alternate history · literary fiction · review · science fiction

Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

34217599Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, is part of a dialogue in fiction that goes back as far as The Handmaid’s TaleIn this particular type of women’s dystopia, something happens that drastically reduces fertility. The fertility crisis invariably results in women who can conceive having their freedoms curtailed so that the species can continue. In Future Home of the Living God, the catalyst is that evolution suddenly reverses. Plants and animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years suddenly revert to their original, wild state. We’re never told exactly what happens to the fetuses of pregnant women, but it’s speculated that their children will be more like earlier hominid species. We watch this crisis through the eyes of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the adopted daughter of liberal parents, who may be one of the last women to bear a Homo sapiens child.

Cedar is pregnant by the time the book opens, though only a few months along. Her pregnancy spurs her to seek out her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman who lives on a reservation north of Minneapolis. Cedar’s quest gives us plenty of questions about motherhood. How can mothers give up their children? What do children owe their parents? What do parents owe their children? The novel does not shame Cedar’s birth mother for giving her up. Instead, I got the sense that this women could not adequately care for Cedar and that giving her up was the right decision, even though Cedar feels cut off from her Ojibwe heritage.

This beginning works in contrast to the rest of Future Home of the Living God. Cedar’s child is very much wanted. But with the fertility/evolution crisis, women in the United States have lost the right to not only to keep their children but also their physical freedom while they’re pregnant. Cedar is helped by her boyfriend (and the father of her child) to stay free in her home for a couple of months. Unfortunately, that boyfriend is captured and tortured into giving up her location. The rest of the novel contains a series of incarcerations and escapes. The ending of the novel broke my heart and made me incredibly angry.

Throughout the novel, Cedar thinks about or is reminded of her Catholic faith in ways that focus on the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. These reminders pair with Cedar’s story to show us just how little autonomy pregnant women and mothers have sometimes. Pregnant women go through harrowing deliveries after enduring advice (welcome and unwelcome), only to be judged by society about how they chose to raise their children. Over and over, this book reminded me of how many people think they know better than a pregnant woman or a mother. Mothers are not infallible, but they shouldn’t be imprisoned in hospitals, subjected to medical tests or procedures like the “husband’s stitch” without consent, and not told about what’s happening with their bodies and their children. Also, women should be able to freely chose whether or not they will give up their children or to terminate their pregnancies. This book reinforced my belief that women do not give up their right to bodily autonomy because they get pregnant or can get pregnant.

The premise of Future Home of the Living God is one of my personal flash points, but readers should know that this book is extremely well written. The way that Catholicism flows through the book is deftly done and Cedar’s character is particularly well drawn. I was constantly surprised at the twists in this book, which came when I least expected them. Erdrich has a gift for raising our consciousness about bodily autonomy and reproductive justice in a way that makes us look at the issues from the perspective of an individual, rather than as big, untackleable social issues. It’s not all meant to make us want to storm the barricades—though I think that it would be an outstanding read for book groups because of its premise. Future Home of the Living God is an affective and very effective book that I hope is read as widely as it deserves.

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alternate history · fantasy · review · steampunk

The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark

38118138Creeper makes a living as a pickpocket but, at the beginning of P. Djèlí Clark’s delightfully imaginative novella The Black God’s Drums, she comes across a piece of information that could destroy her city. In this version of history, the Civil War has become a cold war. The Confederate States are still struggling along, while the Union maintains its borders with help from the Free Islands of the Caribbean. New Orleans, where Creeper lives, is an independent port where everyone gathers and schemes in a way that reminds me of Casablanca, but with a strong flavor of steampunk and the meddling presence of the orisha.

Creeper’s alcove near the city walls becomes the unlikely meeting place of a band of Confederate States soldiers and an opportunistic Cajun. The soldiers are plotting to kidnap a visiting Haitian scientist who knows how to harness a supernatural weapon of mass destruction. She hides as best she can, then bolts as soon as they leave. The plot doesn’t pause for a minute as Creeper dives head long an attempt to save her city. Fortunately for her, Creeper has allies in form of a visiting Haitian captain and her crew, and a pair of nuns who know everything that’s going on in New Orleans.

