Whew, I did it!
This was hands-down the best reading year I've had in a long time. Since before I started college in 2011.
I set my reading goal at 52 books for the year: at least a book a week, expecting to have a healthy chunk of that collection populated by graphic novel titles. But sometime around April I discovered the magic of borrowing audiobooks on Libby, and my monthly reading jumped from 2-3 books in March to 17 in April alone.
During the summer months I had a lighter work load (I teach online high school courses, and enrollment drops significantly.) I worked on special projects: writing curriculum, finding cool art stuff to show to kids and making presentations/lessons; and during the more mindless of these tasks, I listened to books, and I spent relaxing evenings on my balcony and in coffee shops with a book or two.
I even read some of my Book of the Month titles (I'm so, so bad at getting those read, especially when they first come. Most of them are still on the TBR shelf, but every time I cancel it I get drawn back in by their come-back deals. I'm a sucker)
So here we are: late December, and its time to break down the best books of (my) 2018.
1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
I had purchased this on audible a long time ago and never gotten around to reading it. I started it on a whim after finishing Ruta Sepetys' Salt to the Sea and still wanting some historic, WWII-era fiction. I didn't really have a large understanding of what the novel was, only the era in which it took place and that I'd had it recommended to me by a couple of different sources and figured I'd probably enjoy it. that was very true. I devoured it, and fell absolutely in love with Guernsey and its community. Place is one of the most important parts of a story for me, and this one completely transported me. I remember being late to trivia one week because I sat outside in my car before going in, trying to get through a few more scenes. This was probably the first book in 2018 that I stayed up far too late to finish.
2. A Closed and Common Orbit
As a veteran listener of the podcast Get Booked (which I highly recommend) I knew I had to read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Which I enjoyed, early in 2018! But I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected to--I thought it was good, but it wasn't a fave. I decided to go ahead and give the second book a shot as well, and it completely blew me away.
This story was so compelling. I absolutely loved it--it's one of my favorite books ever. The setting, the characters, and the two complementary storylines about the relationships between an AI and a human were so amazingly told and cleverly organized. I'm excited to reread this.
Hey, look! I read a Book of the Month book!
I actually did this on audio. But it counts.
I've always adored Greek mythology--from the mythology for kids book I had when I was little to the 1000-page Costco-book-table Mythology Compendium my parents graduated me to around 6th grade, with is mostly post it notes and highlighter. They way that this book was tackled, with Circe's whole story and her point of view on things we'd only seen from other angles, was so satisfying. I loved seeing her get a voice, and I loved what Mitchell did with it. This book was so smart and fascinating and compelling and satisfying. It was my top book of 2018.
4. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
I got really into nonfiction this year: I read a number of true crime books, and a few general nonfiction, but this one was my absolute favorite.
It was my first Mary Roach, although I've since continued my way through her works, and I so enjoyed the way it was smart and well researched but readable and entertaining. That can't be an easy medium to reach, and there wasn't a single section in this book that I didn't find totally fascinating. She answered so many questions I didn't know I had! I talked about this book incessantly for weeks, much to the disgust of my dinner companions.
5. I Shall Wear Midnight
In September I was fresh off of the high of reading Circe, and my mind was swimming with the history and concept of witches in fiction. I also re-organized my bookshelves, which forced me to face the backlog of books I haven't read yet. I committed myself to reading a bunch of witch-themed books for the season: I wanted to marathon them and keep thinking about and dissecting the concept of witches and the different ways they're tackled in fiction, so I set myself the thematically appropriate goal of 13 witch books in the fall/Halloween season (Sept & Oct.)
This sort of worked: I read some books I already owned. But mostly, I read all of the Tiffany Aching books.
My favorite book when I was young was Good Omens, so I knew I would love Discworld, and I even have a couple of the books--weirdly, I've even played a Discworld board game--but I hadn't read any yet. These were my first, and I absolutely adored them.
The pile of witch books I owned fell by the wayside and I read Tiffany Aching. I loved The Wee Free Men, but I found that I loved each book in the series even more than the last. I read all the way up to I Shall Wear Midnight, deciding to wait on the final Discworld novel until I read the backlog, since I get funny about final books. I Shall Wear Midnight was true to the pattern: I loved it even more than its predecessor. This series is now so close to my heart, and although I only met Tiffany a couple of months ago, she feels like an old friend.
