A Must-Read Work of Science Fiction: Review of ‘How High We Go in the Dark’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu

I’ll begin this review by making the humble request that you read this book, as it’s not only one of the finest science fiction novels that I’ve ever read, it’s also one of the most beautiful works of fiction that I’ve ever read. While Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark is not always the most pleasurable reading in its exploration of death and grief, it is a rewarding novel as you become connected with the various protagonists who inhabit their pages. Emotionally gritty and frighteningly plausible, this is a book that will make you both terrified and hopeful for the future in equal measures. Although it’s pages are filled with grief, loss, and suffering, it’s also full of the wonder of possibilities. I became so mesmerized by the author’s lyrical prose, that I couldn’t help but get swept into the emotions of the characters. Nagamatsu perfectly opens a window into a world that has been devastated; yet, its inhabitants find the strength to continue moving forward.

How High We Go in the Dark (2022) by Sequoia Nagamatsu, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

“We are all connected” muses one of the many characters to grace the pages of this book, which puts me in mind of David Mitchell’s modern opus of Cloud Atlas. Like the aforementioned classic, this is a mosaic novel consisting of several interconnected stories tied together under an umbrella narrative. It follows several characters as they cope with the immediate and lingering effects of a deadly pandemic caused by an ancient virus released by the preserved body of a girl who was found by a research team in the Arctic Circle. Initially, this disease only affects children and the elderly, but over time and mutation, it begins to ravage its way around the world. The virus mutates human organs, resulting in death. Each chapter of this novel moves forward in time as survivors mourn, attempt to make sense of their individual tragedies, and use new developments in science to find a cure. The novel opens with a grieving father returning to the site where his daughter, a researcher at the Arctic Circle, discovered the frozen body where the virus originated. The next segment focuses on a young man who works for a theme park that promises children a final day of fun before they are euthanized on a roller coaster. Characters from all walks of life inhabit these pages, such as a bereavement coordinator who struggles to reconcile his animosity towards his dying mother.

Writing about the subject of grief is no easy task, but Nagamatsu makes it look deceptively simple. The pages of this novel are filled with characters who are grieving, or struggling to help others cope with their losses. So many feelings radiate from these pages, and as a reader, I was so surprised by just how connected I felt to these characters. One of my favorite stories in this book centered on a lonely scientist who lost his son and is experimenting with organ cloning inside pigs. One of the test subjects develops the ability to communicate telepathically, and why this premise could easily border on the ridiculous, I found myself tearful by the end. Each story connects seamlessly to the next one, sometimes by a returning character from a previous story and others by an event and we are witnessing the outcome. While this novel could have come across as depressing, instead, it’s more about the importance of living: spending time with the people we love, practicing acts of kindness, and making the most of every second because tomorrow never knows. A horrible pandemic can bring out the worst in people, but it can also reveal our best selves and unlock the potential to which we are all capable.

“I was living at the edge of the world and everything else seemed like a distant dream.”

While the novel is heavily entrenched in science fiction with concepts such as organ transplants, robot dogs, and space travel beyond our solar system, it’s the emotional depth that makes it so memorable. I love science fiction that can also be considered poetry, as it’s why I’m such a fan of the stories of Ray Bradbury. At times, Nagamatsu’s writing is both poetic and devastating, such as a character trapped in a darkness between life and death. The story of a theme park that gives children a beautiful final day before a roller coaster ride sends them to their deaths is both horrifying yet beautiful. So many moments of beauty emerge from the most unexpected places that it’s hard for me to identify a favorite.

How High We Go in the Dark runs the course of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But it’s also about the importance of love, of kindness, and of memory. While I can’t give any answers to what lies ahead, the ones we lose continue to live in each of us. How we remember the ones that have moved on is how those loved ones continue to live and to inspire, helping us to grow to our full potentials. The limits of growth are only defined by us, so always remember to reach for the stars. Sometimes our darkest moments are the ones that truly show us what we are capable of accomplishing. Until next time dear readers, keep working on being the best versions of yourselves.

