Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

    The Troop by Nick Cutter

    Did not finish: 21 April, 2018

    This is my first “did not finish” in quite a while! I normally know within a page or two if I’m even going to bother with a book, but I made it a whole 240 pages with this one.

    The writing is fine – the gross-outs are legitimately gross, and the characterisations are solid if pessimistic. But then there are the intrusive flashbacks. The characters see something. What do they see? Well, it looked like the balloons they make animals out of at the fair. Little Timmy could remember the last time he went to the fair, it was… Oh my ghawd, just tell me what they see!

    The plot reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies. It had the same savagery.

    Which was part of the reason why I didn’t finish. I’m in the beginning stage of one of my week-long anxiety attacks, and I just can’t handle the total lack of likeable characters. Especially combined with the contagion threat, which just hits every single one of my buttons. So it’s not that this is a bad book – as I said, I did make it about 2/3rds of the way through – it’s just a difficult book. And that’s just not something I’m up for these days.

    A few content notes: One of the characters is a violent psychopath who literally gets off on causing pain to others. He kills animals (including a kitten, in a rather graphic scene), and deliberately manipulates other characters. Also, Big Bad of the story is a worm-like parasite, so there’s all the content warnings about contagion, infestation, parasitism, and the body-horror that accompanies these things. Also, it’s set in Canada.

      The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

      Read: 16 April, 2018

      My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

      The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

      The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

      Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

      Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

        Southern Reach #3: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

        Read: 15 April, 2018

        I have several friends who read Annihilation in anticipation of the movie, but lacked the stamina and fortitude to continue the series. After they found out that I was reading the second, I became the Designated Reader – in charge of finishing the series, and reporting back with a condensed summary.

        All well and good, but the second was such a slog that I wasn’t particularly eager to start to the third. But with an impending move, I wanted to pack up my copy – something I couldn’t do until it had been read, lest I commit myself to not reading it until who knows when.

        I liked it much better than AuthorityAuthority, I think, suffered from middle book in a trilogy syndrome – the first book’s job is to set the scene, the third book’s job is to deliver a climax, but the second book is just about moving all the pieces into position. It’s hard to make that interesting. This was made worse by the fact that Authority was so much longer than Annihilation, and chose to focus on a character who just isn’t all that interesting.

        This issue is fixed in Acceptance by splitting up the narrative. Now, page time is shared between Control, Ghost Bird, the former director/Psychologist, and the lighthouse keeper. Control still isn’t interesting, but his chapters are spread out, and he’s always in the presence of Ghost Bird, who is a far more interesting character. Good choices, all around.

        I really enjoyed the lighthouse keeper’s story. Flashbacks (if that’s what there were – I suspect Area X is meant to have some kind of time looping) aren’t usually a good way to resolve plot mysteries, especially when the device isn’t introduced until the third book, but I just really enjoyed the character of Saul Evans. I would have liked to see a lot more of him, actually. In fact, I think it would have worked well to give him the second book, and have it all be a flashback to S&SB and the beginnings of Area X, and then combine Control’s adventures in the Southern Reach and his journey into Area X with Ghost Bird to make up the third book. Maybe. Or just write Control out entirely and keep only characters who are introduced in Annihilation.

        In between Authority and Acceptance, I saw the movie. Other than being about a biologist on a team sent into Area X, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book(s). The hypnotism is almost entirely absent (which makes the Psychologist’s scream of “annihilation” at the end entirely meaningless), and they did the same adaptation change that Stalker did – taking a story that doesn’t actually have a whole lot of action in it and adding in KILLER CROCS and KILLER BEARS and KILLER DOPPLEGANGERS.

        But I was surprised by how much of Acceptance they had actually stuck in there. Not a whole lot, since the stories had diverged rather significantly by that point, but more than I was expecting. Particularly as it relates to the Psychologist.

        My overview of the whole series would be that it relies a bit too much on the mystery, which wears a little thing in patches. But the narrative tone matches the themes of the story perfectly – the writing is slow, plodding, sometimes a little repetitive. It’s almost hypnotic. The mystery does sustain the first book, but really suffers in the second. The third book reveals just enough answers to feel satisfying, but not so many as to feel cheap. There’s still plenty of room for interpretation.

