Book Review: The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams

A mysterious flock of red birds has descended over Birch Hill. Recently reinvented, it is now home to an elite and progressive school designed to shape the minds of young women. But Eliza Bell – the most inscrutable and defiant of the students – has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.

One by one, the other girls begin to experience the same peculiar symptoms: rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. Soon Caroline – the only woman teaching – begins to suffer too. She tries desperately to hide her symptoms but, with the birds behaving strangely and the girls’ condition worsening, the powers-that-be turn to a sinister physician with grave and dubious methods.

Goodreads

The Illness Lesson takes place in the early 1870s in Massachusetts where Caroline’s father, Samuel Hood, has decided to turn their farm into a school for adolescent girls — a school that will teach them more than how to be housewives with good manners. At the same time, a flock of unusual birds that haven’t been officially “discovered” yet starts making nests on the Hoods’ property. Caroline remembers the last time these birds showed up, because that was when her mother died. When the girls at the Hoods’ school start coming down with weird ailments, Samuel Hood calls in a doctor that ends up treating the girls for “hysteria.” And if you know anything about the history of women’s “hysteria” and how it was treated, well…

I have a number of thoughts about this book, and they might be a bit rambly because it’s been some time since I read this. I’m going to just throw them out there in no particular order…

There *might* be some spoilery details over the next few paragraphs. You have been forewarned.

The cover is made to look like embroidery. It’s gorgeous.

I really liked that this book was set during the time of Transcendentalism in New England, because I am a huge fan of the Transcendentalists (I get a bit swoony about Emerson and Thoreau). Samuel Hood thinks of himself as a feminist and is very into opening this school for girls where they can be taught science and literature and philosophy and such. Samuel was also involved in a (failed) communal living situation at one point, which totally reminded me of the story of the Alcott family and their experience with communal living. But it is obvious by the end of the book that none of the men in the story are feminists. Nope.

The bit about the birds is very interesting. The birds sound gorgeous, the way they are described. I also like that they haven’t been officially discovered by scientists and that they are finally given a scientific name by the end of the book. I will say, though, that the synopsis of the book makes it sound like the birds end up playing a very sinister role in the story, and they don’t. Don’t be fooled. I really thought there was going to be a bit of the supernatural or a bit of…oddness…in this book that wasn’t delivered. The birds are totally innocuous, just doing bird things. And some of those things are kind of creepy in the eyes of humans, yes, but they are totally natural things. You learn that Caroline feels so strangely about the birds because in her mind they are tied up with the death of her mother.

There is a fictional book involved in the story that I kind of wish were real so I could read it. I thoroughly enjoyed that everyone (aside from Samuel) was so into it.

I saw it coming, but the “hysteria” part of the book and what ensues are the hardest parts to read. If you haven’t ever read about how women and their emotions were thought of way back when, or how hysteria was “cured,” then you’re in for a doozy of a surprise. And these are teenage girls we’re talking about.

You know what this book basically said? Even the “good guys” can be total shits. No matter how progressive they are or how much they claim to support of the rights of women, they can still, in reality, be total shits. But we already knew that.

There is also a conversation around whether or not women should be given this kind of agency and education that I found interesting. I mean, in those kinds of conversations, I shoot from the hip. Of course women (even 19th-century women) should be given agency and a good education! Right?

I really enjoyed The Illness Lesson, despite the parts that were difficult to read. Clare Beams is really good at writing with a 19th-century style. I kept forgetting that this book was just published. And again, I love that it takes place in New England with an undertone of Transcendentalism. I hesitate to talk too much about the characters because I tend to describe characters with overused phrases like “well-rounded” or “fleshed-out,” and that annoys me. I will say that I thought I was going to love Caroline and really dislike Sophia, but in the end, it wasn’t that simple.

The only thing that I think wasn’t as developed (or that didn’t live up to the publisher’s synopsis) was the role of the birds. And maybe I missed some kind of metaphor or connection. That’s definitely a possibility.

Have you read The Illness Lesson? What did you think?

M-O-O-N, that spells The Stand! [Book Review]

This is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death. And here is the bleak new world of the day after: a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides — or are chosen.

Goodreads

The Stand was a reread for me as part of the Apocalypse Book Club sj and I started on Facebook. The first time I read it (seven years ago) was during flu season. This time I read it during a pandemic. I loved it both times.

If you haven’t read The Stand, the story goes that a government laboratory on a military base accidentally lets loose a biological weapon they’ve been working on. The weapon is a super flu that only, maybe, 1% of the population is immune to. It spreads extremely quickly and kills everyone else.

So that happens.

The rest of the book is about the survivors of Captain Trips (one of the many nicknames given to the virus), and how they end up divided between two communities — the one run by Mother Abigail (Good), or the one run by Randall Flagg, a.k.a. The Man in Black (Evil). And of course there’s a fight between Christianity’s ideas of Good and Evil.

