Review: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Book Review for Borne by Jeff VanderMeerThis book sat on my shelf for ages before I finally picked it up. I loved VanderMeer’s first three novellas, all part of the Southern Reach trilogy, so it’s unclear why it took me so long to pick up Borne. Once I finally got around to reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

Borne is set in a dystopian city ruined by “the Company”, a corporation responsible for conducting odd scientific experiments on biological matter, and then setting loose the specimens. Once free, the biotech creatures – in particular, a flying bear as tall as a multi-story building – lay waste to the city. The main character, Rachel, is a scavenger who scours the metropolitan wasteland for salvageable items which she brings back to her partner, Wick, a former employee of the Company. Wick uses the salvage to repair, and newly invent, various biotech items for his and Rachel’s survival. Together they live in a protected enclave, set with numerous traps to keep out unwanted visitors. Wick is mistrustful of everyone, including Rachel. When Rachel brings home what appears to be a tiny plant she plucked from the back of the aforementioned giant biotech bear, Wick wants her to despose of it. Instead she cares for it, as the “plant” grows, becomes sentient, starts to speak, and eventually reveals a diverse range of abilities. She names it “Borne”, and raises it like a child.

If you are thinking, as you read this post, that the book sounds a bit silly – flying bears and talking plants – I can’t say I blame you. In the beginning pages, I was also skeptical. It seemed far-fetched and overly imagined. Yet, the genius of Jeff VanderMeer is his beautiful and utterly captivating writing style which lulls readers into a pleasant suspension of disbelief. His style is so specifically his own. In this book, and in his previously published Southern Reach trilogy, he fabricates such a unique environment; always fraught with surreal creatures and set in dysfunctional societies. There is an ambience to his writing unlike any other novel I’ve read.

When Rachel first finds Borne she describes it like a sea anemone, and states:

“Instead, for a dangerous moment, this thing I’d found was from the tidal pools of my youth, before I’d come to the city. I could smell the pressed-flower twist of the salt and feel the wind, know the chill of the water rippling over my feet… as I looked toward the horizon and the white sails of ships that told of visitors from beyond our island. If I had ever lived on an island. If that had ever been true”

This passage is quintessentially VanderMeer. Just as the prose begin to subdue the reader into a poetic calm, VanderMeer undermines the reader’s sense of trust and comfort. The main character questions her own reality; her ability to accurately remember where she lived in her youth. If the main character is unsure of what to believe, what should the reader believe? The question of truth – what is real, who can be trusted – is at the core of each of VanderMeer’s novels. He creates beautiful worlds built on uneasy, nearly uninhabitable foundations.

For this reason, Borne is not for the faint of heart. VanderMeer’s writing is as dazzling as it is dark. You will be drawn in by the language, by the curious nature of the story, and find yourself in a world unsettling and dangerous. As with all great dystopian literature, you might wonder, as you read, whether our society is entirely dissimilar to VanderMeer’s fiction. Are we on the fractured brink?

Review: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

An Enchantment of Nightingales: Mini Reviews, Part I

Book Review for Nightingales

When I was in high school and college, I was a champion procrastinator. I typically didn’t start writing papers until the night before they were due. By college this was a talent in and of itself. I was a lit major, so the bulk of my assignments were lengthy. Twelve or more pages of coherent analysis written in one night was commonplace. I felt as though I wrote better under the pressure of a looming deadline.

There are no looming deadlines for this blog. I can post as frequently as I desire. The tricky thing is finding that balance between reading and writing about reading. Reading a book with the aim of publishing a review is a bit different than reading for pure pleasure. Sometimes I approach a book like an old friend stopping by for a long overdue visit. Sometimes a book is loaned to me, and I feel the responsibility of making its polite acquaintance before returning it quickly to its home. Sometimes I wander aimlessly through a book, like a traveler, letting the sites and characters wash over me without judgement. I don’t always post reviews. There are times when I want to read without analysis or critique.

