Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019)

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Feminist horror, yes please and thank you, may I have some more?

four out of five stars

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

The Tox didn’t just happen to us. It happened to everything. […]

The way it happened is that the woods got it first. That’s what I think, anyway. Even before the wilderness reached inside us, it was seeping into the earth. The trees were growing taller, new saplings springing up faster than they had any right to. And it was fine; it was nothing worth noticing, until I looked out the window and couldn’t see the Raxter I knew anymore. That morning two girls tore each other’s hair out over breakfast with an animal viciousness, and by afternoon the Tox had hit us.

“We’ve been studying them,” Paretta says, crouching down in front of me. “The irises, and the blue crabs too. All of this is something we’re calling the Raxter Phenomenon.”

A phenomenon. Not a sickness, not a disease. It burns through my heart—that’s the word I’ve been looking for—but there’s something about the way she says it. The name too familiar, too easy on her tongue.

“Did they teach you about Raxter Blues at school?” she asks. “About what makes them special?”

I nod.

You mean the lungs

“And the gills,” Paretta says. “It’s pretty amazing, right? So it can survive anywhere. And I think it’s pretty amazing, too, that you girls are part of it now.”

Part of it. The way our bodies alter and bend. The way our fingers darken just before we die, pure black spreading up to our knuckles.

I think I have been a problem all my life. Here I am where problems go. First Raxter and now here, and I have always been heading here, haven’t I, haven’t I. Too bright and too bored and something missing, or perhaps something too much there.

The several hundred tweens and teens who attend the Raxter School for Girls run the gamut. Some, like Hetty Chapin, were admitted on scholarship when her father, a Navy man, was stationed at nearby Camp Nash. Others are warehoused there by parents who didn’t know how to deal with them; this would describe Hetty’s bestie Byatt. And then there’s Reese, the third point in this particular triumvirate (just one of many cliques at Raxter), who grew up on the island and whose father, Mr. Harker, works as a groundskeeper and general caretaker at Raxter.

Aside from the occasional tour group, he’s also the only cis man to walk Raxter Island on the regular. (That we know of! Dun dun duuuun!)

Raxter was already home to several biological anomolies – the Raxter irises, which bloom all year long; and the Blues, crabs that sport both gills and lungs for all-terrain survival – so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the Tox hit, altering the landscape of Raxter in ways both horrifying and wondrous. The flora took over, transforming Raxter into a forested backdrop from so many Grimm fairy tales. The nonhuman inhabitants grew to monstrous sizes. Predators became vicious and unpredictable, and even herbivores like deers sprouted canines better suited to ripping flesh from bones than leaves from trees.

And the girls.

The girls were either reclaimed or transformed by the wild, depending on your point of view; made a part of Raxter’s savage, shifting ecosystem, or else metamorphosed into something new. Something better. By which I mean something better suited to its environment; something with more favorable odds of survival. Their old environment or new one, you ask? Both. Neither. All of the above.

When the Tox hit, it changed everyone, though not in the same ways. One of Hetty’s eyes fused shut. Byatt grew a second spine and, eventually, her voice became a weapon capable of inflicting great violence. Reese’s skin turned silver and scaly, one of her hands grew lizard claws, and her hair took on an ethereal aura. Some girls grew teeth inside of them and coughed them up at night; one started to feel a second heartbeat in her chest. Blisters, boils, bruises, sores, scars. Webbed fingers and gills. No one bothers to hide their anomalies anymore; what’s the point?

Most of the adults dropped dead, save for Ms. Welch and the Headmistress. Mr. Harker started acting erratic and then disappeared into the woods. Some of the girls succumbed as well; the rest live in constant dread of the next flare-up.

Raxter Island is under quarantine; the school, already surrounded by an imposing iron fence, has become a prison/sick ward. Already isolated, internet service to Raxter was cut off pretty quickly. The regular supply drops help, but it seems that there’s never enough food to go around. Camp Nash, along with the Navy and CDC, implores the girls to stay alive and wait for help to come.

But it’s been a year and a half. How long can they hold on?

Spoiler alert: not much longer. When Byatt falls ill – by which I mean extremely ill, sicker than the others and in such bad shape that she cannot get around on her own – and is sent up to the super-secretive infirmary wing of the school, it sets in motion a chain of events that will bring everything to a head. Everyone at Raxter misses someone, or something. The question becomes, to what depths are they willing to sink to get it?

Wilder Girls is such a great story – true, edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle reading. The characters are complex and compelling; the dynamics between Hetty-Byatt and Hetty-Reese and Hetty-Byatt-Reese are fascinating, and there’s a really lovely f/f romance in here to boot. The atmosphere is sufficiently spooky and the adults make for great villains (or antiheroes, again depending on your POV). The writing is a thing of beauty, and the subversive feminist elements really make the story shimmer and sparkle (and assail you with painful insights). This is a memorable piece of feminist horror with a dystopian twist, and I can’t wait to see what Power does next.

