Jan 27

Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

What’s It About

A plague has wiped out most of the population.  The bulk of those who have survived are men, which makes women a scare resource.  Our protagonist was once a nurse.  Now she survives by masquerading as a man and offering her services as nurse and midwife.  But what hope is there in a world where pregnancy is a death sentence for both mother and child?

Should I Read It?

Yes.  Of the six books nominated for the PKD, this one just pips Memory of Water as my favourite.

Compared to other end of the world narratives, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a brutal novel.  Not unsurprising given in this post-plague world women have become a commodity.  Except, for all the savagery displayed, Elison has done a masterful job in limiting the sexual violence.  It helps that our protagonist, who adopts a number of false names throughout the novel, is smart and resourceful and driven by the need to save the lives of women, not just by freeing them from men but by giving them access to contraception.

But what really struck me about the novel is its eroticism.  No, not rape fantasies, but consensual sex and intimacy.  It’s a surprising and powerful aspect of the book.

Representative Paragraph

A strategy for survival where woman are a commodity.

Apartment in the Mission, found a compression best to hide my tits.  Thanks transman of yesteryear.  Little too small, real tight.  Shaved my head.  Wasn’t easy.  Got men’s cargo pants and combat boots, with a couple of loose shirts and my hoodie on top.  Can’t do anything about a beard.  Couldn’t find one in a costume shop or anywhere.  Settled for rubbing dirt into my jaw every morning.  Candelit mirror tricky tricky.  Look like a young effeminate man… need to do more pushups.  Walk tall, keep hips straight.  Don’t sway.  Feel flat.  Hunch a little, arms straight down.  Don’t gesture.  Stare down.  Make fists while talking.  Sit with knees apart.  Adjust.  Don’t tilt your head.  Don’t bite your lip.  Interrupt.  Laugh low.

Sex while the world ends.

Tension = ridiculous.  Pretty sure Honus feels it too, but Jodi doesn’t have a clue.  Every time she’s out of earshot, we’re talking about sex.  How to touch her, how to talk to her, how to turn her on.  He says he’s not jacking off because it’s wrong but I doubt it.  Think I’m ding a good job of hiding it, but I’m down.  As down as I’ve ever been.  Shit. Trauma, loss, assault, afraid for my life, and yet.  Compulsion to fuck is so strong in our species.  In all circumstances, always.  Remember what it was like when I was with my first girlfriend in college.  Was head-over-heels wanting to fuck her all the time.  We barely went to class until we both flunked that anatomy test.  Ironic.  This feels like that.  Stir-crazy inevitable comes-and-fuck-me crazies.  Probably crazy for nothing.

Commentary

In a recent post on his excellent blog The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney wrote passionately about the apocalypse as comfort fiction.  In short he argues that novels which provide a hopeful outcome to an apocalypse, one where we do survive and thrive, are disingenuous and delusional.  He says,

It is highly unlikely that you, I, or anybody else would be a survivor of an actual apocalypse, and it is even more unlikely that, were we to survive, the post-apocalyptic world would be worth staying alive to see. To imagine yourself as a survivor is to evade the truth and to indulge in a ridiculous fantasy. To imagine yourself as a successful survivor — someone who doesn’t suffer terribly before finally, painfully dying — is even worse.

[…]

To tell a story of apocalypse in which people’s lives are not even as difficult or painful as the lives of millions and millions of people currently alive on Earth moves beyond escapist fantasy and into the realm of idiotic irresponsibility. (This, perhaps, is why some of the better apocalypse/dystopia stories are written by people who are not middle-class white Americans.)

Now, while I love Station Eleven precisely because it does reject the nihilism of books like The Road, I can appreciate Matthew’s point.  Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that pretends that everything is going to be OK, that we’ll all become happy, chappy farmers free of the evils of the modern world, are, as Matthew points out, indulging in a “ridiculous fantasy”.

One of the key points Matthew makes, especially toward the end of his piece, is that if the aim of apocalyptic fiction is to provide the reader with a cautionary tale, then it’s irresponsible to make extinction seem bearable.  While the protagonist of Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife does ultimately find stability in her life, the novel goes to great pains to show us a world that’s anything but bearable or desirable.  Elison chooses a plague to wipe out most of humanity because it gives her the ability to kill off more women than men and make pregnancy a near death sentence.  In other words, create an apocalypse scenario that’s not only bad because billions have died, but also puts whatever power remains in the hands of men.  Violent, angry, horny men.

This scenario makes for uncomfortable, upsetting reading, precisely the emotion that Cheney believes apocalyptic fiction should be aiming for.  Having said that, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is anything but an extended rape fantasy.  Elison makes the smart move of having a protagonist who is competent and resourceful from the get go.  Some might think that’s cheating.  But by having someone who can fend for themselves, and is smart enough to realise that women have become a commodity, we avoid the woman captured, raped, escaped narrative.  Rather we get a female protagonist who not only rescues other women but offers them birth control.

