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!

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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.

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

35411685I think if the protagonist of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time had ever met Tennyson, he would have punched the poet for writing, “It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” Tom Hazard loved once, but had to leave his great love because he was aging at such a slow rate that the locals mocked them or whispered about witchcraft. Ever since, he has wandered through his long life missing her and wondering what he’s supposed to do with himself.

We meet Tom as he begins yet another new job, as a history teacher in London. He’s just finished a “task” for his boss, another anagerian named Heinrich, in return for a new identity—and the promise that Heinrich will find the daughter Tom lost shortly after the turn of the seventeenth century. Tom suffers from memory headaches. In London, he is surrounded by memories that send him reeling painfully back through the centuries. We get frequent flashbacks to the 1590s, the early 1600s, the late 1800s, and the 1920s.

Heinrich is paranoid about other people discovering the secret of the anagerians, albatrosses as they call themselves. He worries that they will become lab rats. His fear leads him to send people like Tom to kill people who’ve discovered or endangered their secret. This conflict, along with Tom’s melancholy and loneliness, give the book shape. For me, however, the fun parts were reading about Tom as he bumped into famous people, played jazz, or dodged witchfinders.

Because I’ve recently read books about people out of time (The Outcasts of Time) or who were extraordinarily long lived (Eternal Life), I was a little hesitant to start yet another book with a similar theme. I was happy to find that How to Stop Time contains enough elements of a thriller to be different and that the characters were so interesting that I didn’t mind reading another book about an immortal with weltschmerz.

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

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

31213514Terri Favro’s Sputnik’s Children opens with a scene that I suspect will be familiar to a lot of creative people. Comic book author Debbie Biondi is at a convention, surrounded by people wearing costumes to look like characters from her series about the Girl with No Past, when two fans start telling her what she should do with her series and point out what they think is wrong with it. This would be irritating to any creator, but it’s especially irritating to Debbie because she is the Girl without a Past. Of course, she can’t tell anyone that the story is based on her life in another timeline because no one will believe her.

Sputnik’s Children moves back and forth between two timelines. In Earth Standard Time, Debbie is a comic book writer and artist with a series that’s losing popularity. Strangely, however, she doesn’t have a credit history or documents to prove that she’s a Canadian citizen. She can only use cash. This doesn’t seem to slow her down. What does slow her down is her loneliness, because she is one of the few people who has memories of Atomic Standard Time, where she really came from. In Atomic Mean Time, the Cold War was considerably hotter, with multiple missile crises. The ground is polluted and people are increasingly born with mutations. It might have been awful, but it was home for Debbie.

As the plot moves forward in both timelines, we see what Debbie’s fans would give various limbs for: the origin story of the Girl with No Past. Debbie Biondi is not particularly special. She doesn’t have abilities, even after a close call in a contaminated field. And yet, visitors from the future are sure that she will be the one to save everyone when the Big One hits in 1979. They mention something about swinging Schrödinger’s cat, but that’s the only thing the visitors say about how she’s supposed to save the world.

The actual life of a hero, as we learn in Sputnik’s Children, is much less glamorous than their lives in the comic books. It’s easy to see why, considering what Debbie had to give up and what she had to do. I don’t want to give the impression that this is a sad book. Rather, it’s a sort of adventure with a melancholy streak. I really enjoyed it’s meditation on heroism and the private lives of heroes when the spotlight is off them.

The Power, by Naomi Alderman

29751398There are few things that are always true, but I’ve always thought that the old proverb about how power corrupts everything it touches comes closest to the mark. It’s definitely true in Naomi Alderman’s angry novel, The PowerIn this novel, women gain the upper hand over men for the first time in centuries when they suddenly develop the ability to deliver lethal electric shocks at will. The Power is rewritten as a retelling of the ten years after the first girl shocked someone, a work of historical fiction written by a male author centuries in the future.

The Power is a satirical thought experiment rather than a straight work of science fiction. Thus, character development and logic take a back seat to exploring gender power dynamics. We bounce between three female narrators who use their newly developed powers to amass even more power in religion, politics, and crime. They face fierce resistance from men who are unwilling to cede their places. They’re not entirely helpless in the face of the women’s power, so it isn’t long before the two sexes are on the brink of all out war.

They’re balanced by the perspective of a male journalist who documents the changes he sees as women around the world start to get revenge on men for years of violence and suffering. The Power is one of the angriest books I think I’ve ever read. Over and over in this book, we see the perpetrators of abuse, sexual harassment, and rape flip from male to female.The lesson that sexual discrimination is really a matter of power is reinforced at every turn. I say male and female because this book is very clear about the divide between the biological sexes. I wondered about trans women and men, but they don’t make an appearance here at all and I was disturbed by their absence.

