Book Review: PLAGUE LAND – NO ESCAPE, conclusion to a trilogy

Scarrow, Alex - Plague Land No Escape (3)Plague Land: No Escape
Alex Scarrow

The third novel in the Plague Land series finds Leon left in the UK, Freya on her way to what’s left of the United States, now hosted by Cuba, and Grace on a Chinese aircraft carrier. In the first novel, a malevolent virus wiped out most of humankind within a week. Only those taking drugs seemed to be spared. The second novel showed the virus’s development and introduced Tom, Leon and Grace’s father, who was desperate to find his children. Partnering with the Pacific Nations Alliance, he led a disastrous attempt to rescue English survivors. With too many refugees in a small camp, it became overrun with the virus that was now able to copy humans and hide in plain sight. As chaos spread among the survivors, the three teenagers became separated.

Plague Land: No Escape concludes the trilogy, with the virus attempting to reach out to humans to communicate and explain its mission. However, the virus is willing to forgo negotiations and complete the mission by any means necessary. It seems inevitable that the ever decreasing number of survivors will be annihilated by the virus which can now flawlessly duplicate any living form and withstand any attack. Those left now must decide to fight or acquiesce to the virus’s demands.

This series is marketed as young adult which surprises me a little bit, partly because of the language but mainly because of the gore. It is so disgusting, and each volume was more graphic and gross! These weren’t descriptions of violence but of the effect of the virus. Furthermore, it didn’t make much biological sense so felt gratuitous. No Escape introduced a few new characters, but the characterization was light, and I didn’t like the separation of the three main characters. To me, the action wasn’t as compelling as the previous entry, and many conversations between the virus and the humans were repetitive. I suppose when it came down to it, I didn’t much like the mission of the virus or how it played out. I’d hoped that the ending would wrap it up in a compelling way, but I was underwhelmed.

Book Review: HOUSE OF STONE, an unreliable narrator infiltrating a Zimbabwean household

Tshuma, Novuyo Rosa - House of Stone (2) (1)House of Stone
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

During a political rally in Zimbabwe, Bukhosi Mlambo disappeared. Desperate to locate their son, they are vulnerable to the attentions of their lodger, Zamani, who is only seven years older than Bukosi. Zamani, an orphan, tries to become the Mlambo’s missing son, willing to go to desperate lengths to maintain his proximity to the family.

Unreliable, at times, Zamani, an orphan, believes he is a more worthy son than Bukosi. In other cases, he is more deliberately cruel to the parents in order to rewrite his own history and in turn remake his past. He misreads and misreports his own and other’s motivations and misunderstands people’s emotions and attitudes. As a result, he’s completely unreliable and completely fascinating.

History, memory, storytelling, and the right to declare the truth play an important role not only for Zamani and the Mlambo family. The country itself struggles with the same issues. After Zimbabwe gained independence, two nationalistic parties struggled for power during the Rhodesian Bush War. The national army under Robert Mugabe systematically killed Ndebele people ostensibly because they were dissidents, but in actuality because they supported the rival political party and Mugabe feared their opposition.

The book is not easy emotionally to read first because Zamani represents an unsympathetic character with whom it is difficult to empathize and second because of the terrible and graphic atrocities Abednego and Agnes experienced, and at times committed, in the aftermath of independence. Although I found certain sections slow, particularly Abednego’s teen and young adult years, once more characters were introduced and their secrets unfurled, the novel became surprising and unrelenting.

While I don’t think this is a universally appealing book, I am extremely glad I read it. I didn’t know anything about Zimbabwe’s Bush War and genocide, and though the descriptions were horrific, I thought it only fitting to fill the role of witness as uncomfortable as that might be. Additionally, as much as I despised Zamani, as a narrator, he was completely spellbinding.

House of Stone should find it audience among readers interested in African history, colonialism, genocide; those who find stories about history, memory, and identity compelling; and those who are fond of reading books from the perspective of unreliable narrators.

Book Review: THEY COULD HAVE NAMED HER ANYTHING, I loved the concept, but not the style

Jiminez, Stephanie - They Could Have Named Her AnythingThey Could Have Named Her Anything
Stephanie Jimenez

In They Could Have Named Her Anything, seventeen-year-old Maria Rosario, a denizen of Queens, makes a long journey to the Upper East Side each day where she attends Bell Seminary as a scholarship student. Although one of the only Latina students, she doesn’t fit in with the other girls in the Students of Color group, yet she sometimes leans into the stereotypes foist upon her, as she does in math class to bully her teacher into accepting it when she moved from her assigned seat in the front of the room to the back where she daydreamed about Andres, her boyfriend who called her a “corpse” after she lost her virginity to him.