But beyond the conventions of the post-apocalyptic narrative, where The Book of the Unnamed Midwife excels is via its structure and its take on sexuality.  In terms of structure I loved how we moved from abrupt diary entries written by the unnamed midwife to an omniscient third person perspective that provides more details about her journey and the people she meets along the way.  This third person point of view also allows Elison to momentarily move the focus away from America.  Yes, we have an apocalypse novel that isn’t American-centric, that actually recognises that other parts of the world exist.

And then there’s the sexuality.  For one, we have a protagonist who identifies as bi-sexual dressed up as a man to avoid the possibility of entrapment, rape and death.  Beyond the need to survive, Elison recognises the gender issues at play here.  When our protagonist finds herself living with two Mormons (a husband and wife) gender and sexuality is explored further.  And these discussions feed into the most startling aspect of the novel, its eroticism. This element comes to the forefront when she’s cohabiting with the Mormons, but it’s also there, softer and less insistent, earlier in the novel.  It’s startling because you expect a novel of this type only to be about survival and death and barbarism, to be bereft of any sense of intimacy even if it’s just the need to fuck.  And yet, given the novel’s focus on primal urges, such as giving birth and killing to survive, the idea that we would retain our horniness in the most miserable of situations makes perfect sense.

I loved this book.  It may still be a little too hopeful for Matthew Cheney – the indication is that the human race will survive – but it’s an honest novel, both in the way it depicts a post apocalyptic world and how it recognises that human sexuality and the need to fuck and feel pleasure will stay with us even as the human race falls into darkness.

Jan 24

Book Review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

What’s It About

The novel is set years into the future where global warning and rising seas has seen the destruction of cities, the takeover of Europe by China and the scarcity of fresh water.

Noria Kaitio is learning to become a tea master like her father which comes with its own responsibilities.  One of which is knowledge of a hidden source of fresh water that used to supply the town but is now kept secret from the military.  But for how long…

It’s worth noting that Memory of Water was originally published in Finland in 2012.  Emmi Itaranta took on the task of translating her own novel for its English-language publication. 

Should I Read It?

Yes.  If the gorgeous writing doesn’t pull you in, the compelling story will.  Itaranta doesn’t shy away from the moral conundrum Noria faces once she becomes responsible for the spring.  Does she keep it secret – and therefore keep it out of the clutches of the military – or does she reveal her secret, on possible pain of death, to support a village that is slowly dying from a lack of purified and desalinated water?  This choice, and Noria’s eventual decision provides the novel with a real sense of danger and tension.

And did I mention that the prose is beautiful?

Representative Paragraph

Noria’s father reveals a hidden spring of fresh water…

Water rushed from inside the rock in strings and threads and strands of shimmer, in enormous sheets that shattered the surface of the pond at the bottom of the cave when they hit it. It twisted around the rocks and curled in spirals and whirls around itself, and churned and danced and unravelled again. The surface trembled under the force of the movement. A narrow stream flowed from the pond towards the shelf of stone that the doorway we had come through was on, then disappeared into the ground under it. I could see something that looked like a white stain on the rock wall above the surface of the water, and another lever in the wall further away. My father urged me on, to the edge of the pond.

‘Try it,’ he said. I dipped my fingers in the water and felt its strength. It moved against my hand like breathing, like an animal, like another person’s skin. It was cold, far colder than anything I was used to. I licked my fingers carefully, like I had been taught to do since I was very young: never drink water you haven’t tasted first. ‘It’s fresh,’ I said. Lantern light folded on his face when he smiled, and then, slowly, the smile ran dry.

Commentary

I want to make it clear from the outset that I really liked Memory of Water. The writing is beautiful and Noria Kaitio is a likeable and well-rounded character. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was allowing Itaranta’s gorgeous, delicate prose to distract me from her hazy, nebulous world building. In particular, while the scarcity of water is blamed on climate change and rising seas, it’s not entirely clear how humanity pulled itself from the darkness that was the Twilight Century (the period that bridges the technological past with this post apocalyptic present). There’s also no explanation as to how or why China took over Europe or who they’re currently fighting.

There is the view that the true science fiction novel uses science to drive the narrative and not as window dressing. Post Apocalyptic fiction often struggles with this because the focus is often on the fight for survival rather than explaining how the world ended or more importantly finding a solution through science and engineering.  Famously, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t bother to describe what led to the near destruction of humanity in his harrowing novel, The Road. As a result McCarthy’s book is less science and more survival fiction.

While Memory of Water has more science fictional flesh on the bone when compared to The Road, I’m sure there will be those who won’t class it as an SF novel. Justin Landon, in his positive review of the book for Tor.com, acknowledges this:

… There’s more story to tell in Itäranta’s world, both about the how and why. Without these things it becomes less a science fiction than a literary character study with some odd parameters. Could this have been the story of a girl in desert culture, with no hints at our own imagined future? Most assuredly. Whether that detracts from the novel is a question for each reader to answer. For me, Noria’s journey was satisfying and poignant. Emmi Itäranta’s novel recalls a memory of what’s important, not only to survive, but to actually live.

