Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Normally, when you set about tackling an 800+ page epic study of humanity, trauma, and relationships, you’re talking about one of the classics, a book written back in the day before publishers cared about “readability”. Not so with A Little Life: I have no idea how this book made it through the vetting process, but here we are. This 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara became a best-seller, despite its length and… shall we say, challenging content.

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A Little Life begins with four graduates who have moved to New York. There’s Willem (the kind, handsome one), JB (the quick-witted, artistic one), Malcom (the frustrated, upwardly-mobile one), and Jude (the brilliant, enigmatic one). They all exist on a wide spectrum of identities (racial, sexual, familial, and otherwise), a pleasingly diverse crew with deep and abiding love for one another, even as life scatters them across different courses. One of the really interesting aspects of this book – which you might not realise until much later – is that it’s not anchored in any particular time period. It’s just vaguely contemporary, with no reference to September 11 or any other cultural landmarks that would anchor it in our minds, giving it a timeless quality right from the outset.

For the first fifty or so pages (a drop in the bucket of this epic), they all go to parties, move apartments, hook up, squabble, gossip, all as you’d expect. There are all the usual schisms that threaten friendships – money, politics, miscommunication – but also a deep respect that seems capable of withstanding it all. The story focuses largely on JB, Malcolm, and Willem; Jude’s story is only partly revealed, as background. He exists on the periphery, of the friendship and the narrative. Then, so gradually you might not notice at first, the story of A Little Life morphs into something different, something more than your bog-standard New York bildungsroman.





The friendship ensemble slowly recedes, leaving Jude in the spotlight. Yanagihara drip-feeds his back story to the reader – how he was found abandoned as an infant, near a garbage can, adopted by monks who mistreat him in horrifying ways, only to jump from the frying pan into the fire, and so forth. The story of Jude’s present is chronological, and his past is revealed through seamlessly chronological flashbacks too, making for smooth parallel narratives.

I’ll stop beating around the bush, because if you’ve not read A Little Life and you’re reading this review to work out whether or not to pick it up, you need to know: Jude was sexually abused, repeatedly, in all manner of ways, from a very young age. A Little Life is the story of how this trauma reverberates throughout his life. There’s graphic detail – a lot of it – and very little, if any, justice or redemption.

A Little Life is an UNDERTAKING. It’s not slow moving, by any means, but it is LONG. You need to be ready to really immerse yourself in the lives and relationships of these characters, including Jude’s (though he has it the worst, the others’ aren’t a picnic, either). Yanagihara seems determined to make the reader work for it. She reveals things by surprise, mentions facets of the back-story in passing that cast all-new light on everything that has come before – that’s why A Little Life is NOT skimmable, despite its imposing length. If you let your eyes skip down half a page, you’re liable to miss something crucial and you’ll be forced to circle back, re-live it all over again (the way that Jude has to).

It took me an embarrassingly long time to work out why A Little Life felt so much more overwhelming and devastating than other books I’ve read (and I’ve read some real downers). It’s the damn MAGNITUDE of the thing. It’s both incredibly long and incredibly intimate, which means its punches land much harder. The content isn’t necessarily more traumatic or triggering than you’d find in other books, but there’s SO MUCH of it, and it requires such a HUGE investment on the part of the reader…





Reading A Little Life actually forced me to confront a really uncomfortable question: at what point does literature become tragedy porn? The Sisyphean nature of Jude’s traumas – he comes so close to contentment, time and again, only for the boulder to roll back down the hill and absolutely crush him – gave me pause. Every time he reaches out, makes any headway at all in reckoning with his past, it manifests in another cycle of abuse. Yanagihara renders it in such a way that it is never titillating or sensationalist; this isn’t schlocky horror or crime fiction, and yet… the sheer magnitude of the protagonist’s suffering is enough to make bile rise in the back of your throat. The only thing that makes it bearable is the intervening chapters where she portrays Jude’s life as a successful corporate lawyer, with fulfilling friendships and a found family worth their weight in gold.

You need to know there are no happy endings here. In an article for New York Magazine, Yanagihara said that she wanted to “create a protagonist who never got better”. His relationships with his friends and his adoptive father evolve, but they never “heal” him. Anyone who recommends this book to you without a major trigger warning is a psychopath and a bum, and you should cut them out of your life ASAP. Any time anyone brings up the “debate” about whether and why trigger warnings should be used, A Little Life is the book that proves the affirmative.

