Book Review: Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

“Behind every brilliant woman is her doubly brilliant mother.”

five out of five stars

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

She knew them by their light, the gentle differences—Amit’s warm, yellowish brown, Evgeni who glowed like a pearl, Louisa who was brighter than all of them. Nedda would know them anywhere; if she lost their shapes, she’d recognize their light.

They would likely die. It was why they were childless, unwed. Freedom of sacrifice. It was a shame that only three people would ever again be in the same room as Evgeni when he sang. Only three people would know that Singh ate with his pinkie out. That Marcanta pulled hairs from her eyebrows when frustrated. Children would know their names, and drive on roads named Sokolov or Papas. Children would know their ship, Chawla, and who she’d hauled. A little girl somewhere would rattle off everything she’d read about them, and with it everything she knew about space and time, about light.

“I got a boat too. It’s not real big, just enough to take a few people out, that’s all.”

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

“Everything’s a woman. Cars, boats, houses. Anywhere that’s safe or takes you somewhere better is a woman,” she said.

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

“Obviously.” She opened her eye to find him staring.

Her father’s machine was as much hope and wish as it was metal and glass.

In the present day – her present, our future – Nedda Papas has achieved everything she’s dreamed of. As one quarter of the crew of Chawla, Nedda is humanity’s last best chance. Climate change has wrought havoc on earth: rising sea levels have disappeared entire islands and shrunk continents, hunger fueled by drought is the new normal, and wildfires plague what little land is left. The planet is beyond saving; now flight is the only long-term option.

Sent to colonize another planet in a galaxy far, far away, Nedda will never again set foot on earth. And she’s okay with that – it’s for the greater good, after all, and doesn’t she owe her species at least that much, anyway? But when cost-cutting and politicking threatens Chawla’s success, Nedda must revisit her past in order to salvage our future.

It was 1986 when Nedda’s world imploded: first, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; and again with Theo Pappas’s magnum opus, the Crucible.

Light from Other Stars unfolds in two parallel narratives: aboard the Chawla, and in January/February 1986, when Nedda is eleven years old.

Middle-schooler Nedda lives Easter, Florida, in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. She and her professor father Theo – newly laid off from NASA after the latest round of budget cuts – are inseparable, whether devising and executing experiments or trying to spot Halley’s Comet shoot across the night sky. Her relationship with mother Betheen is a little frostier, but not necessarily for lack of mutual interests: Beth is a chemist. But her (women’s) work is undervalued, because of course it is. It also doesn’t help that Betheen has been drowning in grief for most of young Nedda’s life. But spoilers!

Theo has suffered from psoriatic arthritis since childhood, and the joint pain and inflammation makes his work difficult (as does the markedly inferior resources at Haverstone College). Ostensibly, this is the impetus behind his crowning achievement, the Crucible, a machine that can slow down, stop, or even reverse time (and thus heal all manner of physical injuries) by manipulating entropy. (Swyler includes a fair amount of background on the science, only a fraction of which I can claim to understand, and I have no idea how sound it is. But I didn’t find these bits boring or excessive, fwiw.)

Theo’s machine is a success, in a manner of speaking, but things go sideways, because of course they do. When Crucible threatens to devour all of Easter (including Nedda’s best friend Denny), it’s up to Nedda and Betheen to save the day.

Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White – Nedda’s heroes have always been astronauts. WWJD – What would Judy do?

As much as I loved Swyler’s previous novel, The Book of Speculation, I think she managed to outdo herself with Light from Other Stars. It is beautiful and magical and excruciating in the best way. I am writing this review weeks after turning the last page, tears coursing down my face anew. (Okay, that makes my ugly crying sound a lot prettier than it is. A spectacle, I am making one.)

A big part of this are the passages on death and dying and the afterlife. I’m an atheist, and don’t generally envy people their religious beliefs … that is, unless it’s the comfort that the grieving can find in stories about heaven (or reincarnation, or what have you). Some days I’d give anything to believe that I’ll be reunited with my deceased love ones, eventually. But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, even when it’s convenient, and so I go scavenging for secular comfort wherever I can find it, like a sad, lonely little heathen magpie.

I find it in all sorts of places (but mostly books, to no one’s surprise): Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The passages in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead. The entire science-based religion created by Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables duology. Add to that Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts. (Carl Sagan’s quote about starstuff! I knew I was forgetting something!) There’s some truly breathtaking stuff in here. This is a wonderfully godless book; a wonderful book for the godless. I’ll hold it close to my heart and cherish it, always.

(I want desperately to include some excerpts here, but spoilers!)

Light from Other Stars is also fiercely feminist, even if the ferocity sometimes comes in a whisper instead of a shout. It’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons … but also, especially, about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Nedda’s relationship with Theo is as magnificent as it is tenuous, but her bond with Betheen is all the more wonderful for its complexity, for the way it grows and strengthens and changes – and holds fast even across the vast chasm of space. Nedda’s evolving perception of her mother as she discovers what Betheen is capable of is a revelation. I wonder if they ever perfected that champagne cake together?

Last but not least, it’s a joy to watch as these two narratives come together, often in unexpected ways (Amadeus, I’m looking at you).

Swyler’s writing is exquisite and will pummel you right in the feels. I really hope Netflix picks this one up for a screenplay or miniseries. I need to see what time made liquid looks like, stat.

(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: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019)

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A haunting contemplation on love, death, and destiny.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and mental health issues.)

“The funny thing is, the other time travelers—I’m thinking of Teddy Avedon in particular, he’s been showing me the ropes—they keep telling me that it’s green to be so excited. They mean I’m being gauche. Teddy says I’ll get used to seeing dead people. But I think he’s wrong. Whenever I visit my father, the trees in his garden are young again, and so is he. I will never take that for granted.”

Two women, who’d already witnessed each other’s deaths, married on the first day of spring. […]

Entertainments followed: fifty-five Angharads danced a ballet.

It’s 1967 and time travel is about to become a reality – thanks to four brilliant young women.

The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace—who never gave the same account of her history twice—was an expert in the behavior of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. She specialized in nuclear fission.

Among other things, their invention will make it more difficult for society to deny them their accomplishments:

And because time travellers appear again and again as the years go by—long past their natural lifespan—it would be harder to write these women out of history. They would be visible, for all to see.

Yet, shortly after traveling forward an hour into the future (time travel being possible only between points in which the infrastructure exists which, for the purpose of this story, is between 1967 and 2267 … mysterious!), Barbara – Bee for short – suffers a breakdown on live TV and is promptly institutionalized. It’s later theorized that the disruptions in daylight triggered a bipolar episode in Bee, who was already predisposed. Nevertheless, Bee is ostracized from the burgeoning Time Travel Enclave, largely at funder Margaret’s behest.

Fast forward fifty-plus years. Bee marries, has a child, is widowed, has a grandchild. She shies away from the spotlight and largely abandons her scientific pursuits. She lives a cozy, contented life in a cottage by the sea, kept company by her garden, her doggos, and her granddaughter Ruby. She is, in a way, written out of history (despicably, by another woman).