6. The Prince and the Dressmaker
This book and I have had a hard time getting together. When it was first announced, I preordered it on Amazon. I was so excited about this book!
Then, a couple of months later, I preordered it again. Somehow.
Then, a couple of months after that, I noticed I had preordered two copies of this book, and attempted to cancel it. If you're starting to get a feeling for my style you won't be surprised to learn that I didn't check my work, and I ended up cancelling both orders and not receiving the book at all.
Then I was on Libby in the "available now" section and saw it! Hey, I know you! I borrowed it and devoured it and screen shotted pages to save as art inspiration, and I reread it before I sent it back to Libby.
Then I ordered it. Just once--and it should be here soon.
I'm closing out 2018 with a scramble to close out the last 4 spots on my Read Harder challenge: I never should've left the Oprah book club slot, because that lady does not read short books! I'm wrapping up a children's classic and an AOC's romance novel now, and revving up to finally read the Underground Railroad.
Here's to 2019!
Download Challenge Graphic & List as a PDF
Last night I dyed my hair bright orange, and today it's 94 degrees. In Michigan. When is autumn coming?
I'm so ready for cooler weather, cinnamon in everything, pumpkins, and Halloween. I bought an autumnal wreath at Michael's (it was 40% off and it has pumpkins on it, I had to.)
I'm very seasonal in the way I do things: I paint my nails in colors that seem to match the month of the year, and I listen to music that has the right seasonal vibes: and I do the same thing with books. Since autumn is my favorite season, I have an absolute ton of autumn themed books sitting around that I haven't quite gotten to yet.
This year, I decided to set a goal for myself: I wanted to do a deep dive into the theme of witches. I went through my shelves (physical and digital) and rooted out 13 books on the theme of witches.
My parameters were the following: the book had to be ABOUT witches or witchcraft: they couldn't be on the sideline, they need to be a major focal point.
I also wanted to make sure that I looked at this in a few different ways: I wanted to read across genres and perspectives, keeping in with this theme. I tried to be diverse in the genres, authors, settings/cultures, and formats to get a good variety of books.
When I'm done, I want to feel like I read a lot of different types of witches: this should end up being more like a sculpture viewed in the round, rather than a painting viewed head on.
Here's my (tentative, and surely to be amended) list for the challenge:
This list is not as diverse as I want it to be author-wise, partially because I built it largely from what I own that I haven't read yet: a limited pool of books that wasn't compiled with that in mind. As I go forward I'm planning to keep on looking up witch-themed books, with a focus on expanding to have more authors of color represented. What are some that I should look into?
It's Sept. 3rd and I've already finished up Jinx (what a weird thing, returning to Meg Cabot after all these years: I read her almost obsessively as a tween and it was like a funky kind of time travel) so only twelve to go.
These last two months have been a big triumph for me: I read 25 books. 25! I haven’t had stats (do I sound like I know about sports?) like that since I was, I dunno, a freshman in college? Six or seven years ago, at least.
It has me thinking a lot about the nature of reading: why I do it, and if it's kinda not great that I'm so excited about the number of books I read, rather than the books themselves--although I'm excited about them too! Just...separately.
Am I reading because I think I should? Is there part of me that sees it as a funky kind of duty, rather than a passion? (If so, is that why I haven’t read this much in recent years?)
At the end of the day, I'm no fool: if my checklist-oriented mindset is helping me read more, it's a win-win. I get to feel satisfaction and pride over the numbers, and I get to finally tackle a bunch of books that have been on my TBR for years. So what’s been on my mind most is...why now? What’s the recipe for my perfect reading life?
It's not like I didn't read at all these last few years: I've had spurts and sprints during that time. During the summers in college, I read a ton of audiobooks while I worked a very weird job at the university library where I read articles about golf course maintenance from magazines and made them searchable in a database. It was the Most Boring Job Ever, and I got so weirdly good at it that I could index the articles while listening to an audiobook: I had these two simultaneous lines of text moving in my head, because one was just essentially a paragraph formatted word search.Sometimes I’m reminded of one of those books and I have a weird backflash where I can see that office right in front of me: it's kinda eerie, when the book is medieval fantasy and I'm envisioning a filing cabinet.
But unlike every other reading spurt I've had the last few years, it hasn't come at the cost of my other passions (read: art.) Even now that I don’t have homework to complete or 3 part time barista gigs, time in the day is limited. I need to double up on some of these tasks.
