Review: Version Control, Dexter Palmer

What a weird, weird book. It reminded me a little of Nick Harkaway with the quills retracted (does that metaphor work? do porcupines retract their quills ever?). Version Control is a time travel novel with very little time travel, a story about humanity and loss from whose human characters I felt distant, a novel of ideas that sometimes made me think brand new thoughts and sometimes made me feel very tired of humanity (although not in the way the author maybe intended).

Version Control

Philip Wright has not built a time machine. It’s a causality violation device, and so far it has always had null results. His wife, Rebecca, works for a dating service called Lovability that is monumentally successful at reducing people down to data points and matching them up with the data-driven correct mates. They are recovering from a tragedy, and Rebecca can’t shake the feeling that the world isn’t quite what it was supposed to be. It’s nothing to do with the time machine. It’s a causality violation device, anyway.

Version Control takes a very, very long time to get to its premise. I was warned about this, so I bore with it to get to the pay-off, and in fact I think the pay-off was worth it: Dexter Palmer has a take on time travel and its paradoxes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen done before. When the characters finally unravel (ish) the central mystery of the book and attain (ish) a resolution, it felt eminently satisfying.

On a character note, eh, not so much. It wasn’t exactly that Rebecca and Philip and Alicia and Carson and Kate were paper dolls in service of a novel of ideas, but they didn’t feel like real people, either. Actually! They felt very similar to how Rebecca felt about the world in general: Similar in most respects to what people would be like, but somehow not quite there. Maybe this was intentional on the author’s part, but it’s not my preference — I like to read stories about people who have conversations, not people who perpetually exchange monologues, and I particularly like to read about people who admire and like each other, the way virtually nobody in this book seemed to. I was always very aware that the book wanted to get across ideas more than it wanted to write about humans.

A mixed bag, then, but a very worthwhile one.

Agree or disagree: Time travel is always more trouble than it’s worth and we should 100% stay when we’re at, even if someone we know has built a time travel machine.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

It has taken me some time to put my finger on the problem I had with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, but let me say before I start on that, I liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It’s hard not to like a book that wears its heart on its sleeve the way this one does, dripping earnestness and longing to do the right thing from every page.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Ashby Santoso is the captain of the Wayfarer, which bores holes in space to permit rapid travel between far-distant planets. In this world, humans are a minor and unimportant species, so the crew of the Wayfarer is people by aliens and humans alike. When Rosemary Harper joins the crew as a clerk, trying to escape a painful past, she doesn’t expect to be signing on for a year’s journey through deep space to a little-known territory held by mysterious and warlike aliens.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has garnered many comparisons to Firefly, and it’s a good comparison, but this book lacks the energy and humor of its television sorta-counterpart. Part of this is because it’s kinda like, Conscientious Tumblr in book form. If I had to summarize every conversation about tolerance and alien life that happened over the course of this book, I would do it thusly:

First character: I have used a gender-neutral pronoun to describe you, second character, because one does not know what pronouns a new person uses until one inquires.

Second character: Actually, you still did it wrong!

First character: Because cultural sensitivity is very important to me, I am horribly embarrassed by my mistake.

Second character: Don’t be! What matters is that you meant well and that you’ll do better next time.

First character: Sometimes cultural differences are hard, but I’m glad we could talk through it.

Which, I mean, there are far worse sins that a book can commit than an excess of courtesy, and on one level, it’s nice to see a book in which all the characters are really committed to not being prejudiced assholes. The problem, at least for me, is that none of them have any progress to make on the prejudiced-asshole front. Everyone is best friends. Actually more like family. Even the one character who occasionally says a racist word learns a Valuable Lesson by the end.

It’s all just curiously bloodless. For a book that’s so heavily focused on character, this one didn’t end up making me fall in love with anybody. I didn’t just want to know their public faces; I wanted to know their flaws. But they’re so hellbent on being respectful that there isn’t much space for anything else. Any time there might be an interpersonal conflict, they swiftly resolve it using only their words and general auras of thoughtfulness. It’s hard to find room for growth when everybody is so extraordinarily mature to begin with.