One more important thing to note (just a sec, let me drag out my soap box): I’m once again calling your attention to the fact that if the central characters of this novel had been women, rather than men, A Little Life would have been relegated to the category of “women’s fiction” and probably published with a flower on the front cover or some shit (if it were published at all). As it stands, the relationships between these men, and their emotional lives over the course of decades, are the soul of this story. It is, thus, lauded as epic literary fiction. I’m just saying.

Let’s not end on a bum note. Yay for Yanagihara, who shot to international literary stardom with this novel. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2015, and later ranked in The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. I’m not sure what she’s written lately, but – as good as A Little Life was – I’m not sure I’m all that eager to find out. I need to lick the wounds this novel inflicted for a bit, before I go begging for more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Little Life:

  • “Masterpiece, but stay away from it, it will make you cry like the time your first dog died, be warned.” – Sharon
  • “great book if you want to torture yourself. i loved every second.” – Victoria A.
  • “Had to seek out and read every single one-star review as an antidote to the damage caused by this book. No, not complaining about the darkness and pain, but how painfully bad and ill-conceived it is. Never knew a book could make you annoyed to the extent of losing sleep. The one-star reviews restored for me a sense of normalcy, humanity, reason, and general good taste.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I cringe every time this book pops up in my book searches. I haven’t read this book nor do I know anything about it except that the cover is hideous and makes me want to punch my Kindle each time I have to look at it.” – Kindle Customer

10 Book Characters I’d Like To Befriend

It’s funny, the book characters I most enjoy reading are the ones who would probably be insufferable in real life. Think about it! Cathy and Heathcliff and their ridiculous histrionics, crotchety old Ove who just wants to be left alone, Keiko the convenience store woman who’s about as warm and affectionate as an angry echidna… There are rare exceptions, though, like Pete, the eccentric artist from Lanny (which I read and reviewed earlier this week). I’ve plucked these hidden gems out from the shelves to bring you this list of ten book characters I’d like to befriend.

10 Book Characters I'd Like To Befriend - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you buy a book through one of the affiliate links on this page, then I’ll forget all about these book characters and you’ll be my BFF!

Bridget Jones

Bridget-Joness-Diary-Helen-Fielding-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

From Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Judging by her diary, Bridget and I would get along like a house on fire. She likes a drink, she is prone to sweeping declarations and resolutions, and she’s a little bit of a mess but in an endearing way. Plus, Colin Firth Mark Darcy might have some hot, eligible bachelor friends that would accompany us on nights out. The only downside to being friends with Bridget Jones would be not feeling right reading her diary anymore…

Warren

Daisy Jones And The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Pretty much everyone in this band is a nightmare: drunk, high, self-destructive, egotistical, and petty… except for Warren, the drummer. He is so delightfully indifferent to all of the group’s politics, to the point of being a little dense, and that’s what would make him so much fun to befriend. He just wants to relax on his boat and rock out on tour, forget about all the rest of it. Of course, he’s a drummer, but I’m sure I could find it within myself to forgive him for that. Read my full review of Daisy Jones and The Six here.

Don Quixote

Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Being friends with Don Quixote, with his delusions and flights of fancy and all, wouldn’t be a picnic, but I want to befriend him if for no other reason that his actual friends are garbage. Here is a man in desperate need of some psychological support, one whose disordered thinking is tearing his life apart and putting him in actual mortal danger, and yet everyone around him just seems to… laugh it off? Go along for the ride, in the hopes they’ll make some money off it? Psssht. Don’t worry, Don, I’ll take care of you. Read my full review of Don Quixote here.


Lorelei Lee

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Lorelei and I wouldn’t have much in common – I’m a bookish brunette, she’s a glamorous blonde – but I’m sure we’d be damn fun at parties because we share one very important common interest: champagne. She comes to fancy herself an author, too, so maybe we could give each other notes on our writing and I could help her out with some of her… spelling issues. Mostly, I want to be Lorelei’s friend because she’s fun. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Jo March and Friederich Bhaer

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This is probably my most-controversial and least-popular literary opinion, but I’ve got to speak my truth. Jo was better off marrying the Professor, and she would never have been happy with Laurie. There! I said it! Jo and Friederich would live an interesting life, debating politics and philosophy and drinking fine wine over home-cooked dinners. I reckon my husband and I would make perfect double-date partners for them. Read my full review of Little Women here.