        Some characters, like the Biologist, the lighthouse keeper, the Psychologist, and Lowrie, are very strong and interesting. But I found some, like Control and his whole family, to be utterly tedious. Jackie Severance kept popping up, and I think I was meant to perceive her as a looming menace, but she lacked presence. I never really felt like I got a sense of her as a distinct entity – she always seemed to just be there when the author needed an extra character.

        I appreciated some of the looping (Whitby’s mouse, the room with all the journals in the lighthouse, the photograph of the lighthouse keeper), but I would have liked more of that. It seemed, at times, that story elements were only added when writing the second or third book, rather than intended from the beginning. Realising that it’s a gamble to do so, I wish that more of Annihilation‘s mysteries directly related to the events and answers we got later on.

        I can’t think of anyone I would recommend these books to, but if you’ve read Annihilation and enjoyed the writing and tone, it’s worth continuing.

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          Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

          Read: 9 April, 2018

          It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

          Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

          I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

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            The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

            Read: 25 March, 2018

            My son and I tried to read this together, but only got about 2/3 of the way through before he gave up and I had to finish it on my own. The writing style is beautiful, and we both enjoyed the interweaving of myth and realism. But, unfortunately, it just takes too long to get anywhere.

            There are two stories: In the first, a calico cat hides under a porch with an old hunting dog and gives birth to two kittens. The four of them form an unlikely family as they hide from the dog’s dangerous and cruel master. In the other story, taking place a thousand years earlier, a snake’s daughter changes herself into a woman to be with a hawk man, leaving the abandoned snake heartbroken and jealous.

            I loved the way the two stories work together to comment on love and family. Mostly, though, this is a story about the place – a swampy jungle on the border between Texas and Louisiana. Long pages are spent describing the trees and the water, sometimes multiple times over. And while this was poetic and beautiful, it’s also what lost my kid’s attention.

            It’s a beautiful meditative piece, but it is just too repetitive to be as long as it is, or perhaps too long to be as repetitive as it is.

              “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

              Read: 25 March, 2018

              I originally tried to read these stories when they were assigned in High School, but I was a thoroughly uninterested student – bordering on lethargic. And, as is true in most cases, I think I got a lot more out of it now than I would have at the time.

              The stories are very short, and they don’t have the satisfying arcs that I like in stories – “The Yellow Wallpaper” worked the best as far as story structure goes. Mostly, though, these were little vignettes that each tackle some feminist issue.

              I quite enjoyed the writing style, which was very concise (particularly for the time period) and readable. I do wish that there were more narrative structure, so that the pieces could stand on their own even without the political message.

              Overall, though, I did enjoy every one of these stories. Some, like “The Yellow Wallpaper”, I enjoyed both as stories and for their political message. Some, like “Making a Change”, I mostly only liked for their political message. And some, like “The Cottagette”, were just enjoyable wish-fulfilment.

              “The Yellow Wallpaper”

              This story was legitimately creepy. The visuals were great, and I would definitely watch a horror movie adaptation. The feminism was spot on with its critique of the White Knight who just wants to “protect” women by treating them like china dolls. While the ending was a little weak, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.

              “Three Thanksgivings”

              This is feminism from the other perspective – that of a woman who has independence and freedom, and who wants to keep it. Of course, she is greatly helped by owning a large house, and it is the house that enables her to make money in the way she does. So let’s call this the feminism of the wealthy. Still, I appreciated that the main character was given a selection of options (all perfectly attractive and ‘suitable’ for a woman of her age), and rejects them all in favour of work and independence.

              “The Cottagette”

              I enjoyed this little wish-fulfilment piece. A woman stifles her artistic self to attract a husband with evidence of her domesticity. But, twist of twists, he loves her as an artist, and will only marry her on condition that she stay out of the kitchen. It’s an excellent commentary on the toll domestic chores can take on a woman, and on her ability to do the kind of work that she finds fulfilling.

