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.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, by Ruth Emmie Lang

33574161I was utterly charmed by Ruth Emmie Lang’s Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, a novel about a reclusive man with strange abilities told by the people who knew him as well as anyone could. From the doctor who delivered him to his foster sister, adopted mother, and his frequently lost love, everyone knows that there’s something odd about Weylyn Gray. It rains when he’s upset and woodland creatures bring him presents. Oh, and he was partially raised by wolves.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance jumps from decade to decade as Weylyn touches other characters’ lives with a mix of good and bad luck. Weylyn’s abilities are never fully explained, which I think adds to sense of sustained curiosity as people meet and lose him over time. For the most part, Weylyn and his ad hoc family and friends treat him like a secret. No one else will believe them anyway about the weather and the animals and the shockingly verdant plants that follow in his war. Further, there’s something about Weylyn makes people protective.

What saves this book from being tritely inspirational—Weylyn often reads like a socially anxious Jesus—is the fact that, over and over, things don’t work out according to anyone’s plans. Just like bad weather, animals, and sudden gardens, unintended consequences follow him throughout his life. His friends and family are more than willing to take the risk, but Weylyn is terrified of accidentally hurting someone with his abilities. He’d rather take to the woods and live like a Disney hermit than chance it.

This isn’t a perfect book. There is one misstep at the end of the book, but I chalk that up to the limitations of having the book narrated by characters other than Weylyn. Readers willing to over look this and Weylyn’s more messiah-like moments will find a quirky, fast read for those of us who don’t trust happy, uncomplicated endings. Over and over, Weylyn’s plot arc demonstrates that love and life are often dangerous. The rewards, however, are much better than a safe loneliness.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.

Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw

32452160It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to doctor the monsters of London. If it weren’t for Greta Helsing, who would replace bones for the mummies, treat the ghoul children’s ear infections, or help treat the vampires’ depression? In Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw, is the first novel in a new series featuring the good doctor. Not only does the good doctor have to care for her patients in this novel, but she also has to contend with a new supernatural threat. It’s good thing she’s not alone. Greta has the help of two vampires, one demon, and very goofy librarian*.

The novel opens with Greta receiving a call from her good friend, Lord Edmund Ruthven (vampire), to come and care for another vampire, Sir Francis Varney, who has just arrived at Ruthven’s house in terrible condition. Little does Greta know but that this is just the beginning of a terrifying campaign against a band of rogue warrior monks. They don’t know this right away, of course. At first, Varney can only recall vague details about robes and strange chanting about sins and uncleanliness. Ruthven calls in a friend, August Cranswell (the goofy librarian) at the British Library to do some scholarly digging. Meanwhile, Greta’s family friend, the demon Fastitocalon, uses his infernal powers to sniff out the warrior monks.

The usual practice in a contemporary fantasy thriller-mystery is for the protagonist (almost always female) to take the lead, to dive into dangerous spots with guns blazing, and sort everything out. While I enjoy a good kick-ass heroine, it was refreshing to see Greta et al. take a more team-based approach. Greta is more than willing to lean on her friends to stop the killings, given their “special talents.” She even volunteers to stay behind if necessary to tend to the wounded. The team-based approach also means that we don’t have the carrying-the-world-on-her-shoulders-like-Buffy trope (which I think gets old fast). But it would be wrong not to consider Greta a hero. When Varney asks her why she does what she does, she responds that it’s because she has to do what is right. She fights, but she fights intelligently.

Strange Practice is a fun, fast read and a different take on the genre. I loved all of the characters since they were so different from what I normally see in the genre. (Sure, there’s brooding, but that doesn’t last.) The review copy I read had the first chapter of the next book in the series, Bad Company, and I’ve already decided that I must read it as soon as it comes out.

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

* I deeply appreciate this character.

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

Sisters are tricky. For every pair that get along, it seems that there is another pair that have terminal sibling rivalry. (Although, I might have an exaggerated view of this because I read so much fiction.) But I tend to stay away from stories like this because they just don’t interest me all that much. There has to be something else to get my attention. So Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot slowly pulled me into its story of rivalrous* sisters with hints of magic before it really grabbed hold of me with a gripping tale about sacrifice.

Melete is a legendary artists’ retreat in the world of this novel. Artists, musicians, poets, novelists, etc. would give up a lot to be selected for Melete’s program because so many of its alumni have gone on to have huge success. In spite of this, Imogen is reluctant to apply. Her sister, Marin, twists her arm until they both apply and are accepted. Writer Imogen and dancer Marin haven’t seen each other for years (and we are given a lot of backstory to explain why), though they have a happy reunion when they meet up again at Melete. Together, they get make friends among the other accepted artists—as well as tolerate some of the odder residents.

Imogen hasn’t been at Melete long before she starts to see and hear strange things. She’s not the only one and the mentors at the retreat eventually reveal to the young artists what’s really going on. Without giving too much away, I can say that the artists are offered the chance at a Faustian bargain in return for guaranteed artistic success. In exchange for seven years’ service in Faerie, they will have all their artistic dreams come true. The price is terrible, but many of the mentees are more than willing to pay.

