Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017)

Friday, August 4th, 2017

Weary, Cheeky, and (Maybe? Just a Wee Bit?) Wise

four out of five stars

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

So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault—well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

It’s amazing how much damage one penis can do.

Tom Barren is an outlier, though not in a good way: he’s a ne’er do well, living in paradise. His is a world of flying cars that can pilot themselves. Of food synthesizers and clothing recyclers. Urban planning taken to outrageous levels, with interlocking buildings, fantastical skyscapes, and massive biosphere preserves. Patches that monitor and adjust your blood alcohol content (“booze cruise”). Android sex dolls and interactive storytelling. Complete gender equality (!). Corporations that actually strive to improve consumers’ quality of life, rather than marketing cheap, useless junk just to turn a profit (!!!#$#@^).

Sounds like the stuff of fiction, right? Except all this really did happen, thanks to the Goettreider Engine and the unlimited clean energy it generated by harnessing the movement of the Earth.

This was the world we were meant to live in. That is, until our narrator bumbled into his father’s time machine and accidentally sabotaged Lionel Goettreider’s infamous 1965 experiment, thus altering the trajectory of history – right before the fail safe protocols boomeranged his sorry ass home. Only when he woke up, it was in our crappy world, complete with global conflicts, mass species extinctions, accelerating climate change, and (presumably) a looming election that would put a reality teevee buffoon in the White House.

Somewhat ironically, Tom’s life changes for the better: in this reality, he goes by John. Rather than being a disappointment to his genius father, he’s a successful architect. And, oh yeah, his mother is still alive!

Can Tom somehow reverse the course of history and set things right? Does he even want to?

All Our Wrong Todays is a fun and satisfying time travel romp that’s got a few tricks up its thermal stranded sleeve. The wibbily wobbly timey wimey stuff is highly enjoyable – I especially loved learning about Tom’s world – though it is a lot to keep straight by story’s end. (But this is kind of par for the course.) The Tom/John and Penelope/Penny plot line reminded me a little of Blake Crouch’s time travel/alternate reality tale, 2016’s Dark Matter, but the two are completely different beasts: All Our Wrong Todays is a little more absurd and tongue-in-cheek. The balance of humor here is pretty much perfect here, imho.

As for the narrator, you either kinda-sorta like him or you hate him. Tom is your typical mediocre straight white dude, with one key difference: he’s well aware of and will readily admit to his mediocrity. He harbors no delusions of grandeur or self-entitlement. He’s a fuckup, and he knows it. He’s trying to do better but dammit, it’s hard work!

Honestly, all the self-denigration rather ingratiated Tom to me: sometimes it was like Mastai was holding up a mirror. A distorted funhouse mirror that exacerbates all your flaws and creates new ones where none existed, but still. I could relate to Tom more than I’d care to admit. If you’ve got self-esteem issues, you might just empathize.

I wasn’t too keen on the rape scene, mostly because it felt a little too much like a tool, a plot device to steer the story in one direction or another. The word “rape” doesn’t even appear in the book, even as Mastai stresses that what happened to Penny was A Very Bad Thing. The thing is, I suspect that a significant percentage of readers won’t even label this as a sexual assault, which is why it’s so important to clearly and emphatically identify it as such. (“Attack” is the harshest term used.)

As an aside, the food synthesizers must mean that all the food in Tom’s world is vegan, or could easily be made so …

… right?

(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: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (2017)

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Octavia E. Butler Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment (Finally!)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

Inventive, hypnotic, unflinchingly honest – such is the work of Octavia Estelle Butler, and in Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, the grand dame of science fiction finally receives the graphic novel treatment she so desperately deserves.

