The Possible World, by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz

36373429Strange and violent things are happening in a small corner of the world around Providence, Rhode Island in Liese O’Halloran Schwarz’s The Possible World. The strangeness and the violence happen immediately. There’s a multiple murder. There’s a boy who stops answering to his own name and insisting on another. There’s an old woman in a nursing home with a mysterious past. Fortunately, all this strangeness and violent leads up to a perfect moment at the end of the book.

After the chaos of the opening chapters, The Possible World settles into three different narrative threads. The boy Ben, who wants people to call him Leo, is brought in to the emergency room to check for physical injuries after being the sole survivor of a multiple murder before being sent to the psychiatric ward. At the emergency room, he meets Dr. Lucy Cole, who is the consummate doctor with a crumbling marriage. Her husband doesn’t understand what it’s like to be married to a doctor. Meanwhile, Clare is about to celebrate her 100th birthday at a nursing home. In their little town, the oldest person gets a special award and it’s down to Clare and another woman. The problem is that no one can find proof of Clare’s birth…or her life before she arrived at the nursing home.

Leo (Ben) and Clare slowly tell their stories, revealing an unbelievable connection that I couldn’t have predicted from the outset. Leo and Lucy bond, both of them misunderstood by people who are supposed to stand by them. Leo is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and, because the psychiatrists aren’t making a lot of progress with him, he is about to turfed out to the foster system. His plight and his sadness make Lucy want to care for him beyond her remit as an ER doctor. As I learned more about Clare’s past and her connection to Leo, I saw a theme of ad hoc parenting and care-taking develop. In this book, family are the people you find when the biological family doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.

Some readers may be irritated by the ending, which relies on the perfect alignment of all the plots. I liked it. For me, the ending was a brilliant resolution of Leo and Clare’s story. Surprisingly for a book that starts with a gruesome multiple murder, this book ends on a bright note of hope. I also really liked the characters. Unlike some books with multiple narrators, I liked all of the protagonists. There weren’t any sections that dragged or that bored me. The Possible World was a weirdly charming book.

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

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The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

342752321Alice’s mother ran for years before finally settling down in New York and only after they got word that Alice’s grandmother, Althea, had died. Alice knows that her grandmother was a famous author who wrote a single collection of stories back in the 1970s, but they’ve never met. Even talking about Althea is taboo, so when Althea’s enemies and creatures from her stories come after Alice in Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, Alice has no idea what’s going on. Worse, she has no idea how to stay alive against things called the Briar King and Twice-Killed Katherine.

Alice is muddling along as well as she can with a distracted mother, school, and a job at a coffee shop—at least until the threats start and Alice’s mother is kidnapped. Something from her grandmother’s past wants her to come to the Hazel Wood, the estate Althea bought after her book rights got sold to make a movie. The only way to get her back is to go up against things straight out of Althea’s book Tales from the Hinterland. Because she’s never read the book (and copies are extremely rare), Alice doesn’t know the rules. She’s just winging it and winging it is a good way to get killed.

The Hazel Wood kept me guessing at every turn. Alice’s quest to find her mother is far from easy in spite of the seemingly simple instructions she gets. In order to get her mother back, Alice is told that she has to go through the story. If she follows Hinterland’s rules, she should be able to get them both out alive. But nothing is as simple as it seems in the Hinterland, especially when Alice learns why the Hinterland’s creatures are after her family.

I loved this book so much. Alice is a gritty, believable protagonist. There are so many times she could’ve gotten killed in this book, but she never even thought about giving up. That said, it’s the world that Albert created for her protagonists that I adored. Just like the readers of Tales from the Hinterland, I wanted more. I wanted to hear Twice-Killed Katherine’s story and what Hansa the Traveler was up to and learn how to defeat the Briar King. I was highly entertained by the “refugees” who accidentally wandered into the Hinterland and decided to stay.

I sincerely hope that there are more books about Alice and the creatures from the Hinterland. I will read the hell out them.

Familiar Things, by Hwang Sok-yong

33148672Bugeye doesn’t have much going for him at the beginning of Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Things (translated by Sora Kim-Russell). Things are so hopeless that when his mother takes a job as a trash picker at Seoul’s Flower Island landfill, it’s actually a step up for their little family. And, strangely enough, the trash heap turns out to be a land of opportunity for Bugeye in this strangely charming coming-of-age story.

Flower Island lives in the shadow of Seoul (which is not named, but I’m calling the city Seoul because all of the plot descriptions say that’s where this story takes place). It has it’s own culture and economy, latched on to the rest of Korean society. There is a strict pecking order among the groups of trash pickers, the recyclers, and other salvagers. Money makes it possible to move between the groups, but it takes a long time to accumulate enough to make the jump. The adults in Bugeye’s life worry about that more than he does. Like the other children of trash pickers, Bugeye is resigned to the fact that he will probably follow in his mother’s footsteps and that the rest of Korean society will be closed to him. When I started to read about his life, I was expecting another depressing tale of extreme poverty (like The Rent Collector by Camron Wright). Instead, I was as surprised as Bugeye was when Baldspot appeared on the scene and things started to get magical.

