Book Review: Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels (2018)

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Welcome to the anti-Clone Club.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Despite being an interracial couple who married in the ’70s, Molly and Hank Nonnar have built a pretty charmed life together. Dr. Manuela Nonnar is a scientist (geneticist?) at the top of her field, while Hank continues the legacy left him by his father, a franchise based on a popular black superhero named Slane. Though they have no children of their own, the couple acts as surrogate parents to their niece Del, who likes play researcher in Molly’s backyard. (Yay girls in STEM!) Then a fateful meeting between Hank and Dr. Victoria Teel upends their world and calls everything they thought they knew into question.

For their 40th anniversary,* the couple decides to make a substantial investment in a company called Via; in exchange, they’ll be the first to undergo Via’s experimental “genetic purification” procedure. It promises to make them stronger, smarter, faster, healthier, and more long-lived than any human before them. And it does, in a way.

Molly and Hank wake up seven months later in bodies that have seemingly aged ten years. Instead of being changed, they have been cloned. And their clones are half-formed “monsters”: aborted (er, “canceled”) during the 10th week of development, Manuela and Henry (as their counterparts are christened) resemble baked potatoes with cured ham for limbs (in technical terms). But they are “better” than the source material in every other way, blessed with superhuman strength and intellectual prowess that surpasses that of their creators.

Yet there’s only room in the world for one Molly and Hank. Will it be the “source material” that Dr. Kallose intended to destroy upon the successful completion of the project, or the “monsters” that are a sentient success, yet are too aesthetically displeasing to ever present in public?

Upgrade Soul might just be one of the most bizarre, horrifying, and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, graphic novel or otherwise. It raises a myriad of deliciously thorny questions: What makes you you? Is a person more than the sum of their parts? How much are we shaped by our environments? Our bodies? What is normality, and who gets to define it?

Plus it delights in a wicked sense of humor while doing so, particularly in the forms of Molly and Hank 2.0.

The plot’s pretty compelling, and the artwork, appropriately crude and weird – but in an oddly moving way. There were a few holes, though; for example, it was never entirely clear to me what Molly and Hank expected of the procedure (e.g., did they know that their “original” bodies were destined for the incinerator?). Also: an already creepy story gets even freakier with the additional of an incest subplot, which is kind of left dangling, much to this reader’s dismay. (You can’t just drop a bomb like that and walk away, mkay.) And just why did Manuela do what she did?

Still, Upgrade Soul is one of the better graphic novels I’ve read in recent memory: a legit page-turner that both entertains and challenges. If you dig sci-fi, you owe to yourself to add it to your TBR list.

* It’s right there on page 47 of my ARC, no matter what the synopsis says.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers (2018)

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Serial + The Girls, with a pinch of Vigilante = Sadie

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women and children, including rape.)

I’m going to kill a man.

I’m going to steal the light from his eyes. I want to watch it go out. You aren’t supposed to answer violence with more violence but sometimes I think violence is the only answer. It’s no less than he did to Mattie, so it’s no less than he deserves.

I don’t expect it to bring her back. It won’t bring her back.

It’s not about finding peace. There will never be peace.

I’m not under any illusions about how little of me will be left after I do this one thing. But imagine having to live every day knowing the person who killed your sister is breathing the air she can’t, filling his lungs with it, tasting its sweetness. Imagine him knowing the steady weight of the earth under his feet while her body is buried six feet below it.

This is the furthest I’ve been from anything that I know.

My eyes burn, and tears slip down my cheeks and I can’t even imagine how pathetic I look. Girl with a busted face, torn-up arm, begging for the opportunity to save other girls. Why do I have to beg for that?

Nineteen-year-old Sadie Hunter has had a pretty effed up life. Born to a young, single mom with multiple addictions (alcohol, cocaine, heroin) and a rotating roster of enabling boyfriends, Sadie grew up in a trailer park in the small, struggling town of Cold Creek, Colorado. (Population: eight hundred.) She developed a stutter at a young age, but her mother Claire never sought treatment; consequently, Sadie was bullied, isolated, and shamed for it, for most of her life.

Claire’s own mother, Irene, died of breast cancer when Claire was only nineteen herself; Sadie’s striking physical resemblance to Irene was just one of many reasons why Claire had trouble bonding with her daughter. Younger sister Mattie Southern (she got the matrilineal surname; Sadie did not – telling, that) arrived six years later, and Sadie tried her best to be Mattie’s mother and father. When Claire ran out on her and Mattie, Sadie dropped out of high school to support her family. She was only sixteen.

