Review: Internment by Samira Ahmed

Title: Internment
Author: Samira Ahmed
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance within, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the camp’s Director and his guards. Heart-racing and emotional, Internment challenges readers to fight complicit silence that exists in our society today.

When fascism comes to America, it will come draped in the flag. You don’t need to be a student of history to see how nationalism, disguised as patriotism, can take hold of a country, justifying terrible and cruel acts. You only need to turn on the news.

I don’t know that I really enjoyed Internment—more that I experienced it. On one hand, the plot feels like true dystopic fiction, a horrendous what if? spiraling out of a real-world event. But on the other, it reads like an inevitability, the disastrous result of one too many bad choices, the culmination of a timeline from which we can no longer turn back.

We’re introduced to main character Layla after a Muslim registry and Exclusion Laws have already taken effect, but the action quickly accelerates as her family is forcibly removed from their home, tattooed with an ID number, and transported to a “rehabilitation” camp across the desert. The allusions to Japanese internment are frank and unsettling, Samira Ahmed forcing her readers to truly look at all the horrible shit America has done to its citizens in the name of nationalism. It should come as no surprise, then, that Internment was very hard to read, but it is important that I did, and that you do, too. “What’s that thing people always say about history?” Layla asks. “Unless we know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it? Never forget? Isn’t that the lesson? But we always forget,” she reminds us. “Forgetting is in the American grain.”

One of the first things that Layla mentions is how her life is broken up into “Then and Now,” but most of the Thens—the election, the Nazi march on DC, and the Muslim ban—mirror real-world events, so what’s to say that my reaction to those wouldn’t also mirror my reactions to the other Thens—the registry, book burnings, and Exclusion Laws— that ultimately led to Layla’s internment? One of the reasons why this book was so difficult to read was because Ahmed held up a mirror and made me look at myself, forced me to question how I would react to similar circumstances. I kept asking, would I be able to endure like Layla? Protest like her? Resist?

The short answer? No, I don’t think so.

Layla shows extreme fortitude in Internment, and I don’t know that I could do it as well as her, or even at all. About halfway through the book, Layla’s dad tells her, “don’t attract attention. Fade into the crowd. Stay as anonymous as possible. That’s how we’ll survive.” But Layla doesn’t want survival—she wants life. In acknowledging that “there’s no limit to the horrible things we do to one another,” she still understands that “human beings are capable of so many wondrous things.” It’s that hope, that ability to see beauty in the most brutal circumstances, that I admire most of all.

In her author’s note, Ahmed mentions, “I feel a lot of anger. But I believe in hope. I believe that the things that are wrong with America can be fixed by Americans. I believe that being good is what can make us great.” Reading Internment made me feel a lot of anger, but it also gave me hope. What more could I ask of a novel?

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Title: Artemis
Author: Andy Weir
Rating: ★½
Summary: Jazz Bashara is a criminal. Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent. Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself — and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Artemis was disappointing, to say the least. The Martian was a 5-star read for me, so I went into this book with high expectations. Unfortunately, there were just too many hang-ups and eye-rolling to make the novel more than a bleh for me.

The protagonist, Jazz, felt like a cardboard cutout of a female character, stripped of a multi-faceted personality and, instead, given what Weir thinks a female ought to possess in order to fit her surroundings. (Or perhaps he just transplanted his thirty-something, white, cis, heterosexual fictional stand-in, Mark Watney, into the body of a twenty-something Arab. Who knows.) Her understanding of the world has stalled at puberty, and she comes off completely self-centered, her actions and motivations before we meet her cringy to read. (Her main impetus for taking over the heist is to repay her father for an accident she caused; Jazz has apparently completely ignored him for seven years among of a population of only a few thousand  and is certain his wants and needs have stayed static in the intervening half-decade. Hey Jazz, why don’t you just, I don’t know, talk to him??)

The plot itself is a jumble of a heist but also a murder mystery, with spots of romance thrown in for good measure. Except it’s also a science fiction novel… I guess? Weir has Jazz sarcastically overexplain her actions, but it’s not as quirky as Mark running through how he’s going to survive on an inhospitable planet; it’s just grating. I suppose that Weir wanted all of his science to be accurate, but I was already on board with humans living on the moon: I didn’t also need Weir to treat his lunar base as potential science fact. (As if, in the future, scientists would read this book and go, “ooh good idea”?) In the end, he never quite found a balance between underexplaining the economic, cultural, and social facets of Artemis’s social construction and then overexplaining the physical.