Like Landon, I was more than satisfied with the journey. But more than that, I don’t think Itaranta has been skimpy with her world building due to a lack of care or a different set of priorities. Rather, holding back on explanations – how did China takeover Europe? What happened during the Twilight Century? – are a feature of the novel, not a bug.

As the book is written in first person, we only know what Noria knows. Living in a secluded village coupled with a military that’s not keen on giving away secrets means that information about the past is hard to find. And it’s not like Noria isn’t interested. Her father’s decision to train her as a tea-master and show Noria the secret of the spring means that she’s more aware of the world around her, and with that awareness comes curiosity and an unwillingness to accept the status quo.

What’s brilliant, though, is how Itaranta tantalises Noria (and the reader) with the truth, with the possibility of learning more, and then pulls it away. For example, Noria’s mother is an academic and when the pressure increases at home – the military encroaching on the property looking for a source of fresh water – she decides to take a job in a University.  Noria is offered the option to go with her mother or stay with her father and continue her tea-master studies.  In the end she forgoes the possibility of knowledge to maintain the traditions set by her father and those that came before him.  It’s a selfless act.

This selflessness is a recurring theme in the novel.  When Noria and Sanja discover a CD in the plastic grave detailing a secret, unsanctioned expedition into the Lost Lands to look for fresh water, both of them are overwhelmed with the need to know more.  When the opportunity arises, Noria is prepared to leave her village, leave her responsibilities as the tea-master and protector of the spring and embark on a journey of discovery.  And traditionally, we’d expect a character in this type of novel to venture forth, to spend multiple books discovering the secrets of the Twilight Century.  However, Noria’s earlier decision to share water with the rest of the village rather than watch them suffer means that ultimately her chance to explore, to add more flesh to the bone, is taken away from her.

This novel is not an example of where the author has scribbled the world building on the back of an envelope.  There’s enough evidence within Memory of Water to indicate that Itaranta has a clear idea of what brought about this particular apocalypse.  But by holding back these details from Noria and the reader, Itaranta provides us with a book that’s less about the ongoing scarcity of water or the wars that China is fighting and more about Noria’s selfless attempts to keep her community and traditions alive.  In the end then, the beautiful prose and the fantastic character work is not a distraction but enhances the power of this fantastic science fiction novel.

Jan 21

The National Book Critics Circle Finalists Have Been Announced

The National Book Critics Circle have announced this year finalists ranging from criticism, to poetry, to biography to fiction.  I’m only interested in the fiction category so here are the five nominees.

I’ve linked to my reviews of the two books I’ve read on the list.  I wasn’t that fond of Lila, but I accept that my opinion is very much in the minority.  On the other hand I really liked An Unnecessary Woman, even if it is a difficult and uncompromising book.

Of the three nominees I haven’t read, I note that Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is set in a dystopian future.  I’m not aware of Lee’s work so I can’t say whether this is his first attempt to write speculative fiction.  But once again, we have a literary award acknowledging genre work, even if the author isn’t part of the genre ghetto.

While Marlon James novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is over 700 pages long (about 250,000 words) the premise looks intriguing, using an attempt on Bob Marley’s life in 1976 as a starting point.  It will be the first NBCC nominated book I read after I finish with the PKD shortlist.

Lily King’s Euphoria has been on my radar since winning the Kirkus Prize for Fiction in 2014.  The book is based on Margaret Mead’s life, someone I know barely anything about.  I’m looking forward though to learning more.

So that’s late January and early February sorted in terms of my reading.  I’m sure the upcoming announcement of The Kitschies will fill out the rest of February.

Jan 20

Book Review: The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan

What’s It About

The novel is set in an alternate history where, as a result of the 1811 Luddite Rebellion, the UK has been divided into the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales and the Anglo-Scottish Republic.  Keeping a keen eye on The Kingdom and the Republic (and a good chunk of Europe and America) is the International Patent Office. Their job is to ensure that only the right sort of technology is developed and introduced.

In amongst this mishigas is private detective Elizabeth Barnabus, formerly of the Kingdom, who lives a dual life as herself and her brother. She’s been requested to find an aristocrat who has disappeared into the Republic. An aristocrat who has ownership of a device that the Patent Office would like to get their hands on.

Should I Read It?

A qualified no. Here’s the thing, if you like novels with a strong female lead and a steam-punk flavour, then The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter might be worth the four days you’ll spend reading it.

Personally, while I appreciated the alternate history – the Patent Office is a neat idea – the actual “private detective searches for a missing person plot” is thin and predictable. More annoying is that as this is Book One of a duology – one that promises the fall of an Empire – it feels like Duncan has held back the genuinely interesting stuff for the second novel.

