The Talented Ribkins, by Ladee Hubbard

32873790Johnny Ribkins is too old for this shit. He’s 72 and he has to crisscross Florida, digging holes all over the place, to pay off a debt he owes to a man who has no problem going after his kneecaps and more. This is a hard enough job as it is but, at the beginning of Ladee Hubbard’s The Talented Ribkins, Johnny discovers a niece he never knew—one who has special abilities like the rest of the family. Together they hit the road for a long trip through family history and into deep, deep trouble.

Johnny has been on his own for fourteen years, ever since his brother died, and he’s been working for Melvin Mark creating his special maps. Then he gets caught embezzling and has no choice but to revisit his past. In the bad old days, Johnny and his brother were thieves. Johnny buried his takings all over the state. It should be a simple matter to dig up all that money, but then he finds out about his niece. Because she’s special, too, Johnny offers to help her get to know her Ribkins family. As long as she stays in the car, Eloise should be fine. Because she’s special and a Ribkins, of course she doesn’t stay in the car.

The Talented Ribkins moves back and forth through time the way Johnny and Eloise drive across the state. We learn, along with Eloise, about Johnny’s Justice Committee and his criminal career. We learn about the talents the Ribkins have, from the original Rib King and his quest to find out who burned down his town to the tangle Johnny and his brother found themselves in trouble after accepting a job from a local politician. There is a lot of plot in this book; I loved the way it all tied together in the end. I wish, though, that there was more about the Justice Committee. I would have loved to read a book about super-powered African Americans fighting in the Civil Rights Movement.

Apart from my disappointment in the way the Justice Committee was glossed over, I was hooked by the way the family mirrored African American history from the 1930s to the present. And I loved that all of the Ribkins had unusual abilities that I’ve never seen in fiction before. The twisty thriller plot pulled all of the lose threads together in a way that satisfied me, even if I didn’t get quite the story I wanted. I can’t fault the book for that, but I will tell readers I recommend it to that The Talented Ribkins is a thriller with a touch of historical fiction and a dollop of science fiction.

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Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente

24100285Every now and then, I’ll run across a book where you can absolutely tell that the author had a great time writing. This is definitely true of Catherynne M. Valente’s ecstatically delightful Space OperaThere’s more than one place in the novel where I think Valente just knocked her own socks off. This book is one of the funnest novels I’ve read in a long time.

The premise of the book is simple. After the Sentience Wars, the surviving sentient species created a contest that would decide whether newly discovered species were collectively wise enough to join the family—or still so mired in species-centric violence that there were a danger to self and others and need to be destroyed. (The novel is inspired by the Eurovision Song Contest.) The Humans of Earth have just been discovered by those other species. They have no choice but to compete. If they don’t accept the invitation, that’s it for Homo sapiens sapiens. Even worse (so everyone things), the visiting species have already decided who will compete: has-been glamrock singer Decibel Jones and the sole remaining member of the Absolute Zeroes. (Their first choice was Yoko Ono, but they couldn’t get her.) Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes haven’t had a hit and years. They’ve lost their confidence. In spite of this, the two men are whisked light-years away to perform at the Megagalatic Grand Prix.

Space Opera‘s plot arc is simple. We follow Jones and his former bandmate, Omar Calişkan, ask they struggle to come up with a song in time for the contest and save the human species. What I loved most about the book, however were all the asides where the narrator talks about the mayhem of previous Grand Prix, the Sentience Wars, what sentience is, and the power of music to create empathy for species who wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand each other. The language is hyperbolic, drenched in glitter, and strongly reminiscent of the loopiness of Douglas Adams. Seriously, Space Opera is dementedly funny.

Reading Space Opera is a lot like watching the Eurovision contest, down to the aftermath. When I finished the book, I had had a good time while also having a strong feeling of “what the hell did I just read?” While the book is not strongly ekphrastic—after all, how can you describe what it’s like to experience a song that arrives as an infection from a sentience virus?—but it ends on a profound note (heh) of the fundamental ability of song to capture the desire to survive, the ability to fully feel, and hope for the future.

