I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home ins...moreHow I loved this problematic novel.
I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home instead of flying and so I had the unusual liberty of not caring about whether a book purchase would force me to check my luggage.
Mostly I picked it up because it seemed impossible to summarize. My favorite sorts of books to read and write. The back of the book begins with “In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients — dissidents, Islamists, and other outlaws — from surveillance. He goes by Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him, and Alif’s computer has just been breached by the head of the state’s electronic security fo—“
Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, just stop. Maybe that stuff technically happens in the novel, but that is not the tone of the book, at all. Alif is an impetuous, immature, passionate pig of a computer geek, coding and pimpled in a room in his mother’s house. He throws a massive, electronic tantrum after he’s jilted by Rich Mystery Babe, and the repercussions of the program he writes propel us through the rest of the novel. A couple of reviews call this a thriller, but it’s not, not unless American Gods is a thriller. A couple of reviews call this erudite social commentary, but it’s not unless A Wrinkle in Time is erudite social commentary.
Of course, American Gods is thrilling, and A Wrinkle in Time does indeed comment on society, but that is because they are good fantasy fiction, and good fantasy fiction is full of true things. But they both read like fantasies, and so does Alif the Unseen. If you open the book expecting that, you will not be dissatisfied. Now, because it’s been at least four paragraphs since I did a list, here is a list of four things about Alif the Unseen I think you ought to know.
1. There are so many characters to huggle. Alif is a brat, and I hated him for the first 80 pages, but that’s sort of the point. There are others to love, though: Vikram the yellow-eyed jinn, NewQuarter the endearingly spoiled and heroic prince, and Sheikh Bilal, a holy man with a good mind for a computer metaphor. The character interactions are what ensured my love of this novel. The plot became irrelevant. I just wanted to watch them frolic. 2. There is a car chase in the desert. I don’t know what else to say about this, but if you know anything about me at all, you know it takes very little to please me, and one of the things that will please me is car chases in deserts. 3. It was pretty fantastic to read some contemporary fantasy set in the Middle East, and Wilson did a great job soaking every page with imagery. 4. I really, really liked the way spirituality was worked through the book, touching everything, including the magic, in a very organic way. As someone who believes spirituality and religiosity are not synonyms, I appreciated how Wilson danced between the two. One of the most moving scenes is where a character prays over a meal with little fanfare.
Now it’s time for the problematic part. I have a huge problem with the way women are treated in most of the Middle East. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with equality and choice. I have a huge problem with the way women are portrayed in fiction, period. I knew it could be a very unsatisfying combination, however, I went into Alif with an expectation that Wilson would tread this ground with confidence and insight: after all, Wilson is an American woman who converted to Islam and chose to take up the headscarf. She must have heard everything I was thinking before.
But Alif the Unseen is problematic because it fails to deliver on a single female front. Dina, Alif’s childhood friend, chose to take the veil as well. And she is portrayed as plucky and often less fearful than Alif. Yet she is dragged into adventure and ultimately has to be saved. Another female character appears and does in fact save them . . . by getting mystically pregnant. And a third female character exists as a well of mystical spiritual knowledge. This is their power: they are hidden, they can make more of themselves with magical uterus power, and they, as hidden things, know about other hidden things.
This is an adventure about Alif. The women are accessories. It’s true that Vikram and NewQuarter are accessories, too, but they are unique, proactive, and lovable in a way the women are not (see #1, list of characters that made Maggie love this book). So what I think is problematic about this book is actually a global phenomenon: even women write female characters differently than male characters. Hundreds of years of boy adventurers have left us uncertain how to see a woman in a similar situation. Alif the Unseen is problematic to me not because it actively puts women down, but because it’s yet another novel that subtly and unconsciously reminds us that the boys are the ones who adventure, women are only guardians of home and hearth and mystical knowledge. It’s a novel I would have read as a teen and then closed with a sigh, wishing once more than I had been born lucky — had been born a boy.
But if you put that aside — and women readers have been putting this aside for generations — Alif the Unseen is a fantastic contemporary fantasy. My favorite of the year. (less)
When I was a small maggot, I read a lot of thrillers. My father would give me his hand-me-down paperbacks, all called things like DEAD MAN RUNNING and...moreWhen I was a small maggot, I read a lot of thrillers. My father would give me his hand-me-down paperbacks, all called things like DEAD MAN RUNNING and POINT BLANK and AGENT ZERO. All featuring manly authors in leather jackets on the back cover, often posing with their dogs, SUVs, or Kalishnikovs.
And I liked them.
I really did. I would speed through them in a day and daydream about car chases. And then I'd go read some Diana Wynne Jones or Susan Cooper fantasies.