Onto the subject of this love letter: Libby.
Audiobooks from Libby! You give me life! My days are busy: I work from home, so I don’t have a commute like many audiobook enthusiasts but I do have a big ol’ speaker that I can listen to things on all darn day. I have an art business that’s just getting off the ground that I’m working on with my brother, with periodic art commissions to worry about: the kind of work that’s just taking up the visual part of my brain, while the narrative side runs rampant. Audiobooks seem like a pretty obvious choice, but since cancelling my audibile subscription (It’s price-y for an entry level salary!) they hadn’t really been available to me.
I know what you’re thinking: Lauren, go to the library! There are CDs and books and options for you! A quick interlude to explain my personal shame:
The reason I’m so late to the libby party is that when I was in 7th grade, in 2006, and I walked to my local library and borrowed a 2-disc Tchaikovsky album.
It is in my closet.
For years, I got the late notices from the library: telling me about my fines, which were unreasonably high. The last letter I opened said something about $38, and to tween me it might as well have been 2 grand. I was so amazingly anxious about the library and my crimes that I have spent the last decade actively forgetting libraries existed.
This is ridiculous for many reasons: I could have just told my Mom, and she’d have paid the library the cost of the CD (like $12) and it would’ve been fine. I also moved out of that city in 2013, and could have gotten a new library card: a new identity, to leave my life of crime behind. I also worked in a library for 3 years! (I get a pass on this one: it was an academic library, and I was stuck in the section with books about mowing grass. It was neither an inspiring nor an enlightening place.)
But sometimes we aren’t smart! Sometimes we’re dumb. I was dumb. But in the end, I went to the library and got a new library card from the city where I live now.
Borrowing books from Libby is the BEST. It's a perfect combo of I'll-Get-There-When-I-Get-There and Lauren-There's-A-Deadline-On-This. I'm bad at deadlines: even now in post-school adulthood I find ways to procrastinate reading deadlines. I've read the last 3 picks for my book club the day or night before we've met (lookin' at you, the whole day I spent marathoning The Handmaid's Tale.) I love reading, I just hate doing what I'm told. High school Lauren makes sporadic appearances.
But with Libby, I know I can renew the book: but if I do it a bunch of times, I'm being a jerk. I hate doing what I'm told, but I hate feeling like a jerk more. Voila, my Libby shelf gets read!
Then shame kicks in: Lauren, you bought a LOT of books the last couple of years. They're closing in on you. Voila, I read the books on my shelves.
Being able to read so much again has helped me feel like I'm back to being myself. Not that I was any less me these recent years--I just take comfort in re-embracing this part of me. I'm at a point where I'm settling into my new-normal (Big Girl Job, apartment I don't need to move out of after one year, a good stock of candles for evening reading.) I'm glad that books are a big part of it.
Onto the next read.
Annual Goal: 52
I mentioned that I've been unable to stop thinking about Circe, right?
It crept into my art as well. And infuriatingly, I spent 9 hours on a piece that ended up being dull and lifeless. I drew a lionness! It was hard! And then in a straight 2 hours knocked out a portrait I totally ended up loving.
The kind of book you love so much you start bargaining with your friends to read it so you can talk about it
Let's get one thing clear right away: every time I read a fantasy book on audio, I swear never to do it again. It's so hard when you can't see words you don't know. I must have hated being a baby.
When will I learn my lesson? I’ve got a respectable knowledge of Greek mythology which helped keep me afloat, but I still don't know if that's how Miller spelled Aeaea. Wikipedia has betrayed me and offered about 12 options, so I'm just taking a shot in the dark. Seriously...let me know.
To keep it short, I loved this book. I finished it up and I wasn't sure what to do. I wanted to go back to the beginning, like when I finished Frasier on netflix and wanted to go watch the Pilot: to re-experience where it all started. What was I like back then? Yesterday, when I didn't know how good this book was?
I have this about once a year. You finish the book and feel like just holding your hands out: more, please!
The only thing to do is start your personal campaign for Everyone To Read It. I know you've been there. You're trying to give your friends the gift of This Book. They can't know how much they need it until you tell them!