Representative Paragraph

An insight into the all seeing, all knowing Patent Office:

“Do you know what that means – illegal? The Patent Office has built great libraries of books, the only purpose of which is to attempt to divide the seemly from the unseemly, the legal from the illegal. Two centuries of precedent. The wisdom of generations of lawyers and judges. They drew a line, but the harder they laboured to sharpen it, the wider it became. It’s now a chasm into which the entire Gas-Lit Empire might fall and be lost forever. The question is not whether my machines are illegal, it’s whether our glorious Patent Office is positively disposed to my case. As it happens, they are not.”

Commentary

At the heart of the The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter is this fantastic idea, namely the International Patent Office.  Set up to “protect and ensure the well-being of the common man,” the Patent Office is tasked with restricting those technologies that could potentially upset the natural order.  The seemly from the unseemly.  Essentially then, the Patent Office embodies our deep-seated suspicions and fears about all things science and scientific.  If these guys existed today they would be denying climate change and forcing people to use dial-up modems.

Unfortunately, though, the Patent Office and its sinister workings is not the main focus of The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.  Its presence is most definitely felt but more as an obstacle to be avoided then a concept to be explored.

Instead the novel centres on cross dressing private detective Elizabeth Barnabus.  To Duncan’s credit, Elizabeth is a layered, engaging character.  In a world where women are definitely second or third class citizens, Elizabeth relies solely on her skills of deception and disguise to reach her goals.  If she needs a man to help, she dresses up as a her brother.  And when a man does come to her rescue toward the end of the novel, it’s only because Elizabeth has planned it that way.

The cross dressing is, thankfully, played entirely straight.  Elizabeth identifies as a woman but takes seriously her ability to become a man both in terms of look and body language.  Where this element stumbles is in Elizabeth’s relationship with her student Julia.  On accidentally meeting Elizabeth dressed as her brother, Julie becomes enamoured with him.  If this isn’t clichéd enough, when Julia, again accidentally, sees Elizabeth transform into a man she reacts in horror.  Julia’s response to the truth about Elizabeth is genuine given her conservative upbringing, but there’s something forced and offensive about the whole situation.  The infatuation, which is only a minor sub-plot, didn’t need to be in the novel, and it unintentionally sends a negative message about cross dressing.

However, my biggest disappointment with the book is its uninspired search for a missing person plot.  Considering how strongly the ideas of illusion and magic feature throughout the novel I expected there to be a major reveal at some point, a reversal I didn’t see coming.  And there’s definitely an attempt at this toward the novel’s conclusion.  Except it’s a reveal so obvious that it makes Elizabeth look foolish for not figuring it out earlier.

What ultimately hurts The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is the same thing that hampered Maplecroft.  As the first book of a duology it does feel like that Duncan has kept back all the interesting stuff for the second novel.  It’s not even clear how the events of this book could lead to the promised fall of the Gas-lit Empire.  In anycase I won’t be sticking around to find out.

One last thing – The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is described as steampunk and yet the novel is devoid of steam or steam-driven technology.  Am I missing something here?  Or is it enough for a book to feature a dirigible for it to be called steampunk?

Jan 16

Book Review: Reach For Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan

What’s It About

It’s the third anthology in Jonathan’s Strahan’s Infinity series.  This one collects 14 short stories from writers like Ellen Klages, Adam Roberts and Karen Lord.  It focuses on humanity taking the next big step forward – whether that be colonising Mars, coming to terms with Artificial Intelligence or the challenges of travelling in a generation ship.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely yes.  While Jonathan might be a friend, I say without prejudice and bias that he is a magnificent anthologist.  His strength – more than coming up with strong, clear, interesting themes – is finding a diverse range of high quality writers who bring different styles, perspectives and insights to the book.

Reach For Infinity only underlines this strength.  While the theme of taking that next big step, of reaching for infinity, implies a collection of Hard SF stories about terraforming and slingshotting around asteroids – which the anthology does feature – Strahan mixes things up by including pieces that use the theme as a catalyst rather than a driver for the plot.  Consequently, we get pieces that deal with the trademarking of pathogens (Adam Roberts), drug taking in sport (Linda Nagata), the fragility of memory (Aliette de Bodard) and the right to reproduce (Pat Cadigan).

And to top it all off, there are least five award worthy stories in the collection – which I’ll mention below in the Commentary.