That is, until the day she finds an origami rabbit on her front step. Inside is in inquest notice, dated five months in the future, into the death of an unidentified woman in her 80s. Afraid that Bee will soon be murdered – multiple gunshot wounds, her body discovered in the locked basement boiler room of a toy museum by a volunteer – Ruby launches a covert investigation into the Conclave’s other three founders. Meanwhile, Bee tries to get back into the Conclave’s good graces.

The Psychology of Time Travel jumps back and forth in time – from the invention of time travel in 1967; to last half of 2018, in the months leading up to the murder; to the crime’s fallout, in 2019 – and is told through multiple perspectives: Bee, Margaret, Grace, Lucille, and Ruby, naturally; Odette, the young graduate student who makes the gruesome discovery; Ginger, Ruby’s sometimes-lover; Angharad, an astronaut who joins the Conclave after Bee’s ousting; and Siobhan, a psychologist from the 22nd century. Every. Single. Narrator. is a woman, which is such a refreshing and surprising delight, I can’t even.

Sometimes stories told in this way can prove difficult to follow but, once I got used to the rhythm, I became lost in the tale. It’s a little bit mystery, a lot of geeky good science fiction, and – perhaps above all else – a surprisingly philosophical exploration of how time travel might affect us: the travelers specifically, and society more generally. Mascarenhas’s vision might surprise you.

This is an exceptionally difficult book for me to review, but probably not for the reasons you might think. I read it while one of my beloved puppers – fifteen years young! – was dying…though I did not realize it at the time. She’d been struggling with dementia for about ten months, which was difficult to watch; but I thought we had at least a few more months together. Sadly, O-Ren was euthanized at home five days after I finished The Psychology of Time Travel: she was refusing to eat or drink, and her nighttime pacing became more frantic, even as her energy waned and she could no longer do laps around the house without falling, repeatedly. Most likely she also had a brain tumor, like her friend Mags, who passed away just four months before – on Thanksgiving, no less. One of my final memories of Rennie will be pacing around the house with her while reading The Psychology of Time Travel on my Kindle. Needless to say, this review was written in tears.

Point being, it’s been a rough few years for me. In just under six years, I lost six dogs, a grandmother, and my husband. I had to sell my house and move back home. My last remaining doggo is thirteen-and-a-half and I’m waiting on a neurology consult to see if Finnick might have a brain tumor as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he leaves me, too. Some days these dogs are the only thing that keeps me going. In this context, I found The Psychology of Time Travel’s meditations on death especially appealing.

This book is called The PSYCHOLOGY of Time Travel for a reason: turns out that time travel can really fuck a person up.

When you’re a time traveler, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.

This idea is both amazing and terrifying. To think that your loved one will forever exist during a certain period in time, even if they do not exist at this particular moment, and that you can visit them at the drop of a hat, is…wonderful. Magnificent. Liberating. I would give anything to be able to do that. To bump crooked noses with Peedee, or smell Ralphie’s musk, or rub Kaylee’s piggy belly. To talk to Shane or go on a hike with Mags. To once again toss a tennis ball around with little puppy Rennie.

Yet, as we soon learn, this mutability of death is a double-edged sword. Time travelers become cruel. Hardened. Some of this is in the management, sure, but even the “good” ones struggle with doing what’s right – why not, when you can put that weight on your silver self’s shoulders?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a thoughtful contemplation on love, loss, and – yes – destiny. Another pitfall of already knowing the future? Subjugating your will in order to choose the path that you think your life is “supposed” to take: seeing the future makes it so. But who’s to say the future cannot be changed?

So, yes, time travel is a magical experience – but took much knowledge can become a prison of its own.

The time travel also lends itself well to all sorts of neat little details, from the slang (“For instance—intercourse with one’s future self was called forecasting. Intercourse with one’s past self was a legacy fuck.”) to the scenes featuring multiple versions of the same character (see also: slang). You never know just when or how some characters’ lives will intersect, and the guessing makes for a really enjoyable experience.

(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: The Underfoot, Volume 1: The Mighty Deep by Ben Fisher, Emily S. Whitten, & Michelle Nguyen (2019)

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Two words: hamster mercenaries.

three out of five stars

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

The Underfoot is set in the (not-so-?) distant future, in which humans – known to the surviving land mammals as the Giants-That-Were – have been wiped out: either by mass floods, or by earthquakes, or perhaps even by avalanches, depending on who you ask. In our wake, we left behind the results of our scientific cruelty (or generosity, again relative to the teller of the tale): a variety of nonhuman animal species, imbued with superior (again, perspective!) intelligence, capable of using tools and communicating with advanced verbal language. They’re like us, but tiny and furrier!

They’re also like us, for better or worse: they engage in spying, sabotage, and warfare. Which brings us to the “underfoot” (“underfeet”?), i.e., hamsters. The hamster community at the heart of this story lives in a fungus-powered bubble under the water. Believing that the great floods will some day return, they train their pups to swim, (dis)assemble dams, and keep the underwater colony running. They also maintain an elite para-military group called the Hamster Aquatic Mercenaries (H.A.M.), which performs ops for other animal colonies in exchange for IOUs, unspecified favors to be cashed in at a later date.

When we first meet them, the HAMs have just been hired to destroy a damn for … a bunch of skunks? I wasn’t clear on that. Anyway, the structure is threatening to flood their home. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for the HAMs, but their expert traps-hamster recently passed away. It’s time to graduate a young pup early – but are any of them up to the job?

The story is kind of cute, I guess – I mean, who doesn’t love a furry round hamster butt? – though I think it’s probably best suited for younger readers. The animal experimentation angle piqued my interest, but isn’t really explored in depth. Certainly not any intellectual depth, such as the ethics of vivisection. The hamsters idolize humans, even though we left them to rot in cages, so…yeah.

I mean, does Gunther the lobster have any idea what we used to do to his people? And here he is, collecting and guarding our junk in eager anticipation of our return? Yuck.

The ending does hint at more to come, but the story didn’t hold my interest enough to continue.

Beyond this, I just didn’t find the plot (or many subplots) all that compelling. It can be difficult to keep all the hamsters straight (though the artists do an admirable job, for example, through accessorizing and mixing the species up), and many of the action panels are confusing as heck. idk, it just wasn’t what I was gunning for.

Ruby and Mac are adorable though, and I love how the hamsters rescued the cats from the research facility. Interspecies cooperation ftw!

(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: Vagrant Queen, Volume 1 by Magdalene Visaggio & Jason Smith (2019)

Friday, April 5th, 2019

A Fun Enough Shoot ‘Em Up Space Opera

three out of five stars

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

Elida Al-feyr’s ancestors were … not very nice people. At the edge of a galaxy (not ours), they developed a mind-control device called the Bezoar of Kings. With it, they brainwashed the people of Arriopa into believing that they were gods, accepting their will without question. By the time Elida was crowned Queen of the Divine Monarchy – at the tender age of ten – the Bel-iors had not relied upon the amulet’s power for generations. Yet this doesn’t quell a popular, violent uprising, in which the monarchy is overthrown and replaced by a republic. Elida and her mother escape certain death, but barely – and the last two remaining members of the royal family are separated within the year.