“People have forgotten how to care for each other, for themselves. We can’t expect them to care about the world if they don’t care about what’s in front of them.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

A Science Fiction Update on a Classic: Review of Hillary Jordan’s ‘When She Woke’

Writing a modern adaptation of a beloved classic novel sounds like a very daunting undertaking. Over the years, I’ve read my fair share of modernized classics. While some of them failed to impress me, I still support the concept as a way to make the original’s themes accessible in new and inventive ways. Originally published in 2011, When She Woke by Hillary Jordan largely accomplishes this with her science fiction update on The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. While I didn’t think that everything about Jordan’s novel works, I did find it to be a fascinating, and at times, a frighteningly plausible reality in its exploration of extreme conservatism. While I think Jordan managed to give Hawthorne’s themes a contemporary spin, I found this work had even stronger echoes of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare world of 1984. At its heart, this is the personal journey of a weak and vulnerable girl who transforms into a strong and fierce woman.

When She Woke (2011) by Hillary Jordan, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Jordan’s recreation of The Scarlet Letter imagines a United States that has overturned Roe v. Wade (remember this was written over a decade ago). Christian fundamentalism has blurred the lines of church and state to the point that the Presidential cabinet includes the position of Secretary of Faith. Vigilante groups seek out and eliminate those that rise up against the new regime, while the government turns a blind eye. Our protagonist Hannah Payne awakens in a holding cell following her conviction of murder, having had an illegal abortion. Criminals are no longer placing an economic strain by way of incarceration; instead offenders are put through a process known as “melachroming.” They are injected with a virus that changes the color of their skin to signify their crime to society. Yellows are for misdemeanors, blues for child molestations, greens for crimes like arson or robbery, and reds for murderers. Chromes are released back into society where they are immediately shunned and subjected to bullying, assault, rape, and even death.

“When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.”

The novel begins with Hannah waking up in a holding cell after her chroming process, where she feels terrified. Her mother refuses to acknowledge her, while her father and sister attempt to offer what support they can. While Hannah chose to have this abortion, she continues to desperately love the man who impregnated her, Arthur Dale, a powerful Christian leader who has just been elected as the next Secretary of Faith to the White House. Hannah loved Arthur so much; she refuses to name him in order to protect his identity. Through flashbacks, we learn of their relationship as well as Arthur Dale’s status as an icon of hope for millions, as well as a happily married family man. Utterly alone, marked for her crime for all to see, Hannah must struggle to find the will to carry on, to protect the ones she loves, and to fight for her basic right to live and be free.

When She Woke is only the second novel from Hillary Jordan, and it’s one that deserves great praise. The formidable task of expanding on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece sounds like a potential disaster, but Jordan manages to not only use The Scarlet Letter as inspiration, but also use Hawthorne to create her own contemporary, politically charged social commentary. While there are some extreme deviations from the original’s structure, such as Dale being the married one and Pearl never coming into existence, When She Woke channels the spirit of the classic that made Hester Prynne such a deep psychological character. After an attempt at being “reformed” in a Christian home for women, Hannah ventures out into the unforgiving world as a social pariah. Hannah’s scarlet “A” cannot be removed, as her body has been sentenced to remain chromed. Of all the themes and plots in this book, it is Hannah’s path to self-discovery that resonated the most with me. She is passionate and headstrong in her youth, but the book isn’t afraid to explore her failings. Throughout the novel, she continues to pine for Arthur Dale, believing him to be her true love. Her character arc is so compelling because we get to see her strength grow as an independent woman. As Hannah matures, her love for herself increases and her love for Dale diminishes. She rises from being a broken woman into someone with the courage to follow her convictions in a broken world.

However, this work isn’t without its share of problems for me. The Scarlet Letter is compelling in its equal exploration into the character of Dimmesdale and his psychological torture at the hands of Roger Chillingworth. Jordan’s reinvention doesn’t offer these insights into the character, so he comes across as unsympathetic. While her crime was having an abortion, Hannah’s daughter “Pearl” does appear in the novel, in a rather disturbing scene. I loved how the world of this novel was revealed in subtle ways, such as radio broadcasts and background scenes. However, the second half of the novel, when Hannah becomes a member of a rebel group, feels slightly weaker than the first half, as it becomes more of an action thriller.

From a dystopian standpoint, Jordan’s future America is frightening in its plausibility, for those who would fight for reproductive freedom and the rights of a woman to her own body are considered heretics and terrorists. With its biting political and social commentary, When She Woke is a thrilling critique on extreme conservatism, religion, and sexuality.

