laurence live in a world where fantasy and science fiction are real (though not widely recognized), they also occupy territory very familiar to me, where people problem-solve over dinner, binge-watch Red Dwarf, and reflexively make Doctor Who references. I love the way Anders loves and writes about this world and blends it seamlessly with the imagined elements. There's additionally an exaggerated, cartoony aspect to the story world that bothered me during the early parts of the book, but later it either dropped away or stood out less.
The quirky prose fits perfectly with the story's embrace of different types of weirdness, and I highlighted so many sentences that made me smile. As kids, while the characters people-watch at the mall, "Laurence thought the two women in smart pumps and nylons were life coaches who were coaching each other, creating an endless feedback loop." At a Chinese restaurant, "the General Tso's Chicken was a little too general." And when worldwide disasters proliferate, somebody confesses, "My biggest fear about the apocalypse isn't being eaten by cannibals--it's the fact that in every other postapocalyptic movie you see someone with an acoustic guitar by the campfire." Yeah, this novel is simply a lot of fun.
→ AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton: Mori was a twin who spent her childhood running with her sister through their Welsh valley, chasing fairies. Now at 15, she's alone, with a leg that doesn't work properly, shipped off to unknown relatives in England and from there to a restrictive boarding school. All that's left of her old life are a few beloved books, and she's cut off from fairies and the natural magic of the world. Lonely and diminished by her circumstances, Mori seeks solace in every science fiction and fantasy book she can get her hands on. Gradually, her love of books brings her to others who understand her, and her situation improves, but a threat still looms from the dark magic that took away her twin.
I loved this book, which is as much about the magic of reading as about the magical creatures and powers that both enrich and endanger Mori's life. Walton has dedicated the novel to libraries and librarians, and at one point Mori declares, "Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization." Every book Mori reads gets a mention and often a brief review or discussion. I'm not nearly as well-read in SF myself, so I didn't understand all the references, but I collected many recommendations.
The novel is written as Mori's diary, and this device worked better for me than it often does, because the minutiae Mori captures give the entries an unusual plausibility. This has the effect that the story is far more mundane than you might expect from one that contains magic and fairies. Really, the magic is a subplot to the tale of a lonely teenager trying to make friends in a new location. I found Mori a wonderful, sympathetic character from the beginning, and I was deeply invested in everything that happens to her, but honestly, not a lot does. Or rather, the cataclysmic events of her life have already taken place, and the book is concerned with how she deals with the aftermath. This makes for a relatively quiet story about friendship and the love of books, which are important topics to me as well. I appreciated this story and the way it was told, and I hope other readers I know will also find companionship inside.
Jo Walton will be an honored guest at FOGcon next month, March 11-13 in Walnut Creek, CA. I'm looking forward to hearing her talk about books!
→ DIAMOND HEAD by Cecily Wong opens in Honolulu in 1964, the day of the funeral for one of the wealthy Leong family. The members gather, united in their grief but divided by disputes and betrayals that have been accumulating for decades. As the ceremony proceeds, the reader is drawn into the memories of different characters to learn about sixty years of fraught family history in China and Hawaii.
I'm always happy to read a multigenerational tale of secrets and regrets, and the story of the Leongs kept me engrossed. I was caught up by the mystery of what went wrong in the family's past, and as the revelations were doled out, I found them surprising and unusual. Historical and cultural details enriched the novel, and I was interested in the close-up experiences of the Boxer Rebellion and Pearl Harbor. At times, I found the nested narratives convoluted, but overall, I enjoyed how pieces were layered together to create an absorbing story.
→ DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill is a novel assembled out of scraps, isolated paragraphs depicting moments in a relationship, feelings of love or anger, and loosely related musings on science or philosophy. There's a basic story arc about a marriage, but the book is less concerned with plot than with presenting a breathtakingly frank depiction of what it's like to join lives with someone else, to raise a child, and to potentially give up art in the process.
The book's format reflects the narrator's disjointed, often depressed state of mind and perhaps the general distractions of modern life. It's particularly representative of the days of a new parent, as she states explicitly: "Caring for [the baby] required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious. They cut the day up into little scraps." While the collage style was highly effective at points, there were other scenes I wished I could linger in to experience more of Offill's insightful observations. If this had been a longer novel, the snippets may have grown tiresome, but at under 200 pages, it was a short and varied enough text to keep my attention.
The best parts of this book are stellar in their raw honesty. I didn't love it as wholeheartedly as many other readers, but overall, I admire this novel. I won't speak of "liking" or "enjoying" it, because it's mostly an uncomfortable read, though a worthwhile one.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Rebecca Turkewitz writes at The Toast about Literary Geography: "Growing up in Massachusetts, in a small town just north of Boston, I had plenty of opportunity to explore the nexus of real and imagined places. A disproportionate number of writers have called Massachusetts home, providing the state with a rich literary landscape. My childhood home is twenty minutes from Walden Pond and the town where Louisa May Alcott set Little Women. Esther Greenwood, Plath's heroine in The Bell Jar, felt stuck in suburbs whose culture I recognized."