Book Review: Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny (2016)

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Entertaining and thought-provoking, this novella left me wanting more. (Sooooo much more!)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

“All I wanted was to make something small and bright and good, something that lasted a little while, a little while longer than I did. All I wanted was to push back against the darkness just a little bit. To live in the cracks in capitalism with the people I care about, just for a little while. But it turns out I can’t even have that. And now I just want to burn shit down.”

It’s the turn of the century – the 21st, to be exact – and humanity has finally discovered the fountain of youth. It comes in the form of a little blue pill that will cost you $200 a pop on the black market; a little less, if you’re one of the lucky few who has insurance. Most don’t, as this “weaponization of time” has only exacerbated class inequality.

Only the wealthiest citizens can afford life-extension drugs; regular folks deemed “important to society” – scientists, artists, musicians, the occasional writer – may receive a sponsorship to continue their work, but ultimately they live and age and die at the whim of those more powerful than they. Show a modicum of concern for the working class, and you just might find your sponsorship revoked.

Alex, Nina, Margo, Fidget, and Jasper are a group of artist/activists living in a dilapidated, mouse- and mold-infested flat in the underside of Oxford city. They work day jobs where they can find them, but their real passion is playing at Robin Hood. A few times a week, they load up their food truck with cheese sammies or mystery stews made of reclaimed food, and distribute free meals to Oxford’s neediest citizens. At the bottom of each foodstuff is a happy meal surprise: a little blue pill, most likely stolen. One per person, no second helpings.

(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: Heartless, Marissa Meyer (2016)

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Whimsical and tragic, an inspired origin story for the Queen of Hearts.

five out of five stars

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

She would be queen, and queens … queens did not open bakeries with their best friends. Queens did not gossip with half-invisible cats. Queens did not have dreams of yellow-eyed boys and wake up with lemon trees over their beds.

The Fox folded her hands and recited,
One to be a murderer, the other to be martyred,
One to be a monarch, the other to go mad.

Was he mad already? She couldn’t help inspecting him, newly speculative and curious. He didn’t seem mad. No more mad than anyone else she knew. No more mad than she was herself. They were all a little mad, if one was to be forthright.

Lady Catherine Pinkerton is in love … with baked goods.

The kitchen is her sanctuary: a refuge from a hyper-critical, socially ambitious mother; a meek father; and all the expectations that come with her social status – learning embroidery, attending balls, hanging out with the haughty best friend she can hardly stand. There’s nothing she enjoys more than dusting powdered sugar on a recently cooled lemon tart, or kneading bread dough until she’s ready to drop. She loves eating sweets, and sharing them with others: what quicker way to a stranger’s heart than through her stomach?

Cath dreams of opening a bakery with her best friend/family servant (one of several), Mary Anne. Mr. Caterpillar the cobbler is set to retire, leaving his storefront vacant, and its busy location would make the perfect home for SWEETS AND TARTS: THE MOST WONDROUS BAKERY IN ALL OF HEARTS.

Though her dream is almost adorable in its simplicity, the obstacles that stand in Cath’s way are anything but. As the only daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, Cath is its sole heir. Baking is considered unladylike – at least for ladies belonging to the royal class – and besides, she’s expected to marry and have children. In fact, her scheming mother has one particularly illustrious suitor in mind: the King of Hearts. He’s a nice enough guy, but fifteen years Cath’s senior, rather silly and daft – and baby-crazy, to boot.

The arrival of the King’s new Joker – on the night he’s set to propose to Cath, nonetheless – only complicates matters further. A mysterious man who makes the impossible possible, with eyes the “color of sunflowers and butterscotch and lemons hanging heavy on their boughs” and dark, curly hair, Jest is the man of Cath’s dreams. Literally: she was chasing him the night her dreams grew a lemon tree over her bed. The very same tree that bore the lemons she used to make the tarts she baked for her King/future husband. (Maybe.) Oh, what a fantastic mess!