Honestly, the only downside (and reason for the four-star rating) is the ending, which leaves things a little open-ended for me. Then again, wrapping things up with a shiny red bow would have felt cheap and dishonest, so there’s that.

I won’t say more for fear of spoiling things (it’s really best to go in cold I think), but the hype is real. Badass ladies (and male allies), you want to read this book.

(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: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (2018)

Friday, December 28th, 2018

The end comes not with a bang, but with a whimper.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape. THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.)

— 2.5 stars —

“You know, when young people come over, sometimes some of them talk about the end of the world,” Aileen said, breaking the silence and snapping Evan out of his woolgathering. He looked up from the plaid pattern on the vinyl tablecloth to the old woman’s face.

“They say that this is the end of the world. The power’s out and we’ve run out of gas and no one’s come up from down south. They say the food is running out and that we’re in danger. There’s a word they say too — ah . . . pock . . . ah . . .”

“Apocalypse?”

“Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway.”

Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.

“The world isn’t ending,” she went on. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world.”

Moon of the Crusted Snow starts out with a promising premise: how would the apocalypse play out on a remote Anishinaabe reservation in Canada, where food scarcity is common, connection to the grid is new and sometimes unreliable, and communication with the rest of the world is reliant on technology? Where the winter is long and punishing, especially without modern conveniences like electric heat and grocery stores? Throw in a migratory stream of white refugees looking to escape a failed society on land to which they’d previously banished this continent’s original habitants, and I’m in.

The result is actually kind of dull. The end of the world comes slowly, indeed. Told from the perspective of Evan Whitesky, a youngish father and employee of public works, the story unravels gradually, as the rez first loses satellite service (read: internet and tv), followed by cell service, satellite phones, and finally the power. Two of the nation’s young men, attending college in Gibson, return with eerie tales of a city abandoned. Then a stranger named Justin Scott, a sketchy paramilitary type, follows, effectively dividing the reservation into two camps.

This should be where the tension heightens – but really, most of the societal breakdown we see is of the bureaucratic variety. When people inevitably start freezing to death in the streets – and, later, their homes – I started to think that Scott’s ulterior motives would be unveiled…but no. The final reveal is, well, weird. Scott and his adherents are stealing bodies from the makeshift morgue and feasting on the dead. It’s almost presented in a way that…suggests the Anishinaabe are the only cultures in which cannibalism is taboo? Like Scott tricked his hapless followers into violating this sacred Anishinaabe code or something? But, like, white people aren’t rushing to eat human flesh either. That’s why movies like Alive hold such a curious fascination. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, and the cannibalism is just code for laziness, or taking the easy way out, in which case, sure. White privilege at its basest.

Either way, I almost DNF’ed it multiple times. But because I hate giving bad reviews, let me end on a positive note: Rice’s narrative provides a much-needed insight into reservation life.

(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: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah (2018)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

I had such high hopes for this one!

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

When I got to the Panah, I was unused to the sight of women’s bodies not swollen and distorted by pregnancy. It seemed wrong, at first, as if something was missing. It took me months to realize that a woman’s stomach wasn’t always convex; that its default state was not always filled with another being.

DNF at 59%, because life is too short to spend time on books that just aren’t doing it for you.

Set in the kind-of distant future, Before She Sleeps imagines a world wherein women are a scarce commodity. Nuclear war and climate change have drastically altered the landscape of South West Asia (and, indeed, the world), while a gender-specific virus has wiped out a majority of its female citizens. In the resulting chaos and power vacuum, an authoritarian order known as the Authority seized control.

Within the borders of Green City, life is strictly regimented – for everyone, but women especially. Women are not allowed to: work outside the home, keep journals, choose their own husbands (or number thereof), or use contraception, obtain abortions, or engage in family planning of any sort. They are required to maintain public profiles, so that men can shop for them online like so many consumer goods (unlike laptops, though, women cannot be bought or sold – only the Perpetuation Bureau can assign a Wife a new Husband); undergo rigorous and routine physical exams, including fertility monitoring; and accept as many Husbands – and pregnancies – as the Bureau deems fit.

It’s the inverse of fundamentalist Mormons, yet somehow women get the short end of the stick in this arrangement too (shocking, that!). Ostensibly, women are precious cargo to be treated with care and respect: in Green City, “it [is] a capital crime to hit or abuse a woman.” However, rape is a de facto part of the marriage system, as women are not permitted to choose their partners, nor deny them “life-giving” sex. After all, that is a woman’s sole purpose in society: to bear as many children as possible.

Yet girls and women still find ways to resist. Some children hide messages for each other, illicit forms of communication in a society where females are given precious little opportunity to interact with one another. On the more extreme end are the runaways, the fugitives, the disappeared women. Some of these women find their way to the Panah, a refuge located in a long-forgotten underground bunker on the outskirts of town. There they work as escorts, but instead of sex, they deal in emotional intimacy, something sorely lacking in these modern, dystopian marriages. Within this backdrop, we meet Lin, the niece of one of the Panah’s founders; Sabine, who escaped an early marriage arranged by her own father; and Rupa, who longs to return to society, despite the miseries it rained down upon her as a girl.

