Fragments

Fragments by Dan Wells

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This YA dystopia is a sequel to Partials, which I remember liking when I read it a long time ago. However, it seems to be a pattern I’m noticing lately that I don’t like the second book in a series as much as the first. Maybe my tastes are changing, maybe series are harder to continue than to begin.

This book has a lot of action. Kira is trying to uncover the conspiracy that created the Partials (genetically engineered soldiers) and the disease RM that wiped out most of the population. She teams up with two Partials and travels mostly on foot from Long Island to Colorado, through a toxic wasteland. The challenge before our heroes is so huge as to seem impossible, but somehow they make it through, of course. It strains credulity. The emphasis on action and the lack of depth makes me wonder if this series would have been better as a movie or maybe a TV series. The descriptions of ruined cities and poisoned landscapes would certainly be visually striking on a screen. The book is really long, and probably didn’t have to be. Several of the obstacles encountered by Kira and her friends could have been removed, shortening the book without losing much gravitas.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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This post-apocalyptic dystopia is terrifying, ghostly, and fascinating. 99% of the world population dies in a rapid, unstoppable flu pandemic, and survivors are left in the ruins of a civilization without electricity or law. It’s like The Walking Dead without the zombies: brutal armed conflicts between untrusting groups of survivors who scavenge necessities from houses guarded by skeletons. I found the descriptions of the rapid deterioration of life as we know it utterly realistic. If there’s a villain, it’s a religious fanatic who calls himself the Prophet, who takes child brides and preaches that those who died of the flu deserved it. The narrative is not chronological, but told in flashes between several characters’ loosely connected lives before, during, and after the pandemic.

This is the kind of book I can’t stop thinking about. The haunted world twenty years after the death of everyone continues to spook me. And yet, the story is not bleak or without hope. The efforts of the survivors to not only cooperate and live, but to find meaning in their altered lives through curating a museum, presenting Shakespeare, making music, writing a newspaper, were inspiring.

Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell has become a new favorite author of mine. I think she writes the best loves scenes in YA. I loved her book Landline and related to it a lot as a working mom and as someone who married her college sweetheart. That might still be my favorite of her novels, but I’ve really enjoyed diving into her backlist.

Attachments

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This is Rowell’s first novel, for adults. It’s set in 1999 and 2000, about an IT guy at a newspaper who has to read the company emails for his job and kind of falls in love with a movie reviewer after following her personal emails with her friend. The guy, Lincoln, is the protagonist, and it’s great to watch his growth through the book as he finally grows up, moves out, gets over his long-ago ex, and just kind of blossoms. The two spend most of the book crushing on each other from afar, and the tension is all about when they will finally actually talk to each other. With so much buildup, there’s a huge potential for letdown, but Rowell delivers.

Eleanor and Park

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In this intense YA romance, an overweight outcast bonds with a sweet half-Korean guy over comic books and music on the bus in 1986. The setting is crucial, informing the pop culture that the two bond over. Also, much of the tension comes from communication difficulties between the two, since Eleanor’s family does not have a phone line, and this is something that would have been unheard of even five years later. Transport the story to the present day with its cheap cell phones, and you lose about a hundred pages of angst. Eleanor’s stepfather is abusive, and she also has to deal with some nasty bullying, so her relationship with Park is the one bright spot in her life. It’s a bittersweet story, with an ending that’s ambiguous, painful but hopeful. If there’s a lesson, it might be about how dangerous it is for a teenager to depend so entirely on any one relationship.

Fangirl

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This is probably my second-favorite of Rowell’s books. It’s also her only one set entirely in the present day, rather than Rowell’s favored time period of the 80’s and 90’s. It’s about a super-introverted fantiction writer in her first semester of college. She (eventually) falls in love with her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, a farm boy. The ever-so-slow progress of their relationship and his careful campaign to win her trust is super sweet to watch. The one problem with this story may be that the boyfriend is too perfect. Seriously, his biggest flaw is that he’s too happy all the time.