Fast-forward fifteen years. Elida is in hiding, making a living by scavenging wrecks and reselling her finds. A not-so-chance encounter with an old frenemy named Isaac sends her in search of her mother, said to be imprisoned in the Monastery of Wix. But is Isaac double-crossing her, or triple-crossing someone else? Is the long-lost Bezoar of Kings merely myth, or is it out there, somewhere, just waiting to be found? And if it is, what responsibility does Elida bear for its misuse?

Vagrant Queen is a fun, shoot ’em up space opera. There’s not a whole lot that’s noteworthy or especially memorable about the plot, but it’s a fun enough ride while it lasts. Some elements work better than others; Elida is a badass anti-hero, but Isaac’s bad boy schtick feels played out. That said, his facial hair is a thing of wonder. Ditto: Elida’s ‘do, which almost feels like a throwback to Aeon Flux. Ten-year-old Elida is a compelling character, and I’d love to see more of her in future issues. (And her fro? Even more glorious than her future self’s locks.) For those who like gory, over-the-top violence, Vagrant Queen has it in spades; to wit:

While I love the diversity in this story, it feels a little weird to see a Black family enslave a bunch of white people. Like, is this progress? Just dessert? Post-racial, race-blind storytelling? Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it? Idk what to think.

(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: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields (2019)

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Hugely disappointing.

two out of five stars

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

This—the butchery, the dripping floor—was what kingdoms of men did to one another. We were no more than instruments of hatred.

DNF at 65%.

Mildred Groves has always been haunted by visions. Actually, “haunted” is the wrong word: as terrible and disturbing as her visions are, Mildred welcomes them, like an old friend or security blanket. They make her powerful. Different. Unique. Yet they also make her an outcast, a lightening rod, a target for bullies. Turns out that people don’t very much like hearing about the calamity that’s about to befall them.

Things come to a head not long after the death of her beloved father. At their riverside memorial Mildred pushes her mother into the water. After this she’s put on house arrest, of a sort: sentenced to take care of Mother, in all her failing health. An unemployed, friendless spinster at twenty-something. In Mildred’s quest to be the perfect daughter, her visions flee soon afterward. So when she has a prophecy that she will be employed at the newly built Hanford Research Center in Washington, helping to defeat Hitler, she eagerly plans her escape.

With her strong secretarial skills and unusual mind, Millie is quickly hired as physicist Dr. Phillip Hall’s secretary, where she’s privy to sensitive information about “the product” they’re developing at Hanford. Her escalating visions, accompanied by bouts of sleepwalking, tell her things, too: glimpses of bodies with the skin melted off, eyeballs oozing into nothing, a river choked with corpses. Yet when she questions the ethics of what they’re doing at Hanford – continuing to develop a nuclear weapon even after the surrender of the German forces – she’s dismissed as misguided, hysterical, or crazy. Or, worst of all: threatened with dismissal on mental health grounds, sending her straight back to Mother’s depressing and oppressive home in Omak.

Part historical fiction, part reimagining of the Greek myth of Cassandra, I thoroughly expected to love The Cassandra. Unfortunately, it’s just…not good.

As other reviewers have noted, the characters are all one-dimensional – especially the abusive Mother and sister Martha. They’re such caricatures that I wondered for awhile if Mildred might be an unreliable narrator, but I really didn’t get any confirmation of this in my reading. Like, Mother deserved to take a tumble into the Okanogan River, and then some. And yet there’s no indication that anyone sees Mother and Martha’s treatment of Mildred as wrong. Which in itself seems wrong. It’s all just really weird and frustrating.

Ditto the rampant sexism, which is certainly appropriate for the era – but, in order to make it somewhat bearable, we need a character who questions, challenges, stands up against it. A contrast or aspiration. Mildred seems the obvious choice, and yet. Nada.

I struggled with DNF’ing this book more than most; even though I hated every minute of it, I found the plot interesting enough to want to know how the story ends. The final nail in the coffin came as I was perusing Goodreads reviews, and saw that Millie is brutally raped at the 70% point. I was 65% in, and that was it for me. I don’t appreciate rape scenes to begin with, and I certainly wasn’t willing to sit through one for this story.

I usually love the unpopular books – especially feminist scifi written by women – but sadly I’m with the haters here. Hard pass.

(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: Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

A one-of-a-kind anthology, though hopefully not for long.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence against LGBTQ and Indigenous peoples.)

I knew the apocalypse had started before he said her name.

“Legends Are Made, Not Born” by Cherie Dimaline

Strange Boy and Shadow Boy realized at last that they had never been alone. They were just the first to free their hearts and fly in their own beauty.

“The Boys Who Became the Hummingbirds” by Daniel Heath Justice

These are not my stories but they touch me, and they make me see the world outside as even more bright and beautiful than I did before I read them, and I know they will for you too.

“Letter From the editor” by Hope Nicholson

I don’t know that it’s truly one of a kind, but Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is the first anthology of Indigenous #OwnVoices LGBTQ SF/F I’ve ever come across – and hopefully not the last. The eight stories (and two essays/intros, and one poem) contained within these pages are pure magic, brimming with light and love and starstuff. And don’t forget the space puppies!

My favorite was easily né łe! by Darcie Little Badger, in which recently-dumped Dottie King, dvm, impulsively signs up as a veterinarian for a nascent Mars colony. Five months into the nine-month journey, she’s pulled out of stasis when the dogs’ pods malfunction. She falls in love with the Starship Soto’s pilot, Cora, over the care and feeding of forty rambunctious Chihuahuas – and one “defective” Husky. It’s sweet and fun and I’ve got to agree with Cora that rolling around in a dog pile (with dogs who might never die! MAGS I MISS YOU SO MUCH.) sounds like the very best way to pass a day.

Cherie Dimaline’s “Legends are made, not born” is impossibly beautiful, in so many ways. Set in a future and on a world that doesn’t look too terribly different from our own, the story’s protagonist is sent to live with a family friend when his mother dies in a snowmobile accident. Auntie Dave is “a six-foot Cree” who’s a little big magic.

Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became the Hummingbirds” is strange and lovely, with imagery that will take your breath away. In a dystopia of no obvious time or place, Strange Boy (and, eventually, Shadow Boy) fight against hatred and bigotry to bring color and kindness back to their people, against seemingly insurmountable odds.

With shades of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, “Perfectly You” by David A. Robertson a perfect scifi tale about fear and longing and regret. And taking chances and letting go. Some of the post-coma scenes just about tore my heart in two.

I also really loved “Valediction at the Star View Motel” by Nathan Adler, and not just because of the Charlotte’s Web references (though that ending did really bring me back: lazy summer afternoons, dog-eared, water-stained paperback clutched tight to my chest while dozing in the hammock out back).

It’s hard to say too much about any one story, for fear of spoiling the choicest bits, so best stop while I’m ahead. Suffice it to say that Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time has a little bit of everything: humor, beauty, compassion, ass-kicking. Not to mention androids who long to be human and pretty queer girls who can talk to nonhuman animals.

