So, once again, books have been piling up far faster than I can review them, and my personal backlog is becoming unreasonable. And you know what that means! Put out a bunch of tiny reviews to blow through the to-do list. Thankfully there are always a couple of titles on that to-do list that, for whatever reason, I find I can’t dig into too much. As always, these are just books where I don’t have that much to say about them. It doesn’t make them good, it doesn’t make them bad, it just means I didn’t find that much to talk about. Without further ado, then.
#1—The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
Standalone, Speak, 2009, 309 pgs.
Dade’s house is downright stereotypical; it has everything an upper-middle class home in the suburbs should. A huge, sprawling layout with way more space than his family needs. Ridiculous gadgets like a refrigerator that has an inset television. A collection of broken relationships formed by a group of desperate people, all struggling to find any shred of meaning in their lives. You know, the usual. Ok, so maybe Dade’s life isn’t perfect. In fact, it often kind of sucks: his boyfriend’s still incredibly closeted and throwing around slurs to compensate, his dad’s cheating on his mom, and neither of his parents are willing to get off his back about his nonexistent life plans. What’s a boy to do the summer before college, except try to find some kindred spirits and sort out his life as best he can.
The takeaway here is pretty simple: the prose and characters were good, but this book felt outdated in a multitude of ways, beyond it not being my sort of story at all. Trying to avoid suburban ennui and people angsting about their ordinary lives is half the reason I don’t much bother with literary fiction. Beyond that, I typically have a huge amount of trouble connecting at all to characters who care too much about being cool, or worry too much about being cringey. As such, this was never going to be my book, but if that is your sort of thing, this is pretty solid. Sure there are the points where this feels like it should have been set twenty years earlier than it was: the author seems to not have noticed that malls as both shopping centers and teen hangout spots have gone into a free fall, or that hip-hop is not talking about the same things it was in the mid-90’s, or even that the boredom of a comfortable life in the suburbs is a worry that not that many people have today. But, as I said, the characters feel real and three-dimensional enough and the writing itself is a step above the typical YA standard. If this is your genre, there’s a good amount here to like.
#2—The Stars Never Rise by Rachel Vincent
The Stars Never Rise Book 1, Delacorte, 2015, 316 pgs.
Life under a totalitarian religious state would be hard for any teenage girls, let alone two whose mother has decided to commit to a very important schedule of lying in bed all day. Without anyone to support them, it’s incredibly hard for Nina and Mellie to get enough money for food, keep appearances up in their very strict school, and avoid the interfering eyes of the church. And that’s not even mentioning the demons that run rampant outside the walls of their town. Suffice to say, life is tough. So, when Mellie comes to Nina with a life-destroying secret that she can no longer hide, it leads to Nina making some rash choices. And if that leads to Nina discovering her own life-destroying secret, then? Well, then life becomes nearly impossible.
Out of the three, this was the one I probably remember the least about. It didn’t leave much of an impression on me at all, even closely after I’d finished it. What I do remember boils down, mostly, to two points. The first is that it was trying to say way too many things at once. Good dystopias work when they pick an issue and think that through in-depth, but by around page sixty we’d touched on everything from prison labor, to reproductive rights, to the sort of generically oppressive government that censors news broadcasts and forces people to become members of The Party in order to have any chance at a future. And that’s even cutting a couple of topics out. Slow down book; you are allowed to let things breathe. The other is what is possibly the stupidest love triangle to ever exist, even in YA, which is saying something. I won’t give anything away, but be prepared for some hearty laughter if you do end up reading this. That said I did like the way this book went about portraying its post-apocalypse. An equivalent to the zombie uprising may have happened, but aside from quadrupling down on the “safety” side of the safety/freedom divide, society is still basically functioning. Technology exists, social institutions are still up and running, and we even get mentions of countries that aren’t America! It’s a little refreshing to have something in the genre that’s more twisted modernity than desert wasteland.
#3—Shanghai Faithful by Jennifer Lin
Standalone, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017, 332 pgs.
In 1949 Chairman Mao took power and created the People’s Republic of China, splitting Jennifer Lin’s father, and his wife and children in Philadelphia, from the rest of the family in the Mainland for decades. When travel resumed between the two nations in the 1970’s, the family then jumped at the chance to reunite, and Dr. Paul Lin brought his young children with him. For all the joy of the long-delayed reunion, though, it was clear that something had broken in the family. Christian for generations, and seen as unforgivably tainted with foreignness in a nationalistic, communist China, the intervening decades had been hard on them. That trip, and all the things left unsaid, the deep cracks left unhealed, would haunt Jennifer for years. This memoir is her attempt to find out what caused those cracks, to fill in the family history left untold. It stretches from her great-great-grandfather, a fisherman in the 1800’s, when Christian missionaries were just beginning to forge their way into the country, to the present day, with her still living family.
This is mostly a short review because I have a hard time reviewing non-fiction, meaning, when I can’t talk about plot structure or character development I find myself at a loss as to what I can talk about. That said I really enjoyed reading this. Its two main topics, the history of Christianity in China and the way that interacted with China’s Cultural Revolution, are both absolutely fascinating on their own, and I probably would have enjoyed the book for that alone. Beyond that, Lin clearly took this project on as a labor of love. Her research here is as detailed and rigorous as it could possibly be, and when translating that into a coherent story she’s very good at painting beautiful, emotive pictures for the audience. The book does presume you have some background on Chinese history and culture already, and so can get a little confusing if you don’t; I found myself looking something up about every thirty or so pages. That said, if you find the topic at all interesting and either have the background or are willing to do a little legwork on your own, I highly recommend this.