First published in 1979, Kindred tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported to the antebellum south. She finds herself on a Maryland plantation, circa 1812(-ish), placed directly in the path of a drowning boy named Rufus. Over a period of weeks (her time) and years (his), Rufus will unconsciously summon Dana to his side whenever his life is endangered. Though she’s often tempted to let the selfish young man – and heir to the Weylin plantation – die, to do so would threaten her very existence. Rufus is Dana’s distant ancestor, and her life depends on the continuation of his. That is, at least until Grandmother Hagar Weylin has a chance to be born.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0006 [flickr]

There’s a well-known nerdy maxim (or trope, if you prefer) that time travel isn’t safe for black people, or women, or [insert your marginalized group here]. Time travel is “exclusively a white [male] privilege,” as Louis CK put it. Kindred manifests this principle in ways both chilling and potent. Dana uses her time in the past to try and change things for the better, if only in tiny increments: she surreptitiously teaches some of the enslaved children to read, and attempts to steer her great-grandfather in a more enlightened direction. Yet history is more likely to change Dana than vice versa, as she notes with shock and horror as she finds herself growing accustomed to the daily cruelties of slavery.

Likewise, when Dana’s white husband Kevin is left stranded out of time – for a whopping five years, as she later learns – Dana is frightened of who or what she might find upon her return. How might an era steeped in racism and misogyny stain the man she loves?

Kindred is one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite writers. The prospect of an adaptation left me both nervous and excited, which is par for the course when it comes to literature that’s burrowed its way into my heart and mind. But Damian Duffy’s translation of the work is masterful; he mostly captures the spirit and tone of the original, and deftly condenses the novel into a comic book format.

(I say mostly because, let’s face it, Octavia Butler is in a class of her own. The original work is infinitely more harrowing, but the adaptation is still pretty great. If you haven’t yet read Kindred, you owe it to yourself to start today. If you have, this will definitely leave you clamoring for a re-read.)

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0018 [flickr]

From the first panel, which ominously proclaims “I lost an arm on my last trip home,” John Jennings’s artwork is moody and atmospheric.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0001 [flickr]

Many of the palettes are stripped down, with two or three colors dominating many of the scenes.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0014 [flickr]

He employs some pretty neat tricks, such as placing close-ups of Dana and Rufus side-by-side to emphasize both their opposition and interconnectedness,

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0010 [flickr]

and underscoring Dana’s trips through time and space with dramatic changes in color. Some of the drawings, especially of Rufus and his father Tom, are a little rough around the edges – which struck me as perfectly apt, given the circumstances. Dana, on the other hand, is a near-perfect mirror image of how I envisioned her.

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0007 [flickr]

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0008 [flickr]

Even the design of the book is breathtaking. The book cover features an almost gothic landscape of dark purple trees against a black sky and lavender moon. On the back side, the Weylin house beckons. The first and last pages are splashes of red with streaks of pink; Dana, Isaac, or Alice’s skin after a brutal lashing.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0017 [flickr]

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation is a wonderful homage to Octavia Butler and the world she built, explored, and ultimately dismantled in Kindred. I hope it’s also a hint of what’s to come: from Kindred to the Parables duology, Lilith’s Brood to the Patternmaster series, Butler’s novels and short stories are all but begging for second lives on screens both big and small, panels in comic books and fan conventions the world over. May Damian Duffy and John Jennings’s work introduce a whole new generation of fans to this extraordinary writer.

(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: Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 edited by B. Morris Allen (2017)

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

They’re Good Stories, Brent.

four out of five stars

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

I hate to think how things would have been if that dog had gone to a shelter. I wonder what the workers and volunteers would have done when the little guy started to expand like unspooling Christmas lights, impossibly bright, tangled in the shape of dog. It hurts my heart to picture that loving collection of cosmic bodies crouching in a kennel.

(“My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major” by Jarod K. Anderson)

Trans-human. That’s what I’m called, somehow. The word never felt right though, then least of all. Trans is too high, too grand for someone so cobbled together. So is human, I suppose. If I get hurt, I’m as like to spill oil as blood. That’s why the witch didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person, she just saw parts.