I really loved this book.

Time Was, by Ian McDonald

29976283A good find at a used book sale might be a copy of a book that was missing from a series, a first edition, or a signed first edition. Emmett, the protagonist of Time Was by Ian McDonald, is hoping for good hardbacks about World War II to sell online when he visits the closing sale of the Golden Page in London. Instead, he accidentally acquires a mysterious collection of poetry that leads him down a deep research rabbit hole and into an even stranger story of love and weird science.

Emmett discovery of an anonymous book of poetry—Time Was, by E.L.—is just a prelude to another find. The book contains a surprising love letter from one soldier to another soldier. Love letters from World War II are not so rare; soldiers wrote to their (female) sweethearts and vice versa all the time. But love letters between soldiers of the same sex are vanishingly rare (possibly none existent). This stunning find leads Emmett on a quest to find out who Tom and Ben were and what might have happened to them. Then, an archivist friend tips Emmett off to the possibility that Tom and Ben might have been alive and together…in World War I.

Time Was contains an astonishing number of discoveries for such a brief book. One thing leads to another in short order. The more Emmett learns, the weirder and more gripping the novel gets. It is packed with things I love: unusual love stories, time travel, and deep dives into archival material. I had a great time reading this fast-paced novella.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 24 April 2018. 

The Aviator, by Eugene Vodolazkin

36926956Innokenty Petrovich Platonov wakes up in a hospital at the beginning of The Aviator, by Eugene Vodolazkin and translated by Lisa Hayden. He has no idea what’s wrong with him or how he got there. In fact, Doctor Geiger has to tell him his name. The strange thing is that Geiger is very reticent to tell Innokenty anything else about who he is. It isn’t until about a third of the way through the book that we all learn exactly how a man who was born in 1900 but is taking medication manufactured in 1997.

After Innokenty wakes up, Geiger insists that he start writing down what he remembers of his life. Geiger says that it will be better for his recovery if Innokenty remembers for himself instead of just being told. So, Innokenty starts to write about summer trips to the Crimea with his family before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. He writes about the love of his life, Anastasia Voronina, and their experiences in collective housing and the new order. He writes about his years in the nascent gulag system in the late 1920s, though he does not dwell on the worst parts of his life. All of his recollections are mixed with his introduction to life at the end of the twentieth century.

As a man out of time and a man who lived through some of the most tumultuous and important years in Russian history, Innokenty is immediately famous. He is also a huge disappointment to interviewers. Instead of telling them about what it was like to be in St. Petersburg in 1917 or as a zek in the gulag, Innokenty prefers to talk about the sounds that one no longer hears or the smells that are gone. Social historians, who chase down those bits of lost history, would love him. Innokenty’s obsessions and fascinations are interesting to read, almost refreshing after reading so many novels set in and around the Revolution that find it necessary to reiterate the same events.

The deeper I got into The Aviator, the more I was reminded of Flowers for Algernon (one of the first books I remember breaking my heart—read it!). Innokenty remarks a couple of times that he identifies more with Belka and Strelka (sent into space by the Soviets) than with any hero. He didn’t plan on surviving what happened to him and never asked to be the object of so much effort and attention. The Aviator, then, mediates on what might happen to a man who loses potential decades of time with people he understood, loved, and hated. In his second act, Innokenty confronts questions about forgiveness, loss, futility, memory, and more. I very much enjoyed accompanying Innokenty on his journey in this deft, thoughtful novel.