It's hard coming back to them as an adult, though. I'm a different sort of reader and I want different sorts of things. I want car chases, but I want to know the characters involved intimately, or I don't care. I want to see the scenery in a different way. I want an impeccably told thriller, and I don't want to hurry through it in a day. I want to be entertained, dammit.
Well, BRILLIANCE entertained me. Sakey draws his protagonist, Nick Cooper, with fond, wry strokes. He's charming and flawed, a divorced family man, a devoted government agent, a dutiful speeder (Cooper. I can't speak for Sakey). The conceit of the novel is excellent, too — in this version of the world, a small but growing population of the world has been born "brilliant," blessed with preternatural pattern recognition or somesuch thing, and the world is on fire with the shock and revolution of it. It makes for some fascinating metaphors — I love me some metaphors — and some laugh out loud moments, such as one page that talks about how the world would look if the brilliants had never come along.
It also makes this a thriller you could take to book club, because it has layers to talk about. You can read it fast or slow and there's something for both of those reads.
What else do I want to say? It's a bit slow in the first third, but I trust that my glowing recommendation will make you overlook that. And it's mostly about pretty people, but I mostly write about pretty people too, so I can't say anything. EVERYONE IS PRETTY ON THE INSIDE, DEAR READER.
Farewell. I'm glad to hear that you've gone off and ordered this. The cover's cool, too. In person it is all tactile. (less)
Before I say anything else, let me get this out of the way: Jennifer Donnelly, don’t read this.
I know that she might be, because even though authors o...moreBefore I say anything else, let me get this out of the way: Jennifer Donnelly, don’t read this.
I know that she might be, because even though authors often say they do not read their reviews, I am an author and have secret knowledge of author-behavior and know that this means that they often do.
This is not a bad review, but I don’t want Jennifer Donnelly to read it because I want one day for us to sit together at a conference and be best friends and talk about dead people, prose, and minor chords. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that, much less something as untidy as her looking at me and thinking of this Goodreads review and hissing “I’ll show you ambitious, Stiefvater.”
So Ms. Donnelly (Jennifer, really, because in the future, we’re friends, or at least fond peers), please stop here.
All right, so I never understood by what reviewers meant by “ambitious.” I assumed it meant the reviewer was a condescending jerk. I hope that is not me. Because I’m going to say it. This is a big, sprawling, ambitious novel that has its eye on a lot of different things. Before I read it, people told me it was a fantasy, and an edgy contemporary about grief, and a historical romance. It is none of those things, but it is some of all of those things. It tells the story of Andi, a present day grieving Brooklyn teen, and it tells the story of Alex, a pyrotechnic teen living during the French revolution, and it also tells the story of a dead prince’s mummified heart, and it also tells the story of a French composer who seems to like both Beethoven and Radiohead, and the story of a rapping taxi driver with a heart of gold.
It’s this book’s ambition that keeps it from being absolutely perfect. It tries for all of those things, and some of those things it nails, and some of them made me make my mouth small. But it’s also its ambition that makes me okay with its imperfection. Because the reason why I have so many things to talk about and pick apart is because it gives me so many things to talk about and pick apart. It’s a glorious thing to pull back the layers. In many ways, I think it’s a great readalong with CODE NAME VERITY — another ambitious book with lots of layers to pick at.
What else do I want to say about this book? Because I want you to pick it up — I want everyone to. I want writers to, because I think it will make them better writers, and I want readers to, because I think it will make them better readers. I want everyone to, so I can have someone to talk about the cleverness of it, right down to the title. I want to talk about how wise it is when it comes to war.
I suppose I will say this, then: stick with it, in the beginning. Andi is in a terrible place, and she is not the easiest person to like. That’s the point. And I’ll say: ignore all the covers. They are all ridiculous and none of them is remotely interesting until after you’re read the book. What else? Probably ignore the cover copy too. It is not that it is a lie — it’s just that it’s untrue. It doesn’t reflect the reading experience at all.
Here, in fact. That’s a good way to end this thing, whatever it is, because it surely isn’t a review. I will finish with the cover copy I would write for this book instead:
Andi Alpers is a sad and terrible person after her younger brother dies. She goes to a snotty school that makes her sadder and more terrible. Her father, who is a geneticist, brings her to France to be sad and terrible there while he analyzes a crusty old French heart to see if it belongs to a sad and terrible French princeling. She finds a happy and glorious old guitar from the revolution, and a sad and terrible journal from selfsame time period, and also meets a happy and glorious rapping taxi driver with a heart of gold. There are kisses, decapitations, house parties where house = catacombs, and a lot of classical guitarists playing a lot of minor chords.
My work here is done. Jennifer Donnelly, are we friends yet? (less)
Aw, Brenna. Fair confession: she's my critique partner, so I saw this manuscript when it was just an infant. But it's lovely and creepy and you'll lik...moreAw, Brenna. Fair confession: she's my critique partner, so I saw this manuscript when it was just an infant. But it's lovely and creepy and you'll like it, too.