(“Strix Antiqua” by Hamilton Perez)

When I spotted this anthology of “vegan” science fiction and fantasy stories on NetGalley, I knew I had to have it. Though I love both genres, the animal exploitation that seems ubiquitous in each makes active compartmentalization while reading a must. (Though you could say the same of all literature, fwiw.) Vegan SF/F? Sign me up!

Alas, Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 isn’t quite what I envisioned. Instead of, say, stories featuring vegan protagonists, plots that involve daring animal rescues, or narratives that hinge on animal sentience or human/nonhuman kinship, the stories contained within these pages are “vegan” more for what you don’t see than the things you do. There are no scenes of animal cruelty, exploitation, or speciesism here. Often there aren’t any animals at all!

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! On the contrary, some of the stories are downright magical. To no one’s surprise, my favorite was the sole story that did center a nonhuman in its narrative. In “My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major,” the narrator inherits a dog from his eccentric yet beloved grandmother; a creature who literally shines with love, and one the grieving guardian must ultimately set free.

I also adored Hamilton Perez’s “Strix Antiqua,” in which speciesism (automatonophobia? robophobia? technophobia?) proves to be the evil witch’s downfall. You might look at “Strix Antiqua” as vegan in the larger sense, e.g., in that it promotes compassion and respect for all animals, including those of the human variety. (Or, to expand the circle even further, all sentient beings, including those that are non-organic.) Likewise, “Closed Circuit” has a bit of a social justice bent, as the settlers of an abandoned mining colony fight for their freedom on a hostile planet/in a hostile world.

“Murder on the Adriana” is also worth a mention, if only because it brought to mind one of my favorite shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (That one episode with Mal and Zoey’s war buddy Tracey in particular, which has forever earned a special place in my heart.)

The book ends on almost as strong a note as it begins, with Kelly Sandoval’s “Small Magics” – a twist on the trope of a gifted child leaving home to save the world. A mother’s love means knowing when to hold tight to your magical little munchkin…and when it’s time to send him out into the world to forge his own path.

Overall, this is a satisfying (if short!) collection of SF/F stories that won’t make animal lovers cringe with horror (or even just disapproval). Animals aren’t always introduced into the stories – but when they are, it’s with kindness and respect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Final Girls by Mira Grant (2017)

Monday, May 1st, 2017

“THE WOOD is dark and the wood is deep…”

four out of five stars

“…and the trees claw at the sky with branches like bones, ripping holes in the canopy of clouds, revealing glimpses of a distant, rotting moon the color of dead flesh.”

Esther Hoffman is a popular science writer who’s spent most of her career debunking pseudoscience. After all, she owes it to her dad, a widower who was falsely accused of kidnapping and child abuse when she was just fifteen. Benjamin was eventually exonerated, but not before he was murdered in prison.

Esther’s latest target is Dr. Jennifer Webb, founder of the Webb Virtual Therapy Institute and all-around mad scientist. Her proprietary technology – which includes virtual reality pods, a potent cocktail of mind-altering drugs, and computer simulations pulled straight from the brain of Stephen King – is being marketed as a new and radical form of therapy. Siblings who don’t very much care for each other can run through Webb’s B-movie gauntlet and emerge on the other side closer than ever, with a bond newly forged on the conquered remains of slashers or zombies or witches – take your pick!

Esther sees this as nothing more than a high tech version of regression therapy – the source of those so-called “repressed memories” that destroyed her father – but Dr. Webb disagrees. And what better way to legitimize her work than by winning over her harshest critic?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Waking Gods (Themis Files #2) by Sylvain Neuvel (2017)

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

A satisfying follow-up to Sleeping Giants.

five out of five stars

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

If I grab a bunch of matter, anywhere, and I organize it in exactly the same way, I get … you. You, my friend, are a very complex, awe-inspiring configuration of matter. What you’re made of isn’t really important. Everything in the universe is made of the same thing. You’re a configuration. Your essence, as you call it, is information. It doesn’t matter where the material comes from. Do you think it matters when it comes from?

