Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: several different variations of Chicago

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 342 pp

Published by: Crown (26 July 2016)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jason Dessen is a physics professor at a small college in Chicago. Years ago, he’d had a promising future as one of the brightest young scientists in the world. He gave it up, though, in favor of living a quiet life and making a family with his wife. Then, he gets abducted and ends up in an alternate Chicago, looking at an alternate life. Now he has to figure out how to get back to his actual life in his own reality – or decide if he even wants to. 

This was a fast-paced, fun read full of “what ifs” and hypotheticals. It makes you think about the choices you make in your life and ponder the consequences of having chosen one way over another. What happens if you, as Jean-Luc Picard once did, start pulling at the threads that make up the tapestry of your life? 

akata warrios

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 477 pp

Published by: speak (3 Oct 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny Nwazue is a Leopard Person, AKA Nigerian witch. In the aftermath of defeating the evil masquerade Ekwensu, Sunny is spending her time studying with her mentor and learning how to read her magic Nsibidi book. She soon learns of an existential threat to humanity, centered in the town of Osisi, which exists both in reality and in the invisible spirit world. Sunny goes on a quest to save mankind, aided by her friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and her spirit face, Anyanwu.

Okorafor’s characters are ALL delightful and well developed. I fucking love Sunny and her friends, and am fascinated by the intersection of history, myth, and folklore that these books portray. The adventures and challenges Sunny faces are crazy fun to read and show kids overcoming obstacles, learning to be independent, becoming supportive friends, and strong leaders. Love it! Rumor has it that there’s a third book in the works for this series; I really hope that is true and that it will come out sooner rather than later. 

Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 327 pp

Published by: Pamela Dorman Books (9 May 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Eleanor Oliphant is a woman struggling with other humans. She appears to be on the spectrum, is highly structured, dislikes being touched, and generally prefers her own company. Sometimes I wonder if I, too, am on the spectrum. I identified with Eleanor in some very uncomfortable ways. Anyway, a wrench is thrown into her routine when she meets Raymond, an IT guy at her work who insists on befriending her. They share a further connection when they both assist an elderly man who faints on the sidewalk. That connection impacts them both in ways no one could have predicted. I don’t mean romance. That’s boring and predictable in most books. This isn’t that.

I loved this book. One of my top reads of 2021 so far. Eleanor has a terribly sad history, which readers piece together slowly with tidbits of information parsed out over the course of the book. Raymond is a proper good guy you can’t help but like. The novel is about the various ways we can destroy ourselves but then usually we get by with a little help from our friends. 

Girls in the Garden

Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: mystery, I guess

Setting: London

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 313 pp

Published by: Atria (2 July 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

This was a solid meh for me. I enjoyed it well enough to finish it, the writing was fast paced and held my attention. But it maybe wasn’t a mystery? Especially since the answer is literally in the title? I figured this out like in chapter two; I think it would not come as a surprise to anyone who has been or lived with teenage girls at any point. Teen girls can be real assholes. 

That said, I didn’t hate this book at all. Just wasn’t surprised. I do plan to read other books by this author. Maybe if there are ones that aren’t centered on teenage girls, those will not be as easy to solve. Plus, if they’re all set in Britain, I’m down for that. I’ll read just about anything set in Britain.

Love After Love

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (Twitter)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: Trinidad and NYC

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: public library 

Length: 327 pp

Published by: One World (4 Aug 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Betty Ramdin is a young widow raising her son, Solo, on her own. Like, solo. In need of a little extra income or help, she takes on a boarder, Mr. Chetan. The three of them become their own unique little family until one day, Solo overhears his mother telling Mr. Chetan her darkest secret. Solo, like the little shit he is*, takes off to NYC to live with his paternal uncle as an undocumented immigrant. Mr. Chetan becomes the glue that tenuously holds the family together, until his own secret comes to light.

I read this for my book club, which is good because on my own, there is no fucking way I would have even looked at a book titled Love After Love. It sounds like a romance. I do not do romances. I’m glad I read it because it is on my top books of 2021 now. All the characters were richly developed, even if they were little shits. It was also interesting – and sad, sometimes – to see a glimpse of life in the Caribbean. Would definitely read more by this author!

*Solo isn’t a shit because he is undocumented. I am in favor of granting amnesty and Social Security numbers to everyone who wants to be here who doesn’t otherwise break the law. Solo is a shit because he is a spoiled, myopic asshole who could use a good ass-kicking.

