Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

This review first appeared on scifiandscary.com

Enjoy is maybe not the right word for a book about the end of human civilisation, but I was gripped and impressed by Meg Elison’s first novel. The prologue (which takes place after the main events of the book) sets things up well, skilfully introducing a future society in a brief but rich description that tips the reader off to the fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel. That light is very much needed as what follows is often bleak and brutal. The hospital-based start of the story proper is reminiscent of the beginning of ‘28 Days Later’ or ‘The Walking Dead’, but ‘The Book of the Unnamed Midwife’ is a very different beast from the zombie tales that are so popular at the moment. The only monsters here are people (mostly men) and the dangers that come when society crumbles. Characters die from tetanus and childbirth as well as violence, and the macho posturing that colours so many post-apocalyptic books and movies is completely absent.

The world Elison describes is as believable as it is terrifying, with far fewer women alive than men, rape and sexual slavery are the norm and the threat of violence is ever present. There are many horrific events here, but they are sensitively handled and never gratuitous. One sequence, in which a female character describes her time imprisoned by a gang of men, will haunt me for a while, but it’s because Elison makes you care about the characters that it has such power.

In the unnamed protagonist (who is indeed a midwife), Elison has crafted a convincing, determined, compassionate woman who travels through the newly desolated America dodging violent men and offering aid (in the form of medical care and birth control) to the women she can. She’s a wonderful central character, the writing switching between her diaries and third person passages about her adventures, and the people she meets are equally convincing, richly written and varied in character. This is a book that recognises and celebrates difference, with all races and sexualities represented, but never in a way that feels forced.

Whilst it isn’t quite as accomplished as Emily St John Mandel’s excellent ‘Station Eleven’, it is a similarly moving and intelligent work. Brutal and chilling at times, but also hopeful and very human. It immersed me right from the start and kept me gripped to the last page, moving me as well as thrilling me and offering a reminder that feels more necessary today than ever, that we are defined by the way we treat others.

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Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

A warm, moving, poignant novel about family life that is gripping and achingly real. Ng has done a great job of creating believable characters and constructing a compelling narrative around them. The story concerns the death of a teenage girl and the impacts of this event on her family. The events slip between the aftermath and the (long) lead up to her death and Ng manages the transition between the various times effortlessly.

Whilst the narrative focus of the book is quite narrow (more so certainly than her second book, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’) the themes are expansive and really well handled. Race, family relationships, class and parenthood all get an insightful and worthwhile treatment. Ng avoids easy answers and the book is richer and more fascinating for that.

I found it affecting and compelling from the opening pages to the subtly impactful ending.

Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Aside from Stephen King and a few detective series which in reading in order, it’s rare for me to reread a book, so it’s a testament to how much I liked this first time around that I’m reading this again.

Good news is that I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. Becky Chambers has done a great job of creating a believable, varied, vibrant universe with rules and details that are both credible and easy for the reader to understand. Even the complex science of “tunnelling” (the technique of joining two points in space to allow travel between them) which is central to the story, is understandably explained in a couple of paragraphs.

Populating this universe are a wonderful range of species and cultures, rich with both similarities and differences, who interact believably with each other. It’s the differences that Chambers really excels at, this is a book that feels utterly modern. It is one of the most inclusive, lovely, human books I have ever read. Every chapter is packed with details and interactions that drive this message home in subtle ways, be it commentary on the potential issues with multi-species bathrooms or restaurant menus, or the way the main characters understand the differences between them.

And those characters….the crew of the Wayfarer end up feeling like a family, with distinctive motivations and mannerisms that transform them from words on a page into living beings the reader is travelling alongside.

My thoughts when I first read the book stand absolutely: It’s everything modern sci fi so often isn’t: character based, playful, heartfelt, moving, funny, full of emotion and wonderfully inventive. Read it.

Review: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

‘The Kiss Quotient’ was fun and informative but not spectacular. It’s the romantic tale of a high functioning autistic woman and a male escort and has all the tropes you’d expect from a romance (misunderstandings on both sides, grand gestures, alternative suitors for both parties, etc). Throw into the mix a lot of sex (which for the most part is entertaining and actually kind of sexy) and the heroine’s autism (which is accurately and sensitively described) and you have something that’s a bit more entertaining than your average romance.

There are likeable characters, but none of them are that memorable, and while the plot is fun enough it never really escapes its genre. The added flavour of the both the portrayal of autism and the gender twist of a male prostitute do keep it feeling reasonably fresh though.

There’s nothing wrong with it, just nothing massively right either.

Review: Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

This was the first Donna Leon book I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. A classically styled murder mystery, with a methodical Venetian police officer (Guido Brunetti) investigating the murder of a famous conductor, this is never flashy and relies instead on solid writing and a well conceived and revealed denouement to keep the reader hooked. The means of death are established right from the start and the investigation turns on Brunetti’s interviewing of the various people in the victim’s life, many of whom had a reason to wish him harm. Leon has a very deft touch and Brunetti is a wonderful creation -measured, sensitive and determined to solve the crime despite the politics whirling around him which leave him slightly downtrodden at times. Unlike many fictional detectives he’s no misanthrope, often looking for the best in people rather than the worst, and happily married with a peaceful home life. He and Leon lead the reader through an extremely enjoyable mystery that kept me guessing right to the end.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

An incredibly accomplished, gripping, thoughtful and moving novel centred on two very different families in 1990s America. I always worry that character-driven books like this one won’t grip me like the plot-centred genre fiction I tend to read, but ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ gripped me from the first page and I read it every moment I could until it was done.

The characters are convincing and satisfying, with recognisable motivations and flaws; the setting (Sherman Oaks, a planned community that feels a little like Stepford at times, is as much a character as the humans; and the twists and turns of the story delighted and surprised me. Ng has a wonderful omniscient narrators voice, telling us about the past and future as well as the present in an almost documentary style that makes the events of the book even more convincing. She dishes out her plot in beautifully measure portions, signposting future events in a way that is beguiling rather than feeling like a tease, and wraps it all up beautifully at the end. The themes she tackles: the responsibility of parenthood, the prevalence of racism and unconscious bias in western society, the difference between true compassion and being seen to do the right thing, are just as skilfully handled, with easy answers avoided and the reader left to ponder some difficult questions and make their one decisions.

On closing the book as I finished it I’m not sure there was anything I didn’t like about it, other than the fact it is now over and I miss some of the characters already.

Review: Cockblock by CV Hunt

‘Cockblock’ is a disturbing, angry, graphic, hypnotic mind fuck of a book that takes a simple concept and runs with for just the right number of pages. The story is a bare bones affair that will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a zombie movie – the world starts falling apart with large swathes of the population turning on their neighbours and a group of survivors banding together to get through it. What’s different here is the nature of the aggressors, all male and attacking sexually more than physically. What follows is often graphic and unpleasant but always effective. The attackers shout cheesy chat up lines as they stalk their prey in a manner that seemed odd at first but increasingly becomes really chilling. This is clearly a book with a message, and a very current one at that – America’s misogynist-in-chief Donald Flump even gets to make an appearance. It’s laid on pretty thick but the book is no worse for that, even if Hunt’s writing can’t always keep pace with her passion and polemic. The book is never subtle, and it’s often too horrific to be entertaining, but I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it anytime soon.