—Do you really wanna grow old with just grumpy old me?
—No offense, Kara, but I don’t think either of us will get to grow old, especially if we’re together. The only question is: Do I wanna die young with anyone else?

Now the world is ending and somehow I’ve managed to make that about me too.

— 4.5 stars —

It’s ten years after the events in Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel’s AMAZING debut novel – give or take, and the aliens have finally returned to Earth to reclaim their war bot, Themis. Army pilot Kara Resnick and Canadian linguist Vincent Couture are still at Themis’s helm, but after the show of force in Korea, their role has been more benign: touring the world, speaking to schoolkids, and doing PR for the Earth Defense Corps. In between celeb sightings and autograph signings, the squints in the basement are still studying Themis, trying to figure out what else she can do, but their progress has more or less slowed. It doesn’t help that head scientist and the first person to discover Themis – or her hand, anyway – Rose Franklin hasn’t really had her head in the game. Not since she was brought back from the dead.

When a second robot materializes in the heart of London, earth’s tenuous peace is disrupted in a matter of hours, with some pushing for a first strike and others wanting to approach their alien overlords/benefactors in the spirit of love and cooperation. Considering the synopsis, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that things go sideways but fast. Themis can maybe take on one robot, but thirteen? Who are Themis’s creators, and what do they want from us? And how do Rose and Eva factor into their plans? Perhaps most importantly, what does it take to get someone to kick mad scientist/medical rapist Alyssa Papantoniou in her stupid smug face?

(More below the fold…)

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: Blood For Blood (Wolf By Wolf #2), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Now this is how you end a series!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including scenes of war. This review contains spoilers for WOLF BY WOLF, the first book in the series.)

The world heard it. People of all stations, colors, creeds . . . Aryan mothers and fathers with broods of blond children, a balding shisha merchant in Cairo, an oily-faced adolescent in Rome. Many stared at the screen—mouths slack, stunned eyes—trying to process what had happened. Others who watched understood. This was the signal they’d been waiting for. One—a frizzy-haired Polish woman by the name of Henryka—even smiled at her television, whispering, “That’s my girl,” before she stood and got to work.

“Monsters cut children open and call it progress. Monsters murder entire groups of people without blinking, but get upset when they have to wash human ash from their garden strawberries. Monsters are the ones who watch other people do these things and do nothing to stop it. You and I are not monsters. If anything, we’re miracles.”

Yael almost rolled up her sleeve there and then, almost pointed to the loping lines of Aaron-Klaus’s wolf, almost told Luka everything she was. But Luka was playing with his father’s dog tag again. And Yael found herself wondering if Kradschützen troops had rolled through this very village, letting their motorcycles idle as the SS made it a pile of bones. She wondered if Luka had any idea how their pasts tangled and tore at each other’s throats.

When last we saw concentration camp survivor/skinshifter/member of the resistance/trained assassin Yael, she had just shot Adolf Hitler. Or rather, the man she believed to be Adolf Hitler. Before he died, the Führer’s doppelgänger revealed his true face; flashes cycled through so quickly that only Yael was able to process and make sense of them.

This not-Hitler was, like her, a product of Experiment Eighty-Five: Dr. Engel Geyer’s attempt to make Jews and other ethnic “undesirables” more Aryan in appearance. The experiments succeeded, and then some: with changes in Yael’s skin and eye color came the ability to change her appearance, drastically and at will. In a delicious twist of fate, Yael employed this newfound skill to escape from the camp – and, eventually, masquerade as Victor Adele Wolf, enter the 1956 Axis Tour, and get close enough to Hitler to shoot him three times at point-blank range. Or so she thought.