Clark is excellent at world-building. The problem (if you call it that) is the plot races along so quickly that we never get a chance to just hang out and enjoy the setting. I hope that there are more books featuring Creeper and the world Clark created just so that I can spend more time in this amazing world. That said, the plot is top notch and full of great action sequences. The Black God’s Drums would be a great read for reader’s looking for a fun, original ride this summer.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.

alternate history · historical fantasy · review · thriller

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

27272632What would it be like to exist in a world where death doesn’t really matter? For the British Empire, it means colonizing the afterlife and continuing to play the Great Game forever. Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is a spy versus spy story set in an alternate 1938 where the Spanish Civil War might lead to another world war. Rachel White works for the Winter Court, the lively side of the British Secret Service. Peter Bloom is a Russian double agent undercover in the Summer Court, the afterlife version of the British Intelligence Service. Rachel knows there’s a mole and Peter knows that someone knows—neither of them knows that there might be a larger, deadlier conflict about to kick off.

As one of the lone women in the Secret Service on either side of the veil, Rachel is underestimated by everyone. She does not appreciate it. When she uncovers the identity of a Russian mole and is ignored, her disgruntlement blossoms into full blown fury. Rachel decides to go rogue enough to try and track down Peter Bloom. Bloom, meanwhile, is on a mission to join the Presence (a shadowy hive mind of Soviet ghosts—which is the most communist thing I have ever heard of). While the two spies chase each other around London and Summerland, they slowly learn that their governments are playing a much deeper game than Rachel or Peter could have realized.

The plot is entertaining, but what I enjoyed most about this book was the world-building. Rajaniemi put it in a lot of thought to ecto-based technology, the Presence, and the big question of what it would mean if people could look forward to a long afterlife. In Rachel and Peter’s world, medicine is a half-hearted pursuit and people (especially young college men) do stupid things because it doesn’t really matter if they die. Sure, some ghosts fade away to nothing, but if you have your Ticket, you’re in like Flint. I imagine that Peter is utterly weary of the fact that he has to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Rachel, meanwhile, starts to have second and third thoughts about the way her superiors throw away lives. Without death, live doesn’t mean as much in this world.

Even though Summerland has a lot of dead characters and is set half in the afterlife, this is a lively read. There are spies, chases, betrayals, secrets within secrets, and sacrifice. There are parts of this book that meander, so I had to trust that the spy v. spy plots and the secrets would lead so something. I am happy to report that the ending of Summerland knocked my bookish socks. I really liked this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

alternate history · historical fiction · metafiction · review

Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg, is a very sneaky book. It begins as a discovered manuscript story when academic R. Voth comes across a handful of eighteenth century pages that purport to be the “confessions” of legendary thief and jail-breaker, Jack Sheppard. This is exciting enough, but then it quickly becomes an audacious and extremely erudite story about an intersex protagonist and transgender archivist, slavery, and capitalism. The book sucked me in with Jack’s story only to leave me thinking unsettling thoughts about how much we might (or might not) own our own bodies and livelihoods.

Jack Sheppard was a historical figure with short career as a thief. He is mostly known to us today because he escaped Newgate Prison four times—which was believed to be impossible—before being hanged at Tyburn at the age of 22. In the manuscript Voth discovers, Jack Sheppard has an even more intriguing secret: he is intersex. He prefers male pronouns and dress, but he constantly worries about being found out as well as being rejected by the women he is attracted to. Jack does find love with Bess, a sex worker (as Voth deliberate names her), and the two lead their nemesis, Jonathan Wild, a merry dance, for as long as they can.

Jack_Sheppard
Jack Sheppard in Newgate
Wikicommons)

Voth speaks to us through footnotes. In the beginning of the book, the notes define eighteenth century London slang and offer references to actual scholarly works. But then, they begin to comment on the strangeness of the text—and to fight with their employer, the Dean of Surveillance. The Dean, and his bosses (a nefarious company with too many holdings and very good lawyers), very much want the manuscript. Unlike Voth, who wants to share the text with the world, the Dean and PQuad have a prurient interest in Jack and Bess’ sex life and Jack’s anatomy. The Dean and PQuad don’t understand Jack. They see someone they can gawk at like the Lion-Man in Jack’s story. Their interest raises the stakes for Voth, who suddenly has a bigger mission than just transcribing the manuscript.

