Monthly Archives: April 2018

Artemis, by Andy Weir

artemisAs you know, I’m not much of a sci-fi reader (so much not, in fact, that I don’t even have a category here on the blog for sci-fi, and on the rare occasion I do read a sci-fi novel I have to tag is as “fantasy” because that’s the closest category I’ve got. One exception to my lack of love for sci-fi was Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, which I loved long before it became a hit movie. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Artemis nearly as much. It’s a fun, fast-paced read, but it has some real flaws that kept me from getting into it.

Artemis is set on a near-future moon colony. There’s a lot to like about it — the diversity of the community, the sciency-tech stuff that sounds more or less believable to a non-science person like me but isn’t jargon-y enough to put me off (though there’s a lot more welding detail in this novel than I needed) and a pretty neatly-constructed plot that starts off as a sort of scam/heist plot, but turns into a save-the-moon-colony plot.

However, the main character, Jazz Bashara, is hard to like. That’s not always a bad thing, but Jazz is a young woman (it was irritating to me that I could never figure out exactly how old she’s supposed to be and I’m positive this is not inattentive reading but due to some actual mistakes the author made in continuity) who’s sort of an amoral con artist. Actually, going back to an earlier review, she’s not entirely unlike Vin in the Mistborn series or Nahri in City of Brass, and she also kind of reminds me of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat character, but without enough motivation for me to fully understand why she is the way she is. Also, I’m not one of those female readers who believes no man can ever write a female main character well — lots of male writers do, regularly. But Jazz often feels to me like a woman written by a man who keeps reminding himself that the character is a girl and he has to throw in some woman-y stuff — and when he does, it doesn’t always feel entirely believable. I didn’t give up on the book and I did think the plot was nice and tight, but it’s certainly not as memorable as The Martian was.

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The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

theimperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists is not so much a novel as a collection of linked short stories, bound together by the place where all the characters work: an American-owned English-language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter focuses on a different character’s personal story, spanning the decades from the founding of the paper in the 1950s up to the dying days of print newspapers in the new millennium. Some stories and characters were more compelling than others; the vividly-created world of the newspaper and those who worked there was well done, and overall it was an interesting read, especially as the reader catches glimpses of the characters we’ve previously read about, as minor characters in other people’s stories — that sort of multiple-perspective thing is always so interesting.

That said, I found this a pretty depressing book — I don’t require novels to be full of chirpy good spirits, but it is nice to finish a book feeling that there is some hope for the human condition, and The Imperfectionists was not that kind of book. Not only are all the characters engaged in what most of them recognize as a failing industry, but most of them are also pretty unpleasant people (with a few exceptions) , and there is not (that I can recall call) one happy, supportive or successful relationship in the whole crew. Marriages crumble, lovers betray, friends don’t really care for one another. People are awful. Beautifully depicted, with keen insight and wonderful use of language — but mostly still pretty awful.

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The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn

alicenetworkThis is a historical novel that (although the setting and subject matter were very different) reminded me a bit of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, in that I was probably two-thirds of the way through the book before I realized that some of the “fictional” characters I was reading about were not just based on real people but actually were real people. The novel deals with a WWI spy network in France organized by British intelligence but run on the ground mostly by women, including the real-life spy Louise de Bettignes, who is an important character in this novel.

The two main characters are both fictional — American girl Charlie who goes to England and France in 1947 in hopes of finding out what happened to her French cousin who disappeared during the war, and Eve Gardiner, the embittered ex-spy who unwillingly helps Charlie in her quest. There’s a lot going on in this novel — an unplanned pregnancy (Charlie’s) in an era when wealthy girls from good families took care of such problems by visiting a clinic in Switzerland; a romance with a handsome Scottish ex-convict; the true fate of Charlie’s cousin Rose. But all these events, unfolding in 1947, are only a backdrop for the real story told through Eve’s memories: the story of a group of women in a German-occupied region of France during the First World War, risking their lives to pass secrets to the British and French. It’s a compelling and little-known piece of history, and The Alice Network does a good job of telling it.

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Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin

youngjaneyouthThis was the one contemporary novel I read in the midst of a sea of historical fiction while on my spring vacation. I found it vivid and really compelling — moreso than the previous book I’d read by the same author. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was good, but for me, Young Jane Young was a can’t-put-down kind of novel, and I burned through it less than a day (of course, I was on vacation).

