November 6, 2019

October Reading Recap

Someday I'll return to blog content other than book reviews, but for now, here's another month of recommended reading:

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor's solitary life of routine and self-sufficiency is first thrown into disarray when she discovers the man she is determined to marry. Eleanor hopes this match will satisfy Mummy, a demanding figure who exerts a formidable influence even from a distance. Then, just as Eleanor starts learning everything she can about the object of her interest, progress is interrupted by a number of interactions that are decidedly unplanned. Eleanor is bystander to an elderly man's medical emergency, and through the interference of her irritating coworker Raymond, she ends up entangled with this stranger's loving family. She's forced into some difficult new situations and some pleasant ones. With Raymond's prompting, she begins to contemplate how she's arranged her life and consider that other options might be possible.

You can guess from the title of this book that Eleanor is not fine, but you probably wouldn't guess from the marketing that the reasons are profoundly dark and disturbing. While Eleanor's observations and misunderstandings are often quite funny, this is not the hilarious bit of whimsy suggested by many of the blurbs. It's a heartbreaking story about trauma and recovery, skillfully presented through a narrator who's uncertain about her own past. Honeyman writes Eleanor, Raymond, and the people around them with care and nuance, and I was glad to be invited into their lives through bad times and good. ELEANOR OLIPHANT is completely wonderful.

MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim: In an isolated Virginia town, the Yoo family runs Miracle Submarine, a private facility offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat chronic conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy. A terrible chain of events leads to an explosive fire that kills and injures several. A year later, one of the people involved is on trial for arson and murder. Tense courtroom scenes and character recollections piece together the events of the tragic day and everything that led up to it, revealing that nobody's testimony is entirely truthful.

This is a fantastically written mystery in which every new perspective introduces details that plausibly undermine the previous explanations of what happened. The intricate plot does require more coincidences of bad timing than would occur in real life, but it's all so cleverly constructed that nothing seemed far-fetched. Beyond the mystery, the novel tells an emotional story of complicated characters who are suffering over their roles in the tragedy. I sympathized with all of them, even as they admitted to regrettable actions and thoughts. The novel explores difficult issues around parenting, disability, and immigration with sensitivity. I recommend this suspenseful debut and look forward to more from Kim.

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz: Tess has always traveled through time with the goal of editing history in a more progressive direction. She and her fellow like-minded travelers have discovered a group working against their changes, men from the future who follow the 19th century moral crusader Anthony Comstock. These men are trying to edit the timeline to take away women's rights, then lock that version in place by permanently destroying the time machines, which are ancient and mysterious geological formations. As women from different eras join forces to defeat these men, Tess also attempts to edit a traumatic event from her personal history.

This is an exciting time travel story containing a great mix of real and imagined history from several eras. I didn't always connect with the characters due to sections that felt more didactic than natural, but I was very invested in the high stakes of their endeavors. I especially enjoyed reading about and pondering the book's unusual time travel mechanics: how it works physically, what the constraints are, how much or little it's understood at different times. I'm not convinced I followed all the tricky time travel logic depicted, but I loved seeing a world where time machines are generally known about (and even portrayed on a popular unrealistic TV show) but available to only a few because of practical limitations. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is full of fascinating ideas, cleverly woven into an imperfect yet compelling novel.

Don't miss the delightful music video by Grape Ape, a feminist punk band featured in the novel but sadly lost to our timeline.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meg Elison writes for Tor.com about The Hidden Layers of Every Novel: "Every book is the tip of an iceberg. Most of what an author knows, through research and through experience, is ballast to fiction. What is written and what is published are a tiny sliver of all that exists. Every writer you have ever read and loved is ninety percent unpublished underwater knowledge, and ten percent ghostly blue published prose." (Thanks, Andrea!)