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: When the Moon Was Ours, Anna-Marie McLemore (2016)

Monday, October 24th, 2016

“And she told me a story yesterday/About the sweet love between the moon and the deep blue sea”

four out of five stars

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

Someday, he and Miel would be nothing but a fairy tale. When they were gone from this town, no one would remember the exact brown of Miel’s eyes, or the way she spiced recado rojo with cloves, or even that Sam and his mother were Pakistani. At best, they would remember a dark-eyed girl, and a boy whose family had come from somewhere else. They would remember only that Miel and Sam had been called Honey and Moon, a girl and a boy woven into the folklore of this place.

The closer she got to him, the more she felt it in her roses, like a moon pulling on a sea.

Miel and Samir are the odd ones out in their small town. In a sea of white faces, their brown skin marks them as different (she, Latina; he, Pakistani); and in this tight-knit community, their outsider status is only compounded by the fact that they were not born here.

Sam’s story is somewhat mundane, or so he thinks: his mother, Yasmin, arrived in search of work. Miel’s origins are a bit more fantastical and mysterious: as a child, she arrived on a wave of rust-brown water, spit out by the abandoned water tower when it was deemed a safety hazard and finally brought down. Angry and hysterical (and no doubt disoriented), Miel kicked and screamed; something about losing the moon. Just a child himself, Sam was the only one brave enough to approach this dangerous, feral girl. He wrapped her in his jacket, soothed her with her voice, and returned the moon to her, one hand-painted, candle-lit orb at a time.

From that point on, they were inseparable, each one half of a whole: Miel and Samir. Honey and Moon. The cursed girl from whose wrist roses grow, and the boy who everyone insists on calling a girl. The girl who’s terrified of pumpkins and water, and the boy who helps pumpkins grow.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt (2016)

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Edelweiss/Library Thing. Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence.)

Once again, Iris thought, here she was, undone by love and mad with grief because of it. She had seen that poster in Lucy’s room, that ridiculous sentiment that you don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to you, but if we find each other, it’s beautiful. What a stupid thing to say! Of course people belonged to each other. Love owned you. It kept you captive.

At sixty-seven, Iris Gold had long since given up on having children. She and her late husband Doug were never quite able; and, when she broached the idea of adopting, he insisted that he didn’t want to raise children who weren’t his own, biologically speaking.

But after a long and loving – if unconventional – marriage, Doug passed away in his sixties, felled in his beloved garden by a heart attack. Initially grief-stricken, Iris finally decided to carry on, as she always had done. Iris is nothing if not a survivor – a “tough old bird” – and this would hardly be the first time she’d had to fend for herself (the scandal!). So she decided to use the money Doug left her to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, but had never been able to go: Paris. Spain. Istanbul.: “The whole world was opening for her.”

Days before she was to depart for her new life, an unexpected phone call threw Iris Gold one more curve ball – and not the last. A man from Iris’s long-buried past had died suddenly; he and his wife perished in a club fire, leaving their two little girls orphaned. Five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte had no other relatives. Reluctantly, Iris canceled her plans and took the girls in. In her golden years, Iris finally got the life she’d always wanted; or almost, anyway. She fell in love quickly and deeply, as did Lucy; Charlotte was a little slower to come around, but come around she did.

Now it’s eleven years later; Lucy is a sophomore in high school, and Charlotte will be headed off to college in a few short months. But Iris’s life is upended again, when Lucy disappears on the last day of school. Though Iris doesn’t know it yet – won’t, for many months – Lucy ran off to the Pennsylvania wilderness to be with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo. In her wake, Lucy leaves behind a cryptic note assuring Iris and Charlotte of her safety – and a family that’s tattered and struggling, but surviving as best it can.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Last Seen Leaving, Caleb Roehrig (2016)

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

What happened to January Beth McConville?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and rape. This review contains a spoiler in the form of Flynn’s secret – but it’s revealed so early on that it’s not much of a spoiler, imho.)

“I won’t be your safeguard or your excuse or your problem anymore,” she spat suddenly, venomously. “Either admit the truth, or find a new place to hide, because I’m done!”

Her feet pounded across the shadowy hayloft, then descended the ladder, and then crossed the barn underneath me. I heard the door creak open, and caught a glimpse of her glowing blond hair as she jogged from the barn back into the trees, heading toward the meadow.