 

CONTENTS
Letter From the editor | Hope Nicholson 7
beyond the grim dust oF What Was Grace | L. Dillon 9
returning to ourseLves: tWo sPirit Futures and the noW | Niigaan Sinclair 12
aLiens | Richard Van Camp 20
Legends are made, not born | Cherie Dimaline 31
PerFectLy you | David A. Robertson 38
the boys Who became the hummingbirds | Daniel Heath Justice 54
né łe! | Darcie Little Badger
60 transitions | Gwen Benaway 77
imPoster syndrome | Mari Kurisato 87
vaLediction at the star vieW moteL | Nathan Adler 103
ParaLLax | Cleo Keahna 116
bios 118

(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: A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams (2019)

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Filled with peoples, worlds, futures, and acts of rebellion that you won’t soon forget.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against a variety of marginalized groups.)

You are the amen of my family, and I am the in the beginning of yours. This story is the prayer, or one of them. This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Wall to keep the empire safe: strrrrrong empire, empire with mightiest military in the world, empire made of blood and theft, human and land. Before the wall was even finished the empire began to strip rights, silence certain people, keep others sparking in their skins of distrust. But most of the inhabitants paid attention to other things, shiny things, scandals. It would pass, hadn’t it always? White folks had short memories.

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

Y’all, the first baby born to the Federation of Free Peoples was gonna be one incredible brown-ass baby.

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

Seanan McGuire is an insta-read for me – but, even without her name attached to this project, A People’s Future of the United States is still a book I would have pounced on. With its riff on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, plethora of diverse contributors, and focus on futures that might be – at a time when the present is so damn depressing – there’s no way I could pass it up. And, rather than offer an escape from the now, the stories here challenge the reader to follow this thread to its possible conclusions; to imagine what this world could become, for better or worse; and to rise up, resist, and perhaps steer it to a better, more humane place.

My main issue with anthologies is that they tend to be uneven – but A People’s History of the United States is as close to uniformly awesome as you can get without being pure perfection. There are a few stories that I just found okay, and one that I skipped altogether. But most of the rest? Took my breath away.

For whatever reason (the first bit of the synopsis maybe?), I came to the table expecting visions of future utopias: suggestions for how we can fix this broken planet we call home. And while there are a few budding socialist Edens to be found here – Hugh Howey’s “No Algorithms in the World” springs to mind – most are of the dystopian variety. And that’s both okay and, let’s be honest, totally realistic. The good thing is that, within every story lurks a glimmer of hope. Sometimes it’s tenuous and fragile, but it’s there, waiting to be nurtured into fruition. My heart, you guys? Swelled so much that it felt fit to burst clear out of my chest. Some of these yarns are that darn shiny.

There are way too many to discuss them all, but here goes.

“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley is as strange as it is lovely. Half the time I was not entirely sure what I was reading, but I was sure I wanted more. In this far-off future dystopia, words are power (though “Knowledge [isn’t] enough.”), a power that’s been chained by the powers that be. Paper is outlawed, so Librarians like the Needle tattoo the stories of the world on their very skin: “manuscripts from authors like Octavia the Empress and Ursula Major.” (Tell me you didn’t feel those chills.) In the end – or the beginning, rather – these stories become a superpower of sorts, smoke let loose on the battleground. The first of many revolutions.

Sam J. Miller explores “the place of sex in a broader strategy of political resistance” in “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right.” Forced to seek anonymous, illicit sex in back alleys and swampy underpasses (Homosexuality? Illegal. Along with a laundry list of other identities and interests.), Caul finds himself in a parallel world at the moment of orgasm: “A place where what we do matters.” And so this tool of the state – he who installs phone cloners up and down the streets of NY, to help the government better surveil its residents – comes to realize that he can be used to dismantle it. (And tell me your heart didn’t sink down into the depths of your belly the day that Prince became contraband.)

In “Riverbed,” Omar El Akkad revisits the site of a mass human rights abuse on its fiftieth anniversary. After a group of suicide bombers attacked a US sporting event with massive casualties, Khadija Singh’s family was rounded up and taken to a detention center, ‘for their own protection.’ (Never mind that they are Sikh, and not Muslim. In her father’s words, Americans are “brittle with privilege.”) It was only after he escaped that her brother was murdered. On the eve of the unveiling of a gaudy new museum to ‘commemorate’ the tragedy, Dr. Singh returns to the property to retrieve her brother’s meager belongings, so that no part of him might remain in the place of his captivity.

Justina Ireland’s “Calendar Girls” is a biting look at a world in which contraception, made illegal (while boner pills thrive!), is dealt on street corners like cocaine or heroin. After being orphaned by a forced pregnancy that killed her mom, Alyssa goes to work for the Matriarchs, selling condoms to young women and her local patrolman (already father of nine) alike. There’s an arrest, and a shakedown involving a hypocritical Senator (founder of the Abstinence League!) who wants an abortion for his pregnant, unwed teen daughter (See: ‘The only moral abortion is my abortion.’), and a double-cross to save the day.

Also nestled under the “utopia” umbrella is “O.1” by Gabby Rivera, in which a plague called IMBALANCE (“a sentient bacterium that preyed on white-supremacist greed”) killed the 1% and left most of the rest of the population sterile. That is, until a couple named Mala and Orion Lafayette-Santana manage to conceive Baby 0.1 – and the personal quickly becomes the object of public consumption as the the Federation of Free Peoples rallies around this new life. When Mala, Orion, and their birth worker Deviana Ortiz go missing from their home in North Philly, panic – and a massive manhunt – ensues. Told from their alternating perspectives, “O.1” is a story of hope and resilience. This might be the only time I’ve wished for biological warfare, okay. Team Imbalance all the way.

N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is simply brilliant: I mean, drug-sniffing, made-that-way racist dragons, sated with collard greens and hot sauce, domesticated with love and affection, and then turned against their (common) oppressors? What’s not to love about that?

Ditto: the aforementioned “No Algorithms in the World,” in which Hugh Howey imagines what society with a guaranteed basic income might look like, from both sides of the generational divide.

In “The Referendum,” Lesley Nneka Arimah reminds us why we should always listen to black women.

And Tananarive Due’s “Attachment Disorder” is an epic tale distilled into short story form that will leave you wanting more.

I’m certain I’m overlooking a few favorites, but this is a pretty good start. If you like smart speculative fiction, told by a diverse group of voices, with a strong foundation in the here and now, A People’s Future of the United States is a slam dunk.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (2018)

Friday, January 25th, 2019

“It’s like death and toffee.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and homophobic violence.)

“Russia is starting to mine the solar system, and Americans are going to be getting their unicorn horns polished and designing children with claws and rainbow auras.”

He is passing from his own world into another, where humans and gravity hold sway. Up there, he isn’t Snake. He is only Chimera624, property of the Blessed Cures Consortium. If I were to examine the Consortium’s books, would I find myself listed as property too?