“One by one, she conjured all the boxes she’d been put into: The good girl box and the good Christian box…the mistress box…the bad daughter and fallen woman boxes…She saw with a painful blaze of clarity that every one of these boxes had been of her own making, either by consent or lack of resistance. She had no right to bitterness; she had put herself in them. And she would get herself out, she vowed. And once she was out, she’d never willingly climb into another box again.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

The Unreliability of Memory: Review of ‘Walking on the Ceiling’ by Ayşegül Savaş 

Joan Didion once insisted that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” From the moment we enter this world, our brains take in our experiences and attempt to assimilate them in the most workable manner. Each person is a story, and with a world containing nearly eight billion people, there will never be a shortage of stories to tell. I love learning about the lives of others, as both a therapist and as a reader. Beneath the surface, under the lapses in memory and the falsehoods we tell ourselves in order to make since of our pasts, the truth can be found. Unreliable narrators abound in literature, and some of my favorite authors from Nabokov to Kazuo Ishiguro have built quite the reputations off of this concept. Through these misrepresentations, we can gain a better understanding of the truth. Walking on the Ceiling, the debut novel from Ayşegül Savaş, takes this idea of the unreliable narrator and transforms it into a journey of longing and self-creation. The protagonist of this novel is a young woman named Nunu, a Turkish woman who has relocated to Paris after the loss of her mother. In addition to unreliable narrators, fiction also contains a plethora of characters with extremely complex relationships with their families and the places they left behind. One would think that a young woman living in Paris would be so happy to be at the pinnacle of romance and culture itself, but rather, she is quite lonely as she struggles to truly be her most authentic self. As a friendship develops between her and a famous author—described only as “M”—Nunu begins to explore and better come to terms with the complexity of her mother.

Walking on the Ceiling (2019) by Ayşegül Savaş, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Nunu has come to Paris to study literature after the death of her mother back home in Istanbul. Rather than embracing the opportunities to learn and love, she finds herself slowly receding into the background. Her isolation is the kind peculiar to big cities, magnified because she is estranged — from the world around her and also from herself. Her adventurous spirit has been quelled. Invited to attend a picnic by another student, Nunu feels like an outsider before she even arrives. As she buys some food, only to let it rot in the refrigerator, she muses “I wondered how it was that people knew what to do. Small things, I mean. The rituals of a day. The hours.”

The short chapters that fill this novel, some of them only one sentence long, read like short vignettes. Moving in a non-chronological order, we often jump between Nunu’s past life back home with her mother and the current one in Paris. They are pieces of a mosaic, where what is not said carries more weight than the actual words themselves. I thought this created a rather nice effect, symbolized by the blankness on so many pages. After meeting M in a bookshop, the two become fast friends with Nunu acting as his guide to Turkish life and culture for his own book that he is writing.

“Stories are reckless things, blind to everything but their own shape. When you tell a story, you set out to leave so much behind.”

While this initially feels like the old story of a writer meeting and becoming fascinated with a much younger woman, the relationship itself becomes something quite different. While M admires Nunu for her knowledge of Turkish culture and language, Nunu herself begins to recognize in her stories about her past that maybe she is being self-deceptive. Though she remembers her mother fondly when speaking with M., she does not share the more traumatic aspects of her childhood, such as her father’s death by suicide. Nor does she relate to M the passive aggressive means of communication she often had with her mother. Nunu claims she is working on a novel about an individual known as “Akif amca,” her mother’s former neighbor with western ties. While she praises this individual to M as a great but undiscovered poet, she reveals in later chapters that she finds his writings to be amateurish and actually doesn’t find Akif amca to be an admirable person at all. We soon discover that many of Nunu’s relationships are marked by fabrications, such as convincing a former boyfriend that she was abused. As a reader, I became fascinated with Nunu as a social chameleon, fashioning a different self-image for every person she encounters. Reading this book put me in mind of the protagonists of the works of Kazuo Ishiguro, and while I feel like I gained insight into the real Nunu of this novel, the truth is I’m still uncertain.

Despite being a social chameleon, I felt for Nunu and her loneliness as a woman adrift in Paris. As she comes from a completely different culture, I felt her embarrassment in so many social situations, such as when she is mocked in a restaurant for asking for a takeout box. Through her struggles to properly navigate and carve out a life for herself, I found myself understanding why she wore so many different masks with others. The novel reaches its most poignant moment with the death of Nunu’s mother from an illness, and we begin to understand this protagonist better through her stages of grief. As anyone knows, the path to acceptance is never a straight walk, and we feel for Nunu as she tries to coalesce her positive memories with the anger and resentment that defined her relationship with her mother. As we get glimpses of her mother, we experience the shifting balances of power between them, leaving me to wonder if whether or not we can ever truly be free of the guilt we experience when we lose a loved one to which we had a complicated relationship.

