Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas

35099035There are two things that changed the playing field for women in the United States: the pill and Roe v. Wade. These two things made it possible for women to chose when or if we would get pregnant. This is not the case for most of the women in Leni Zumas’ moving, gut-wrenching novel, Red ClocksIn this book, abortion and in-vitro fertilization are banned, the Pink Wall prevents women from getting these procedures in Canada, and only married heterosexuals are allowed to adopt. Red Clocks takes a bold look at what might happen when the choice to get pregnant or adopt or legally end a pregnancy is taken away.

The novel rotates between four female characters (and another who appears in one character’s manuscript) who all live in the same small Oregon town. Over and over, this book asks us to think about what it means to bear and raise a child—and what it means to make the choice to become a mother in the first place. We see their anger, regret, hopelessness, weariness, and occasional motherly love as their stories progress.The four women’s live intersect here and there, but the contrasts between their varied experiences are more important than these tangential connections.

Our first narrator, Ro Stephens, is a 42 year old history teacher who desperately wants to be a mother. Her age and a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome mean that it is virtually impossible for her to have a biological child. As a single woman, she can’t adopt in this alternate America either. Ro is contrasted with Mathilda, a fifteen year old who accidentally gets pregnant after uninspired sex with her boyfriend. She can’t bear to tell her parents and she’s absolutely terrified of what might happen if anyone finds out. Where Ro very much wants a child, Mathilda wants to be not pregnant now, thank you very much.

We also get to meet Susan, a mother of two who is fed up with her childish husband. Susan had plans to be a lawyer when she got pregnant and married her husband. Now she has two kids and is not coping well with being shanghaied into life as a housewife. Meanwhile, Gin is living a comfortably solitary life on the outskirts of town as a practical witch and unofficial healer. When she was pregnant, years ago, she gave up her child for adoption. Unlike the other women, Gin has no regrets but she’s curious about the child she gave up.

I identified most with Ro, because I am almost her age and I am incapable of having a child. (Unlike Ro, I am thrilled about this.) But I worried about all of the women in this book because they all felt as trapped as an animal in a snare. The tension just keeps ratcheting up as Mathilda comes up against the end of her first trimester, Ro approaches the deadline of a new law that will prevent her from adopting, Gin goes on trial after being accused of trying to help a women have an abortion, and Susan starts to come up with disturbing ways to end her marriage.

I suspect Red Clocks will appeal most to women, not just because women tend to bear the brunt of parenthood in our society. It’s is a very female book, full of references to ovaries, eggs, blood, cramps, pubic hair, and vaginal smells. Because of this, it felt very intimate to me because it contains so many things that most women keep to themselves or only reveal to their closest friends. This intimacy, for me, gave additional weight to the truth at the heart of this book: that being a mother should be a personal choice, not a trap.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.

Advertisements

After the End of the World, by Jonathan L. Howard

33574101After the universe was “unfolded” at the end of Lovecraft & Carter, Emily Lovecraft and Dan Carter found themselves in a world that was deeply wrong. The prologue of After the End of the World clues us into how wrong the world is as well. The novel opens shortly before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is signed in Moscow, in 1939. Instead of signing, in this reality, a German pilot detonates what appears to be an atomic bomb over the city. Everyone is killed and the Nazis sweep east to conquer the Soviet Union. The prologue sets up a sense of deep unease, one that never really lets up as Lovecraft and Carter try to put the universe back to rights.

Lovecraft is still a book seller and the descendant of H.P. Lovecraft. Carter is still a detective, former policeman, and descendant of Randolph Carter. However, in this new universe, not only did the Nazis win and World War II never happen, but Arkham, Rhode Island, Miskatonic University, and the Necronomicon exist. The intrepid pair don’t have a lot of time to work out just how different their new universe is. Instead, a mysterious and unsettling lawyer gives Carter a job: working for a Gestapo agent on what appears to be a case of scientific malfeasance. The job first pulls Carter deeper into weirdness, then grabs Lovecraft, too.