It was the last time I saw her. Those were the last words she spoke to me.

One crisp October afternoon, fifteen-year-old Flynn Doherty returns home after school, only to find a cop car parked conspicuously outside. Flynn’s girlfriend January McConville has been missing for nearly a week, and Flynn may have been the last person to see her. As if that fact isn’t damning enough, Flynn claims not to have known about January’s disappearance: since her mother and stepfather forcibly transferred her to Dumas, a private school for rich kids located on the other side of town, they’d been growing apart. In fact, January broke up with him right before she vanished. (Strike three!)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Lost and the Found, Cat Clark (2016)

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

On Children Lost and Found – and Overlooked and Forgotten

four out of five stars

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

Chances are, you have seen her. The photo of blond-haired, gap-toothed, polka-dot-dressed, teddy bear–cradling Laurel Logan has surely been printed in almost every newspaper in the world (probably even the Uzbekistan Times, now that I think about it). […]

I was also in the original photo: four years old, cute in the way that all four-year-olds are, but nothing special. Not like her. Frizzy brown hair, beady little eyes, hand-me-down clothes. I was playing in a sandbox in the background, slightly out of focus. That’s how it’s been my whole life: in the background, slightly out of focus. You hardly ever see that version of the photo—the one where I haven’t been cropped out.

I try to put myself in her shoes. Coming back to your family after all that time. You’d want things to be the same as when you left, wouldn’t you? But a lot can change in thirteen years. Your mother can wither away to nothingness, and your dad can get together with a lovely Frenchman, and your little sister can stop building sand castles and start building a wall around herself instead.

For as long as she can remember, seventeen-year-old Faith Logan has lived in her older sister’s shadow. When they were younger, Laurel was everything Faith was not: friendly, outgoing, and beautiful. Whereas Faith inherited their parents’ plain Jane, mousey looks – complete with frizzy brown hair and beady eyes – the adopted Laurel practically shined with her golden blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Laurel was the leader and Faith, her mostly-content follower. That is, until the day that Laurel was kidnapped from their front yard, lured away by a stranger promising ice cream cones.

In the intervening thirteen years, Laurel has overshadowed Faith in a much more tragic and morbid way. Their mother Olivia suffers from chronic depression, a melancholy broken only by the single-minded determination to find her missing daughter. Father John is more or less absent from his remaining daughter’s life; his new boyfriend Michel seems to do a better job of parenting Faith than the two combined. Unwilling to be perpetually cast as “Little Laurel Logan’s” sad and less interesting younger sister, Faith avoids publicity as assiduously as Olivia courts it: both to fund the never ending search for Laurel, and to keep her case alive in the public’s mind. Faith can count her friends on one hand, as too many of her peers seem to want to get close to her so they can be nearer tragedy. Rubberneckers and paparazzi vultures: these are the creatures she’s built up armor against.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Summerlong, Peter S. Beagle (2016)

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

But that ending!

three out of five stars

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

He could never have distinguished the rescued young orca of a week before from the rest of the pod, but there was no mistaking the slender figure poised on the slanting bluff that had long since been Joanna’s daffodil bed, before a tremor had sliced it in two. Lioness Lazos was standing there, not at all like a witch, arms raised to order tides and powers to her bidding, but as calmly as the great dorsals themselves: greeting, perhaps, but never commanding, even seeming at one point to wave them diffidently away. And still the orcas danced for her.

I can count the number of childhood favorites that have managed to hold up over time on one hand, and The Last Unicorn is of them. (The book and the animated film, which is a double rarity.) Up until Summerlong, it was also my only experience with Peter S. Beagle. I own several of his titles – The Innkeeper’s Song, The Line Between, Mirror Kingdoms; accumulated at garage and library sales, mostly – but so far they’ve been languishing in the middle of a ginormous TBR pile.