Representative Paragraph

Because it made me laugh – this from Ellen Klages marvelous, Amicae Aeternum:

Twenty Reasons Why Being on a Generation Ship Sucks, by Corrine Garcia-Kelly

1. I will never go away to college.

2. I will never see blue sky again, except in pictures.

3. There will never be a new kid in my class.

4. I will never meet anyone my parents don’t already know.

5. I will never have anything new that isn’t human-made. Manufactured or processed or grown in a lab.

6. Once I get my ID chip, my parents will always know exactly where I am.

7. I will never get to drive my Aunt Frieda’s convertible, even though she promised I could when I turned sixteen.

8. I will never see the ocean again.

9. I will never go to Paris.

10. I will never meet a tall, dark stranger, dangerous or not.

11. I will never move away from home.

12. I will never get to make the rules for my own life.

13. I will never ride my bike to a new neighborhood and find a store I haven’t seen before.

14. I will never ride my bike again.

15. I will never go outside again.

16. I will never take a walk to anywhere that isn’t planned and mapped and numbered.

17. I will never see another thunderstorm. Or lightning bugs. Or fireworks.

18. I will never buy an old house and fix it up.

19. I will never eat another Whopper.

20. I will never go to the state fair and win a stuffed animal.

Because it displays the breadth of imagery and imagination on display in this anthology – this from Peter Watts’ Hotshot

Not just a sea: an endless seething expanse, the incandescent floor of all creation. Plasma fractals iterate everywhere I look, endlessly replenished by upwells from way down in the convection zone. Glowing tapestries, bigger than worlds, morph into laughing demon faces with blazing mouths and eyes. Coronal hoops, endless arcades of plasma waver and leapfrog across that roiling surface to an unimaginably distant horizon.

Commentary

There are no duds in Reach For Infinity.  While that doesn’t mean every story blew me away, there are at least five pieces I think should be considered for award season.  They are:

  • Report Concerning The Presence of Seahorses On Mars by Pat Cadigan
  • Wilder Still, the Stars by Kathleen Ann Goonan
  • Amicae Aeternum by Ellen Klages
  • The Fifth Dragon by Ian McDonald
  • Trademark Bugs: A Legal History by Adam Roberts

Of the five, my favourite, without any hesitation or doubt, is the Klages.  I’m ashamed that I haven’t read more of Ellen’s fiction because on the occasions I’ve been exposed to her writing I’ve fallen deeply and madly in love with the work.  I remember having the same reaction to Goodnight Moons, Klages’ contribution to Jonathan’s Life on Mars anthology (also recommended).  This story is simple in its plot and execution and yet it has depths.  Two girls get together before dawn one morning because one of the girls – Corrine Garcia-Kelly – is about to embark, with her parents, on a generation ship.  After this day, they will never see each other again.  As the representative paragraph above indicates, Corrine is not keen on taking the journey.  This puts her at odds with a number of us in the genre world who talk about Hard SF concepts like generation ships with a sense of awe and wonder.  Klages, through the unvarnished perspective of Corrine, deconstructs the whole endeavor, injecting genuine human concerns and fears into the generation ship narrative.  That might sound a bit cold and analytical, but the relationship between the two girls, as they spend these last few hours together, gives the story its vibrancy and heart.

If I had to pick a second favourite, it would be Adam Roberts’ Trademark Bugs: A Legal History.  As with Ellen, my exposure to Adam’s work is unforgivably minimal (though Kirstyn and I did discuss his novelette Anticopernicus on the Writer and The Critic podcast.  It’s very good).  This story hits all my literary buttons in that it plays with structure and form while also saying something profound and disturbing.  Written as a legal document, Robert’s describes a world where all diseases have been cured compelling pharmaceutical companies, in a bid to maintain and grow their market share, to infect the planet with their own pathogens which only they have the cure for. Sounds utterly evil, doesn’t it.  And yet the brilliance of this story is how Roberts’ – by detailing the legal challenges against Big Pharma – nearly convinces us that maybe the planet would be better off if we allowed the pharmaceutical industry to takeover the world economy.  Admirably, Robert’s never strays from the legal format. The language is cold and dispassionate and yet also entirely compelling. Magnificent stuff.

I could spend another 1,000 words discussing the other three pieces. But for the sake of brevity (though that horse has probably bolted) I’ll note that:

  • Pat Cadigan’s short story looks at the rights of reproduction in an environment where resources are scarce. It’s a warm and funny piece with a knock-out ending;
  • Ian McDonald is probably the first writer in history to marry together the Hard SF concept of deteriorating bone density in low gravity environments with a love story.  McDonald proves that genuine Hard SF doesn’t have to be bereft of real people and raw emotion; and
  • Kathleen Ann Goonan’s story is an old idea – society struggling to come to terms with sentient Artificial People.  However, the point of view of the piece – a 130 year old woman who has been and seen it all – gives the story its unique voice. Like the McDonald, it’s a very human piece, one that’s not afraid to wear its emotions on its sleeves.

I’m not sure if an anthology has ever won the PKD Award (anyone know?). But having now read two and a half of the nominated books, Reach For Infinity sets a high benchmark.

Jan 13

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

What’s It About

Lizzie Borden meets the Cthulhu mythos.  Lots of axe wielding and slimy monsters from the sea.  And mind controlling, stinky jellyfish.

Should I Read It?