Interdependency

The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox (The Interdependency) by John Scalzi (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaace! And various habitats, space stations, and occasional planets

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection 

Length: 9:24:00, 8:19:00, and 8:07:00, respectively

Published by: Audible Studios

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars, both for each book and for the series as a whole

In Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, humans have managed to colonize a lot of the galaxy. They do not do this, however, through the use of any sort of FTL or warp drive. The laws of physics prevent that. They do, however, have something called the Flow, which sounds a little like wormholes through which a ship can travel and arrive at a location in a matter of days, weeks, or months, depending on distance. Ships can only enter or exit at Flow shoals, and the Flow streams only go one direction. So if a Flow stream goes from Hub, the Capital of the Interdependency, to End, the one planet that supports human life and which is at the farthest reach of the Flow streams, then they need to use a different stream from End to get back to Hub. 

Oh, and the streams are beginning to collapse.

This is a problem because, as the title implies, every human habitat is interdependent upon each other for survival. The places where humans settled are all, with the exception of End, not compatible with human life. They’re either on tidally locked moons and planets, too hot or too cold to survive, or on space habitats in orbit somewhere. The Interdependency is organized around Guild Houses, each of which have a monopoly on a certain aspect of manufacturing things needed to sustain life. Once the Flow streams collapse, everyone will be well and truly fucked. 

Enter an inexperienced Emperox, Cardenia Wu Patrick (Imperial name Greyland II), a young woman who was never supposed to be Emperox and only became so when her half brother the Imperial heir died in an “accident.” The various noble Houses think this will be a good thing because they expect to be able to manipulate her. The main houses of Wu (the hereditary Imperial house as well), Lagos, and Nohamapetan, are the political powerhouses and are out for blood and profit. Also, I listened to these, so I may be WAY off on how the names are spelled. Just saying.

The Houses of Lagos and Nohamapetan are particular enemies. On one run between Hub and End, Kiva, the Lagos representative to the Guilds, learns that her House’s entire crop on End had been sabotaged and she naturally suspects the Nohamapetans. Having just spent 9 months in the Flow traveling to End, Kiva is righteously pissed because now she will have spent the best part of 2 years on a trip that is profitless. Kiva soon learns, however, that there is something wrong with the Flow and she ferries a young noble and Flow physicist, Marce Claremont, back to End to meet with the Emperox and come up with a plan to save the billions of people dependent on the Flow for survival. She also comes up with a way to make money on an otherwise failed venture, as one does. 

There’s a lot of politics in this story, but Scalzi makes it fun! Kiva is definitely my favorite character. She’s so thoroughly outspoken and rude and it’s just delightful. She’s also crazy skilled at strategy and politics and is the best person the Emperox could possibly have in her corner. Cardenia is sweet – on the outside. Then she manages to deflate the machinations of everyone conspiring against her, which is especially fun when she hamstrings the Nohamapetans. Really, the characters in this series are the best thing about it. Yes, the overarching story is bomb, and is very Scalzi-ish. But, as Renay Williams wrote, the central characters are all women, and they’re all truly awesome in their own ways. 

Also, the trilogy covers a lot of ground that lovers of sci-fi space operas will appreciate seeing, happily updated with a lot of modern thought, because actual colonialism is gross. There’s far-flung human colonization, empire, the ways in which all these things are connected and, like, interdependent on each other. It is really a good commentary on a lot of our actual current events and politics. I have screamed for years that sci-fi is the ideal medium in which to discuss and analyse current events; Scalzi’s trilogy is further proof. 

As I mentioned above, I listened to The Interdependency trilogy on audiobook. Wil Wheaton did a phenomenal job narrating. I honestly think it is one of his best performances. His timing and tone were spot on and turned elements of the book that were already amusing into laugh out loud hilarity. I loved listening to these books so much that when the third one ended, I wanted to start the series all over again. I didn’t, only because I have so very many audiobooks to listen to that I haven’t even touched yet. But I did go and buy the trilogy in paperback, even though I swore I wouldn’t buy any more books until I get through more of my TBR and cull ones I know I’m not going to read ever again. 

I can’t wait to read these again, and I can’t wait to see what Scalzi publishes in the future. If you haven’t read, or even better, listened to, this series yet, you are really missing out!

Star Trek Discovery: Wonderlands

Disco WonderlandsWonderlands by Una McCormack (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 333 pp. It’s only half evil.