Carry On

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Rowell’s most recent novel is a departure from her other books because it’s a fantasy. It’s a kind of spin-off from Fangirl because it’s either the fanfiction the main character writes, or it’s the ‘canon’ she’s inspired by (I like to think it’s the fanfiction). Simon Snow, the ‘chosen one’ hero, is clearly inspired by Harry Potter, as is the setting of a school of magic. Twilight fandom might be another influence, as the other main protagonist is a vampire. Rowell was clearly also inspired by ‘slash’ fanfiction, in which two ostensibly heterosexual male characters fall in love. I always appreciate when a magical ‘system’ works on two levels, and this one checks that box. In this universe, magic gets its power from words that are repeated frequently, but must also be constantly reinvigorated by neologisms and fresh phrasing. The conflicts between two factions in the magical community seem to echo the “canon wars.”

The Shadow Cabinet

The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson

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This book is the third in the Shades of London series, in which near-death experiences give teens the ability to see ghosts. Narrator and heroine Rory pursues missing friends, living, dead and in-between, going into hiding herself and thwarting a plot to release thousands of ghosts on London. After ending of the previous book, The Madness Underneath, I was expecting this book’s narrative to go one way, toward a certain type of angst and requited but unrequitable love, and instead Johnson pulled some narrative tricks I wasn’t anticipating, focusing on the mystery and action, and creating a different type of angst after all. Two twisted, formidable villains are introduced in this installment, building my anticipation for the next book. I like this series better than her 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but maybe that’s at least partly because I just like YA fantasy as a genre so much.

The next book in the series isn’t out; I haven’t even heard the title released yet. Johnson seems to be on an every-other-year publishing schedule with this series, so I don’t expect it until 2017, but I’m looking forward to it!

Eileen

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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This short novel is an intense character study of someone who’s hard to like, but easy to be fascinated by. Eileen is incredibly strange and neurotic, repressed to the point of self-harm, but also judgmental and unpleasant to everyone around her, except perhaps two people she mistakenly idolizes (for a time) and whom she also stalks. Her life is pretty bleak–she lives with her drunk father and works as a kind of secretary at a juvenile detention facility. She tells the story from the perspective of an old woman, with this time of her life far in the past. She views this story as the time when she escaped a terrible existence and became the bolder woman she was meant to be.

The two books I’ve read that are easiest to compare to this one are Tampa, a sex-reversed Lolita in which a middle-school teacher sleeps with her male students, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, with its crazy, ostracized narrator. All three of these voice-driven books feature insane, transgressive female narrators, but also show how they are products of their environments.

How Should a Person Be?

How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life by Shelia Heti

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When this book came out, there was a lot of talk about it, so I put it on my list. People were saying how it’s a book about female friendship and the struggle to produce art, topics which certainly appeal to me. A lot of people didn’t like it and called it navel-gazing, and others responded to that criticism with accusations of sexism: “You’d like it if it were a man doing the navel-gazing.” Because I know where I generally stand on those debates, I was fully prepared to like and enjoy this book, and was disappointed when I didn’t so much. It wasn’t because female friendship is boring or because a woman writing about her own life is objectionable to me (obviously), but just because I guess I didn’t like the particular things Heti had to say about her life, or the way she said them. Heti (or her character) divorces her husband for reasons I didn’t understand (I didn’t understand why she married him either), and has a relationship with a creepy guy who likes to make sex as degrading for his partners as possible. It takes her way too long to dump him. She moves from Toronto to New York because statistically it seems more likely she’ll make her way into the canon if she’s there. The story (not that there’s much plot) is framed by an “ugly painting” contest that Heti’s friends participate in. Heti’s friend Margeaux is a central figure, and the effect both have on each others’ art is a key question.

I’d compare Heti to Lena Dunham in that they’re both privileged white women making art and focusing on relationships between women. Both also explore relationships with men that are at least borderline exploitative or abusive. Dunham is a decade younger, a lot funnier, and has some important things to say about date rape, women’s bodies and representation, while Heti is more esoteric and existential, and less concerned with social justice. I’m between the two in age, but I think I prefer Dunham.