October 4, 2016

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading was three very different novels, all full of surprises:

THE QUEUE by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette: Yehya needs surgery to treat an injury, but the mysterious and authoritarian Gate that controls the city has ruled his injury could not have been sustained, so operating is prohibited. In hopes of obtaining permission, Yehya joins the queue of citizens waiting for the Gate to open. As days and then weeks pass, the Gate issues ever more restrictive proclamations but remains closed, and the queue becomes a community with its own businesses, religious figures, and scandals.

THE QUEUE is compelling and unsettling. I was caught up in Yehya's ordeal and rooting for him and his friends to triumph even though success seemed unlikely from the start. The people Yehya meets in line are a fascinating group of characters, each set on pursuing a doomed quest to take back some control of their life.

At times the novel is playful about the absurdity of the situation, as when an argument breaks out over the length of the line and is resolved by a surveyor who happens to be among those waiting: "Asking for a bit of quiet, he ran some quick calculations, using his geographical knowledge of the area, information provided to him by both parties (representatives from the beginning and end of the queue), and a detailed description of the area's various landmarks and general terrain." More often, though, there's a grim hopelessness to what the characters are going through, and the book reads more like a plausible reality than an exaggerated satire. It's a fascinating, disturbing read.

→ In PLANETFALL by Emma Newman, a group of colonists left Earth in search of God's city on a planet seen in a vision by the Pathfinder Suh-Mi. After a successful journey across space, the colony has thrived for more than 20 years at the foot of the city, where Suh has retreated to commune with God. Renata, who was Suh's closest friend on Earth, is one of the engineers who built the colony. She's also one of the only people aware of the truth behind what happened during Planetfall, when some of the landing pods were lost during descent. It was believed there were no survivors, but now a young man has walked across the planet to the colony, and he's the offspring of lost colonists. His arrival threatens to expose the secrets Renata has lived with for decades, not only about the circumstances of Planetfall, but also about everything that keeps her apart from the rest of the colony.

This novel incorporates an interesting range of subjects. Highly advanced 3D printing and network-enabled brains are standard in this society, well-imagined by Newman, and used to good effect in the plot. Religion also plays a large role, and while I didn't get a clear enough idea of how the Pathfinder's vision first brought the colonists together, I was intrigued by the reveals about how technology and faith shaped the colony's belief system. In all areas of the worldbuilding, Newman mingles technology and the organic in ways I found inventive and unexpected. I was particularly impressed by the evolution of Renata's character, from the reader's perspective, and the additional subject this brings to the story.

I liked many things about this book, but there was much that frustrated me. Renata hints at and muses on the big terrible secrets of Planetfall repeatedly, offering the reader glimpses but not revealing the full story until the end, and eventually this withholding of the truth became too artificial a conceit. A couple of additional elements suffered from repetition or were drawn out too long, while the ending was rushed and underdeveloped. Though these problems made for a less satisfying book than I'd hoped, the compelling story and original worldbuilding offer plenty that's worth reading.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein: In 1943, a wireless operator working as a spy with the British Special Operations Executive is captured in Nazi-occupied France after her plane goes down. She's a defiant prisoner, but following weeks of torture and the indignity of being repeatedly called English when she's actually Scottish, she agrees to tell her captors everything she knows about the British war effort. Her account focuses on her friendship with Maddie, a skilled pilot who flies for the Air Transport Auxiliary (since women aren't allowed in combat). Eventually the reader and the Gestapo learn the full story of what led up to the two women's doomed flight to France -- sort of.

There are some narrative tricks in this novel, and I anticipated that going in based on the buzz surrounding the book, but that information sent my reading expectations in the wrong direction. I might have held back on becoming emotionally invested (I'm apparently the only reader who didn't cry, and I cry at books all the time) because I wasn't sure what to believe. I should have trusted the story more, so I recommend going with the flow instead of searching for the twist, because it's not quite that sort of twist.

This is a suspenseful book about friendship in extreme circumstances. The two main characters are wonderful to spend time with, and their fierce friendship made me happy even when their experiences filled me with horror. I was fascinated to read a war novel with women working in so many different roles, doing as much as they were permitted and a few things they weren't. A lot of research went into the book, and the details of history, piloting, and spywork are woven into the story well. If any of these elements sounds appealing, I think you'll devour this novel as eagerly as I did.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Yahm writes at Atlas Obscura about the history and operations of a library located on the U.S.-Canada Border: "It's easy for Americans to go into the Haskell--they merely walk through the front door. But for Canadians it's a little more complicated, because they technically have to cross the international line, which is demarcated by a cement obelisk and a line of flower pots." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

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