My month in books: June 2020

How is another month gone already?

June took me on literary trips up the Amazon River, onto a spaceship bound for an alien university, and behind the scenes of Palo Alto.

First up was State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Dr Marina Singh, a Minnesotan pharmacologist, is sent to the Amazon rainforest to retrieve the body of a colleague. Before he died, he was investigating a research camp that claims to be developing a miraculous treatment for infertility, and Marina picks up where he left off. The leader of the camp, Dr Annick Swenson, is a fascinating creation, and her relationship with Marina is the highlight of the book. However I wish the novel’s many indigenous characters had been given space to actually, well, develop characters. The most prominent of these is a child called Easter, who is the subject of many white saviour fantasies, although this is something the novel interrogates. As with all Patchetts I’ve read so far, I liked this, but I’ve yet to find a book of hers I truly love.

I was craving a bit of urban fantasy, so opted for The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. Myfanwy Thomas is a senior bureaucrat in a secret government department that keeps the UK’s magical occurrences under wraps. Unfortunately she’s also just lost her memory, and has only notes from her pre-amnesiac self to guide her through the dangers and responsibilities of her new life. The Rook is an entertaining enough read, but flawed. My eyes were certainly rolling when the protagonist, upon seeing herself in the mirror for the first time, immediately assesses the size of her breasts and whether others would consider her to be sexy or just cute. The structure also gets a bit baggy as times, as the action is punctuated with notes from the previous Myfanwy, some of which don’t seem to have much to do with the main plot. (I’m sure the dragon story was amusing to write, but did it need to be here?) So for now, Ben Aaronovitch’s position as my urban fantasy fave remains unchallenged.

The next book I read was a gift from my grandmother: Weather by Jenny Offil. It’s a good novel, and well-written, but I’d be hard pressed to say I liked it, because this book touched on all my modern anxieties so precisely that it actually kept me up at night. (Or at least my pre-COVID anxieties.) The climate crisis, rising fascism – all the hits are here. Do you want to read about characters debating what survival skills they should learn, and whether or not it was ethical for them to have children when they believe society is headed for collapse? Then you are made of sterner stuff than me.

Because Weather was stressing me out so much, I took a break midway through to read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. This YA novella is less than 100 pages long, so I got to devour it in one delightful gulp. Our heroine, Binti, is a mathematical genius who runs away from home to study off-planet at Oomza Uni. She’s also the first member of her people, the Himba of Namibia, to be accepted to the institution. Things go very wrong when her ship is attacked by jellyfish-like aliens, but Binti’s bravery and belief in her identity gives her strength, and allows her to succeed where others would fail. The book’s short length gives it a tight structure and pace which makes it a really enjoyable read. It’s also surprisingly gory at times. I’ll definitely be looking for the sequels.

I finished off my month with some nonfiction. Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is the story of the Silicon Valley unicorn-turned-dumpster-fire Theranos, a biotech startup which managed to raise absurd amounts of money from high-profile organisations and people, despite never really having a product which properly worked. I think people unfamiliar with the story of Theranos will probably enjoy Bad Blood more than I did, as a lot of its twists and turns were already spoiled for me. The pace picks up towards the latter half when the author, a Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story, enters the narrative himself, and the muckraking commences. But it’s the whistleblowers from the company who are the story’s real heroes.

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