My close friend chose Circe as her book of the month, but she has a demanding job and reads slowly. She’s been plugging through Pope Joan for a long time, and singing its praises: but it’s all I can do to keep from texting her every other day to ask if she’s started Circe yet. Friend, I say! You have a long commute, let me help you download Libby and you can listen to it on audio! But she hems and haws and doesn’t want to try it. She plugs on with Pope Joan.
I’m so anxious for someone to read it! For someone to know what I’m going through!
I offered to buy it for my brother, who likes mythology: he said something about not reading much right now. My sister will only read Scottish cozy mysteries. I read the first three in her favorite series, and still she hasn’t made good on her end of the bargain. My Father would love it, but asked if I’d yet read the newest Young Wizards book: after all, I got him into that series, and now he can’t even discuss the latest with me. (Imagine his reproachful and disappointed look.)
Isn’t it funny how reading becomes a bartering system? We know what’s best for our friends, and we know their recommendations will bring us joy: but it’s so hard (for me) to read what feels assigned. I read The Handmaid’s Tale in a single afternoon on the eve of my bookclub’s first meeting. What’s worse, I did the same thing the following month with Exit West, which was my own pick.
Anyways, I’m settling into Pope Joan. Maybe if I spoil the ending I can drag her, kicking and screaming, onto starting Circe.
An open offer to everyone: I'll read your new favorite book if you read Circe. Then, we can set aside a good 5 hours to meet up for coffee and wax poetic.
What happens when you're bad with money and also disorganized: Or, how I managed to accidentally not read this book I owned for years, and how I'm now kicking myself because it was really good
(not including minisodes) to work my way through, it had become cemented as part of my routine. Then I realized I was caught up. No new episodes till Thursday. Weird.
So I went back to my long-lost podcast love: Get Booked, by bookriot. Amanda and Jenn and their roughly-an-hour book recommendation podcast were my constant car companion in college, when my parents lived roughly-an-hour from campus, as well as during my student teaching year when I made the same drive in reverse each Friday for some (bogus) graduate courses. (We did mock interviews and talked about what was hard about teaching, and they charged us grad rates for it--but that's a whole different post.)
As always happens when I listen to Get Booked, I became very excited to read. But as always happens when I listen to Get Booked, I listened to like 10 episodes in a short period of time and wound up so torn about what to read first that I watched 30 Rock again, even though I can recite all the punchlines by heart.
However, after a few episodes, I was able to put forth even the slightest effort when it came to picking, and I opened my dusty Audible app.
There they were, the books I had spent credits on but never read: the relics of my almost forgotten time working at the Most Boring Library In All The World, the Turfgrass Information Center which is a real place.
In college, I was both poor and bad with money: no doubt in training for the type of adult I've blossomed into. So by the time I cancelled my audible subscription during my senior year of college, I had 11 credits I needed to use and I just spent them on any random thing that tickled my fancy. Thus, I had owned this audiobook for almost 3 years before I ever bothered to play it.
So we're finally to the good part. I listened to it. I hit play during the middle of my work day, when I'd finished grading papers and was onto the visual arts that required less reading and writing attention. (Listening to audiobooks at the turfgrass library while I indexed articles has given me this, my greatest skill.) I listened throughout the afternoon, and while I cooked dinner, and on the way to trivia, and then I sat in the car until I absolutely had to walk into the restaurant. (We won our tournament, by the way, Go Team Farm Fresh Eggs!) Then I listened to it on the way home, and drew a bath, and realized after about 20 minutes that baths aren't as nice as they sound and my shoulders were cold, so I took my little speaker out into the living room and snuggled underneath all the blankets as it wound to a close.
The book is an epistolary novel set just after the end of WWII. London is largely rubble, and the main character Juliet Ashton has just published a book. The book flopped, which was difficult for her after her success during the war as a columnist about the home front. She's feeling down, wondering how she can write the content she wants to now that the war is over.
Her publisher and editor, Sidney Stark, is encouraging her to find a new journalistic project that inspires her when she receives a letter from a man on Guernsey: he has an old book of hers, and after finding her name and address on the inside cover he hoped to write to her and ask if she can point him in the direction of more about the author. He explains that on Guernsey, things are still in turmoil and its been hard to get news or books on the island the last several years.
She writes back and they strike up a correspondence in which he shares the story of his Literary Society, which was founded during the war while trying to cover up some hidden livestock from the occupying nazis. Despite its shaky beginnings, the society became exactly what it claimed to be: each member choosing a book, reading it, and speaking about it at the meetings. (The meetings were described as a time for the reader to try and convince their friends to read it too, which made me smile as I thought back to my return to Get Booked being the catalyst for finally picking this up.)