After two years of limping along, with no small support from May Beth Foster – manager of the trailer park and their deceased grandmother’s best friend – Mattie disappeared. Her body was found three days later in an apple orchard several miles outside of town. Nine months later, Sadie too goes missing; her car is found thousands of miles away, in a town called Farfield. When the local police write Sadie off as just another runaway, May Beth reaches out to West McCray, journalist and host of the podcast Always Out There, for help.

Told in the alternating perspectives of Sadie (as she tracks down her sister’s killer) and West (in the form of his investigative podcast, The Girls, as he retraces Sadie’s steps, now three months cold), we embark on a Serial-type mystery that’s also a biting interrogation of rape culture, class, and misogyny.

I mean, I guess you could shelve Sadie under “mystery,” but it’s so much more than that. In a way, it’s a mystery within a mystery: who killed Mattie, and what happened to Sadie? Sadie already knows the answer to the former, and it’s revealed probably halfway into the story. The bigger question is what became of Sadie when she reached the end of her journey – and this is a blank we readers are left to fill in ourselves. In this way, the ending is a tease, but also a blessing: realistically, Sadie’s fate was likely not a happy one. And yet, by leaving things as she does, Summers allows us to hope, to dream, to retain our faith in a flawed young woman who wanted nothing than to save other girls like herself.

Sadie is also stark and uncompromising look at rape culture, much in the vein of All the Rage. Summers’s writing is at once beautiful and cutting; she dissects all manner of sexist tropes and stereotypes, from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the idea that men are only truly capable of grasping women’s humanity when they have a daughter of their own to care about and fear for and worry over. (Claire’s confrontation with West? Pure cathartic bliss.)

Sadie, Mattie, Claire, May Beth, Marlee – Summers has populated Sadie with a cast of complex, nuanced women characters. Sadie rather reminds me of a more realistic version of Alex Craft, the protagonist in Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. (Let’s face it, we can’t all be cold and calculating feminist serial killers.) Her relationships with Mattie, Claire, and May Beth are fascinating in their messiness. I love how Summers challenges our assumptions by allowing various characters to offer their own versions of oft-told stories at the 11th hour, long after our own impressions of them have begun to harden.

If you’ve never read a Courtney Summers book, you owe it to yourself to correct that ASAP. My first was All the Rage (amazing!), and with Sadie she’s fast becoming a favorite author of mine. I wouldn’t quite call Sadie a rape revenge story, but it’s a pretty fine distinction, and if you “enjoy” that subgenre as much as I, Sadie is a good choice on this front too.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: History Is All You Left Me, Adam Silvera (2017)

Monday, January 16th, 2017

“history is how we get to keep him.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.

I’m a seventeen-year-old grieving his favorite person.

We first meet Griffin Jennings on Monday, November 20th, 2016. It’s been exactly one week since his best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo McIntyre died: drowned in the Pacific Ocean while his new love, Jackson Wright, watched helplessly from the shore. Now Theo’s East Coast/West Coast lives are about to collide – over his casket, no less – as Jackson and Griffin meet for the first time at his funeral. Only things don’t play out exactly how you’d think.

Theo was most of Griffin’s firsts: first date, first kiss, first time, first love. Childhood friends, they came out to each on the L train; weeks later, they came out to their parents, together. (This was a happy scene, the sort of which all LGBTQ kids deserve.) Griffin always knew that he’d have to say goodbye to Theo, who’s one year older/ahead of him in high school – but his early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College sure upended the timeline. Griff broke up with Theo the day before he left, thinking he’d spare himself the pain of eventually becoming the dumpee – and, just two months later, Theo began seeing Jackson. Drama, heartbreak, passive-aggressive sniping, and betrayal ensue.

We’ve all been there before. Except Theo ups and dies before any of it can be resolved, and Griffin and Jackson (not to mention Wade, the third member of the Manhattan squad) are left to sort through the detritus of a life too shortly lived.

To complicate matters further, Griffin suffers from OCD – mostly manifested in directions (left is good) and numbers (odd is bad) – which is getting progressively worse in Theo’s absence and death.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Love and First Sight, Josh Sundquist (2017)

Friday, January 6th, 2017

Not as bad as I’d feared – but not as good as I’d hoped.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

A door swings open, dinging a bell. I recognize the next sound: the deliberate but controlled steps, treading gently, as if she’s trying not to leave footprints. I’ve never seen a footprint, of course, but my understanding is that the harder you press, the more of an impression you leave behind.

