Book Review: DEAD ASTRONAUTS, a climate fiction masterwork

VanderMeer, Jeff - Dead Astronauts (1)Set in the universe introduced in Borne, Dead Astronauts begins with an army of three who are determined to save the world from the Company. Begins, however, may not be the right word because time, in this book, has little meaning. Not only do the “astronauts” exist outside of—or possibly within any—time or place, the book itself is told out of sequence.

Jeff VanderMeer shifts perspective often, from a homeless woman who finds the journal of a mad scientist who works for the Company to the mad scientist himself. The creatures of the Company’s seemingly purposeless experiments, too, get voices, from the Behemoth living in one of the Company’s holding ponds to the murderous duck with a broken wing and the wise Blue Fox.

While I’m not quite sure I understand Dead Astronauts (in fact, I’m sure I don’t completely), I know that liked reading this postmodern novel. Some passages are so beautiful, I had tears in my eyes and some had me nodding my head in agreement—particularly when the Blue Fox discusses human’s hypocrisy when it comes to our attitudes versus actions in terms of the environment. I was (and am) ready to give up the earth to the Blue Fox, who I’m sure would be a better steward even though he might eat me for dinner.

Obviously, though, this book is not going to be for everyone, but readers who enjoy challenging, experimental novels or climate fiction should without a doubt add this to their reading list.

A side note: while this is set in the Borne universe, it is not a sequel, nor is it necessary to have read Borne to understand Dead Astronauts.

A minimum of 20% of royalties from Dead Astronauts will be donated to The Center for Biological Diversity, The Friends of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and other environmental organizations because Jeff VanderMeer is the bomb.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: HOW THE DEAD SPEAK, the eleventh Tony Hill/Carol Jordan Mystery

Happy Publication Day to How the Dead Speak!

In the eleventh installment of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series by Val McDermind, Hill is in prison for manslaughter while Jordan, suffering from PTSD, has been forced out of her job as DCI. Though Hill confessed his love to Jordan, he has refused to have contact with her until she gets treatment—that is, until an unexpected visitor threatens both his and Carol’s futures unless he persuades her to help resolve a dispute. Jordan has also been persuaded to join a group of experts reexamining cases in which miscarriages of justice are suspected. Though she is uncomfortable trying to release criminals, she can’t resist the mystery.

Meanwhile, development at a shuttered Catholic nunnery and orphanage is halted when the construction crew finds an unauthorized cemetery filled with skeletons of what are presumably young girls who were in the nuns’ care. DCI Ian Rutherford, Jordan’s replacement, shows preference for DI Sophie Valente who came to the police via retail management and joined through a special direct entry program while ignoring the skills and talents of the team, particularly DI Paula McIntyre, causing friction among them which only heightened when a second collection of human remains—this time young men—were found on a property near the orphanage. And one of the bodies connects to Jordan’s newest investigation. However, her concentration is derailed when Hill’s prison activities make him the target of angry inmates.

How the Dead Speak weaves several perspectives honing in on two primary mysteries, with significant conflict among the police squad. Because Hill, Jordan, and McIntyre are separated, the book adds new settings, particularly the prison environment. I also liked that it addressed the possibility of false imprisonment and showed the challenges of living with PTSD. The pacing was finely plotted, and the narratives well-resolved, though I would have liked more regarding the bodies found at the orphanage. The denouement, however, was very interesting and makes me intrigued and excited about where the series will go next.

While this is not my first Val McDermid book, it is my first Tony Hill/Carol Jordan novel. I was certainly able to jump in, though I would have had better insight into the characters and their relationships if I’d read the previous books in the series—something I now plan to do!

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic/Atlantic Monthly Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: MEG & JO, a contemporary retelling of Little Women

Happy Publication Day to Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra!

Reimagining Little Women from a contemporary perspective, Virginia Kantra tells the story of the March sisters from the alternating points of view of Meg and Jo, the two eldest.