Before She Sleeps sounds like it should be right up my alley: I love dystopias, doubly so if they have a feminist bent, and I am a total Margaret Atwood fangirl. (Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale never fail to reel me in.) This seemed like a slam dunk. And, while I adore the concept, the actual execution left much to be desired. For lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, Before She Sleeps just didn’t do it for me.

Each chapter alternates between a different character’s perspective. This was all fine and good when it was just Lin, Sabine, and Rupa – but once Shah tossed in a few of Green City’s male denizens mid-book, it got to be a little too much for me. Moreover, I never really got a sense of each character’s distinct personality; the overall writing style felt pretty uniform across chapters. Oftentimes the character’s physical reactions felt overdone to the point of a bad B movie script. When imagining how some scenes might play out, all I could picture were comically terrible improv actors. Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it.

There are also quite a few info dumps – which, it must be said, isn’t always a mood killer for me, but here they often popped up in weird and awkward places. To wit: As Reuben races across town to retrieve his illicit mistress’s illegal girl, passed out unconscious in the street and maybe dying of who knows what, his thoughts randomly wander to … how he became one of the most powerful men in Green City? I mean, seriously! More likely that train of thought would go something like this: “OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT FUCK WHAT AM I GONNA DO WE ARE SO FUCKED OH SHIT PLEASE DON’T LET THERE BE A RED LIGHT OH FUCK ME FUCK THIS FUCK EVERYTHING I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT I NEED A VACATION.”

So, yeah, file this one in the “devastating disappointment” drawer. Bummer!

(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: War Mother by Fred Van Lente, Stephen Segovia, & Tomás Giorello (2018)

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Works well as a standalone story.

three out of five stars

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

It’s the 41st century, and humanity – at least that which remains on earth – has evolved into something different: cyborgs, trogs, scavs, and urbanites. Deep within the unforgiving jungle, small enclaves of survivors exist, eking out a precarious living. The citizens of the Grove are among the luckiest. A former research facility, the Grove is a sentient settlement that’s largely self-sufficient. Controlled by the chieftain/consciousness Sylvan, the Grove manufactures most of what its citizens need: food, clothing, tech. Ana – the tribe’s War Mother – scavenges the rest.

In accordance with the Grove’s maxim – “Bring back nothing living” – Ana was bred to be barren, her body a hostile host to all potential biological invaders, from bacteria to fetuses. This rule served the Grove well – that is, until the day Ana returned with a young orphan boy she rescued from trogs. The resulting conflict ended in Sylvan’s death. Without its mind, the Grove began to wither and die.

When a millennia-old signal from a refuge called the Montana reaches the Grove, Ana sets out to see whether it’s habitable. With her AI gun Flaco at her side, the War Mother just might lead her people to safety – or ruin.

I didn’t realize it when I downloaded this title, but War Mother is an offshoot of another series, 4001 A.D. Luckily, it works well as a standalone story. Van Lente does a good job of laying out the plot for us noobs. It’s a compelling enough story, and the artwork complements the gritty, post-apocalyptic feel nicely. I love the scenes with Ana and Flaco, which is no surprise, because AI rights is an interest of mine.

On the downside, I thought the subplot with Ana and her husband Ignacio was a distraction at best, and a cliché at worst (women who can’t/don’t have children aren’t real women and so it’s only natural for their husbands to cheat on them. Add in the fact that she’s a badass warrior woman, i.e. not suitably feminine, and … vomit. I’m with Max, Ignacio is by no means a worthy “mate” for her.)

Also the descriptions of the future tech often sounded totally made up, like words that are supposed to sound all scientific and impressive but don’t really say much of anything. For all I know, though, they’re a callback to more detailed explanations in 4001 A.D. and I’m being a total idgit right now.

(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: Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma, & Valentine De Landro

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

“Lean in, can you hear it?”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic galley for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for plot points involving rape, misogyny, and transphobia.)

About a month ago Goodreads started sending me emails every time I marked a book read: “You finished Heart-Shaped Box. What’s next?” Usually I just send them to the trash without a second thought; just another gimmick to increase engagement, you know? But the one for Bitch Planet? Kind of gave me pause.

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What comes next after that dope ass ending? I NEED TO KNOW! As for ideas on what we can do in the meantime? I’m down (though I somehow doubt that, say, volunteering as a clinic escort or showing up to your state capitol building in full Handmaid regalia will make Goodreads’ top ten suggestions).

So I really dug the first volume, Extraordinary Machine, when it came out in October 2015. I think I even pre-ordered it, something I rarely do, on the strength of DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly (which was released earlier that year, and I cannot recommend strongly enough). It was smart and unapologetic and feminist as fuck, with a diverse and believable cast of characters. (Black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women – a disparity that’s only like to worsen under the Protectorate.)