Sixteen-year-old Will Porter has attended boarding schools and summer camps for blind and visually impaired kids his whole life – but now it’s time to go mainstream. Will wants to finish out his high school career in his hometown of Toano, Kansas – even if it’s over the vociferous objections of his over-stressed helicopter mom. Unfortunately, Will’s first day in public school is a bit of a disaster: he gropes a random girl in the stairwell, makes a fellow classmate cry, and plops down on yet another student’s lap in the caf.

But Will quickly finds his niche in Toano High School. He takes a shining to journalism, where the teacher – Mrs. Everbrook – treats him like every other student. He partners up with and eventually befriends Cecily, whose knack for photography complements Will’s way with words. He falls in with Nick, Ion, and Whitford who, along with Cecily, represent the entirety of Toano High’s academic quiz team. Will even convinces Cecily to try out for the morning announcer cohosting gig, despite her obvious – and inexplicable – reluctance.

And then, just a few months into the semester, Will’s mom drops a bombshell in his lap. At the hospital where his father works, there’s an experimental surgery to “cure” blindness that’s accepting applicants. The operation is a two-stage process: a retinal stem cell transplant, followed by a corneal transplant within two weeks. Even if it’s successful, the surgery comes with a whole bunch of risks: Will’s body could reject the new corneas, while the immunosuppressant drugs will leave him susceptible to common illnesses such as the flu. If the new eyes “take,” Will will have to rewire his brain to properly perceive and process all the unfamiliar, overwhelming visual input. It’s not as simple as waking up and being able to see; rather, Will will have to learn how to perform this new task that his eyes and brain have never done before.

(More below the fold…)

Audiobook Review: Afterward, Jennifer Mathieu (2016)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

A surprisingly gentle story about trauma, recovery – and finding support in the most unexpected of places.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape/childhood sexual abuse.)

Caroline

Maybe it’s Jason McGinty’s weed or my own desperate, clawing attempt to try to do something to help Dylan, but I get an idea. The beginning of one, anyway. Something hazy and weird and probably screwed up.

Ethan

Groovy notices the brush in my hand and flips over, squirming in excitement. His tail even wags. I’d have to be a pretty big asshole not to brush this dog right now.

Eleven-year-old Ethan Jorgenson is out riding his bike one warm Texas afternoon when a car runs him off the road. Before he can even process what’s happening, Ethan finds himself crammed on the floor of a truck, surrounded by cigarette butts and Snickers wrappers, a gun pressed to his head. For the next four years, Ethan is held captive by a middle-aged man named Martin Gulliver.

Though Ethan’s abduction is big news in Dove Lake, the police have zero leads to go on. That is, until Marty snatches another boy, eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson, meant to be Ethan’s “replacement.” Shortly before he went missing, Dylan’s neighbor noticed the boy walking around outside, alone – which is unusual, since Dylan has low-functioning autism and never goes out unsupervised. Around the same time, she spotted an unfamiliar black pickup truck with severe damage to the rear bumper. The police traced the vehicle to Marty’s workplace in Houston, a hundred miles away; when they approached him, he slipped out the back of the restaurant and shot himself in the head. When they searched Gulliver’s apartment, they were shocked to find not one, but two missing boys: Dylan and Ethan.

This story is about what happens afterward: the slow and painful recovery that comes after an unimaginable trauma.

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DNF Review: Kill the Next One, Frederico Axat (2016)

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Not for me.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Obvious trigger warning for suicide and other forms of violence, including animal abuse.)

Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently. He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.

DNF at 58%.

Recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, thirty-seven-year-old Ted McKay has decided to end things on his own terms. He plans his suicide meticulously: he draws up a will, settles his affairs, and sends his wife Holly to her parents’ home in Florida for the week, begging out at the last minute “for work.” He locks his office door and leaves a note on the outside, so that his daughters Cindy and Nadine won’t accidentally barge in and be the ones to discover his corpse.

He’s poised to pull the trigger when an insistent knocking upends his resolve. It’s a smarmy-looking lawyer named Justin Lynch who – somehow, improbably – knows what Ted’s about to do. He doesn’t aim to talk Ted out if it, but rather has a better way. And so Ted’s recruited into a sort of suicide daisy chain. The price of admission? Assassinate one Edward Blaine, a well-known d-bag who murdered his girlfriend, but got off “on a technicality.” (Really the forensic team bungled the job, but you say tomato….) Then Ted just has to kill a fellow suicidal member, and it’s his turn. With his death disguised as a hit or perhaps a robbery gone wrong, Holly and the girls are spared the pain of knowing that Ted chose to kill himself. It’s a win-win!

Only not so much, since things aren’t exactly what they seem.

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Book Review: Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch (2016)

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Fell a little short of my expectations.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for ableist language.)

She heard a wag in the audience say, “It’s a chimpanzee in a dress!”