It’s Stephen King, so it’s horrific. It’s Stephen King, so it’s also full of great psychology and internal moments. I have said this before and I’ll say it again (probably more than once), but the main reason I think SK’s books don’t translate well to the screen is because some of the most horrific things that happen to his characters happen inside their minds. SK is so good about getting into people’s heads and writing about the stuff that goes on in there that most of us would never talk about. And that psychological/internal aspect cannot be dealt with well in films.

Randall Flagg is probably my favorite baddie of all time. He is featured in many of SK’s novels in one form or another (my favorite being his character in the Dark Tower series). He’s just downright evil. And maybe a little attractive sometimes? Heh.

My favorite character in The Stand, though, is Tom Cullen, of course. He’s delightful. His cognitive issues don’t stop him from being insightful and wise, maybe more so than any of the other characters in the book. I just love him.

A book like The Stand terrifies me for the germ/virus aspect alone, but I thoroughly enjoy it every time I read it. I love the characters, I love the epic journey aspect, and I love the horror bits. I’m not so much into the Christianity parts of it, but they really don’t detract from my enjoyment of the rest of the book.

Recommended for all fans of horror and Stephen King (although, if you’re a fan of Stephen King and haven’t read The Stand…why the heck not?).

Have you been reading more post-apocalyptic fiction or virus-based fiction during the pandemic, or is it just me?

Book Review: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C.A. Fletcher

My name’s Griz. My childhood wasn’t like yours. I’ve never had friends, and in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football.

My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.

Then the thief came.

There may be no law left except what you make of it. But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you.

Because if we aren’t loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?

Goodreads

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is a post-apocalyptic novel in which the world’s population has been devastated by The Gelding. Women don’t get pregnant anymore. No more babies. As the older population dies off, there are no new generations to take over. When the book opens, there are only thousands of people left in the world, and they are living in small groups, mostly made up of just family.

Griz’s family lives on an island off the coast of Scotland. Early on the reader learns that Griz’s sister died in a nasty accident, and Griz’s mother is also harmed in the aftermath of that accident to the extent that she cannot speak or function on her own anymore.

But they’re living the life. They’ve adapted to the way the world is and they’re mostly self-sufficient. They do some trading and socializing with one other family that lives on another island nearby (if I remember correctly), but for the most part, they keep to themselves.

Then a stranger shows up (by boat) on their island — which is unsettling since there are so few people left in the world — and says he is there to do some trading. Griz’s family tentatively welcomes him into their home…and then he promptly steals a bunch of their stuff, including one of Griz’s dogs.

And so the adventure begins.

Griz takes off in his boat (with his other dog) to chase down the thief and get his dog back, but because the world is so foreign to Griz, he has no idea what to expect of the outside world. He’s never been to the mainland. He has no map. He has very few supplies. He’s winging it.

No spoilers, so you’ll have to read the rest for yourself if you’re interested in finding out what happens.

I thought this was a cute book. I say “cute,” because it’s definitely not as serious as some of the other post-apocalyptic books I’ve read. Don’t get me wrong — there is some very serious subject matter in the book and a world like Griz’s is not fun and games — but I think Fletcher took a much lighter approach to this book than other post-apocalyptic books I’ve read. And I think that worked well because Griz is so naive about the outside world and what to expect from his travels. Griz really has no clue what anything outside of his island is like. So he’s discovering this new-to-him world and there is a feeling of fascination throughout the book, even when bad things are happening. I think it’s the discovery bit that keeps the book from getting too dark.

I was kind of pissed that Griz took his other dog with him. Look, kid, you’ve already lost one dog, you have NO IDEA what to expect out there, you haven’t even thought about how you’re going to take care of yourself, let alone your other dog. But that was also very realistic, because what teenager wouldn’t just run off without totally thinking through what they are doing? Heh.

Overall, I enjoyed A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World. Was I blown away by it? No. But I’m not a dog person, so I assume I didn’t feel the same connection to Griz that many dog-owning readers did. The book was well-written and the story was pretty good. I particularly liked reading about how the natural environment had taken over with so few people around to screw it up. There wasn’t a ton of character development, which I was slightly disappointed with, but not enough to keep me from finishing the book. I would love to have a whole book about The Gelding while it was taking place…something character-driven about how people are dealing with it physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I think THAT could make a fantastic book.

I think I would recommend this to readers who like lighter post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction. Those of you who are dog lovers would really get into it, I think.

Have you read A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World? What did you think?

Book Review: The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern

Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find. Their doors have been waiting for them.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is searching for his door, though he does not know it. He follows a silent siren song, an inexplicable knowledge that he is meant for another place. When he discovers a mysterious book in the stacks of his campus library he begins to read, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities, and nameless acolytes. Suddenly a turn of the page brings Zachary to a story from his own childhood impossibly written in this book that is older than he is.

