Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

Happy Labor Day weekend everybody! I'm happy to announce that after eight whole months of nothing truly wowing me, 2016 has finally delivered an amazing, five-star read!

This book is extra special because I have the pleasure of knowing the author personally! By day, Meg Elison sits two desks down from me as our company's social media guru/ninja/*insert nauseating Silicon Valley title here*, but off the clock, she managed to find the time to pen an award-winning novel...no big deal!

I'm super excited that I love this book too, since it would have been really awkward to face Meg at work if I thought her baby was ugly, so to speak. However, despite our close acquaintance, I promise to review her book as honestly as I would any other (it helps that she's currently at Burning Man, so it's not like she's looking over my shoulder as I write this!)

First published in 2014, I received an ARC of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife from Meg for the re-release by publisher 47North on October 16. As the title suggests, this novel tells the story of an unnamed midwife living in San Francisco when a mysterious plague wipes out the vast majority of humanity. Even stranger, the disease affects women and children more so than men, creating a literal battle of the sexes as everyone tries to survive.

A word of warning: This book is unapologetically, heartbreakingly graphic. When the protagonist wakes from her bout of the sickness and discovers her husband missing in this post-apocalyptic world, she immediately realizes just how valuable she is when she's forced to fight off and murder a rapist who breaks into her home.As she travels northeast from the Bay Area, she must face the sick reality of predatory men enslaving, raping, and otherwise brutalizing what's left of the female population. Disguising herself as a man, she uses her experience as a midwife and access to contraceptives to help other women navigate their horrific new normal.

Without giving too much away, which is so difficult since there are countless wonderful aspects to this story to discuss, I found The Book of the Unnamed Midwife so suspenseful and engaging that I gobbled it up in just a few days. From her standoff in the woods to her time spent in Utah with a Mormon sect, I had to know more about this character.

It helps that this book was clearly written for a reader like me. Although I can't speak for her, it's obvious that Meg's feminist, pagan perspective permeates each page (sorry, the alliteration ran away from me!). Let's just say that the story's queer, secular protagonist leans far to the left, and if you can't handle casual sex, cussing and frank conversation about abortion, then this book is definitely not for you.

But since Meg and I are on the same wavelength, I found the novel's themes downright refreshing, especially in an America that seems to be reverting backward when it comes to women's rights. Dare I say that The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is right up there with The Handmaid's Tale as a game-changer in the feminist dystopia genre.

On a final note, the structure of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife as an epistolary works very well. The present day takes place a generation after the midwife, who has become a historical figure through her journaling of the plague's aftermath. I'm looking forward to the sequel to learn how society rebuilds and whether a cause for the plague is ever revealed.

In the meantime, Meg has been gracious enough to allow me to interview her next week, so if you have any questions for a debut author, send them my way!

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1

Rating: 4 out of 5

Over Thanksgiving break I watched "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1" more out of obligation than anticipation. I've been vocal about how much I despised the ending of The Hunger Games trilogy, so this movie is just one step before the major letdown.

That being said, I enjoyed the film more than I thought that I would. Even though it stops short after Peeta's rescue mission, it was engaging enough during the buildup to keep things interesting.

I also liked the casting of the new characters: Alma Coin, president of District 13 (played by Julianne Moore), and the district's Roman-inspired squad consisting of Cressida, Messalla, Castor, and Pollux. I've always loved Natalie Dormer (of "Game of Thrones" and "The Tudors" fame), and I look forward to her role as Cressida growing in "Pt. 2."

Similar to "Gone Girl," this movie emphasizes how media can influence events by spreading certain messages via mass communication. The emerging rebellion on the Capitol is not nearly as important as the cat-and-mouse game that Katniss is forced to play with President Snow through her various propaganda videos and the district's hacking into the Capitol's telecom system.

As for Katniss herself, I much preferred her character on-screen than in the book, because readers of Mockingjay are limited to her point-of-view--which, let's be honest, totally sucks because she's a crazed, drugged-up trauma survivor suffering from PTSD. She's still that same person, but fortunately she must share screen time with all the other characters who are actually getting things done.

And despite his infrequent appearances, I give major props to Josh Hutcherson for deftly expressing Peeta's torturous mental and physical decline. BuzzFeed insightfully reported that "Mockingjay: Pt. 1" challenges Hollywood stereotypes by inverting the "damsel in distress" trope. Here, Peeta is the vulnerable victim and Katniss is the action hero who must save him.

In fact, I would argue that all the characters in this saga are more nuanced and multi-dimensional than the plot as a whole. I may hate the way that Suzanne Collins ends this chess game of hers, but damn do I love the pawns. I can only hope that these amazing actors can evolve in such a way that transcends the fate that awaits them in the final installment.

Book Review: Reached

Rating: 2 out of 5

BEWARE: Spoilers ahead!

Good lord, am I glad that I'm finally finished with this series. Ally Condie's dystopian trilogy (Matched, Crossed, Reached) started off great, but I seriously have no idea why the finale is rating an average of four stars on Amazon and Goodreads.

The reason why it took me almost six weeks to complete this novel was that it was 512 pages of booorrrriiiinnnnnnggggg. I can summarize the entire saga like this: Protagonist Cassia Reyes, who lives in a totalitarian state where the Society decides everything for you--including who you marry and when you die, joins a rebellion called the Rising with her two love interests Ky and Xander. In the end, after a catastrophic plague, they realize that the Rising is just the Society with a different name and eventually learn how to rebuild their lives and make decisions for themselves.