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

Darwin’s Ghosts, by Ariel Dorfman

38605315Late in Ariel Dorfman’s philosophical novel Darwin’s Ghosts, a professor asks the protagonist, “who is not the product of some crime committed in the past?” This question summarizes all that Fitzroy Foster and his wife, Camilla Wood, discover about his ancestry after Foster’s fourteenth birthday when all photographs of him bizarrely show the face of a long-dead indigenous man from Tierra del Fuego. The quest to figure out how to “cure” Foster leads the pair to uncover the tragic, horrific history of the men and women who were kidnapped and displayed in human zoos in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Foster’s dad takes a picture of the boy that will change Foster’s life for the next eleven years. Instead of seeing his happy, teenaged face, they see the face of a sad, dark-skinned face of a mysterious man. The strange photo is not a fluke. Repeated experiments keep showing the same unknown face. The photos send Foster’s mother on a quixotic (and fatal) quest to advocate for displaced Amazonian peoples while leading Foster to become a recluse. On his own, Foster is fairly ineffective at figuring out who the man in the photos is and why he seems to be haunting the teen.

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Undated poster advertising exhibits of human captives at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, which is frequently mentioned in Darwin’s Ghosts. (Image via Wikicommons)

Fortunately for Foster, his girlfriend (later wife) Cam is fascinated with the whole thing. Also fortunately for Foster, Cam is a multilingual genius. Most of Darwin’s Ghost will be catnip for history and library buffs because Cam dives deeply into the quest to figure out who the man is, what happened to him, and how to get rid of him. The man is revealed to be a kidnapped Tierra del Fuego native, dubbed Henri (later Heinrich) by his captors, who was displayed in human zoos after 1881. Cam does PhD level digging through the archives and libraries in France and Germany about the heartbreaking stories of people who were kidnapped from around the world to be displayed in zoos, only to die of disease and deprivation after been exploited. She also learns about Foster’s tangled descent from the exploiters who photographed and studied (abused) these indigenous people.

Foster spent most of his teenaged years thinking that Henri wants revenge on the descendants of the people who captured and killed him. After all, the photographic haunting led to his mother’s death in Brazil. What Cam uncovers slowly teaches Foster to be more empathetic to Henri’s ghost. He grows up at last, after spending years as a sulking recluse, and finally looks for a way to put Henri to rest.

Darwin’s Ghost takes a bizarre premise and uses it to shed light on a chapter in history that should not have been forgotten, when paternalistic anthropology crossed with unscrupulous commercialism to create an appalling crime. There are definitely parts of this book that are hard to read. There are also parts of this book that get very preachy. That said, this novel asks a very important question that needed to be asked: how do we put things right for crimes our ancestors committed when those crimes are still impacting the descendants of the victims? Foster asks himself this question more than once. After all, he didn’t kidnap Henri. He wasn’t even alive. Still, the haunting wakes him up and makes him wonder seriously about his historical debts. I found the entire book fascinating.

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

The Measurements of Decay, by K.K. Edin

Bespoke book cover art example from coverness.comHumans are a fractious species. I know that chimpanzees occasionally go to war with one another and that domesticated dogs can suffer from separation anxiety and that dolphins sometimes get high. But none of the other species on this planet seem so determined to confuse and make themselves miserable. In The Measurements of Decay by K.K. Edin, one of the most overblown books I’ve ever read, the problem with humans is our lack of empathy for each other—at least according to its insane philosopher antagonist. If only we could fully understand one another, he posits (over and over, in increasingly hysterical language), we would stop fighting, feuding, and fretting all the time.

The Measurements of Decay follow three characters across centuries to explore the idea of what might happen if people really could completely empathize with each other—and what it might take to transform a species to make that possible. Sometime in the present or near future, an unnamed would-be philosopher constantly restarts his treatise to solve the ultimate question of why humans cannot really understand one another. In the far future, Tikan Solafstir attempts to disrupt the system of procrustiis and metempsies that allow people to drift into memories and dreams at the price of being constantly surveilled and manipulated. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Sielle travels through space and time for her own purposes.