Summerlong is quite evocative of The Last Unicorn, yet still its own beast. It has the same quirky charm and dreamlike quality, but also feels much more adult. (Thanks in no small part to the older protagonists and copious – yet tasteful – sex scenes.) While the story does boast some wonderful elements – not the least of which is Beagle’s distinctive, fanciful writing – overall it fell a little short of my expectations. Which is perhaps a bit unfair: bound up as it is in all sorts of childhood feels and ’80s nostalgia, The Last Unicorn is maybe not the best (or most objective) reference point.

The story begins in February, with the arrival of a beautiful and mysterious stranger on Gardner Island. Lioness Lazos quickly and seamlessly integrates herself into island life, stumbling into a waitressing job at the Skyliner Diner – which is where Abe Aronson and his longtime girlfriend Joanna Delvecchio find her. Before the bill’s been settled, they have offered to let Lioness stay in Abe’s garage, rent-free. Being in close proximity to Lioness does that to a person: makes them take leave of their senses, and gladly so. She is, in a word, enchanting.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Everfair, Nisi Shawl (2016)

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Fascinating Idea, So-So Execution

three out of five stars

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

Ever fair, ever fair my home;
Ever fair land, so sweet—
Ever are you calling home your children;
We hear and answer swiftly as thought, as fleet.
Tyrants and cowards, we fear them no more;
Behold, your power protects us from harm;
We live in freedom by sharing all things equally—
We live in peace within your loving arms.

Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State in Central Africa in 1885. Ostensibly established as a humanitarian and philanthropic venture, Leopold instead exploited the land and people as a personal venture. Indigenous workers were forced to harvest ivory, rubber, and minerals. Failure to meet quotas was punishable by death, so proven by delivery of the offender’s hand – leading to a rash of mutilations, as villages attacked one another to procure limbs in anticipation of not meeting Leopold’s unreasonable demands. Between murder, starvation, disease, and a drastically reduced birth rate, countless indigenous Africans perished under Leopold’s short rule; some estimates put the death rate as high as 50%. Due to international criticism, Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and assumed control of its administration in 1908, after which time it became known as the Belgian Congo.

Turning her lens on “one of history’s most notorious atrocities,” Nisi Shawl looks at what might have become of the Congo Free State, if white socialists from England and African-American missionaries had united to purchase land from King Leopold II, making it a haven for free blacks, “enlightened” whites, and Chinese and African refugees from Leopold’s reign of terror. Picture an eclectic fusion of Western, Asian, and African cultural practices, politics, and religious beliefs, all made more prosperous – and feasible – through fantastical steampunk technologies: aircanoes capable of transcontinental flight (and easily weaponized); mechanical clockwork prosthetics (also made deadly with the addition of knives, flamethrowers, and poisoned darts); steam-powered bikes; and Victorian-era computers, to name a few.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Ice Crypt (Mermaids of Eriana Kwai, #2), Tiana Warner (2016)

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

A solid sequel with a thrilling cliffhanger.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers for ICE MASSACRE, the first book in the series.)

“So you’re willing to send a girl out to fight for our people,” I said, “but you’re not willing to listen to what she has to say?”

“Start a family,” I muttered. “They’ve got a shock coming if that’s what they’re expecting.”

I fell head over heels (tail?) in love with the world and characters and subversive romance Tiana Warner created in Ice Massacre, and have been eagerly awaiting the sequel ever since. (1 year, 9 months, and 8 days, to be precise.) I had nearly given up when Ice Crypt hit my radar.

The story picks up a mere two weeks after the events in Ice Massacre. The crew of the Bloodhound has returned home to Eriana Kwai, battered and bloody and minus many girls – but triumphant, all things considered. (The men don’t typically come back at all.) With Lysi now King Adaro’s captive, Meela is hell-bent on finding the mysterious Host of Eriana. But, instead of turning it over to the power-hungry dictator, Meela plans to double-cross Adaro and maybe harness its power to destroy him? The plan’s pretty sketchy, seeing as she doesn’t know what the Host is or how to find it or whether it even exists.

