I’ve been a librarian for seven years, but I had never been a member of a book club until I joined one late last year. The idea of being assigned a book to read – one that probably wouldn’t be a fantasy or romance novel – was just too much like school for my tastes. But in the past few years, I’ve been consciously trying to expand the range of my leisure reading, and I’ve discovered I like lots of different kinds of books I never would have picked up on my own. The books selected for this particular book club have been pretty eclectic, which I appreciate. They’ve also all been adult titles so far, so it gets me away from my steady diet of YA SFF, something I’ve found I really need.
Here are brief reviews of the first four books I’ve read as part of the club.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Though fiction, this book read a lot like a memoir to me. It’s not a traditional story in that it doesn’t build to a climax and a resolution – it’s more a straightforward relation of the events of a girl’s life up until around age 16. Elena narrates in the first person, and the friend of the title is Lila, a girl who seems more like what we’d call a frenemy nowadays for much of the book. Set in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s, this book is fascinating for its historical detail (the author herself is Italian) and the complicated relationship between Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s Naples in the 50s is unromanticized: it’s violent, misogynistic, poor, and overall a tough place to grow up. The mystery surrounding Ferrante’s identity adds another layer of interest to this novel.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
I love Atwood’s science fiction. Oryx and Crake, which I first read as an undergrad, is my favorite of hers. I hoped I would love this historical novel about a real-life teenage murderess in Canada in the 19th century almost as much. While Atwood’s layered writing is on full display here, I found the plot itself a bit plodding. The story centers on Grace Marks, a woman who was convicted many years ago, while still a teenager, for the murder of her boss and his housekeeper. Grace was a maid in Thomas Kinnear’s house and was sentenced to die alongside her alleged co-conspirator, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison. She served some time in a mental institution as part of her sentence as well. Now, she is considered a model prisoner, and a young doctor has come to speak with her to research her case. Atwood expertly gets us inside the head of this doctor, Simon Jordan, but deliberately keeps us at a distance from Grace, who narrates part of her own story. She is an unreliable narrator – or is she? Atwood explores mental illness and its historical treatment, the Canadian criminal justice system, and society’s perception of women (particularly violent women) in this novel which provides no real answer to the most pressing question – did Grace do it? Because of the plot’s ambiguity, this is a great book for discussion.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
I’m a big fan of Wilson’s comic book series Ms. Marvel, so I was pretty happy when this was selected for January. It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but it’s fun and broad in scope and provides lots of fodder for discussion. Wilson, a white convert to Islam, writes in her author’s note that she wanted this book to speak to her three audiences who don’t always overlap: “comic book geeks, literary NPR types, and Muslims.” The plot of the story proves this goal, since it features a unique combination of computer hacking, genies from the Quran come to life, devout and non-devout Islamic characters, a white American convert, and a focus on the text and scholarship of the Quran that both Islamic and non-Islamic readers can understand. The pacing was slow at times, but overall this was a really fun, unique book.
The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
This was my pick, so it’s no surprise that it’s the one I’ve liked best so far. It’s science fiction set in the near future and follows two different characters. Meena, a young woman, is traveling from India to Ethiopia along something called the Trail, a futuristic piece of technology that harvests energy from the sun and the waves of the Arabian Sea. It’s not meant for walking – it’s forbidden to walk along it, actually – but Meena travels it regardless. Mariama, a prepubescent girl, is also traveling to Ethiopia, but her reasons are very different from Meena’s. Their stories converge in a surprising and satisfying way at the end, and part of the fun of reading the book is puzzling out their relationship along the way. I loved reading about the Trail and how Meena survived on it (it’s not easy). I also loved that this was set entirely in Asia and Africa, two continents I don’t read much about in my fiction. Byrne is a white woman, but her details about the cultures and the landscapes appear well-researched, and the near-future setting is well-realized. Her characters are fascinating, if not truly likeable by the end. This is literary science fiction that also provides a lot to talk about.