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.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

How to Be Safe, by Tom McAllister

35167727Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe tackles one of the biggest flash points in American politics: mass shootings and our repeated failure to stop them. This novel looks at a mass shooting through the viewpoint of a character who is caught up in the aftermath, even though she had nothing to do with the crime. Anna Crawford shows us how paralyzing fear can be and how helpless we feel to keep ourselves safe. The science fiction notes heighten the book’s angry commentary on the ridiculous ways that politicians come up with to “solve” the problem without actually tacking on America’s gun culture and industry.

The mass shooting occurs in the book’s prologue. A young teenaged boy, wracked with loneliness and twisted by the belief that killing a bunch of his classmates (and then himself) will somehow achieve something, eats a slice of pizza before going to the school. Paragraphs describing how his victims die are interspersed with the boy’s thoughts. After the prologue, we switch to Anna Crawford’s perspective for the rest of the book. Anna was a teacher at the school in this small Pennsylvania town before being suspended for posting online about how much she hates working there. The social media posts lead the police and FBI to her house (which they destroy looking for evidence), thinking she might have had something to do with the mass shooting. Even though she is quickly exonerated, Anna is shattered.

Unlike the rest of the town, Anna’s life has imploded in a different way. While the rest of the townspeople try to cope with having lost so many people in a terrible crime, Anna has her sense of safety ripped away by the way the police and everyone else viciously turn on her. The rest of the town “copes” with the shooting in the way a lot of other towns have unfortunately learned to deal. There are a lot of speeches. There is a memorial that everyone fights over. Gun sales go up. Anna retreats into her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, even sleeping in a couch fort for a long time. She tries religion, but the church she chooses is actually a cult. No one listens to her, but they are very willing to give her advice about how to get better. Anna’s depression and paranoia gave me a stark sense of her dislocation from the rest of her world.

How to Be Safe is not the angriest book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly in the top five. The parts of this book that don’t mourn the boy’s victims or focus on Anna’s fear of the world around her are an incendiary indictment of American gun culture. In spite of ample evidence that Americans need to give up their guns, politicians and gun rights activists vehemently argue that guns are the only thing that can “keep us safe.” Parts of this book made me angry as well (and I will absolutely vote for politicians who are pro-gun control), it mostly made me despair. Gun control and gun rights in America are a bitter topic because both sides are so adamantly opposed to each other’s point of view that it seems like we will never find a way to be safe from mass shootings.

contemporary fantasy · horror · review

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

20344877Most adventure stories, of any stripe, focus on the lead up to, the journey to, and the fight with the enemy. Very rarely to they focus on the aftermath. But in Daryl Gregory’s novella, We Are All Completely Fine, we see a group of survivors of supernatural crimes and horrors, meeting for group therapy. Dr. Jan Sayer has brought them all together to work through their issues. After all, they’re the only people who will believe each other.

The narrative shifts between the various members of the group. There’s Harrison Harrison, a former monster slayer with intractable insomnia. Martin is addicted to this world’s version of Google Glass, which help him see monsters, who’s roommates were killed by a mysterious homeless man. Stan survived a family of cannibals, but lost several appendages. Barbara was kidnapped by the Scrimshander, who carved up her bones. And then there’s Greta, who is covered in scars and is on the run from something. All of these survivors resist being called victims. More than that, the book resists this label, too. We see these characters in all their complicated prickliness as they struggle with the legacy of what they’ve seen and had done to them.

We Are All Completely Fine is not just a series of therapy meetings. In addition to this fascinating scenes, Harrison and Martin pick up on the fact that one of their member’s “adventures” are not over. Even though he’s a very damaged person, Harrison not-so-reluctantly takes up his mantle as monster hunter again. This time around, he has help, whether he wants it or not.

This book races along its horror plot, which I enjoyed for its originality and for the grit of the characters, but my favorite parts were the therapy sessions. Stan is the only one who’s willing to talk about what happened to him, even if he only tells a very polished, public version of his story. The others keep their memories tightly locked away until they finally learn to trust each other enough to share. The brief hints about this world’s Lovecraftian monsters and horrors made me want more—obviously from the safety of this side of the page. We Are All Completely Fine turned out to be a great read for October.

historical fiction · review

Ex-Libris, by Ross King

480712Isaac Inchbold, the humble proprietor of Nonsuch books, is an unlikely hero for a novel that takes us into an international fight for possession of ancient and secret knowledge. Even at the beginning of Ross King’s Ex-Libris, Inchbold would have told you that nothing very interesting should have happened to him. But then a summons from a mysterious aristocratic Lady pulls him from his cozy shop and away from his pipe. Before long, Inchbold is dodging deadly men in black doublets, coughing his lungs out in shabbily organized archives, and following clues to try and find a previously unknown volume of the corpus Hermeticum.