She's fascinated by this unique story about the war, and begins corresponding with many of the members of the club, before ultimately deciding to travel to the island herself to meet them.
I loved this book. I loved everything about it. I loved the epistolary format; I loved the wide cast of characters; I loved the way experiences from the war were shared both through the lens of books and the book community they had formed, but also in their rawest state, as simply the stories that human beings carry with them. I loved the love story, with its charming and well-earned happy ending.
It's always interesting to take a look at the sort of quieter ways that war affects people. Being raised in America (and especially in Detroit, the Motor City) the narrative surrounding WWII has always been one of optimism and triumph: we crushed the bad guys, we came back from the Great Depression. But that war wasn't fought on our soil, and there were no Nazis patrolling our neighborhoods. The stories of the ways that these islanders suffered during the Nazi occupation of Guernsey were as beautiful as they were complex.
Often, it can be easy to strip a Nazi soldier of anything that would make them a character: to turn them into a one dimensional baddie. Their crimes are irrefutable and unjustifiable: my own Grandmother was captured and put into a labor camp when the Nazis invaded Poland, and she suffered so greatly that she was unable to talk about it for the rest of her life. But the book takes a careful look at these soldiers, reminding you that they weren't all Hitler. They did kind things, and some were kind people in the right situations. Then, they also did terrible and cruel things. It wasn't black and white. Being isolated together on the island with the locals, the lines blurred between the occupiers and the natives and that formed a complex community that was hard to define in any simple terms.
I am always a sucker for a story that paints a portrait of a community and gives voices to the different members of that community: the prime example being Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which is my favorite book of all time provided you don't catch me at a time when I've been staring dramatically out the window thinking about Mary Shelley. This book did that so, so well. I fell in love with the characters, and even more so with the island.
I felt like I was there, and at the same time I was very aware that I wasn't there: probably because I wanted to be so badly. Part of me wonders if I could find statistics about tourism rates to Guernsey before and after the book's release.
There were multiple cast members reading novels from different characters, and they were all fantastic. It can be so hard to get through an audiobook when someone is trying to do too many voices and they're really only good in a few: this one didn't need to deal with that. From the Londoner Juliet Ashton to the brogue-wielding Dawsey, everyone had a great voice bringing their letters to life.
To cap off the many ways I was late to this party, I didn't know until google imaging the book cover for this post that it has been adapted into a film: the world premiere is occurring as I write this on the evening April 9th, 2018. I'm curious how they'll translate the epistolary format to the screen, and super excited to see it when it premiers on Netflix later this month (??? the articles were less than clear.)
MFM! I'm finally up to date, waiting for the Thursday drop dates. So I returned to my original podcast love: Get Booked by Book Riot.
Since I've listened to the show for years, I'm familiar with so many of their sort of stock-recs: the ones they love enough to recommend periodically, whenever they hear the keywords that remind them why these books are so fantastic.
Horrorstör is one that's been in the back of my mind, floating around as something I was interested in, since whenever the first time I heard them describe it was. But in that funny way that sometimes happen, I heard them bring it up again, and pulled out my schedule to see when I had time for the bookstore.
Which is funny! The book has a great balance of humor and spook. If handled differently, either of these could've negated the other: but instead, the satire is humorous but also eerie, and the scary bits can be really, truly scary (trigger warning for body horror and a potpourri of other standard horror movie fare.)
The illustrations interspersed within the book were so expertly done. The diagrams of furniture (both benign and diabolical) were so...IKEA. And the breakdown of how the Corporate regulations and verbiage are designed to disorient and control you was at once humorous, thought-provoking, and downright unsettling.
This isn't a full 5 stars from me, only because the story wasn't terrible original: Spoilers ahead, the spirits haunting the Orsk were the inmates of a 19th century prison on the same land, who were murdered by the unhinged Warden. It's a super run-of-the-mill horror film plot: so much so that it almost seems, as I write it out, that it could be a part of the satire as well, but it wasn't played for laughs. It was just very meh.
However, the characters and their interactions were fabulous. I loved the store manager, Basil: he's a lawful-good type, quoting the employee handbook and fretting over the Corporate inspection scheduled for the next day. He was such a good dude! Definitely infuriating, and nobody I'd want for my boss, but I also couldn't help but love him.