Writing this review put me in mind of my own complicated relationship with my own mother. Strangely, I meant to post this review a week ago. The fact that I finished it on Mother’s Day was not intentional, at least not consciously.

Well played universe. Well played.

“It is the stuff of fiction that a single conversation can change the course of a life; that we will return to it again and again, wishing to undo it. Even if we could, so much would remain. There are many ways of hurting, without words. It’s silence that shapes us.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Catriona Ward Impresses Again with ‘Sundial’

Earlier this year, I read Catriona Ward’s psychological horror thriller The Last House on Needless Street and immediately fell in love with it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately had to check out her follow-up novel, Sundial, from the local library. As disturbing as my first experience with this author was, here it seems as though Ward turned the horror up to an “11.” The best way I can summarize it is by saying that this novel is fucked up to the extreme, but in the best possible ways. In fact, it’s difficult for me to place this book in a genre. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of horror, mystery, thriller, family drama, and survivor story. While I often forget details of the books I read, I’m most likely going to remember every part of this insane ride of a book.

Sundial (2022) by Catriona Ward, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Sundial takes place during two separate timelines, past and present, and is told from the perspectives of two narrators. Rob is a woman in an abusive marriage to a man named Irving, and she is trying her best to be a good mother to her two daughters. Callie, the oldest, has been displaying increasingly disturbing behaviors, such as collecting animal bones and talking to ghosts. When Rob’s nine-year-old daughter Annie swallows a bottle of her father’s diabetes medicine, all signs point to Callie being responsible. Rob, who has suffered multiple traumas since childhood, fears that Callie has inherited her family’s generational “evil.” Determined to keep her current family from spiraling, she tells her husband that she is taking their daughter to Sundial, a ranch in the Mohave Desert where Rob grew up. Rob believes she can repair the broken relationship with her daughter, as well as bring her back from the darkness through sharing the uncanny events that happened to her as a teenager. The chapters of this book alternate between Rob in the present, the Rob of the past, and Callie. Interspersed among these chapters are short excerpts from a fantasy novel Rob has spent years writing called Arrowood.

Rob’s past story begins when she and her twin sister Jack are seventeen and have been living at Sundial for the past twelve years, ever since their birth mother allegedly died when the two were young children. The sisters often reminded me of Constance and Merricat Blackwood from one of my favorite novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. The ranch is run by a man named Falcon and his assistant Mia, whom the girls view as their stepmother. Living what appears to be an idyllic life, Rob and Jack are homeschooled and have lived a sheltered existence within Sundial, milking the cows, playing in the desert, and helping to care for Mia’s dogs who were rescued from a nearby puppy mill. The girls long for more in their lives, such as going to college and seeing more of the larger world. Several mysteries hover over the girls’ childhoods. The twins suspect that there is more to the story of their real mother. Mia is running scientific experiments on the dogs in order to change their behavior. Meanwhile, Jack displays eccentric behavior bordering upon madness. When chance encounters allow Rob and her sister to finally leave Sundial, they learn some long-buried secrets that will shatter their lives forever.

“I feel her, the old Rob, when I come to Sundial, hiding in the dawn and at the edges of things, the ghost of who I once was. Could I find her again? Do I want to? It’s a terrifying feeling, to be caught between two selves.”

After reading The Last House on Needless Street, I thought I was prepared for the myriad of twists that would be coming, and I was certainly not disappointed. Nothing is as it appears, and everyone has something to hide, so nothing can be accepted at face value. Callie does collect the bones of local neighborhood animals and talks to ghosts, but does that mean she actually tried to poison her sister? While Irving is a complete ass-hat of a human being, Rob herself is not a complete innocent. Rob’s adoptive family appears to love her, but Sundial is a place of secrets, many of which are buried in the surrounding desert. Reading this book is like watching many puzzle pieces slowly come together, as surprise after surprise is revealed. Ward is a master at storytelling, stretching the tension between each reveal to the point you just want to scream.

Ward is such a talented writer, creating the atmosphere immediately with such evocative and lyrical prose. I never thought you could create a novel of gothic horror set in the desert, but she succeeds admirably, The characters are so frightening, and I went through the entire book not trusting any of them. The relationships are so terrible, such as Rob and Irving. From the first page, I questioned how she could be with someone like that. Irving is a physically and emotionally abusive husband who cheats on Rob constantly. By the end of the book, once the whole story is revealed, it makes sense. 