Someone shouted, “Loup garou!” She laughed. Her eyes twinkled, her smile was genuine. Now that she was on, she didn’t feel so bad. I’m looking at you, she thought. You are looking at me. And you’re paying.

Funny. After all this time he could still get lost in looking, just looking at her. Marie didn’t have that. Her face, though hairy enough, was completely human. With Julia, you did wonder.

Julia Pastrana was a singer/dancer/musician/actress/all-around performer who lived in the 19th century. The details of her early life are sketchy. An indigenous Mexican born in a small village in the state of Sinaloa in 1834, Julia was raised in the household of Pedro Sanchez, who briefly served as the governor of Sinaloa. Here she was trained as a mezzo soprano and dancer, and also became fluent in Spanish, English, and French, in addition to her native Cáhita. In 1854, she was sold to Francisco Sepúlveda, a customs official in Mazatlán, and was brought to America, where she toured under the management of J.W. Beach and Theodore Lent. She and Lent eloped not long after, and they toured Europe together. Their first baby was born in Moscow in March 1860, but lived only three days. Julia died five days later of “postpartum complications.”

Julia was born with a rare genetic condition called generalized hypertrichosis lanuguinosa, which caused thick black hair to grow all over her body, as well as severe gingival hyperplasia, which resulted in an overdeveloped jaw and thickened lips and gums. She was variously billed as a “Bear Woman”; a human-ape hybrid; and the offspring of an orangutan and a human.

After Julia’s death, Lent arranged to have his wife and son’s bodies preserved by Professor Sukolov of Moscow University. He displayed the mummies in a glass cabinet and toured with their remains for years. Lent found another woman with features similar to Julia’s and remarried. He reinvented Mrs. Theodore Lent: Version 2.0 as Zenora Pastrana, sister of the late Julia Pastrana, and added her to the tour. The show made him a wealthy man. He may or may not have been committed to an asylum in Russia, where he died in 1884.

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Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

If you can embrace the weird, this is one lovely and amazing story.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including child abuse and rape.)

Pavla revels in her name because she knows that if nothing is little, then it must be something indeed.

“You’re the one who said all time exists,” Danilo says. “The past exists. The future exists.”

It’s true. She did say this. And she does somehow believe that what has happened to her and what will happen to her exist simultaneously, that the story is already written but not yet told. She must be like someone in one of her mother’s stories who has existed for centuries of telling and will exist even after her mother is gone. How else to explain her life? As something random?

“I’m sorry it has taken so long for us to come,” he hears himself say.

Pavla Janáček is born at the turn of the century in a rural village located in a small, unnamed (but likely Slavic) country. She arrives in the twilight of her parents’ lives: after much trying and four miscarriages, mother Agáta finally enlisted the help a “gypsy.” She believes that Pavla’s “condition” is a punishment from God for her blasphemy. Pavla is born a dwarf, with a head that’s too large for her torso and arms and legs that are disproportionately short.

The chilly reception Pavla initially receives from Agáta gradually warms and deepens, as mother and daughter are forced into close proximity by the harsh winter weather. With spring comes love; Pavla is the child Agáta and Václav have always wanted. She ages, but grows precious little; she continues to sleep in her crib for the next fourteen years. She’s a precocious child and a fast learner; she teaches herself to count using the slats on her crib and, when she turns seven, Václav takes her on as his assistant at his plumbing business. She starts school a year later, where her cunning eventually wins over her classmates.

And then Pavla hits puberty and her parents get the foolish notion to “fix” her: for what will happen to their lovely daughter (and Pavla is indeed a beauty, ‘from the neck up’) when they’re gone? They begin dragging her from doctor to doctor, hoping for a miracle cure, until they wind up in the office of the biggest charlatan of them all: Dr. Ignác Smetanka, whose outlandish and cruel “treatments” leaved Pavla scarred, traumatized – and bearing the countenance of a wolf, seemingly overnight. But the transformation from dwarf to (average-sized) wolf-girl won’t be the only metamorphosis Pavla experiences before her story’s ended.

Pavla’s strange journey intersects at multiple points and in unexpected ways with that of Dr. Smetanka’s young assistant Danilo – the clever boy who built the rack that once again made Pavla an object of shame and terror.

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Book Review: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, Megan Shepherd (2016)

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

“But there must be more out there. There must be brighter things.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

When the princess had this place built, did she imagine that one day children would die here, crying so loud you could hear it even over a screaming kettle? Did she think, while she threw open the doors and let music pour onto the back lawn, that one day a black winged horse would circle around and around the roof, tirelessly, always on the hunt?

