Apr 25, 2016

Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins

This is an incredible book, one that pulled me in so deeply that I had trouble removing my brain from the Gold Fame Citrus headspace. California, along with the entire Southwest, is in such serious drought that most of its denizens have been evacuated, all but a few foolhardy, freedom-loving people. Water and food are the only real commodities, we quickly learn, as we follow Luz and her boyfriend Ray around "the starlet's" house, in which they are squatting. Luz wears Hermes scarves and designer dresses left behind by the starlet, while Ray digs latrines and scrounges up food for them. On a trip to a bonfire, they come across a toddler, a little girl whose people Luz finds incredibly untrustworthy. On an instinct and a whim, Ray and Luz take the girl home with them, and then decide to brave the many risks of fleeing the area for the unaffected parts of the country. To do so, they must pass through the Amargosa, a massive, ever-growing, ever-moving dune sea that is swallowing the Southwest.

This very brief summary does no justice to the writing, which is utterly unique and visceral. Flashes of Luz's past as an underage model haunt her, Ray's inadequacies as a man and caregiver threaten to destroy them all, and the Amargosa, silent and deadly and beautiful, looms over all. The world is different enough to be shocking, similar enough to be uncomfortably familiar. I finished this book on a plane across the country and found it difficult to look down upon the earth and see anything other than the world Watkins describes. She is young and her talent is formidable. I look forward to seeing what work she produces in the future.

The Rose Society, by Marie Lu

This is the sequel to the dark, brutal young adult fantasy novel, The Young Elites, and it is even darker and more brutal. Adelina, cast out and betrayed by everyone she's ever cared about, seeks to gain power and protect other malfettos by gathering together her own group of Elites. These are a dangerous group of young people, themselves rejected by the Young Elites or disdaining to ever join up in a common cause. And Adelina's hallucinations are getting out of control, to the point where her mind is creating them without her even knowing it. Her need for vengeance is fierce and threatens all around her, and when she finally gets what she wants, the victory is hollow. What will Adelina do now?

I'm not sure I'll be reading the next (and presumably, last) installment of this series. It really is terrifically dark, to the point where I wonder if it's all that appropriate for its teenage audience. The writing and story are easy enough to follow, but Adelina's darkness only seems to grow until she pushes everyone she loves away from her. Perhaps the lesson will be learned in the third book, but even so, I question Lu's decision to delve so deeply into a wounded soul. Bullied teenagers might find Adelina's actions inspiring, rather than horrifying.

Apr 12, 2016

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

I probably wouldn't have picked up this book had I known it was about suicide; had that been the case, I would have sorely missed out on a literary treasure. Yolandi and her older sister Elfrieda grew up in a tiny Mennonite town near Winnipeg. Elf goes on to become a world renowned pianist while Yoli writes young adult rodeo books. Elf, as many great artists seem to be, is burdened by extreme depression. With some flashbacks to their childhood, Yoli narrates Elf's most recent suicide attempt and the affects on their family. This book is devastating and stunningly beautiful, and as I finished it last night I felt as though my heart had been gently cut from my chest and pulled into little bite-sized pieces, to be patched up again with masking tape. This is not an easy book to read, not at all, but it's well worth the effort.

Apr 2, 2016

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson is one of the top hard science fiction writers working today, and Aurora is another fine example of his work, though it didn't grab me quite as much as his Red Mars trilogy or 2312
The most interesting thing about this book is that the narrator is the ship. Through conversation with a couple key colonists and with the help of a quantum computer, the ship's various artificial processes are able to achieve, over the course of several hundred years, something very close to (if not actually) sentience. As such, seeing the humans through the ship's eyes provides the reader with a unique narrative experience, albeit heavy on the science and technology (which is Robinson's fan base anyways, and therefore quite appropriate). The last part is especially beautifully written, and I am once again impressed with Robinson's skill as a scientific as well as narrative writer.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

It's not fair: Not only is Hope Jahren a ridiculously smart scientist, she is also an insanely talented writer. These two things should not be allowed in the same person; it makes the rest of us look bad.

Lab Girl is the memoir of a woman, of a scientist, and of a woman scientist. In alternating chapters that describe the life cycle of a tree (far more fascinating and beautiful than you've ever imagined it to be) and Jahren's own experience with growing, we get a long, wonderful glimpse of what makes a scientist tick. Triumphs and set backs occur professionally and personally, and Jahren's love of science makes the two nearly indistinguishable. We're also treated to the most cogent, comprehensible description of mania that I've ever read, and though it takes up only a few short pages, it will stay with me forever.

Jahren's loving description of the growing tree is so gorgeous at times it nearly brought me to tears. Her unique and amazing relationship with her lab partner, Bill, as well as the birth of her son, definitely did bring me to tears. This book is a tribute and a plea, a call for people to care more about science and the overworked, underpaid practitioners thereof, and an admonition to care for this planet and for each other as best we can. What an incredible woman, writer, scientist, book.

Apr 1, 2016

The First Book of Calamity Leek, by Paula Lichtarowicz

This, my friends, is a hell of a book. It takes one of my favorite aspects of science fiction - being thrust into a whole new world and having to struggle to understand it and its dialect - and marries it to the creepy children of horror lore. And it's fabulous. Narrated by Calamity Leek, a teenage girl and an unreliable narrator if ever there was one, the world she describes is vastly different from the one we know to be true, and it becomes only more chilling the deeper we dive into it. I don't want to give anything away; this is a novel best discovered as an untouched country and experienced unexpectedly. Lichtarowicz packs a huge emotional and richly plotted wallop into less than three hundred pages, gifting us a work of unparalleled originality. This is a book I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.