When I reread Extraordinary Machine prior to diving into the second volume, my love for it only grew*: in today’s political climate, wherein nearly 63 million of my fellow citizens voted a reality tv buffoon and admitted sexual assailant into the White House (due in no small part to a backlash against the first black President in addition to sexism and misogyny), dystopias like Bitch Planet seem more trenchant than ever.

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And President Bitch? Well, it’s even better than its predecessor. (With a name like that, was there any doubt?) Fittingly, the volume starts off with fallen hero Meiko’s backstory – which spans a full issue and includes a prominent trigger warning for rape. Equal parts heart-rending and amazing, it left me in awe of the entire Maki clan – father Makoto in particular.

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The narrative then picks up more or less where Extraordinary Machine left off, only shit doesn’t go down quite how you’d expect. Kam finds who/what she’s looking for (how did I miss that foreshadowing in Volume 1!?), the N.C.s realize they’re not the only “auxiliary compliance outpost” on their ship, and we meet President Bitch – a black woman who’s been labeled a terrorist by the (largely white, all-male) Protectorate. Naturally.

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Things go sideways before you can say “Illegitimi non carborundum,” and Volume 2 ends with a challenge, and a promise: as long as the women of earth and space have each other’s backs, the resistance lives. All hail President Bitch!

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing, Lauren Beukes (2016)

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women.)

a is for algebra

“It’s all equations,” she says. “It’s all explainable.” Like we could break down the whole universe into factors and exponents and multiples of x. Like there is no mystery to anything at all.

“Okay, what about love?” I shoot back, irritated at her practicality.

And she ripostes with: “Fine. xx + xy = xxx.”

She has to explain the bit about chromosomes. This is her idea of a dirty joke. Later, I wonder if this was also her idea of a come-on.

(“Alegbra”)

Don’t worry, she repeats, her back to him, laying out things with serrated edges and conducting pads and blunt wrenching teeth. You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.

(“Unaccounted”)

Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.

(“Slipping”)

I love Lauren Beukes, and I generally dig short stories – especially those belonging to the SF/dystopia genre. So I was pretty psyched to get my hands on an early copy of Slipping, Beukes’s very first collection of short fiction and non-fiction essays. (There’s also 2014’s Pop Tarts and Other Stories, which I’m not counting since it’s comprised of just three short stories – all of which appear here.)

Slipping starts off a little meh; not meh-bad, but meh-disappointing for a writer of this caliber. The titular “Slipping,” told from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl who was recruited by investors and remade into a bio-engineered athlete after losing both legs in an accident, boasts some wonderful world-building – but the story’s religious aspects ultimately turned me off. Much to my relief, things start to pick up with the fourth story, “Branded” (corporate-sponsored nanotech) and mostly just get better from there.

The fiction generally has a science fiction/dystopian bent, with a few fantasy and contemporary pieces mixed in. There’s even a fairy tale of sorts: a modern-day retelling of “The Princess of the Pea” that’s both a critique of celebrity culture and an ode to female masturbation that (spoiler alert!) is all kinds of awesome. While all are unique and imaginative, a few themes are common across many of the stories: transhumanism, e.g. through technological advancements in prosthetics, nanotech, neuroanatomy, etc.; an erosion of privacy/the rise in the surveillance state; and a rise in corporate control, most notably over our bodies and selves.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight, Lily Brooks-Dalton (2016)

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

A character-driven story driven by two very boring characters.

three out of five stars

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

“But you are a scientist. You understand how this works. We study the universe in order to know, yet in the end the only thing we truly know is that all things end—all but death and time. It’s difficult to be reminded of that”—he patted her hand where it lay on the table—“but it’s harder to forget.”

The basic premise of Good Morning, Midnight immediately reminded me of the opening scenes of The Walking Dead: protagonist Rick Grimes awakens from a coma, only to be greeted by a world he barely recognizes. Entire buildings, blocks, cities, all in shambles. Radio, internet, and satellite communication (mostly) down. His wife and son missing. The dead come back to life; zombies (sorry, walkers!) as far as the eye can see.

Ever since the show’s premier (not a huge fan of the comics, sorry!), this idea has fascinated me: what must it be like to return to the world after a prolonged absence – whether voluntary (a cruise) or not (a coma), mundane (a hiking trip) or the truly spectacular (terraforming Mars!) – only to find it radically transformed? To the stuff of nightmares? And you’re the last woman standing?

Good Morning, Midnight plays with this idea in the form of two survivors, both of whom exist – by chance or by choice, for a time or permanently – in the margins of humanity.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan (2016)

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

A story about apocalypses, both personal and communal.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and transmisogyny.)

—Are you staring right at the sun? Stella asks.
—I’m staring right under it.
—You’ll go blind.
—No, I won’t. I was taught how to by the sunlight pilgrims, they’re from the islands farthest north. You can drink light right down into your chromosomes, then in the darkest minutes of winter, when there is a total absence of it, you will glow and glow and glow. I do, she says.
—You glow?
—Like a fucking angel, she says.