An illustrated representation of the level of courtesy in this book.

IS THIS CHURLISH OF ME THAT IS NOT A RHETORICAL QUESTION

Review: Nexus, Ramez Naam

A while ago I accidentally checked out Crux, the second book in a series about a drug called Nexus that expands the human brain’s capacity and permits brains to connect directly to each other. Despite its turning out to be a sequel whose original I hadn’t read, I really liked it. Nexus is the book I meant to check out, so I went back and got that one the next time I was at the library.

The beginning: A government agent called Samantha Cataranes has been sent to gather information about a science computer genius guy named Kaden Lane, who is doing strange and forbidden things with a mind drug called Nexus.

The end: I didn’t read the end. I don’t always! I know what happens after the end because I’ve read the sequel. I could deduce what happens in the end, particularly character deaths, based on events and characters in the sequel.

The whole: Strangely, I am not confident that I’d have kept reading the series if Nexus had been my introduction to it. Where Crux explored the many ramifications of the world having a drug like Nexus, Nexus is almost completely engaged in setting up that world. Or to put it another way, Crux is proper science fiction. Nexus is more of a thriller. I enjoyed it–quite a bit, actually!–but I am not such a thriller girl. Without knowing that Nexus was setting up the extremely cool sci-fi of Crux, I might not have been on board to read a second installment.

It should be emphasized that this is a personal preference on my part. Both Nexus and Crux feature a combination of action scenes and dialogue about moral repercussions; but the ratio of action to dialogue about moral repercussions is much much higher in Nexus than Crux. Since I’m unable to make pictures in my head, action sequences are wasted on me.

Moreover, Crux is less facile and more Patrick-Nessy in its ideas than Nexus. Moreover, I tend to like the second installment in (planned) trilogies the best: The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Ask and the Answer, The Subtle Knife, etc.

For those of you overcome with suspense about Shu, whose role I did not understand when I read Crux because she’s basically just living in a computer the whole time, she was surprisingly benevolent in Nexus! Kade has reservations about joining forces with her, because she’s just so angry, but she’s more helpful than harmful. It’ll be interesting to see where Naam goes with these characters and this world in the third book.

Your takeaway is that you should read Nexus, which is a fun and engaging book, and you should be aware that Crux is equally fun and engaging, as well as more interesting. Science fiction written by people in the STEM industries could be my next big thing, y’all. Any recommendations of scientists who write sci-fi that I can go check out?

affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository

Crux, Ramez Naam

tl;dr: Crux (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is some really, really excellent science fiction. You should be aware that it is the second in a series.

The beginning: Isn’t this a veritable cornucopia of characters for me to remember all at once. Damn. The gist of all this appears to be that there is a mental enhancement program called Nexus with some serious implications for human evolution. Its ?creators? ?adapters? are on the run from the law (in fact, on the run from the law + a whole bunch of bounty hunters). They are also trying frantically to stop various brands of bad guy from using Nexus as a weapon.

The end (spoilers in this section only! Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know!): I hope So-Yong Shu gets explained more fully as the book goes on, because this ending implies that she is important. Anyway, at the end, someone called Shiva dies; Rangan goes free; and So-Yong Shu takes over her daughter’s body. I guess that answers my question about whether she’s a good guy or a bad guy.

The whole: I will tell you why I am hereby recommending Ramez Naam without reservation. Two thirds of the way through this book, I was crazy enjoying it and not wanting to put it down; nearly all of my confusion about the characters had been cleared up; and the plot was crackling along like wildfire. I paused to think about how I was ever going to write a synopsis of this book’s premise, given its weirdness and the multiplicity of characters and the international scope of the thing; and I glanced at the back cover to see how the publishers wrote the synopsis. They wrote this:

Six months have passed since the release of Nexus 5. The world is a different, more dangerous place. In the USA, the freedom fighters of the Post-Human Liberation Front use Nexus to turn men and women into human time bombs aimed at the President and his allies. The first blows in the war between human and posthuman have been struck.