The plot of After the End of the World begins to pick up speed at the halfway point. Most of what happens before serves to encourage feelings of Lovecraftian weirdness and set the stage for what happens in the second half, when the action relocates to Attu Island, Alaska. It’s rather amazing how Howard manages to pull in so much Nazi occultism while sidestepping some of the worst implications of a successful Third Reich and introducing some new, deeply unpleasant effects.

I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started it. The first half, the stage-setting bit moves a bit too slowly. Like Lovecraft, I was itching for some serious Nazi ass-kicking action. That itch was very satisfyingly scratched in the second half. I was glued to the pages for the entire second half. I still don’t care overmuch for the first half, but I did like the spectacular finish and all the clandestine shenanigans that preceded it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King

33544902The Chinese government instituted a policy restricting couples to one child only in 1979. There are ways around it, but every decade since that year has seen a growing imbalance in the number of male and female children. In An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King, we see this imbalance extrapolated into a future where forty million men cannot find wives. They feel doomed to live alone, lamenting the fact that they will not pass on their names. The novel follows Lee Wei-guo as he attempts to marry a woman who already has two husbands—and as he ends up in trouble far over his head as secrets come out into the open and conspiracies get lethal.

An Excess Male begins like a gender-flipped version of a polygamist arranged marriage. Lee Wei-guo’s fathers (they are his mother’s widows) are trying to organize a marriage for their son. They’ve already worked with a matchmaker for months by the time we meet them, but they’ve only had one nibble—from the first husband of a woman who already has two. The fathers are not happy. Wei-guo, however, is charmed. He would love to marry Wu May-ling, even if it means sharing her with two other men.

It isn’t long before we learn why May-ling and her husbands are looking for a third husband. The Wus have their own secrets that they’d love to hide from a government that is all too willing to “re-educate” or simply do away with gay men (called the Willfully Sterile) or men with autism (Lost Boys). May-ling’s reasons are more complicated, but the short version is that she wants a relationship with a man that’s not just emotional or contractual.

I enjoyed the complex courting arrangements and I think I would have preferred it if An Excess Male had continued as social commentary. About halfway through the book, it takes a turn to become more of a science fiction thriller as the Wus secrets start to come out and Wei-guo ends up way over his head in a weird government plot to reduce the male population. There is still emotional depth in the interactions between Wei-guo and May-ling’s family, but they get a bit lost in all the chases and rescue attempts.

On balance, I was very interested in the story that An Excess Male tries to tell. What might happen in a society where women are coveted? It’s curious to see what changes and what doesn’t in this version of a near-future China, which has had its society run topsy-turvy by all-encompassing government policies. The problem with these types of grand policies is they fail to take into account the realities of peoples’ lives, wants, and abilities. Wei-guo, May-ling, and her two husbands are simply caught in the ugly place between policy and reality.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

31450615
The Bedlam Stacks

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Natasha Pulley’s second novel, whatever it happened to be. I’m happy to report that The Bedlam Stacks is another strange, fantastical tale of male friendship that lives up to the standard set by The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Keita even makes a cameo appearance in The Bedlam Stacks, though the book is chiefly about Merrick Tremayne and a very mysterious man named Raphael.

Merrick is, ostensibly, on a mission from the India Office (successor to the notorious East India Company) to secure cuttings of the cinchona tree. The Office is tired off paying through the nose for the only reliable remedy for malaria and they want to start their own cinchona plantations. Merrick is reluctant to take on this mission, and not just because he’s been told that the forests of Peru are full of armed men protecting the cinchona trees and the monopoly on quinine, but because he is still recovering from a serious injury when he was blown off a boat in Canton. He can hardly ride a horse let alone hike all over to hell and gone. His old friend, Sir Clements Markham (who in our history really did lead a successful mission to steal cinchona plants from Peru), manages to twist his arm hard enough that Merrick signs on.

In Peru, Merrick lands smack in the middle of a old family mystery. Merrick’s grandfather and father had traveled back and forth from the ancestral home at Heligan*, Cornwall (also a real place with a few fictional additions) to a small village called New Bethlehem, Peru (called Bedlam as a dark joke). No one knew why, not even Merrick or his brother. Like Merrick, we slowly learn that the world in The Bedlam Stacks is a lot weirder than we might have dreamt of. Merrick’s guide and friend, Raphael, later points out repeatedly that Merrick couldn’t have believed him if he’d told the truth. Merrick—and we readers—had to see Bedlam and its forests to believe.

