The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier

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Mr. Eternity

Being a literature major and librarian has given me a more-than-healthy skepticism about what I read and hear. It also means that I read a lot, from nearly every time period and as many places on earth as I can find good books for. Both of these circumstances stood me in good stead as I read Aaron Thier’s Mr. EternityThis novel is one of the most demented accounts of American history and climate fiction that I’ve ever read. At the heart of this story is Daniel Defoe (not that one), a man who claims to have lived for 1,000 years, accompanied a Spanish expedition to El Dorado, survived 29 shipwrecks, stolen and lost countless fortunes, poisoned people back to health, and more.

Daniel—known variously as old Dan, Daniel de Fo, or the ancient mariner—does not tell his story to us directly. Instead, we learn about him via a slave turned prostitute turned translator who lived in a city she claims as El Dorado in 1560, a biracial “bookkeeper” in 1750, a documentary maker in 2016, a hapless sailor in 2200, and the daughter of a president in 2500. The narrators try to make sense of Daniel’s tales through what they know of history. A few, the slave, the sailor, and the president’s daughter, roll with Daniel’s preposterous stories. The bookkeeper recognizes Daniel as a fellow con artist and the documentary maker and his partner just think he’s a crazy old man.

Daniel’s stories are packed with historical figures and half-remembered details. I knew just enough to know how much of it was wrong. But I could also see where Daniel arrived at his version of events. Facts are just a little bit off or mispronounced or incomplete. Daniel’s tales are thrown even further off-kilter when he adds medical or biological trivia. He includes things like the headless man mentioned in Herodotus or lambs that grow from flowers. Before long, I recognized Daniel’s ramblings as a blend of everything he’d done, everything he’d read, and everything he claimed to have done. The president’s daughter, Yasmine, is perhaps the most forgiving of Daniel’s version of events:

I also understood that an equivalent logic extended to his accounts of history. I had the revelation that history was only the rabblehouse of facts and details from which human beings confabulated a sentimental truth. At the best-case scenario, at its truest and most illustrative, history was an effort of imagination, mostly fictive, mostly allegorical, like a story of unrecanted love. (n.p.*)

When Yasmine said this, at almost the halfway point of the book, I stopped fighting with Daniel. I stopped trying to remember what really happened and just went with it, even though I think Daniel is the most frustrating immortal I’ve ever encountered in fiction. His memory is shite.

Summarizing this book is almost impossible because so much happens and doesn’t happen and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. There are similarities between the five narrators’ plot arcs. They all include quests into inhospitable hot, humid places. Most include searching for treasure. All feature disillusionment with governments and institutions. Many of the narrators know secondary characters who go mad to a certain extent from heat, isolation, and/or drugs. Everything is always a bit hazy.

Mr. Eternity is a book to float through. Imposing order will only lead to frustration and, possibly, insanity. Readers who don’t enjoy being lied to and working out what the lies conceal should stay away. Readers who love a puzzle may enjoy the many enigmas littered throughout this story. Just be prepared for an Imperial load of weirdness.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 August 2016.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend this book to readers who are too sure of their own opinions.


* Quote is from the publisher’s advanced reader copy. It was not paginated.

Under the Harrow, by Mark Dunn

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Under the Harrow

I had a conversation earlier this week with a fellow reader about how young adult dystopias, for the most part, fall flat and fail to convince. The “governments” are often bizarre social experiments that couldn’t last. The economics don’t work. The politics don’t work. Occasionally, books like Mark Dunn’s Under the Harrow come along to show other authors how it’s done. There is a social experiment at the heart of this book. In valley somewhere along the 41st parallel, there are 11,000 people living in a curious Victorian flavored society. Somehow, they have been passed over by 121 years of history. As the novel develops, we learn that there was a conspiracy inside and outside of the valley working to keep the experiment going. Under the Harrow opens just a few weeks before the wheels come off the whole enterprise.

Dingley Dell was founded in 1882 by a group of orphans who were abandoned by their parents and caretakers after being told that the adults had caught a deadly disease. Their only knowledge of the outside world comes from a ninth edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens, and a King James Bible. By 2003, when Under the Harrow Opens, the valley and its people are living a lot like the characters in Dickens’s novels. The difference is that they are able to trade with the remaining outsiders (or so the Dinglians believe) for a few goods and commodities they aren’t able to get from their environs. Most people are content. A few, like our narrator, Frederick Trimmers, and his friends, have suspicions and questions that they can’t just let go.

As the novel opens, a woman has just been pushed to get death after arguing with her husband and Trimmers’s nephew has disappeared into the Outworld. The two unconnected events are just the start of the unraveling of the Dinglian conspiracy. What begins as a slow exploration of a curiously anachronistic society becomes a tense thriller as Trimmers and his friends learn more and more about the truth of Dingley Dell. By the end of the book, I was inhaling whole chapters just to find out what would happen next.

By the end of the novel, it is clear just how many people were involved and just how many resources were needed to keep Dingley Dell isolated for over a century. I loved this. Instead of being asked (as some authors of the more outrageous dystopian novels ask us) to just swallow weird factions, overly complicated methods of messing with the love lives of teenagers, and all the rest, Dunn brings a whopping dose of verisimilitude to the Dinglian experiment. Shortly into Under the Harrow, our protagonists learn that the whole thing is going to be shut down because it is no longer returning on the investment their controllers have put into it. I found the conflict between shadowy business concern and the Dinglians incredibly believable.

The best part of Under the Harrow, however, is the language. Dunn has mastered the Dickensian pastiche. Trimmers, the narrator, has pithy and pointed observations just like Dickens did. The sentences meander and the vocabulary is deliciously varied. Many of the characters in the book took their names from Dickens’s cast of characters, so it’s a delight to see heroes with the names of villains and vice versa running around this book. I had a very good time reading this book.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

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My Real Children

What if. What if. What if. This question drives to much fiction, but we rarely see it overtly addressed. Books like Kate Atkinson’s stunning Life After Life are few and far between, unfortunately for me. Jo Walton’s My Real Children, while not as wildly experimental as Life After Life, gave me another chance to wonder what if along with a character.

When we meet Patricia, she is very confused. She would know this even if her caretakers weren’t writing this phrase over and over again in her patient notes. It’s clear that Patricia is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She can remember her childhood fairly clearly. When she follows the thread of her life further, however, she has memories of two completely different existences. In one life, she is miserable in love, but has a large family and lives in a peaceful world. In the other, she has a lifelong love, but lives in an increasingly violent and radioactive world.

Each chapter in My Real Children alternates between Patricia’s two lives, never revealing which one is “real.” Both lives are entirely plausible, diverging at the moment in which Patricia decided to marry Mark or decided not to. For a good half of the book, I thought Walton was heavy-handed in preferring Patricia’s life with her female lover, Bee, over her life of domestic mystery with Mark. Mark is relentlessly awful and Bee is so charming and that other life is so blissful. It isn’t until near the end of the book that Walton balances the scales a bit by placing Patricia in world in which the great powers frequently lob nuclear missiles at each other.

I pitched this book to my book group, but they passed. It’s kind of a pity because there’s so much to talk about here: sexuality, chaos theory, feminism and women’s liberation, parenting. The first half of the book is clunky, I’ll admit, but when things balance out, My Real Children ends on a particularly thought-provoking note.