You would not believe how slowly the cogs began to turn from here. First cog: That synopsis is awful! Doesn’t even explain what Nexus is! Second cog: This reads actually like the synopsis of a sequel to a book about Nexus. Third cog: Wasn’t the Ramez Naam title on my TBR spreadsheet Nexus? And not Crux?

Then I stared at the front cover for a while and had some doomed arguments with it like,

Me: You are called Nexus.
Front cover: CRUX, by RAMEZ NAAM
Me: But you are called Nexus!
Front cover: CRUX, by RAMEZ NAAM
Me: But! But!
Back cover: The dazzling sequel to Nexus

Y’all, I don’t know. I have no excuses.

The takeaway here should not be that I am a moron (though I plainly am), but rather that Ramez Naam must be pretty good for me to get so caught up in a book that — I realize belatedly — presupposes an awful lot of knowledge of these characters and this world. The weak link was So-Yong Shu, who may have been interesting in the first book, but who in this one is just in a holding pattern for almost the whole book. The rest of the characters have a lot to do, and Naam is brilliant at giving a sense of stakes to many different characters and plotlines.

Anyway. I refer you back to the tl;dr, above. Crux is wonderful science fiction, and I recommend it very much. But, like, probably you should read Nexus first. Probably, Crux will make a lot more sense to you in that case.

Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr.

The beginning: A group of humans — including two who should not have ended up there, and seem to be (but are they?) furious about the mistake (if it is one) — gather on the planet Dameim to witness the passing of a star whose explosion many years ago destroyed an entire race of aliens. Focused closely on the logistics of such a large group, the three guardians stationed on the planet do not act decisively enough to prevent a murderous plan from being set in motion.

Tiptree’s writing is admirably clear and entertaining, considering that so many of the early passages here are exposition. There’s still a feeling of intentionality that I like a lot, and I also feel — y’all know how this sometimes happens? — this sort of love-at-first-sight-y kind of feeling about her writing.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want to know): Oh man. What a great ending. Evidently I have missed quite a bit of action, but it looks like Cory has been aged several decades by powers unknown, and more wonderfully, it looks like the beauty of the Dameii is due to some sort of malignant beauty space virus. I can’t describe exactly but Tiptree describes it wonderfully. And there’s this:

People say be realistic. As though reality needs encouragement…[I’ll] tell you, Pace…reality doesn’t need friends.

I want to have that sewn onto a pillow. My love-at-first-sight feeling about James Tiptree Jr has only been magnified by this ending. Malevolence under a guise of beauty is one of my favorite creepy things.

The whole: I love being excited about a new author. I love, love, love it. This could only be better if James Tiptree Jr had written a whole bunch of novels, instead of only two plus a lot of short stories. Short stories are not as good for me as novels. But if the internet is to be believed, Brightness Falls from the Air is a lesser lesser lesser work of Tiptree’s, and her short stories and novellas are where the real action is at.

At first blush, the book seemed like it might be too wacky, what with the tottery old doctor, and the mentally unstable noblewoman with her ailing twin, and the adorable and competent young royal, and the porn stars that dream of becoming interplanetary soldiers (see how I made it sound way too wacky, just by describing it?). Reading the end sorted out my fears on that front. Although the book ends happily in some ways, it’s the kind of happy ending that involves a tremendous amount of compromise — the happiness is far from unqualified, and what there is of it might fall apart in the next minute.

(Also contributing to sorting out my fears on that front: learning from the internet that this was James Tiptree Jr.’s last book before she shot her husband and then herself, leaving behind a suicide note that she had composed years earlier. I was sure the internet was making all this up in aid of adding color to an already colorful life, but no. It is real.)