And the Massacre Committee’s no help: in Meela’s month-long absence, her beloved mentor Anyo was ousted – in favor of Dani’s father Mujihi, no less. An abusive bully, it’s plain to see where Dani gets her mean streak. Rather than being jailed for her war crimes, Dani is made an instructor at the training camp. Now she yields power over a hundred girls instead of just twenty, and Dani (and her father) are loathe to give it up by ending the Massacres. Add the island’s speciesism towards the mermaids (“sea rats,” demons, vermin) and their skepticism of once-sacred creation myths to the mix, and the only ones interested in brokering a peace deal with the mermaids are Meela and her friends Tanuu, Annith, and Blacktail. But what match are four teenagers against the world – on land and in the sea?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (2016)

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Devastatingly Gorgeous Artwork & Intricate World-Building Make Monstress a Must-Read

five out of five stars

To quote the poets…murder is terribly exhausting.

— 4.5 stars —

I pre-ordered Monstress based on the cover alone; and, the more I learned about it, the more excited I became. A steampunk fantasy set in turn-of-the-century Asia, featuring a diverse cast of mostly-female characters, written and illustrated by two women of color? Sign me up!

As it turns out, Monstress is everything I’d hoped for and then some. The story takes place in 1920s Asia, though you might not know it at first glance: this alternate ‘verse is so very different from our own. Humans are not the only – or even the first – sapients to walk the earth. (To borrow a term from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.) We were preceded by Cats, the children of Ubasti: Multi-tailed, talking creatures, who can wield a weapon as easily as a sarcastic comeback. The immortal Ancients assumed the forms of beasts and, like their Greek cousins, enjoyed toying with humans. It is from such relationships that Arcanic halfbreeds were born: some are human in appearance, while most are not; yet all Arcanics possess great powers, powers which can be extracted from their very bones. Last but not least are the Old Gods, of which precious little is known. Some believe them to be monsters.

While humans and Arcanics coexisted in peace for generations, war broke out for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. An infernal bomb, which rained destruction down upon the city of Constantine, resulted in a stalemate. Now both races live on their respective sides of the wall. Yet the Cumaea – a powerful order of nun-witches that rules the human federation – is intent resurrecting the war and exterminating the Arcanics.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life, Soraya Roberts (2016)

Friday, August 5th, 2016

“Red is the color of revolution.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from ECW Press.)

“When I think about My So-Called Life,” WB regular Greg Berlanti told Entertainment Weekly, “I think about that line in Star Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader, ‘If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’ That’s exactly what happened here.”

My So-Called Life hit the airwaves on August 25, 1994 – just weeks before I started my junior year of high school. From the first frame – “Go, now, go!” – I was hooked. I still remember the excitement of watching the pilot, on the ancient, staticky hand-me-down tv propped atop my sister’s dresser. (We shared a room. It was literal hell.) It was like someone had scrabbled through my brain, gathered all the best bits, and stitched them into the unlikeliest script ever. I knew, without a doubt, that I couldn’t be the only kid watching who felt this way. This was something new, something special. Something downright revolutionary. Like, what was ABC thinking?

I wanted to be wild like Rayanne, yet quiet and introspective like Angela. I dyed my hair red and took to toting around a ginormous purse stuffed with all sorts of ephemera and random clutter. I skipped school, drank liquor spiked with Kool-aid, and wore the most outlandish outfits I could come up with: forest green corduroy pants and a vintage mint green polyester top one day; a slip as a skirt or a camisole as a shirt the next. A weird mix of hippie chick and slutty goth. I lusted after Jordan, even though I had my own version (but not, like, really) IRL.

Though it only lasted one season, My So-Called Life stayed with me forever. It’s one of a handful of shows from my childhood that’s held up over time gotten better with age. Now I’m thirty-eight – much closer in age to Patty than Angela – and I think I appreciate it more than ever. Or at least understand it on a different level. The opening credits still make my heart skip a beat, anyway.

(More below the fold…)

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.

