Book Review: Lagoon

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The aliens have landed. They’re here, on Earth, and they want to help. They’re going to use their amazing powers and advanced technology for the good of our planet. This is it. This is first contact.

What’s the catch? The first first contact wasn’t with humans. It was with the denizens of the deep ocean, some of which aren’t very happy with the way humans have been treating them and their waters.

This is the basis for Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon. Her aliens haven’t come to New York, or Los Angeles, or even Cardiff. They’ve come to Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor is an American writer with Nigerian parents, and her exploration of the city itself is one thing I loved about this book. Bits of Nigerian history, culture, and language are interwoven with the alien story in a way that never feels dry or preachy. She’s even dedicated the book to the people of Lagos—“animals, plant, and spirit.”

This isn’t an unconditional love song to the city or to Nigeria, however. Okorafor takes us to a place that is beset by poverty, political corruption, and failing infrastructure. The president is infirm and incapable of producing real change. So-called religious leaders use superstition and intimidation to grow their own fortunes. Petty crime is rampant.

Out of the ocean and onto this scene step our alien visitors. They can take any shape they want by rearranging their body’s molecules, and several come in human form as ambassadors to the people of Lagos. The visitors are peaceful and want to help, but they’re not putting up with any violence from humans—see, they can rearrange our molecules too.

The main story revolves around three humans, Adaora, a marine biologist, Agu, a soldier, and Anthony, a musician. The three are approached by Ayodele, an alien who takes the form of a beautiful woman. After a predictable amount of dithering about What To Do Next, the A-Team decides to go to the president, so Ayodele can take him to her leaders.

The news of the alien landing spreads quickly thanks to the Internet and social media. There are riots in the streets and the traffic is so bad that no one can get out of the city. The narrative leaves the A-Team for a long time to explore how first contact affects everyone else in Nigeria. And I do mean everyone. There are chapters about students, LGBTQ activists, a prostitute, a priest, a visiting American rapper, a homeless mute boy, an alien-enhanced bat, a seven-legged tarantula…the list goes on.

This was where the story started to feel thin for me. While the cross-section of Nigerian life was fascinating, I had a hard time connecting to the characters, many of whom come and go in the space of a single chapter. I would have been happy spending more time with Adoara. I wanted to know more about her family and her struggle for normalcy and acceptance despite her mysterious abilities. Adoara, Agu, and Anthony all had experiences with the paranormal before the aliens landed. The revelation of their powers, and of how they can use them to help Nigeria, is the most satisfying payoff in the book.

That’s my other favorite piece. Lagoon features not just aliens, but other powerful creatures that have been here all along. If you’re familiar with Igbo culture or you’ve read Okorafor’s young adult novel, Akata Witch, you’ll recognize Ijele Masquerade. Legba, a West African voodoo god, makes an appearance, as does Udide Okwankwa, story-telling spider and spiritual cousin to Anansi. These types of characters don’t get a lot of play in science fiction or fantasy. It’s always aliens or gods, science or folklore, the future or the past. Lagoon gives us both and it’s awesome.

At the end of the book, my biggest complaint was the flatness of so many characters. That’s a big one, for me, enough to knock this down from four stars to three. This is a personal thing. I love some books that have cookie-cutter settings, no plot, and clunky dialogue, but I stay because I like the characters. The inverse can also be true. If the people in the book don’t feel real to me, I’m out.

I’d recommend Lagoon if you love alien invasion stories but need a shakeup in the setting. If you do read it, you should know that there’s a useful glossary of terms in the back of the book. The sections of dialogue in Pidgin English weren’t too hard to understand without it, but if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like reading unfamiliar dialects this could be handy.

After the acknowledgements there’s a very fun “post-chapter” that gives us a glimpse of the American reaction to aliens invading Nigeria. Three college students sit around watching the video footage and debating whether or not it’s all a hoax. The deciding argument is all-too-true comment on the state of diversity in American media:

“And look at the ‘stars’ of the show. They black. Even the heroes are black. You think they gon’ spend they money to put somethin’ together that looks this real and actually allow black folks to star in it? Real Africans? And they set it in Africa?”