Serial killers (a little), ghosts (a little), and love (a little). (less)
I'm an unashamed lover of movies as well as books, and I have a special place reserved in my black heart for movies that feel like books and vice versa. Nick Hornby and John Green generally live in this zone for me, with characters and plots both walking a fine line between quirky and unbelievable. Jackson Pearce elbows her way into this realm with Purity. In it, Shelby promises her dying mother that she'll listen to her father, love as much as possible, and live without restraint. Innocent-enough promises in theory, but in practice, they lead to all sorts of capers and crises involving best friends, sex and church ladies. The combination of Pearce's humorous voice and the novel's bite-sized length make it easy to hand to most everyone. Like Hornby's and Green's books, I would pick it up for the light and breezy concept, and remember it for the surprisingly poignant character relationships.(less)
My relationship with high fantasy — fantasy set in another world — has always been tumultuous. Actually, I'd like to refer you to the first item on this list. Everything I said about historical fiction also applies here. Which is why, despite multiple recommendations, I let this debut novel about a half-dragon, half-human girl sit unread on my desk for five months. I'll admit I very much wanted to remain a curmudgeon, but the thorough world-building and specific characters won me over. This city of austere dragons and emotional humans felt complete, as if I could turn down any number of alleys and never find the seams showing. At 480 pages, the novel is satisfyingly plump with politics, religion and prejudice — and a restrained but edifying measure of love. It also has a healthy dose of music (I was unsurprised to discover Rachel Hartman was a fellow admirer of medieval polyphony), and I find I'm very interested to see what Hartman writes next. Teens and adults alike will love to creep down the magical streets of Seraphina's city. I certainly did.(less)
1. If I tell you this is a book about depression, you won’t want to read it. At least, I wouldn’t want to read it. Depr...moreFive Things About Mr. Charwell:
1. If I tell you this is a book about depression, you won’t want to read it. At least, I wouldn’t want to read it. Depression is real, yes, but depression also tends to be static; it clogs and slows and dilutes its victim. Which makes for boring fiction. So I won’t tell you that this book is about depression (because it’s not very true, anyway). I will instead tell you that this book is about Winston Churchill, which also isn’t tremendously true. Winston Churchill struggled with depression during his life, referring to it as a black dog. Well, in this book, depression is truly a black dog, six feet tall and smelly and just there. So there you go. This is practically a dog book.
2. Also, it’s not really about depression. It’s about strength. Possibly this makes it a not-depressing book with depression as a main character. Rebecca Hunt is a very clever wordsmith, and I had to stop a few times to read sentences out loud because of how very TRUE their contents were. I love a book that makes me nod and say “that’s exactly how it is! I never thought of it that way!” (Well, I don’t really say that. I just go GAH and read it out loud. But that’s what I mean.)
3. Plus, it’s funny. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how sadness and laughter live right next door to each other. This book nails that. Hunt is well aware of the humor inherent in a six foot tall dog named Mr. Chartwell looking for a room to let, and she runs with it.
4. The metaphor is pretty stinkin’ impeccable. I really think this exchange between one of the narrators, Esther, and the black dog, Mr. Chartwell, is a great example of both the book’s humor and the effectiveness of the metaphor. She has just asked him how it is that Mr. Chartwell affects Churchill, and he replies: “It’s hard to explain. With Churchill we know each other’s movements, so we have a routine, I guess. I like to be there when he wakes up in the morning. Sometimes I drape across his chest. That slows him down for a bit. And then I like to lie around in the corner of the room, crying out like I have terrible injuries. Sometimes I’ll burst out at him from behind some furniture and bark in his face. During meals I’ll squat near his plate and breathe over his food. I might lean on him too when he’s standing up, or hang off him in some way. I also make an effort to block out the sunlight whenever I can.”
5. The novel never overstays its welcome. Short chapters fill its brief 242 pages, making for a speedy read. The conceit of a panting black dog following people around might have gotten old if Hunt had let it, but — unlike Mr. Chartwell — Hunt gives the reader precisely what is needed and then is gone before there can be an aftertaste. (less)
I remembered adoring this book as a child — let's face it, it was basically Maggie-crack, as it was all about time travel and dogs and 14th century Sc...moreI remembered adoring this book as a child — let's face it, it was basically Maggie-crack, as it was all about time travel and dogs and 14th century Scotland. It also had cute illustrations of puppies and men in kilts. Looking back at it now, I can see where my early fixation with Robert Bruce came from, as well as my obsession with chivalry.
Anyway, I just dug it out of my shelves and read it to Thing 1 & Thing 2, who are now 7 and 8 years old. They were absolutely delighted and Thing 2 declared that it was the best book ever written besides THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET.