Artemis had a good outline but needed too many changes for me to actually enjoy it. Maybe if Jazz had been appropriately aged to match her personality, or she’d been explicitly written as a white male instead of a brown female. Maybe if there’d been one solid plot instead of two and a half meh ones, or if the book didn’t come off as a half-assed attempt to replicate The Martian‘s success without understanding why it succeeded in the first place. (Um, The Hangover 2??) Maybe if every character didn’t come off as a checkbox next to a diversity hire so that no one could fault Weir for only writing about able-bodied white people in space.

Or maybe it was all the welding.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Set in the near future, The Handmaid’s Tale describes life in what was once the United States, now a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. In condensed but eloquent prose, by turns cool-eyed, tender, despairing, passionate, and wry, one Handmaid reveals to us the dark corners behind the establishment’s calm facade. Her story is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force. It is Margaret Atwood at her best.

The Handmaid’s Tale feels like a fresh take on the current political climate – helped, in part, by the recent Hulu miniseries soon premiering its second season – but Margaret Atwood published it over 30 years ago. To both readers and author alike, the thought of a hostile government takeover by religious extremists probably seemed far-fetched… but it doesn’t really feel that way anymore when civil liberties, police brutality, and bodily autonomy still dominate the news. The nameless handmaid who narrates the novel is one of few fertile women whose sole job is to produce a child for the couple to which she’s assigned, and her story weaves days filled with, on one end, grocery shopping and daily walks and, on the other, ritualistic violence and rape.

It’s worth noting, however, that although Atwood based her society on, among other things, “17th-century American Puritan theocracy,” a lot of the plot points and inner workings derive straight from the way black women and people of color were (and unfortunately are) treated in America. As Priya Nair states in an article for Bitch, Atwood takes “the oppression of Black women and applies it indiscriminately to white women…. [but] writing a story about white supremacy with no Black characters, while using the erasure and exploitation of Black pain, is art that further silences and marginalizes Black women at its core.”

If you have even an inkling of interest, read The Handmaid’s Tale – it is hard to get through but still important to read – but don’t stop there. Maybe try some Octavia Butler and then deep do a dive into even more science fiction and fantasy novels written by women of color. Or start digesting the plethora of long-form and book-length political nonfiction on your issue of choice (which I turn to when I can’t watch one more minute of the daily news cycle). Or even just escape the real world and read and read and read. You got this.

Review: The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Title: The Lost Time Accidents
Author: John Wray
Rating: ★★
Summary: Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, Waldemar ‘Waldy’ Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. The world continues to turn, and Waldy is desperate to find his way back – a journey that forces him to reckon not only with the betrayal at the heart of his doomed romance but also the legacy of his great-grandfather’s fatal pursuit of the hidden nature of time itself. Part madcap adventure, part harrowing family drama, part scientific mystery – and never less than wildly entertaining – The Lost Time Accidents is a bold and epic saga set against the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century.

I tried to like The Lost Time Accidents, okay. I really, really tried. Look at that cool cover! That wavy green font!! The weird plot I don’t quite understand!!! But the thing about John Wray’s novel is that it is narrated by a whiny, pretentious a-hole who is a) pining after a woman who doesn’t love him and b) buoyed by the belief that he is the only one who can fix his family’s legacy.

*groan* 😔 💤

My gut told me to give up by, like, page 100, but I convinced myself to keep going… and let me tell you, that was a stupid decision. (Always trust your gut.) The book interweaves two narratives: Chosen One™ Waldemar Tolliver exiled from time in his aunts’ claustrophobic, hoardish New York apartment and the story of the Toula/Tolliver family, conveniently narrated by Waldemar through the letters he writes to a Mrs. Haven. The plots finally converge at the end – when beginning-of-book-Waldemar makes an appearance in end-of-book-Waldemar’s final letter – but everything feels disjointed as a result. I kept wondering if I was looking at this alternate twentieth century as Waldemar’s great-grandfather Ottokar or (in the one bright spot in Wray’s otherwise dreary escapade) as his grandfather Kaspar Toula; as a young, pre-Mrs. Haven Waldemar, digesting and narrating his family’s history after the fact; or as exiled-from-time Waldemar, explaining both the events AND their reflection as he writes to Mrs. Haven.