And of course, I am on record appreciating books that tell the entire story under one assumption, and then at the very end, sometimes quite casually, they drop in a remark or two to make it clear that what you thought was happening was never really what was happening, and with that knowledge you have to look at the book a whole different way. Brightness Falls from the Air is one like this, and it made me want to rush out and read everything Alice Sheldon ever wrote.

Review: The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is about many things I like to read about: encounters with alien cultures, close-knit groups of friends, Catholicism, colonization, sin and forgiveness and whether God has a plan.  Basically, some people on earth in the nearish future discover that there are aliens not far from Earth, and they go on a Mission to meet the aliens and learn their languages and all about them.  The book opens shortly after the last surviving member of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been returned to earth amidst much ado and scandal about the way the mission ended; and the narrative goes back and forth between the current time, with various Catholics trying to make Sandoz talk about what happened, and the time of planning and preparing for and going on the mission to the aliens.

I bought The Sparrow for either fifty or twenty-five cents at the book fair last year, and then I didn’t read it and I didn’t read it, and I would have listed it on PaperbackSwap and been rid of it ages ago, except the cover and spine were all creased.  So I brought it with me this summer, thinking I could read it at last and discard it.  And then, see, then, Bybee said how satisfying and amazing she found it to write in the margins of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I thought, hey, this book’s all beat up anyway, I will try a new experiment and write in the margins.

The results were – mixed.

Good result: I thought of things while I was reading, as one does, and instead of forgetting them at once, I wrote them down.  Not brilliant observations or anything!  Just responses to things the writer had said, and usually because I disagreed, but it did give me a pleasing sense that I was being intellectually stimulated the way you are supposed to be when you read, and having something (scribbled margin remarks) to show for it.  For instance, this:

The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Like most colossal disasters.

I think this passage is just in there to sound profound at the end of a chapter.  Because in fact I do not think that most colossal disasters happen for this reason.  That is giving people way too much credit.  Most colossal disasters happen because are people are shabby, so they cut corners, and one day they turn around and found they have cut the wrong corners and too many of them and too close together, and a colossal disaster has resulted.  Which, by the way, leads me to:

Bad result: I got way critical.  I wrote down stroppy margin comments like “Really?” about D.W.’s accent, and “hate hate hate phrases like this” about “when her body was used” (seriously, I hate phrases like that), and “rarely enhances a line of dialogue” next to the word “conversationally”.  I was critical about individual words and phrases, and critical about the pacing of the plot, and critical about stylistic choices.  Put a pen in my hand while I am reading, and I feel like editing.

Good result: I engaged very strongly with the characters.  Though that might just have been that Mary Doria Russell wrote a set of strong characters, and managed, although there were a bunch of them, to create a solid group dynamic.  Inevitably, some characters were explored more thoroughly than others, but I felt like I had a handle on all of them.

Bad result: I engaged very strongly with the characters, and then they all died except for one.  (That isn’t spoilers, you find it out like three chapters in.)  They all died!  It was such a bummer.  I read the end early on, to find out how everyone died, so I wouldn’t have to keep worrying about it, and the end was extremely unhappy.  Also (and I cannot stress this enough) (and this is spoilers, even though you would probably figure it out your own self) I do.  Not like.  Sexual.  Violence.

Like I said, mixed results.

Here’s the problem with trying reading experiments: There’s no control!  I have no idea what I’d’ve thought of this book if I hadn’t written in the margins, AND I have no way of finding out.  As it is, I thought it was very well-written, had some point-of-view problems, and it was way intense.  I do not have the wherewithal to read the sequel right away.  Should I read it anyway, at some point?  Do you think colossal disasters happen because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions all of which seemed like a good idea at the time?  Have you found margin-writing improves your reading experience?