I’m not entirely sure why I finished reading this book. I was interested enough in the summary on the NetGalley site to ask to read it. Who wouldn’t want to read about a woman who could do what Sielle does or what might happen if people were networked together? But the author’s prose is so deliberately purple and pretentiously erudite that I found myself skimming through bad dialogue and exposition more often than not. This style made sense for the philosopher who descends rapidly into insanity. I could probably have handled those sections if the others had been written in a less showy manner. Unfortunately, the bizarre prose runs throughout the novel no matter who the narrator is at the moment.

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Image via Twitter.

There are interesting ideas in The Measurements of Decay; I won’t say this book was a completely miserable experience. I appreciated that it offered such a dark vision of forced empathy. On the surface, requiring humans to actually understand what people mean and what their experience is sounds like a good idea. How many problems could we solve if people were no longer allowed to isolate themselves from other people? The issue with this “solution” is that it takes away choice. Who has the right to assume that kind of authority? As I read the chapters from the philosopher’s perspective, all I could think was, “who died and made you god?” Sielle actually sees this perfectly peaceful society on one of her sojourns to the future and is horrified at the blandness and lack of independent thought among those future humans.

The Measurements of Decay is an interesting blend of science fiction and philosophy that some readers might enjoy pondering over. Speaking for myself, I had issues with the way that characters made what I thought were out-of-character decisions, the way questions of free will and choice were glossed over in just one short conversation, and the thesaurus-emptying logorrhea used by so many of the male characters. I finished this book, sure, but I didn’t like it.

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

Downdrift, by Johanna Drucker

33912091Johanna Drucker’s Downdrift is the first (and probably only) book I’ve ever read that was narrated by a microorganism. Funny enough, this isn’t the strangest thing about the novel. This novel imagines a world in which animals, from lions and house cats to mice and badgers to flies, start to behave like humans. They stop hunting each other (except for some hold out species) and start social networking, data-mining, building homes, breeding hybrid, species, running food stands, suing each other, and other activities. Downdrift is very much a thought experiment and, while it probably didn’t have to be as long as it is, still offers plenty to intrigue readers.

Our narrator is an Archaeon, a very old type of single-celled organism. Because it has colonies across the planet—and because connections between animals species are rapidly growing during the downdrift—it is able to follow two cats as they wander the world on their way to meet up. Only Callie the house cat has a name. The other cat, a male lion, ends up traveling across oceans to briefly meet Callie. The meeting isn’t really the point of this book; it really just gives the rest of the narrative something to hang on to as it primarily consists of vignettes.

In short scenes, most only a couple of paragraphs long, the Archaeon, the lion, and Callie encounter species from bacteria to elephants in the grip of downdrift. No one knows what caused so many species to start adopting the behaviors of humans that aren’t essential for life or reproduction. Callie and the lion frequently have to fight against their biological needs to adapt to the fact that prey species can no longer be hunted without serious social and legal repercussions. They’re hungry a lot of the time in this book and, being cats, they’re not temperamentally suited to work. (A brief scene about archivist cats sleeping on piles of unsorted documents made me laugh.) So, they wander and observe and steal food when they can.

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One of the main characters in this book is an East African lion.
(Image via Wikicommons)

Seeing all these animals trying to adopt law, clothing, and the rest highlights how strange most of human behavior really is. More, it shows how unnecessarily complicated and dysfunctional our ways are. We’ve come a long way from our hunter-gatherer days. Downdrift doesn’t argue that the animals—including Homo sapiens—need to revert to the old ways. After all, nature is red in tooth and claw most of the time. But I think it argues for an examination of these activities to see if they’re beneficial or not.

It’s hard for me to see Downdrift as anything other than a slightly overgrown thought experiment. Unlike most thought experiments that I’ve read, however, I genuinely enjoyed this one. It’s probably best read in small doses, so that readers have time to ponder the many ideas this book touches on. Reading it all in one go risks catching a dose of the melancholy that infects the elephants and tigers. Because, if nothing else, Downdrift forces us to ask questions about how much our ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed, and whether it’s possible to put things right again.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.