If they did, I would totally go see it.

Book Review: Welcome to Night Vale

This review does not contain spoilers for the book or the podcast, but I can’t make any promises about the comments section.

It’s hard to describe Night Vale to people who haven’t been there.

I’ve told people the podcast is Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone, which is not a bad starting place. I feel like Rod Serling would be right at home in Night Vale, Garrison Keillor maybe slightly less so.

It’s been called Lovecraftian. Its creators, Joeseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, have said they dislike the comparison, and I can see why. Lovecraft’s monsters are to be feared, and they come spreading madness and death. There are tentacled beasts and cosmic horrors in Night Vale, too, but mostly they just want a scratch behind the ears or a chance to run for public office.

The best comparison, I think, is to The Addams Family, in all their creepy and kooky incarnations. Other fans and reviewers have noted the similarities, which don’t stop at the inclusion of sentient, bodiless hands. If at first look the characters appear morbid and violent, it’s because they are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other.

I’ve been listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast for a while now, and as many times as I’ve tried to drink to forget, I can’t write this review as anyone except a person who’s familiar with that story. But the good news is that the novel is a stand-alone, so if you haven’t listened to the podcast you can still read and understand the book. The book doesn’t explain what’s going on in Night Vale, why there are mysterious hooded figures in the dog park or faceless old women secretly living in the houses, but then again, neither does the podcast. It’s equal opportunity weird fiction.

While the podcast mostly focuses on radio host Cecil Palmer and the exploits of his circle of friends, the novel has two protagonists we haven’t heard from much on the airwaves. Nineteen-year-old Jackie Fierro owns and operates Night Vale’s only pawn shop, where you can hock your possessions in exchange for a good night’s sleep or and idea about time. Diane Crayton works at a job she is good at but not passionate about, and devotes all her free time to raising her shape-shifting teenaged son, Josh.

At the outset of the book, Jackie and Diane’s comfortable routines are interrupted by mysteries. Jackie’s troubles start with a piece of paper with the words KING CITY written on it. Diane is dealing with the disappearance of one of her coworkers and the reappearance of Troy, her ex-boyfriend and Josh’s deadbeat dad. As the two women investigate, it becomes clear that these events are connected, and that the answers they’re looking for are in King City.

Reading this book, I fell in love with Night Vale all over again. One of the podcast’s greatest strengths is its focus on language. Night Vale in audio and print has a unique cadence that adds to the surreal tone. Here’s one of many quotations I highlighted while reading:

“She loved him, this man. He was, aesthetically and aurally, perfect. She loved him the way one loves an old bridge or a wool sweater or the sound of a growing tulip.”

Isn’t that great? It’s fun to read aloud, too. The poetic repetition, the choice of simile—I don’t know what a growing tulip sounds like, but I bet people in Night Vale do.

If you’re familiar with the podcast, you know that Fink and Cranor have some things to say about the relationship between citizens and their government. The people in Night Vale are at the mercy of powers greater than themselves. The democratic system is corrupted beyond recognition. People are suffering, but everyone’s been coached to ignore the harm being done to others. More than ever, this novel brought out for me the frankly disturbing similarities between Night Vale and the world I live in.

But that commentary isn’t what I loved most about this book. Jackie and Diane, the protagonists, are the heart of Welcome to Night Vale. Their stories, both before and after they start working together, form a meditation on aging, friendship, and parent-child relationships.

Jackie has been nineteen for as long as she can remember. This non-aging isn’t terribly uncommon in Night Vale, but it has its metaphorical counterpart in the real world. What young adult hasn’t felt trapped, stagnant, as though they’ve been waiting decades for their life to begin? “I don’t understand the progression of time as it relates to me,” Jackie laments.

Diane is in her early thirties. She’s old enough now to have lost friends and loved ones to death and distance, and she has “wondered whether it was worth it to have friends, to make any connections at all when the world so easily took them from her.” Her son Josh is everything to her, and she will do anything to protect him and keep in her life.

