The Marigold by Andrew F. Sullivan

Fungus spreading through near-future Toronto? Great. Creatures lurking in sinkholes? Even better. But the execution of those ideas? Not the best.

The Marigold follows several characters navigating the environmental chaos unfolding across their city: an unusual lifeform growing beneath the surface. Cathy Jin investigates this toxic mould, while Sam discovers dangerous data, 13-year-old Henrietta chases her friend deep underground when he’s snatched by an unknown being, and Stanley Marigold oversees the construction of the new condo tower. As described in the blurb, this novel explores body horror and urban dystopia, and the fragile designs that bind us.

Reading that summary on Netgalley (who were nice enough to allow me a copy) earned my attention from the first mention. Body horror, especially that which involves fungus or viruses or anything else skin-crawling, often stirs an excitement within me. And the first few chapters showed promise of upholding that intrigue, detailed insight into this mysterious form that not even the experts understood; the terror that came with a child being yanked into a gaping pit. Excellent ways to cause shudders up my spine.

But that did not prevent me from not finishing this book at the 25% mark. 

The multiple POVs and stretched monologues were the downfall. Switching between characters has never been an inherit issue, but this instance had them introduced one after the other, without breathing room to get a feel for who they were—and even when we did, their identities did not manifest, and therefore did not gain much empathy from me. 

This was also due to the monologues. Their dragging nature did not offer much to the narrative, coming across more like filler than relevance, which was fuelled by their strangeness at times. For example, Stanley (minor spoiler?) gets an erection while on a train when looking at photos of his wife with other men. The explanation as to why was vague and made little sense. I wanted to believe it could have been a way to express his personality, but that felt like an excuse for something that could have been removed.

It’s unfortunate this book did not quite hit the mark, and I wouldn’t write off any of Sullivan’s future works off completely, but it would take some convincing. 

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them bare and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’- that’s intimacy.” 

Summary from Goodreads: Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

There was a certain joy in returning to this novel and appreciating it as much as the first time, which (and what seems like thousands of years ago) was back in 2018. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo brought about emotions that were sometimes familiar and sometimes different than before, but undeniably made for a still entertaining and immersive story.

Relationships were the overarching constant driving the narrative, but not just in the sense of Evelyn’s husbands, her lovers, but that of friends and family, companions and enemies. Relationships with others, relationships with yourself. And these were thoughtfully expressed through complicated characters, who navigated their careers and sexualities and identities with anger, bitterness, pleasure, joy, and heartbreak. Including the over-sexualisation of women, and the discrimination queer people faced. Struggles that are still relevant to this day, and struggles that, as someone who’s also bisexual, reached me on a personal level.

The backdrop of movie stars in California added to the complexities, the happenings behind the camera more sinister than what happens in front. Sex, wealth. How magnified the microscope on famed lives, especially for the same people stated above, and what has, yet again, not changed much. Hollywood or otherwise.

My one peeve was the resolution, which was not something I’d considered in the initial read. Grace’s reaction to Evelyn revealing her true intentions as to why she wanted the former as her interviewer/biographer was initially understandable, but, when concerned with whether or not she should forgive, became less of an if and more of a when, which undercut the seriousness of the truth. Having established a connection across a few weeks, regardless of how deep and beneficial, was not convincing enough for me to have concluded that way. 

In spite of that, this book will always be a favourite, no doubt returning once more in another four years. 

The Invasion by K. A. Applegate

“Don’t be so sure,” Cassie said. “We’re fighting for Mother Earth. She has some tricks up her sleeves.”

Summary from Goodreads: The Earth is being invaded, but no one knows about it. When Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, and Marco stumble upon a downed alien spaceship and its dying pilot, they’re given an incredible power — they can transform into any animal they touch. With it, they become Animorphs, the unlikely champions in a secret war for the planet. And the enemies they’re fighting could be anyone . . . even the people closest to them.

Many months have passed since delving deep into YA fiction. At least, that which leaves an noticeable impression on me. In this instance, The Invasion was an amusing and entertaining interval between the longer and somewhat bleaker novels stacking high on my beside table, leading to what could be a huge dent in my bank account (there’s 52 of these!) and lack of space on my bookshelves. 

