Marie’s Reading: “All Systems Red” by Martha Wells

all systems redAll Systems Red tells the story of a semi-organic security bot protecting a group of humans who are exploring a planet.  The SecUnit, who calls itself a “Murderbot” (due to its own unfortunate backstory) has hacked its own system so that it can act independently and not suffer punishments.  Most of its independent action consists of watching hours and hours of soap operas on its entertainment feed and trying to avoid interactions with humans.  But when a mysterious force threatens the humans, Murderbot reluctantly goes to help save the day.

I loved the first-person voice of the Murderbot.  It is snarky and funny, but also touching in its discomfort and other-ness.  Over and over again the Murderbot insists it does not care, wants to be left alone, etc., and yet its actions speak to how much it values the humans it sees as its duty.  The fact that Murderbot changes over the course of the story and makes a big decision for itself at the end speaks to its true character.

Wells uses the Murderbot to discuss identity, consciousness, and the definition of humanity, all wrapped up in a neat sci-fi adventure story with a complex and interesting central character.  Her world-building is subtle and puts you right in the middle of the action, without a lot of exposition.

This novella is the first in The Murderbot Diaries series, and I’m really looking forward to the next one!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “Between, Georgia” by Joshilyn Jackson

between georgiaNonny is used to being in the middle.  Her birth mother was a Crabtree (low-class, prone to violence, owners of Dobermans and scary Alabama relatives), but she was adopted by the Fretts (solid middle-class, reined-in, icy types, prone to their own kind of violence).  The tiny town of Between is barely big enough for these two sparring clans.

When Nonny’s aunt is attacked by one of the Crabtree dogs, a whole new cycle of feuding is set off.  This time it could be deadly.  Nonny, herself in the middle of a divorce, finds herself back in Between (and in between) once again.

Whenever I’m in the mood for a novel with a solid story, a great sense of place, and robust characters, I go for Jackson’s work.  She writes relationships extremely well, particularly between women in a family–she has real insight into the dynamics of sisters, mothers and daughters, and grandmothers and their grandkids.

The Frett sisters, who raised Nonny, really are forces–stolid, judgmental but loyal Bernese, anxious and fretful Genny, and kind and artistic Stacia, the one who raised Nonny.  Stacia is deaf and blind, as well, adding another layer to her relationship to her family and her art.  Ona Crabtree, Nonny’s blood grandmother, comes across as damaged and brittle and not very nice, but she’s still got a basic humanity.  As becomes clear over the course of the story, these women have more in common than they like to believe.

The Southern setting is great as well.  It feels as though these characters, though recognizable small-town types, couldn’t live anywhere else.  And of course the town is a character all on its own, just as Southern as its people.  There’s a sort of earthy fierceness beneath a veneer of gentility that’s just so distinct to the South, along with a strong sense of family.  This story would be very different if set among we stoic, independent, chilly New Englanders, for instance.

This really is a novel to read for the characters and the setting.  The plots do all wrap up nicely and there are some revelations and tragedy, but I found the enjoyable storyline second to everything else.

If you’re after the same sort of read I was–one with great characters, a good story, and a strong setting, all told in laidback, very natural prose–give this one a look!

–Marie

 

January Staff Picks

Wear-1

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
Louise, broke and single and aimless, has a chance encounter with Lavinia, a rich and flamboyant party and society girl.  The two quickly form an intense and unhealthy friendship.  There are echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley (way more than just an echo, actually) and The Great Gatsby, only with more insufferable young literary men and social media references.  Our society’s obsession with social media is a huge part of the narrative–lives lived for posting, scenes set up to share, friendship and admiration exhibited in “likes.”  And, as in society, social media is used for nefarious purposes.  In all a quick and compelling read with not many likeable characters, but fun all the same in a “what happens next” way.
–Marie

Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti
A nonfiction account of one of the fastest and strongest hurricanes to hit the Northeast; one that changed the landscape from the creation of the Moriches inlet on Long Island to the complete devestation of the Connecticut and Rhode Island coast line. It held my interest both from the tales of the survivors and the awkard beginnings of the national weather service. With all the technology available today, we forget that there was a timre when the weather forecasts relied on the reports from ships at sea. When those ships heed the warnings to stay in port, there is no way to determine rhe change and direction of a storm system such as this one.
–Mary

Marie’s Reading: “Someone Like Me” by M.R. Carey

someon like meLiz Kendall has divorced her abusive husband, but that doesn’t stop him from launching one last attack–only this time, Liz fights back and wins.  However, in the moment, she feels as though someone else entered her body and controlled her actions.  She continues to have episodes where it’s almost as if a second consciousness has entered her mind, taking control of her body and driven mostly by rage.  Day by day Liz becomes more and more unsettled by what she thinks is a coping mechanism created by her own brain, but turns out to be a lot more sinister.