Though she didn’t win the race – thwarted as she was by Luka Löwe, 1954’s Victor and the boy Adele betrayed to win in 1955 – Yael still scored an invitation to the Ball, thanks to lovesick Luka. Yael ripped his heart out and waltzed all over it at the end of Wolf by Wolf – not because she doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but perhaps precisely because she does, and nothing good can come of it. And so Yael is cruel to be kind, dumping Luka in the harshest of terms before gunning down not-Hitler. Only this doesn’t save Luka from becoming embroiled in her mess; quite the contrary. The guy who brought Hitler’s assassin to the ball? Well, the Gestapo’s going to want to have a word or two with him, and Luka knows it. So when Yael runs, Luka follows.

Luka isn’t the only boy Yael left behind. There’s also Felix Wolfe, Adele’s twin, who Yael bound, gagged, and abandoned in his room at the Palace. Now he’s fallen into the Gestapo’s hands. Though Yael revealed her true identity before shooting Hitler, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other to the Reich. They need a scapegoat, and it’s going to be Adele and the Wolfe family. That is, unless Felix can gain Yael’s trust and infiltrate and betray the resistance.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Iron to Iron (Wolf By Wolf #1.5), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

“Iron called to iron, and there was always something more.”

five out of five stars

Once upon a different time, there was a boy who raced through a kingdom of death. He wore a brown jacket where all others were black, and it was said that his face could snare the hearts of ten thousand German maidens at first sight. His own heart? Hidden behind layers of leather and sneer and steel. Untouchable.

Until it wasn’t.

— 4.5 stars —

Set a year before the events of Wolf By Wolf, this novella takes us back to the infamous 1955 Axis Tour: when a sixteen-year-old fräulein named Adele Wolfe, masquerading as her twin brother Felix, materialized from seemingly nowhere to take the Iron Cross. To do so, she not only beat out top contenders Luka Löwe and Tsuda Katsuo – who won the cross in 1953 and 1954, respectively – but circumvented the Führer’s ban on female competitors. The risk paid off: Hitler was so smitten with his newest Victor that he requested a dance with her at the Victor’s Ball. (This proximity, of course, inspired the resistance’s plan to steal Adele’s identity and enter its own racer/assassin in her place in 1956. But I digress.)

To win a grueling, 20,780 kilometer, cross-continent race, a girl’s got to break a few hearts. Iron to Iron follows the competition from Luka’s perspective, from his temporary alliance with the silent and secretive Wolfe boy to his burgeoning romance with Adele Wolfe – and his eventual, inevitable betrayal on the final leg of the tour.

Graudin does an excellent job of adding depth to Luka’s character, softening his harder edges, and establishing his mindset (REVENGE!) when we meet him in Wolf By Wolf. Perhaps more importantly, she satisfies our curiosity about What Happened Between Luka and Adele in the previous year’s race. The betrayal is marginally worse than I expected – a little more violent and sudden – and, while my heart ached for Luka, I couldn’t help but side with Adele.

After all, Luka said it himself: “He didn’t need to win. Not the way this girl did.” Impress your abusive, impossible-to-please father – or escape a life spent popping out babies to feed to Hitler’s empire? It’s kind of a no-brainer. And yet, instead of handing the Iron Cross over to his new love, Luka offered to help her win…next year.

Asking women to sublimate or defer their goals for the good of men? How very 1955. Luka didn’t give her any choice, really.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Spare and Found Parts, Sarah Maria Griffin (2016)

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

“From my heart and from my hand and / Why don’t people understand my intention?”

three out of five stars

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

There are three rules:
1. The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2. Contribute, at all cost.
3. All code is blasphemy.

It came together at her will, and a cocktail of delight and pride swelled inside her. She would hold this hand. She would be held by this hand.

“I am your maker,” you say. I open my eyes again and … love. Yes, this is love. Your hand is wrapped around mine. This is what it is to be alive.

— 3.5 stars —

Nell Crane’s life is tick-tick-ticking away around her. There is the audible, literal tick: the sound of her robotic heart beating. The sound that sustains her life – at least for now – but also sets her apart from her peers. Though almost all of the residents of the Pale are missing limbs, Nell is the only one whose deformity is hidden on the inside. And, unlike the biomechanical prostheses worn by her peers, the failure of Nell’s augmentation could mean her death.