When you’d read Dickens, and Dickinson, and you’d read selections of Greek mythology and stories by a woman called Brontë and even a few by a man called Vonnegut—or at least, when you’d read the parts of those books that made it through the Proto Authority’s redaction process—you sometimes thought about a different sort of life.

This was, in a way, the beginning of a fairy tale.

This book began as a thought that one might variously describe as cynical or realistic (personally, my vote is on “all of the above”). While researching medical and technological advances on the horizon, Dayton’s initial reaction was the obvious: amazaballs! (Yes, it is 2019 and I am still using that word. Sue me.) This was rapidly supplanted by the more pessimistic: “We will definitely find some way of messing this up in spectacular fashion.” The six stories in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful exist in the liminal space between the two, as helpfully illustrated by this chart in the Author’s Note:

(Not gonna lie, I loled.)

The stories take place in the vague and unspecified future: both not-so-distant, and many generations down the line (in the twilight of humanity, you might even say). While the tech is indeed amazing – from drive-ins that combine on-screen images with pictures on each car’s windshield to create a 3D experience, to the eradication of inherited diseases and body mods ranging from moving tattoos to wings and horns and gills and flippers – it kind of takes a backseat to how society chooses to interpret, respond to, and utilize these gifts. Unsurprisingly, theological and geopolitical rifts form. While many people welcome life-saving medical advances (cross-species organ harvesting; the merging of organic and robotic parts; gene manipulation to eliminate disease), the more frivolous cosmetic procedures (see: wings and horns and gills and flippers) prove controversial. Sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear-cut.

In Part 1: Matched Pair (“A few years from now…”), we meet Evan Weary on the eve of his sister Julia’s death, and his resurrection (of sorts). The semi-identical twins were born with the same genetic disease, which caused stunted growth and gradual organ failure in their too-short lives. Julia lies in a coma, while Evan prepares to accept (or “cannibalize,” depending on your POV) a myriad of her organs so that he might have a chance.

Part 2: St. Ludmilla (“A few more years from now…”) introduces us to Milla (so named for the titular saint), whose broken body was pieced together with a “meshline” after a devastating car accident. Because bigotry against “anyone who’d been severely damaged and then put back together” is on the rise, Milla downplays the fallout. But when Gabriel, the guy she’d been crushing on for years, discovers her secret, the consequences are … let’s just say deliciously felicitous. (Is it terrible that I wanted her to push him?)

In Part 3: The Reverend Mr. Tad Tadd’s Love Story (“Let’s leap ahead a little more…”), we learn a little more about Tad Tadd (never trust a guy with two first names!). Along with the tech, Tadd is the one character who remains a constant thread in all six stories. Tadd is an evangelical preacher who’s a hybrid of Jim Jones and Fred Phelps (of the Westboro Baptist Church fame). As a young man, he railed against altering our bodies in any way that would make them less “human” – even upon penalty of death. But when his wife and young son are killed at one of his protests (and, let’s face it, it’s hard not to root for the Ethiopian “mob”), Tad does a 180…but in a way that still manages to be self-serving and does absolutely nothing to help his “loved” ones. Fast-forward decades, maybe even a century, and the man has several pairs of multi-colored (think: tentacles) and extra eyes on the sides of his head. Jump ahead even more, and the man is God. But even gods can fall. And I’d getting ahead of myself.

Part 4: Eight Waded (“A lot of time has passed…”) mostly takes place underwater, where our anti-hero Alexios lives. Created to his parents’ specs by Genetic Radiance and deemed a failure, young Alexios was given “employment” as a chimera wrangler at the lab’s sister facility, The Blessed Cures Consortium. Here he defends the company’s property – with the help of a dolphin pod, no less – and lures unsuspecting manatees to their repeated torture:

Chimera. It means a living thing that contains tissue from two or more distinct organisms. Humans have used pigs and sheep and even rats to grow human organs cheaply and safely. But manatees are so much larger, and their lumbering ways and gentle attitudes so ideal to peacefully cultivating alien tissue, that my employer, the Blessed Cures Consortium, chose them as far more perfect chimeras than lowly pigs. Also, they can hide manatees underwater and leave their competitors guessing.

Chimera.
Or, switched around:
Ah, crime.

A perfect job for an eleven-year-old with a big brain and no empathy. (Though, let’s face it, the kid’s as much as slave as the sea creatures.) I especially love that Dayton chose manatees to be the “living organ tanks”; unlike pigs and sheeps, manatees – with their chubby bodies and docile demeanor – are universally beloved. They are cute and cuddly and worthy of consideration and compassion; certain to arouse outrage when mistreated. Yet they’re no different from pigs in the ways that matter: both are sentient, capable of feeling pain (and joy and love and grief, etc.) and suffering.

Anyway, the whole chapter reads like something out of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. So yes, I loved it.

Part 5: California (“We are definitely in the future now…”) takes us to Russia, where teenagers Jake and Kostya are on the run, having just escaped from a slave camp on an asteroid where they were being forced to mine platinum. Russia and America now (or will soon) sit on opposite sides of the “Genetic Curtain”: whereas Russia and its colonies prohibit the joining of human and nonhuman, America has yoyoed to the other extreme, allowing pretty much any and every mod devised by science, medically necessary or merely cosmetic. Yet Russia makes some exceptions, most notably for its prisoners and those deemed “deviant.”

And so it is that a cryogenically frozen California boy from a world long dead, and a Russian boy who just so happens to like kissing other boys, find their half-robot selves on a train barreling toward Siberia. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Part 6: Curiosities (“They have left us far behind…”) brings it all home on a reservation for “proto” humans located just outside of Denver. Teens Luck and Starlock are star-crossed lovers: with their contrasting white and black skins, there’s no chance these crazy kids are going to be Paired by the humans in charge. Not when genetic purity is the goal (ironic, coming from the people sporting antennae and wings!). But when the sentries fall – literally, their wings fall off and they wither to nothing – the Protos venture out beyond the confines of their electrified fence to see if there’s anything left in the big wide world. You know what they say about the meek inheriting the earth.

While I liked each story well enough, my enjoyment grew with each new chapter. It was really fascinating to watch Dayton’s world expand and grow, and to see how the pieces fit together. Whereas I’d give Part 1 a 3/5 – it’s rather short, and thus short on details – after that it was smooth sailing. Each chapter is a little longer than the one before it, so that they range from short stories (Part 1) to novellas (Part 5 and 6 each occupy about 25% of the book). The larger the ‘verse, the more captivated I became. I couldn’t stop reading, and yet I never wanted it to end.

(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: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Friday, January 18th, 2019

A weirdly enchanting dystopia.

four out of five stars

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

They sleep like children, mouths open, cheeks flushed. Breathing as rhythmic as swells on a sea. No longer allowed in the rooms, their mothers and fathers watch them through double-paned glass. Isolation—that’s what the doctors call it: the separation of the sick from the well. But isn’t every sleep a kind of isolation? When else are we so alone?

[H]ow much quieter that ending would be, a whole world drowned in sleep, than all the other ways we have to fall.