She’s not worried about breasts and she doesn’t want rid of her penis, small as it is, not if it means getting an operation anyway. She just wants smooth skin and her girl voice and to leave wolf prints in the snow each morning.

It is funny how he always thought she was a hero when he was a little boy, but he had no idea exactly how much that was true.

The Sunlight Pilgrims isn’t quite what I expected. Usually when I say this about a book, it’s with at least a hint of disappointment. Not so in this case! The Sunlight Pilgrims may not be the book I wanted, but it’s exactly the book I needed.

To me, the word “caravan” evokes action, movement, journeys (preferably epic ones). The synopsis brought to mind a group of daring travelers, weaving through the mountainous countryside, trying in vain to stay ahead of the harsh winter (and, presumably, the violence, looting, riots, starvation, poverty, etc. that are sure to follow). I guess I overlooked the word “park,” not realizing that caravans are to the UK what trailers are to the US: mostly stationary homes. Thus, what we get is a story that’s a little less Mad Max and a little more mundane: a small, remote town in the Scottish Highlands preparing for the worst winter in two hundred years. Perilous, yes, but minus the action and adventure I expected.

Likewise, this isn’t necessarily the apocalypse. Set a mere four years in the future, conditions are dire, to be sure: climate change and melting ice caps have led to a a global cooling in temperatures. The Thames is overflowing (and then frozen solid); an iceberg nicknamed Boo is expected to make contact with the Scottish coast; and experts predict that temperatures in some regions will drop as low as -50 degrees. Many people will die of starvation or will freeze to death. Blackouts are common; internet connections are down. Rioting, looting, protests, and violence are commonplace. Things are very, very bad. But is it the end of the world? Maybe, maybe not.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Wolf Road, Beth Lewis (2016)

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

A thrilling plot + a scrappy antihero + a familiar-yet-not setting = a novel that belongs on the top of your TBR pile!

five out of five stars

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

“Change” was one a’ them words I weren’t too friendly with. Nana told me I had to change when she caught me skinning a rabbit. Man in Ridgeway once told me I’d never get a husband the way I was. Only person never to tell me to change was Kreagar, and that’s because, way he saw it, I was already just the same as him.

Memories ain’t no one’s friend. They show you all the good things you had, all the good things you lost, and don’t let you forget all the bad shit in between.

I kept chewing. No matter what was about to happen, I’d eat as much as I could afore shots fired.

When Elka was seven years old, a freak storm destroyed her two-room shack in the forest beyond Ridgeway. She survived, but was hopelessly lost: the thunderhead deposited Elka – and the table she was clinging to – deep into the Thick Woods. After much wandering, she found a shack even smaller than her nana’s – one with strips of jerky curing on the porch. Starving, Elka swiped some meat, causing the owner of the shack to give chase. Eventually she’d come to think of this man as Trapper, then daddy – for he ultimately took Elka in and raised her as his own, teaching her the ways of the forest: hunting, tracking, trapping, skinning, curing. He showed Elka how to survive in the wild, though she learned little of the human world (“BeeCee”) beyond the trees.

During a rare trip into Dalston, a chance encounter with The Law – in the form of cold-as-ice Magistrate Jennifer Lyon – upends seventeen-year-old Elka’s world yet again: Kreagar Hallet, the man she knows as Trapper, is wanted for the murders of eight women and one child. Her home destroyed – metaphorically and literally burned to the ground by the redcoats – Elka decides to travel north to Halveston (seven hundred miles, give or take!) in search of her parents. They left Elka with her maternal grandmother when she was just a baby so they could find their riches in gold.

Yet Kreagar isn’t willing to let Elka go – and neither is Magistrate Lyon: the former is convinced that Elka dropped the dime on him; the latter, that Elka was involved in the murders. As she makes the treacherous journey north, Elka must evade capture, by enemies both known and not. Bloodthirsty, misogynistic Satanists; human traffickers; lakes made poisonous by nuclear bombs; garden-variety trolls and creepers; cannibals; and – perhaps most alarmingly – human attachments: all stand between Elka and her long-lost parents. Yet with her friends Wolf and Penelope by her side, Elka stands a fighting chance.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Some Possible Solutions, Helen Phillips (2016)

Monday, May 30th, 2016

Tales With Teeth

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.)

Once something I wrote made the judge of a contest indignant. He wrote, “This is something that this woman should share with her husband alone, if with anyone, and probably not even with him.”

If there’s one passage that best encapsulates Some Possible Solutions: Stories, it would be this.

Helen Phillips’s second collection of short fiction is vulgar, imposing, and (at times) weirdly funny: all of which I mean as a compliment. Phillips sees your appeals to smile and act like a lady and raises them with the shocker – flashed while sporting an oh-so-snarky smirk, of course.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the author’s penchant for bodily fluids and other gross things (“Flesh and Blood,” I’m looking at you!), the eighteen stories in Some Possible Solutions deal with Very Adult Matters: marriage and parenthood; growing up and growing apart; watching your parents age, sometimes ahead of their time, and the cosmic betrayal this entails; loneliness and (too much) togetherness; and sometimes smothering societal norms.