Other reviews:

Book Addiction
Booklust
books i done read
Adventures in Reading
Incurable Logophilia
Medieval Bookworm
Semicolon
The 3 Rs Blog
Bibliolatry
Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books
It’s All About Books

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: In the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

Embarrassing confessions can be good for the soul, so here’s one of mine.  Sometimes when I read a book by a new author, and I really really like it, and then I go to the library and see there’s a whole shelf of books by that author – sometimes, when that happens, I get a little internal sound effect of a deep, serious voice going “So it begins.”

Well, okay, always.  Every time that happens, I get the sound effect.  And it doesn’t always work out.  Sometimes the author breaks my heart.  Sometimes I accidentally read the best book first and must spend the rest of my life being let down by all the others.  Sometimes I read interviews and discover the author is kind of a poop, and then I have a hard time reading the books without thinking of that.

In aid of avoiding another Orson Scott Card situation, I’ve decided not to read anything about Kage Baker in case she turns out to be a poop, because I love the premise of this series.  This premise of this series is like the (shining and glorious) lovechild of Doctor Who and Diana Wynne Jones’s wonderful The Homeward Bounders.

About three hundred years into our future, a company called Dr. Zeus, Inc., has figured out how to do time travel.  You cannot travel into the future, you cannot bring anything forward out of its own time, and you cannot change written history.  What you can do is stack the deck your way.  The library at Alexandria has to burn, but that doesn’t stop you going back in time and having an agent make copies of all the books, and hide them for you to discover in your own present.  Agents of the company find children at different points in history, save them from death, and make them immortal.  These new immortals are promised shiny rewards in the present if they serve throughout history as agents for the company, rescuing books and paintings and endangered species.

I know, right?  How did I never hear of these books before?

Mendoza is saved from the Spanish Inquisition and made immortal.  Disliking what she knows of human beings, she decides to be a botanist, intending to minimize her contact with mortals.  However, her first assignment for the company is to collect rare plants from a garden in Tudor England.  Along with two other immortals, she will pose as a Spaniard come to England in the retinue of Prince Philip, with all the attendant fears and stresses of changing religions and an angry monarch.  Intending to keep out of the way of the mortals as much as possible, she finds herself falling in love with one of them.

A few things that are difficult to pull off, that Kage Baker pulls off:

  • Characters talking in Elizabethan English.
  • Explaining necessary historical background, especially historical background that I already know, in a way that is funny and interesting, though it’s possible she gives Elizabeth I too much of a pass.
  • Implying that there is More at Work Here than this book lets us in on, without the book’s ending being an obvious set-up for a sequel.  Do you know what I mean?  You get the sense that clues are being dropped, but the story of this book is self-contained.
  • Being wry without trying to be hilarious, or coming off as disaffected and unfriendly.
  • (Spoiler alert.  Stop reading and skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens in the end, although why you wouldn’t want to know I can’t imagine.) Killing off the love interest.

My one single eensy little complaint was that Mendoza, right, she falls in love with this sixteenth-century guy, and he’s completely okay with a lot of the crazy stuff that comes out of her mouth.  Okay, yeah, he’s held heretical religious views in the past, but even with that, and even accounting for his being in love with her, I think he’s just the tiniest smidge unrealistically tolerant and open-minded about religion for his time period.

Apart from that one thing, it was a good book that made me feel very excited to read the sequels.  I feel like intrigue and deception are forthcoming.  Thank you, trapunto!  This was a read for the Time Travel Challenge (haHA!  Thought I’d forgotten that one, didn’t you?  I HAVE NOT.)

Other reviews:

bookshelves of doom
Regular Rumination
Mervi’s Book Reviews

Did I miss yours?  Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

Review: Darkchild, Sydney van Scyoc

Phew.  Nearly didn’t make it.  Actually I am not absolutely convinced I did make it – I was planning to read Daughters of the Sunstone (a trilogy) for the YA/juvenile fiction book of Jeane‘s DogEar Reading Challenge; I thought it was juvenile fiction because when I looked it up in the library catalogue, it was shelved in the children’s section.  So when December rolled around I placed a hold on it (it was checked out), and I waited and waited and waited, and it never came in, and eventually I gave up and just checked out the first book of the trilogy, Darkchild.  I don’t know that I’d call it a kids’ book in real life, but on the other hand, I don’t want the challenge police to come and scold me, so a kids’ book it shall be called!

