Station Eleven (CBR10 #58)

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I apologize now, this review will not really be a review. It is more a love letter to the community at Cannonball Read.

Of the ten books we had to choose from for the So Popular bingo square, I had read most, but not all. The ones I haven’t read I don’t care to (looking at you, Divergent) so I was thinking about re-reading Eleanor & Park to go with last year’s re-read of Attachments or maybe The Martian to see if I still had a book crush on Mark Watney. I wrote up my #cbr10bingo list with a couple options and went about scheduling the books that were already on my to read list for the year.

But then I realized that what I really wanted to do was revisit the book that led to our having Cannon Book Club in the first place. MsWas had floated the idea at the end of 2014 about possibly having a book club. When I read Station Eleven the first time I knew that this was a book that needed a book club experience, and I loved it enough to step a little bit further out of my comfort zone (I had just organized my first book exchange for the site, even though we’d had one the previous year) and volunteer to do it. This book grew me as a person in ways I would never have expected when I picked it up at the end of January 2015.

The stories in Station Eleven ask you to think big thoughts: what can you do? What do you do if you know you have a matter of hours left to live? How do you survive? What mark can you leave behind? Do you even get to choose? What are the benefits of remembering? Of forgetting? While I was reading this time I knew what was coming, so I wasn’t as caught out by Mandel’s ability to distract me and send the reader flying in different directions or timelines than anticipated, but her style and mechanics still held together a finely drawn world which is eerie, unsettling, and full of tension waiting to be released. There were moments so exquisitely written, nuance settled deeply into the pages, that it in some ways felt like coming home.

I still love this book, and I love the togetherness it helped inspire. I look forward wholeheartedly to our FIFTH year of book club next year where we’re planning to tackle Good Omens and who knows what else. My most heartfelt thanks to all the people who make Book Club and Cannonball Read possible, I am so very lucky to have all of you in my life.

 

 

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All Systems Red (CBR10 #57)

Bless Cannonball Read, praise be for friends who you know share a similar taste in books, and let the world rejoice for Murderbot. I’ll be using a slightly modified plot summary from Goodreads because, well, I’m really tired.:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are (required to be) accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder (you’re shocked, I know), safety isn’t a primary concern. On a distant (uninhabited) planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is (and go back to watching the serials on the feeds). But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.”

I have a very hit and miss relationship with novellas, but Martha Wells seems to have nailed just the right amount of characterization and world building and forward momentum of the plot without the equation going out of balance. I identified with Murderbot from very early on – Wells has written an android that has depression and social anxiety, and is generally apathetic about the whole “life” thing.

It’s subtle in the best possible meaning of the word. The story is told from Murderbot’s perspective and we are thrown into a world where we are at the whims of said apathetic android to piece the world together.  As Murderbot becomes more invested (particularly in keeping tits entertainment feed and keeping its rating from going any lower), we learn more about why the humans are where they are and why.

Murderbot’s deadpan delivery and dark humor underline how it views itself. While self-aware and in control, Murderbot still prefers to be thought of as just another piece of equipment. Due to that, it struggles to finds ways to keep itself separate from the humans while still performing its job of keeping the humans alive. I was pulled in by the sheer uncomfortableness Murderbot feels – it gets injured early in the book and I frankly aghast at its failing human parts and fluids and just wants to be left in peace to regenerate. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing and humans looking at it and seeing the details of  said personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious. This is definitely a different way into unpacking a story about relationships and our humanity.

It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”

I’ll be picking up the next three in the series for my holiday travel reading.

Last Rituals (CBR10 #56)

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Last Rituals is the first in series focusing on Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, Icelandic lawyer and divorced mother of two. We are introduced to Thóra following the discovery of the body of a young German student Harald Guntlieb at a university in Reykjavík, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police wasted no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that they have the right person. They ask Thóra to investigate on the recommendation of her old professor and it isn’t long before the deceased’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts becomes entwined in Thóra and her partner’s research.

Beginning with a promising premise the book began to lag rather quickly. The plot in and of itself is interesting, but the narrative is structured in a way where there is virtually no suspense to keep the reader interested. The story also suffers from a lack of emotional intensity, there’s no sense of danger or excitement, with unnecessary attempts at trying to focus on the home life and opinions of Thóra aren’t successfully woven into the structure of the investigation.