At roughly 30K words, this was a short and sweet novella, making for easier concentration on my part. Applegate wastes no time in setting up the plot, thrusting these kids into the roles of heroes saving the world from an alien invasion by giving them each the ability to morph into whatever animal they acquire the DNA of. What made these characters likeable was their reactions: shock, fear, determination, even making jokes about the situation, all at once, which was believable considering they are mere children. One might argue adults would feel the same!

You would think the length would effect the pacing to the point of becoming too rushed, but it was the opposite. Steady beats throughout, chapters ending with twists which, although predictable, made them no less welcomed. Even the climax was satisfying, setting the sequel up with more questions and more action. 

My sole criticism, and a minor one at that, was the prose itself. At times it was a little confusing about what was happening in the scene or what one of the characters meant in their dialogue, as well as the names of the several species of aliens mentioned in the same breath being a little difficult to keep track of. But these were rare occurrences, and thus did not impact my experience all that much. 

It’s surprising that this series never found its way to me during my childhood, but who says you can’t enjoy it just as much now? After all, better late than never.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.” 

Summary from Goodreads: In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is. But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Science fiction, especially space opera, has currently overtaken fantasy as my favourite genre. Novellas are also becoming a more sought-out format for me. So. What better place to find both than in Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries?

For the most part, this first instalment of the series was fun. Murderbot was not only an interesting character, but also likeable, which sometimes can be difficult to achieve in novels, let alone half the pages. Sarcastic, pessimistic, preferring to binge soap operas than concerning itself with human problems. These were relatable traits (the first two were, anyway) and thus entertaining from start to finish. 

However, the supporting characters, of which there were many, did not have quite the same appeal as the protagonist. This was due to the overall number of the cast, as well as establishing them all at once in the beginning. Excluding Mensah, there was little room for fleshing them all out, and with the ending suggesting we will not seen them again, whether for a while or ever, made for a disappointing conclusion to their own stories. 

There was also some confusion about the truth behind the sinister happenings. Of course, that could have been my own missing of something or misinterpretation, but it seemed like the answer never came. Perhaps it was intentional and the explanation would come eventually, but that was not my impression.

Other positives, such as the consistent tension and fast action, outweighed the negatives.

Getting to the sequels might take a while, but they are certainly on my infinitely growing TBR list.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Take the dead from the dead, the old proverb said; only a corpse may speak true prophecy.

Summary from Goodreads: The Gunslinger introduces readers to one of Stephen King’s most powerful creations, Roland of Gilead: The Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting figure, a loner on a spellbinding journey into good and evil. In his desolate world, which mirrors our own in frightening ways, Roland tracks The Man in Black, encounters an enticing woman named Alice, and begins a friendship with the boy from New York named Jake.

Out of the several Stephen King novels sitting on my shelf untouched, this one was the first to find its way into my hands and be completed. Inevitably, since the fan following surrounding the series and encouragement from its devoted readers pushed me to it. For the most part, their love was understood. 

The western setting with stretching desert and looming mountain ranges, a small salon with unwelcoming townspeople; the mysterious man in black on the run, his origins unknown, the determined gunslinger chasing him. A man and a kid bonding over their experiences, their worlds. These were the best parts, the kind of parts that kept me reading. The kind that have made me excited to continue onto the next instalments. 

However, there were other parts that became tedious, even discouraging. The biggest issue was the pacing. Of course, this was something to be expected, but, for example, the majority of the narrative follows walking and talking. While not inherently bad, chapters upon chapters, and scenes upon scenes, meandering through the same routine became difficult to focus on, at times causing me to skim-read instead of actually absorbing the text. Some breaks, at least, such as flashbacks showing interesting backstory, provided relief from that repetition. 

What was also expected, though no less bizarre, was King’s odd descriptions, bemused by the line, “Her breasts thrust with overripe grandeur at the wash-faded shirt she wore,” as much as the other instances of unconventional imagery. This was ridiculous as well as unwanted, in an eye-rolling way, and what I’d hope as an isolated incident to this one book, though, in reality, I’d expect nothing of the sort. 

Impressed? Somewhat.

Wowed? Not yet. 

At the moment, The Gunslinger has not been worth the wait. So far. Continuing the series, well, my opinion could very well change.