Korede

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Everybody needs a friend who would help them hide a body. Korede has proven her stripes in that regard, time and time again. Sure, it might take a while for us to become close enough that she would treat me like she treats her sister, and there might be a few cultural barriers to overcome, but I’m willing to put in the effort. It’s worth it. Plus, she can rest assured that I won’t have eyes for her hot doctor crush (and, even if I did, no way am I attractive or enigmatic enough to lure him away). Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.


Piranesi

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I feel like I’d probably frighten Piranesi at first. He’s lived alone in his big house for a long time, and he wouldn’t be used to company. Plus, I’m a cynical snot and I’m not all that good with nature. I hope, over time, those facets of our personalities would balance each other out. I’d become the yin to his yang, and his glorious optimism, his ingenuity, and his determination to see only the best in others would be infectious.

Bunny

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Granted, my mental health is a bit more stable than Bunny’s, but damn if we don’t share the same dark sense of humour (and the same love of dogs). I like to think I’d be the lighthouse to her ocean, keeping things steady when the waves crash over her. We’d have deliciously wicked bitch sessions about all of her pretentious New York friends, and laugh together of all the people she fools with her prank about her name’s origin. My name’s not all that common, either, and I’m sure we could come up with another joke to match.

Mark Watney

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From The Martian by Andy Weir

Watney needs a friend. He’s stranded on Mars, a couple hundred million kilometers away, and he’s all alone. I wouldn’t be much good for bouncing science-y ideas off, but I’d imagine he’d be happy to listen to my ceaseless yapping, just for some company. Not literally, of course – neither love nor money could get me to Mars, where I would surely perish – but I could hang out with him on Zoom or something. In a way, it would be my ideal friendship, one where I’m not obligated to leave the house or put on pants and I can communicate exclusively in funny memes and news of the day. Read my full review of The Martian here.

Allan Karlsson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

A one-hundred-year old friend would be a dream come true. One, they’d never make me feel old. Two, I’m happy to help out with hare-brained schemes like ditching your own birthday party to escape out the window of your nursing home. Three, I’d have lots of nosy questions about the amazing life that he’s lived and the crazy shit he’s seen. Four, I’d even bring the vodka. Of course, I’d have to befriend the English translation of Allan (or we might struggle with communication), but that suits me fine. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.


Lanny – Max Porter

Did you ever pick up a book in spite of yourself? I was never really all that drawn to read Lanny – despite the endless glowing recommendations from fellow readers and Keeper Upperers – until I heard Max Porter give a reading at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The organisers called Lanny “a tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama”, and even though I was skeptical, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up a copy.

Lanny - Max Porter - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Lanny here.
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Lanny was first published in 2019, the follow-up to Porter’s cult success Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. As in his previous novel, myth and modern life come together through the eyes of children. The titular character, Lanny, is an every-child, with all the oddity and gnomic wisdom we expect from these miniature humans.

Lanny is a remarkably short novel, quick to power through and with lots of white space, but it seems to contain multitudes: magic, suspense, horror, joy, and wonder. Porter really pushes the boundaries between prose and poetry, but it’s hardly one of those highly-literary Experimental Novels that make you feel like you’ve just dropped far too much acid to understand. It’s compulsively readable, and even the dullest among us will be able to pick up what Porter is putting down.

The story is told in three sections. The first switches between four narrators. We’ve got Dead Papa Toothwort, a spirit of some kind who watches and listens to a small English village. Then, there’s Lanny’s dad, an office worker in London. And there’s Lanny’s mum, a crime writer with ambivalent feelings about their suburban life (there’s no ambivalence about her love for her son, though). And, finally, there’s Pete, a local eccentric who was once a famous artist; Lanny’s Mum seeks him out, and he starts giving Lanny art lessons.




Through these grown-up eyes, Lanny emerges: idiosyncratic, silly, and sometimes wise beyond his years. He builds things, talks to trees, and baffles just about every grown-up he encounters. His relationship with Pete, the artist, deepens quickly. Pete was actually my favourite narrator, and my favourite character overall.

“I can usually see a way to understand terrible things; Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber of hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.”

Pete (Page 68)

Lanny reveals in conversation with Pete that the mysterious Dead Papa Toothwort is a local myth, a man made entirely of ivy. The rhyme goes: “Say your prayers and be good too, or Dead Papa Toothwort is coming for you,”. Lanny could have been told without Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective, but it adds a layer to our understanding of what Porter is trying to do with the story. Lanny isn’t just about one mildly interesting kid; it’s about England, and small town politics, and perspective.