I eye him sideways. He doesn’t look like the type to fatten children for witches, but who does?

Young Emmaline is one of twenty-odd patients at Briar Hill hospital in Shropshire, a sort of emergency quarantine hospital for children suffering from tuberculosis – or “stillwaters,” as Em calls it. Their only companions are Sisters Constance and Mary Grace, who run the show; Thomas, the one-armed caretaker; Dr. Turner, who visits once a week to dispense medication; and the many animals who live on the estate: Bog the dog, the sheep and chickens – and the magical winged horses who live in the mirrors.

Emmaline is the only one who can see those last, of course. Mostly the horses ignore her and go about their business on the other side of the mirror. That is, until one winter day when she finds a winged horse in the sundial garden, injured and stranded. The mystery deepens when Emmaline begins receiving letters from the Horse Lord imploring her to keep Foxfire safe. She is being pursued by the Black Horse, who hunts by moonlight and has but one weakness: color. Emmaline must surround Foxfire with all the colors of the rainbow. But where can she find color – vibrant, lively colors – in her dreary world, ravaged by sickness and war?

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Book Review: Daughters Unto Devils, Amy Lukavics (2015)

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Psychological Tension Like Whoah

four out of five stars

When sixteen-year-old Amanda Verner’s family decides to move from their small mountain cabin to the vast prairie, she hopes it is her chance for a fresh start. She can leave behind the memory of the past winter; of her sickly ma giving birth to a baby sister who cries endlessly; of the terrifying visions she saw as her sanity began to slip, the victim of cabin fever; and most of all, the memories of the boy she has been secretly meeting with as a distraction from her pain. The boy whose baby she now carries.

When the Verners arrive at their new home, a large cabin abandoned by its previous owners, they discover the inside covered in blood. And as the days pass, it is obvious to Amanda that something isn’t right on the prairie. She’s heard stories of lands being tainted by evil, of men losing their minds and killing their families, and there is something strange about the doctor and his son who live in the woods on the edge of the prairie. But with the guilt and shame of her sins weighing on her, Amanda can’t be sure if the true evil lies in the land, or deep within her soul.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

— 4.5 stars —

The Lord works in mysterious ways, all right. Wish a baby dead, get another one in return as punishment. This is my reckoning.

Cat Winters nails it in the cover blurb: Daughters Unto Devils is what Stephen King’s take on Little House on the Prairie might look like. Faced with the prospect of riding out yet another harsh winter in their tiny, remote mountain cabin, the Verner family – Susan and Edmund (Ma and pa), and their children Hannah, Joanna, Charles, Emily, and Amanda – decide to strike out for the prairie. (Actually it’s less of a collective decision than a mandate from the patriarch, but wev.) Rumor has it that there a bunch of abandoned homesteads ripe for the picking. Recovering from a mental breakdown/possible demonic possession and newly pregnant thanks to an illicit affair with the postal boy, eldest child Amanda welcomes the fresh start. But it seems that the devil has followed their humble little caravan….either that, or the prairie is home to its own breed of evil.

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Book Review: The Unseen World, Liz Moore (2016)

Friday, July 29th, 2016

Brilliant, heartfelt, and full of surprises.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

The work of the Steiner Lab, in simple terms, was to create more and more sophisticated versions of this kind of language-acquisition software. […]

These applications of the software, however, were only a small part of what interested David, made him stay awake feverishly into the night, designing and testing programs. There was also the art of it, the philosophical questions that this software raised. The essential inquiry was thus: If a machine can convincingly imitate humanity—can persuade a human being of its kinship—then what makes it inhuman? What, after all, is human thought but a series of electrical impulses?

“What can I get you to eat, hon?” asked Liston, and rattled off a list of all the snacks of the 1980s that Ada was never permitted to have: canned pastas by Chef Boyardee, Fluffernutter sandwiches, fluorescent Kraft macaroni and cheese. In truth, Ada had never even heard of some of the food Liston offered her.

I was told to ask you something, said Ada finally.
I know, said ELIXIR. I’ve been waiting.

Ada Sibelius had something of an unconventional upbringing, beginning with her very conception. At the tender age of 45, Dr. David Sibelius – “director of a computer science laboratory at the Boston Institute of Technology, called the Bit, or the Byte if he was feeling funny” – decided that he wanted a child. Ada (named after one of David’s favorite entries in the Encyclopædia Britannica) was born to a surrogate one year later. This was no small thing back then: 1971, to be exact.