I was interested in The Bedlam Stacks because it is based on real history, though I didn’t know much about the story of cinchona and quinine. But I was amazed at the tale Pulley wove out of history and her delightful imagination. As Raphael and Merrick head deeper into the Peruvian forest, all kinds of magical things are revealed—though the story gets harrowing a time or two as various entities chase the pair of them all over the place. I hate to say anything more than these vague details because its so much fun to puzzle out what’s going on. I’m glad I hadn’t come across any spoilers before I read this book because I felt a kind of wonder through most of it.

The Bedlam Stacks is more melancholy and less whimsical than The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Readers who didn’t like the tweeness of Watchmaker have nothing to worry about here. Still, if I had to choose, I’m not sure I could chose a favorite. I loved both books.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 August 2017.


* The lost gardens of Heligan are now on my European bucket list.

Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys

29939089
Winter Tide

Though I haven’t read any of his stories myself, I can understand why Lovecraft‘s Cthulu mythos appeals to other writers. It’s so sprawling that one writer, even if they lived to ripe old age, wouldn’t have enough time to tell all of the stories. It’s also got problems with inclusivity, enough that writers like Victor LaValle and Matt Haig have staked a claim on the mythos for African Americans. In Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys has done something similar for women and LGBTQ people.

In 1928, Aphra Marsh was taken, along with all of the inhabitants of Innsmouth, into the American desert in the mistaken belief that they were unnatural monsters. In truth, Aphra and her family are just another kind of human. By the time we meet her, Aphra has managed to rebuild her life on the west coast and is trying to put the past behind her as much as possible. Unfortunately, her knowledge of her family’s lore and magic make her the perfect agent to investigate FBI agent Ron Spector’s latest case. Even more unfortunately for Aphra, the case will take her back to Massachusetts and old wounds.

Winter Tide is a meandering tale, which is fitting considering that the main character is tied to water by nature. The beginning of the book makes one feel a bit of urgency, but the plot takes its time. The case offers a bit of structure while Aphra takes on more magical students, reconnects with family, thwarts and is thwarted by various plots, tangles with creatures beyond space and time, and more. This is very much a book to sink into rather than be carried away by—unless you’re a geek like me who really digs reading about the strange books of Miskatonic University. To enjoy this book, one has to go with the flow.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 April 2017.

The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin

22237141
The Blizzard

Platon Ilich Garin has a mission. He must get a vaccine to Dolgoye to stop an epidemic. But there’s a blizzard. And he’s stuck in a town with no way to get to Dolgoye. And the epidemic is a zombie virus. This kind of set up is what I’ve come to expect from Vladimir Sorokin. The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) just keeps piling on the weird until things get downright surreal.

Platon Ilich does eventually find a way out of town. He gets a ride on the bread deliverer’s sled—which is powered by horses so small it takes fifty of them to pull the sled. The rest of the book is a small saga, in which Platon Ilich and Crouper make their way to Dolgoye. As the blizzard gets worse and worse, they have numerous accidents in the sled, crash into a giant, encounter a foul-mouthed baker, and more. With each page, things get stranger and stranger.  Platon Ilich, however, keeps pushing on with his mission.

I’m not sure when The Blizzard is set except that its some time in the future and somewhere in Russia. The lack of details (apart from those about the tiny horses and such) gives the book a timeless, fable-like quality. The lack of details about the setting and world outside of the snow and epidemic also kept me grounded in what Platon Ilich and Crouper were up to as they battled the elements. This book is like the weirdest take on the on the serum run to Nome anyone has ever cooked up.

The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar

6922360
The Bookman

Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman introduces us to a bold alternate world flavored by Western literature. I lost count of all the literary references in this tale about an orphan (called Orphan, for clarity) who suddenly becomes very interesting to the government and several revolutionary groups. On top of the literary references, there are giant, sentient lizards; automatons; pirated; and aliens. This book has everything.