(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: Gena/Finn, Hannah Moskowitz & Kat Helgeson (2016)

Monday, June 20th, 2016

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to throw the book across the room.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

I’m telling you this, Evie, because stories change in memory and in the retelling, and because you write and rewrite them until they’re what you want them to be, but this is one story I want you to remember the way it happened. I want you to remember the people we are now, the times I was there for you and the times I let you down. I want you to love me weak like I loved you crazy, and when we’re both on top again we’ll remember that we did it.

the truth is
your heart is stronger than you think it is
the truth is
loving someone isn’t a period
it’s a semicolon
and the choice you make is what comes on the other side
maybe it’s a picket fence and a subaru and 2.5 kids
maybe it’s a fantasy world that lives in your computer
maybe it’s a guild
maybe it’s a fandom
maybe it’s the last thing you ever expected

Gena/Finn is the story of two young women who might never have met, if not for their shared love of a cheesy cop drama called Up Below (whose emotionally tortured, pathologically codependent male leads are highly evocative of Sam and Dean Winchester). They meet online and strike up a tentative friendship via email, IM, texts, and comments left on one another’s fan blogs. A once-in-a-lifetime bargain allows them to meet IRL, at the annual Up Below con in Chicago – and a surreal chance encounter draws them even closer. With Gena struggling in college and Finn questioning her long-time relationship with high school sweetheart Charlie, the girls turn to each other for solace and support. And then tragedy strikes and things really go sideways.

I’ll be honest: for the first dozen or so pages, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy this book. It’s what I like to call a “crafty” book (filed under “crafty book is crafty”), artsy and told in an unconventional way, through a series of blog posts and comments; emails, IMs, and text messages; bulletins and reports; and even the odd post-it note and governmental doc. This wasn’t the problem, though; I usually read more traditional novels and thus welcome the occasional creative deviation. Rather, it was the fandom that got me. While I can relate on a general level, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Up Below. Since the story is kind of Up Below-heavy at the beginning, I worried. But as Gena and Finn’s relationship evolved and took center stage, the issue became moot. Sure, I skimmed the episode recaps (and inevitable arguments over who’s hotter, Jake or Tyler) later on, but these are few and far between.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)

Monday, June 13th, 2016

A book so shrewd and insightful, it’s sometimes painful to read.

five out of five stars

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

When I’d first tried to tell Dan, on the night of a brownout in Venice that summoned a candlelit, apocalyptic intimacy, he had burst out laughing. Mistaking the hush in my voice for the drop of hilarity. Even after I convinced Dan I was telling the truth, he talked about the ranch with that same parodic goof. Like a horror movie with bad special effects, the boom microphone dipping into the frame and tinting the butchery into comedy. And it was a relief to exaggerate my distance, neatening my involvement into the orderly package of anecdote.

It helped that I wasn’t mentioned in most of the books. Not the paperbacks with the title bloody and oozing, the glossed pages of crime scene photographs. Not the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor, gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach. The couple of lines that did mention me were buried in an out-of-print book by a former poet, and he’d gotten my name wrong and hadn’t made any connection to my grandmother. The same poet also claimed that the CIA was producing porn films starring a drugged Marilyn Monroe, films sold to politicians and foreign heads of state.

In my teens and early twenties, I was what you’d call a true crime buff. I downed scintillating mass market paperbacks by the dozen: Deep Cover, Serpico, Wiseguy, The Stranger Beside Me, Chasing the Devil, The Devil in the White City, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Under the Banner of Heaven – you name it. For a time I fantasized about studying forensic psychology. My favorite stories were those that centered on cults: the indoctrination into bizarre religious beliefs, the charismatic (yet obviously slimy and possibly sociopathic) leader, the epically tragic ending. Naturally, my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter was well-loved; and, in college, I was lucky enough to write a paper on Jonestown for a sociology course.

My point being: Emma Cline’s The Girls was an instant must-read for me. A novel based on the Manson Family? Give it to me now!

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, H.P. Wood (2016)

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

An Entertaining Coney Island Mystery With a Side of Social Commentary

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racist/sexist/ableist language and sexual harassment.)

May 1904. Coney Island’s newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened. Its many spectacles are expected to attract crowds by the thousands, paying back investors many times over.

Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine. But when she returns, Kitty’s mother has vanished. The desk clerk tells Kitty she is at the wrong hotel. The doctor says he’s never seen her although, she notices, he is unable to look her in the eye.