According to Annalee Newitz from i09, yes you absolutely should.  (She calls Maplecroft the best “damn” Cthulhu novel you’ve read in ages”).  And, I agree that if you’re in the mood for a bit Lizzie Borden / Cthulhu action, then this book will definitely meet your needs.  It’s competently written, moves at decent clip and, most of all, is entertaining.  Lizzie, her sister Emma and Doctor Seabury – our point of view characters – are engaging and sympathetically drawn.

If the novel has a weakness it’s that it never breaks free of the novelty of having Lizzie fight Cthulhu’s minions.  This might have something to do with Maplecroft being Book One of a series.  In anycase I’m not compelled to read the second novel in the series.

Representative Paragraph

Observations of the squamous horror from the well-meaning Doctor Owen Seabury

But the thing. It was the shape of a human being, provided that the human being had been horribly emaciated, his bones stretched, his skin blanched, and his head both swollen and misshapen. I would use the word “encephalitic,” but it doesn’t feel quite right. I’ve never heard of an encephalitic with a forehead sloped and pinched, eyes that were covered with the same membrane I’d seen before on other corpses in Fall River (so there’s one point in Lizbeth’s favor, or in favor of her revolting theory). The thing’s eyes were also shaped strangely, oversized and elongated, drawn back to a point that aimed at the forehead, almost as if they’d been turned on their sides. No, that’s not what I mean. It was more the shape of a raindrop, landing on the face and sliding downward. It was . . . . . . I am no good at this.

Commentary

I wasn’t a huge fan of Cherie Priest’s well-regarded and popular novel Boneshaker.  I’ve never been that keen on steam-punk or zombies and Priest’s by-the-numbers prose did little to convince me otherwise.  Five years later, and with Maplecroft nominated for a PKD Award, I can say that Priests’ writing style and pacing has improved immeasurably.

On the face of it, there’s something inspired about mashing together the urban legend of Lizzie Borden with the Cthulhu mythos.  Both mythologies are rich with speculation and deep mystery.  And as has been pointed out by others more geographically inclined than myself, Ms Borden and Howard Lovecraft lived about twenty miles from each other.

Priest, fully aware of the geographical and mythological links, is clearly having a great deal of fun mixing Lizzie and Cthulhu together.  The novel revels in all the slime and gore and insane Professors from Miskatonic University possessed by evil, mind-controlling jelly fish.  Priest also solves the mystery of Lizzie Borden’s crime by explaining that she killed her father and step-mother because they were slowly transforming into something otherworldly.  Added to that, Priest tweaks and modifies Lizzie and Emma’s history.  While the Borden murders did occur in 1892, the appearance of Nance O’Neil – Lizzie’s lover – is anachronistic.  According to Wikipedia they didn’t meet until 1904 – ten years after the event of the novel.

But all that is part of the fun, and this is certainly an entertaining book to read.  Lizzie, her ailing sister Emma and Doctor Owen Seabury are sympathetic, engaging characters.  In particular, I appreciated the strength of will and intelligence exhibited by Lizzie and Emma.  Their relationship is a highlight of the novel.

But because this is Book One in a series, Maplecroft never really breaks free of the novelty of having Lizzie fight Cthulhu’s slimy minions.  The second half of the book is begging for a scene where Lizzie, Emma and the hapless Doctor come face to face with ancient, cosmic evil.   But Priest disappointingly pulls back from this, swapping an apocalyptic and insane climax for a house under siege narrative that becomes fairly predictable once it’s clear that the jelly-fish possessed Professor Zollicoffer is on his way to Falls River.

Other than a few enigmatic hints left by the mysterious Simon Wolf, the ending is self-contained enough that I feel no compulsion to read the sequel.  As far as I’m concerned, Maplecroft fills whatever need I had for Lizzie Borden and Cthulhu shenanigans.

Jan 09

And So It Begins… The PKD Award nominees

The PKD Award nominees have been announced.  And the nominees are:

  • ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett (Aqueduct Press)
  • THE BULLET-CATCHER’S DAUGHTER by Rod Duncan (Angry Robot)
  • THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison (Sybaritic Press)
  • MEMORY OF WATER by Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager)
  • MAPLECROFT: THE BORDEN DISPATCHES by Cherie Priest (Roc)
  • REACH FOR INFINITY edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris)

First off, a massive congratulations and pat on the back to my mate Jonathan for the nomination.  And second off, what an interesting bunch of novels and writers I’ve never heard of (Priest aside).  That’s what makes reading a shortlist like this so exciting.  Exposure to authors and idea that until this point I didn’t know existed.  Except review of the shortlist in the coming weeks.

Jan 09

And The Winners of the Costa Book Awards are…

How to Be Both by Ali Smith in the best novel category and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey for best first novel.  The announcement (including winners of the other categories) is here.

Absolutely endorse the best novel winner.  Just yesterday I ranked How To Be Both as one my favourite books of 2014 and I can’t wait to discuss it on the next episode of The Writer and The Critic.  So congratulations to Ali Smith.