Does this sound original at all to you?! Condie couldn't even give her factions unique names! Unfortunately, The Hunger Games has unleashed the floodgates of mediocre young-adult dystopian fiction, and the Matched series is right up there with that of Divergent for being utterly disappointing. At least Mockingjay elicited anger out of me! Reached definitely went out with a whimper rather than a bang.

And don't get me started on the so-called love triangle. I have never witnessed a duller character than Xander. The poor boy never had a chance, and anyone who thinks otherwise is probably one of those girls who can manufacture an entire pseudo-relationship with a crush with whom she's had only one conversation.

In fact, all three of Condie's main characters are total squares. They're so bland that when I was reading each chapter, I often couldn't tell whose point-of-view it was.That's one of the top sins of writing: if a reader can't even differentiate between your characters' perspectives, then you need to go back to your sub-par MFA program and demand your money back.

I know that I'm harsh, but I'm just sick and tired of these dystopian books gaining a bunch of unwarranted hype. The problem is that it feels like a bait and switch: the debut novels start off just strong enough to get a bandwagon going, so even if the sequels are lackluster and the finales are absolute crap, well too bad because you're already too invested in the stories and feel obligated to finish them.

I think that another reason why Condie particularly rubbed me the wrong way was that it was obvious that she was trying SO hard to be deep. In the beginning, I appreciated the allusions to poetry, especially since I love Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night." But I honestly lost count of how many times I rolled my eyes trudging through this saccharine prose.

Instead of being subtle, the symbolism hits you so hard in the face it gives you whiplash. The navel-gazing over the "morals" of the story just came off simplistic and self-righteous: the way Condie tells you what to think rather than letting you interpret the message for yourself makes her almost a meta-Society official taking away your autonomy.

More importantly, it means that she still has a long way to go before becoming a renowned novelist. Given how she'd yammer on about the loss of culture and the destruction of the environment, I thought it was only a matter of time before she burst out of the pages screaming, "But what about the children?!"

So let's do ourselves a favor and let this genre take a breather. Dystopian literature has reached full saturation, and now it's all starting to suck. If you can't get enough of big governments doing bad things, go read 1984 and Orwell will show you how's it's done!

2011 Book Review Catch-Up: Part 3

The time's come to review my final two books of 2011, which I read this past summer. Both books are young-adult fiction, Abandon by Meg Cabot and Matched by Ally Condie.

Abandon by Meg Cabot (Rating: 4 out of 5)

One of the first books I reviewed on this blog was Cabot's vampire sequel Overbite, which I would not recommend unless you absolutely cannot get enough of anything vampire-related. However, I have read almost every single one of Cabot's novels, and for the most part I love them to bits. Her most famous series, The Princess Diaries, is excellent, and I also love her Runaway and Queen of Babble trilogies. So naturally, when I heard that she'd be releasing a novel during the spring based on the ancient Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, I was excited. I wrote my 20-page senior project on two poems about Persephone (Tennyson's "Demeter and Persephone" and Swinburne's "Hymn to Proserpine," which I'll probably discuss in a Masterpiece Monday sometime). As a Classics minor, I was ready to get my nerd on with this modern adaptation.

Persephone and Hades are reincarnated in this story as 17-year-old Pierce Oliviera and her love interest John Hayden. After a near-death experience a couple years earlier, John is determined to bring Pierce back to the Underworld. The novel suffers from weaknesses seen in other Cabot works, namely predictability and cheesy dialogue. However, she nicely infuses folk tales from Florida's history and incorporates other mythical elements like the Furies. While many might find Pierce annoying and John more of a kidnapper than boyfriend material, I didn't mind it because their relationship should be more like Phantom of the Opera at first, because what girl with any brains would willingly choose death over her loved ones? (*cough*Bella Swan*cough*). I could be wrong, but I trust that Cabot will have their relationship grow some more before Pierce makes her decision. Can't wait for the sequel Underworld to come out in May 2012!

Matched by Ally Condie (Rating: 4 out of 5)

This dystopian novel which was published last year ponders the idea of having the government choose your significant other. At her Match Ceremony, 17-year-old Cassia Reyes is partnered with childhood friend Xander Carrow, which proves to be a rare match since they live in the same borough. All the teenagers receive a microchip with their match's personal information, but when Cassia insert hers in her home port, another boy named Ky Markham pops up on the screen. Unfortunately, because Ky is known as an Aberration for a crime his father committed, he's not supposed to be matched with anybody. So what explains this anomaly?

In this world, people survive on soma-esque pills to cure anxiety and erase memories, all their time is scheduled, and they are euthanized on their 80th birthdays. Only 100 poems and 100 songs have been approved to exist, but Cassia comes across a forbidden copy of Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," which sparks her need to rebel against the system. While some may call this yet another love triangle tale like Twilight, I enjoyed the mystery--and of course the literary references. I'm looking forward to its sequel Crossed, which I received for Christmas. Keep an eye out on this trilogy, because Disney bought the film rights before the book was even released! What's up with Mormon authors like Ally Condie and Stephenie Meyer making major bank on their young-adult novels? Coincidence? Or should I seriously think of converting to board this success train? Well, either way, Matched was worth its hype, and I hope Crossed doesn't disappoint!

Now that I've caught up, I'll be posting my master list of 20 books, from best to worst, by Thursday. Hope you enjoy it!