Orphan has a good life at the beginning of The Bookman. He has a job and the woman he loves, Lucy, has just agreed to marry him. But then Lucy is killed at a celebration for the new Mars probe and Orphan is tempted into skullduggery by a promise from the mysterious Bookman to resurrect her. From then on, Orphan never has a chance to rest as he is variously chased, shanghaied, and trying to escape from whatever shenanigans he lands in.

Orphan knows he is a pawn in the middle of everyone’s games. (Even if he couldn’t work this out for himself, one of the characters literally tells Orphan that he is a pawn.) Our erstwhile protagonist is really more a vehicle that takes us into the weird, alternate history of this world. We follow Orphan as he travels from revolutionary-infested London to Paris to the Caribbean as various players move him around the imaginary chess board.

To summarize the plot further is futile; so much happens in The Bookman! Besides the real fun of reading this book is seeing what Tidhar does when he plays around with fiction. I got a kick out of Scotland Yard Detective Irene Adler and Prime Minister James Moriarty. There are more books in the series and I am very tempted to track them down, just to see what Tidhar comes up with next.

Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

26114130
Everfair

Eddie Izzard explains colonization in such a way that it highlights the absurdity of people just showing up on a coast and claiming it in spite of the fact that people already lived in that area. As I read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, I was reminded of Izzard remarking on British colonists’ “cunning use of flags.” In the opening chapters of this alternate history, the same plot of land in what is, in our reality, southern Congo is claimed by three different groups: King Mwenda and his tribe, the Belgians, and the Everfair colonists. Mwenda’s people have been in that part of the world for as long as they can remember but, in the world’s eyes, the land belongs to the Belgians, who can sell it off to the Everfair colonists through the cunning use of paper. By telling us the story of the people who live on this contested land, Shawl raises the matter of flags to a high-stakes human drama.

At first, Everfair is bewildering. Shawl introduces us to character after character. Some are trying to get Everfair off the ground (Everfair is the name the colonists choose for their new “country.”) Others are trying to get rid of the Belgians. Still other characters are just trying to find a place for themselves in the world. Until the plot really gets rolling, when everyone goes to war with everyone else, it’s hard to tell who to pay attention to. Some characters, like Lisette Toutournier or Tink, were more interesting to me, but they aren’t always the movers and shakers in Shawl’s world.

Everfair covers the history of the colony from the 1880s through the end of World War I. The cast never really gets winnowed down but, as I spent more time with each character, I felt like I started to get a handle on the story. That said, I think Everfair would have been more effective if the cast had been smaller or if Shawl hadn’t been trying to cram so many sub-genres into the setting. As it is, there are times when the book feels like it’s trying to be a history text with dialogue and steampunk elements.

The fact that Everfair takes place in a completely different location from most alternate histories and steampunk novels was my favorite thing about the book. In spite of its unwieldiness, this book felt very true to Congo and the Scramble for Africa. The crimes of King Leopold’s government towards the Congolese tribes is emphasized throughout the book, as is the misguidedness of Christian missionaries and the arrogance of the utopians who also claim the territory. Shawl has created a fascinating, unsolvable political and social snarl for her characters based on real history.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

30555488
The Underground Railroad

I read dark books. I know my tastes are not for everyone, and I am capable of recommending fun, lighthearted books to readers who request them. But I like to read gritty books, books about harrowing experiences, and especially books about the crimes of the past. I like these books not because I enjoy reading about other people’s misery; I gravitate to these books because they help keep alive in my memory events that should never be forgotten. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is a book that reminds us of the horrors of American slavery, a centuries’ long crime against humanity with a legacy that still haunts my country.

Cora was born on the Randall plantation and has known only hardship, violence, isolation, and misery. The fact that her mother successfully escape just makes her bondage worse. She doesn’t hope for freedom because hope would make it harder for her to bear her daily life. When Caesar, another enslaved man, asks her to run away north with him, Cora dismisses him at first. There’s not guarantee that they’ll make it and she knows full well what will happen to a runaway. But after her the man who enslaves her dies (I can’t bring myself to call him an owner, because you can’t own a human being) and his much more violent brother inherits the estate and chattel, she takes Caesar up on his offer.