Published by: Gallery Books (18 May 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Remember in the first episode of Discovery’s third season? When Burnham came plummeting out of the sky and figured out she made it nearly 1000 years into the future and her mission to stop Control from annihilating sentient life was successful? And she landed practically on Book? Then there was that year-long jump between the first and second episodes? Remember that? This is the story of that year in between. 

Michael Burnham is lost and alone in more ways than one at the beginning of this book. She’s almost a thousand years into the future from her point of view, the Federation is shattered, and Starfleet is more a figment of the imagination than a real institution. The economy is money-based and everyone is looking out only for themselves. Philanthropy on any appreciable scale is nonexistent and there are violent wannabe kings of local regions, plotting and betraying and backstabbing their way to the top of the pile. In other words, the polar opposite of the society Burnham is accustomed to. And the Discovery is nowhere to be found.

Circumstances naturally dictate that Burnham adapt to her new environment, and she does, though reluctantly. She convinces Book to help her get on her feet and get the lay of the land. She gets herself a tiny, tiny little ship of her own. She finds a Starfleet holdout in the form of one Aditya Sahil, the de facto commander of Starbase Devaloka. Burnham, being who she is, manages to browbeat everyone into at least trying things her way sometimes, just for kicks, and usually they are pleasantly surprised. It is a nice little lesson in playing nicely with others. 

This was also a rather sad book. Not sad as in pathetic. Sad as in fucking sad. She misses her chosen family, her friends, her society where everything really was better despite the Klingon War. She misses knowing the basics of technology, even though she’s the quickest study ever and gets up to speed in a flash. She misses her ship. It is an interesting commentary on how we contemplate the future. Star Trek is known for its optimism. Discovery has, from the start, turned that optimism on its head; that very darkness is why I love this series so much. Utopia doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t without its struggles. Without that darkness, how would we ever know the light or the good? To me, that is what this series is good at – showing the good that is possible even if it isn’t there yet. 

I even wrote about this very thing about a year and a half ago for StarTrek.com. See? This Is Why Starfleet Needs Gabriel Lorca. *I* wrote it first, not that individual from Den of Geek who apparently read MY article, nicked my idea, and rewrote it a couple months ago. Fuck her.

Anyway.

There were several smaller missions, or side quests if you like, throughout the novel. Burnham (and usually Book as well) go off on various aid missions to give help to various groups. Very much in line with Star Trek ethics. I wish these could have been longer, or had a standalone book devoted to them like in the good old days of numbered Trek novels. But I suppose, because this was only one book, those side quests had to be truncated for the sake of expediency.

It is ok, though, since the novel’s true strength is in its character development. So far, all the Disco books, actually, have done a brilliant job at giving us the character development and back stories we know and love from other Trek series. I loved getting to see how Michael grew and changed in her new time, and how she tries to change it as well. I loved getting to know Book a little better. And Grudge is certainly the best character in the whole thing. 

I think the overarching theme in this story is that, when you can’t go home or have no home to go to, then you make a home as best you can, with the best people you can find to gather round you. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

“They’re not doing anyone any harm.”

“Mostly harmless.” He laughed. “There are worse epitaphs, I suppose.” 

[High five to McCormack for that nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide…! 😀 ]

Neuromancer, and other stuff

I have been neglecting my blog a lot lately. Reading slump 1, me 0. I think I DNF’ed more books in March and April than I did in all of 2020. And then the ones I’ve finished, I haven’t really written reviews for. Oh well, I’ll get back to my usually scheduled program soon enough. The crowd, I’m absolutely sure, will go completely indifferent. 

So. Neuromancer. I read this years and years ago and I do not recall being so utterly confused by it at that time. Maybe I was just cooler then. Though I’ve never been cool, so I doubt it. Maybe I only thought I read it and never did. That seems like something I’d do. But I am morally certain I read it. In any case, I can’t dislike a book that literally invented the term “cyberspace.” Even my granny knows what cyberspace is, and it started with this book. I generally love cyberpunk, but I think it was Gibson’s writing style itself that put me off. I don’t want to call it word salad, but it’s so full of invented jargon that it might as well be in parts. And then he goes in with the synesthesia and totally lost me. I do not care what blue tastes like and I’m pretty sure the rainforest glass came about after a long, bad trip of some kind. Plus awfully flat characters. But I still liked it and I really don’t know why?

