Family Reads: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne

Borne by jeff Vandermeer

Ash and I read VanderMeer’s Annhiliation  for our first Family Reads together (two years ago tomorrow!). When we heard of Borne, we agreed that we should read and discuss it for Family Reads. Somehow, I didn’t expect our discussion to turn out so similar to our discussion on Annhilation – though I suppose I should have known better given the author and the subject matter! We went back forth and circle around various plot related questions. Because of the nature of our discussion, this was a difficult one for me to hammer into a narrative suitable for a blog post, but I tried, haha. I decided to focus on three topics: the cover and setting, what was revealed in the Company building at the end, and the role of the Magician. (Somehow, we talked for an hour and didn’t even begin to talk about Borne or the environmental implications of the story or Rachel and Wick’s relationship or any of the other interesting bits of the story. There’s a lot going on in this fascinating book!)

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.

“He was born, but I had borne him.”

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

Our Discussion

You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (spoilers abound!).

Cover and Location

One of the more superficial things Ash and I loved about the Southern Reach trilogy are the cover designs by Charlotte Strick. Borne also has a striking cover (by Rodrigo Corral) that we loved but we had to ask – did the flower have anything to do with the story? Plant life seemed to play less of a role in Borne than in Annihilation. Perhaps the easiest answer is that the plant represents the general degradation of Rachel and Wick’s world. One theory we came up with about the flower is that maybe it has something to do with Rachel being from a tropical island. Then we had to backtrack and ask, where is Rachel from? Ash imagined Indonesia; I went with Madagascar. (Where do birds of paradise grow? I looked this up after our discussion – native to South Africa, the emblem of Los Angeles…) Now we’re back to the cover. Ash chose Borne as her staff pick at work, so a lot of people have been asking her about the book because it has her name on it and they want to know if the story’s as cool as the cover. She tells them yes.

One last comment: Ash and I have come to enjoy VanderMeer’s books particularly for his world building. We love how he can be so vividly descriptive, yet still leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.

What’s really revealed at the end?

My big question that I wanted to discuss with Ash was what was actually revealed when Rachel and Wick went poking around the Company building. Our discussion wound back and forth as we tried to break things down.

What did Rachel learn at the Company building? Ash said that she learnt her memories weren’t real. Okay, then how much of her memories weren’t real? Did she just forget that blip surrounding her parents death, or could it be everything she remembers from before the city is false?

We didn’t settle on an answer to that question (which of Rachel’s memories are true or false) before moving on to what happened in the Company building when Rachel first arrived, if she and her parents came in crates through some kind of portal? Of course, that led us back to another question – is the city Rachel and Wick inhabitant an alternate reality or the world we know? That’s what I was trying to get at at the beginning of our discussion when I asked what was revealed in the company building. Was the existence of a parallel universe, alternate reality, whatever, established? We agreed that it was (with the caveat that we both blaze through endings too quickly so maybe we missed some nuance). That led us two theories: 1) Rachel’s city is an alternate reality that the Company entered to mess around with biotech or 2) Rachel’s city is in ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, and the Company messed it up so bad they went to an alternate reality – the good city viewed in Company building. Our conversation drifted from there – whichever theory might be the right one doesn’t really matter – but we agreed that the big reveal had been the existence of another world/dimension/reality.

 

The Magician

The relationship between Rachel and the Magician was one I had lots of questions about. I wondered why she seemed to be an antagonist. Didn’t she just want to get rid of Mord? Why did she have to be awful to Wick and Rachel?  Ash suggested that, since she worked for the Company, maybe she felt guilty for that and wanted to improve the city. I noted that the Magician didn’t know about the wall/portal and Wick did – he was higher ranking than her? (Then there’s that thing about Wick being biotech…) One part that really puzzled me at first was Rachel killing the Magician just like that and commenting that the Magician didn’t have any power over her because she had already read Wick’s letter. Wick’s letter mentions that the Magician acquires Rachel’s memories. Could this mean more than initially thought? Maybe the Magician has absorbed, internalized, all of Rachel’s true memories…maybe the Magician is who Rachel was before.

Final Thoughts

 

 

I thought Borne was a more straightforward book than Annihilation but maybe not, given our discussion! We never really came to conclusions, but we still enjoyed theorizing. I left out a lot of random stuff (about Mord, multiple Bornes, etc.) because this post was getting out of hand.

