Cline’s The Girls

The Girls
Emma Cline

A novel about a cult leader, very much like Manson, and a woman, very much like Susan Atkins, who befriend / seduce a very young teenage girl and bring her into the dark side of the post-summer of love hippie land. Our hero, the very young teenage girl (Evie) is lost, and pissed at her single mom. She falls for the free spirited confidence of Suzanne (clearly modeled on Atkins) and is willing to do anything to gain her attention, whether that’s robbing a store, moving to a commune with manipulative drifter con artist leader, Russell, or sleeping with much older men who might be able to help Russell.

At first it appears that Suzanne is going to lead Evie right into murder, but she doesn’t. She saves her. And the why, and what it means to be left behind, to be complicit but not guilty is what Evie struggles with the rest of her life.

This is a gorgeous, haunting novel about love and solidarity between women, and the cruelty too often heaped upon them by manipulative men. I couldn’t put it down. If you love a compelling story, well told and can stomach some violence and many creepy sex scenes, this is an arrestingly good novel. I’ll read whatever Emma Cline writes next.


Review: Palmer’s Seven Surrenders

Seven Surrenders
Ada Palmer
The second book in Ada Palmers incredible Terra Ignota series. This one picks off exactly where Too Like the Lightning ended, and moves along at a blistering clip through scores of plot revelations, and extended explorations into the nature of gender, the place of violence in society, the complexities of competing duties, the nature of divinity and more.

I can’t get enough of these books. The world Palmer has built is incredibly complex and nuanced and I fear I’ll never get to see as much of it as I’d like to. The books are overflowing with ideas sometimes, almost too many to keep up with, and the writing is clean, clear, and often funny. If I have a quibble, its that at times it feels rushed. Palmer has so many plot points to tie up that reveals happen at a breakneck speed and not always with the level of pre-work I’d like to see.

Still and all, there is so much here. Including real insights into what the future might look like, and fascinating explorations about how we might view our own history in coming eras.

Recommended (for a certain type of big idea SF loving) enthusiast.

Roy’s God of Small Things

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

I read the God of Small Things almost fifteen years ago, so let’s be honest, my memory is a bit hazy. I remember being blown away that it was a first novel, but in hindsight, that may have been naïve. Its complex narrative structure, following twins in two parallel story lines, full throated investigation into the social ills of India, including the caste system, misogyny, and more, and its gorgeous prose could only have been the work of someone who labored over every page for years and years as an inspiring novelist would. I remember feeling like the prose was beautiful and the sense of place illuminating, but the political message a bit too polemic. Still, an important book on the nature of love and politics in India. Worth your time,


Proulx’s The Shipping News

The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx

I read the Shipping News in 1997 when I was twenty-two years old. It is hard to articulate now the effect it had on me. It’s moving, its beautiful, and it’s the first time I self-consciously realized I was reading a literary novel.

I’d read other serious novels before, of course, but this was this was I think the first book where I began to understand the “literary” novel as a genre unto itself. Shipping News is a book where the language (gorgeous) and structure (complex) matter as much as the plot (haunting) and characters (pitch perfect). Much of the literary novel genre attempts to incorporate these elements, but end up being boring books about Brooklyn writers writing about writing. Not the Shipping News. There are thoughts on writing, yes, (our protagonist is a journalist who covers, of course, the shipping news in this port city in Newfoundland) but they lie in background, behind the lives of haunted characters. As it should be.

But it isn’t the plot I remember best. It’s the scenes in Newfoundland, the description of the loneliness of this port city, that resonated with me and sent me looking for others books with tasteful covers and authors with MFAs. Very few have been as good as the Shipping News, which you should read before you pick up that next book written by a Jonathan living in Brooklyn.


Review: Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees

The People in the Trees

Hanya Yanagihara

If not the best novel I read this year, among them. Super-duper icky and disturbing, but deeply compelling story of a scientist who travels to a remote pacific island and finds a substance that can allows those who eat it to live forever.

Basically (and intentionally), a b-movie plot on the surface, but told in a way that is really, really not b-movie style. Gorgeous writing, featuring deeply troubled characters, horrific (sometimes sexual) violence, child abuse, ecological collapse, terrible family dysfunction, the works. It isn’t an easy read. There were times when I felt physically sick from descriptions, but it tells us something, about the scientist at the center of the story, but also about the way we interact with each other, with that which is new, and with that which is different. It’s an important and challenging book and I’d really like to talk to you about it. You should check it out.



Review: Bennett’s Pond


Claire-Louise Bennett

Smarter minds than mine loved this book. A sort of stream of conscious narration of the life of a women in a small (Irish?) village. The book is often funny, and at times beautiful. The writing is excellent, with complex sentences that are perfectly structured, and the observances of the details of everyday life well done.