Toothwort allows the reader to “ride the smells” of the town (including Jenny’s lasagne, and Derek’s hot-pot-for-one – yes, your mouth may water a little). The snatches of conversation he draws from the town are formatted differently to the rest of the narrative, curling across the pages in at-first-glance nonsensical italics. The topics are just what you’d expect from small-town conversation: dog walks, cancer scares, mini-breaks, local gossip… And Toothwort’s commentary on it all serves to remind us just how small, and simultaneously how large, our lives are.





The second section is told in snippets of internal dialogue. (Spoilers ahoy!) Lanny goes missing, and the whole town (mostly) joins in the search for him (eventually). Many of the insights come from Lanny’s distraught mother; Porter will really do a number on you, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, with the way he lays out her terror and guilt. Then there’s Lanny’s father, who doesn’t feel as close to the child, and the sneaky little voice in his head who wonders if they’re not all better off with the kid gone.

Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective interjects occasionally, but he takes a back-seat to Pete, who is accused of abducting and/or assaulting the child. The village shows its true colours in the witch hunt; Pete is beaten (and my heart broke for him more than it did for Lanny, if I’m honest), but he maintains his innocence and his determination to help Lanny’s parents find the boy. He’s made a scapegoat, purely for the fact that he chose to colour outside the lines when he chose how he wanted to live his life, but he holds his head up high and fuck the lot of them (I told you he was my favourite!).

The third section gets a little a lot weird. The best way I could describe it is a series of feverish dream-like explanations of what has happened to Lanny, and what his parents and Pete make of it. I suppose, given that I’m already elbow-deep in spoilers, I’m obligated to tell you that Lanny is found safe and (relatively) well, having been fed and watered by Dead Papa Toothwort on his adventure… but beyond that, I’m really not sure how to describe the ending to you. You’ll just have to read Lanny for yourself.

Lanny is a short book, as I said, but it’s “about” so many things. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. For me, it was about an innocent man harangued and almost hanged by a small town, but maybe you’ll find in it a book about nature, a book about a child’s sense of wonder, a book about parental obligation and fear, a book about a town ghost, a morality tale, an environmental allegory, a hybrid fairytale, a freewheeling fantasy. I’m not sure I could recommend Lanny blindly, because it’s so weird, but I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to others who have read it (that’s a hint to tell me what you think in the comments, by the way!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lanny:

  • “Probably didn’t like the book” – Amazon Customer
  • “Just because you can change the orientation of your font doesn’t mean you’re doing something creative or cutting edge. Mush like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the author is so obsessed with how amazing and creative they are, they fail to tell a fundamentally sound story. Inside cover says $24 for a book that can’t break 20,000 words. There seems to be a trend in the vein of Pirate Utopia where an established author shovels overpriced garbage and tricks loyal readers into buying their hot trash.” – LJ
  • “Having trampled “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Mr. Porter now turns his oh-so-clever combination of full-on thesaurus assault, “whimsy,” and “never use seven words when forty-nine words would do just as well” on the Green Man legend. Yeah… no, Max. No.” – L. Chaney
  • “Very odd book. Doesn’t take long to read would be its only plus.” – Miss Sara Claire Mason


8 Books About Women in STEM

Earlier this week, I read and reviewed Vox, where a woman is sought after for her knowledge and expertise in a male-dominated area of science. I started thinking about books about women in STEM, leading women with actual careers in the sciences. There really aren’t as many on my shelves (or in the world) as I would have hoped. It feels like most of the ones I have to hand use the woman’s job or interest in STEM as part of her “quirky” personality. (It’s also probably not a coincidence that every single one of these books was written by a woman…) So, here’s what I could round up: eight books about women in STEM.

8 Books About Women In STEM - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you want to get technical about it, there are affiliate links in this post – anything you buy will earn me a small commission, thank you!

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice - Lisa Genova - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The main character of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice is a linguistics professor, named (you guessed it) Alice. She loves her work, she’s well respected in her field, and she fears losing it all when she begins to experience symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This is a truly heart-wrenching account of a woman’s career in STEM coming to an end long before she would have wanted, for reasons beyond her control, but I feel Genova is respectful and insightful about Alice’s work with the science of language. Read my full review of Still Alice here.