Normally I don’t like books that switch between point of view characters. It’s apparently not a deal breaker, because I keep reading them, but I always find myself more interested in one character than the other, flipping ahead pages to see when I get to the next “good part.” Welcome to Night Vale was a rare exception for me, maybe because both Diane and Jackie were so fully and lovingly realized.

Before I wrap this up I should address the star rating. What made this a four star book, and not a five? For me, it was pacing. Even though the central mysteries of the plot are present nearly from page one, this book takes its time establishing a tone and exploring the inner lives of the characters. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. For half an hour every other week when I listen to the podcast, I love that approach. Still, I found there were days I was reluctant to pick up this book. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see myself rereading it.

I recommend Welcome to Night Vale to anyone who enjoys surrealism, poetic writing, and slow-burning, character-driven stories. And if you’re already listening to the podcast, this is practically required reading.

Fans of the podcast, did this book live up to your expectations? Is there anyone who read this book without having listened to the podcast? I’m very curious what a Night Vale newbie’s reactions would be. Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Coming soon: My review of Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor.

Introduction

Hi, welcome to my blog! My name is Andrea Biagini, and I like to talk about books.

I’ve lived most of my life in New England. From the time I graduated from college up until June of 2015, I was working in various schools, usually (but not always) teaching music. During the summer, my husband’s job moved us temporarily to North Carolina. Being sort of fed up with my ongoing search for a permanent teaching job, I decided to take the year off and work on my other passion, writing fiction.

Writing full-time can be a lonely business. The hard part for me, semi-social butterfly and perennial teacher’s pet, is to be in a situation where I’m not getting daily feedback. My goal with this blog is to get some writing practice that also allows me to connect with other people who want to talk about the things I want to talk about. Also, shameless self-promotion alert, a way to connect with potential readers.

What to expect on this blog

I am a reader. Reading is most of what I do with my spare time. This will primarily be a book blog, because books are my favorite thing to think about and most of what I want to talk about. I’ll be posting individual book reviews, but also some more general posts about my reading life and habits. I read mostly novels, and genre-wise I gravitate towards fantasy, but I don’t limit myself to that and I’ll post about all sorts of different books here.

I’m also giving myself the freedom to talk about other things that interest me. So here’s a short, non-comprehensive list of other topics you might find, in among the books:

– My writing- updates on and possibly some excerpts from my novel-in-progress or some of my short fiction

-Food and drink- pictures and recipes very probable.

-TV- especially if it somehow relates to books. Don’t expect 2000-word Game of Thrones episode recaps, but also don’t expect me not to mention it.

-Music- I am still a band geek in my heart, so if you have a day when you really just need to talk about Holst—or whatever!— I am here for you.

To start I’m going update three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

My rating system

When I review a book, I’ll use a five-star system. Of course that means something different to everyone, so here’s how I use my stars:

One star: Totally hated it and struggled to finish, or poor writing quality. I want people to come here to discuss books and maybe find something new that they would like, so I probably won’t even post any one-star reviews unless I feel like I’m doing a real public service by letting you know that this book is the worst.

Two stars: Finished but didn’t like it, too many problematic elements (in writing or content) to enjoy.

Three stars: Liked it and/or found the writing quality to be average to above average. Would recommend to a friend if it dealt with something they were specifically into.

Four stars: Liked it a lot and/or found the writing to be above average. Would recommend to friends.

Five stars: Loved it, would recommend to everyone. I usually reserve this for real favorites or things that have held up to a re-reading.

The “and/or” you see up there is a warning that sometimes I will dislike a book that is considered well written. The opposite is probably going to happen even more, where I will really love something that is objectively bad. “It was not good, but I liked it,” is a thing I find myself saying upon finishing many types of media.

The rating has more to do with me and what I like than anything else. But I’m assuming that if you weren’t at least a little interested in my opinion you wouldn’t be here in the first place, so that’s how I’m going to roll.

I think that about covers it. If there’s anything else you’re curious about, please leave a comment! I’m really excited to talk about books with you. Thanks for reading.

Coming up next: My review of Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.