In keeping with his eccentric nature, David decided to homeschool his daughter; or rather lab-school her. Ada accompanied David – as she called him – to work every day, where she was immersed in his world, in the language of mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, and computer science. In the absence of any biological relatives, David’s colleagues – Charles-Robert, Hayato, Frank Halbert, and Diane Liston – became her extended family; his interests were hers. Ada learned to solve complex equations, decrypt puzzles, and present and defend theories. David filled composition books with the names of books, songs, pieces of artwork, and even wines that she should try one day; a cultured bucket list before its time. In many ways, their relationship was more like that of a teacher and his student than a father and his daughter.

At the Steiner Lab, David and his colleagues studied natural language processing and developed language-acquisition software. Their crowning achievement – David’s second child, if you will – was ELIXIR (mmmm, magic!). Everyone at the lab – including Ada – took turns chatting with ELIXIR, to teach it the words and rules and complexities of language. The program was meant to acquire language the way that humans do, and learn it did. Slowly but surely, ELIXIR grew alongside Ada, evolving from garbled, nonsense text to a semi-eloquent conversationalist (albeit one who reflected the habits and speech patterns of its teachers). For Ada, ELIXIR was a confidant, a non-recoverable diary; she poured her heart and soul into ELIXIR, especially when things got bad.

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Book Review: The 100 Year Miracle: A Novel, Ashley Ream (2016)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you…

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for suicide and child abuse.)

It did things to people, this miracle. Strange and not wholly wonderful things.

“Do you know what it’s like to be terrified of a shower?” Harry asked. Rachel did know. Unfamiliar showers sometimes had abrupt changes in temperature, which hurt her back terribly, but she did not say this to Harry, who had continued talking without her. […]

Most people, Rachel knew, didn’t want you to talk about your pain, not unless it was temporary like a twisted ankle or hitting your thumb with a hammer. If you did not hold up your end of the bargain and get better, things fell apart quickly. People would avoid you. It was easier to keep hidden, and she felt sorry for Harry because he could not hide.

Every hundred years, the Artemia lucis – tiny, eight millimeter long arthropods – come alive. They hatch from ancient eggs and spend the next six days mating, or trying to, before laying the next generation of eggs and dying. During the nighttime, they emit a neon green glow, turning the whole of Olloo’et Bay – their only known habitat – into a wondrous light show. The phenomenon is known as The 100 Year Miracle.

Yet, despite the colloquialism, few people are aware of the insects’ more miraculous properties. The (fictional) Olloo’et – southern Northwest Coast peoples who resided on (the fictional) Olloo’et Island until they were forcibly relocated in the 1920s – believed the (fictional) Artemia lucis sacred. During their infrequent periods of activity, the Olloo’et men partook in a ceremony: accompanied by a shaman and tribal leader, the men spent six days and nights drinking the bay’s water (complete with insects), which had hallucinogenic effects. The men reported having visions, slipped into trances, experienced great physical pleasure – and even claimed that the bugs cured their physical illnesses. Occasionally someone died; “usually by walking out into the water and never coming back.”

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DNF Review: Revenge and the Wild, Michelle Modesto (2016)

Monday, February 1st, 2016

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

The two-bit town of Rogue City is a lawless place, full of dark magic and saloon brawls, monsters and six-shooters. But it’s perfect for seventeen-year-old Westie, the notorious adopted daughter of local inventor Nigel Butler.

Westie was only a child when she lost her arm and her family to cannibals on the wagon trail. Nine years later, Westie may seem fearsome with her foul-mouthed tough exterior and the powerful mechanical arm built for her by Nigel, but the memory of her past still haunts her. She’s determined to make the killers pay for their crimes—and there’s nothing to stop her except her own reckless ways.

But Westie’s search ceases when a wealthy family comes to town looking to invest in Nigel’s latest invention, a machine that can harvest magic from gold—which Rogue City desperately needs as the magic wards that surround the city start to fail. There’s only one problem: the investors look exactly like the family who murdered Westie’s kin. With the help of Nigel’s handsome but scarred young assistant, Alistair, Westie sets out to prove their guilt. But if she’s not careful, her desire for revenge could cost her the family she has now.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

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Book Review: A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández (2015)

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The Personal is Political – and Also Poetic in Hernández’s Deft Hands

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home.

But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home.

I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and a former editor of ColorLines magazine. A queer (she identifies as bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father immigrated from Colombia and Cuba, respectively), she speaks and writes about feminism, race, and the media. Her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, began way way in 2000, when she was hired to pen a regular column in Ms. Magazine at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed features eleven essays (which often have the feel of stories, so lyrical is Hernández’s writing) organized not by chronology, but loosely by topic: assimilation and language; sexual identity; and work and money. Whether she’s calling out the state of New Jersey for its switch to an automated telephone system to manage unemployment benefits in the ’90s (ostensibly for the convenience of its recipients, but really to hide the scope of the problems created by NAFTA), or writing about her aunties’ reactions to her romantic partners (rarely favorable, save for Alejandro – the trans man they all assumed was cisgender, on account of he was built like a linebacker), Hernández writes deftly and with both insight and wry humor.