There’s also the metaphorical tick of time, spelled out in painful detail for Nell by her once-beloved (now insufferable) Nan. All citizens of Black Water City are expected to contribute to the city’s progress in some way. Instead of traditional schooling, kids take on apprenticeships; by their late teen years, they’re expected present a contribution to the city council; marry a compatible someone and help with his or her project; move out to the Pasture; or do manual labor on Kate, the city’s answer to the Statue of Liberty. Contributions run the gamut, from nightclubs and bakeries to boost morale, to more practical projects, like health care and scientific advancements.

Nell’s parents did both: Kate is her late mother’s baby, Nell’s other sister; and Dr. Julius Crane invented the prosthetic limbs that everyone so proudly wears today. Their legacy is the albatross wrapped tightly around Nell’s neck, slowly but surely strangling her. How can she – a cranky, moody loner – possibly live up to the Sterling-Crane family name?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Children of the New World: Stories, Alexander Weinstein (2016)

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

“a comeback story without a comeback”

five out of five stars

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

We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward one another to see how skin felt; we let our neighbors’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?

(“Children of the New World”)

Publicly, we sold memories under Quimbly, Barrett & Woods, but when it was just the three of us, working late into the night, we thought of ourselves as mapmakers. […] Here was the ocean, here the ships, here the hotel, here the path that led to town, here the street vendors, here the memories of children we never had and parents much better than the ones we did. And far out there was the edge of the world.

(“The Cartographers”)

It’s not often that I’m so truly and hopelessly blown away by a collection of short stories. Anthologies with multiple contributors are almost always a little choppy, and even those written by a single author tend to be a mixed bag. But Alexander Weinstein? He works some serious magic in Children of the New World.

The thirteen stories found within these pages are beautiful, imaginative, and deeply unsettling. Together, they create a portrait of a future beholden to technology: where consumers willingly and happily abandon memories based on fact in favor kinder, gentler fictions; where humans rarely leave the virtual world, let alone their houses; where people fornicate like mad but reproduce through cloning – and sometimes even programming. Where lovers can peel back all their layers – metaphorically and literally – and grant their partners access to every fleeting thought, emotion, and memory. Where even the apocalypse is powerless to break the hold that mere things – Lego toys and Kitchenaid mixers – exert over us.

(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: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (2016)

Friday, August 26th, 2016

Weird, Magical – and Hella Feminist

five out of five stars

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

When were women ever anything but footnotes to men’s tales?

“Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.”

— 4.5 stars —

When third-year student Clarie Jurat goes missing from Ulthar’s Women’s College, her Mathematics professor Vellitt Boe sets out to retrieve her. Clarie’s father is one of the College’s Trustees, and it’s well within his power to shut the college down in the face of such scandal. This would prove a devastating loss, as the Women’s College – the newest and humblest of the Seven Colleges of Ulthar’s University – is a sanctuary of sorts for “women who don’t fit anywhere else” in the Six Kingdoms.

Vellitt lives in the dream world, a universe crafted from the minds of dreamers in our own world, the waking world. For whatever reason, all of the dreamers seem to be men – and they have dreamed into existence a world that is mostly absent of women, deeply entrenched in sexism, and ruled by gods that are as petty as they are numerous. The Women’s College is a beacon of light in an unkind world – and Vellitt, for one, is determined to keep the flame burning.

In her younger days, Vellitt – then known as Veline – was a far-traveller; she walked the lands of the Six Kingdoms, traversed its seas like her mother the sailor, and fell into and escaped from the under-realms. She has evaded zoogs, battled ghouls, rescued gugs, and marveled at krakens. She’s seen flying cities and passed over vast undersea civilizations. She knows all ninety-seven stars in the dream-realms sky, and can name the six constellations. Now she must call upon these dusty skills – and a few old connections – to find Clarie before she crosses into the waking world with the charismatic dreamer Stephan Heller.