So that is my unofficial review. Maggie-crack and also, the best book ever written besides THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, according to a 7-year-old boy. Worth tracking down.(less)
This is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little ver...moreFive Things About The Secret History.
This is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little verklempt, I’ll admit. It’s been a long time since a book has stuck with me so completely as this one, and I say that having had a quite remarkable year for memorable reading. So, the summary is straightforward and completely unhelpful: a Californian boy arrives at a private New England college where he falls in with a bunch of snooty but delightful Classics majors who happen to have accidentally killed someone during a Bacchian rite they just happened to be conducting in their spare time. That is a totally truthful depiction of some of the events in the book, but it is not what the book is ABOUT. I will do my best to convince you to pick it up in other ways. Without further ado, here are five things about THE SECRET HISTORY.
1. This is not a new book. All of your friends have already read it. You probably already have a copy of it, actually, that you picked up at some point in the last decade, and now it molders in a box in your master bedroom closet, the one that you never unpacked last time you moved. Right next to your college alarm clock and two boxes of 9-volt batteries and that shirt you can’t throw out because it was a gift. The reason why I’m pointing out that it’s not a new book is because, since reading it, I’ve been told by several people that it is theiwe Favorite Book Ever. It is one thing for you to read a book six months before and maintain it as a Favorite Book. It is something more remarkable when a book can elicit a passionate response from readers twenty years after its publication.
2. This book is full of terrible people. Pretty much the lot of the people that our narrator Richard meets are awful in some way. Self-centered or elitist or potheads or sociopathic or just people with really loud voices in quiet places. Even Richard is not exactly a great guy. But the magic of this novel is that, somehow, you find these terrible people deeply sympathetic. I need to go back and reread it to understand this strange enchantment. How do I find them so charming? Why do I want them to like Richard? GIVE ME YOUR SECRETS, BOOK.
3. This is not a whodunit. You are told pretty much the Bad Thing That Happens in the prologue, and you can see it coming like a comet for much of the book. The effect of this, however, is to create a lovely, unbearable tension and anticipation. And when the moment comes — in a line that involves ferns — it is so deliciously awful. I actually exhaled gloriously and put the book down for a moment because I was so delighted by the actual pay off.
4. It’s long. It’s over 200,000 words long, I think, and 600 pages in my edition. It took me five days to read it. And it’s not just long, it’s dense. One of the blurbs on the inside of the jacket said that it read like a 19th century novel, and I don’t think that’s at all unearned. It takes its time developing atmosphere and character quirks and some of the days in the novel take dozens of pages to unfold. It is not a novel to speed through. It’s a novel to get stuck in. I put it down when I got too tired, when I felt like I was starting to skim.
5. WHAT ELSE CAN I SAY? I adore the characters so much. I adore the hint —the breath — of the supernatural. I adore the slow, building tension and the sense that I, as a reader, was being skillfully manipulated. Yes, that. That last one. I think that is what I love the most about this novel. I get the idea that Donna Tartt was completely in control of this novel. Everything is measured and deliberate and just perfectly done, and I trust her entirely. Fifty pages in, I knew that she was going to tell me a story I was going to enjoy, even if I had no idea what it was going to be.
Man, I just am going to flail about some more. Go read it. (less)
1. This is the first five star review I've given that is five stars for how I would've viewed this book as the target aud...moreFive Things about Endangered:
1. This is the first five star review I've given that is five stars for how I would've viewed this book as the target audience. This book is an upper YA, and although I enjoyed it, it would've made my eyes huge with wonder and shock as a fourteen year old unaware of the history of the Congo. I'm quite pleased to imagine it making its way into the hands of teens now, though. It's one of those books that makes you look at your own culture a little differently; makes your world a little stretchier.
2. This book is not for everyone. Bad Things happen. I mean, it is not Little Bee, which caused me much rocking and moaning in the corner. But it is not The House at Pooh Corner either (I first typed that as the House at Poo Corner, which would have been a very different sort of book. Possibly one that would make me rock and moan). I've previously recommended Lucy Christopher's Stolen and Ruta Sepatys' Between Shades of Gray, and I'd say it would definitely appeal to folks who liked both of those. Definitely it has that gritty sense of place and history that seems to evade Pooh Corner.
3. This book is about bonobos. They are apes. That means they have no tail. We also have no tail. Bonobos, as you can see, are quite like us.
4. Tigger is not in this book. Unless he is a bonobo. Man, I really enjoy saying that word out loud. Go ahead. Try it.
5. This book reminded me a little bit of those old-fashioned adventure stories I read growing up. There's something a bit timeless about the telling of it, about the girl-and-an-animal element, about the questing-for-safety. Something familiar. It's not a book that changed my life now. But it would've changed my life then, and for that, five stars.(less)