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Book Review: A Madness So Discreet, Mindy McGinnis (2015)

Monday, October 5th, 2015

asylum [uh-sahy-luh m] – an inviolable refuge; sanctuary

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence, ableism and misogyny, and suicide.)

“These are your friends now, Grace Mae. A madman who eats cancer in the dark and another who searches for a different kind of killer, the kind who smiles at you in the light of day. This is your new life. I hope you can stand it.”

Like so many women before and after her, Grace Mae was institutionalized not because she was “crazy,” but inconvenient: Women who possess opinions, as well as the voices to express them; women who have little interest fulfilling their prescribed gender roles; women who don’t want (or can’t have) children – or become pregnant out of wedlock; women whose possessions – money, land, even their very bodies – are coveted by the men in their lives; women who, simply put, stand between men and what they want. Women like Grace, who’s pregnant with her rapist’s child. Her father’s child.

With nothing more than a judge’s decree and a single male relative’s testimony, such women could be forcible imprisoned in “asylums,” many of them never to be heard from again.

Grace’s sentence is lighter than most; after she gives birth, she’s to rejoin the Mae family in Boston. Her friends and extended family think she’s on a protracted European tour. Yet as miserable are the conditions in the Wayburne Lunatic Asylum, she’d rather spend the rest of her years there than be thrown back into the viper’s nest. A man of privilege, and a senator to boot, Nathaniel Mae is used to getting his way. Grace is just the latest in a long line of victims. (Picture New York Magazine’s infamous Cosby cover.)

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Book Review: The Weight of Feathers, Anna-Marie McLemore (2015)

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

A magical retelling of Romeo & Juliet – and with a much more satisfying ending, at that!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including domestic abuse, as well as rape.)

The rain on her dress and his shirt would stick them to each other, dissolve the skin between them, until their veins tangled like roots, and they breathed together, one scaled and dark-feathered thing.

Lace’s first encounter with Cluck is in the parking lot of a convenience store located on the outskirts of Almendro, California, a sleepy little town. Three of her cousins are attacking Cluck, pummeling him with their fists and feet, for no reason other than his perceived difference. Well-versed in the art of taking a beating – thanks to his older brother Dax – Cluck just lies there, taking it, hoping that his lack of participation will sap some of the fun out of their “game.” Lace chases his attackers away, and then offers Cluck ice cubes wrapped in her scarf to sooth his cuts and bruises. Both mistake the other for a local – when, in fact, they are members of two rival families of traveling performers.

The Palomas and Corbeaus travel all across North America, but always cross paths in Almendro; the crowd drawn there by the annual Blackberry Festival is just too good to pass up. For years, they were simply rivals, showpeople competing over the same sets of eyeballs. But one flooded lake and two dead performers – one from each family – turned them to enemies. Each blames the other for the “natural disaster,” with the stories and superstitions becoming more outlandish year after year. Each family can agree on one thing, however: the only acceptable way to touch a Paloma (or Corbeau) is in the pursuit of violence.

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Book Review: The Dead House, Dawn Kurtagich (2015)

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

I’m the thing in the dark”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley, and a physical ARC from NOVL. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)

Could I pretend to be a regular girl who sleeps, who dreams, who has a life ahead of her instead of an existence in which she’s dragged around like an appendage by the one she loves most?

I curse anyone who reads this book.
If you touch it, hell will be waiting.
Screw you. Happy reading.

Carly and Kaitlyn Johnson are sisters – in a sense. The girls share a single body: Carly inhabits it during the day, and at night, she is “discarded” and Kaitlyn assumes control. Their psychiatrist, Dr. Lansing, believes that they have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder), brought on by the deaths of Carly’s parents – while Carly’s best friend Naida is convinced that they are two souls trapped in one body; a source of immense power that could make them a target for malevolent spirits and dark witches.

When Carly/Kaitlyn’s parents die in car accident, the girls are committed to Claydon Mental Hospital, where they come under the care of Dr. Lansing. She’s convinced that the trauma gave birth to the Kaitlyn “alter” – even though both girls insist that their condition predates the accident; that they’ve always been two. Yet two of the three people who could corroborate their story are dead; the third, their younger sister Jaime, is just a child, easily dismissed. And so they stay at Claydon, while Lansing tries to “reintegrate” their personalities. Once they’ve been deemed stable enough, the girls are sent to live at nearby Elmbridge High School in Somerset, a boarding school accustomed to taking in Claydon graduates.

