Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

unnamed midwife.pngI’m going to be haunted by The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, I just know it. Meg Elison’s dark tale of a virus that kills women and children, and the terrifying world that it leaves behind, is disturbing and compelling, as well as completely brutal.

The initial set-up is disorienting, in the style of all good dystopias; a group of young boys, instructed by a woman wearing a wooden imitation of a pregnant belly, begins to copy out the titular Book, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. As the Midwife’s story begins, the reader is thrust straight into a terrifying approximation of present-day San Francisco, as the protagonist is forced to fight off an anonymous attacker in her home; the subsequent struggle and violent death set the scene for a story in which aggression lurks around every corner and nobody is really safe.

The Midwife swiftly realises that, in a time when women are becoming an endangered species, being one is far too perilous, and she adopts a male persona as a means of survival. The character’s struggle to retain a sense of her own identity as a result is present throughout the book, in the diary entries she writes and the third person narrative which becomes more omniscient as the story progresses. The problems the Midwife faces will be familiar to any viewer of The Walking Dead: raiding homes and stores for supplies; negotiating her safety on the occasions when she encounters other people, and the terrifying depths people sink to when all seems to be lost. It’s a book that kept me on edge throughout, desperate to see the Midwife find safety.

If I am ever to write my own novel, I think it might be a post-apocalyptic epic in which women actually survive; not because I’m a raving misandrist, but because the future always seems particularly bleak for one gender more than the other when writers imagine a society in crisis. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife presents a harrowing picture of women on chains, locked in cupboards and traded for drugs; although the Midwife avoids much of the potential horror by passing as a man, the reader is subjected to some awful scenarios, some of which are quite difficult to read. There are parallels with The Handmaid’s Tale and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, as well as the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead.

I assume that the book, having been originally published in 2014, is being republished in advance of the sequel’s release in early 2017; I’ll definitely be on the look-out for that, because clearly I love reading things that scare the shit out of me.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Recommendations (Both Wanted and Less So)

I’m a terrible person to recommend a book to; I’m really snooty about anything I see as being “too mainstream” and always have such a ludicrous TBR list that the chances of me actually reading something that’s been recommended are very slim. And yet, people still persist. So, for this week’s Recommendations TTT (hosted, as per, by The Broke and The Bookish), here are some of the titles that have been thrust upon me, some more successfully than others.

Wise Children by Angela Carter
Picture the scene; I was a young, naive and newly-qualified teacher, getting ready for my first job. Given the privilege of teaching an A-level class, I sought advice on what to read with them. My head of department suggested I use a novel she loved, called Wise Children. It had an attractive swirly cover and I wanted to impress, so I went along with it. And thus began one of the most awkward terms of my professional life, as I cheerfully read scenes of incest and repeated use of the “F bomb” with shellshocked 16 year olds. In our first lesson (and, in fact, my first ever lesson as a proper teacher), I had to explain to them what a “virile member” was. I am still scarred. It is a brilliant book though.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Another teacher recommendation and another horrible teaching experience. Apart from being really, really bleak, Things Fall Apart is (whispers nervously) pretty terrible and the kids all hated it. The only thing they enjoyed was the repeated reference to something called “foufou suop,” which apparently is a rude word if you’re 15 and not very mature. Yes, I know it won some big awards but, as someone who has read 4/6 of this year’s Booker shortlist, I can say that this does not always mean anything.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
I’ve talked about this book quite a lot on my blog (like here), so suffice to say my dad recommended it to me and I will be forever grateful.

The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way
This was one of my first forays into reading graphic novels and was recommended to me by a pupil and fellow My Chemical Romance fan. It was a great recommendation; I’ve now read quite a few graphic novels but this remains a favourite, with its cool artwork and completely random plot.

Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski
This was recommended by pupils too; it’s an entertaining story of a group of privileged teens who develop powers of ESP after being injected with a flawed flu jab. This is pretty good: the sequel, however, was awful.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Recommended by a colleague, I enjoyed this weird scifi about a society of people living on a remote planet, generations after their ancestors crash-landed. It’s strange and made me never want to read the word “slip” again, but I did enjoy it.

Dietland by Sarai Walker
This was recommended to me by a Laila (you can find her blog here) after a previous TTT, for which I wrote about feminist books, and I am very grateful for the suggestion. It’s billed as a female Fight Club, which, apart from being quite an annoying way to describe anything, is only slightly accurate. I reviewed it here.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This was recommended to me by a school librarian and I snootily ignored her because a) I am rude and b) I somehow mixed up this book with all those true-life misery memoirs with names like A Child Locked in a Cupboard. Once I realised this was actually both incorrect and quite stupid, I read, loved and was deeply traumatised by Kevin.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
Lent to me by a colleague, this was my first introduction to O’Neill and she is now one of my idols. This book is so searing and so smart. I think it should be required reading.

Lock-In by John Scalzi
This was recommended by a friend who has read several of my recommendations. I have started it and am impressed so far, but I do need to actually finish it.

A Bookish Lament: The Pain of Waiting

I finished reading A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir the other day. It’s the sequel to An Ember in the Ashes and it’s excellent. I raced through it in two days and tormented myself into a state of such high excitement that I felt compelled to check when book 3 is coming out. And this is when my life was destroyed. Because the next book is due out in 2018.