The remote California college town of Santa Lora (population 12,106) is beset by two calamities one autumn in the not-so-distant future: an unrelenting drought, and a “sleeping sickness.” Sufferers collapse into a deep sleep, from which nothing can wake them. If not cared for with feeding tubes, heart monitors, physical therapy, and the like, the sleepers (as they are colloquially known) are apt to succumb to the disease. However, as the outbreak spreads from the college to the rest of the town, finding volunteers to tend to the sleepers becomes increasingly difficult. Especially as many of the carers drift into sleep as well.

We experience the initial days and long weeks of the epidemic through the eyes of various Santa Lorians: Sara and Libby Peterson, ages twelve and eleven, daughters of a survivalist dad who works as a janitor at the college, and a mother long dead of asthma-related complications. Ben and Annie, new parents and recent Brooklyn transplants who are employed as part-time visiting professors at the college. Nathaniel and Henry, senior professors who have been together since Nathaniel came out in middle age. Mei Liu, a Chinese-American freshman from San Diego who was hoping to turn over a new leaf at college – and “Weird” Matthew Baker, a fellow quarantinee from her floor. And Catharine, a psychiatrist flown in from LA to assess the situation in its earliest days.

The Dreamers isn’t so much a story about a viral outbreak, or the potential end of the world, as it is an exploration of human consciousness and the elusive nature of time. Walker has created a dystopia that’s surprisingly beautiful and enchanting; her prose is, in a word, mesmerizing. Likewise, The Dreamers is one of the more thoughtful and philosophical (would-be) apocalypse stories in recent memory.

Walker plays with time and reality in ways that are both frustrating (don’t believe everything you read!) and delightful. While they sleep the sleep of the dead, Walker’s sleepers dream: of other possible worlds (or all possible worlds), of the future, of days come and gone and yet to be. Scientists monitoring the patients’ brain activity are shocked by what they find: “there is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain—awake or asleep.” Some sleepers dream entire lifetimes into being. When, eventually, some of them begin to wake up, it is a little death of sorts. Who is to say which life is real, and which is the dream?

So yeah, The Dreamers is a bit of a mindfuck, in the best possible way.

Oh, and bonus points for the trolley problem reference. I don’t know if the author is one, but fans of The Good Place are likely to dig this story, I think (Matthew and Mei in particular).

(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: Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels (2018)

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Welcome to the anti-Clone Club.

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Open Earth by Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre (2018)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

The future is queer AF!

four out of five stars

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

Out of the ruins of old Earth blossoms a new culture that’s open, sexually liberated, and queer AF!

Twenty-year-old Rigo is an alien, of sorts: a human being born in space. Of Earth, but not from Earth. Rigo and her peers are generation of pioneers: space, political, social, sexual. The California‘s motto – “Serve the Greater Good” – is applicable to all areas of life on the ship, including the bunks. Among the tweens, teens, and young adults, monogamy is seen as taboo: it encourages social isolation and jealousy and works against peak genetic variation. “Friends with benefits” kinda sorta goes without saying; same-sex couplings aren’t just tolerated, but accepted without question; and polyamory is the norm. Even the ‘rents are a little kinky!

So when Rigo begins feeling a little too drawn to Carver, her queer and geeky lab mate, she’s reluctant to give voice to these feelings for fear of being ostracized. Not to mention, coming as out conventional and old school, like her scientist parents. What’s a curvy, pansexual, polyamorous refugee girl to do?

Open Earth probably isn’t for everyone. There’s not much of a plot, save for Rigo’s attempt to navigate her love life while keeping her self-identity intact. While technically a science fiction comic, the story could take place anywhere. Or maybe not: perhaps it will take nothing less than hundreds of years and millions of miles from our current state of being to embrace such a radical and liberated (dare I say socialist?) ethos.

Anyway, I enjoyed the characters and the society and the general world-building. There’s wonderful representation here, and I’m not just talking gender identity and sexual orientation. I’d love to see additional stories set in this ‘verse, perhaps featuring characters we’ve already met (Rigo’s parents being first on the list!), or those from California’s past or future.

(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: The Burning World (Warm Bodies #2) by Isaac Marion (2017)

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

“What can we become?”

four out of five stars

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

For a variety of reasons, some good, most bad, I am famous. I am the first of the Dead to challenge the plague, the one who triggered a change that’s still spreading. I am the disease that cured itself. And I am the monster that kidnapped General Grigio’s daughter and brainwashed her into falling in love with it. I am the demon that lured legions of skeletons to the stadium and caused the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, and that may have personally infected General Grigio and thrown his converting corpse off the stadium roof. I am the reason there are zombies roaming their streets and eyeing their children. I am the reason nothing makes sense.

He thinks goodness must be more than just kindness. It must have a hard frame to hold it together. How can you stitch a wound if you faint at the sight of blood? How can you do good in a world you refuse to see?

Have I missed something? What I just saw was gruesome and tragic, yes, but also beautiful. I saw a woman pull herself out of her grave and climb up to whatever’s next. I saw a woman save her own soul. What did they see?

Several months have passed since the end of Warm Bodies: since an unassuming zombie met a girl, ate her boyfriend’s brain, took her back to his 747 parked at the kinda-sorta abandoned airport to listen to Sinatra records, and accidentally discovered the cure for the plague ravaging humanity. Since that girl took that boy back to her fortified home at CitiStadium to meet her father, leading to his infection and suicide, the invasion (and retreat) of the Boneys, and the dawn of a new era.

Or so that was the hope.

When we catch up with some of the most memorable protagonists in literary history – certainly in zombie fiction, anyway – we find that Julie and R have shacked up in a little fixer-upper in the ‘burbs surrounding the stadium, to help spread the cure beyond their bounds of their enclave. Their success has been halting, at best: the Fleshies, unlike the Boneys, are unimpressed with what Julie and R have to offer.

Meanwhile, Nora has fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. In addition to the Living, Nora ministers to the Dead as they make the slow, laborious journey from Mostly-Dead to Nearlies, and then back to the land of the Living. While the Gleam – remember that yellow glow in Julie’s eyes? – heals “the rot” that eats at the Fleshies, it is powerless to fix the wounds inflicted from without. In R’s words, “Wounds aren’t the plague. […] The damage we do to ourselves is our responsibility.”

Another plague haunts our heroes: doubt. Julie and R don’t know how they conquered the plague, let alone how to replicate the results. R’s return to humanity has proven slow and tedious; he struggles to master Curious George, while his good friend M, much later to the party, can spit out polysyllabic sentences without missing a beat. And since so many of her patients expire on the operating table, mere seconds after rediscovering their long-lost humanity, Nora is understandably careening toward depression and burnout.

