When you get stuck in the house for an unexpected week of snow days – and, more importantly, when you don’t have any grading or planning that you need to do – that just means it’s time to catch up on your reading. But, given that I read a lot over those days, I’m defaulting to some shorter reviews for this batch. After my reading post today, I should have a quick roundup of some family viewing I did over the days as well.
Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson have both written some books that I really enjoyed on their own, so the idea of them collaborating seemed like a promising one. And, indeed, there are some interesting ideas at play in A Necessary End, a book set as a disease spread via insect bites has begun to wipe out much of the population of the planet. Set after the plague has already spread throughout the globe, A Necessary End starts off well, following a journalist as he tries to track down the origins of the plague, and tracking his wife’s attempts to reconcile the plague with her own fervent religious faith. But as the book goes on, you can’t help but feel that it should have been shorter, or maybe even a series of connected short stories. There are plotlines that feel entirely unnecessary (I’m thinking mainly of a revenge-driven man desperate to punish those he feels are responsible for the death of his family), and ultimately, it all feels like a book designed to explore how we grapple with the disconnect between science and faith. That’s rich, promising material, but A Necessary End doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, giving us an interesting final scene but otherwise spinning its wheels throughout, tossing out odd moments and details that don’t add up to enough. There are some interesting threads here, but it feels like something that’s far too long – and considering that it’s less than 200 pages already, that’s not great. Rating: ***
Inspired by the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events (more on that later), I decided to finally jump into All the Wrong Questions, the second series by Lemony Snicket. (Technically, yes, “Lemony Snicket” is the pen name of Daniel Handler, but given how idiosyncratic and fleshed out Snicket is, it’s worth keeping the pen name as the creative force.) Comprised of four volumes – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, “When Did You See Her Last?”, “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, and “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” – the series features all of the wordplay, literary allusions, skewed narration, and great writing that you came to expect from Snicket’s Unfortunate Events. But while that series was Handler’s efforts to capture the tone of an Edward Gorey illustration, All the Wrong Questions finds the author moving into the realm of hard-boiled noir, complete with rapid-fire one-liners and dialogue, femme fatales (femmes fatale?), double-crosses, and more. Snicket/Handler makes the transition look effortless, keeping his dryly cynical tone intact while making the twisty detective tale work. The subject matter, too, finds Snicket changing tack; rather than the distant observer of the Unfortunate Events, All the Wrong Questions is about Snicket at age 13, working with a chaperone assigned by his secret organization, and trying to figure out what’s going on in a dying town named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. There’s a villain working behind the scenes, a mysterious statue that everyone wants, a librarian named Dashiell who’s trying to get information out to the people, and a lot of adults who are absent/useless in any meaningful way, leading the young people of the town to band together to solve disappearances, thefts, and even murder. Each of the All the Wrong Questions books stands alone, but they work best as a single story, as clues overlap between the books, characters develop, and you gradually realize how each of these cases connects into a larger master plan. And it all comes together in a fantastic way, with Snicket making a decision that justifies the series’ noir tendencies and finds the series, in much the same way its predecessor did, diving into morally gray and uncertain territory. In other words, it’s a worthy successor to its predecessor in every way, and I can’t recommend it enough; once again, Handler shows how tone, smart writing, and clever craft can be accessible for young audiences and adults alike, all without ever feeling condescending or pandering. Rating: *****
A side note: I also read a companion book to the series entitled File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, which feels like Handler’s homage to Encyclopedia Brown books. 13 mysteries, with the solutions left to the end of the book. They’re a lot of fun, with at least one solution being laugh-out-loud funny; and, as you’d expect from Snicket, there are some fun hints throughout, with multiple red herring solutions tossed into the final section. It’s a fun read, if fairly inessential, but if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it. Rating: ****
Ben H. Winters came to my attention with his incredible The Last Policeman series, which followed a policeman struggling to stay true to the cause of justice as the world around him ended. Fascinating though that was, it pales in comparison to the ambition of Winters’ Underground Airlines, which is set in a modern-day America in which the Civil War was never fought, and slavery still exists. (To get in front of the obvious critique: yes, there’s something problematic, to be sure, about a white author taking this on, but Winters approaches his material honestly and thoughtfully, and his responses to such critiques have been strong and admirable.) And, as the title implies, there’s still an underground movement to get slaves out of the Hard Four (the four states which still have legal slavery) – a task made more complicated by the way the country, and indeed, the world, has tried to adjust to the presence of this evil still existing in our world. But rather than giving us an easy hero, Winters instead gives us Victor, an escaped slave who’s now working for the government, tracking down other escapees. That’s morally rich territory, especially as we come to understand what drives Victor, and Winters makes the most of it, filling Victor with internal loathing, questioning, and uncertainty. As you might expect, Winters uses his alternate history as a way of commenting on racism and separation in our modern world, from low-class labor and wages to isolated communities given no support by government – in other words, totally outlandish ideas with no relevance whatsoever. (Sigh.) Winters does all of it while giving the book the momentum and structure of a tight thriller, complete with double agents, espionage, organizations within organizations, and more. But what really haunts about Underground Airlines isn’t the plotting; it’s the glimpse at a world that’s depressingly similar to ours, where slavery and racism are legal and tolerated, where races are subjugated through policy and governance, and where people are forced to serve against their own interests. If that doesn’t hit home to you, well, you’re luckier than I am. Rating: *****