While I found the collection entertaining enough, I often felt left in the dust, unsure of what to think or how to interpret what I’d just read. Many of these stories are downright surreal. Usually when reading anthologies I’ll take notes, assigning a starred rating to each piece and summarizing it briefly to help with the coming review. My notes for Some Possible Solutions? Kind of a mess. See, e.g., “Game,” “How I Began To Bleed Again After Six Alarming Months Without,” and “The Worst,” the summaries of which read “I have no idea!,” “WEIRD.,” and “WTF,” respectively. I wasn’t even sure how to rate a few of the stories. That said, I didn’t give any story less than three stars, and even these are enjoyable reads.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Fireman, Joe Hill (2016)

Monday, May 16th, 2016

Joe Hill strikes again!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racist/sexist language, violence, and sexual assault.)

It was them making the light. They were all of them tattooed with loops and whorls of Dragonscale, which glowed like fluorescent paint under a black light, hallucinatory hues of cherry wine and blowtorch blue. When they opened their mouths to sing, Harper glimpsed light painting the insides of their throats, as if each of them were a kettle filled with embers. […]

Harper felt she had never seen anything so frightening or beautiful.

“You know what the kids say.”
“I have no idea what the kids say. What do they say?”
“She came back from the eighties to save mankind. Martha Quinn is our only hope.”

The hens are clucking. Harper thought it would be a toss-up, which term for women she hated more: bitch or hen. A hen was something you kept in a cage, and her sole worth was in her eggs. A bitch, at least, had teeth.

The year is 2018-ish (if Martha Quinn’s approximate age is a reliable guidepost), and the world is on fire. A fungus called Draco incendia trychophyton – Dragonscale in lay terms, ‘scale for short – is making the rounds, leaving ashes and chaos in its wake. Once it finds a host, the spore spreads and propagates, infiltrating its victim’s blood, tissue, and organs – including the brain, with which it forms an intimate bond. The first sign of infection is the strangely beautiful markings it leaves on its host’s skin – dark tattoos that shimmer with flecks of gold.

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Book Review: The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron), Margaret Atwood (2015)

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

“Never mind which wife is whose,” says Jocelyn. “We can’t waste time on the sexual spaghetti.”

How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?

The dystopian society at the heart of The Heart Goes Last is surprisingly mundane – which makes it all the more chilling. Stan and Charmaine live in the northeastern United States, which has been hit especially hard by the latest recession. Things went to ratshit seemingly overnight (“Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated currency. Not enough jobs, too many people.”). Charmaine’s company, an upscale retirement chain called Ruby Slippers, scaled back its eastern operations, leaving Charmaine out of a job; Stan’s position at Dimple Robotics soon followed. They held onto their cozy starter home as long as they could, but before you can say “outsourcing,” they’d lost that too. From solidly middle class to homeless, in the blink of an eye.

Now they sleep in their car, surviving on the meager wages Charmaine earns waiting tables in a seedy bar, desperately searching for work and trying to stay ahead of the roving gangs of thieves and rapists that own the streets come nightfall. So when Charmaine spots an ad for the Positron Project – an experimental city/prison in Consilience – the two are understandably quick to sign their lives away. Full employment, zero crime, free housing – and the only way you can leave is in a pine box. But why would anyone want to abandon the safety of these walls to go back out there? You can’t eat freedom, yo.

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Book Review: The Well, Catherine Chanter (2015)

Monday, May 25th, 2015

One person’s paradise is another person’s perdition.

three out of five stars

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

There is one last emotion, though, which I have not anticipated. I am feeling smug. There, you thought you were just guarding a middle-aged crank who had delusions of grandeur, but now you’ll have to think twice, smart-arse.

Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day. I dance like a witch doctor around the sitting room.

Determined to salvage her marriage – not to mention what’s left of her husband’s sanity – Ruth Ardingly agrees to trade in her London home for a small farm in the country. Hailing from a long line of farmers, it was always Mark’s dream to work the land, reveling in nature and solitude and self-sufficiency. Yet he forfeited these plans when, as a college student, he met and fell in love with Ruth – already pregnant from a one-night stand. Instead, he pursued a law degree, committed himself to Ruth and their daughter Angie, and settled for an ordinary, middle-class existence.

And then came the child pornography, discovered on his work laptop. Though Mark was investigated and eventually exonerated, that didn’t stop the harassment and social ostracization. So Ruth acquiesced, hoping that the change of scenery and fresh air would do them both a world of good. Perhaps it might have, had the move not come smack dab in the middle of a drought – a drought to which their new, thirty-acre paradise seems immune.

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Book Review: City of Savages, Lee Kelly (2015)

Monday, May 4th, 2015

A Wild Ride through Post-Apocalyptic Manhattan

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)

Somehow this ruthless city is home to my sister. Where for me, it will never, ever be more than a cage.