If it feels like I’m giving away the plot, fear not: this all happens in the first tenth of the book. With the odds already stacked against them, Marion introduces a new, more horrific villain into the mix: a shady private military corporation called the Axiom Group. They have a plan for the United States – North America? The world? – and Uncategorized Dead like R don’t fit into their blueprints. Before Julie and R (and Marcus and Nora? PLEASE DOG MAKE THIS HAPPEN!) can even begin to spread the cure, they must go up against an even crueler and more formidable adversary than the zombie plague: human greed.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Ark Land by Scott A. Ford (2018)

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Bellyups, and Mountain Mantises, and Gnarles, oh my!

four out of five stars

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

Kairn lives in Ark Land, an alternate (or future?) version of earth. The main point of divergence between our worlds? Well, that would be the alien arks that float above Ark Land. They first arrived nearly a century ago, and starting falling from the sky not long after. Filled with alien lifeforms and tech, the ships became a prime source of revenue for scavengers like Kairn, who strip the arks down to the studs and pawn the debris for cash monies. But pickings are slim, at least out in the moors, where Kairn lives – along with two dogs (Rex is an earthling dog; Bertrand is his extraterrestrial counterpart) and a scrappy robot named Patterson.

When local radio station Ark Peak Radio announces a scavenging contest to coincide with the town’s annual Ark Day, Kairn throws her hat (um, mask?) in the ring. She must outwit fellow scavengers, elude the forests’ hunters, and defeat an entire robot army to win her share of the 4000 coins up for grabs. But little does she know that the contest is part of a conspiracy involving the Ark-worshipping religious order that resides in the mountain – one that could lead to the death of one of her best friends, if not the destruction of the entire planet.

The story in Ark Land is entertaining enough, but it’s the artwork that really shines here. Between the bright and vibrant colors, the occasional throwback ’80s vibes, and the craaaaaazy alien life forms, Ark Land is a visual feast. Everything is just super-imaginative and gorgeous.

It’s hard to tell if this is meant to be the first in an ongoing series; the main story arc is wrapped up tidily enough, but there are so many avenues for further exploration. I really hope to meet with Kairn (and Rex and Bertrand and Patterson!) again, if only because I found her relatable AF, from her video game and candy addiction right down to her fierce loyalty to her nonhuman friends. SUCH a cool protagonist.

Okay BYYYYEEEEEE!

(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: Chimera: Book One – The Righteous and the Lost by Tyler Ellis (2018)

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

A promising start to a new series.

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

Reminiscent of Firefly and Saga, Chimera follows the exploits of a rag-tag group of space traveling misfits. There’s Alice, the captain, who was the war-hungry Emperor-God’s champion in a previous life; her brother Charlie, who went AWOL from the rebel coalition; Russell, a three-eyed, telekinetic, wolflike alien; and Wex, the crew’s translator, who just so happens to look like an iguana. Their latest heist? Retrieve an artifact called the “chimera” – and use the funds to get the heck out of the ‘verse, and the holy war that’s tearing it apart.

Based on the cover – specifically, its minimalist, playing-it-oh-so-close-to-the-vest artwork – I wasn’t sure what to expect from Chimera, or whether I really wanted to bother with it at all. I’m glad I did, because the artwork is stunning. Seriously, the cover doesn’t begin to do it justice. The world building is easily the best part of Chimera, from the desolate desert landscape to the plethora of wonderful and imaginative aliens.

Less shiny is the actual story line, which I sometimes found muddled and confusing. There are so many different factions to keep track of, and their relationships to one another aren’t always clear. The true nature of the titular “chimera” remains a mystery throughout most of the book, and even when we get more information on it, it’s alternately referred to as both a piece of tech and a planet, which is hecka confusing.

You know the old admonition to “show, don’t tell”? It’s the exact opposite with Chimera.

Additionally, the first book feels incomplete; it ends before the story arc can be wrapped up, and as a result is deeply unsatisfying.

Still, I regret nothing. The Righteous and the Lost is a promising start to a new series, and I look forward to the next installment. Maybe the inevitable re-read will even improve my grasp of the first book.

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

Book Review: Spectacle (Menagerie #2) by Rachel Vincent (2017)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Missing that certain indefinable something that made MENAGERIE so special.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and forced abortion.)

“This one isn’t like the others,” the woman—his wife?—said, and the sharp edge in her voice could have cut glass.

“I’m like them in every way that matters,” I insisted.

I frowned, studying the dryad. She looked different from when they’d taken her the afternoon before, but I couldn’t…

Her hair. She’d had several beautiful whitish blooms blossoming in her hair.

Now those blossoms were gone.

One of the other ladies knelt next to her and laid a hand on Magnolia’s shoulder, but the nymph turned on her, teeth gnashing. Mossy-green eyes flashed beneath the tiny woody tendrils growing in place of her eyelashes.

“Oh…” Simra breathed, and I turned to her with a questioning look. “They got rid of it.”

“It?”

“The baby.”

“She was pregnant?” I whispered, horrified. “Vandekamp ended it?”

“His wife. She won’t let the ‘monsters’ breed.”

The only thing I could imagine worse than being forced to end the pregnancy was how Magnolia might have gotten pregnant in the first place.

When Menagerie debuted in 2015, I devoured an early copy faster and with more passion than a piping hot bowl of Daiya cheese sauce. It alternately had me squealing in delight, pumping my fist in the air, and squirming in my seat as if a whole mess of fire ants had set up residence there. More than anything, Menagerie inspired a jaw-dropping sense of disbelief: am I really reading what I think I’m reading here? I then went on to spend most of the next five days writing one of my most epic reviews ever. (Rivaled only by my treatise on The Female of The Species.)

Since then, I’ve read it several more times, including on audiobook, which incidentally spawned one of my favorite video recordings of one of my favorite rescue dogs, Mags (she of The Hunger Games fame; her son’s name is Finnick).

When the sequel was finally (!) released into the wild, I promptly requested an ARC on NetGalley…and then proceeded to sit on it for more than a year. I was just so scared to touch the damn thing! While Menagerie was most likely meant as an allegory for the treatment of Muslims (and brown people as a whole) after 9/11, it was impossible for me not to read it as a story about animal rights, however unintentional. (In the vegan community, we call this “accidentally vegan,” like Oreos. Yum!)

Every mistreatment of the cryptids in Delilah’s world – both the humanoid and more “bestial” ones – has an obvious and devastating corollary here in the real world, in our interactions with nonhuman animals. From forced impregnation to the separation of parents and children; the exhibition of animals in zoos and circuses; vivisection, including for the most trivial of reasons, like developing new household cleaners; physical punishment under the guise of training; and even crush videos and bestiality. And while we dismiss these atrocities since they’re “only animals,” Vincent nails the crux of the issue in Menagerie: it’s not intelligence that counts, or DNA, or one’s physical approximation to humans. The only thing that matters is sentience: a being’s ability to feel pain (or joy) and suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? – Jeremy Bentham

The cryptids in Menagerie are indeed sentient – as are the billions of nonhuman animals we enslave, torture, and kill every year. It’s impossible not to draw parallels.

And yet. Given that I’m 99.9% positive these parallels were unplanned, I worried that Vincent would walk them back in the sequel; undo some of the amazing arguments put forth in Menagerie. And so I hemmed and hawed and put Spectacle on the back burner until I could stand the suspense no further.