As we wrapped our discussion, I wondered which I book I enjoyed more – Borne or Annihilation? Just comparing comparing Annihilation (not the entire trilogy) and Borne – ooh, well, I think I prefer Annihilation for the world building and Borne for the characters. When I asked Ash which she preferred, she said the same thing! Though they’re similar in a number of ways, each book has its own strength and we recommend both. Have you read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s works? What are your theories for what was going on in Borne?
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Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro

Sputnik's Children by Terri Favro
I think this is an improvement over my last book snap? Look at those pretty iridescent stars…

Author: Terri Favro
Title: Sputnik’s Children
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Science fiction in literary clothes
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | Indigo | IndieBound Wordery

I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.

Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.

Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best.

Alternate timelines + cult comic books = say no more. (Though I am generally not a fan of unreliable narrators, that turned out to be less of a transgression against my personal preferences than I braced myself for.) Sputnik’s Children combines alternate history and literary character building to tell a creative and entertaining story.

I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the above summary, particularly this statement: “Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time”. Is Debbie imagining this alternate timeline or did she actually believe she lived it? The latter turns out to be true. To clarify, Debbie currently lives in ‘the real world’ of 2011. She’s considering writing the origin story of her cult comic book hero, Sputnik Chick. Debbie believes she (herself, Debbie) grew up in Atomic Mean Time (AMT), an alternate universe similar to ours, but that’s stuck in Cold War time with a constant threat of nuclear bombings and World War III. Debbie’s youth in this other timeline inspires her Sputnik Chick stories. The bulk of the book is Debbie’s first person narration of her time in AMT, with occasional chapters of third person narration in the ‘real world’ leading up to the present. The question is, did Debbie actually live through AMT or is this just a concocted story?

At its core, Sputnik’s Children may be described as a coming of age novel. The majority of the story takes place during Debbie’s teen years, beginning when she’s 12 and continuing to mid-twenties. Debbie has to deal with a maturing body, unwanted sexual attention, and her first romantic relationship. This relationship is a significant component of Debbie’s life in AMT. Debbie is White and her boyfriend John Kendall is Black. This relationship creates tension from societal expectations in their small town of the 1970s.

What sets Sputnik’s Children aside from other small town stories is the science fiction setting of AMT. Debbie has to contend with the fact that her community expects to be destroyed at any moment by an atomic bomb. Favro establishes the AMT world in the first few pages, laying out the core differences between Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time (the ‘real world’). This gives the reader a chance to focus on character and plot right away, without having to spend too much effort on becoming oriented with the setting. AMT differs in slight ways from the real world, resulting in an alternate universe where the Cold War only intensified in the seventies and corporations manufacturing weapons rule the day. (I do love a shadowy overseer organization.)

The plot of the story comes in the form of a time-travelling man from the future, who wants to prevent World III. He believes Debbie is the key to doing that. Debbie herself only time travels once, with seemingly little impact on the plot (aside from the personal changes she notices, having skipped a few years into puberty).

The Bottom Line:

Sputnik’s Children is a character-based take on science fiction that blends comics, the Atomic Age, the seventies, and interracial romance into one compelling tale. The question of whether Debbie has made everything up or actually lived it is almost irrelevant – you’ll enjoy the story either way.

Further Reading:

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Brief Thoughts: Urban Dystopia

Are these books technically dystopias? To me they are! If we want to describe them more generally, I’d call them ‘furturistic YA scifi’. 

In the Unwind Dystology, Neal Shusterman thrilled readers with the story of a society that deals with its out-of-control teens by “unwinding” them—transplanting more than 99% of their bodies into other people. In the latest installment of this sequence, Shusterman—along with collaborators Terry Black, Michelle Knowlden, Brendan Shusterman, and Jarrod Shusterman—explores even more aspects of a world that has accepted the unacceptable. These short stories examine the world of unwinding in a way we haven’t seen before, providing a fresh framework, new characters, and a different take on some events.

One last hurrah in the world of Unwinds! I have enjoyed every work I’ve read by Shusterman. Though I still think Unwind (the first book in the series) remains the strongest, Shusterman created a fascinating world that deserved the further exploration he gave it. Even after four books that tied up Connor, Lev, and Risa’s stories, there were questions and scenarios that us fans would love to read about. This book does not feature any stories about Connor, Lev, and Risa after the events of UnDivided(final book in the series). I feel that’s appropriate given, like I mentioned, their story was told in the actual series. There is one story featuring Hayden and Grace that alludes to what they might be up to.  Stories include background on Jasper and Roland, why Risa was sent to be unwound, and the experimental activities of the Dah Zey. Unbound makes a great read for anyone who’s still curious about the Unwind dystopia after finishing book four.

