Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Essex Serpent is a thought-provoking, lushly gothic read that imagines an Austen-esque heroine in her darkest timeline. Sarah Perry, much like her insatiably curious heroine Cora, unearths everything she can find within her narrative, revealing pieces of debates about religious belief, social obligation, and the nature of friendship. It’s a story filled with the pursuit of forbidden desires and is really fairly devoid of redemption–which is, I think, exactly the point. Mythical serpents are always better in our minds than seeing the truth flayed on the shore, and Perry plays with this idea in human nature. What if the things that we wanted to happen–with our friendships, with our fascinations, with our attractions, with our deaths–were all actually granted? Would it be what we wanted and hoped for? Or would we rather cling to the mystery of what our lives might be like? The novel brims with life, but also with defeat. An absorbing read.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is wildly experimental and very, very, very weird. It’s an ambitious and powerful hellscape with a spellbinding staying power. Matt Bell makes a torrential statement with this novel, the narrative structure of which resembles something like echoes that you can see bouncing off of a set of mirrors that you can hear. It’s truly beyond literal description and yet finds its footing in classical allegorical territory–it’s a psychological tour through grief, marital love and resentment, self-hatred, and the perverse (or courageous) will to keep going through any despair. The reader who approaches this monstrosity needs to be willing to accept almost anything as truth, and must be up for constant gut-turning imagery and lots and lots of pain. But: the reward is great. The story is a spinning, dreamlike voyage that I found impossible to go back from once I began. Bell pulls his reader deeper and deeper in, until it’s done. The rage and sorrow communicated in this story are as real as the plot is impossible, and that’s the towering literary feat of this pitch-dark, fantastical read. It reminds us that our choices, however we may choose to move on from them, are irreversible, and only our own to atone for.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance is one part American tall tale, one part panel interview, and one part old-fashioned fantasy. Ruth Emmie Lang takes a risk–which pays off with varied levels of success–in crafting a story about one man, but told through the eyes of those who knew him. As the perspectives shift, we understand the different ways in which people react to difference. As someone who enjoys fantasy, I am always willing to suspend disbelief, and I relished the stunning imagery associated with Weylyn’s natural magic within the book. However, there are instances of rushed or oversimplified human interaction that feel contrived from time to time… for me, it’s harder to suspend that kind of disbelief. Where I do feel this book really succeeds is in its tipping over of the “magical chosen one” trope. Weylyn is a hero who doesn’t want to be one, doesn’t want to hone his gifts, and in fact would reject them utterly if he could. It is this, rather than the magic itself, that is so fascinating. While he does use his power at certain moments, it is often out of his own control, and that is a feeling that makes his character (while the most fantastical) probably the most believable one in this sometimes funny, often charming read.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Great Alone is one of those emotionally-driven novels that will have you tearing through it like a VW bus careening over icy roads, hungry to know how everything will turn out for the memorable characters that Hannah weaves into this wilderness tale set in 1970s Alaska. Even though several of the characters edge hard into archetype, she breathes such detail into them that they feel real despite it. (And as we all know, some people really are living breathing archetypes… so hey.) While the book spans a multigenerational struggle against patterns of domestic violence and definitely mediates on the ways the wild works on us as human beings, the true shining gem of the novel is the love story at its core. A great read for those who want an emotionally dramatic story that is both harrowing and satisfying by the end.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Crimes of Grindelwald by J.K. Rowling

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - The Original Screenplay

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – The Original Screenplay by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoy reading screenplays, and since I also enjoyed this film on screen, I knew I’d be savoring this one. Gosh, is it beautifully designed! I’ve cultivated a real love for the Fantastic Beasts series; the more I watch (or read) them, the more I like them. I am a devoted fan of the Harry Potter books, and I liked the films well enough, but I’ve really been captured hard by this new, darker installment in the universe. It’s always a joy to see J.K. Rowling’s pyrotechnics of imagination in play, and I especially respect her decision to give us a hero who challenges traditional notions of masculinity. Newt is quiet, awkward, deeply empathetic, hapless almost all the time, but decisive when it counts. Compassion is his greatest power. I’m fascinated by his place as the lynchpin in this series. Magical beasties and ever-evolving intrigue doesn’t hurt either. And Dumbledore is inscrutable as ever. Looking forward to the next chapter…