Alone in a strange country, Kitty meets the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet. A relic of a darker, dirtier era, Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Magruder’s Unusuals take Kitty under their wing and resolve to find out what happened to her mother.

But as a plague spreads, Coney Island is placed under quarantine. The gang at Magruder’s finds that a missing mother is the least of their problems, as the once-glamorous resort town is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Everything about the Cabinet is grimy and fusty and strange. Nazan smiles. It’s everything she’d hoped it would be. It’s perfect.

Along the street comes the clip-clop of distraction. Spencer recognizes the tinkling bells of Children’s Delight—a portable fourseater carousel pulled along by a fine white horse. The Children’s Delight was such a part of his childhood; he and Charlie used to search for it on every family visit to Coney. What a relief that some things never change. And yet. A young girl with pigtails, no more than ten years old, sits atop the cart. It is packed with corpses.

2015 saw the publication of so many wonderful carnival- and circus-themed novels that part of (me the bookish part) was sad to see the year end. There was Kristy Logan’s The Gracekeepers, in which North and her bear cub traverse the sea (which now covers most of the planet) with their circus troupe on the Excalibur. Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels follows Coney Island sideshow performer Odile Church as she travels to Manhattan in search of her sister, who fled The Church of Marvels when it burned to the ground, taking the sisters’ mother – and their livelihood – with them. In The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler weaves an imaginative tale about a librarian named Simon who comes into possession of an old book – a circus ledger dating back to the 1700s. Only by unraveling its secrets can he lift the curse that’s plagued his family for generations. And then there’s Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers, a retelling of Romeo & Juliet featuring two rival families of performers, the Palomas (mermaids) and Corbeaus (tightrope walkers/tree climbers). Last but not least is Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie, an “accidentally vegan” tale that features cryptids, hybrids, and shapeshifters, which quickly became an all-time favorite.

While this year doesn’t seem quite as rife with carnies and “freaks,” I was overjoyed to see early copies of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H.P. Woods and Juliette Fay’s The Tumbling Turner Sisters on NetGalley. I’m also eagerly anticipating the release of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval in early 2017.

Anyway, the point is that I have a soft spot for stories starring circus performers, and H.P. Wood’s Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is a welcome addition to the genre. Of all the books I mentioned, it shares the most in common with Church of Marvels: set in a similar time period (1895), it too features a distraught young woman scouring New York City for a missing loved one in the wake of a personal tragedy.

Set in 1904, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet involves an outbreak of the pneumonic plague, a pack of wayward leopards, a mysteriously vanished Englishwoman, and a corporate and political conspiracy. At the center of it all is Theophilus P. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a dime museum located on the “wrong end” of Coney Island. While the dusty old museum doesn’t see much traffic, the basement bar known as Magruder’s Unusual Tavern serves as a gathering place for Coney Island’s extended family of “freaks” – or Unusuals, as they like to call themselves. (By the same taken, “normal” people are “Dozens” – as in “a dime a.”) When Unusuals and Dozens alike start dropping like flies, Magruder’s becomes the base of operations – and, when the quarantine threatens to rip Coney Island apart, Magruder’s is their last stand.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Cresswell Plot, Eliza Wass (2016)

Monday, June 6th, 2016

What did I just read?

two out of five stars

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

‘You will hide your true self. You will bury what you fear, in a locked chest in the cave of your heart, where you will keep the bones of the person you could have been.’

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he said, chest contracting as he caught his breath. “How beautiful the world becomes when you think you might have to leave it?”

So here’s the thing: I had high hopes for The Cresswell Plot. I love a deranged cult story as much as the next looky loo; and between its suggestive title, eloquent synopsis, and oh-so-creepy cover art, The Cresswell Plot looked quite promising. And while Father’s “religion” is indeed the stuff of nightmares, the rest of the story fell short of my expectations.