If no one’s out there, then what’s keeping us in?

Sisters Skyler and Phoenix Miller were born and raised in Manhattan; from the wild forests of Central Park to the gleaming glass apartments in Battery Park, the island is the only home they’ve ever known. But their home is also their prison. Along with several hundred fellow survivors, Sky and Phee are prisoners of war: World War III, in which the Red Allies (China, North Korea, and Russia) simultaneously attacked New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco, with the ultimate goal of conquering the United States. That was more than sixteen years ago, in March of 2016, and still the war rages on.

When Manhattan was first attacked, a lucky few survivors found safety in the subway tunnels – including their mother, Sarah. But as the months dragged on and supplies dwindled, many of the refugees were forced to the surface, to beg the Red Allies for mercy. Though most of the men were shot on sight, the women and children were imprisoned in cages once meant for lions and tigers: the Central Park Zoo, now transformed into an internment camp.

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Book Review: The Blondes: A Novel, Emily Schultz (2015)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

“Wow!” is right!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, forced pregnancy, and allusions to rape. This review contains minor spoilers, which are clearly marked.)

If you survive, the world you grow up in will be one that has experienced intense panic and distrust, violence and hysteria – though that’s a loaded word. I don’t think I would have used it before this past year. But now? All of us living with a disease that affects only girls and women? Hysteria is so bang on.

Authorities are now able to track the progression of symptoms, which are indeed similar to rabies. The public is advised to be wary – and here the prompter went into a list of symptoms – of women with raised voices, acting violently…

Lumbering, limping, exhibiting imbalance…

Flailing or throwing any object…

Grimacing, displaying a downturned expression…

“We’re not allowed to have downturned expressions?” the girl beside me muttered. “I mean,” she said a bit louder but still to me, “what if we’re just worried? In a bad mood? PMS?”

Several heads turned to look at her. It must have made her nervous because she ran her hand back through her hair. She was pale as an elephant’s tusk. […]

As I finished my sandwich, it occurred to me that the news captions on TV had all been directed at men. There was nothing about the symptoms women should look for in themselves.

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DNF Review: The Dead Lands, Benjamin Percy (2015)

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Didn’t hold my interest.

three out of five stars

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

DNF at 45%.

As far as they know, the citizens of the Sanctuary – located in what was once downtown St. Louis – are all that’s left of humanity. It’s been 150 years since the H3L1 flu (HELL – get it?) brought about the apocalypse; and several generations since a refugee has approached the Sanctuary’s towering wall, begging for admittance (only to be shot on sight). Surrounded by a desert wasteland crawling with monstrous mutations, squeezed on all sides by an unrelenting drought, what was meant as a place of asylum has devolved into a prison of sorts, marred by hunger, poverty, and inequity.

While some still dare to dream – of connecting with other communities, traveling to places where water falls freely, perhaps one day rebuilding the United States of America – giving voice to one’s hopes has become increasingly dangerous since Thomas Lancer was elected Mayor. Once reserved for murderers and rapists, public executions have become a means of silencing dissent.

But when a strange young woman, with eyes as wide and black as night, arrives at the gate bearing a cryptic letter, a small group of defectors decides to hasten their escape plan. Led by Wilhelmina “Mina” Clark, a sentry/ranger, and Lewis Meriwether (Lewis and Clark – get it?), the curator of the Sanctuary’s museum who seems to possess powers every bit as weird as those of the foreigner Gawea, the group sets off for Gawea’s home in Oregon, battling giant spiders and human-sized bats along the way.

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Book Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star, Sandra Newman (2015)

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

You Reading. Is Bone.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Major trigger warning for rape, human trafficking, forced abortion and sterilization, violence, and scenes of war.)

These be the Sengles in the time I speak of, when my trouble grown. Of baby children, be Bother Zero Tool, the Answer Zero Ka, Fine One Ndiaye, Bell Eyes One Ndiaye, and Lolina-tina One Diouf, Crow’s child with Mari’s Ghost. Be healthy screaming babies, they got grandy rolls of fat. These all got mothers living but the twins Bell Eyes and Fine.

Of littles, there be Dinty Moore Two Fall who cannot hear, Naomi Two Forgotten, Maple Two Diop who be a son of John of Christ, Mohammed Three Insulting, Story Four Duval that has got reddish hair, Problem Four Tool, Luvanna-Lana Five of Lowell, Best Creature Five Wang who is misname and be annoying, Mustapha Five Insulting, Dollar Saver Six Fall, a fine enchanting little who can sing, Baboucar Seven Grandpa, Jeep Cherokee Seven Skips and Foxen Seven Fall. The mother of all three Falls be alive but gone to Lowell, now name Lowell Second Plumber and got posies bad.

Of the eights and nines, there be my vally Keepers Eight Fofana, worth all other children, and her favorite hatred Mouse Eight Wang. Progresso Nine Wilson and My Sorrow Nine Wang been solo-animoses for some years, ain’t speak with never another child.

