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. 

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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.

School for Psychics, by K.C. Archer

35297405For someone who bills themselves as a human lie detector, Teddy Cannon sure struggles when it comes to deciding who to trust or not in K.C. Archer’s thrilling School for PsychicsShe first used her ability to figure out when people are bluffing to win loads of money playing poker in Las Vegas. But when that blows up in her face, she is recruited to the eponymous school, where psychics are trained to work for law enforcement. With every chapter, Teddy gets deeper and deeper into a decades-old conspiracy. There are double-crosses and betrayals, lies and deceptions, with Teddy caught right in the middle. If her lie detecting skills had been a little better, Teddy might have been able to avoid a lot of heartache (but then we would have had a much less entertaining book).

After her recruitment, Teddy finds herself at the Whitfield Institute among two distinct groups of students. On one side are the young men and women dubbed the Alphas. They are psychic but also very much straight arrows. They’re fit. They’re smart. They have their shit together…unlike the other group of students, who call themselves Misfits. Like Teddy, these students have struggled with their various abilities: death warnings, talking to animals, starting fires, etc. Teddy might be the most powerful among them. This might have helped her to get ahead at Whitfield if it weren’t for the fact that something sinister is clearly going on.

School for Psychics reminded me of the Harry Potter novels with a lot less whimsy. Teddy struggles with her powers and her course work while at the same time trying to figure out why her blood was stolen from the school lab and what really happened to her biological parents. Since Teddy and her classmates are legally adults, there is more drinking and sex, though. (Hilariously, Teddy and the pyrokinetic set off the smoke detectors when they spend the night together.) By the time graduation rolls around, Teddy and her ragtag band of friends are ready to take on the baddie.

It might sound dismissive to say that School for Psychics is like Harry Potter, but I don’t want to give the impression that this book is derivative or unoriginal. I was hugely entertained by this book. I could hardly put it down because it’s a great blend of science fiction and thriller. This characters are great and the constant question of who was telling the truth kept me guessing right along with Teddy until the end. This really was a fun read.

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

The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

25938482There are still many mysteries about who is really responsible for the events of The Regional Office is Under Attack!, by Manuel Gonzales. It is probably the Operative and the Recruiter who were crossed in love. But it might also be the kidnapped Oracle. There are interstitial excerpts from a book about the attack that give us background on the Regional Office and the aftermath of the attack. The novel itself gives us a ground-eye view of what happened the day the Regional Office was decimated. We follow Sarah O’Hara, the woman with the mechanical arm and a hybrid role in the organization, and Rose, a trainee Operative, who has been given a leading part in the attack. The Regional Office is Under Attack! is full of gripping fight scenes, tense stand offs, and some very interesting questions about the ripple effects of revenge.

The novel is written in contrasting chapters about Sarah and Rose, with plenty of flashbacks to show us how Sarah and Rose came to be at the Regional Office on the day of the attack. The Regional Office, on the surface, is a travel agency for the ultra-wealthy. This is a cover for its real purpose: training young women with special abilities to fight the forces of darkness, following the sometimes cryptic guidance of a trio of Oracles. Throughout the book, there are hints about the exploits of previous Operatives—which makes me wish there were more books about the Regional Office that I could read.

Sarah is the second-in-command in the Office, the righthand woman to the director. She has worked for the Office ever since they helped her track down the people who killed her mother. On the other side, we watch Rose as she follows the orders she was given by her recruiter and, maybe, his lover; she has been told they they were betrayed by the Office. The interstitial sections reveal that neither Sarah or Rose has a full picture about what the Regional Office is and how it got started.

It all comes down to revenge and lies, I think. Revenge never ends in The Regional Office is Under Attack! Whoever survives lives to go after the people they think wronged them. Then the friends or family of the killed go after the revenger. It never ends. A wiser person might advise these revengers to seek legal help or just let things go. But the potential revengers here are highly trained, super-powered women in a world of encroaching darkness working for a shadowy organization, who feel more than justified in taking out people who’ve wronged them.

The action-packed scenes in this book are a great vehicle to carry a larger story about the perils of revenge, with some great character development that had me worrying about people on both sides of the attack. I had a great time reading The Regional Office is Under Attack!

The Readymade Thief, by August Rose

33358209The Readymade Thief, by August Rose, is a rare book. I have only read a few other books that take actual history and spin it into a compelling conspiracy, with profound doses of science fiction and philosophy. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this tale of Lee’s perilous involvement with a sinister group of Marcel Duchamp enthusiasts who seem to be everywhere and are more than willing to kill what they want.