Goodreads

I am about to gush and swoon all over the place (and this might also be a bit stream of consciousness), so be prepared.

That summary from Goodreads does not do this book justice.

The Starless Sea is love stories, and fairy tales, and metaphors, and stories within stories, and stories about stories, and though Fate doesn’t like any of it being described this way, The Starless Sea is magic. It is truly magical.

I find it so hard to talk about books that I fall in love with. It’s so hard to put into words what these books make me feel. Because aside from the writing and the story (stories) being just lovely, The Starless Sea is a feeling. It is a feeling of glowing warmth starting in my center and radiating outward. It is the feeling I get when I have been away from loved ones for a long time and I finally get to be with them and hug them and spend time with them. It is a yearning feeling that comes from wanting magic and magical lands to be real.

The Starless Sea is one of those books that truly sucked me in and made me feel like I was there, following Zachary and Dorian and Mirabel, watching them move through the many stories they find themselves in.

And oh, but what I wouldn’t give for it all to be true, and to find a random, beautifully-painted door where a door shouldn’t be, to open that door and find myself in a Harbor on the the Starless Sea, to become an acolyte or a guardian or the Keeper herself. Loving stories like The Starless Sea and wanting them to be real is a bittersweet ache in the center of my chest. As long as people like Erin Morgenstern continue to write stories like these, I will continue to read them and pretend that they are possible, that someone somewhere is living a magical life and I’m happy for them, even if that someone isn’t me and I’m just watching from the sidelines.

Do you understand now how much I loved this book?

Morgenstern borrowed a few ideas and tidbits from other stories to write this one, and I also love those stories. I don’t know if they were meant to be Easter eggs or if they were meant to be more obvious than that, but every time I found one, I smiled.

I don’t know what else I can say to convince you to read The Starless Sea. Stories are meant to be shared and I want to share this one with everyone I know. Of all the books I’ve read and enjoyed so far this year, this one is easily at the top of my list now and I’m quite sure it will stay there. I want to start from the beginning and reread it right now (and I just finished it fifteen minutes ago).

But this is not where their story ends.
Their story is only just beginning.
And no story ever truly ends as long as it is told.

Thank you, Erin Morgenstern.

Book Review: Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey

Speculative fiction! Queer Librarians being subversive and fighting the State! Patriarchy be damned!

Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her — a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

Goodreads

Right off the bat, I want to say that before I got my hands on this book, I thought it was a full-length novel. I don’t know why I assumed that, but I did. And so I was already a little disappointed when I found out it’s a novella. Not that I don’t like novellas, but it’s kind of like when you take a drink of something, fully expecting to taste what you think the drink is, and it ends up being something totally different when it hits your tongue…gag-worthy (even if you like whatever it actually is) and pretty disappointing. I do NOT think this book is gag-worthy (heh), but the disappointment was strong. It’s my fault for making an assumption in the first place, but still.

So that *might* have affected how I felt about the book from the very beginning, and it *might* have created a weird filter over my reading of it. (Being a psych major, I am constantly aware of things like this.)

Anyway, here’s the review…

In the future of Upright Women Wanted, the U.S. has fallen back into the circumstances of the Old West. It has become a totalitarian Old West where the State runs everything and disseminates tons of propaganda. Everything is really uptight again, and punishments are archaic.

Librarians go from town to town, delivering the State’s propaganda and other State-approved materials.

But of course, this isn’t the only thing Librarians deliver, because just like in our times, libraries and Librarians are the last bastions of true democracy.

Esther hides in one of the Librarian wagons for the reasons already stated in the summary above, and this leads to an adventure that she never thought she’d find herself on.

Esther learns to be comfortable with who she is and learns that she is much tougher than she thought.

Upright Women Wanted is about doing the right thing even when it’s dangerous, and being proud of who you are in the face of adversity. It’s about rising up (even if it’s in secret) against the powers that be when those powers are doing more harm than good. It’s about finding your people and feeling at home — both in your own body and in your environment.

It’s a great story.

Oh, but I wanted more. So much more. I wanted this to be a longer story. I want background and character history and worldbuilding. Don’t get me wrong, as a novella, Upright Women Wanted works very well and I was duly invested, but the story almost has to move too quickly and I’ll say it again: I. Just. Want. More.

But that can be a sign of a good story (wanting more), and that’s totally what it is in this case. I was teased by this novella and I really want a full-length novel about this world and these characters. Sigh.

So I definitely recommend Upright Women Wanted if it sounds like your kind of thing, but know that you get only 173 pages of awesomeness when it could have easily been 300(+) pages of awesomeness.