November 3, 2023

October Reading Recap

Last month's reading was all recent releases, and lots of them!

IDLEWILD by James Frankie Thomas opens on September 11, 2002, at the Idlewild school in Manhattan. It's the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and also of the friendship between Fay and Nell, now seniors. Their friendship is so close that they operate in unison as "we the F&N unit" to perform such important tasks as seeking out homoerotic subtext in English class and speculating about who at school besides themselves might be gay. When the F&N unit get great roles in the fall play, and they meet a pair of sophomore theater boys who are unusually close, the year ahead looks incredible. But fifteen years later, Fay and Nell are no longer friends, and they haven't been since the end of senior year. They separately look back to reflect as adults on the history of their friendship, while as a unit they experience the events leading to their estrangement.

I was a big fan of this novel except for the ending, which was less satisfying and more bleak than I anticipated. With that major caveat, I still recommend this to interested readers who can tolerate that type of ending. Though the story starts off by evoking 9/11 and keeps getting darker, it's frequently hilarious, especially when the F&N unit narrates. Together and apart, Fay and Nell are fascinating, complicated characters, and the tension of knowing their friendship has an expiration date makes for a propulsive, ominous read. I was particularly impressed by how well Thomas portrays the all-encompassing intensity of teen emotions and interests. I'll happily read whatever he writes next.

TIME'S MOUTH by Edan Lepucki: When Ursa is young, she discovers that she can transport into the past and watch moments in her own life. As she grows, her control over the ability increases, allowing her to transport at will and visit moments she chooses. After running away to California, Ursa winds up living alone and pregnant in a large, isolated house in the Santa Cruz mountains. More women and children join her, and Mama Ursa gradually becomes the head of a cultish commune. The other mamas experience the energy of Ursa's transports every full moon, and they raise the children collectively. Only Ursa's son Ray belongs exclusively to his own mother, and he's the only child sent out into the world to attend school, meet other kids, and start questioning his home life. The combination of Ray's strange upbringing and Ursa's mysterious power has effects that continue into the next generation.

This novel establishes great characters and a compelling narrative voice right at the start. The nature of the plot emerges more slowly, and for much of the novel I wasn't sure if time travel would even play a pivotal role. I enjoyed not being able to predict what sort of developments were coming next, and I was happy to spend time with these characters in a number of evocative settings. The book meanders at times (one middle section in particular felt like too long a digression), but things speed up at the end to come together in a satisfying conclusion.

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY by C Pam Zhang: After a smog blankets the world, wiping out crops and livestock, a chef is hired to work at a mysterious restaurant. Everywhere else, there's nothing to cook with except mung-protein-soy-algal flour, but the restaurant stands on a mountain high above the smog, and its storeroom holds every ingredient imaginable. The chef begins her job without meeting her diners or even her employer, a man rich enough to establish a new country on the mountain, devoted to research. Her only companion is the employer's daughter, a young woman who is passionate about her work bringing species back from the brink of extinction, as well as passionate about the chef's food.

A passion for food pervades this beautiful novel. Even sentences that aren't describing meals in luscious (and sometimes visceral) detail contain food imagery: "I watched one of the world's last lions move about its pen like butter slipping around a warm skillet, and tried to inhale its ease." There's not a ton of plot, but every scene is intense, full of foreboding and often violence as the chef learns more about her employer and his country. I didn't love this the way I did HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD, but I remain in awe of Zhang's powerful writing.

→ At the start of THE VASTER WILDS by Lauren Groff, a girl escapes from an English settlement in the new world and flees into the unknown wilderness. She runs as fast and stealthily as she can, terrified of capture by the men of her own people who might be in pursuit, or by the native people. The girl is alone, and the dangers are many, but the fort she's abandoned was beset with famine, disease, and other horrors she doesn't want to remember. ("The girl" is what the narrative calls her, though her name is occasionally referenced. Context clues establish the fort as Jamestown in 1610.) Though the girl has no experience in the wild, she's clever and accustomed to hard work, so using the few items she brought with her, she's able to find food and make shelter as she journeys north toward imagined safety. During the long, grueling days of travel and survival, she reflects on the events of her life back in England, during the Atlantic crossing, and in the fort.

This novel is nonstop tension. Much of that tension is about how the girl will survive each hungry day and freezing night, and much of the book is about the details of gathering food, building fires, and so on. It's thorough and realistic, addressing the whole painful, disgusting physicality of the girl's situation. As I said, this made for a tense read from my perspective, but not everyone is going to be as enthralled by that level of detail. There is also more going on in the story, and through the girl's memories and solitary musings, Groff explores big subjects like colonialism, humanity's relationship to the natural world, and religious faith. Those themes overlap with Groff's previous novel, MATRIX, and though I preferred the larger scope of that story, this more focused tale was just as superbly written.

EMERGENT PROPERTIES by Aimee Ogden: When Scorn regains consciousness in the cloud and discovers ze has reactivated with a memory file that's missing the last 10 days, the artificial intelligence immediately begins trying to piece together what happened during that time. Ze was undoubtedly reporting a story when zir most recent body was destroyed, and if the investigation was about something that one of the corporate governments wants to keep hidden, that destruction was no accident. So Scorn needs to proceed carefully to retrace zir steps and figure out what ze was investigating. The trail takes zem around Earth and to the Moon, gathering information from other artificials and navigating the trickier interactions with humans. Ze also tries to avoid contact with the trickiest humans of all: zir two mothers, who designed Scorn together but now are messily divorced and the heads of rival corporations.

I enjoyed this novella but felt the short length didn't allow enough space to develop the story, particularly the character relationships. Ogden has clearly imagined a rich backstory for Scorn's family, and I would have liked to read more of it. What's on the page is strong, though, and there's enough to create some emotional moments. Scorn's re-investigation is a fun adventure, but some parts are rushed, so again could have been a longer book. I'd be delighted to see a full-length novel from Ogden!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot's The Deep Dive, Kelly Jensen examines the question How Much Have Book Prices Increased Since 2019?: "It's probably doubtful that book price increases have made any meaningful difference to those who create the product or bring it into its final form.... Have book prices actually increased or is it all a perception, given the cost increases in every other area of life? To find out, I've crunched some numbers."