The artistic bargain, while interesting, is not what spurs the last third or so of the book. The relationship between Imogen and Marin is tested when they become frontrunners for the bargain. Even though the two are trying to repair their relationship with each other, the competition threatens to tear them apart again—perhaps forever. At the beginning of the novel, when the artists found out about the bargain, all but one** said they would take it without thinking twice. By the time the competition really heats up, Imogen finds a line she’s not willing to cross. But for Marin, the bargain is her only chance at the kind of life she wants.

I realize this summary leaves out a lot of the magic and mystery of the book, as well as Imogen’s haunting take on fairy tales, but I think these are best experienced by reading Roses and Rot oneself. Even though I had other things I really had to do this weekend, I could not put it down. I was hooked and enchanted by this novel. If you love retellings of fairy tales, sibling rivalries, or stories about artists, I would definitely suggest Roses and Rot for a great day’s reading.

*  This is a real word. I looked it up and everything.
** One of my favorite secondary characters, a singer, is the lone holdout against the bargain. It may be because I’ve read too many Faustian tales where the bargainer regrets their decision, but I totally understand the singer’s point that taking the deal would be a kind of cheating. They will never know if they might have been able to be successful on their own—which I would find intolerable because this question opens the door to crippling doubt.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

Apollo Kagwa thought he had the perfect life. He’s got his dream job as a rare book dealer. He’s deeply in love with his wife and they’re expecting their first child. Unfortunately for Apollo, he’s in a Victor LaValle novel, which means that things quickly get strange, dark, and dangerous. In The Changeling, Apollo soon finds himself in a parental nightmare that stretches back centuries.

The Changeling takes several chapters to gain traction as LaValle starts Apollo’s story with his parents. While we learn why Apollo is so determined to have a traditional family and so happy when he thinks he’s found it, I wondered all through those chapters when the action was going to start. When it does start, the plot took me for a terrifying ride alongside Apollo.

A few months after Apollo’s son is born, his wife, Emma, starts to behave strangely. A doctor might diagnose her with post-natal depression. After six months of Emma’s loathing of their child, she attacks Apollo and murders the child. Then she disappears. Apollo goes to jail for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage in an attempt to find out where she went. And then, things get very strange when Apollo realizes that the son he’d cherished was not at all what he thought it was.

The Changeling is, on its surface, a horror story in which the ordinary becomes supernatural and deadly. Underneath that surface, it’s a story that asks serious questions about what it means to be a parent when the day-to-day reality of the job is far from the ideal. Being a parent is about sacrifice, but I doubt that any parent has to face the struggles Apollo and Emma go up against when they find out what happened to their real son.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 June 2017.

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

The future is impossible to predict, which is why I’m always surprised that some people are so willing to give credence to prophecies and visions. There are two many factors at play to say for certain what’s going to happen very far down the road. Things are different in fiction, of course, but I tend to stay away from books about destiny and prophecies because the outcome is preordained. What I do enjoy, however, are stories that subvert this trope. Near the beginning of All the Birds in the Sky, the stunning debut by Charlie Jane Anders, we learn that one or both of the protagonists will destroy the world. But since neither has actually done anything, they’re innocent. It’s a dilemma.

All the Birds in the Sky is the story of a witch and a nerd genius. (It’s a delightful blend of the two genres.) Both have a very hard time with bullies because they just don’t fit in with their peers. Because they are both ostracized, they gravitate to each other, comforting each other in the middle of rumors, dumpster wedgies, and worse. Life gets hard for each once they hit their mid-teen years. Their guidance counselor—who is an incognito assassin from a mystical order—has had a vision that these children will destroy the world with their powers. They must be stopped. But since he is prohibited (on pain of death) from killing children, he tries everything to get someone else do the dirty work. He starts with the witch, Patricia. He tells her that her only friend, Laurence, must be killed or else. When that fails, the counselor turns the school against Patricia and has Laurence packed off to a sadistic military school.

After a spectacular scene in which we learn what Patricia is capable of, All the Birds in the Sky jumps ahead. Patricia has learned to be a witch and is doing some kind of penance by healing everyone she can get her hands on. Meanwhile, Laurence has left behind his AI project to try and create a wormhole creator so that humanity can escape if earth becomes uninhabitable. The two characters’ stories once again weave together as Patricia and Laurence reestablish their friendship. Unfortunately, events run ahead of them and the pair find themselves in the middle of a war between science and magic.

I realize that my summary might make All the Birds in the Sky sound a little dull. This book is anything but. It’s just hard to capture the richness of Anders’ characterization and world-building. The science fiction chapters and the fantasy chapters are utterly convincing. It only takes Anders a few paragraphs to get you to sink into each genre. Also, unlike most destiny-based novels, Patricia and Laurence get less likely to fulfill their destinies as time goes on. How are these two, who only want the best for humanity, going to destroy the world? The mystery kept me reading All the Birds in the Sky way past my bedtime.