In this dark urban fantasy, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

I have only read Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequel A Gathering of Shadows, but those two were enough to enamour me to her. (The Archived has actually been on my TBR for a few years, though I can’t get motivated to read it since there’s no set publication date for the final book.) I enjoyed ADSoM so much that I became eager to read This Savage Song. I probably would not have read this book had it been written by anyone else. This book is YA gritty urban fantasy. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. After a somewhat slow start, the action picks up and the story remains quick-paced.  I should have known better than to expect I would fall in love with it just because of the author. It’s not my type of story. If you enjoy urban fantasy, I think you will enjoy this book. It is what I imagine to be standard in the genre. This is the first book in a duology. I liked it fine enough that I’ll probably read the second when it comes out. I want to know more about the monsters! They were different than I expected.

Have you read any books by Neal Shusterman or Victoria Schwab?   

Review: Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

Author: Jeff Vandermeer
Title: Acceptance
Series: Southern Reach #3
Format/Source: Paperback/Sister’s copy
Published: September 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Dystopian scifi
Why I Read: Devoured the first book, trooped through the second book, excited for the final book
Read If You’re: Ready to get some answers about Area X!
Quote: “I could not come to terms with the possibility that one day I might put aside my vigilance and become the moaning creature in the weeds.” (164)
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Previously: My sister and I discuss the many mysteries of Area X presented in Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)  

I first read Annihilation because my sister selected it for Family Reads. I enjoyed the story so much I immediately jumped into Authority. Authority, however, greatly differs from Annihilation. I became less eager to read the final book in the trilogy. The fact that my library didn’t have a digital copy of it didn’t help! I contented myself to wait until I returned to Canada and could borrow my sister’s copy. In what felt like a reward for my patience with Authority, Acceptance gripped me from the first page. Broken into three parts – the light house keeper’s tale before Area X is fully Area X, the director’s tale before the 11th expedition, and Ghost Bird + Control’s tale in the present – VanderMeer has penned an intense conclusion to the Southern Reach tale.

I’d like to pause here for a second and talk about the differences between each book in the trilogy. Acceptance felt more similar to Annihilation (than Authority), but the two books still feel independent from one another. I found Acceptance more intriguing and more intense, whereas Annihilation felt more like an exploration. Authority I found mostly bureaucratic and mostly dull. Annihilation and Authority are brought together primarily via Acceptance, but each book has its own style. Don’t try too hard to make them match up with each other (i.e., don’t expect a consistent style of narration) – they’ll fit together naturally as you start connecting the dots.

In terms of pace, Acceptance steps away from Authority back towards Annihilation. I blazed through Acceptance, reading in a way I haven’t read for a long time. I forgot about that feeling! When you’re reading solely for the story’s sake, because it fills you with a fiery excitement and you just have to know what happens next. One scene that sticks in my mind because of this feeling is when Lowry confronts the director and I had to pause in the middle of it to go back to class. Acceptance kicks off with a quick start, hitting you with more questions, but then gives ANSWERS, to other older, questions you may have been wondering about since Annihilation. After the first two books, I had wholly resolved myself to not receiving any answers about Area X’s mysteries, so I was surprised but extremely pleased to find certain answers suddenly being dropped. Such answers were unexpected, but (appropriately, I would say) only a handful of questions are really answered and you’ll still have plenty to ponder about the bigger questions. The prose, understated compared to what I usually enjoy, works well in conveying the shocks, surprises, tensions and can’t-stop-now moments that I’ll remember this story for.

All my notes on this book can be divided into two categories: A) “AHHHHH OMG CAN’T BELIEVE I’M READING THIS” and/or B) “Ohhhh whoa I can’t believe I’m reading this!”. Both of these comment types I’ve discussed above (A = driving moments that suck you into the story, B = answers I wasn’t expecting). I don’t have anything else I want to write about! I think I would have to read this trilogy twice, back to back, to really get all the answers that are locked within. Some things are clearly spelt out in Acceptance, but I get the sense there’s so much more I would understand if I really paid attention… (for example, I think a lot to do with Whitby went over my head). But, this feeling doesn’t frustrate me. I don’t think you need to have all the answers to enjoy this trilogy. But I bet there is more to be mined if you’re willing to dig deeper! And now we’ve come full circle to what my sister and I discussed after finishing the first book…I can’t wait til she finishes the trilogy and we can hash out the entire thing.

The Bottom Line: Don’t let Authority keep you from finishing the trilogy! Acceptance is worth your time. 

