Girl One, by Sara Flannery Murphy

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The characters and pacey thriller voice of this one sucked me in from page one. Josie is a compelling heroine, impatient, driven, fallible. Her relationships with the other people in her life weave through this story in ways that I found compelling. I am a pretty relationship-focused writer/reader, and this one got me good.

This is very much structured like a thriller–the chapters range from reasonably short to incredibly short, and there’s a lot of action, a lot of suspense. The central conceit is a science fictional one: nine women have born children through parthogenesis, over the course of the 1970s, living on a commune together, visited by the scientist who is building his fame through their babies. That’s the past of the story, the backstory–or half of it, because the commune burns and the surviving mothers and children scatter.

The present is the 1990s, when the babies are now adult women developing talents and interests and lives of their own. Josie is the first of the babies, now a student, trying to follow in her creator’s path. She is Girl One, the first of the parthogenetic births, giving interviews to talk shows and magazines as she tries to unravel the mysteries of her own existence. Both the ’70s and the ’90s are very well-drawn, with a perspective on each that is neither overly nostalgic nor overly cynical, and they’re a perfect combination of tone for the story that begins when Josie’s mother disappears and things start to get really dangerous.

This book has a modern thriller focus on several major science fiction concerns of the ’70s. It goes fast with a keen eye for social details. If those are things you’ve missed or wished would be updated–welcome, this one’s for you.

COVID Spring: History

This will all seem obvious later.
They will look back and marvel:
How didn’t we see it? We did.
We knew. That’s how mistakes go,
That’s how the fixable parts aren’t fixed.
I went into this middle-aged,
Will come out that way. I spend
One of the years descending into invisibility
In seclusion. Maybe two. Who knows.
Every week another essay:
Who to pity most. Who’s missing most.
What year is most crucial. Let me tell you,
From the borderlands of disappearing:
Every year. They are all your vital
Beautiful horrible green growth years.
Or they might be. Each one.
Who can say yet? It’ll be obvious
Later. (I knew. I know. I’ll know.)

Books read, late March

Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Essays on race, music, personal relationships with both. Some of Abdurraqib’s subjects were musicians whose work I know well and some were not, but it was all a very interesting perspective quite different from my own.

Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead. Discussed elsewhere.

Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Does what it says on the tin. Are you interested in the main sources of raw materials of this period? Here we are. Quite enjoyed it. Some of the things that were revelatory might not have been if I’d been from a comparable climate–it never occurred to me that having waterlogged fields could be a problem in winter–but still, better to know these things. (If, on the other hand, you are not particularly interested in this topic, it is not likely to be a book that strikes you as transcendent.)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Masquerade in Lodi. Kindle. The most recently published Penric & Desdemona novella, but not the chronologically most recent–this is somewhat earlier in Pen’s career, when he could wander around a strange city with a young saint and only worry himself and his demon. Simpler times.

M.A. Carrick, The Mask of Mirrors. A thumping great big con artist fantasy by two of my favorite people. I sometimes really really like a secondary world fantasy with a great deal going on, and this had that for sure. Looking forward to the next in the series, as there are more doors opened than closed here.

Wangari Maathai, Unbowed. This is the autobiography of the founder of the Green Belt Movement, who has led an interesting life. It’s labeled a memoir, but if there’s a distinction between the two I would put this on the autobiography side: it’s more dates and places than it is inner reflections.

Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems, 1950-2012. This is a great example of why I like to read people’s collected poems all at once. You can watch Rich growing from a slightly formal young woman in 1950 to the political force she later became, and from a fairly concise poet to one who is willing to go on for as long as it takes to say what she needs to. There are some searingly great moments along the way as well as a lot of poems I can take or leave on their own, but in combination they make something greater, they make the panoramic view of a career.

Sun Yung Shin, ed., A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. This is a collection of essays from various voices, talking about their own experience of race in Minnesota, including but not limited to their own experience of racism in Minnesota. If you’re from around here, a good thing to mull over.

Karin Tidbeck, The Memory Theater. Magical and patterned, a bit closer to a traditional faerie novel than Tidbeck’s previous works have been to traditional anything, but in a way that’s satisfying and well-done.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now. Kindle. This is doing a lot of the things that old-school science fiction readers complain that mimetic fiction doesn’t do, when they’re feeling beleaguered: considering the social implications of technological and cultural change, notably. It’s a satirical novel, and I think a good one to revisit in this decade, as it focuses a lot on what happens when the thing that has been keeping bad behavior in check is a set of norms that some people are completely willing to set aside when it benefits them. I think I liked some of the characters more than Trollope did. There was also a plot-crucial thread of antisemitism throughout, some of which was antisemitism of characters but some was of the author. So consider how much of that you want to deal with when you’re thinking of classic and currently relevant 19th century novels to dive into.

Jenny Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. An interesting biography of an engraver and woodcut artist, adorned with a lot of his work. Lots of interesting period details about his field and milieu as well as about his own life. I picked this up because Jenny Uglow has not disappointed me yet, and that’s still true.

Ovidia Yu, The Mimosa Tree Mystery. The fourth in this series takes a sharp turn in tone: instead of the Second World War threatening, it has arrived, in the form of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. This is a mystery series that is apparently willing to drastically alter its characters’ circumstances in the course of a series, and I will go into the fifth volume with the expectation that I don’t know what it’s going to do in that way. I think this would be more effective with the previous three volumes under your belt but might work all right without.