Still, it left me cold. A bit too clever. Good writing, even great writing just isn’t enough for me right now, and careful observations of the mundanities of life just aren’t going to cut it.  Still if language is your thing, this book may be much more up your alley.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

Too Like The Lightning

Ada Palmer

Too Like the Lightning is a strange book. At times, it is a difficult book. It is also a very, very good book. A work of science fiction, for sure (we’ve got flying cars, people) it’s also much more than that. It’s an attempt to transport enlightenment ideas about social organization, personal freedom, and democracy into a future of flying cars, hyper surveillance, and profound changes in to the ideas of gender, religion, and work.

Oh yeah, and it’s written in a style that is part Voltaire, and part Isaac Asimov.

Like I said, it’s weird. I loved it.

The plot of a book like this is almost beside the point, but suffice it to say, there’s a mysterious break in at one of the world’s most important locations, a hidden child with supernatural powers, and a narrator who is much more than he seems at first. But really, who cares about the plot? I didn’t I cared about the careful construction of the political ideas of the various governments, the fascinating life stories of the novels main characters and the very thoughtful explorations of how the future would handle issues like gender (they is pervasive, yet people still assign genders internally) and religion (you can have it, but don’t talk about it).

Palmer has clearly spent enormous amounts of time building the backstories of her characters and her world, much is left unsaid here, forcing the reader to piece it together. But you can tell that what is left out is intentional, a prompt for the reader to make the connections, it certainly isn’t because it hasn’t been thought through. It has, trust me, she’s just not showing all her cards (yet).

This is a novel, yes, and fairly successful one from a plot perspective. But more interestingly, it’s an elaborate thought experiment using Palmer’s expertise in philosophy and the renaissance (she teaches history at Chicago) to imagine a future world that is both utopia and nightmare. The first in a planned series, I can’t wait for the rest.


Review: Saawadi’s Woman At Point Zero

Woman at Point Zero

Nawal El Saawadi

A novel based on Saadawi’s interviews with a n imprisoned psychiatric patient, Women at Point Zero is important, deeply moving and horrific. I’m not going to lie to you, this one isn’t easy to get through. Saadawi’s protagonist life is an unending series of horrors committed against either by, or ostensibly for, men. She endures female genital mutilation, physical and emotional abuse, rape, and more. Through it all, society provides her with no support, and no way out. It’s a bleak, damning, indictment of the way Egyptian society treats women.*

I read this book in 2002 and I remember how hard it was to get through. It’s a short work, but it is so brutal in its descriptions of the traumas and injustices that the narrator has faced that I often found it too much to bear. Still, not all books are there to pass the time, or educate, some are there to make us feel the things we don’t want to feel and face the things we don’t want to face. This is one of those books.


Nawal El Saawadi

*Or treated, the book was published in the 1970s, some may say things have changed; others will disagree.

Review: Older’s Infomocracy


Malka Older

A science fiction political thriller novel about elections. Meaning, a book written precisely for me.

In the future, elections are done on a hyper-local level with major parties looking to piece together large numbers of small districts to achieve global parties. The system is run by a disinterested google-like corporation (Information) determined to keep the elections fair, and the information about the parties accurate. It’s a flawed system, but an interesting one. It all begins to go to shit when someone (radical activist? A rouge political party?) begin screwing with the tech behind the system.  An unlikely duo of Information super-agent and idealist political consultant (hey, its fiction!) set out to solve the riddle of who is trying to bring down this ingenious (if flawed) political system. Along the way the encounter idealistic revolutionaries, brilliant technocrats, smarmy politicians, and evil proto-fascists. Oh yeah, and they fall in love.

The book is full of conversations on the nature of democracy, interesting thought experiments on what micro democracy can look like, clever refractions of the way we consume information, and interesting ideas for making the democratic process more transparent. Unfortunately, it’s also filled with some awkward coupling and some less than captivating action scenes.

Still, a very enjoyable read and one that resonates in this year of full on political craziness. When I was reading the book, I’d often check twitter and think, a logical extension of this shit show is Infomocracy.

Well worth your time if politics and/or SF are you game.



Review: Offill’s Dept of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation
Jennifer Offill

Beautifully written little gem of a book about marriage, kids, and betrayal. This is basically a book about a privileged Brooklyn intellectuals and their domestic problems. i.e. it is about me and my friends. Generally, I avoid this kind of stuff. As a rule, Brooklyn writers writing about Brooklyn writers gives me the bores, but this one came so well recommended, I had to check it out. Very glad I did. Offill is a wonderful writer and her tale of love or betrayal feels so real, and raw, I had to double check to make this wasn’t a memoir. Good stuff.


Recommended for the enthusiast.