Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Girl With All the Gifts" by M.R. Carey

I've been hesitant to describe Gifts as a zombie novel because I think that term can turn certain readers off. And, of course, on a basic level, Gifts is a zombie novel. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic near future where "hungries" have destroyed much of the human population. A small enclave of non-infected live on a base, doing research on a group of children with a strange abnormality: they're infected but not mindless killers. Sure, they'll eat and destroy you if they get a whiff of your natural smell and aren't restrained, but otherwise they're normal children. Besides that, like other zombie novels, Gifts includes plenty of violence and gore.

But where Gifts diverges is in its protagonist, 10-year-old Melanie, who's one of the base's research subjects. What makes the novel so chilling at first is that Melanie has no idea she's a hungry and has known no life where she's not restrained with guns at her during all human contact. The highlight of her life is Miss Justineau, one of the teachers assigned to the children. Because Miss Justineau is the only adult to show the children warmth and kindness, Melanie idolizes and adores her.

Other novels have certainly used sympathetic zombies as their protagonists, but Melanie's age and innocence make her feel somewhat different. I noted in recent reviews that, for some reason, I keep reading books about child abuse (a cruel trick of the universe as I glance over at my sweet 8-week-old daughter, asleep beside me). Reading about the cruelty inflicted on Melanie was almost impossibly hard, but Carey does work to show the perspective of others whose world has been destroyed.

To do so, though Melanie is the focus of most of the novel, Carey also switches perspectives to Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks (in charge of security at the base), and Dr. Caldwell (the lead researcher). The changes in viewpoints keep Parks and Caldwell from being utter villains, though their redemption (well, maybe partial redemption in Caldwell's case) comes slowly.

The pace is fast with cliffhangers ending most of the relatively short chapters. The mystery around the truth of who Melanie is soon gives way to an on-the-run adventure. Enough of the zombie world building is different to keep things fresh.

If I have any quibble, it's that Melanie is extremely intelligent and mature for her age (though that's acknowledged in the book), and she's perhaps too perfect. However, the adults are much more messy, and the whole novel is so engrossing, that I didn't really mind.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin

Book lovers are a persnickety bunch. We're passionate about what we love, and such passion also makes us opinionated. For that reason, I think authors of novels about book-loving have a hard time. They have to effectively capture the love of reading with a plot and in a writing style that's worthy of such love itself. In this regards, The Storied Life bombed for me. A mediocre beach-read feel-good plot with a generic pop-lit style just can't convince me that its characters love books as much as I do.

The book centers on the life of bookstore owner A.J. Fikry, recently widowed (though not old). We're told he's cranky and asocial, though his behavior is never especially bad in the book. One evening he discovers a 2-year-old girl named Maya has been abandoned in his bookstore, and she's wearing a note asking A.J. to care for her. Because this is a novel, the local police agree to let A.J. care for her for the weekend until social services can arrive. He wants to care for her... for some reason (not really clear because isn't he supposed to be all cantankerous?). He takes her for the weekend (one of my favorite parts of the book is him Googling how to do everything--i.e. "How does an adult man bathe a two-year-old girl without being a pervert?") and of course falls in love, and a chapter later A.J.'s adopted her. Now, this whole process is made easier by the fact that Maya is mature and precocious and perfectly well-behaved. Also, she seems totally unfazed by the fact that she's lost her mother (who committed suicide).

So A.J. raises Maya in this idyllic independent-bookstore-on-a-tiny-island life. And, do you remember book sales rep Amelia from the first chapter? The one A.J. was cranky to? (remember how cantankerous he is?) Well, A.J.'s in love with her. And they start a romance hindered by the fact that it's darn difficult to get to the island (you have to take a ferry!). Will true love ever prevail? But, don't worry, A.J. and Amelia overcome that insane obstacle and get married. Like Maya, Amelia is basically perfect except that she's not traditionally pretty (really, that's her one flaw). Oh, and of course Maya and Amelia totally adore one another.

The book continues through Amelia's young adulthood, ending in sweet tear-jerking fashion. Any of the real issues--like why Maya's mother committed suicide; the truth about Maya's father--are fairly skimmed over. And the pace felt off. I think Zevin was attempting to mimic a short story style (A.J. talks regularly about liking short stories) by showing discrete episodes from A.J.'s life, but such a structure means important elements of the story are skipped over. Instead, random points are emphasized but never go anywhere. For example, Amelia talks repeatedly about how difficult her mother is; we finally meet her and she has maybe one line (and, sure, it's a bit cranky), but the she never appears again. So who cares?

Worst of all, the characters in the novel all love books, but such love seems generalized ("I love bookstores!") rather than rooted in a real discussion of literature. The only part that seemed genuine (and, actually, my favorite part of the novel) were the short prologues to each chapter. In each, A.J. describes to Maya a favorite short story and explains why that story spoke to him.

If you like sweetness and happy endings, Storied Life is perfectly acceptable. If you like good literature, skip it.

Stray thoughts:
- It's interesting that A.J. is Indian and Maya is black since people of color are underrepresented in novels of this ilk. Their cultural backgrounds are almost never mentioned and play no part in the story, though. On the one hand, there's no reason why they have to be--can't that just be in the background like it is for white characters? On the other hand, exploring those aspects of the characters' identities (and how such identities play out with those around them) would have added an interesting layer to the story.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta

I first heard about The Leftovers from an NPR interview with Perrotta about the new TV series coming out based on the novel. The deceptively simple premise seemed fascinating: one day (October 14th) about three percent of the world's population simply disappears. Some call it the Rapture, though there are no clear connections between who disappears and who remains behind. The Leftovers picks up three years later in the suburban town of Mapleton, exploring what happened to those who have had to continue on.

Perrotta's novel spends no time on the sci-fi/fantasy mechanics of the disappearance, which is never explained. Instead, he's focused on how normal individuals react when the extraordinary happens--and then they must go back to "normal" life. Most of us rely on predictability and routine to make sense of our existence, but the "Rapture" throws all of that into question. No where is this more evident than in the characters of Laurie and Nora. Though no one in Laurie's immediate family disappears, she's haunted by the disappearance of her best friend's daughter. She eventually abandons her family to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult devoted to keeping the event foremost in everyone's minds. Members live a monastic existence--renouncing material goods and maintaining silence--while following around (and silently judging) those trying to live normally. Though at first it's hard to understand how Laurie could leave all those she cares about, the appeal of giving up attempts at normalcy and turning one's life over to a bigger force eventually becomes clear.

Nora's loss is much worse. Her husband and two children all disappear on October 14th, and though she attempts to continue a real life, she doesn't deal much better than Laurie and feels even more guilty.

Their stories struck me the most, particularly when Laurie does form a relationship again with Guilty Remnant recruit Meg. The culmination of their story, though perhaps foreseeable, was quite the gut punch.

But, if it's the loss of relationships that destroy us, it's also relationships that have the potential to redeem us. Perrotta's not about sugar coating real life, and not everyone is able to grab a hold of what's offered, but the novel does offer some hope.

The characters are varied and richly developed, even though most of the novel centers on Laurie and her family: husband Kevin (the town's mayor), daughter Jill (delving into slackerdom), and son Tom (who also left to join a cult). Though there's relatively little action, I was fully engrossed the whole time. I'm sure the show will be excellent.