Darkchild is a sci-fi/fantasy book in which, essentially, humankind left earth eons ago and went to colonize other planets, making necessary changes to adapt to life on less friendly planets.  Brakrath, where our young heroine Khira lives, is one such planet – a planet on which the ruler can use the power of the sun as she wishes.  While spending a long winter alone, Khira meets a boy without a name, whom she calls Darkchild, unaware that he has been programmed (against his will, of course, or we wouldn’t like him) to collect information about her civilization, then bring it back to his programmers so they can use it to destroy the people of Brakrath and take all their valuable things.

What I loved about this book was the honesty of the characters’ dilemmas.  Even after she learns what Darkchild really is, Khira is fiercely loyal to him, desperate to find a way to save him from anyone that might consider harming or destroying him.  Darkchild, in his turn, grows fond of Khira and tries to fight against his programming, to access those parts of his memory that are shut off to him, and to keep his “guide” (the program in his head that protects him) in check.  Their loneliness aches, and it makes their relationship very sincere.

I wasn’t as crazy about the sci-fi business.  I am picky picky about my science fiction, and I found some of this confusing.  Some bits were over-explained, like the race of creatures who had programmed Darkchild (Darkchild has a revelation of sorts, near the end, where he remembers how he helped his programmers to destroy cultures that had helped him – and it falls flat because this has been explained so thoroughly in the rest of the book); and some were under-explained, like the powers the barohna (the rulers of the sunstone) has, and the way everyday life goes on this world.  I had a hard time getting a sense of the world, I guess, and that took me out of the book a bit.  Can’t have been too bad, though, as I’m eager to read the sequels if I can get them, and see where the author takes it from here.  I like it that she’s switching to different characters, as I do feel Khira and Darkchild are at a good stopping place.

Thanks to the lovely Jeane for hosting this challenge!  I’d say three of these five books were a bit out of my comfort zone, and that is a good thing for me to do, read outside of my usual stuff, give different things a try and see how I find them.  Like science fiction and books about food that make me want to eat cheese fries.

An open letter to Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go

Wow, Patrick Ness, color me super impressed.  Way to create a distinctive, consistent, memorable voice for your protagonist.  That isn’t easy.  I have not read a book where I enjoyed the narrator’s voice so much since, mm, The Book Thief, and before that The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  Which are two of my all-time favorite books.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is based on a fantastic premise, that the aliens in this settled world have given the settlers the disease of Noise, which killed all the women and left the men able to hear each other’s thoughts; and then the youngest boy in the settlement of Prentisstown finds a girl.  A live girl!  The book is fast-paced and exciting and frightening.  The title is perfect.  The relationship between Todd and Viola is utterly real – all the relationships are, actually, and even though this is a plot-driven book, damn, Patrick Ness, you just nail those emotional moments every single time.  Like this?  (Major spoilers in the block text below, so skip to the subsequent paragraph if you haven’t read the book.  Even if you don’t care about spoilers – if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know how great this is because all the context isn’t there, but trust me, it is great.)

Ben nods again, slow and sad, and I notice now that he’s dirty and there’s blood clotted on his nose and he looks like he ain’t eaten for a week but it’s still Ben and he can still read me like no other cuz his Noise is already asking me bout  Manchee and I’m already showing him and here at last my eyes properly fill and rush over and he takes me in his arms again and I cry for real over the loss of my dog and of Cillian and of the life that was.

“I left him,” I say and keep saying, snot-filled and coughing.  “I left him.”

“I know,” he says and I can tell it’s true cuz I hear the same words in his Noise.  I left him, he thinks.