The rest of The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora’s flight north along an actual railroad system that runs underground from slave states to free. (The real Underground Railroad was never that technologically advanced.) As I read, I found that I was not so much interested in how Cora made her way north as I was in what she found at the places she stopped for any length of time. I was tempted to read the stops allegorically, as representations of various periods in African American history or as explorations of prejudices white America still has about black America. For example, at Cora’s first stop, in South Carolina, she learns that the white people still look down on black people—they’re just more subtle about it. The whites in South Carolina offer education, clothes, food, shelter, work, and a smiling face, but the doctors are eugenicists and pressure Cora to undergo a procedure that sounds a lot like a tubal ligation.

The other thing that struck me as I read The Underground Railroad was the tone Whitehead used while describing the atrocities and violence of the antebellum south. Whitehead is chillingly matter of fact about rape, mutilation, whippings, and murder. I confess I didn’t understand the full effect of the deadpan tone until I read Brit Bennett’s essay on the novel and the history of the slave narrative, “Ripping the Veil” (The New Republic). Bennett writes:

In a moment of extreme trauma, the narrator almost politely looks away. Here is a proceeding too terrible to relate, Whitehead announces, and in his silence, the proceeding becomes even more terrible. The gaps in the narrative force the reader to fill in the blanks on her own. We not only imagine the horror but become active participants in its construction.

Bennett goes on to explain that early slave narrative writers often had to omit the worst parts of their stories in order to gain an audience for the rest of the biography; if things were too gruesome, readers would stop reading. Whitehead doesn’t omit much. Instead, he gives us just enough details that it’s impossible not to “fill in the blanks,” as Bennett describes. For me, the tone also reminded me that all of this inhumanity was so common that, for a woman like Cora, nothing about these atrocities was particularly out of the ordinary or worthy of more than a comment. It is a surprisingly effective technique.

I hope The Underground Railroad is widely read. Seeing anti-black prejudices and crimes against black people at the height of slavery serves to remind us that some of those ideas are still very much with us.  In the era of Black Lives Matter (or really, at any time between 1865 and 2016), this book is a powerful reminder of America’s shadow history, the history we don’t talk much about because it gets the way of the story of America as “best country on earth.” We are still awaiting a full reckoning with our past.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats, by Mark Hodder

23507189
The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats

Time has been out of joint for a long time in Sir Richard Francis Burton’s life. Ever since Edward Oxford went back in time to stop his ancestor from attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria, history has been running amok. Burton and his friends and allies have been trying for centuries (and five previous books) to get history back on track. In Mark Hodder’s The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats, Burton has yet one more mission to fix the pernicious effects of Oxford’s interference.

There is far too much plot to summarize and, cleverly, Hodder doesn’t really try. Other books in the series are much more closely tied together. While The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats follows directly after the events of The Return of the Discontinued Man, the narrative takes a step to the side and a slightly different reality. In this reality, Burton’s life followed its original course. He is now dying in Trieste in 1890. As he dies, he sees a bright, white light and inexplicably finds himself in Bath in 1864. Not only has he been seemingly resurrected, so have his friends, Algernon Swinburne and William Trounce.

All three are suitably confused. They grow more so when they are summoned by another version of Burton who charges them to follow their instincts while he finishes closing off a bunch of time paradoxes. The other Burton also gives the protagonist Burton the job of impersonating himself to the government. (The plot is also too bizarre to effectively summarize.)

There are two plots in The Rise of the Automated Man. The apparent plot involves Burton, Swinburne, and Trounce working to stop an insane Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Babbage from becoming immortal dictators. The plot going on in the background is more complex and, often, more philosophical. The surface plot is highly entertaining and full of action. The underground plot asks readers to think about the purpose of government, the nature of time, and the meaning of life.

The entire Burton and Swinburne series (which I very much hope is not over) has been an amazing ride. They are books that I hand off to new readers with the warning that these books will mess with their heads and the promise that they will enjoy it.