Further Reading: 

Family Reads: The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy

 Welcome to September’s Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live around the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Reunited! This month, my sister and I conducted the first side-by-side Family Reads. We’re shaking things up with a graphic novel, selected because we couldn’t finish our first choice on time now that we’re once again busy with school and work…Sister recommended this one to me. Scott Snyder’s name on it piqued my interest, as I was only familiar with his work on Batman, which I enjoyed.

Sister: Once again, I was looking through the graphic novels section at work (my usual method for discovering new books!) and I stumbled across this one. I liked the art and the back description sounded really cool.

Sister gives this book 4 stars and I give it 3 stars. A graphic novel turned out to be a great choice for our first read with us living under the same roof because we could look at the art, flip through the book and reread parts together. This book turned out to be similar to Annihilation in that we didn’t really know what it was all about! You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here is our discussion on the art style, Lee + Leeward, and the somewhat confounding conclusion.

On the art:

Sister: I thought the layout demonstrated creative but sometimes confusing.
Reno: Yeah, the panelling around when Leeward confronts the Governess towards the end was difficult for me to follow.
Sister: I loved the colouring, though.
Reno: I preferred the colours for the first half, although I think both halves were coloured to suit the story. I liked the darker colours and the deep blues. There were more warm hues in the second half, but I personally like my comics to be dark like grim Batman.

On the Lees:

Reno: I liked the first part more. Archer was my favourite character.
Sister: Same here. I feel like we had more time with her, got to know her personally a bit better, whereas I felt we didn’t know a lot about Leeward because she was too busy doing things.
Reno: Being introduced to Leeward, the first thing I thought was, “Why the name?” I think there’s more to her than was made clear in the story…
Sister: She’s totally a descendant of Archer’s! She even uses eye drops.
Reno: Yeah, and I think there was further elaboration near the end that I didn’t pick up on.

On the conclusion: 

Sister: I generally liked the comic and would reread it for that reason, but mostly I’d read it to clarify the ending.
Reno: Yeah, I think I had the same experience as you. I was pulled into reading, the story was clipping along, then I came to this info dump that felt like “bam bam bam bam everything explained” and I was left wondering “Wait…” What did you think was explained at the end?
Sister: …I don’t know. It’s kind of like…the Mers… they have this heaven but it’s not heaven and they’re showing it to people…uh, I don’t know, let’s be real, I’m not sure.
Reno: Okay, I don’t understand that part either, haha, so let’s look at the bigger picture. I think…humans are aliens – that much I got. And they spread their seed, sometimes they grow, sometimes they don’t, but they forget about it because their tears are weird. I don’t know if the Mers were original creatures or a false start of humanity.
Sister: Lee Archer’s explanation right at the beginning (about Mers being humans) confused me because I really liked and believe that explanation, so it was hard for me to let go of that idea – to accept that it wasn’t fact and was just one character’s opinion.
Reno: That’s another thing I wasn’t sure about. Are the Mers intelligent creatures? Why do they want to destroy us all the time? Is it because we invaded their homeland? Why are they ‘collecting’ people? I think it was explained but I didn’t get it…I also don’t get why the government is evil. I know the government is always ‘evil’ but usually there’s a ‘reason’ why.
Sister: I think the government thinks that pursuing the broadcast will lead to trouble from stirring up whatever’s down below.
Reno: I thought the story was great until we got to the end and I didn’t know what was happening… Probably we should have re-read the ending before this chat!
Sister: So Archer has just been floating in this dark space for 200 years with other…somethings. People? I think some of the reason that part was hard to understand was because Leeward was taken to the ship and the storytelling jumps between when Leeward was with Archer and when she’s presently on the ship. 
*We finally decide to go over the conclusion together. After a close re-reading of Archer’s conversation with Leeward, here is what we think was explained.*
Seeds (something akin to God, rather than sent out by humans) scatter across the universe. Sometimes humans grow from those seeds. Humans began to grow on Earth, already home to Mers. (This part we’re not sure about – we’re not certain what ‘grows’ and whether Mers were already there or were a false start to humans.) Humans being humans destroyed the more developed Mers, leaving only a more ‘primitive’ form. Humans cry to forget the terrible thing they did, but the Mers don’t want to let humans forget. When humans were on the verge of completely forgetting, the Mers shook them up, as if to say “Hey, we’re STILL here, remember!”

After all that discussion and reviewing, we still felt we only understood a part of what we were meant to, if we understood that at all! This contrasts to our experience with Annihilation, where we didn’t feel like we were meant to understand anything.  Have you read The Wake? Did you find it as confusing as we did, or were we missing something? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.