For me, it was a fairly stilted and detail heavy novel. Based on the nature of the inquiry Thóra and Matthew are conducting the amount of detail thrown at the reader could have benefitted from some paring back, in many cases it just feels like an information dump. Last Rituals is essentially a straightforward recounting of the investigation of a macabre murder, but it is bogged down by wading through the intricacies of Harald’s research. As Thóra ploughs on through a wealth of documentation she uncovers more questions than answers. Which leads to one of my least favorite tropes – the slow and incomplete disclosure of information from Harald’s family particularly the significant revelations which are withheld and belatedly disclosed – it feels like a ruse to cloud the readers thinking and perhaps add a little excitement, which it doesn’t really accomplish if that was the goal.

This clearly well researched novel is unfortunately the antithesis of a page-turner, and for that reason this review probably reads harsher than my three star rating would indicate. I’m left with the feeling that Last Rituals requires a lot of effort from its readers for a fairly limited return. I am however hopeful that Thóra’s next job will involve topics with more general interest and less academic research (which in all honesty I was expecting to enjoy more – I find witchcraft quite interesting) and that Sigurdardottir leans more heavily into Thóra’s dry sense of humor.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Dire King (CBR10 #55)

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While I have a couple of series underway, there was only one where the final book was the only one I had left to read, so the This Is The End square was a simple choice. The Jackaby series is comprised of four books, Jackaby, The Beastly Bones, Ghostly Echoes, and The Dire King. I have absolutely enjoyed my time with the series over the past few years, but the fourth book was unfortunately the weakest.

The Dire King continues the story of the Seelie and Unseelie War that is enveloping New Fiddleham. Abagail,  an independent, self-assured, feminist, and delightfully sarcastic lead character and assistant to Jackaby, the Seer, who is just kooky enough to be interesting without being off-putting are gathering the forces of good to battle the forces of evil as led by the Dire King we met in Ghostly Echoes. As is often the case in series closers The Dire King takes the status quo and turns it on its head. While there were some tropes that I was happy to see, there were several others that left me wishing that William Ritter had chosen something else. A hero’s journey is expected, but the end game of that journey doesn’t have to look so similar to other journeys out there in the world of YA. But, just as I was feeling the need to roll my eyes Ritter breaks out a few tricks he had hinted at along the way and I was won over again.

My only major complaint (which honestly didn’t keep me from reading the book in two nights) was that this book is very clearly part two of Ghostly Echoes. One of the things I loved about Jackaby was that while it left the door open for more stories in the world, that it was self-contained and complete. The three other books in the series are much more tightly linked and while it didn’t bother me in Ghostly Echoes, it absolutely did in The Beastly Bones and this one.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Daughter of Fortune (CBR10 #54)

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It took me a long time to read Daughter of Fortune. By some cosmic joke, which the reading gods seem to enjoy, I had paced my book choices in such a way that this book overlapped with Jane Eyre and that is quite a lot of heavy book to process all at once. What it did for me (besides slow me down a bit) was provide an opportunity to compare and contrast two different powerhouse women writers writing about the self-determination of their female leads. Isabel Allende is a white whale author for me. I first tackled her The House of the Spirits two years ago, and was simply blown away by it. She writes in an incredibly dense style, using history, allegory, and incredibly high personal stakes to weave her narrative together. Like The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune wasn’t a novel that I could power through, or skim, or wanted to. I felt the self-imposed deadlines nipping at my heels, but this remained a book that needed and deserved to be savored.

Daughter of Fortune is the story of Eliza Sommers. It starts as the orphaned girl who was left on the doorstep of the Sommers home in Valparaiso, Chile and is raised in Valparaíso’s British colony by well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her rigid elder brother Jeremy enters her teenage years. At the tender age of sixteen she meets and falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, a poor clerk who works for Jeremy and is not an appropriate suitor for a girl raised as a high class English lady. Then, as neither Joaquin or Eliza know how to proceed,  gold is discovered in the hills of northern California and Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune. Eliza discovers that she is pregnant and decides to follow and try to find him in California. The first half of the novel displays the magical realism that I expected from Allende, and we are deeply rooted in the story of Eliza and her town.