This book is so full of traumas: abuse, infidelity, animal cruelty, deaths, and a plethora of ghosts. I felt so overwhelmed during many points of this chaotic story, that I had to stop reading…but I needed to know the truth behind everything SO I KEPT READING! This is such an addictive experience, and I have to applaud Ward for creating such a work that is dark, yet compelling. Take nothing for granted, as every little detail is a clue to the bigger picture. There is a moment in the book where Rob gets some catharsis from her traumatic life and manages to exorcise her past demons…sort of. I mentioned animal cruelty, and I think those were the scenes that rattled me the most. Thank goodness it wasn’t cats, or this book would have gone unfinished. There is a redemptive scene at the end, but by that point, I was just emotionally drained and ready to go suck my thumb in a quiet corner. 

I’m not likely to forget this book anytime soon, and that’s a testament to the author’s writing. While I rate Sundial as excellent, The Last House on Needless Street just edges this one out as my favorite. However, both novels are so addictive. Catriona Ward has once again impressed me with her ability to craft dark psychological horror. 

“It’s possible to feel the horror of something and to accept it all at the same time. How else could we cope with being alive?”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

A Compelling Psychological Mystery: Review of ‘Malice’ by Keigo Higashino

Ever since I devoured The Devotion of Suspect X last year, I’ve been dying (see what I did there) to read another Keigo Higashino murder mystery. While I do love a good detective novel, they traditionally follow a standard formula. A murder occurs, and we as the readers follow the detective’s process in order to unmask the killer. Much like a crazed mathematician, Higashino mixes up the equation. While Suspect X focused on “how” the killer did it, what makes Malice such an addicting read is in its focus on the question of “why.” From practically the onset, we know the identity of the murderer, and the rest of the novel is dedicated to uncovering the true motive. The result is a deep psychological examination into understanding what could drive a person to commit evil.

Malice (1996) by Keigo Higashino and translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Famous novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is brutally murdered just days before he is to relocate from Japan to Vancouver. He is found in a locked room in his home by his wife and best friend, Osamu Nonoguchi, an aspiring writer who has always been in Hidaka’s shadow. Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga sets out to solve this baffling case, playing cat and mouse with an always present and cunning killer.

I went into this book expecting a classic locked room mystery, but instead discovered a work with so much depth. Higashino is a master psychologist and has a true gift for getting into the minds of his killers. While the case itself is quite simplistic, it is also masterfully done, keeping me confounded and on my toes from beginning to end. Malice is about understanding why a person might commit such an unspeakable act. The characters are all well written, and the author’s use of the unreliable narrator is put to fantastic use again and again throughout the narrative.

I want to keep plot details sparse, as I hate spoilers. However, I will reveal that the identity of the murderer occurs less than a third of the way into the book. What’s truly amazing about the writing is how the author kept my attention to the very last page. I wouldn’t think that the question of true motive would hold my interest, but it did. Misdirection occurs often, and it was interesting how the backstory between murderer and victim slowly came together. Malice is unique in that there is no big curtain reveal, as the answers occur over the course of the reading experience.

The story is told from two viewpoints: Osamu Nonoguchi (the close friend of the victim) and Detective Kaga. Nonoguchi is a great unreliable narrator. He was easily my favorite character in the novel, because I was constantly questioning every word he wrote, wondering which elements were true and which were complete lies. Detective Kaga is a great protagonist as well, although I still prefer Detective Galileo from Suspect X. Kaga is intelligent, another modern-day Sherlock Holmes, but his investigation seems to be about understanding the murder completely as opposed to simply solving it. He is a seeker of truth and won’t rest until the full picture becomes clear.

My favorite parts of the novel were the stories woven into the mystery. Higashino slowly brings many strands together to make this delicious multi-layered book with several seemingly unrelated narratives. As both the victim and the murderer are authors, Kaga delves into both of their works to better understand the case, looking for the truths buried within the fictions. As a lover of books, that aspect was quite enjoyable.

Malice is not a fast-paced thriller, and as a result, some readers may become bored at the slower and more introspective parts. While The Devotion of Suspect X is still my favorite from this author, I found this book to be a great follow-up into the mind of one of Japan’s brightest minds.

“The relationship between teacher and student is based on illusion. The teacher is under the illusion that he is teaching something, and the student is under the illusion that he is being taught. What’s important is that this shared illusion makes both teacher and student happy. Nothing good is gained by facing the truth, after all. All we’re doing is playing at education.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.