And while I wasn’t as fond of Elizabeth Is Missing (I would have given the best novel award to Carys Bray for A Song For Issy Bradley), I can appreciate why it won the award.  Healey’s take on dementia feels both real and genuine.  It’s a shame that the scenes set in the past aren’t as compelling (at least for me).

Still, congratulations to Emma Healey.  I’m sure I’ll be seeing Elizabeth Is Missing on other first novel ballots in 2015.

Jan 08

My Top 13 Books of 2014

I read 79 novels or author collections in 2014.

Of those, 31 were written by woman and 48 were written by men.  49 of the novels were “core” genre in that they were recognisably written or published by someone involved in the SF/F scene.  The other 39 would be classified as literary novels.  I’m insane if I think I’m going to be able to read over 130 books in 2015 (as part of discussing and considering more than 25 award shortlists).  But who needs sleep anyway.

The best novel I read this year was a toss-up between three remarkable books  –

And here are ten others novels I thought were fantastic and highly recommend –

  • Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
  • Bearded Woman by Teresa Milbrodt
  • Hild by Nicola Griffiths
  • The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
  • Dust Devil on a Quiet Street by Richard Bowes
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay

Jan 06

Capsule Reviews For The Final Books of 2014

MORE THAN THIS BY PATRICK NESS

What’s It About

Following a horrible drowning, Seth Wearing wakes to find himself not in heaven or hell but in the town of his childhood.  He soon discovers that the town is deserted… or is it?

Should I Read It?

Yes – though with reservations.  Intriguing set-up aside, Patrick Ness is an engaging and accessible writer.  The chapters in the novel are short, the prose is fluid and easy to parse and the character of Seth (especially what we learn about him through flashback) is genuinely sympathetic.  I also appreciated that the other characters we’re introduced to (Seth is not alone) are not of the cookie-cutter white middle class variety.  It’s hard to say more about the novel without spoiling it, and my issues with the novel are related to its one major revelation.  So, under a cut…

Spoiler For More Than This

The technology, though, that would require this sort of international VR system isn’t reflected in the VR World we’re made privy to.  More than that, the ability for this VR system to not only maintain its reality but also allow participants to give birth to real children seems a level of technology closer to magic than science.  The worlds we’re shown, both the old wasted one and the one existing in cyberspace, are essentially no different to the world we live in.  The idea, I believe, is that the VR world has been edited to remove any reference to itself or the technology that allows it to be.  But the advent of this technology would have been a major step forward with a knock-on effect in other sciences.  Editing out all those discoveries simply didn’t gel with me.

[collapse]

The book does become a bit run and chase toward the middle, but Ness more or less maintains the novel’s momentum.  It’s an entertaining read that does raise some interesting questions about finding your place in a world that seems to have literally and figuratively rejected you.

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Some very nice writing.

And then, suddenly, a break in the clouds, shining starlight that’s faint but like the blowing of a trumpet compared to the darkness. Because it’s so dark, Seth can see more stars in the small rip in the sky than he thinks he’s ever seen in the whole expanse of it. The break widens, shining more, and Seth can’t quite figure out the strange streak of faint white he’s seeing across it, as if someone’s spilled –Milk.The Milky Way.“Holy shit,” he whispers.He’s seeing the actual Milky Way streaked across the sky. The whole of his entire galaxy, right there in front of him. Billions and billions of stars. Billions and billions of worlds. All of them, all those seemingly endless possibilities, not fictional, but real, out there, existing, right now. There is so much more out there than just the world he knows, so much more than his tiny Washington town, so much more than even London. Or England. Or hell, for that matter.

RED DOC > BY ANNE CARSON

What’s It About

Apparently, this verse-novel is a sequel to Carson’s 1998 work, Autobiography of Red in that it takes the characters Geryon and Herakles from that book and puts them in the modern age.  Where Geryon (now G) is all world-weary, cynical and a herder of ox, Herakles (now called Sad But Good, or Sad for short) is a war veteran with PTSD.

Should I Read It?

Yes.

Better question is whether you’ll understand it.  I certainly didn’t.  Or more to the point, while I was able to pick up numerous threads – scenes set herding ox, scenes set in a clinic dealing with Sad’s PTSD, scenes set at the deathbed of G’s mother – the utter lack of linearity or conformity to traditional story-telling means that I struggled to join the pieces together.  I’m not sure I’m meant to though.

Having said that, at page by page level the book, broken up by gorgeous prose poetry and some of the funniest and natural scenes of pure dialogue I’ve read, is  accessible.  And funny.  There’s a sense of whimsy about the whole thing, highlighted by a scene where an ox takes flight.

In the end, Red Doc is worth reading because you’ll have read nothing like it before.

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Though I’m not sure any paragraph does justice to this fine book.  And Io is an Ox.