My IG post sums it up better than any actual review I could write:

Neuromancer IG

Guest Post: Review of The Leviathan Trial

The Leviathan Trial by Oliver Madison

Reviewed by Cathy Smith

In his novel, The Leviathan Trial, Oliver Madison takes readers on a journey into the lives of 12 siblings by adoption. When their father unexpectedly dies, the brothers and sisters soon learn that only one can inherit the family fortune. However, the conditions to walk away with the inheritance are as eccentric and twisted as their father. Locked in the family mansion, the youths are told there can only be one survivor that will hold the keys to their freedom, and by only using their special talents and skills can they become the victor.

Trapped in their individual prisons of psychological horror, each sibling soon discovers their true natures and just how far they will go to end the nightmare in which they have been forced to participate. As the mystery unfolds, more and more family secrets and surprises are unveiled, adding to the conflict and tragedy that becomes a very real part of the characters’ lives. Although the story is fictional, the struggles each child faced can easily be reflective of real-life issues challenging children in today’s world.  

Madison has done an excellent job weaving together a mystery that keeps readers on edge as they experience the stories of each sibling, discovering their strengths, and realizing the darkest sides of their hidden natures. The basic human needs of survival of the fittest, and flight versus fight push the mystery through to the end, keeping readers on edge wondering, “What could possibly happen next?”

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Website, Twitter)

Genre: magical realism/ historical fantasy

Setting: mid-late 1800s

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 464 pp

Published by: Atria Books (pub date)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Once Upon a River is the tale of a young girl who drowned, and then didn’t. There is an inn that is known for its storytelling, which is where the drowned girl and her rescuer end up. Her story spreads from there and she becomes three different girls who have all gone missing. The lives of a photographer, a healer, a farmer, and a pub owner all become entwined because of their connections, real or otherwise, to the drowned girl.

I honestly don’t want to write an in-depth review of this book. I fucking LOVED it and don’t want to have to think too closely about it. It was a fairy tale wrapped in a mystery set in a historical fiction. I never wanted it to end, and when it did, I wanted to forget all about it so I could read it again for the first time. The writing was gorgeous – truly evocative of fairy tales – and the characters were well defined and complex, every one of them. The setting was ephemeral and had very much an otherworldly feel to it, which was perfect for the story. I had too many favorite lines and scenes, so I only put a couple below. Otherwise, I’d just be copying down the entire book. I can’t describe it, just go read it for yourself. You will not be sorry you did!

 

Favorite part/ lines (spoilers!):

  • ‘The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still’ (3). 
  • ‘She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes’ (5). 
  • The discussion about the word one ought to use to describe a person rowing very quickly up a river. Can’t be haring because hares don’t go in row boats. Can’t be ottering because that sounds worse than haring. It was a very serious discussion.
  • ‘There was a general hubbub of conversation between the windows as the story was discussed, its missing pieces identified, attempts made to fill them in…Fred began to feel left out of his own tale, sensed it slipping from his grasp and altering in ways he hadn’t anticipated; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s’ (46)
  • ‘They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next’ (361).
  • ‘While the water lay unperturbed and indifferent all around, the women at the Swan were engaged on the human pursuits of dying and being born. On one side of the wall Helena struggled to deliver her baby into life. On the other side, Joe struggled to depart it. The little Margots got on with everything that needed to be done so that life could be begun and so that it could be ended’ (417).
  • ‘There must be more to stories than you think’ (431).
  • ‘And though eventually there came a day when the man himself was forgotten, his stories lived on’ (457). 
  • ‘How many photographs could a man take in a lifetime? A hundred thousand? About that. A hundred thousand slivers of life, ten or fifteen seconds long, captured by light on glass’ (458).
  • ‘And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely must have rivers of your own to attend to?’ (460).

Girl in Translation

Girl in TranslationGirl in Translation by Jean Kwok (Website, Insta)

Genre: Contemporary / YA

Setting: Brooklyn, NY

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Grayce Wey

Source: my own collection 

Length: 9:05:00

Published by: Books On Tape (4 May 2010)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Girl in Translation is the debut novel from bestselling author Jean Kwok. It tells the story of young Kimberly Chang, who immigrates with her mother to Brooklyn from Hong Kong just before its return to Chinese rule. Kimberly’s aunt, Paula, had married a Chinese-American years before and was the one who got them their passports, visas, and immigration assistance. To pay off the monetary debt this created, Kimberly and her mother both have to work in Paula’s sweatshop making skirts and shirts. They are impoverished and live in a condemned apartment building that is full of roaches, mice, and has no heat. At school, Kim is a star and does her best to assimilate into teenage American culture. She dreams of performing well enough in school to earn a full ride scholarship to college, thus getting herself and her mother out of poverty.