I mean, I didn’t even fully understand what a lost time accident was until it’s explicitly explained in the text – some 90% of the way through. This is on top of the book being a perfect DNF candidate AND having a main character who grates on my nerves – like, a straight-up STFU kind of privileged elitist who will not accept that a woman does not (and probably never did) love him and so writes his emotions as irrefutable fact so that she will “better understand” how much he has suffered and is thus entitled to a second chance. It’s called ghosting, Waldemar, and your failure to accept that Mrs. Haven straight up ghosted out of your not-so clandestine affair means she’s not interested. Going back to her husband means she’s over it. LEAVING THE COUNTRY WITHOUT TELLING YOU MEANS SHE’S NOT INTO YOU. MOVE ON.

(Side note: let’s all just conveniently overlook the fact that Waldemar exclusively refers to Mrs. Haven as Mrs. Haven because I do not have the energy to explain why a female character should not be solely identified through her marriage to a man. Okay? Okay.)

I have seen reviews of The Lost Time Accidents praising its brilliance, but I’m at a lost as to why there was such a disconnect between what those reviewers got out of the novel and what I came away with. As such, it’s hard for me to say “this book sucked, ergo, don’t read it” because I seem to be in the minority. Maybe, after slogging through a less-than-stellar City on Fire, I’m just at my cap of Novels Featuring White Dudes Saving the Day Written by Upper Middle Class White Dudes? (You know who isn’t? People loving this book.) By all means, read The Lost Time Accidents if so inclined. You can find me enjoying something else entirely.

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenTitle: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse post flu endemic, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty and tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Here’s the thing: I really loved Station Eleven (to the point where my review notes included such helpful phrases as “ZOMG” and “more, please”). After being completely underwhelmed by another post-apocalyptic foray (which was a complete dud), Station Eleven felt like a breath of fresh air. (Yes, I did just cringe writing that.) Although Emily St. John Mandel’s premise is par for the course (shreds of humanity post viral pandemic!!!), her narrative capabilities are incredible – and, to that effect, so was her novel.

Instead of splitting her novel into two parts, or focusing singularly on the Georgia Flu and its repercussions, or even alerting us to when a specific section takes place or where or about whom, Mandel spins Station Eleven around Arthur Leander, each chapter and character slowing unraveling from the novel’s opening scene where Leander dies and we meet all our supporting players in an ensemble piece wrapped tightly around performance (both figuratively and literally). A synopsis of the novel is easy to find, and it helps flesh out the details – but only a little bit and then not really. Because that first chapter told from Leander’s perspective? After he had just died spectacularly? That threw me completely for a loop. Mandel doesn’t use the pandemic as her novel’s climax or even its rising action; it’s just there, sitting unobtrusively in the summary, lurking in Jeevan’s future and Kirsten’s past, weaving its tendrils into every nook and cranny until “he/she/they would be dead within the week” becomes just another throw-away line nudging the story forward.

Like I keep mentioning – have I mentioned it enough? I’m going to mention it again – Mandel’s ear for language is magnificent. She builds completely fleshed out back-stories, teasing details until you’re able to create a half-dozen timelines in your head and juggle them all while reading. And then those stories intertwine – and knot, and split – as paths cross and details intersect and you remember that subtle hint dropped fifty pages prior (and perhaps twenty years ago) and you have one of those moments where your eyes widen in silent shock but you just keep reading and you don’t really process anything because the story is so engrossing and you just have to finish and oh my god what a novel.


If only there were more – more words, more story, more anything, really – so that this beautiful wonderful story didn’t have to end.

Five Favorite: Speculative Fiction

“Five Favorite” is a feature on thewasofshall where I lay out my five favorite “x”. Sometimes they’re relevant to a season or holiday, mostly they’re not. It’s an all-around fun excuse to give my 100% amazingly awesome opinion. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

For me, the best speculative fiction asks just one “what if?” question and spirals off from there – everything in the novel that seems a bit off can be tied to that one break from our reality. Here are my five favorite.

ForTheWinFor the Win by Cory Doctorow: What if part of the world’s economy ran on virtual currency?

LambLamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore: What if Jesus Christ had a best friend who didn’t make it into the bible?


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: What if disease had been eradicated?

ThePassageThe Passage by Justin Cronin: What if humans could contract vampirism virally?

TheRebelThe Rebel by Jack Dann: What if James Dean hadn’t died in a car crash in 1955?

Have your own five favorite speculative fiction novels? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!