In New York City, Jo, laid off from her job as a journalist due to budget cuts, writes an anonymous blog while making ends meet by working in the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant under renowned chef Eric Bhaer—who happens to loathe food bloggers—but who is undeniably attractive.

Meg, a former loan officer, gave up her career to stay at home with her young twins. Her husband, John, a beloved teacher and coach, resigned from the school to work at a car dealership where he could earn more money for the family. What is on the surface a perfect family hides unspoken tensions about resentments and sacrifices.

As the holidays approach, Abby March becomes ill and requires hospitalization. Her husband, Ashton, a former military chaplain, is so focused on serving veterans though his non-profit organization, he is unable to provide Abby support, leaving it to Meg and Jo.

With the family in crisis, bonds are tested, and the sisters must consider both what they really want—and if they know each other as well as they think.

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to write a book inspired by a classic, especially one as loved as Little Women. It requires balancing the spirit of the original with a realistic modern setting. The challenges must be only compounded when the source material comes from the late 1860s, when social and gender mores were so different!

For much of the book, I was very uncomfortable with the gender dynamics. Abby March was completely self-sacrificing and taught her daughters to be the same way in relationships. Meg internalized those messages and reproduced her mother’s behavior while Jo rebelled so completely against it, she wouldn’t allow herself to be close to anyone. Their poor communication skills made their relationships and emotional health suffer. Meanwhile, Beth and Amy were coddled while Meg and Jo assumed all the responsibility for the family.

If I could have reached into the pages and shaken the characters, I probably would have. They did, though, have room to grow, and pressures that made the status quo untenable. My concern is that Meg and Jo never seemed to stop defining themselves independently of the men in their lives. Still, the setting was charming, and I think fans of the original will be satisfied!

The two younger March sisters don’t get much play in this novel, but a second book, Beth & Amy, is in the works in which they will have the spotlight.

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS by Lisa Jewell

In The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, Libby Jones inherits a mansion in London’s exclusive Chelsea neighborhood when she turns twenty-five. Though the house is in disrepair, it is nevertheless worth millions of pounds. With her inheritance, Libby also learns the identity of her birth parents, owners of 16 Cheyne Walk, where, twenty-five years earlier, police arrived to find three bodies dressed in black robes, dead of an apparent cult-related suicide pact. A well-cared for baby was rescued from the scene, but four teenaged children living in the home were missing and never located.

Libby senses more to the story, and aided by her co-worker, Dido, an expert on Agatha Christie, and Miller, a journalist whose dedication to the story cost him his marriage, she attempts to find out what really happened at 16 Cheyne Walk. Libby, however, isn’t the only person who has been waiting for her twenty-fifth birthday, and as she comes closer to the truth, her safety becomes ever more perilous.

To be honest, the book started slow for me, but about eighty pages in, I was hooked at a shocking pivot point, and I ended up liking the book overall. It is told from the perspective of three different characters, and their overlapping and at times conflicting narratives kept me intrigued. Given the events at 16 Cheyne Walk, it was interesting to observe how the teenagers were affected. I do wish, however, that there had been a bit more context regarding the adults’ psychology.

Once I got into the groove of the book, I was highly invested and stayed up late finishing it! The Family Upstairs is my favorite Lisa Jewell book so far.

Book Review: WILL MY CAT EAT MY EYEBALLS?

In Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? irreverent mortician Caitlin Doughty answers questions about death from her most inquisitive and uninhibited fans—children. Her answers to questions from that inspiring the title to what do dead bodies smell like and can dead bodies be used to make jewelry are informative, well-researched, and, despite the ostensible heaviness of the topic, light-hearted and written in a personal and engaging style. Additionally, the text is illustrated with gorgeous drawings by Dianné Ruz.

I enjoyed this relatively short book and learned much more than I expected—including why I can’t give my husband a viking funeral when he dies (hopefully very far in the future). Personally, I find that the historical and scientific information helps demystify death and dead bodies and makes the inevitable less frightening, plus the descriptions Doughty provides are fascinating.

I recommend Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? for curious readers who like well-written, humorous non-fiction.