Spoilers below the cut!!Read More »

Concrete Rose

Concrete RoseConcrete Rose by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: YA

Setting: Garden Heights

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Dion Graham

Source: my own collection

Length: 8:17:00

Published by: Harper Audio (12 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Concrete Rose is the sequel story to Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This tells the story of Maverick Carter when he was a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Maverick always expected that he would grow up to be in a gang like his dad. His future as a gang member seemed cemented when he learns that the baby of one of his classmates is also his. Selling drugs seems to him to be the only way to make enough money to make ends meet, support his son, and help his mother with their bills. When his girlfriend Lisa also becomes pregnant, Maverick understandably freaks out. He assumes he will never amount to anything and so why NOT join a gang and sell drugs? His part time job working for Mr Wyatt’s store has shown him that “honest work” doesn’t pay anything. When Maverick suffers a catastrophic loss, he finds that life takes you in directions you never expected and that the help we might need is right there with us if we can open our eyes enough to see it.

So, I loved this book. I have loved all of Angie Thomas’s books so far, which is a record not even Neil Gaiman holds with me. This is a sequel to THUG but you don’t have to have read that one to get this one. I love how she weaves in bits of her other novels throughout the narrative. For example, when Lisa’s mom kicks her out of the house, she goes to stay with Miss Rosalie and takes her friend Brenda’s bedroom. When Brenda comes to visit with her new baby, they all get a kick out of meeting baby Khalil. That hit me right in the feels when I realized it is Khalil from THUG. Little tidbits like that really bring the story to life and serve as sort of an insider’s view for those of us who have read the other books, but it isn’t necessary to get the story. It is fully standalone. 

The power of names is a strong theme throughout the story as well. Maverick names his son Seven because it is the number of perfection, and to him, his son is perfect. Maverick says his father named him so because he wanted him to be a freethinker and independent. The course of the narrative leads Maverick all over but he does eventually live up to his name, though not at all in the way he expects. 

I how Mr Wyatt was a father figure to Maverick, teaching him some transferable skills and encouraging him with tough love. Mr Wyatt talks a lot about his garden, especially his roses, which are stronger than they seem and can grow anywhere, even through concrete. I assume the title, and the theme of hidden strength, is inspired by the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. Maverick has that strength and his life could easily have been ceaseless heartbreak and danger. But he chooses to do what he thinks is best for his family, and his losses to date have shown him what he DOESN’T want for them or for himself. He is brave enough to try something that is out of his realm of experience, and like the rose, he learns that he can bloom. “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.” 

I could really go on about this book all day but I will just stop before I actually do so. If you haven’t read any of Angie Thomas’s books, you are really missing out. This would be a good place to start, but honestly I think you should read THUG first. This one will have more of an emotional impact if you know Starr’s story already. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The apple don’t fall far from the tree, but it can roll away from it. It simply need a little push.
  • We left the roses untouched. I expected them to be dead by now, but they got blooms as big as my palm. … “What I tell you? Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.”

The Silent Patient

The Silent PatientThe Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides 

Genre: mystery

Setting: modern London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 325 pp

Published by: Celadon (5 Feb 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Alicia Berenson and her husband Gabriel are, by all accounts, deeply in love with each other. Both have successful careers, her as a painter and him as a fashion photographer. All seems peachy keen until the day when Alicia shoots Gabriel in the face five times and then never speaks again.

OK, so I can completely get it. Alicia had a mood and acted on it. But as with their marriage, things were not all as they appeared. Alicia is moved to a mental health facility, having been found criminally insane or mentally incompetent, whichever is the right term in the British justice system. She refuses to speak. She has violent outbursts. She gets a new shrink, Theo Faber, who is a criminal psychotherapist convinced he can get her to talk. His own motives need some analyzing as well, though.

I don’t get the hype of this book. Yes, it was a really fast read so it didn’t completely suck. But the suspension of disbelief required of readers is too much, at least for me. For one thing, and this is big for me, I’m thoroughly sick of authors – male authors especially – using women as both a stereotype and a plot point. Alicia was depicted as broken, abused, fragile, and so, naturally, crazy. The various ways she was abused served as plot points. It gets really old. 