Her quest will take her from the temple at Hatheg-Kla to the distant kingdom of Ilek-Vad; from the caverns carved deep beneath the ruined silver mines of Eight Peaks to a church in Wisconsin, present day. Along the way she’ll learn that Clarie Jurat isn’t who she claims to be – or not just, anyway – and it’s not only the fate of Ulthar’s Women’s College that’s at stake.

(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: Dark Matter, Blake Crouch (2016)

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

The summer blockbuster potential is strong with this one.

five out of five stars

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

Standing happy and slightly drunk in my kitchen, I’m unaware that tonight is the end of all of this. The end of everything I know, everything I love. No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting. No time to flinch or brace.

“It’s terrifying when you consider that every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, creates a new world.”

Jason Dessen’s life is a good one, if disappointingly ordinary. He and his wife Daniela have one child, a fourteen-year-old boy named Charlie; he spent his first year in and out of hospitals, but is thankfully healthy now. An artist, Charlie takes after his mom – who was once an up-and-comer in the art world, but is now a part-time art tutor and full-time mom. Jason also chose to put his career on hold when Charlie was born; an atomic physicist, he teaches undergraduate physics at Lakemont College. The science isn’t terribly sexy, but it pays the bills.

Jason is happy…and yet, as he watches college friends receive awards and accolades, he often wonders what might have been if he hadn’t prioritized his family over his career. We’ve all been there: obsessing over old regrets, fantasizing about roads not traveled. Unlike the rest of us, though, Jason’s about to find out what could have been.

(More below the fold…)

DNF Review: Night of the Animals, Bill Broun (2016)

Friday, July 15th, 2016

 

In this imaginative debut, the tale of Noah’s Ark is brilliantly recast as a story of fate and family, set in a near-future London.

Over the course of a single night in 2052, a homeless man named Cuthbert Handley sets out on an astonishing quest: to release the animals of the London Zoo. As a young boy, Cuthbert’s grandmother had told him he inherited a magical ability to communicate with the animal world—a gift she called the Wonderments. Ever since his older brother’s death in childhood, Cuthbert has heard voices. These maddening whispers must be the Wonderments, he believes, and recently they have promised to reunite him with his lost brother and bring about the coming of a Lord of Animals . . . if he fulfills this curious request.

Cuthbert flickers in and out of awareness throughout his desperate pursuit. But his grand plan is not the only thing that threatens to disturb the collective unease of the city. Around him is greater turmoil, as the rest of the world anxiously anticipates the rise of a suicide cult set on destroying the world’s animals along with themselves. Meanwhile, Cuthbert doggedly roams the zoo, cutting open the enclosures, while pressing the animals for information about his brother.

Just as this unlikely yet loveable hero begins to release the animals, the cult’s members flood the city’s streets. Has Cuthbert succeeded in harnessing the power of the Wonderments, or has he only added to the chaos—and sealed these innocent animals’ fates? Night of the Animals is an enchanting and inventive tale that explores the boundaries of reality, the ghosts of love and trauma, and the power of redemption.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Last One, Alexandra Oliva (2016)

Monday, July 11th, 2016

The Apocalypse Will Be Televised

four out of five stars

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

Even the best among us can break, thinks the editor. That’s the whole idea behind the show, after all—to break the contestants. Though the twelve who entered the ring were told that it’s about survival. That it’s a race. All true, but. Even the title they were told was a deception. Subject to change, as the fine print read. The title in its textbox does not read The Woods, but In the Dark.

I pick it up, thinking it might be a Clue. I unfold the paper and read:

INDIVIDUALS EXPERIENCING SYMPTOMS—LETHARGY, SORE THROAT, NAUSEA, VOMITING, LIGHTHEADEDNESS, COUGHING—REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO THE OLD MILL COMMUNITY CENTER FOR MANDATORY QUARANTINE.