It tells the story of Jane Young, who had another life and another identity before she adopted that bland name in a small New England town. She was once Aviva, a college-aged intern for a state politician who became embroiled in a Clinton/Lewinsky style sex scandal — and, just like Monica Lewinsky, she learned that the young female intern was the one who bore most of the public shaming and hate for the affair. It’s enough to make a girl cut all ties with her past, change her name and career, and move to a different part of the country to start over.

The story is told in several parts from the viewpoints of four women, all of them engaging characters — Jane/Aviva herself, her teenaged daughter Ruby, her mother Rachel, and the congressman’s cheated-on wife Embeth, each of whom gets to share her own perspective on the events and their aftermath. Finally, the story takes us back in time to when the affair actually happened, shifting not into first- but into second-person voice and telling twenty-year-old Aviva’s story as if it were a choose-your-own adventure novel (but in each case, you only get to read about the choices she actually makes — the one that leads to her life falling apart). I didn’t expect this part of the story to unfold in this style, but it was surprisingly effective and compelling.

This is a novel about making mistakes, surviving, and recreating yourself — and it also takes a hard look at the way we judge women and men differently in the wake of highly-publicized scandals like the fictional one in this novel.

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The Secret Wife, by Gill Paul

secretwifeAlmost ten years ago I read Carolly Erickson’s novel The Tsarina’s Daughterwhich was built around the idea that the Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the four daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, might have escaped her family’s massacre and survived. The recent release The Secret Life is based on the same premise, interwoven with the story of a 21st-century British woman who has no idea that her own family tree is intertwined with the tragic story of the Romanovs.

Unlike The Tsarina’s Daughter, this novel is told not from Tatiana’s own point of view but from that of Dmitri, one of the real-life men (an army officer from a noble family) whose name was romantically linked with Tatiana’s. History records that the real Dmitri died not long after Tatiana and all her family were executed, but in The Secret Wife Gill Paul imagines an interesting and complicated survival story for both of them. This is no simple romance where Dmitri magically spirits Tatiana away and they ride off into the Russian sunset to live happily ever after — rather, it’s a story about their love affair but also about the lives they build for themselves after the revolution, after Russia — and about the possibility that you can encounter more than one kind of love in a lifetime. 

Against the backdrop of this epic love story, the contemporary story of Kitty Fisher, who renovates her great-grandfather’s abandoned cottage while trying to decide whether to forgive her husband’s infidelity, may seem a bit bland by comparison, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading, although my main interest was always in the Dmitri/Tatiana story. Do they get to live happily ever after? You’ll have to read the book and decide — and then remember that it’s all fiction, and all the Romanovs definitely got shot by the Bolsheviks.

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Goodbye from London, by Jennifer Robson

goodnightfromlondonGoodbye From London explores the experience of am American woman reporter stationed in London during the Second World War. Beginning during the London Blitz, Ruby’s time in London stretches out to encompass the entire war and even brings her to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion. Along the way, she not only experiences and reports on the reality of war on the home front, but also finds her own identity (not to mention, as you might guess from the cover, true love). While this novel wasn’t as emotionally intense as some WW2 books I’ve read recently, it did give a good overview of the British experience from the unique experience of a woman journalist, and it made me want to learn more about real female war correspondents in that era.

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The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck

womeninthecastleThis book was not only extremely well-written but provided an intriguing window into a world I didn’t know much about. The women of the title are three German women living, with their children, in an almost-abandoned castle in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. Two of the women are the widows of men who were executed for their part in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. One of these women is proud of her and her husband’s role in the Resistance; the other resents her husband for putting politics above family. A third woman, apparently also the widow of a resister but not known to the other two, appears and is included in their circle.

As I read this book, I realized I had not read a great deal of fiction about the Second World War from the German point of view, and even less from the point of view of German resisters who opposed Hitler. For all of us who wonder “How could ordinary Germans allow someone like Hitler to seize power, and even support him?”, the novel addresses that through the flashback scenes of each woman’s memories as they see the events of the 1930s unfold.

Anyone who visits Germany even today, 70 years after the end of the war, can see the delicate balance Germans strike between remembering and honouring their own war dead while also acknowledging the horrific crimes their country committed. The Women in the Castle, written by a writer of German heritage who had the advantage of being able to talk to WW2 survivors in her own family, explores how this tension played out in the lives of three fictional women who feel as real and vital as if they had actually been there. I found this book fascinating and really loved reading it.

 

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