View all my reviews

Book Review: I am Still Alive by Kate Marshall

I Am Still Alive

I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I Am Still Alive is an incredible YA pick for the reader who loves tense action and adventure. The novel fits in the tradition of other classic survival writers like Jack London and Gary Paulsen, but with a whole new, fiercer twist. The 16-year-old heroine–who becomes stranded in the far northern Canadian wilderness on her own–is complicated and realistic, both naive and badass in believable ways. The things she has to learn and push through to try to survive evoke very visceral reactions. I was gasping! Marshall is absolutely brutal when it comes to envisioning the scenarios that can and do happen when humans are pitted against the physical and emotional trauma of survival situations. My heart was both broken and strengthened by the end. If you’re looking for a riveting read to tear through in a couple days, this is it.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Startide Rising by David Brin

Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)

Startide Rising by David Brin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was made for lovers of classic science fiction, which is why I stopped in my tracks after seeing it in a pile of pulled library books and immediately took it home. Sentient space dolphins. Language play with poetry. Warring alien races. Hostile marine environments. Won the Nebula. Won the Hugo. Written in the bizarrely fantastic weird world of 1980s space opera. Yes, please.

This book is everything you think it’s going to be. It’s an adventure on an epic scope. There are tons of characters, most of them dolphin and human spacefaring crewmates, who spin in a delicate dance of heroes, traitors, scoundrels, friends, lovers, scholars, and philosophers. Along the way, there are interesting ideas explored about sentience–what makes someone human and whole? There’s also a clear message of responsibility and respect for our fellow living beings and their potential for intelligences that we may never understand. Is this book without flaw? No. But is it the best of what it promised to be? Quite possibly. It feels very much like a very long Star Trek episode, starring a cast of mostly dolphins, and in the world of space opera, at least in my book, that’s a great thing. 5/5

View all my reviews

Book Review: People of the Sturgeon by Kathleen Schmitt Kline

People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin's Love Affair with an Ancient Fish

People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish by Kathleen Schmitt Kline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a lovely, info-packed volume for the rare reader who is deeply interested in the fishing and conservation history of lake sturgeon in Wisconsin. Luckily, I am one of those readers! The volume has lots of great pictures and many entertaining and educational anecdotes. This special fish has deeply impacted (and continues to impact) the culture of those who coexist with it, hunt it, and protect it. If you love sturgeon and learning about the history of fishery conservation, you will also love this book.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emily X.R. Pan’s debut is a lovely, complex addition to modern young adult fiction. It’s rare and special in so many ways–in the fact that it’s magical realism, in its honest and multifaceted sorrow, in its brave statements on family, blame, and the realities of depression. This book changed the way I saw the world while I was reading it. The main character’s visions are immersive to that extent, and her way of understanding emotions through color is cool. The novel is a love song to Leigh’s mother, and all mothers who have left the earth to take a different form.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Southern Reach, #1-3)Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a big fan of VanderMeer’s Borne, I was ready for my journey into Area X, as willing and sharp for the voyage as The Biologist herself. “Yes!” I said, inside my brain, “Rain down 600 pages of Jeff VanderMeer weirdness upon me!” And lo, I was not disappointed.

There’s a large dose of many wonderful things in this trilogy. Stunning and bizarre natural imagery. Deliciously disturbing ideas on psychological and spiritual levels. Characters that subvert archetype. Experimental prose. Endings that deliver satisfaction but still keep their secrets to a degree. Science fiction that feels truly new.

In terms of the overall story shape, I felt like Annihilation hurtled me forward, while Authority was overlong and tedious, with certain bright moments. The closing with Acceptance accelerated again. Ultimately, narrative time spent in the world of Area X itself was the most exciting in comparison to the bits about the crumbling government agency Southern Reach, which ultimately was difficult to really care about. Area X, though, was a delightful playground for the imagination–part fantasy, part horror. The kind of place that horrifies you, but still kinda makes you want to go there anyway.

The story as a whole makes interesting philosophical statements. What makes us human? What does the earth need humans for? What if the earth consumed us as resources rather than the other way around? What would happen to us if time, biology, and sentience lost the rules that we assume will always govern them? Is the loss of sanity in an insane environment a burden or a boon? VanderMeer contemplates these questions nice and up-close, with myriad thoughts, smells, and superb images. Time well spent.

Note: I did read this trilogy as a single installment, since my volume is three-in-one, but my individual ratings for each title are as such:

Annihilation 5/5
Authority 3/5
Acceptance 4/5

View all my reviews