I stare at it for a moment, uncomprehending. And then, like dominoes falling, I understand. I understand everything. Taking my cameraman away, the cabin, the careful clearing of all human life from my path—they’re changing the narrative. I remember Google-mapping the area they told us we’d be filming in before I left home. I remember noticing a patch of green not far away: Worlds End State Park. I remember because I loved the name but cringed at the lack of an apostrophe. But perhaps the name isn’t a title, but a statement. Perhaps the park’s proximity to our starting location wasn’t coincidence. For all I know, it was our starting location.

Those clever assholes.

I remember watching a show with a similar premise on the Discovery Channel, years ago. It was billed as an experiment; people who “survived” a simulated flu outbreak had to build a little community before finding a way to safety. They got to do cool stuff like wire up solar panels and build cars. All I get to do is walk endlessly and listen to a rambling kid tell a bullshit story.

Have you all seen the legal releases that leaked yesterday? 98 pages!

Pushing thirty and married to a wonderful guy, “Zoo” is finally thinking about settling down and starting a family. And the idea terrifies her. So much so that she’d do anything to delay the (seemingly) inevitable: including audition for a survivalist-type reality tv show in which twelve contestants brave the wilderness – and each other – for a shot at winning a million bucks.

A week into filming, Zoo and her now-eight cast mates are out on a Solo Challenge when the plague hits. In all the chaos and confusion, the production team is unable to pull Zoo out (they had contingency plans, but not for this!). Guided by what she thinks is a Clue – a doormat reading “Home Sweet Home” – Zoo treks east, ignoring the corpses and ransacked stores that line her path. It’s all just part of the game – and they will not get a rise out of her a second time.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Many Selves of Katherine North, Emma Geen (2016)

Friday, July 8th, 2016

How do you say “AMAZING!!!” in bottlenose dolphin?

five out of five stars

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

One. Mustn’t trust humans too much.
Two. I know what they can be like.
Three. I was one once—

How can they sell Phenomenautism as image and experience? How can they sell it at all? A Ressy isn’t a consumable. Phenomenautism is meant to consume you.

Buckley always said that reading is the closest an ex-phenomenaut can get to wearing another skin.

The year is 2050, or close enough, and while humans aren’t yet locomoting via our own personal jet packs, we have developed all sorts of cool technology. Chief among them? Phenomenautism, which involves projecting one’s consciousness, using a neural interface, into the bodies of other animals.

At just nineteen years old, Katherine “Kit” North is the longest projecting phenomenaut in the field, with seven years under her belt. She was recruited to join ShenCorp – whose founder, Professor Shen, all but invented phenomenautism – when she was a kid. Kit’s Mum was a zoologist and her father, a wildlife photographer, so an affinity for our nonhuman kin runs in the blood. Kit works in the Research division, inhabiting the bodies of nonhuman animals to aid outside companies and nonprofits with their research; for example, as a fox Kit helped track the local population for a cub study orchestrated by the Fox Research Centre. She’s been a bee, a whale, a polar bear, an elephant, a seal, a mouse, a spider, a octopus, a tiger, and a bat, not to various species of birds. Very rarely does she get to be herself – although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nor is she quite sure what that means anymore.

ShenCorp is the only company to employ children exclusively, owing to their superior brain plasticity, which aids in adapting to the new bodies (“Ressies”) they inhabit during jumps. As Kit watches her friends and peers disappear, one by one – let go for poor performance – she worries for her own future. When she’s hit by a car inRessy – destroying the body and ending her study prematurely – termination seems imminent. Yet instead of a pink slip, her boss offers her a promotion, of sorts: to the new Tourism division, where the “animal experience” is sold to regular folks – for a hefty sum, natch. Kit finds the idea of Consumer Phenomenautism repugnant … yet not quite as bad as giving jumping up altogether. Kit accepts, unwittingly stumbling into a corporate conspiracy that runs far deeper that she imagined.

(More below the fold…)

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

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

(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…)