We meet Lee Cuddy in a brief prologue where she is walking around an abandoned aquarium. This is a place she escapes to for solitude and peace. Except, this time, she finds a note that orders her to return what she took. Then Lee takes us back to the beginning of her story to explain why she is so terrified to find that note and what she’s doing wandering around abandoned buildings.

Lee started to steal at a young age. Something about taking things makes her feel alive. Since her father is gone and her mother pays a lot more attention to her new boyfriend than Lee, the stealing is a way for her to make connections with other people and take care of herself. The Readymade Thief might have been a story about a girl who became a criminal, except that strange things start to happen very early in the novel. She gets an invitation to an exclusive rave hosted by the Société Anonyme (named for an artistic society Duchamp belonged to). Odd men in old-fashioned dress keep bumping into her. Her friends disappear under strange circumstances. There are drugs that turn rave-attendees into biddable zombies. Something bizarre is going on and Lee is inadvertently stuck in the middle of all of it.

After Lee is betrayed and ends up in a juvenile detention facility, then escapes, we start to learn a lot more about the Duchamp fanatics. It is marvelous the way The Readymade Thief weaves together Duchamp’s various artworks with physics and crime. I don’t want to say too much, because the slow revelation of secrets and conspiracies and betrayals made it impossible for me to put the book down. I plan on handing this book to other readers and just saying, “Read this.”

 

The Clarity, by Keith Thomas

35297412The Clarity, by Keith Thomas, is the kind of book that really wants to be a screenplay. The science fiction premise is only cursorily explored. The rampaging bad guy is described in almost loving detail. The chapters are short and packed with gun fights. I think this will be a great read for those who want a thrill. For those of us who wanted to know more about the possibility of reawakening ancestral memories, The Clarity is disappointing.

While the experiment known as Project Clarity has been going on for decades, Dr. Mathilda Deacon only gets involved when she is tipped off by a resident of a housing project in Chicago that there’s something wrong with a girl named Ashanique. Ashanique can remember the lives of dozens of people who died years or even centuries ago. She seems perfectly rational, apart from the memories. Because Mathilda works in memory and dementia, Ashanique is an irresistible patient. But before Mathilda can do much more than be convinced by Ashanique’s memories, the shooting starts.

We learn a bit more about Project Clarity and what’s going on with Ashanique, but most of the rest of The Clarity shows us a series of gun fights and chases all over Chicago. As soon as our protagonists find a safe spot, Rade, their terrifying pursuer (who works for the project) shows up and kills a bunch of people. Repeat. The more I read, the more I realized I would have enjoyed this more as a TV movie or something similar. This story is crying out to be filmed. It should be an easy task, since there’s not all that much detail that would need to be cut out to fit into a two hour movie. As a book, this book left me wanting so much that I was very disappointed by the little I was given.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 20 February 2018.

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory

32842453The Amazing Telemachus Family never really recovered from a disastrous episode of The Mike Douglas Show. Instead of showing off their psychic abilities, the entire family was thoroughly debunked. Twenty some odd years later, they’re living in a suburb of Chicago and just barely scraping by. What they don’t know at the beginning of Daryl Gregory’s highly entertaining Spoonbenders is that they’re about to give their greatest performance ever.

That said, Spoonbenders has an inauspicious beginning. Grandson Matty has just discovered an ability to astral project after doing something very embarrassing. He has no idea what happens until his grandfather lets him in on the family’s past as the Amazing Telemachus Family. Matty’s mother, Irene, and Uncle Frankie were more than happy to never talk about it again. Plus, his odd uncle Buddy doesn’t talk much period. But after he see the video of the family on the Douglas Show, he wants to learn how to use his talent.

Meanwhile, Frankie is desperately trying to get out of his massive loan shark debt and Irene is struggling with a new relationship. Irene can always tell when someone lies, so it’s hard to talk to anyone. At the same time, Grandfather Teddy found out that his new attraction is up to her eyeballs in mob business and Buddy seems to be trying to fortify the house. With every passing chapter, things get increasingly complex and the stakes get higher.

Unlike most authors trying to set up a spectacular ending (*cough*Stephen and Owen King*cough*), the plots and subplots don’t feel like someone moving chess pieces around. Instead, Spoonbenders reads like characters rocketing around on their own quests of varying levels of quixotic-ness. Because the characters are all given distinct, logical subplots, we get to know and care about all of them. The characters all well-drawn and sympathetic. It’s a marvel to watch them all collide at the end of the book in one of the best endings I’ve read in a long time. It’s a perfect balance of chaos and foresight, like watching someone blow up a hardware shop only to have the debris turn into a Rube Goldberg machine.

I really enjoyed this book.


Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Give to people who like off-kilter fiction who are experiencing family drama.