Sparkling along in the valley below is a car unaware it is driving directly into the path of the lava flow.  M’hek stands transfixed watching a black cloudform advance from the horizon toward the car its molten edge snarling its fiery paws eating steadily at the world ahead.  Moving about 40 mph.  The herd now breathing like a bellows has formed into a circle facing outward.  Io stands apart.  She dips her head to her knee momentarily.  Blood still buzzing with gorse she does not hesitate to believe that a masterpiece like herself can fly.  Should fly.  Does fly.  Without a sound and by the time M’hek turns around she is aloft.

STRAY BY MONICA HESSE

What’s It About

In the near future, children who are wards of the State are sent to a complex where they’re plugged into the life experiences of Julian (a real person) who is considered to have led a normal life and is therefore the perfect role model.  This is referred to as The Path.  For sixteen year old Lona, being on-Path is the only world she’s ever known until she’s kidnapped by a group of anti-Path rebels.

Should I Read It?

No.

It’s not an actively terrible novel, but it’s utterly unengaging, which is a shame because the central conceit and theme of the novel – how should society deal with dispossessed kids – is an important one.  The problem I had with the book is its main character, Lona.  She’s meant to be a fish out of water type, given that she’s only ever experienced life through the eyes of Julian.  Aside from the alienness of existing in a world that’s not been carefully modulated and governed for her, just the act of thinking for herself should be a knee wobbling experience.  And yet Lona is uber competent, quickly adapting to her new circumstances.  She even has the wherewithal to get into a love triangle with an 18 year old boy (and old friend) who was also on Path before he graduated and the woman who is working hard to save his life and those of other ex-Pathers.  In fact just to show how competent she is, not only does Lona end up baby-sitting a group of children who had once been on the Path and then rejected, but she has the nous to organise the takeover of the compound she came from.

Hesse does attempt to explain why Lona adapts so quickly to the outside / non-Julian world (we discover that it might have something to do with her lineage), but I’m bored with exceptional characters in genre fiction.  While I didn’t want to see Lona go catatonic the moment she’s kidnapped, I’d have liked more of the natural uncertainty and, frankly, outright fear that comes from being forced into an environment you’re not accustomed to.  In addition, more insight into what pushed this society to take this approach toward the care of dispossessed children, would have been appreciated.

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Foster Care is BAD!!!

Lona shuddered.  She didn’t technically remember – none of them did – but she had learned about Before, in one of the presentations that sometimes happened during Calisthenics.  Path History.  Emotional Well Being.  Proper Calisthenics.  In this particular presentation, they learned about Before Path.  Before Path, Lona would have been beaten or neglected by parents who had been declared unfit.  If she had been lucky she might have been put in something called ‘foster care’, but even that was dangerous.  The presenter showed pictures of a shrunken boy locked in a dog cage, staring through the bars with huge eyes. ‘That’s how the authorities found him’ the presenter said.  ‘That’s where his foster parents kept him.  He didn’t know how to read.  He spent every day in his own filth.  This is what it used to be like, for everyone like you.  You have all been given a very special gift’.

MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE BY ROBIN SLOAN

What’s It About

A 24-hour bookstore.  It says so on the front cover.  If you’re expecting a magical bookstore, impossibly large and filled to the brim with all the fiction and non-fiction ever written (including works that were only ever a sparkle in the author’s eye) then you’re going to be disappointed.  That’s not to say it’s an ordinary bookstore.  As Clay Jannon discovers, hidden among the extremely tall shelves hides, possibly, the code to immortality.

Should I Read It?

Yes.  Very much so.

Sloan’s début novel is an enormous amount of fun.  I was suffering pneumonia while I was reading it (I’m fine) and the fact that it maintained my attention, says something about the story-telling on display.  It helps that the book feels fresh and original.  The first person style is conversational and vibrant and (as seems always the case in these post-Buffy days) very self-aware.  The story-itself does that smart thing of feeling like a genre novel – you expect magic… or something magical to happen on every second page – and yet having a rational explanation for everything that occurs.  Clay Jannon aside, the book is peopled with the sort of quirky characters that don’t entirely feel like real people but rather plot tokens.  Every challenge Clay faces can be dealt with because he knows someone rich enough or smart enough to get him past the obstacle.  Sloan characterises this as Clay’s super hero power, his ability to network and bring the best out of people.  For me it felt all a bit too convenient.  And yet, these other characters have enough life about them beyond their plot significance that they’re genuinely enjoyable to read about.  The best example is the housemate who works for ILM and is building a miniature city in the living room.

With the book set in San Francisco, Google (and its programmers) feature heavily.  I’m glad Sloan avoided the temptation of making up a tech-firm and instead took advantage of Google’s (controversial) plan to scan every book in existence.

I haven’t said much about the plot itself because it’s something that’s meant to be discovered rather than told.  But other than the aforementioned Google, it does involve a 500-year-old cult, the Gerritszoon font, the secrets hidden in a much loved fantasy series and the search for immorality.  All packed into 78,00 words.  Which is how it should be.

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A neat description of the tall bookshelves you’ll find in Mr Penumbra’s bookstore.

The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest—not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.

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