Then come Marlboro Ten Tete-Brisee and Kool Ten Tete-Brisee, twins, birdcatcher-age and lean. Shiny Eleven Angels be a prettieuse and flirtish girl that give bad sign of wisdom, for she dabbit after Crow. Shiny chosen her own name, this be the measure of her wits. Redbook Twelve Ba, Bowl Thirteen Tete-Brisee and Cat Fancy Thirteen Ba all go ridiculous in love with Driver. They tend the littles and tell reveries one to the other, all day long. Jonah Fourteen Feet the only weakly jones, and scary since his brother took to Lowell two years gone. Then come Jermaine Fourteen Uptown, Christing born and Christing seriose in gentleness. Jermaine be wisty for my love, and many Lowells also and some Christings sleeping hungry for my love.

Next be Tequila Fourteen Tool, Mari’s Ghost Fourteen Diouf, Hate You Fourteen Ka, and Asha Badmouth Fifteen Feet. Then come my place. Then come malicieuse Crow Sixteen Doe, and Villa Seventeen Insulting, fool infatuate for any male. When she ain’t bother males, she eat, that be the list of what she do. Last come my Driver, which make thirty-eight in Sengle town.

These been my Sengles in the year when Driver been our sergeant; time that kindly John been husband of the Christing fellowship; when the Lowells’ El Mayor been Sengle born and Sengle brave. Mamadou was NewKing of Mass Armies, savage like his people – yet the child have dignity and sense, best of the worst.

Fat luck been the story of this year. Snares ever struggling full, and every arrow find a turkey. Any a sleeper street we did maraud, that street give food. We war like twenty guns, but no one injure. Sling our hammocks in the crowns of sycamores like secret birds, and rest there, chattering and smoking, noses to the stars. Children forgot the taste of hunger and the touch of fear.

Yo when Driver sicken, this the happiness we lose.

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Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey (2014)

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Curse the children, for they are our future.

five out of five stars

NOT EVERY GIFT IS A BLESSING.

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.

Every once in a while, I’m accused of providing too much information in my reviews: vague hints and sly winks, plot details, even outright spoilers. And while it’s true that my reviews tend to be wordy, I almost always try to avoid spoilers, and clearly mark them when they do appear. But I’m reluctant say much of anything here, for the journey into Melanie’s world – beyond that hinted at in the deliciously vague book description – is half the fun.

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Book Review: Diverse Energies, Tobias S. Buckell and Joe Monti, eds. (2012)

Monday, February 9th, 2015

A Strong Collection of Diverse Dystopian Stories

four out of five stars

No one can doubt that the wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed, but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men. No one can doubt that cooperation in the pursuit of knowledge must lead to the freedom of the mind and freedom of the soul.

– President John F. Kennedy, from a speech at University of California, March 23, 1962

Maybe your claim is that Dungeons & Dragons is based on a fantasy feudal Europe? Maybe your game is, but the whole point is that you can make whatever game you want; a diverse cast in your illustration just encourages that. And for that matter, are you seriously telling me that you think having a person with darker skin is somehow more of a strain on your suspension of disbelief than…a lizard lady or a devil dude?

– Mordicai Knode, writing for Tor.com, April 11, 2012

Inspired by online discussions of diversity in literature (see, e.g. RaceFail 2009), Joe Monti and Tobias S. Buckell set out to create a diverse anthology of dystopian stories that feature people of color and LGBTQ protagonists: “not a brick thrown at a window, [but] the continued paving of a path” – a path toward stories that reflect the entire spectrum of the human experience. Diverse Energies is a wonderful step in this direction – and yet, six years later, the continuing debate about representation in books, movies, video games, and other forms of media (most recently, via the We Need Diverse Books campaign) underscores the fact that there’s so much work yet to be done.

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Book Review: Captive (The Blackcoat Rebellion, #2), Aimee Carter (2014)

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Et tu, Kitty?

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Also, unmarked spoilers abound for PAWN, while spoilers for CAPTIVE are clearly marked.)

Three weeks have passed since Kitty Doe shot and killed the Hart family matriarch, Augusta, in self-defense; since Augusta’s son, Prime Minister Daxton Hart, awoke from a coma, revealing to Kitty that his claims of amnesia were a ruse; since Celia Hart and her daughter Lila went into hiding, leaving Kitty to continue passing as Lila, both to ensure Benjy’s safety and foment a revolution.

Just three short weeks, and already Kitty and her pretend fiancé, Knox, are at each others’ throats.

After sacrificing so much for The Blackcoats, Kitty feels neglected and used; while she spent the past few weeks touring the country, speechifying and rabble-rousing on their behalf, her allies planned and plotted without her. Now she’s back, but still out of the loop; no one seems to want her opinion, let alone her help. And so she takes a silly, stupid risk, ostensibly to prove that she’s more useful than they think. She breaks into Daxton’s office to retrieve a file – proof that Daxton isn’t really Daxton, but rather an imposter – and is promptly caught, convicted of treason, and sent to the dreaded Elsewhere.

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