Yes, 2018. As in 2 years from now.

Here are some things that will have happened by 2018: I will be 35; my daughter will have started actual school; we may well be living on the moon or something; I will most definitely have forgotten everything that happened in A Torch Against the Night. This is no reflection on the quality of Tahir’s writing, but, in fact, a sad indictment of my terrible memory for plot details, character names and lists of who actually survived the last book. I appreciate that it takes a long time to write a book; I respect that. But forcing me to wait so long (because, let’s be honest, ‘2018’ might mean ‘December 2018,’ which would be more than 2 years) is deeply distressing because of my comprehensive lack of patience.

Ahh, patience. I have often been told that it would be a good idea for me to acquire some of this mystical trait. When I told my dad I was applying for teacher training, his bemused response was, “but don’t you need patience and tolerance to be a teacher?” (Clearly not. I’ve been doing it 10 years, so, haha, dad.) It turns out that patience would be a far more useful skill in my reading life than in my professional one.

A Torch Against the Night isn’t even the only example of this torturously delayed gratification. I have been waiting a year for Gemina, the sequel to Illuminae, and the release date was recently put back a week so that it now comes out on the day I go on holiday and will thus be unable to read it until at least a week later. I was deeply excited to take delivery of my copy of Crooked Kingdom on the day of its release, having waited a year for it; a year in which, it turns out, I have forgotten about 75% of Six of Crows and had to secretly Google the plot to remind me who the bloody hell Kuwei is. My excuse is that I read a lot of books and, consequently, it is inhumane to expect me to actually remember anything from any of them.

Sadly, my lack of patience also means I am unable to wait until a full series is out before starting to read. I was lucky enough not to discover either The Raven Cycle or Jeff Vandermeer’s outstanding Southern Reach trilogy until they were out in full, so I could read whole series in the space of a few weeks. It would, however, be highly unrealistic to attempt this with any of the bookish franchises which are so widely discussed on Twitter, because of those annoying people who can’t help but spoil things. I hate those people.

My impatience doesn’t end with waiting for the next book in a series. The second I place an online book order, I start looking through the window for the delivery driver. This is not even an exaggeration. Even with pre-orders, which I know won’t arrive until the day of release, I check the status of my Amazon orders every day just to see if it might come early. The same applies to library reservations; I have been waiting for a copy of Hot Milk by Deborah Levy for approximately 7 thousand years and it is starting to make me lose my grip. Never mind the fact that I have a house full of books to read. I want that one.

I’ve always been like this. My mum would make me choose the books I wanted to take on family holidays weeks in advance (she’s one of those packing-3-weeks-before-departure types) and I’d spend the next fortnight sneaking the suitcase out from the cupboard to read my embargoed tomes. And let’s not even get into how often I impatiently whizz through the end of a book; not because I’m bored with it, but just because I can no longer wait to start the next one.

Do I need help? Does anyone else suffer in these terrible ways? While my chronic impatience is a source of great amusement to those around me, it is less fun when you’re actually living it. If all authors could just help me out by publishing a whole series at once, that would just be super.

Review: Something In Between by Melissa de la Cruz

something in between.jpgIn the current climate of immigration debate, both in the US and UK (and other places, presumably, which aren’t mentioned so often in The Guardian), I was intrigued to read Something In Between, which focuses on Jasmine, a teenager who discovers just before applying to college that her family is in the US illegally, having moved from the Philippines when she was a child. This then forms the backdrop to friendship drama, cheerleading, romance and seemingly thwarted ambitions.

I was really interested in the parts of the book which related to Jasmine and her family’s fight to stay in America; having been there so long, Jasmine thinks of herself as American and her younger brothers don’t even remember their life in Manila, so the book asks interesting questions about identity and the extent to which nationality and patriotism play a part in that. The attitudes of some of the other characters towards Jasmine and immigrants in general were very narrow-minded, and much as I thought some of these characters were very one-dimensional (i.e. a bitchy girl whose main characteristic is being rude about immigration), I recognised that a lot of people in real life share these views; you only have to watch a certain presidential candidate giving speeches to realise Something In Between is very topical. I can’t think of another YA book that’s so overtly political, and I really admire de la Cruz for putting in so much detail about immigration policy; it makes this a very educational read. I was really interested in the author’s afterword, in which she explains the parallels between Jasmine’s struggles and her own; it made me think about what I’d read in a different light.

There were some aspects of the Something In Between which made me roll my eyes a bit. One major example is the relationship between Jasmine and Royce, who, by an amazing coincidence, is the son of a congressman who opposes an immigration reform bill which would help illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. In what is presumably supposed to be a realistic story, this did seem like an extraordinary bit of timing. There were many instances when Jasmine responded to someone in a really immature way; I get that she’s a teenager and it’s a stressful time, but she’s also clearly meant to be smart and mature so her frequent stropping and ignoring of tet messages were, frankly, a bit silly.

The book which Something In Between most reminded me of was Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything; in terms of the romance against the odds, the use of social media, the general adolescent drama, they have quite a lot in common. So if you liked Yoon’s book, I think you would definitely enjoy this one. I’d recommend Something In Between to anyone seeking more diversity in their reading; it’s not so easy to find diverse YA reads, so this should be valued for that reason.

something in between.jpg