At the same time, a young girl named Fran is the survivor of a kidnapping.  It’s ten years after her trauma and she still has vivid hallucinations, including one of a fox companion named Lady Jinx who acts as her dearest friend and protector.  Along with hallucinations, Fran is missing a lot of memories.  Determined to uncover the truth about what happened to her and overcome her trauma, Fran decides to go digging into the story of her kidnapping and the man who did it.

Eventually Fran and Liz’s stories intersect.  Fran and Liz both go to the same psychologist, and then Fran becomes friends with Liz’s son Zac.  Soon enough it is clear that it’s up to Fran to save Liz and her family from the violent interloper who threatens them.

This is a poignant and unsettling book about the nature of self, the aftermath of domestic violence, mental illness, and the possibilities of parallel universes and different realities.  It’s also about love and loyalty and friendship.  Carey’s writing is vivid and compelling, and he’s got a real way with his characters’ voices.  This is a supernatural thriller, but one that’s firmly grounded in a story about family and love.

If you enjoyed Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, you’ll probably like this one, too.  I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s The Night Sisters or All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.

–Marie

Marie’s Favorites of 2018

Here we are at the end of another year of reading.  2018 was a wonderful year for me–my son was born back in June, and he’s such a sweet kid that he lets his mom keep up with her reading.

Below are my favorite books from the past year.  Click each title to go to the relevant blog post (or the Goodreads page, if I didn’t blog about a particular title).

Marie’s Favorites of 2018

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson

Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Have happy holidays and here’s to a wonderful 2019!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

witch elmAfter being beaten nearly to death in a robbery, Toby heads to Ivy House, the old family manse, where his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer.  Toby’s always considered himself a very fortunate guy, until the attack and his less than full recovery afterward.  While he’s trying to heal at Ivy House as well as care for his uncle, a human skull is found in an elm tree on the property.

Of course a whole skeleton follows, which brings the detectives calling.  Whose body is it?  How did it get there?  Toby, caring for Hugo and not having the greatest memory after the attack, tries to answer these questions as best he can–both for himself and for the detective who seems to have Toby on the list of suspects.

French’s writing is lavishly detailed and so finely wrought you want to savor every sentence.  The story is atmospheric and compelling, and the characters are all well-developed and authentic.  There’s still an element of crime fiction in this stand-alone, but it takes a backseat to a story of identity and family.  It’s also fun to see the other side of the usual stories French writes, which focus on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and their investigations. Here we’re with Toby the whole time as he tries to piece together his recollections and make sense of the present.

I really enjoyed the relationship between Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna.  They grew up together, almost like siblings, and their bond is clear, in all its complexity and history.  A lot of their relationship relies on memory now, and memory is a big theme in the novel–how people experience and thus remember things very differently, including relationships.

If you enjoyed French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, definitely check this one out–it’s not a crime novel, as I said, so you might miss that, but everything else great about French’s work is on display here.  Fans of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson who haven’t tried French yet certainly should as well.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Bitter Orange” by Claire Fuller

91Qzwi5HkMLThere’s a very old-fashioned feel to this psychological thriller.  In style and tone Bitter Orange reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.  The writing is elegant and the mystery a hook from the get-go.  The perfect book to curl up with on a December evening!

Frances Jellico, elderly and nearing death, recalls the summer of 1969 in an old country mansion in England.  That summer she was at Lyntons to study the garden’s architecture.  A couple named Cara and Peter have taken the rooms below hers.  Soon Frances befriends the young couple, only to find that there’s a lot more to both of them than they let on.

Fran, middle-aged and lonely and clearly with a lot of emotional baggage, is giddy to have friends.  Cara, strange and beautiful, finds an easy audience for her fantastic and romantic stories in Frances.  And Peter soon becomes the object of a crush.  I like how, as the story continues, it becomes clear that Fran is hiding something.  You begin to question exactly how reliable a narrator she is.

The back and forth of the narrative adds to the tension.  You’re aware as you’re reading that some sort of calamity is going to happen, and that Fran is actively hiding details.  It’s the bomb under the table sort of suspense.

Fuller’s writing is incredibly rich.  She sets a lovely scene, and her descriptions are wonderfully immersive and evocative.  There’s a touch of the Gothic here, too, with the dark and sinister secrets and things going bump in the night at Lyntons.

If you liked The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud for the narrator and tone, give this book a look!  The Talented Mr. Ripley fans might find a lot to like here, too, as well as those who liked The Haunting of Hill House.

–Marie