The good news is that my fears were largely unfounded. While the moral and philosophical underpinnings of Delilah’s furiae – so eloquently (though not imperfectly) laid out in Menagerie – remain mostly unstated in Spectacle, they are not challenged in any way. Delilah and her compatriots are the victims: victims of a cruel and inhumane society that dehumanizes, objectifies, and others them. Because humans are afraid. Because it elevates them. Because they can. Because there is a profit to be made by doing so.

The bad news? Spectacle is just an okay book. Entertaining enough, sure, but nowhere near as revolutionary as Menagerie.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Only Human (Themis Files #3) by Sylvain Neuvel (2018)

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Yokits!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers for the previous two books in the trilogy)

You think the world ch … changed while you were gone? It hasn’t. This is who we are.

What does a man’s life amount to? What does the life of a thousand, a billion? What is an ant’s life worth? I see now that the answer is irrelevant. It’s the question that matters. Should the ant let itself die, crushed under the weight of its own insignificance? Or should it live, fight giants, and build magnificent cities underground? What do I choose?

It was always you, Rose. Just you. This is your movie. The rest of us are just extras in it.

When last we visited the world of the Themis Files – a world in which the discovery of an alien robot/spaceship/war machine upended humanity, in ways both good and bad (but, let’s face it, mostly bad because humans gonna human) – physicist Rose Franklin, linguist-turned-pilot Vincent Couture, ten-year-old orphan Eva Reyes, and EDC head General Eugene Govender were on board Themis, celebrating their unlikely victory against alien invaders, when the ship powered up and transported them … somewhere else.

The quartet have spent the last nine years living in limbo on the alien planet Esat Ekt – “Home of the Ekt,” the builders of Themis and unfortunate contributors to humanity’s gene pool. Due to their strict moral philosophy of non-interference in the evolutionary paths of other species, and well as regional political BS, the Ekt cannot decide whether to send the accidental guests home, as aliens – or make them stay, as part-Ekt citizens.

It was this very philosophy of non-interference that led the Ekt to attack earth in Waking Gods, releasing a toxic gas that killed millions. What the Ekt meant as a surgical strike against their own people quickly snowballed, since the original twenty-four Ekt visitors couldn’t keep it in their pants, so to speak. The mass casualties sent shock waves through both planets: the earth of today performs mandatory blood tests on its citizens; anyone deemed to have “too much” alien DNA is rounded up and put in camps, even executed. Meanwhile, the fiasco has led to civil unrest on Ekt, with the h. sapiens guests/prisoners serving as a constant, painful reminder of the Ekt’s epic fuckup. Something’s gotta give.

Only Human is a pretty solid end to a series that I’ve really enjoyed. Like its predecessors, the story is told via a series of interviews, journal entries, and the like, in both flashbacks (to Rose et al.’s time on Ekt) and real-time. As you can probably gather from this sentence, Rose, Vincent, and Eva have managed to find their way back to Earth, which is now in possession of not one but two alien robots. In a post-9/11 climate of paranoia and fear, this is very much Not A Good Thing. The parallels Neuvel makes to our current political climate are inescapable, and I had to wonder how much of the story he wrote before/after the 2016 election (or if he altered the narrative at all later). The ultimate view he posits of humanity is both grim, but also cautiously hopeful.

I really enjoyed getting to know teenage Eva, and to see Vincent as a father. The father-daughter conflict seemed a little over the top at times, but Eva’s narrative is really compelling: a “freak” who saw visions on Earth, Eva is more or less “normal” – if a bit of an alien curiosity-slash-celebrity – on Ekt. Vincent is pretty insistent that he wants Eva to have a “normal” life – but to her, Ekt is it. So you can imagine her angst at being forced to leave by dear old dad. (I was pretty peeved with him until the final chapters.)

I also came to love Mr. Burns – something I wouldn’t have thought possible in books one or two – and kind of teared up at the surprise twist ending. Slow clap on that one.

Someone needs to stop giving these war criminals government jobs though, smh. #StillNotReadyForThemis

(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: Cry Your Way Home by Damien Angelica Walters (2018)

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Walters is at her best when she’s playing Frankenstein with fairy tale tropes.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence against women and suicide.)

Once upon a time there was a monster. This is how they tell you the story starts. This is a lie.
(“Tooth, Tongue, and Claw “)

Don’t be fooled by the breadcrumbs in the forest. This is not a fairy tale.
(“A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take”)

You won’t catch me in my underwear. I sleep in my fucking coveralls.
(“The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter”)

Between the oft-quoted “Once upon a time there was a monster…” line (reproduced above; I just couldn’t help myself!), and the deliciously dark story titles, I was practically frothing at the mouth to read an early copy of Cry Your Way Home. Alas, this collection of short stories – an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale retellings, and the stray piece of contemporary fiction, all bound by a fierce undercurrent of feminism running throughout – is more of a mixed bag than I’d hoped. There are a few gems here, but also a good many underwhelming and ultimately forgettable stories, too.

The collection opens on a strong note with “Tooth, Tongue, and Claw,” easily my favorite of the bunch. A mix of Beauty and the Beast and The Handmaid’s Tale (or perhaps “The Lottery”), the story ends with a surprising twist that’s as satisfying as it is lurid. A mashup of various fairy tales/spin on the entire genre, “A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take” is equal parts beautiful, chilling, and cautionary. While I think Walters is at her best when writing in this wheelhouse, I also quite enjoyed some of her science fiction; “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter,” “Take a Walk in the Night, My Love,” and “The Floating Girls: A Documentary” are all worth a read or two or three.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep (Rolling in the Deep #1) by Mira Grant (2017)

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

No one does mermaids like Mira Grant.

four out of five stars

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

Did you really think we were the apex predators of the world?

“You still chasing mermaids, Vic?” he asked.
“I’ve never been chasing mermaids,” she said. “I’ve only ever been chasing Anne.”

I’m a huge Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire fan, and her mermaid stories are among my favorites. (Zombies are grrrrrrate, but no one does mermaids quite like Mira Grant.) When I saw the prequel to Into the Drowning Deep, a novella called Rolling in the Deep, I snatched it up…but, being a mere 123 pages long, it just left me wanting more: more science (fiction), more killer mermaids, more heart-stopping suspense, more blood and gore and viscera. Somewhere in between a short story and a full-length book, it lacked the crisp concision of the former and the delicious, drawn out horror of the latter.

Enter: Into the Drowning Deep, which is exactly what I was craving. Pro tip: read Rolling in the Deep as if it was a prologue to Into the Drowning Deep. It’ll feel so much more satisfying that way.

In 2015, the Atargatis set off on a scientific expedition to the Mariana Trench. Ostensibly, their mission was to find evidence of mermaids. Really, though, they were there to film a mockumentary on behalf of their employer, an entertainment network called Imagine (think: SyFy). The hoax quickly turned into a bloodbath when they discovered what they were/weren’t looking for.

The Atargatis was found six weeks later, floating several hundred miles off course, completely devoid of human occupants. The only clue as to what became of her two hundred crew and passengers was a smashed up control room and shaky film footage showing what looked like – but couldn’t possibly be – a mermaid attack.

(More below the fold…)

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!)