Monday, April 2, 2018

Real characters, New settings: Magical Realism in Fine's What Should Be Wild (A GEM!) and Dystopian Fiction by Erdich with Future Home of the Living God

I won't even pretend I'm going to catch up, but I suppose the benefit of having a few books in my "to review" column is that I can actually present two with a genuine theme. Both of these books involve real characters amid an element of the unreal. In one case, the book would likely be labeled magical realism, while the other is more likely to find itself in the dystopian fiction category.

I'll lead with one that I consider a true gem.

I can't say I'm typically a fan of the books folks categorize as magical realism, but this....this felt both real and was like magic in its ability to transport me into its little world.

Maise has never felt a kiss on her cheek, a warm hand in hers, skin-on-skin. With a simple touch, she can kill. Or, alternately, she can revive. There's a beautiful description of her toddling across a lawn, leaving a brown trail of dead grass behind her; they even had to coat the wood used to build their old home or else it would come alive with her touch. Maise's mother died while carrying her and her scientist father most certainly loves her but also treats her as more of a study subject than a daughter. The woman who serves as a housekeeper, nanny, grandmother, and more loves Maise too but also, as Maise learns, has a life outside her job too.

While this is mostly Maise's story - a coming-of-age tale about learning about the worlds and about herself - it is also the story of women who came before. For centuries, there have been women who simply vanished into the woods. We meet them too, women who never felt quite like they fit in the world and are now trapped in someplace other.

To say much more might be to say too much.  I might already have done so. But this book captured me. The language was lovely. The women were strong and powerful, but also flawed and uncertain of themselves. The love is flawed too, from the father-daughter relationship to the relationship with oneself. I can't easily voice (read: type) what it was about this book that captured me, but I was drawn into its world and wanted to know what happened to every character.

There were a few places/subplots that I didn't care for, but this still ranks as the best book I've read in some time. You need to be willing to suspend disbelief, but you'll be rewarded it you do. 4.5 stars, happily rounded up to 5 when that isn't allowed (but still 4.5 given the few pieces that didn't work for me). I can only return to where this review started, the book finds real (fleshy, full) characters and real internal struggles (loving, fearing, growing) in a world with a bit of magic.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

There's an undercurrent of a tale told before, a woman who loves the parents that raised her dearly seeks out her birth family, motivated to action in part by her own pregnancy. She is the teller of this tale, and she is telling it to her unborn child.

Then there's the twist that moves this woman's tale into the dystopian category -- not only has evolution halted, it seems to be moving backward. And humans do not seem to fit into nature's plan. Pregnancy rates seem to be falling, maternal and infant mortality rates are climbing, and many of the babies that are born seem to be something other. In an early review note, I wrote that it is "a society in which wombs have been a commodity." It is hard to decide whether the natural events or man's reaction to them (which includes registries and efforts to corral pregnant women) are more disturbing.

3.5 stars. I found the concept and, in particular, the portrayal of how society might react in response to the unexpected events quite interesting. It is without question disturbing, but it is well-crafted. Erdich is certainly a true talent. Still, a lot of parts dragged which feels odd to say after the plot summary. I tired of the book. Also, I am not someone who needs a neat and tidy ending, in fact I prefer books that leave shades of grey and where the characters journey on after my "visit" to their world. But this book left too much unresolved for my taste. Also, there is an element of Native American spiritualism, which I did like but which also sometimes felt like it was from a totally different story/book.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)