Maybe all of that explains why this particular post was so hard to complete. Procrastination hit me full force. In the end, I just couldn’t be bothered with lengthy analysis; though these books deserve the attention to detail.

Instead, I decided to post 4 mini reviews. Once I loaded them all into one post, it was pretty freaking long. You don’t have time to hang out here all day, so I’ll break this sucker up into two separate posts.

Let’s start with The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, and then Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Book Review of The Bear and The Nightingale

I’ve seen this book practically everywhere for a long time now, and okay, wow. I see what all the hype is about. Vasya grows up hearing folklore and fairy tales from her nanny. As she grows older, it becomes apparent that she can see the creatures from the old stories; spirits that guard the house, the horses in the stable, the forest, etc.. When a new priest comes to her village, preaching against the old stories and traditions, her community fearfully abandons their ways. They stop leaving offerings for the spirits guarding their communities, and the spirits become weak, little able to protect the village. As an ancient, evil force awakens in the forest bringing chaos and death to their community, Vasya attempts to make peace with the spirits, and protect her family and village.

This book is strongly planted in fairy tale and Russian folklore. Of course Vasya’s mother dies at the beginning of the story, and her father remarries a woman who despises Vasya. Of course Vasya is believed to be a witch, and is feared and ostracized by her community even as she attempts to protect and save them. Of course there are ancient forces of good and evil warring with each other, and Vasya is entwined in the fate of the battle. The beauty of this book is how well it is done. It doesn’t feel as though it relies too heavily on the usual archetypes. For example, the “evil stepmother” is really just a weak and frightened woman struggling with her own perceived madness. Vasya is both the damsel-in-distress and the hero galloping to the rescue.

For Ages | Adult
Genre |
Should you read this book? |
By golly, yes! It’s a fast read; part one of a trilogy. I couldn’t put it down, and am looking forward to the next book in the series.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

Book Review of Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamilloRaymie Clarke’s father runs off with his mistress, leaving Raymie and her mother devastated and confused. Raymie is convinced she can bring him back home by winning a beauty pageant. In need of a talent for the pageant, she begins baton twirling lessons, and meets two new friends with their own unique motivations for participating in baton lessons. They forge a friendship that does more for Raymie than the pageant ever could.

I suspect I would have really enjoyed this book in 4th or 5th grade. As an adult, I had a little trouble getting into it, and found the story a little flat. However, I am a huge fan of Kate DiCamillo, and generally feel that you can’t go wrong with her books. I appreciate that she wrote a story highlighting the empowering element of good female friendships. For this reason alone, this is a great selection for middle readers, especially young girls. It’s important to have stories about girls boosting and supporting each other.

For Ages | 10-13 years
Genre |
Middle Reader, Fiction
Should you read this book? |
Possibly. Are you in middle school, or an advanced reader headed into middle school? If yes, you’ll probably enjoy this book. If no, maybe give this one a pass, and check out one of DiCamillo’s other works.


Check out An Enchantment of Nightingales: Mini Reviews, Part II with mini reviews of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange.

An Enchantment of Nightingales: Mini Reviews, Part I

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Book Review The Music Shop by Rachel JoyceRachel Joyce is a master of tender, heartening storytelling. I’ve read two of her three novels, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Music Shop. In both cases, I wanted to curl up and live in her stories for a while. Joyce’s writing epitomizes sweetness.

The Music Shop takes place on Unity Street, where a tiny row of rundown shops exist despite all odds – a bakery, an undertaker, a Christian store, a tattoo parlor, and a vinyl record store. The masonry is falling from the shopfronts, the town council wants to demolish and redevelop Unity Street, and the little community of shop owners and their neighbors are barely scraping by. Yet, they form a scrabbled together family who does not wish to be split apart.

Frank owns the music shop, and has a knack for suggesting the exact right song for each of his customers. A customer is likely to come into the shop asking for one thing, and walk out with something completely different, yet expressly what they needed in the moment:

“Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song”.