Baldspot makes it possible for Bugeye to have a childhood. While their parents pick through Seoul’s trash for anything they can sell, Baldspot introduces Bugeye to Headquarters, a club house built as a place for the local boys to escape to. He also introduces Bugeye to the strange lights and the mysterious Mr. Kims that only they can see. The boys run around the island and make friends with the more uncanny parts of the island, such as the woman who is occasionally possessed by the spirit of the island’s guardian spirit. The poverty of their families should have crushed them, but Bugeye and Baldspot have adventures that keep their minds (mostly) off of their worries about the future.

For me, Familiar Things walks a perfect path between realism and the supernatural. There’s enough realism that I didn’t get annoyed at the story for not taking the setting seriously enough, but enough magic that it wasn’t utterly depressing. I loved learning about the dokkaebi and what Flower Island was like before it became a landfill. And the way that that past is blended into Bugeye’s reality is seamless, with a beautiful,  bittersweet ending that gives the book a poignancy that I loved. This book is amazing.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, by Connie Willis

38908116Connie Willis’ I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land is either a long short story or a short novellette. As such, it is very much focused on an idea, rather than on plot or character development. The idea at the heart of this tale is the struggle to preserve books that might otherwise be lost to time, fire, flood, war, negligence, etc. This story argues that every book, no matter how silly, obsolete, and useless it might be, should never be completely lost.

At the beginning of I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, Jim is very much of the opinion that physical books don’t need saving. Sure, book stores are closing left and right, but there’s the Cloud. Books can be digitized and downloaded any time. There’s no need to worry. In fact, he opines at the beginning of the story, some book stores deserve to close because they’re not keeping up with the times. Who wants to dig through dusty old books in a smelly shop when they could just click the buy button on their device?

But then Jim wanders into what appears to be the stereotypical bookshop of his argument. Ozymandius’ (named after the Shelley poem, of course) is crammed with just the sorts of books that Jim believes no one would ever want, all buried under an inch of dirt and dust and completely unorganized. He enjoys seeing his theories confirmed until he follows a pretty blonde through the staff only door and discovers the most unique collection I’ve ever seen in fiction.

The staff area of Ozymandius’ is a labyrinth of books Jim has never heard of before. He scoffs but, when the pretty blonde, Cassandra, offers to give him a tour, he learns that these books are the last of their kind. Once, there were multiple copies of these books in stores and libraries all over the place. But time and tastes have done their work. Copies were lost or destroyed until only one remained. The staff of Ozymandius’ somehow manage to save that last copy from disaster or the landfill. Jim is desperate to know how, but that is one of the many unanswered questions that torment him after he leaves and is unable to find his way back.

As I read I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, I had a reaction that I’ve never had to a book before: I felt attacked. I’m a librarian and I have, to use the euphemism that Cassandra scorns, “de-accessioned” hundreds of books in my time. We have only so much shelf space at our library. There’s no place for books that don’t get used. That said, I truly appreciated the argument that the last copy must be preserved. I don’t want any knowledge to ever be lost and I wish that libraries and bookstores didn’t have to fight so hard to stay open. Right now, I don’t see how that’s possible unless something like Ozymandius’ magically appears to rescue us.

I recommend I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land to bibliophiles of all stripes. It doesn’t matter if you read print or electronic books. The important thing is that we all read and, thus, do our little bit to keep books and reading alive. Maybe one of us will be the one to save a last copy and keep it from being lost forever.

I received a free copy of this novellette from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It has already been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction but it will be widely released 30 April 2018.

What Should Be Wild, by Julia Fine

35068762Girls without mothers raised by somewhat clueless fathers are not uncommon in literature. What is uncommon is Maisie Cothay’s ability to instantly kill and resurrect living things. In Julia Fine’s What Should Be Wild, Maisie grows up on her family’s secluded estate somewhere in the English countryside. She wears gloves all the time and is under strict orders not to touch anything. But childhood has to come to an end. When Maisie turns 16, a series of events conspire to set her on a rough journey into adulthood and a reckoning with her strange abilities.

Maisie’s childhood, without a mother and without any human touch, is a lonely one. She copes with her father’s aloofness as best she can. Not surprisingly, she longs for companionship. When she turns 16 and the housekeeper passes away, Maisie’s grief and her dog’s macabre theft of the housekeeper’s leg sends her into the forest around Urizon, the family estate. The forest is the object of sinister legends. Women in Maisie’s family have disappeared into the forest over the centuries. Unbeknownst to everyone outside the forest, those women are still alive—and they want to get out.

An awful lot of awful things happen in What Should Be Wild, but at the heart of all the plots and subplots is the moral that women should not be caged by walls, by rules, or by magic. When women are hemmed in, those literal and figurative walls stunt their growth. They can wither away or go mad and, eventually, there will come a moment when a woman has to make a choice to either accept the limits or do whatever they can to break loose.

What Should Be Wild is a modern twist on fairy tales. There is plenty of messing around with powers without knowing the rules and cautionary tales to scare the pants off of children. The main plot meanders, sometimes in ways that I felt were superfluous to requirements. That said, I enjoyed the novel’s originality. I was hooked the entire time I read it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 May 2018. 