My biggest issue was with the characters. With the exception of Father – who is reliably cruel and demented – I had trouble pinning the characters down. Cas, Caspar, Morty – they’re all over the place. Their beliefs, allegiances, reasoning, thought processes – I never felt like I got a good handle on them at all. One minute they’d be rebelling, testing the rules by joining the school play, dressing in “normal” clothing, or lusting after classmates; the next, they’re snitching on their siblings and setting fire to their potential allies’ houses. Each move was a complete surprise to me, and not in a good way; there just didn’t seem to be any consistency to their behavior.

To be fair, this could be the whole point: e.g., this is what growing up in such a dysfunctional home does to a person. But if this is the case, it could have been handled with more nuance and clarity.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Ask Me How I Got Here, Christine Heppermann (2016)

Friday, May 6th, 2016

Nine Kinds of Awesome

five out of five stars

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

Public School Kids Always Ask

How do you meet guys
if you go to an all-girls school?

Immaculate Heart Academy
is named for the pure love of God
that flows through Mary’s heart.
But here’s the real reason why
our logo is a hunk of dripping muscle:
five hundred girls in red plaid skirts.

Even if we brushed with garlic toothpaste
we couldn’t keep the vampires away.

Mary’s Parents

Sure, they tried their best
not to treat her any different.

What choice did they have?

After all, she was still their daughter,
and they had promised
God to love her no matter what
crazy shit her body could do.

The summer before her junior year of high school, Addie becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion. In a refreshing twist, her parents and boyfriend are wholly supportive of Addie, and her decision: Nick accompanies her to the appointment, and mom and dad sign off on it without argument (Addie lives in Minnesota, a state that requires parental consent).

She isn’t conflicted about her choice, but Addie does slip into a bit of a depression or malaise after the fact. Worried about disappointing everyone yet again, she mostly keeps “Hurricane Addie” to herself. She withdraws from Nick and loses interest in classwork. She quits the cross-country team – which was supposed to fund her college education – and starts spending her afternoons at Java Joes, so her parents are none the wiser. There she runs into Juliana, another former track star from Immaculate Heart Academy, who is dealing with her own capital-s Shit. And then, slowly, Addie finds her way back to normal: her new normal.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The May Queen Murders, Sarah Jude (2016)

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

A Haunting Story of Love, Loss – and Severed Lips

four out of five stars

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

We’ve always been afraid he’d be drawn back to take our girls. He’d take her into the woods and make her his bride. We even wondered if we should give him one, just to make him go away for good. But of course, we couldn’t. That’d be murder.

For her entire life – and those of her ancestors, going back generations – Ivy Templeton has called Rowan’s Glen her home. An isolated community in the Ozarks, the Glen is the town that time forgot. Or rather, its residents chose to ignore time’s passage:

Most Rowan’s Glen residents long ago decided that if we couldn’t raise, craft, or repurpose it, then we wouldn’t use it. Over time, the buildings converted from no electricity to solar energy. Our clothing was handmade, came secondhand from kin or the town thrift store if splurging. Glen kind looked different from the rollers in the trailer park and the townies. We were hillfolk, with our boys in trousers and suspenders and girls clad in long skirts. Once a Missouri Ozarks outpost for Scottish travelers searching for permanency, Rowan’s Glen kept life simple and the outside world at bay.

Nevertheless, Ivy and her kin are not completely removed from the surrounding world: Rowan’s Glen residents sell their wares at the farmer’s market; her father, Timothy, runs a veterinary practice that’s open to all; and the kids of the Glen attend public school (ever since the community’s own classes, held in the church basement, were declared inadequate by the state). Occasionally, outsiders have reason to come to the Glen. Such was the case with the May Queen Murders, some twenty-five years ago.

The story goes that local “crazy” Birch Markle escaped from his basement prison on the night of the May Queen celebrations. After a lifetime spent killing animals, his violence escalated to humans. Birch killed the May Queen herself, Terra MacAvoy; he was found standing over her hideously mutilated body several days after she went missing. But before the townspeople or county police could catch him, Birch fled into the woods – which he continues to haunt to this very day. A generation later, children and adults alike are still cautioned not to go out alone at night – and not to venture into the forest at all.

It was a good place, even with the screams that sometimes came from the forest, the screams that had been there my whole life and longer.

(More below the fold…)