In this way, Frank becomes the center of his little community, comprised of people whose lives he has transformed through music. He is well-loved, despite being stubborn and a tiny bit bumbling.

Frank’s life is forever altered when a pretty woman in a pea green coat peers into the music shop one day, and promptly faints. Frank and his fellow shopkeepers revive her, and instantly their curiosity is piqued by the mysterious woman. Gradually, she and Frank get to know each other. She suggests Frank give her music lessons, and they meet at a little cafe each week. No matter that she is engaged to someone else, Frank is besotted and seems quite comfortable with his seemingly unrequited love:

“Real love was a journey with many pitfalls and complications, and sometimes the place you ended up was not the one you hoped for. But there. Better to have held her hand on a summer’s day than to have had nothing at all”.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop there. My one criticism is that the story is a tiny bit cheesy. It’s a good sort of cheesiness though. The kind that verges on saccharine without tipping fully over. Music lovers will appreciate Frank’s suggestions and varied stock of vinyl. Readers will fall in love with the charming characters. The Music Shop is a feel-good must-read.

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Before we begin…

29094474_2047241348882955_7690873150967382016_nYesterday was my 4 year old daughter’s last day of dance class at our local community center. On the last day, parents are invited into the classroom to watch a little “recital” – which sounds like a level of cuteness rivaled only by videos of sea otters holding hands (or paws, if you insist on accuracy). All seemed lost when my son woke up with a cold and had to stay home. My husband, hero to the rescue, worked from home so we could make it to the recital. Perhaps it was doomed from the get-go. We arrived at the community center, but the teacher did not.

You can probably picture the perturbed parents (many of whom had taken time off work for the occasion). One extremely thoughtful mom had brought a bouquet of roses, and handed a stem to each dancer on their way out the door. My daughter weathered her disappointment with an attitude worthy of a benevolent character from a 19th century novel. We came home with a rose as a consolation prize, which does feature nicely in the picture for today’s review of Vanity Fair.

And now, the book…

Have you read Vanity Fair? Though I geek out on literature from this era (Austen, Dickens and Brontë) I’d never read this novel. If you’re not into novels from that time period, this book is definitely not for you. Even if you like books from that time, Vanity Fair is quite long. More verbose than this post, if you can believe it.

Vanity Fair recounts the lives of two women, Rebecca and Amelia, who start out as childhood friends. At the start of the novel we see these two characters leaving finishing school together. After that point, like many a great 19th century novel, things don’t go well for the main characters for much of the story. Rebecca, born without money or class, is ambitious and cunning. She stops at nearly nothing to ascend society, even at the risk of scandalizing herself. Amelia, born genteel and comfortable, falls into poverty when her father loses all the family wealth. She bores each sad occurrence in her life with a flood of tears, followed by an overarching grace befitting of a lady of her day.

The whole story is framed by the narrator essentially gossiping to the reader, which makes this novel unique (at least, for its time). In fact, there are portions of the story the narrator claims to have received second-hand. Occasionally, the narrator goes so far as to suggest certain information may be biased and inaccurate:

“…as I have no doubt that the greater part of the story was false and dictated by interested malevolence, it shall not be repeated here”.

Or, the narrator might start a juicy tidbit of gossip, only to refuse to tell-all:

“…and here she named the name of a great leader of fashion that I would die rather than reveal”.

In this way, the plot reveals itself through hearsay, in a rather rambling pace. The beauty of the ramble is that it reads in an easy, almost contemporary way. I could imagine a similar tone coming out of the mouth of a gossipy friend over brunch. Did you hear about so-and-so? You are not going to believe it. Let me pull up Instagram so you can see for yourself.

As you might suspect of a book of this era and place, people of color are depicted in offensive, unflattering ways. If you are able to read past that, considering it a snapshot of the times, you may enjoy this book quite a bit. It is replete with love stories, scandal, tragedy and redemption. It is a commentary on social hierarchy and, of course, personal vanities. In many ways, I felt that Vanity Fair might translate nicely to a modern day retelling.