The Helpline by Katherine Collette

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When The Helpline begins, Germaine’s career is not going particularly well. She lost her job as senior mathematician at Wallace Insurance after an unfortunate incident, and finds that the job market for mathematicians isn’t exactly booming. What Germaine lacks in social skills she more than makes up for with her keen analytical mind, and this hilarious heart-warming book sees her applying her skills to a very different kind of role… Read my full review of The Helpline here.

The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature Of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elizabeth Gilbert spent years – years! – researching moss, so that she could bring the central character of The Signature of All Things, a botanist, to life. Alma inherits her father’s money and his fascination with the natural world, in a time (the early 1800s) when women weren’t supposed to have either of those things. As a character, Alma is unforgettable: passionate, bold, and observant. This is a book about the balance between the scientific and the spiritual, love and logic, evolution in all of its forms.


The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

The Kiss Quotient - Helen Hoang - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ever wonder where those recommendations to add to your cart come from when you’re online shopping? In The Kiss Quotient, it’s Stella’s job to put them there. She’s an econometrician, meaning that she analyses data to predict human behaviour. For instance, she discovers over the course of the novel (among many other, more steamy, things) that men stop buying their own underpants when they fall in love, because the women start buying underpants for them. Interesting, no? Read my full review of The Kiss Quotient here.

Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery

Ordinary Matter - Laura Elvery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ordinary Matter is a bit different to the other books about women in STEM on this list. It’s actually a collection of short stories, each based on one of the women who won Nobel prizes for scientific research. The stories are varied, and not all of them feature women in STEM per se, but they all draw on some aspect of real-life work and research outcomes, so I figure it counts. Be sure to pay close attention to my personal favourites, Something Close To Gold and The Bodies Are Buried.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, fine, including Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine might be a bit of a stretch, but to be fair Eleanor is an accountant and that seems pretty maths-y to me! She is not, as the title would suggest, “completely fine”, but she’s competent enough at her job. She’s also managed to build a life for herself, against all odds, that functions well. One act of kindness is enough to show Eleanor that there’s more to life than being just “completely fine”, and she deserves it all.


The Breeding Season by Amanda Niehaus

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The Breeding Season gets bonus points for being a book about a woman in STEM written by a woman in STEM. Elise is a reproductive biologist and researcher who turns to fieldwork to cope with the grief of losing her child. Amanda Neihaus is also a biologist, and undertook extensive research into the reproductive biology of northern quolls to write Elise’s story. It is a story of all-encompassing grief, intensely poetic and full of natural imagery and metaphor.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterly - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hidden Figures is a work of non-fiction, so it’s technically in a different category, but any list of books about women in STEM feels incomplete without it. Margot Lee Shetterley’s book finally shone a spotlight on the women – the computer scientists – who made America’s role in the space race possible. Their colleagues called them “human computers”, and using nary more than pencil and paper they ran the numbers and figured out how to put a man on the moon. Forget about Neil Armstrong, this is the true story of humanity’s triumph.


Vox – Christina Dalcher

The last four years brought us something I think we can only just now begin to appreciate: a resurgence in The Handmaid’s Tale-inspired feminist dystopian literature, one of the few things actually made great again. I wonder if someday we’ll look back on this particular time as a literary category or movement all of its own (I’d suggest calling it Trump lit, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction). Vox was one of the ones that came mid-way through in 2018: not quite early enough to be prescient, but not quite late enough to be retrospective, and with a weight of expectation on its shoulders.

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Note that the man himself is never actually named in Vox: he is simply alluded to, the president elected after a black man’s historic term in office, plunging the United States back into a totalitarian regime with the backing of the country’s Bible Belt. The new government forces women out of the workforce, freezes their bank accounts, takes away their passports – it all sounds familiar, right? What makes Vox different is one additional catch: women and girls are restricted to speaking just 100 words a day, monitored by “bracelets” capable of delivering sharp electric shocks to those who exceed the limit.

If you’re like me, your mind has probably jumped to all of the alternative methods of communication that women could use to resist. Dalcher is one step ahead of you. Pens and paper are forbidden, along with books and mail and all other iterations of the same. Anyone caught using sign language is hauled off and subjected to unspecified but undoubtedly horrible punishments. Even a nod is enough to make a woman feel self-conscious. This is all part of the plan, the Pure Movement, to throw America back to a bygone era (that, really, didn’t exist in the first place) of men at work and on top, women at home and silent.