I loved the interplay between Voth and Jack’s stories. The parallels between the two lives get stronger as Confessions of the Fox continues, leading to a twist that I’m still thinking about. There is so much in this novel to unpack; this is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time. Readers with an academic background will be right at home with this metafictional marvel. Readers who don’t like footnotes, however, may have a hard time with this book. This is also one of the rare books I recommend people read in print.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

alternate history · horror · review

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

30223025Sometimes I worry when authors introduce supernatural or horror tropes to tragic historical events. But I couldn’t resist Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation when it was getting so much positive buzz from readers I know care about diversity and sensitivity. I’m glad I listened. This book is absolutely incredible for the way it introduces zombies to American slavery and institutional racism. Yup: zombies.

Jane McKeene had a privileged but tenuous position at Rose Hill Plantation.The fact that Jane is the black daughter of the plantation mistress is still a scandal, but everyone’s position gets a lot more tenuous when the dead start to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. The next time we see Jane, she’s drilling with the other (black) students at Miss Preston’s federally-created school for black and Native American children, designed to teach them how to fight the undead—so that the whites don’t have to risk their skins.

On top of the undead, Jane has to deal with the overwhelming racism from the whites around her. They condescend. They punish her when she speaks up for herself. And when she and two of her friends uncovers clues that the there is an unspeakable conspiracy going on that involves shipping people (black and white) out to a places called Summerland when they become “troublesome,” she gets sent on a train out to a town under siege in the middle of Kansas.

Dread Nation is a gripping read. There’s plenty of zombie-killing action and the alternate history is richly imagined. Even though there are undead creatures running around, I found this book incredibly plausible—and incredibly heartbreaking because some of the worst things people say and do in this book are based on things that were really said and done after the Civil War. This book made me very angry, like it was supposed to. Thankfully, Jane’s prowess at killing the undead is hugely satisfying after someone white says something unforgivable.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.

alternate history · historical fantasy · review

The Philosopher’s Flight, by Tom Miller

32620364Robert Weekes has a dream: to be the first man to join the US Sigil Corps Rescue and Evacuation Team. But in this alternate version of history, women have dominated sigil work for more than 100 years. In fact, no one believes that men are physically capable of doing the work. The prologue of The Philosopher’s Flight, by Tom Miller, lets us know that he somehow achieves something like his dream. We just don’t know how he does it. If this sounds like it gives things away to soon, there are enough questions about what will happen to provide narrative tension. Plus, Miller creates a wonderful world full of details about the “don’t call it magic” system that fuels this alternate history to make things that much more interesting.

Robert works as his mother’s assistant in Montana in the fall of 1918, when the book proper opens. He wants to do more than just assist the county philosopher, but no one is willing to give him the chance. He’s a man and, in this world, men just aren’t strong enough to do the job—women can fly faster and longer, their sigils are more powerful, and tradition is on their side. When his mother is injured in the line of duty and she finally gets the support from the state she needs to administer her county, Robert uses the opportunity to enroll in one of the few colleges that will accept male students to study sigils. He pays for it by signing up under the Contingency Act, which will pay his tuition in exchange for military service. His family is not thrilled, not with World War I raging on the other side of the Atlantic, but Robert wants to get out there and save lives if the women in charge will let him.

The Philosopher’s Flight covers Robert’s first year at Radcliffe College in Boston, his ups and downs (literal and figurative), and his struggle to get into the Rescue and Evacuation Unit. To make things even more interesting, the novel also sets up a bloody conflict between the sigilwomen and the men who want to strip them of their power and outlaw sigilry. This book is very blunt about its point of view on gender relations and Robert, as a man raised by strong women, is an interesting example of what might happen if the two genders could lay down arms and work together.

I hope Miller writes a sequel (or two) to The Philosopher’s Flight. The story and its world are so fully realized, as well as entertaining, that I want more.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 February 2018.

alternate history · literary fiction · review

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.


Note for bibliotherapeutic use: Give to readers who have “views” about women’s reproduction.