Ouch.  Also, chills.

And you know what else, Patrick Ness?  Since I have gotten started talking about the good things about your book, and how it’s just everything that’s great about being great?  What else is, hooray for you, portraying a gay couple without making a big thing of it – we know they’re a couple because they act like a couple, not because you (the author) gets all THESE ARE TWO GAY PEOPLE THAT ARE GAY; they are just a couple, and that is nice, and it is normalizing, and there should be more of that going on in literature.  Oo, and, okay, also?  Aaron was about the dreadfullest villain I ever read about in my life.  (That isn’t a spoiler – you can always tell he’s insane.)

Here’s the thing, Patrick Ness.  You already did it!  You already created Todd’s voice!  You did it using only your words!  Your achievement is a remarkable achievement, because it is damn hard to create a voice like that, and you did it ever so beautifully.  Why, why, why did you need to do that silly dialect thing?  “Yer” is not necessary!  “Cuz” is not really necessary either!  And I can assure you that there is no possible world in which “conversayshun” would ever be necessary, because that is how the word is already pronounced.  It’s not an accent.  It’s how you say the word.  And “an asking” instead of “a question” is both silly and jarring.  It mildly chagrins my dazzle to see you relying on dialecty crutches this way, when Todd’s voice, and the atmosphere of the world you’ve created, are already just about perfect.

Since I am having a moan anyway, here’s my other (teeny-tiny) gripe, which contains massive spoilers.  I feel like the Big Prentisstown Reveal could have happened sooner.  At least part of it could have happened sooner.  I say, tell about how they killed all the women earlier on in the book (have one of the townspeople tell Todd, or something) – we pretty much figure that out anyway, right?  It’s part of the emotional arc of the story, but it’s not the central part.  The reveal you want to save for close to the end is that Prentisstown keeps on killing their own, to allow the boys to become men.  That is what’s crucial to the events that occur immediately after Ben tells it to Todd – plotwise and emotional-story-arc-wise.  Plus, if we already had the reveal about the women, we would think, okay, we’re done, now we know why nobody likes Prentisstown, and then the other thing would really slap us in the face, because it is pretty chilling.

(I mean, it wouldn’t slap me in the face.  I would already know because I would have read the end (as indeed I did!) and found out what was what.  This was helpful to me in making judgments about where each reveal should have occurred.  Reading the end: the Way, the Truth, and the Light, verily I say unto ye.)

Once I get started complaining, I can’t stop, so here’s my last complaint.  Patrick Ness, WHY ARE YOU BRITISH?  And also WHY DID I NOT READ THIS BOOK SOONER?  My sister has just now returned from Ireland, and if I had read this book like, like two days sooner, I could have told her to buy me the sequel, which is out in the UK now but not out in the US until September.  I really loved the books I read last week, but I would have loved them a few days later, and then I could have had The Ask and the Answer on Thursday when my sister comes all the way properly home.

To conclude, Patrick Ness, you are awesome, and future books would not suffer if you eighty-sixed the fakey dialect bit.  Also (spoilers!  Spoilers!), given that this book turned me into an emotional wreck, you, um, you could go ahead and have it turn out that Ben is still alive.  And, um, I mean, Cillian too.  That would be fine.  It wouldn’t mess up anything!  I would be happy!  Todd and Ben would be happy!  We would all be happy!  I wouldn’t feel like you had cheated!  Just if you wanted to have it turn out that way.  I only mention it.

Kisses and hugs,
Jenny

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Bart’s Bookshelf
books i done read
Becky’s Book Reviews
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Fantasy Book Critic
Librarilly Blonde
The Well-Read Child
Wands and Worlds
YA Reads
YA Fabulous
Karin’s Book Nook
The Page Flipper
Reading the Leaves
Bookannelid
Lisa the Nerd
Kids Lit
Bitten by Books
Books and So Many More Books
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Let me know if I missed yours!