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, by Jess Kidd

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort was previously published as The Hoarder in the United KingdomI’m honestly not sure which is the preferred title.

38128947Maud Drennan does not have an easy job. Taking care of the elderly, people who were previously perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, is hard. When the elderly person in question is Cathal Flood, a hoarder with a sharp tongue and a reputation for going after other do-gooders with a hurley stick, the job gets even more difficult. After you throw in the fact that Maud sees saints and the possibility that Cathal might have killed his wife, you have the absolutely packed and off-kilter adventure that is Jess Kidd’s Mr. Flood’s Last Resort.

We meet Maud in a situation that sums up her relationship with Cathal: she’s trying to make the downstairs bathroom hygienic while he shouts at her. Her boss thought that because they were both Irish, they might be able to manage each other. That is not the case, not with Cathal’s temper and his secrets. As Maud clears out the hoard, she starts to receive what look like messages…from Cathal’s dead wife. This is not as strange to Maud as it is to us. She has been followed around since childhood by about a half a dozen saints, who disappear and reappear and make comments on her sex life. Getting ghostly messages is not that weird for her.

Every chapter and every battle with Cathal reveals a new layer to the mystery about whether Cathal’s wife died in an accident, why he won’t talk to his son, and what might have happened to a girl named Maggie Dunne who disappeared without a trace fifteen years earlier. The Flood family have been sitting on a lot of secrets and, now that Cathal might be kicked out of his house, someone is determined to keep those secrets under wraps—violently if necessary.

I loved how Mr. Flood’s Last Stand rockets between mystery and psychological thriller. What I enjoyed most, however, were the characters. Maud is a strong but damaged woman who is trying to make a past wrong right. Cathal is ferocious and hilarious. The friendship that develops between them is delightful to watch blossom. Maud’s landlady, Renata, takes the cake for one of the best secondary characters I’ve ever read. She is an absolute delight. This book is the full package.

I received a free copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher via NetGalley. It will be released 1 May 2018.

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King

34466922Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King, is a perfect example of an idea being more important to the authors than characters or story. The idea in this book is: what if all the women in the world were gone? It gets a Stephen King twist, of course. Here, the women have succumb to a mysterious condition that puts their bodies to sleep, cocooned in a web-like substance, and sends them to another world. Where this book goes wrong is that I think it required a lot of editing to get rid of extraneous subplots and characters and a lot more work to create characters that are better than stock villains and heroes. At times, I thought Sleeping Beauties was written like two men creating something that women might like to see because most of the men are just bad dudes and most of the women are victims or ass-kickers. Over and over, this book declares that women are better than men, using tired stereotypes that are as irritating as straight-up misogyny.

As women across the world fall asleep, Sleeping Beauties introduces a bunch of characters in Dooling, a small Appalachian town. Clint Norcross is a prison psychiatrist at a women’s correctional facility just outside of that town. He is one of the few good guys in the book, basically a white knight. His wife, Lila, is the town’s sheriff. With the exception of her jealousy and self-reproach, she’s also fairly uncomplicated. Their chief antagonist later in the book is Frank Geary, the town dogcatcher who drives the town to out and out war in the name of waking up his daughter. Surrounding the Norcrosses and Geary are a bunch of wronged women and the men who wronged them.

The most interesting character to me was, unfortunately, the most unexamined. Evie appears the day that women start to fall asleep. She steps out of the Dooling woods and kills a (male) drug dealer and one of his (also male) customers. After messily dispatching these men, Lila takes Evie to the prison for evaluation by Clint. There is no question there’s something not right about Evie. She knows a lot more than she should about the women’s condition and everyone’s secrets. She mysteriously claims to be the key to solving the mystery of the sleeping “sickness” and manifests some strange powers to back up that claim. The problem is that we never learn what she is, who she’s working for, or what anyone hopes to achieve by putting all the women to sleep. This was my greatest disappointment in the book.

Evie’s manipulations, coupled with the sleeping “sickness,” set up a massive war (complete with teargas and explosions) between those who want to let Evie do her thing (Clint) and those who want to use her to cure the women at any cost (Frank). Underneath this conflict is one between Men and Women. The sleeping whatever it is asks the characters (and readers) if women would be better off without men—but this question is woefully underdeveloped in the name of making that war more exciting plus poorly represented by characters that make it blindingly obvious how we should chose. The question is complex and should’ve been treated that way.

I recently read The Power, by Naomi Alderman, which also asked questions about gender balance and gender-based violence. Both books suffer from preachiness. I have yet to see a book that does justice to the inequality between men and women. The Power gave us a world in which women, once they had the ability to physically overpower men, became bullies. In Sleeping Beauties, the women shown to be superior to men in almost every way in a way that smacked of old sexist arguments about women being the “fairer sex” who gentle men when they can. I really wish that this book had created characters that were more than straw people.

I honestly can’t think of anything I liked about Sleeping Beauties. The fact that it was so long, at just over 700 pages, just made it worse. There is so much foreshadowing in the book about what is supposed to happen that it’s frankly annoying to have to wait for the payoff. So much of this book could have been edited out that I think it would’ve worked better as a novella or even a short story.