Then, we have the fortunate meeting with Tao Chi’en and Eliza’s escape in the hold of a ship to California, and her terrifying miscarriage. At this point, the tone of the novel shifts entirely, we leave behind most of the magical realism components (Tao’s faith still play into that arena) and are instead on a journey with Eliza as she truly leaves her girlhood behind, first in search of the elusive Joaquin, and then as she discovers her true self and the kinds of relationships that are truly soul-filling. As I got to the end of the book it became a little easier to call, a little more by the numbers than I was anticipating. While I was deeply engrossed in Eliza and Tao’s intertwined stories the narrative felt unfinished. We are left for the most part without definite conclusions, and while that is certainly the author’s prerogative and a sign of surety, it left me a bit cold at the end of the day. But this is still a stunning work about what defines being fortunate, what lives can be carved out of seemingly limited possibilities, and the strength of faith in oneself.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Jane Eyre (CBR10 #53)

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For many, Jane Eyre is part of the reading undertaken during their education. For some it is read in high school, for others college, but for me it never joined the reading lists of my various courses. In fact, until several years ago when I read Agnes Grey I had read nothing at all by any of the Bronte sisters. It is however fully in the milieu of a reader’s culture; I understood it enough to get the jokes in Texts from Jane Eyre and Hark! A Vagrant.

I have seen cinematic versions of the story (quite enjoying the Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender version and the visual world built around them by Cory Joji Fukunaga) but I don’t know that even those had prepared me for the version of the story written by Bronte. I had been meaning to read this for years, and had the audio version read by Thandie Newton (a lovely narrator) waiting for me in my Audible account. With the advent of CBR10 Bingo one of my white whales became This Old Thing, as it was published in 1847 – 171 years ago.

I suppose this story is well known, the orphaned Jane Eyre is expelled from her aunt’s home at age 10 and sent away to school. Eight years in residence there prepares her to be a governess and she finds a position at Thornfield Hall as the governess of Adele, a young French orphaned girl. She enjoys her life there, even if it is a bit quiet and mundane. The owner of Thornfield returns, the house becomes livelier, and over time and conversations a love connection is formed between Rochester and Jane Eyre.  Rochester’s past and the madwoman in the attic prevent their marriage and Jane leaves Rochester to attempt a life of her own on her own terms. Events however bring her back to Thornfield Hall.

While the gothic elements of the novel do place this firmly in its time, it also has incredibly beautiful and descriptive turns of phrase throughout, and such language makes this a classic which has kept its place in the great pantheon all this time. The book moreover doesn’t sound its age, if that makes sense. It is of course more formal than our writing is today; there are references and allusions that no longer match our daily lives, but this is in so many ways a modern novel.

Its modernity does not prevent it from being both long (over 19 hours of audio or about 600 pages) and slow. While on the whole I enjoyed my time with the novel, and with Thandie Newton’s voice portraying Jane as she often broke the fourth wall to refer to me as “dear reader”, it did not prevent me from finding myself needing to be at a secondary task while listening: I needed to drive, to color, to cook, or clean while I was reading with my ears in order to keep myself engaged.  As Jen K said in her review “these people don’t have conversations, they monologue at each other”, and there was one point following the discovery of Rochester’s attempt at bigamy where his character spoke for nearly an hour straight.

In addition to being incredibly personal, Jane Eyre is a novel of intensity; it is a passionate depiction of a woman’s search for equality and freedom. We see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of whatever agency and independence she can carve out for herself. That, for me is the crux of the novel – it is at its core the story of a young woman who chooses herself above all else. When her principles and sense of self were going to be compromised, she removed herself from the harmful situations causing them to be so time and time again, from that of a small child begging to go to school to walking away from two proposals of marriage. Yes, there is romance, an exploration of passion and sexuality (fire and ice abound), and an examination of the extremes of masculinity (Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester, St. John Rivers), but those are merely elements surrounding the center. We see in Bertha (the woman the book locks in the attic) the dearth of agency and independence that was possible and probable. Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed, Miss Temple, Helen Burns, Mrs. Fairfax, Bessie, and the Rivers Sisters show the smaller continuum of expectations available to women and the vagaries of life Jane is navigating.

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This book is read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.