A little gossip about William Makepeace Thackeray…

Are you interested in a little gossip I overheard from Wikipedia, a source well-known for its veracity? Apparently he was born in India. Thackeray’s father and maternal grandfather were both secretaries for the East India Company. When Thackeray’s father died, his mom sent him to England (without her! when he was only 4 years old!). When he turned 21, he received his inheritance. However, he wasn’t great with financial matters. He gambled and made poor investments. Sounds a bit like the two characters Rebecca and Amelia marry in Vanity Fair. Thackeray apparently got his act together when he married. He and his wife, Isabella, had three children. Sadly, Isabella suffered from post-partem depression. She threw herself into the ocean while sailing to Ireland. Fortunately, she was rescued. Unfortunately, she suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life, and spent some time in asylums, and most of her life in private care. Wikipedia notes that Thackeray “desperately sought cures for her”. Though, that didn’t stop him from becoming a bit of a bedswerver. Despite personal losses, Thackeray experienced a great deal of success as a writer. In his lifetime, he was nearly as popular as Dickens. In his later years, he was in ill-health, ate gluttonously, and eventually died of a stroke at the age of 52.

And on that happy note, I bid you adieu.

Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Review: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

28151220_2066388013594152_6146061096353529856_nThe other evening, a friend asked what I’m currently reading. I had just finished Rabbit Cake that very morning. When she asked how it was, I told her that I had trouble getting into it. I’d read another book somewhat recently that I loved, and it temporarily broke me; I was having trouble enjoying anything I picked up next. My friend said there’s a term for that ailment.

Apparently, I had a book hangover. Like a greasy-spoon-breakfast after a night of tipsy tomfoolery, Rabbit Cake pulled me from my funk.

A little girl named Elvis, her older sister Lizzie, their father, and their pet dog Boomer, are grieving over the loss of their wife and mother who drowned while sleepwalking. Elvis is the youngest in the family, and yet finds herself in the position of holding everyone together. Like her deceased mother, older sister Lizzie also suffers from sleepwalking episodes. Equally she is a handful in her sleep as she is in her waking life. Their dad is heartbroken over the loss of his wife, and deals with it by wearing her lipstick and bathrobe. They adopt a parrot from the local pet shop, who has begun imitating the voice of their lost loved one. Lizzie drops out of school and begins obsessively baking rabbit cakes, something their mother used to do for special occasions. On the advice of her school counselor, Elvis assigns herself 18 months to grieve.

Not surprisingly, the book is a little sad; especially in the beginning. At times, I found it a bit morbid. For example, Elvis loves animals (her mother was a biologist), and she frequently shares random animal facts, such as:

“A naked mole rat cannot feel pain, I remembered. It is one of the reasons naked mole rats are studied so extensively in labs. The rodents are missing some neurons or something, scientists aren’t sure, but you can dribble acid directly on their skin and they won’t even shudder”.

Despite the occasional dark moment, the story pulled me in. A dry humor settles in, and the characters begin to heal in their own unique ways. Elvis starts working on the biology book her mom was writing before her death, Lizzie decides to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, their dad starts dating again.

Through it all, Elvis is wise beyond her years. In the way of precocious narrators, she often provides moments of wisdom and sweetness, such as when she describes an incident between her sister and her sister’s best friend:

“Lizzie should never have hurt Megan, especially not for something that sounded like it was partly our mom’s fault. But I understood why she did: you want to defend those you love, even if the ones you love aren’t very good all the time, and sometimes they are even downright awful”.

This is a story of slightly flawed people coming to terms with a terrible tragedy, yet the story itself doesn’t feel too heavy. It balances darkness with a good dose of levity. The characters will win you over. It you need it, it might be the perfect book to get you over a book hangover.

{Have you suffered from a book hangover? What book did you in? Put the title in the comments; I might add it to my reading list!}

Review: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett