“It’s a mystery. Mysteries are great. Let’s peel it open and see if it’s wrapped around an enigma.”“I hate mysteries,” Callie said, not entirely accurately. “You always think it’s going to be a box full of gold, but usually it’s a box full of spiders.”
2017’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison, is a stunning debut that was met with critical acclaim – including that year’s Philip K. Dick award. This book is chock-full of material ripe for analysis and discussion. Whether your book club is preparing to discuss it, or you’ve read it on your own and are looking for more, I hope the questions below will help guide your discussion.
Note: If you haven’t read The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, you can read my review of it here.
Please let me know if you use these questions, find them helpful, or think I missed something. And of course I would love to see your answers to any (or all) of these questions in the comments. Happy discussing!
Of course, MAJOR SPOILER WARNINGS below:
“Grow carrots. Eat carrots. Shit carrots. Die. That’s the best thing I can imagine. And the last generation of humanity winds down to zero. Got into the wrong business after graduation.[My] Profession is doomed.”
In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Elison displays a raw understanding of what it is to be human. Her vision of the world immediately post-apocalypse is nothing particularly new – but it is a pure, distilled, biting vision, a natural evolution of the post-apocalypse narrative that rings achingly true.
The Philip K. Dick award will be announced March 30, 2018, in Seattle, WA. The award is presented annually to a distinguished work of science fiction originally published in paperback form in the United States. This post is the second in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick awards. The other nominees are Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, Revenger by Alastair Reynolds, The Book of Etta by Meg Elison, After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun, The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, and Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn.
Martha Wells’ All Systems Red won me over almost immediately. I began the first page with reservations and by page three I was charmed into complete immersion.
I’m not kidding when I say I read this book in almost one sitting. I was so comfortable in this book, so reluctant to surface from my reading bubble, at one point I tried to get my cat to flip the light switch for me – the sun had gone down and I couldn’t keep reading without the light, but I didn’t want to stop even for a minute. That said, this is absolutely an easy “one sitting” read.
“Bit late for misgivings now.” I put a hand on hers, wondering why it had fallen on me to comfort her, not the other way around. “You wanted adventure, Adrana. Don’t be too sorry when it happens.”
The Philip K. Dick award will be announced March 30, 2018, in Seattle, WA. The award is presented annually to a distinguished work of science fiction originally published in paperback form in the United States. This post is the first in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick awards. The other nominees are The Book of Etta by Meg Elison, After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun, The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, Revenger by Alastair Reynolds, Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells.
“All right, who did you become?” Maria asked as her door closed behind her with a whooshzz. She faced her rooms. It was an odd, ghostly feeling, missing so many years. She saw signs of herself everywhere, but someone who was a different person than she was now. She found herself mourning the dead woman, the Maria who would be remembered by no one.
It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt why Mur Lafferty won the 2013 John W. Campbell award. This woman can write!
Barbary Station appeared on a lot of best-of lists, and rightfully so. But if you’d asked me what I thought about it in the first hundred (or so) pages, I would’ve had a very different take.
It took me until page 120 or so to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting into Barbary Station. By rights, this book is so up my alley I should have been able to walk right into its pages like I’d been born there. It wasn’t the setting, nor was it the characters, nor the premise. It wasn’t the author’s voice, the pacing, or anything like that. Still, somehow I just couldn’t catch the flow of Stearns’ book.
Finally, I put my finger on it: the central political conflict that motivates much of the incidental inter-character conflict was lost on me. It wasn’t complicated or anything, it’s just that the way Stearns presented it it went in one ear and out the other (so to speak). I’m sure it’s not her fault – I just missed it, and was left with that arresting moment of “wait, what?” every time a new interaction went south because of that conflict.
Thankfully, once I was able to put my finger on what was tripping me up I fared a lot better, and almost immediately got into the swing of this book. It didn’t hurt that, coincidentally, right as I recovered from my revelation the whole AI plot (totally what I’d showed up for in the first place) picked up in earnest. From then on, there was no hope for me. I was in love!
I can’t find anything on Stearns’ background in AI, but I just can’t believe she hasn’t got one. AI development is one of my passions, and most of my life (and my college career) has been spent plumbing its depths and keeping abreast of the latest theories and developments. Stearns’ view of how real artificial intelligence would be integrated into a future society blew me away. Her vision for the future is brilliant (and perfectly credible), and her handling of the moral implications of true AI is the perfect blend of approachable and cutting-edge; it’s truly inspiring without ever trending preachy or overly “science”y.
In addition, Stearns has presented literally the only version of the “person entering a virtual realization of the concept-space a computer operates within” trope that didn’t make me roll my eyes – since Tron. Since that sentence is a nightmare, let me explain as well as I can without spoilers. Adda, the computer engineer protagonist, has a specialized jack implant with which she “jacks in” to computers in order to interact with their AIs. When she does this, she enters a hallucinographic environment that abstracts computer data into (sometimes odd) real-world items for her to interact with. This trope has been used over and over again, since Tron and the Matrix, Hackers and Andromeda. And visually, it kind of works. But when it’s used in writing, it’s always fallen flat for me. Stearns, however, uses this technique in a way that adds to, rather than distracts from, her narrative. Suffice it to say I’m very impressed.
To round it out, she writes amazing characters! The protagonist couple are wonderfully and stably in love, without going grossly “lovey”, and they’re each believably real as individual characters and as partners for each other. As a bonus for some of us readers, Stearns’ writing is body-inclusive and one of her main characters is a total introvert – and not just when it’s convenient to the story! Stearns displays a real knack for a very particular kind of humor, too, and I am HERE for it.
Which brings me to my last observation for this spoiler-free review: this book would make an AMAZING movie! So many of the plot-advancing reveals are visual, and while Stearns writes them exceedingly well they would be astounding on the large screen. Everything about this book would pop on screen – from the epic scenes, to the breathtaking action, to the nail-biting suspense, and beyond. I’ve never actually *wished* for a movie adaptation like this before. And with the reception it’s gotten since it was published, I think chances are good Barbary Station might just make it to a theater near you (and me).
Voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards is in full swing! Here is how we voted:
Byron: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s about a young couple that flees their unnamed war-torn nation through one of the magic doors that have been appearing all over the world. It’s the best book that I’ve read this year (so far), with every word of this fairly short novel being precisely correct and beautiful.
Byron: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Ghosts in a graveyard narrate and comment upon the unprecedented event of a living person, Abraham Lincoln, visiting his son’s grave and holding his son’s body. It recently won the Man Booker Prize and is on the Carnegie Medal shortlist. It is boldly experimental, with three main (ghost) narrators/characters and another 160 or so other characters who provide (usually brief) additional lines, descriptions, and commentary. At various points, it is thought-provoking, funny, sad, and beautiful. Completely original.
Byron: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. It’s book one of a fairy tale set in medieval Russia about a young girl who may be a witch. This beautiful story explores the roles available to women and the impact of Christianity on paganism. I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and this story reminded me a bit of their work.
Ardis: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This is such an amazing modern introduction of classic fairy tales, where sprites and spirits and gods large and small inhabit the world we mortals think of as our own. In a remote Russian winter home, a young girl (Vasya) struggles to balance the old traditions of home and hearth with the new intrusion of Christianity (and its believers who insist their ways must be followed). The Bear and the Nightingale is no sweet fairy tale, but a harrowing and otherworldly struggle that will ultimately determine the fate of not just Vasya but her entire family and their town.
Note: We both also voted for Katherine Arden and The Bear and the Nightingale in the “Debut Goodreads Author” category.
Ardis: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. This is the continuation of Palmer’s “Terra Ignota” series, set in Earth’s far future. Here, the movers and shakers of global politics, religion, finances, art, science, and society are brought together in the wake of events of the last book to ensure the continuation of a global peace that is threatening, at last, to give way. Palmer proves with “Terra Ignota” that she knows what it is to be human – to feel awe when standing at the foot of great works, to fear the onrushing storm of war, and to reach deep within yourself to find heroic strength. Seven Surrenders is made all the more miraculous as Palmer tells this truly epic global tale through a very personal human-sized narrative. Her poetry, her emotion, her philosophy make this possible.
Byron: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It is about a U.S. government agency that uses witches to time travel. It’s a fun book with witty main characters and breezy dialogue. The time travel mechanic is unique and clever, and the world building is intricate and consistent. Truth-be-told, I haven’t read very much sci-fi that came out in 2017. I just couldn’t get into most of the sci-fi novels that I did buy. The The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., though, was a joy to read.
Young Adult Fiction
Byron: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. I flat out adored this novel. I read it in one sitting. The love story, the nature of fandom, the sources of creativity and the pressures that can arise, the family dynamics, portrayal of mental illness….gah….I love this book.
Ardis: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Byron recommended this book to me and I am thoroughly grateful. I think I consumed it in a single day – it almost might be more fair to say it consumed me. Eliza tells the story of Eliza, a teen writer whose webcomic has made her famous, even as she’s managed to maintain her total anonymity as the author for the years her webcomic has been running. When we meet her, Eliza’s world is about to become a lot more troublesome, as a new boy, depression, meddling parents, and a wide world of adoring fans all come crashing together in ways she never would have anticipated.
Young Adult Fantasy
Ardis: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. This book is the personal story of a young boy, Lazlo Strange, orphaned and raised in a library, who dreams of a fictional lost city. His dreams become reality in this daring and surprisingly emotional story of adventure and understanding, as Strange joins a company of adventurers off on a fantastic mission. I loved this book from the first page, and have recommended it more than any other book this year. Taylor is known for her poetic and fluid language, which is key in this book, but what shines for me in Strange the Dreamer are the rich, complex, and deeply human characters (even the blue ones).
Byron: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. A young librarian dreams of visiting a lost city. I only recently finished reading it, and I am still processing it. One thing I do know is that it’s one of the best books of 2017.
The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a high-profile literary prize awarded each year for best original novel written in the English language and published in the U.K. This year, I read (more or less) the books that have been shortlisted for the prize. The winner will be announced on October 17, 2017.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 231 pages
What’s it about? A young couple flees their unnamed war-torn nation through one of the magic doors that have been appearing all over the world.
What’s it really about? The immigrant experience (without the actual travel). It’s also about love, war, and society.
How does it read? Like a poem, with every word of this fairly short novel being precisely correct and beautiful.
How good is it? My favorite book of the year so far.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, 343 pages
What’s it about? Ghosts in a graveyard narrate and comment upon the unprecedented event of a living person, Abraham Lincoln, visiting his son’s grave and holding his son’s body.
What’s it really about? Grief, life, death, the unreliability of witnesses.
How does it read? Like a play. The most formally experimental of the nominees, this book has three main (ghost) narrators/characters who speak among themselves as well as describe the action around them, with another 160 or so other characters who provide (usually brief) additional lines, descriptions, and commentary. At various points, it is thought-provoking, funny, sad, and beautiful.
How good is it? Really really good. Very original.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, 275 pages
What’s it about? A woman recounts several formative experiences of her past, with a particular focus on her experiences with a neighboring family when she was a young teenager.
What’s it really about? Whether thoughts and intent matter more than actions, guilt, how traumatic experiences create ripples throughout one’s life.
How does it read? Kind of like Gilead. It captures the spirit and mood of a place in time. It is not as philosophical as Gilead; it is more personal, subtle, psychological, and troubling.
How good is it? Terrific, but the nuanced characterizations, and relatively mellow actions make it a slow read.
Autumn by Ali Smith, 260 pages
What’s it about? A young woman visits her much older friend in hospice while dealing with other aspects of her life in a post-Brexit Britain.
What’s it really about? The mood of post-Brexit Britain, the nature of friendship, the power of art and the connections that it can create, dealing with the impending loss of something important, and bureaucracy.
How does it read? Pretty strangely. Dreams, memories, and poetry are interspersed with the main narrative. The characters, however, are charming, and reading about their relationships with each other over the years is quite fun.
How good is it? Really great, although due to the unconventional nature of the narrative, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley, 310
Due to work and other time commitments, I was not able to finish this book. I read the first two or three chapters. So far, it’s about two young poor children growing up in an area of Yorkshire. It has been intimated that their Daddy is a bit of a violent thug.
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, 866 pages
I did not finish this book either. The book tells four different versions of stories of the same character’s life. The character is very similar to the author.
Even now, months later, there are still many moments during the day that I am caught completely off guard, overwhelmed with sudden grief or confusion, frustration or — most of all — a kind of gut-wrenching, teeth-grinding anger.
Bloodybones by Paul F. Olson is a ghosty, boogey-man-y, horror tale. It can be found in the collection Whispered Echoes.
I don’t read a lot of horror these days, although it used to be one of my reading staples. Every book fair, I’d buy a book from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (or something like that) and be freaked out and have nightmares for a few days. It was great. But I stopped chasing that kind of feeling of creepy danger as I got older. The real world sets me on edge enough.
Bloodybones is scary. I had a fight-or-flight reaction while reading it. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I got goosebumps. I shivered from internal chills, although it was 100 degrees outside. I had forgotten the physical reaction you can have to your own imagination while reading an engaging, scary story! I had forgotten how much fun that can be.
There are, of course, different kinds of horror. For example, The Exorcist, Cujo, Halloween, Saw, and It Follows are all horror movies, but they all have very different styles. The style of Bloodybones felt somewhat similar to The Ring, although the subject matter is different.