There is far too much plot in Ex-Libris to try and sum up as briefly as I normally do. Suffice it to say, this novel has two narrators. Inchbold tells his story from years later, looking back at his bewildering and terrifying experiences in 1660. Emilia Molyneaux, a lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, takes us further back in history, to the winter of 1619-1620 when the Thirty Years’ War erupted. The lost book links the two narratives as they work their way towards each other in time. We learn how this missing book was originally found in Constantinople, brought to Prague, and was spirited away to a Dorsetshire mansion before it was probably stolen by Parliamentarian soldiers. What we don’t know is what happened to the book after it was stolen. The mere rumor that someone is looking for it reignites a contest to possess it between Inchbold’s employer and agents of Catholicism.

As Inchbold looks for his assigned MacGuffin manuscript and Emilia is chased across the Holy Roman Empire and part of England, the novel gives us a blend of fiction and history about Hermeticism, alchemy, the Counter-Reformation, diplomatic relations between England and France, Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed expedition up the Orinoco River, bookbinding and restoration, Rudolph II‘s book and esoterica collection, and much more. In the middle of all this history, the conflict over the missing book is a constant reminder that the fight to control information is not new. The Reformation, to grossly oversimplify it, was about the right to think for oneself rather than receiving carefully curated information from an established authority. Galileo and Copernicus‘ fight to publish and share their heretical (but correct) ideas about astronomy are a frequently cited example of how the Catholic Church fought to maintain its worldview against a scientific revolution and the Protestants, both “enemies” aided by the printing press.

A 1471 Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, published by Marsilio Ficino, which is referenced frequently in Ex-Libris.
(Image via Wikicommons)

There are times in Ex-Libris where the plot is shoved to the back burner by King’s research. I’ll admit that there were some pages I skimmed because I couldn’t keep track of it all and didn’t see how it applied to Inchbold’s hunt. The best parts of this book are the nail-biting cliffhangers towards the end of the book, when our protagonists are almost captured by mysterious Catholic agents or when disasters threaten to destroy rare books. Being a librarian and confirmed bibliophile, I would be hard pressed to say which worried me more. That’s a lie. I was more worried about the books.

Readers who are looking for something more like The Da Vinci Code, with a quest for a MacGuffin that could change history forever, may chaff at the frequent detours into deep history. (The dialogue and gender politics are much better in Ex-Libris.) There are also some great twists near the end of the book that did a lot to make up for the slower passages. Readers who like historical fiction that can serve as a fairly accurate history tutorial may like Ex-Libris, especially if they’re interested in books and book history. This is definitely a book for bibliophiles. There’s more than enough to geek out about.

literary fiction · review

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

41015154In a depressed town on England’s eastern coast, Florence Green is determined to open a book store. She has the building. She has the stock. Unfortunately, she also has a very powerful woman as her enemy. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, we watch Florence experience the highs and lows of being a book peddler.

Old House, in the middle of Hardborough, has a reputation for being haunted. So of course this is the place Florence chooses for her shop. After she finagles a loan out of a patronizing bank manager, it seems like the bookshop is a go. But then Florence is invited to the Stead, the home of the local gentry. Violet Gamart informs her that she plans to turn the Old House into an arts center.

The Bookshop is full of Florence and Violet’s battle of wills, as well as the relationships Florence builds with the local curmudgeon, a hilariously capable but no nonsense 11-year-old assistant, and others. This book had the potential to be another tale of bookish warm fuzziness, but the fighting between Florence and Violet gets very serious when Violet calls in the lawyers. Violet refuses to cede ground to Florence, no matter how much good Florence’s books do for people.

This novella ended up being a lot sadder than I was expecting, even with the poltergeist. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know what to expect from Fitzgerald; perhaps this is what she does in her books. It’s certainly not as saccharine as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (which I love anyway) or The Little Paris BookshopReaders who want a happy ending should look elsewhere. Readers who want a more realistic quirkily bookish novel may enjoy reading about Florence’s triumphs and travails.

review · science fiction

City of Ash and Red, by Hye-young Pyun

Trigger warnings for rape and violence to animals.

39331853The beginning of Hye-young Pyun’s novel, City of Ash and Red, (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), terrified me because it presents one of my worst fears. An unnamed man arrives in a foreign city to take up a job, only to end up without his phone, documents, most of his possessions, and eventually the apartment his new employer set up. He doesn’t speak the language well. All the phone numbers he might call were stored in his phone. He’s on his own. Meanwhile, an epidemic and a garbage strike are making conditions in the city district he’s fetched up in downright hellish.