Overall, I thought it was a fantastic premise, and it was pulled off really well: the way the IKEA/bix box retail store elements went hand in hand with the horror plot was really well executed. The ghosts themselves were pretty predictable, but having a haunted house story set in something that is at once a house and not a house was undeniably fun to read.
When I go to the bookstore and browse the cozy mysteries, I feel like I'm choosing between these different concepts and hobbies: so this series, about a woman who runs a coffee-book-shop in a small coastal town looked like a slam dunk.
But I don't like it. I didn't like the first one either!
So why the hell did I read the second one? Because about 9 months after I was so underwhelmed by the first installment, I got booksick for the setting and scenery in this series and decided to give it another shot.
In a nutshell, our MC Jill is the owner of a bookshop/cafe in a small, coastal tourist town where she moved after leaving her big-city-life. She's still viewed as a newcomer by the other townspeople, but they're beginning to accept her.
In book one, she inherited a big old house (#goals) from her old lady friend Miss Emily, and she discovered the ruins of the old Spanish mission on the property. As she's working to get it certified as a historical site, she's butting heads with the Local Jackass, who runs "The Castle," a historical tourist destination in town. He doesn't want to share funding and other bureaucratic nonsense, so he's trying to bar her from doing that. She goes to ream him out (which the small-town-peeps send up the grapevine mad fast) and the next day he winds up dead. Oopsies! Now, Jill has to clear her name.
This isn't a bad set up by any means, but I found that it had all the same issues as the first one.
(@ me with recommendations for a setting read-a-like, I beg of you.)
The comic opens on a young Viking woman. She stands in the snow with a horse, idly telling it an old tale of the Gods and Valkyries. In the style of an ancient storyteller, she talks of Brynhild, Valkyrie Queen cursed for the crime of disobeying Odin.
Her story comes to a halt when they're interrupted by her friend, and it's revealed that our storyteller (Aydis) has been driven out of her clan for the crime of kissing another girl. Her father was ordered to sentence her either to death or to marriage. He chose death, but let her go: off on her own, to find a life she can lead.
Aydis doesn't seem scared--rather, she shows eagerness to go out into the world and chase her own destiny; soon, we learn that her design is to find the fabled Brynhild. The valkyrie's curse is to marry a mortal, but a mortal of her choosing. She waits, engulfed in a holy flame, for the mortal brave enough to earn her hand. Which is exactly what Aydis plans to do.
That's the most fantastic premise I have ever heard. Keep in mind, I'm a young queer woman, not much older than Aydis appears in the comic. And going in, I didn't know this was about lesbian Viking warriors. It might be the first time I've ever found representation of myself at this level without actively seeking it out.
But that's not where my love for this ends. It's so well executed, and heart-wrenchingly good. It combines that otherworldly, mythological vibe of an epic journey with some really powerful concepts and dialogues that just pack a punch.
For instance, it doesn't live exclusively in the realm of myth: it addresses its historical context. During our story, Christianity is beginning to spread throughout the Nordic regions. In one scene, Brynhild confronts a mob of villagers who are looking to put a witch to death. Having been away from the world for so long, she demands why they would attack a witch--someone performing a job thats been integral to their society for generations upon generations. We see firsthand how this is a changing world, yet the problems the villagers are so keen to punish the witch for resonate powerfully from a modern context.
Throughout the story, we're introduced to a diverse cast of characters from many walks of life, but their struggles are timeless. They're relatable, even though they're worlds away.
herself as such, but she returns to the craft time and time again. Through her retellings, we see glimpses of the world and reality she lives in, as well as how she sees the world: what makes her a warrior, and why she thinks it meaningful to be one.
We see iconic figures of Nordic mythology, as well as lesser known creatures and beings. But the narrative always stays true to the tone of that ultimate source content, and transports you to a time when magic and Gods were wilder and messier and absolute.
This was a completely beautiful work of literature and art. It was visually stunning, and it left me absolutely needing more. It tackles issues and ideas that are so close to my heart, and it does so in a way that's somehow responsible and brave. I want everyone to read this.
So when this was the (first!) pick for a book club my best friend just launched, I just skimmed the goodreads blurb and ordered it. I didn't dwell too much on it, I had other things on my mind I just wanted to make sure I didn't forget.