Also, she refused to speak and was caught literally with the smoking gun just moments after she shot her husband, but we’re supposed to believe she managed to hide her secret diary and keep it hidden all these years, through various transfers to prison and psych wards? Yeah, right. 

And the Big Reveal? The reason she didn’t speak for years? She simply had nothing to say??!! Just no. That is something that would work if one has had a boring day, not when one shoots a spouse in the face and goes to the boobyhatch for years as a result. Come on. I was done at that point.

I do have to say that I liked the way the two story lines crossed and merged, and how it wasn’t clear until the end that one was actually in flashback. I did think that was kind of neat. Just the execution of the story itself was not. 

When We Were Vikings

When We Were VikingsWhen We Were Vikings by Andrew David Macdonald (Website)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: unspecified town/city in the US

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 326 pp

Published by: Scout Press (28 Jan 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

When We Were Vikings is the story of Zelda, a young woman on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum. She lives with her older brother, Gert, but attends classes and group activities at the local community center. She is a Viking enthusiast and views most things in life through the lens of Viking culture, literature, and their honor code. She discovers that her brother is dealing drugs and dropped out of college and so she decides she needs to help contribute to the family’s treasure hoard to help Gert make ends meet. Throughout all her experiences, Zelda encounters people ranging from the very best to some of the worst imaginable. She uses the things she has learned about Vikings and one’s own tribe to help her navigate the challenges life throws at her with courage and honor.

This was a super fast read and an engaging one, although I felt there were hardly any likeable characters. Zelda was certainly likeable but Gert was pretty much a loser even though he honestly was trying. He’s one of those people who can fuck up a free lunch. Gert’s friends were the worst in just about every way possible. Anna, Gert’s on-again/off-again girlfriend who Zelda calls AK47, is a good person and tries to look after Zelda, but she seems conflicted about what is best for HER and it was frustrating to see. So in general, I didn’t care for the characters here except for Zelda, who I genuinely enjoyed. 

There was a lot of good discussion around word use throughout the book. The word “retarded” was used a lot, negatively by Gert’s loser friends and some others we encountered. Zelda, though, would sometimes use it about herself as a way to take back the power from people who would use it to hurt her feelings. She said that owning it and using it herself makes it less powerful when someone else tries to use it against her. I can see that argument, but it still sucks that she even has to. 

There was also a big plot point centered around sexuality and cognitive disability. Zelda is on the FAS spectrum but is very independent, is able to hold down a job, and have her own apartment. However, her friend Marxy, who is initially her boyfriend, has Down syndrome and is far less able than Zelda. It is not likely he will ever have the ability to live on his own, for example. His mother and AK47 agree to work out a time and place where Zelda and Marxy can have sex because they are adults and want to give it a try. I know people with cognitive disabilities can and do have perfectly healthy sex lives, but I confess that part of the story was a little uncomfortable for me. It seems like some kind of abuse, even though intellectually I know that isn’t necessarily the case. This article on cognitive disability and sexuality helped me have a better understanding. 

On balance, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a lot of things to think about. I think it would make a terrific read for a book club. I didn’t like a lot of the actual plot or characters but the parts I did like were sufficient to outweigh any real dislike I had of other elements. 

Favorite lines:

  • In my dreams sometimes I think that Mom died and became a Valkyrie, that one day, when I am in a battle, she will take me with her to Valhalla (14). 
  • My favorite Viking saga is a legendary one called the Hrølfs saga Gautrekssonar, since it has a powerful king who is also a woman, named Đornbjörg. She kicks many asses and is so strong in battle that people don’t care that she is a woman (40).
  • The box wasn’t very big. That didn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful gift, since small things can be strong… (48).
  • I practiced each of [the sword fighting moves] in the basketball court outside of the apartment until it got dark, pretending that Grendel, who is the most monstrous villain in the Viking story Beowulf, was in front of me. One of the things I’ve learned is that Grendels can hide inside people, pretending to be human beings until they decide to attack (61). 
  • The library is a very heroic place to work because librarians help people get stronger brains. They also help people who are homeless by giving them food in cans that other people put into the cardboard box by the door. … I knew that [Carol] had to be a fuck-dick in the interview because you have to prove yourself worthy of being a librarian. You cannot just be a librarian without overcoming obstacles (151-152).