At first, I felt a strong sympathy for our unnamed protagonist. He’s in desperate straights in the first chapters, especially as the epidemic gets worse and he is quarantined to his apartment. But then, I started to learn things about the protagonist that flipped my sympathy on its head. Throughout the first chapters, the protagonist alternately laments and puzzles about his broken marriage and how his wife left him for a man he doesn’t like. But when the protagonist does manage to call home after an arduous phone directory search, we learn that not only is his ex-wife’s dog brutally murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, so his his ex-wife.

The hits keep coming after that. The protagonist is visited by police officers and jumps out a window to escape, becoming homeless. While the protagonist digs through trash for edible food and scraps for a park bench to sleep on, more is revealed about his violent outbursts. The early chapters lead us to think that the protagonist is a put-upon, quietly suffering man. The rest of the book shows us the lie, complete with shocking examples of what happens when he loses his temper.

The wheel of Fortune lifts and drops the protagonist more than once in City of Ash and Red. So much so, that it’s hard to know what to make of the story. On the one hand, it would be easy to read the novel as a version of a man’s justifiable descent into hell for his deeds. On the other, the ending doesn’t make sense in that reading because the protagonist’s luck seems to be on the rise. City of Ash and Red left me feel angry for the way the protagonist repeatedly escapes justice. I suppose that’s the question this book presents for me. Is there an amount of suffering that could make amends? If not, what is a fitting punishment? Can suffering and deprivation even be considered a punishment if the sufferer thinks they’ve escaped justice?

Longtime readers of this blog will know that these are the kinds of questions that fascinate me in literature. It’s entirely possible that other readers will get something completely different from City of Ash and Red. Every reader, I think, will be unsettled by the strange city where the story takes place and the even more unsettling revelations about the protagonist. Kim-Russell, the translator, preserves the way Pyun withholds names and identifying details from us so that this city and this protagonist could be anywhere and anyone. Because this story could take place anywhere with any number of abusive characters standing in for the protagonist, the novel is just that much more chilling.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 November 2018.

fantasy · review

A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland

34328664Chant (a title, not a name, he is quick to tell us) is not having a good day when we meet him at the outset of A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland. He’s hungry. He’s in a foreign country. His apprentice is missing. Worst of all, he’s on trial for being a blackwitch and the court is a Kafkaeque nightmare (or it would be if Kafka existed in this fantasy world). Just as he completes his apology for committing brazen impertinence in front of the court, Chant suddenly finds himself on trial for being a blackwitch and a spy. With a death sentence hanging over his head, how on earth is a humble storyteller to get out of this one? He does it by telling stories. It’s what a Chant does, after all.

A Conspiracy of Truths, a wonderfully diverse fantasy novel, turns Scheherezade on its head in more ways than one. A Chant isn’t just a storyteller, we learn. A Chant studies the construction and effects of stories as much as they collect them from the nations they visit in their lifelong wanderings. When our Chant sets his mind to it, he can use a story to stretch out his life a little more and earn himself a few creature comforts for his cell. But the stories he tells to the paranoid elected leaders of Nuryevet result in the collapse of what turns out to be a corrupt regime. Before long, our irascible protagonist is smack in the middle of murderous factions scrabbling for power in a growing vacuum. Oops.

Chant is not an innocent. He knows that stories can have strong effects on the listener. After all, he dips into his repertoire to manipulate the Queen of Order into staunchly and honorably defending the old ways of doing things even though he knows she’s facing up against a pack of unscrupulous political weasels. Perhaps he might be forgiven for making up a detail or two to save his life. After all, how could Chant know that telling the Queen of Order that one of her rivals is hosting a blackwitch would result in her violently taking that rival out of the equation? And how could Chant know that his stories would cause a revolution? Chant protests that Nuryevet’s government was sick and would have collapsed anyway after he learns how far things have gone. His good-hearted apprentice and his frequently exasperated advocate would say that all this is Chant’s fault. Chant, though he has some regrets, would argue that he’s just a storyteller. It’s not up to him what the audience does.

Over and over, this book asks subtle questions about the ethics of truth, lies, propaganda, and stories. Knowing that listeners can be swayed by the right story, should the storyteller ever use their powers for personal gain? Should a storyteller make amends if things go awry? I love thinking about these kinds of ethical snarls, especially when they involve stories. Even readers who aren’t keen on ethics will enjoy themselves. A Conspiracy of Truths is packed with stories from Chant about the marvels and strange customs of what sounds like a wildly diverse world. Chant’s stories are well worth the price of entry and left me wanting more.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 23 October 2018.