The narrator, Jean, sums it up on page 1: “I’ve become a woman of few words”. Her husband, Patrick, is a high-ranking White House official. They have four children, three sons and a daughter. Their eldest son, Steven, has been lured into the Pure Movement via a religion class at his school. The ascendancy of the Pure Movement, and the family’s descent into fear and mutual distrust, are revealed through Jean’s recollections as her own story unfolds in the present.





Jean has been forced to give up her career as a neuro-linguistics researcher, studying aphasia (loss of language), under the new regime. She devotes a lot of time to blaming herself for not taking a more active role when the first warning signs of impending doom emerged. She, and most others, thought that the “hysterical” feminists were being “over the top” when they warned of what was to come.

Dalcher does a good job – for a debut novelist – of depicting Jean’s complicated relationships with her children. The middle two (twin boys) get kind of lost in the shuffle, but she resents Steven for bringing the prying eyes of the Pure Movement into their home, and fears for the future of her youngest, a daughter. There’s one particularly terrifying moment when Jean wakes in the night to hear her daughter shouting words in her sleep. She tries desperately to reach the girl before she hits her limit (at which point, she’ll be shocked), but when she does Jean has no words of her own left to comfort the girl. It’s heartbreaking, and probably the one scene from Vox that truly stuck with me. I also liked that Jean’s character was unabashedly angry (who wouldn’t be?), remorseful (that she didn’t do more before it was too late), and an imperfect wife (mostly indifferent to her weak-willed but otherwise-loving husband, and carrying on an illicit affair with a co-worker).

The rest of it, I’m afraid, was a bit of a let down. The dystopian world imagined in Vox is okay, but quite derivative (it’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a couple of technological gizmos). That world has already been created, written to (many times), surely we can come up with some other way to comment on and critique society? Jean’s role is also just a bit too convenient to swallow. She just-so-happens to be married to a White House official, and just-so-happens to be a leading expert on neuro-linguistics in a world where women aren’t allowed to use language. I mean, come on! Really?





About two-thirds of the way through, Vox goes from feminist dystopia to hackneyed crime thriller. The “big twist” of the government’s “secret plan” was obvious a hundred miles away; I actually got a bit impatient waiting for Jean to figure it out for herself. One-dimensional “bad guys” hold Jean and her research hostage (one of them, I shit you not, actually says “don’t do anything stupid, Jean” at one point). This whole dystopian future was imagined and put down on the page just so that there can be a gun-fight at the OK Corral and a couple of blokes can swoop in to save the day. Ugh!

Just to cap it off, there’s a melt-in-your-mouth happily ever after (yes, I’m going to spoil it, not sorry even a little bit): the loser husband dies in a sudden fit of heroics, and Jean falls into the arms of her lover (to whom she is, conveniently, pregnant). Every “bad guy” is knocked off, and a whole new administration sweeps in overnight and puts right everything that went wrong. As we have all seen by now: it don’t work like that! Double ugh!

One final overarching concern: I really felt a bit icky about the way Dalcher “borrowed” (i.e., appropriated) longstanding symbols of oppression – internment camps, electrical torture, chemical warfare – to build up stakes for a bog-standard thriller. She didn’t even mention trans rights or the “problem” that non-binary people would undoubtedly pose for the Vox regime – a glaring and unforgivable oversight, in my view, one I can’t believe made it all the way to publication. Dalcher clearly had her blinkers on writing this one, and working in two (2) lesbians and one (1) black woman to remind the white narrator about her privilege wasn’t enough to overcome the fundamental flaws in her approach.

As a blurb, Vox is great: I’d love to understand what might happen in a world where women are literally silenced! But it’s a premise in search of a plot that could do it justice. Dalcher would have done better to let this one marinate for longer, maybe come at it with a broader view and a bit more distance from the realities of the past few years. All said and done, if you’re looking for a fresh feminist dystopia, I’m afraid this ain’t it; it might scratch your itch for a crime thriller though, if that’s what you’re after, and there’s a couple of moments with the kids that will pull on your heartstrings.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vox:

  • “This book was recommended to me by someone, I wish I knew who, because it was not a pleasant read. It was actually rather horrifying.” – Gwen B
  • “It’s not even bad enough to be good.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Am not a big fan of mystery or suspense and the abuse of all females disturbed me tremendously.
    There wasn’t an issue of the book being written badly or anything like that. Just hated the story.” – Straightshoota


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