Work has eaten into my once torrid reading pace, but I did read two books last week…
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan (January 4, 2022 release)
Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. What’s worse is she can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with their angelic daughter Harriet does Frida finally feel she’s attained the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she’s just enough.
Until Frida has a horrible day.
The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida — ones who check their phones while their kids are on the playground; who let their children walk home alone; in other words, mothers who only have one lapse of judgement. Now, a host of government officials will determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion. Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that she can live up to the standards set for mothers — that she can learn to be good.
My thoughts: It’s the Handmaid’s Tale meets Orange is the New Black by way of Black Mirror. After running afoul of near-future social services, a young mother is sent off for “re-education” at a prison-like institute. There she will have to prove her competence as a mom if she is ever to be reunited with her daughter.
At the beginning of this book, I had mixed feelings about our protagonist. On the one hand, I did feel sorry for her in the face of an unforgiving dystopian system. On the other hand, she DID leave her infant child unattended for several hours, completely forgetting about her as she went about her work. I mean, I get it. She was exhausted. And everyone makes mistakes. Still, it was difficult to totally get on board with Frida-as-victim at first. But, as the story unfolds, one can’t but sympathize with this desperate mother.
Although the novel is clearly speculative fiction, imagining an oppressive world not too far removed from our own, it’s nevertheless very grounded – until about a third of the way in when the mothers are presented with, essentially, robot children to nurture for the duration of their one year stay/sentence. At this point, we veer into science fiction and, while I love science fiction, it a jarring development. And, to be honest, I didn’t love it. It all works in the end, eventually, but it does take a couple of chapters to adjust to the shift.
Overall, an impressive and provocative novel that, at times, feels like it bites off more than it can chew when it comes to the myriad social issues it seeks to address.
The Broken Room by Peter Clines
Hector was the best of the best. A government operative who could bring armies to a halt and nations to their knees. But when his own country betrayed him, he dropped off the grid and picked up the first of many bottles.
Natalie can’t remember much of her life before her family brought her to the US, but she remembers the cages. And getting taken away to the Project with dozens of other young children to become part of their nightmarish experiments. That’s how she ended up with the ghost of a dead secret agent stuck in her head.
And Hector owes Natalie’s ghost a big favor.
Now Hector and Natalie are on the run from an army of killers sent to retrieve her. Because the people behind the Project are willing to risk almost anything to get Natalie back and complete their experiments.
My thoughts: I’m an absolute sucker for the symbolic ne’er-do-well father – precocious daughter relationship at the heart of this novel. It, on its own, is worth the price of admission. But, as an added bonus, you also get a compelling story chock full o’ cool sci-fi elements, action, surprising turns, and a couple of very memorable, very colorful mercenaries. This book is at it’s best when it focuses on the heartening, often humorous relationship at it’s core, the growing bond between a battle-hardened agent and his young charge. Some of the novel’s more fantastical elements didn’t work as well for me however (ie. Nathalie’s “sickness” manifesting supernatural projectile-vomiting), and while the climax sets up nicely, it does seem to wrap up in all too convenient fashion. Still, the journey there is a very memorable one.
So, what have YOU been reading?