That fateful move brought her into a collision course with Rachelle “Rocky” Albrecht, one of the wealthiest girls in a school full of rich students. Maria and Rocky gravitate towards each other, Maria envying Rocky’s wealth and privilege, Rocky jealous of Maria’s close family. Yet, the two also clash with secrets and misunderstandings. Although told primarily from Maria’s point of view, the book also has sections told from the points of view of Rocky, her dad, Charlie, and Maria’s father, Miguel.

Typically, this is a book I would like, given the diversity of the characters, the coming of age story, and the questions of identity and sexuality. However, They Could Have Named Her Anything wasn’t for me. One issue I had was that it didn’t seem to fall fully into the young adult or adult category and so was awkwardly straddling both. Another is that personally, I found the writing style choppy, as though I was in a bumper car or driving on a road full of potholes. It’s possible that this was done deliberately to reflect Maria’s circumstances or state of mind, but I found it detracted from my enjoyment of the book, so much so that at several points, I was tempted not to finish it.

That said, Jimenez did write some lovely passages, and I thought the idea of being hemmed in my one’s name—or liberated by it—interesting. I suspect that there would be readers who would really adore this book, but unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little A for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Family Reading Partnership, Supporting Literacy

Our area has a great organization that promotes childhood literacy—the Family Reading Partnership. They have bright red bookshelves all around the region with free books for kids. (This one is at my bank, Elmira Savings Bank in Watkins Glen.) I dropped some books off for them today!

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In addition to the bookshelf program, the organization supports a number of other initiatives including story walks that combine interactive outdoor activities with beloved children’s books, changing table rhymes that encourage parents to interact with babies during routine tasks, promotion of read-aloud time, Read-to-Me banners, and a pilot program called Shop for Words that combines grocery shopping and reading instruction.

Book Review: THE TURN OF THE KEY, a nanny accused of murder pleads innocence

The Turn of the Key
Ruth Ware

London child carer Rowan Caine, an employee in the baby room at Little Nippers, happens upon a advertisement for a live-in nanny for the Elincourts, the parents of whom are partners in an architectural firm with four girls, a teenager in boarding school, Maddie, an eight-year-old, Ellie, five, and Petra, just eighteen months, in the Scottish Highlands.

Though there are signs of trouble—the Elincourts’ estate, Heatherbrae House, is rumored to be haunted, and several nannies have come and gone in a short time, leaving mother Sandra needing to fill the post urgently—Rowan finds herself seduced by the opulence and charmed by Sandra and the younger girls.

When Rowan receives the job, she is elated, but she quickly wonders if she will go the way of the other nannies. On her first night in the home, Sandra tells her she and Bill, the father, who Rowan first met that evening, will be traveling for work for a least a week starting the next day. Later, when Rowan and Bill are alone, he subtly makes a pass at her.

Maddie seems determined to undermine Rowan at every turn. Even worse, it seems someone—or something—is trying to drive Rowan away. The smart house malfunctions, blasting music and lights in the middle of the night. Keys go missing. Maddie and Ellie lead Rowan to a nightmarish garden that Rowan later learns is a poison garden planted by a previous occupant, a chemist, whose daughter died after eating berries planted there.

The groundskeeper, Jack, always seems to be around when Rowan is terrorized, yet as the only other adult on the premises, she can’t help but want to confide in him. Jean, the cleaner, displays an instant dislike to Rowan, and also falls under Rowan’s suspicion.

After only weeks in the post, Rowan is paranoid to the point of breaking, one of the girls is dead, and Rowan has been arrested for her murder. Writing to a solicitor from prison, Rowan recounts her time at Heatherbrae House maintaining her innocence. However, her claims are hard to believe when the police uncovered so many lies.

The Turn of the Key has been my favorite Ruth Ware book yet. The isolated nature of Heatherbrae House which stokes Rowan’s paranoia lends itself to a very focused and precise narrative with only a few key characters. As Rowan became more and more horrified and frightened, most of these characters became viable suspects. The first third or so of the novel drew an alarming portrait of Heatherbrae House and its inhabitants, while the conclusion was filled with action and surprises. Though these revelations seemed to arrive completely unexpectedly, most were cunningly planted from the beginning of the narrative.

For me, the book pulled me in quickly and gathered steam, and I found it entertaining, though disturbing to know on of the children would die. For the most part, I thought the epistolary format was a good choice for telling this story, though at times, I thought Rowan’s direct pleas to Mr. Wrexham were overwrought, and, while understandable given her status, a little distracting to her story about Heatherbrae House. Still, it was unclear if Rowan was a reliable narrator or not, and figuring this out was part of the intrigue of the book.

I am amazed at Ware’s versatility. I’ve read all her thrillers, and they all have such unique styles. Her ability to craft new stories with different structures and voices impresses me. If you are a fan of Ware or of psychological thrillers, you’ll probably enjoy this entertaining read!