Fast forward to about three weeks later--friends are texting, saying that they've finished it, and when will our brunch be? I start freaking out, because as usual when I have an external deadline for reading, I've been reading everything and anything else. Meanwhile, I'm gearing up for a week-long art camp I'm going to be teaching which is more than an hour's drive from home, every day. I put the physical volume back on the shelf and pop over to audible, since I know I wanna put all that driving time to good use.
Let me tell you. I was teaching 1-4 each day. I'd usually pull up to the gallery it was in at about 12:30. And I would sit there, AC running, listening to this book until 12:55. 12:58, on one memorable afternoon. I would sit there, eyes on the clock, fingers on the key, leaning into it and on the edge of my seat. I could not stop.
I didn't know until after, but this puppy has an Audie. It! Is! So! Deserved! Finty Williams brought the characters to life so beautifully. Melanie is at once so clueless and so wise; the adults so jaded and yet so hopeful. And Dr. Caldwell so chillingly scary.
This book was so fascinating, and it was as much thanks to the way it was told as to the plot and characters. So much of the text is the inner monologue of a rotating POV, which takes it from a simple zombie thriller up to something else: it becomes this psychological exploration of people at the end of the world. That is what brought this book from 4 to 5 stars for me, was the way it explored its characters mindspaces in such a deep way. I didn't just like and dislike them: I understood them. They all lived in a sort of grey area, and as I understood their pasts I was able to understand their presents. I watch them lie, and steal, and hide, and kill, and I completely get it.
As the book opens, Melanie is a young girl who lives in a cell. She's transported back and forth from a schoolroom in a comically secure wheelchair that allows only the most minor physical movement. She's a little girl whose daily routine includes a gun pointed at her head, and yet she is unfailingly polite and positive, even to the adults who she would be reasonable to despise. (This about her--her politeness--is part of what made this book so interesting. She was a completely fascinating character, from beginning to end. She's like any little girl, but more: she has this sort of otherworldly calm about her that's eerie and disconcerting. Which is such an amazing way for a little girl to intimidate people.)
Fast forward--the military base she's held in has fallen. She and a rag tag team of other characters (her teacher, the military Sergeant, the spooky ass Doctor who tried to dissect her, and a young military recruit) begin traipsing across the English countryside, trying to travel South to where the one last vestige of humanity, Beacon, hopefully still stands.
This is where things got really psychologically interesting--outside of Melanie, with whom there was never a dull moment. It becomes clearer and clearer with every page that it's not a guarantee that Beacon still exists. It's actually beginning to look fairly unlikely. The adult characters are all avoiding this fact, and you begin to ponder this weird state of mind--after all, if they can't run towards Beacon, where can they run? There's nothing left. The world has ended. They're just fighting out the last few battles.
All but one. Dr. Caldwell truly believes that with the right equipment (and the right specimens) she can save the world. She can concoct a cure, or a vaccine, and they'll all see. (They'll all see! They shouldn't have doubted her! I can envision her in a Dexter-style lab getup, shaking her fist at the sky.) Caldwell is clearly deranged, but the sort of cockeyed-scientific coldness that drives her is just as fascinating to watch play out as any point of view in the book.
Carey does such a phenomenal job of making you as interested in what's happening (and what's going to happen) as you are in the inner lives of the characters. I was on the edge of my seat (literally) dying to find out what would happen next, and at the same time, I never felt impatient with the passages about characters' pasts, or how they were experiencing and coping with the events of the novel. It was all so vital to the book.
Let's talk cons. My major (and really, only) issue with this book is the junkers. They make no sense to me! Society began crumbling only a little over 20 years ago in this book. How has there already evolved this sort of under-developed sub-society of scavenging murderers? When they attack the base, I get it: their motive is obvious. They want the base's resources. Their methodology is ballsy and interesting, the way they've wrangled up some Hungries to lay siege. What I don't get is their bloodthirst.
Justineau describes the moment the young boy is going to kill her as ritualistic, like a rite of passage between Father and son. This is what made them so unbelievable for me. It felt like instead of a reasonable scavenging society, Joseph Conrad had dropped by to throw in an absurd, animalistic tribe of villains.
That aside, this book was one of my favorites I've read this year, and one of my favorite audiobooks of all time. And that ending. Wow. Five stars.