December 5, 2023

November Reading Recap

November's reading included two book club picks and a range of speculative fiction:

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett: Marina works at a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota researching statins. She's secretly dating the CEO, but that's the only adventurous aspect of her life, and she likes it that way. Her closest colleague, on the other hand, was excited to undertake an adventure on the company's behalf. Months ago, Anders set off for the Amazon in search of the elusive Dr. Swenson, who is developing a promising new drug for the company but refuses to provide any updates on her progress. Now Dr. Swenson has finally sent a letter, and it brings the shocking news that Anders is dead. This tragic development makes it even more urgent to locate Dr. Swenson and understand what's happening at her remote research camp. Marina has a history with Dr. Swenson, though it's far more fraught than she wants anyone to know, and so to her horror, she's sent to follow Anders's footsteps to Brazil.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel. Patchett always writes great characters, and STATE OF WONDER features some particularly memorable ones. The settings are also memorably rendered in full sensory detail. Patchett carefully develops the story's tension and suspense (including the suspense of tedious waiting), and she delivers plot turns I didn't see coming.

The story deals with interesting ethical questions, including about the implications of studying remote indigenous people. Many characters behave badly on this and other fronts, and the narrative highlights these failings by design, Still, it bothered me that no members of the tribe are ever referred to with names, and I found it implausible how little the researchers appear to know about the tribal society or language after decades of study. I was engrossed enough to overlook these flaws and suspend my disbelief, but not everyone in my book club felt the same, and we had an expansive discussion.

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin: A.J. Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island. He loves books and is especially fond of well-crafted short stories. Or rather, he loves the books he approves of and is judgmental about the rest, which makes him an antisocial and off-putting bookseller. That A.J. is recently widowed and overwhelmed with grief doesn't help matters, but he's always been curmudgeonly beyond his years and an outsider on close-knit Alice Island. Then several unexpected things happen to A.J., starting with the theft of a rare and valuable book, that change the course of his life and his relationship to the community.

Every chapter of this sweet, clever novel opens with a note from A.J. recommending a short story. The notes themselves are part of the novel's story, hinting at what's to come and setting up elements that are echoed in the chapter. This book is very different tonally from Zevin's excellent TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, but both demonstrate her interest in playing with structure and form, though it's subtler here.

It's probably no coincidence that A.J.'s very first note questions whether the referenced story is realistic, because this novel isn't overly concerned with plausibility. Plot events are sometimes far-fetched and characters are larger than life. Still, I sped through the plot to find out what would happen next and loved getting to know the characters who become a new family for A.J. There are some predictable aspects to the story, but it also often subverted my expectations, and it was a delight to read throughout.

NEVERMOOR: THE TRIALS OF MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: Like everyone born with a curse, Morrigan Crow is listed with the Registry Office for Cursed Children, and she's considered to blame for any disaster or bad luck that occurs in Jackalfax. She's also doomed to die whenever the calendar comes back around to Eventide. When Eventide arrives a year earlier than predicted, Morrigan expects her short, unhappy life to be cut even shorter. Instead, during Morrigan's final meal with her unpleasant family, the eccentric Jupiter North arrives and whisks her away to the secret city of Nevermoor. For no reason Morrigan can imagine, Jupiter doesn't care about her curse, and he's selected her as a candidate for the Wundrous Society. Morrigan is thrilled at the prospect of finally belonging somewhere, but to gain membership in the Society, she'll have to pass a series of entrance trials she barely understands.

This delightful, well-written story maintains a good balance between the whimsy of its world and the perilously high stakes of Morrigan's circumstances. The plot intrigued me from the start and took some turns I didn't anticipate. I quickly grew fond of Morrigan, Jupiter, and the other characters, and I liked watching the friendships that develop. I don't usually read books aimed at kids, but this one held up pretty well to my adult novel standards. It's the first in a series that I've been told just keeps getting more interesting, so I'll be reading on.

A FEAST FOR FLIES by Leigh Harlen: Zira is a Reader, able to read and extract other people's memories. She didn't want this ability, and she certainly doesn't want to have to use it for law enforcement purposes, but she has no choice. While performing a reading to convict a criminal, Zira exerts the small amount of freedom she has and conceals some information. But the consequences are far worse than she imagined, and now Zira is under investigation, and a suspect in a murder she didn't commit. Solving the murder herself might be the only way to get out of this mess with her life. And if she's really lucky, she might find a way to escape the city-spaceship where she lives and travel to one where she can be free.

This is a novella, and as is often the case when I read novellas, I wished there was room for more: more exploration of the world, more sense of character histories, more time for plot to unfold. What's here is good, though. The story is exciting and fast-paced, the characters have nuance, and I could picture the seedy neon setting. Plus, Zira has a loyal support dog by her side, and stories are always better with a very good dog!

SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells: SecUnit has been through a lot recently, and it isn't operating at normal performance reliability. It would really like to get its humans off the planet full of alien contamination, but they're insisting on staying to aid the humans who live there. The corporate task force that's arrived to push their own agenda isn't helping those negotiations. They have their own Security Units, killing machines without agency who put everyone at risk, especially a SecUnit who is trying to conceal from outsiders that it's hacked its governor module.

This is the seventh book in the wonderful Murderbot Diaries that are best read from the beginning. It picks up immediately after NETWORK EFFECT, and I wish it included a little more recapping of that novel's complicated story. The accumulated trauma of previous events is finally taking a significant toll on SecUnit, and in this installment, its usual extreme competence is impaired by a lot of error and doubt. That adds a new level of complexity and emotion to the story and character. I love the way this series has grown and developed, and I look forward to more!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rumaan Alam describes his family's experience on set for the movie adaptation of his incredible LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND: "To me, the movies are impossibly glamorous, the fact that I'm (however tangentially) involved in one kind of thrilling. But the making of movies involves a lot of standing around and waiting. My kids seemed puzzled, but bafflement might be childhood's natural state. I was confused myself. I knew the whole scenario was pretend, but it was something I had once imagined, privately, and put down on the page. And there it all was, all around me, real as the sky above."

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