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Book Review: One, Sarah Crossan (2015)

Monday, September 14th, 2015

One of the Loveliest Books You’ll Read This Year

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

When conjoined twins are separated,
it’s deemed a success so
long as one of them lives.
For a while.

And that,
to me,
is the saddest thing
I know about how
people see us.

Sixteen-year-old Grace and Tippi are ischiopagus tripus conjoined twins. Fused at the lower halves of their bodies, they look perfectly “normal” – beautiful even – from the waist up (as Grace wistfully notes on at least one occasion). They have two heads, two hearts, two sets of lungs and kidneys, four arms, and a pair of fully functioning legs between them. Their intestines begin apart, and then merge; below that, they are one.

Summer is coming to a close, and their parents have just announced that they’ll be attending school – for the first time ever – in September. Up until now, the girls have been homeschooled at their apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, where they live with their parents; their paternal grandmother; and their younger sister, Nicola (“Dragon”). But the donations have dried up, and the state will only offer financial assistance if they attend a private school. And so it is they come to begin their junior year in Hornbeacon High School in nearby Montclair.

If you think you know where the story’s headed from here, join the club. I expected One to be a story about bullying, at least at the outset. And while Grace and Tippi do encounter no small amount of fear, hostility, and tactlessness – not just from their fellow classmates, but also teachers, neighbors, shopkeepers, extended family, and even their own doctors, who flaunt them like a medical exhibit – their transition to Hornbeacon goes surprisingly well.

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Book Review: Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon (2015)

Friday, September 4th, 2015

This Impossible Life

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence and child abuse.)

Sometimes I reread my favorite books from back to front. I start with the last chapter and read backwards until I get to the beginning. When you read this way, characters go from hope to despair, from self-knowledge to doubt. In love stories, couples start out as lovers and end as strangers. Coming-of-age books become stories of losing your way. Your favorite characters come back to life.

If my life were a book and you read it backward, nothing would change. Today is the same as yesterday. Tomorrow will be the same as today. In the Book of Maddy, all the chapters are the same.

Until Olly.

According to the Big Bang theory, the universe came into being in one single moment – a cosmic cataclysm that gave birth to black holes, brown dwarfs, matter and dark matter, energy and dark energy. It gave birth to galaxies and stars and moons and suns and planets and oceans. It’s a hard concept to hold on to – the idea that there was a time before us. A time before time.

In the beginning there was nothing. And then there was everything.

Eighteen-year-old Madeline Whittier has no memories of her father and older brother, who died in a tragic car accident when she was just a few months old. Nor does she remember life on the Outside: the feel of the sun’s rays shining directly on her skin; of warm, wet sand squishing between her toes; or of a salty ocean breeze tickling her face and tousling her hair. Maddy was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) shortly after the accident, and has spent the past fifteen years confined to her home, with only her mom Pauline and full-time nurse Carla for company.

Maddy doesn’t live in a bubble per se, but close to it: her house is specially outfitted with industrial air filters, which keep out anything over .3 microns and recycles the air completely every four hours. An airlock separates the front entrance from the rest of the house, and all visitors must undergo an exhaustive physical exam, background check, and thorough decontamination before entering.

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Book Review: Orphan Number Eight, Kim van Alkemade (2015)

Friday, August 7th, 2015

A Tense Psychological Thriller Tempered With a Heartrending Coming-of-Age Story

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence, including illicit human experimentation. Also, this review contains a plot summary with minor spoilers.)

The question sounded strange in the present tense. I used to think that orphaned was something I’d been as a child and since outgrown. It occurred to me, though, that was exactly how I’d been feeling all summer.

“I guess anyone alone in the world’s an orphan,” I said.

The year is 1918, and four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz has just landed in the Infant Home, an orphanage for Jewish kids under the age of six in New York City. After her lying, cheating, rapist father accidentally kills her mother* and then runs from the police, Rachel and her brother Sam are effectively orphaned, taken in by the Jewish Children’s Agency. Two years her senior, Sam is sent to the Orphaned Hebrews Home.

The children are considered lucky, in a sense: funded by wealthy patrons, the Infant Home and Orphaned Hebrews Home are well-regarded. Whereas gentile kids in their position – and there are many, left penniless, homeless, and/or without a family to call their own by the twin terrors of the so-called Spanish Influenza and World War I – would be left to fend for themselves, Rachel and Sam get a roof over their heads, beds to call their own, three square meals a day – even an education.

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