              “Turned”

              A wife finds out that her husband has gotten their maid pregnant. While she initially lashes out against the maid, she quickly realises the power imbalance, and how impossible it must have been for the girl to reject her boss – a fact of which her husband would have been well aware. The story ends with the husband finally finding his wife, who is now living independently with the maid and their baby and making a fine little family together, and they have absolutely no interest in whatever he’s there to sell them.

              I absolutely loved the message of this piece. The solidarity, and the recognition of power imbalance, and the creation of a new family built on mutual support and affection… it really couldn’t have been more up my alley.

              “Making a Change”

              This one pairs well with “Turned”, returning to that theme of women supporting women. We begin with a small family comprised of a wife, her husband, their newborn, and her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law has always been good with babies, but the wife feels that it’s her role, and she guards it jealously, but it just isn’t working out for her. Deprived of sleep, deprived of her music, and feeling like a profound failure, she tries to commit suicide. But when her mother-in-law finds her, the two realise that something has to change.

              And so, without the husband even noticing, the wife goes back to teaching music, the mother-in-law takes over the childcare and opens up a nursery for all the neighbourhood babies, and they use their extra wages to hire a good housekeeper who can deal with all the domestic stuff that neither of them likes to do.

              The tension comes in when, after months pass in this blissful arrangement, the husband finds out that his wife and mother are both working. He is humiliated, and tries to make things go back as they were. But we quickly comes to realise that everyone is so much happier with this arrangement, and he drops the subject.

              I really liked the message of this piece – households are so much happier if everyone gets to do the things that they find fulfilling. Trying to contort ourselves into unnatural shapes just because it’s How It’s Done will lead to unhappiness – not just for ourselves, but for everyone in the family.

              “If I Were a Man”

              A woman gets to experience what it’s like to be a man, when she suddenly finds herself in his body. The science is a bit underdeveloped in this one, as it isn’t clear just how much of his personality remains in his body (she does seem to have access to his perceptions and memories), and we never do see what happens to her own body (did they trade places?).

              And while this was perhaps the least narratively developed, it’s worth a read just for the part where she discovers pockets.

              “Mr. Peebles’ Heart”

              This is the only story centred squarely on a man. Mr Peebles has always supported the women in his life, catering to their every want and need so that they are never challenged. This has not only left him unhappy, it’s also left his wife unhappy, as she is afraid to travel (even to visit her daughters) and has no real interests of her own.

              Then along comes her sister – a “lady doctor”/fairy godmother who solves everything by prescribing him a year-long trip to Europe. The two of them are separated while he explores himself, and she is forced to discover who she is without him. In the end, they are both happily travelling together.

              I found this to be the weakest story in the collection.

                Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

                Read: 20 March, 2018

                This is a fairly straight-forward and readable retelling of several stories of the gods. There’s a good range, and I recognised quite a bit more than I thought I would.

                I read these to my seven year old, and I’d say he’s right at the line of appropriateness. He got a huge kick out of the butt-mead of poetry, of course, but some of the themes were well beyond him. He also had a bit of trouble keeping track of all the names, though we made good use of the glossary at the back.

                  Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

                  Read: 17 March, 2018

                  I enjoyed this quite a bit more than We Should All Be Feminists. Perhaps because the context is more personal, so it justifies the more personal tone. As with We Should All Be Feminists, this isn’t about building a case or proving a point or trying together statistics to form a broader picture. But unlike We Should All Be Feminists, this book is explicitly preaching to the choir.

                  That was the problem with the other book – its function would be to convince readers to care. But without a well-crafted argument, without proof that there is a problem in the first place, it falls short. Here, however, Adichie is addressing herself to a friend who has just had a baby and who wants to know how to apply her already-existing feminism to her parenting. She’s already on board with the ideals, but she wants practical advice (and, perhaps, a little cheerleading).

                  The advice itself is more of the high concept variety. This isn’t, after all, a parenting book with sample scripts. But it serves well as a reminder of all the sneaky little cultural baggage that we bring into our parenting without even realising it.

                    Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

                    Read: 17 March, 2018

                    Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

                    The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

                    And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

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