Sunday, March 31, 2019

On Trust: The Stillwater Girls

I know I've talked about this before--the difficulty of reading a new author when you're not sure if you're supposed to trust the characters or not.  The Stillwater Girls, by Minka Kent, is a perfect example of this, and I'm trying to pick it apart.

For the first half of the book, you're reading two stories in alternating chapters from two narrators. One is from Wren, who lives in a cabin in the deep woods with her sister Sage, and whose mother left weeks ago to take their youngest sister Evie to a hospital. Wren has never been off their homestead, and if Mother doesn't come back, they might starve.

The other story is about Nicolette, who lives in a lonely part of upstate New York with her photographer husband, whom she loves deeply but suspects might be having an affair. They have been unable to have children (and I'd include some content warning for infertility struggles) and this has put pressure on the marriage. The two stories appear to have nothing to do with each other for a very long time.

Now, my objective opinion is that it took too long to bring the two stories together. Wren's story was compelling in its own right, but Nicolette's didn't grab me, and I was mostly waiting for her to have something to do with Wren. This is partly a pet peeve of mine; I have zero interest in whether anyone's husband is cheating on them.  If he's murdering people or conspiring against her, I'm on board, but if he's just sleeping around, even if he's working really hard to hide it, I'm sorry, that is nowhere near thrilling to be even  source of tension in a thriller.

So I was pretty dismissive of Nicolette. She seems very normal, maybe a little shallow and spoiled. And I've realized that I've been trying to figure out whether this is a quality of her character or a judgement I'm making. Does she seem shallow because I am quick to judge people as shallow, or because the author is painting her as shallow?  I struggled with this for a lot of the book; if the author is painting her as such, it's actually pretty subtle and well done, because it's not enough to turn me against her or make me doubt her, but I've definitely noted it.

If I knew the author well enough to feel confident, I would be creeped out by how uneasy the character makes me. But writing this, I realize that I have had another piece of important information that I was ignoring; Wren. The other point of view character has a very different voice and a very different life and personality. But there's no hint in Wren of any reason to doubt her judgement, in spite of her isolation and ignorance. 

In fact, after the two stories intersect, Wren offers a check on Nicolette's observations. The language Nicolette uses about Wren doesn't quite jibe with the character we know from Wren's chapters; a good deal of Nicolette's shallowness comes through in how she perceives Wren (as "little" and "innocent").

I'm nearing the end of the book now, but I think I've talked myself around to trusting the author. Which has me excited to get back to it and see what's going to happen; I'm pretty sure we're coming up on a big twist.

I stand by my assessment that there are some pacing problems with the first half. But there's also a compelling story in there, and now I very much want to know how it ends.

Sunday, March 17, 2019


I started reading Contagion, by Erin Bowman, a few months ago, but it wasn't the time.  The time was now and it was actually a great read for the same reason I had to put it down.

See, late last year I got really into a series of audio dramas from Audible based on the Alien franchise. They're really great, full cast productions of stories about other encounters with the xenomorphs from the movies.  One story is the backstory of Newt from Aliens and the details of what happened to that colony. Another involves Ripley's shuttle being found between Alien and Aliens, with some serious retconning to resolve all continuity issues.  There was even a convincing Sigourney Weaver imitator playing Ripley.

The thing is, I listened to them all in a row, and they're very similar.  Group of people come to a remote, deserted planet inhospitable to life to investigate something ominous, they find strange and fascinating sights--weird eggs, alien ships--and are inadequately frightened.  They investigate, in spite of barely being able to breathe the air, in spite of the fact that there are probably people missing, so there's reason to be wary.  But no, we'll just check this out. 

Then the aliens hatch and are chasing them, and the people are running, getting picked off, trying to find their way to some kind of escape. We learn more about the aliens and wait to see how many people will actually make it, knowing it won't be many, in some cases knowing the answer will be "just Newt."

Don't let my being jaded stop you from listening; any one of these is a really great story and very well-produced. Maybe don't listen all in a row. But I was glutted on these when I picked up Contagion.

Contagion is the story of a science crew sidetracked to answer a distress call at a mining outpost called Black Quarry. (Point: could you give your mining outpost a more ominous name?) It's an ominous planet, inhospitable to life, and a survey team Died Mysteriously there years before (except for one child who survived). But there might be a source of McGuffin--excuse me, corrarium--on the planet, so another team is investigating. But now they've gone missing, and a team is sent to investigate.

The team consists of: the child survivor of the first mission, now much older. Her teenage intern, scrabbling her way out of a lifetime of institutional foster care. A young pilot who washed out of the military because of a very slight peripheral vision problem. A too-young, too-cocky captain.  A few red-shirts.

So they get to this inhospitable planet, and they start investigating, and it's very mysterious, and they find things that don't make sense, and then ominous things start to happen.  The first half of the book was very much like the part before you find the aliens.  Which is actually great; it's about the nitty gritty of conducting a rescue mission on a dangerous world, with some extra interpersonal conflict and military/political drama thrown in. 

When I came back to it recently, I was all fresh, and it started at a good clip. I think the cover gives away enough information that I can safely tell you without spoilers that there is a zombie virus involved, and leave it at that.

Too long; didn't read: awesome space horror; can't wait for the next one.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

More Wayward Children

I thought Beneath the Sugar Sky would be the last of the Wayward Children series, but then In an Absent Dream appeared magically on Netgalley, and they were so kind as to share it with me, and a big ol' thank you for that.  Of course, they gave it to me months ago and I read it months ago, but by gum here I am, raving about it now.

Remember Lundy from Every Heart a Doorway? She was Eleanor West's right hand girl at her Home for Wayward Children, a middle aged woman in the body of a child, somewhat prim and devoted to mapping the nature of the worlds her charges have visited.  This is her backstory, where she went and how she came back and how she came to be the Lundy we know at the school.

Because, of course, once she was just a little girl named Katherine Lundy, who liked to read and to think, who liked rules and logic, but who found that the world wasn't quite fair, even by its own standards.  And when she stumbled into another world--the Market, where everything has a value and it is always, always fair--she knows that she's home.

I think what I loved most about this book is that it is addressing a completely different problem than the others in the series.  In this book, while Katherine doesn't much like the way this world is, she does actually love her family.  This is a book about choices, and about how choices are a part of life, and you can't clever your way out of having to sometimes give something up to get what you want. Some resources--like the hours in your life--are finite.

When Lundy finds her way through a door into another world--a world that feels like home to her--there are things she's leaving behind.  And when her new world and new friends demand things of her--giving is wonderful, but what are the limits? Giving generously to your friends can complicate relationships, and your judgement of what they need might not be theirs.

I love how the idea of a world that is always fair is explored here, and how this perfect world--which even makes room in fairness for people's ability and knowledge and freedom--is not enough to be everything to every person. 

In the end, this story brings Lundy from a mysterious, distant figure into a full, fleshed-out character. Knowing her back story, her later life is even more interesting. I wonder sometimes if Seanan McGuire ever regrets that her first book in this series was a murder mystery in which so many interesting characters died; I would very much like to read the story in which that one girl finds her way home through the spider queen's tiny portal.