The Power is more a talking piece than anything else, I think. Considered apart from the violence, the idea that women might gain a power that puts them on equal or better footing to male physical strength is tempting to contemplate. Would this equalization make it possible for males and females to leave behind centuries of domination of one over the other? This violence in The Power argues against it. This cynical book shows us many scenes in which power is only used for revenge or to take advantage of male bodies in the same way that sexually rapacious men take advantage of female bodies. Women like me might think that we could do better if we had more power, but human nature to act selfishly and be tempted will always get in the way. Power will always corrupt, no matter how much we fight against its corroding touch.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King

33544902The Chinese government instituted a policy restricting couples to one child only in 1979. There are ways around it, but every decade since that year has seen a growing imbalance in the number of male and female children. In An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King, we see this imbalance extrapolated into a future where forty million men cannot find wives. They feel doomed to live alone, lamenting the fact that they will not pass on their names. The novel follows Lee Wei-guo as he attempts to marry a woman who already has two husbands—and as he ends up in trouble far over his head as secrets come out into the open and conspiracies get lethal.

An Excess Male begins like a gender-flipped version of a polygamist arranged marriage. Lee Wei-guo’s fathers (they are his mother’s widows) are trying to organize a marriage for their son. They’ve already worked with a matchmaker for months by the time we meet them, but they’ve only had one nibble—from the first husband of a woman who already has two. The fathers are not happy. Wei-guo, however, is charmed. He would love to marry Wu May-ling, even if it means sharing her with two other men.

It isn’t long before we learn why May-ling and her husbands are looking for a third husband. The Wus have their own secrets that they’d love to hide from a government that is all too willing to “re-educate” or simply do away with gay men (called the Willfully Sterile) or men with autism (Lost Boys). May-ling’s reasons are more complicated, but the short version is that she wants a relationship with a man that’s not just emotional or contractual.

I enjoyed the complex courting arrangements and I think I would have preferred it if An Excess Male had continued as social commentary. About halfway through the book, it takes a turn to become more of a science fiction thriller as the Wus secrets start to come out and Wei-guo ends up way over his head in a weird government plot to reduce the male population. There is still emotional depth in the interactions between Wei-guo and May-ling’s family, but they get a bit lost in all the chases and rescue attempts.

On balance, I was very interested in the story that An Excess Male tries to tell. What might happen in a society where women are coveted? It’s curious to see what changes and what doesn’t in this version of a near-future China, which has had its society run topsy-turvy by all-encompassing government policies. The problem with these types of grand policies is they fail to take into account the realities of peoples’ lives, wants, and abilities. Wei-guo, May-ling, and her two husbands are simply caught in the ugly place between policy and reality.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

34381254Aster’s world is too small for all the people living in it. Her world is the generational ship, Matilda, crammed with thousands of souls that live in a strict hierarchy based on skin color and desk level. Something went wrong with their home planet; then something went wrong with the ship. Matilda is dying. Unfortunately for everyone on the ship, their leaders are content to let Matilda float through space forever. But in An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon, everything comes to a head after Aster starts to investigate why her mother died on the day she was born.

Solomon populated her novel with diverse characters, which I deeply love and appreciate. Very few of the characters conform to traditional genre tropes. Instead, we have characters who are the next thing to asexual, have mental illnesses, or appear to be on the autism spectrum. Genders are rarely binary. Reading about Aster (who might be on the spectrum) alone is worth the price of admission to this book. But on top of all this wonderful diversity, An Unkindness of Ghosts has an intriguing conspiracy at its heart and the race to put right the wrong of the past is simply thrilling.

Aster has always struggled to fit in. Not only do metaphors and some human behavior baffle her and not only did she lose her mother on the day of her birth, but Aster was born too brown and too far from the upper decks to pursue her talent for healing. She is constantly harassed by the whiter guards. She has to labor on the field decks with her relatives and deck mates. In her extremely limited free time, she heals as much as she can with plants from her bodged together botanarium. We meet her as she is amputating the foot of a young child, whose foot turned gangrenous from frostbite. The cold—caused by the lack of warmth and energy from Matilda’s pocket sun—has made conditions nearly intolerable on the lower decks. (I say nearly because people are surviving. It’s just miserable.)

The injustice of how the upper deckers (the whiter folk) treat the lower deckers (the browner folk) makes Aster burn with anger. After the amputation, she starts to agitate for better conditions. Meanwhile, her volatile friend Giselle clues Aster in to the fact that Aster’s mother’s journals are written in code. Aster and Giselle start to tease out the meaning from the journals and discover that everything they’ve been told about Matilda‘s journey and its sun is a lie.

As it rolls on, An Unkindness of Ghosts puts more and more pressure on Aster and her few allies. The tension builds and builds—so much so that I had a very hard time putting the book down to go to bed. The tension, the plot, and the refreshing diversity of this book made for an utterly gripping reading experience. I hope this book gets lots of attention after it’s published.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.

The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde

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The History of Bees

Bees have fascinated humans for centuries, I suppose, because it’s unsettling to see such small insects build such complicated structures and societies. Even after all those centuries of study, bees are still mysterious as we learn in Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. Lunde shows us three characters in three different countries and three different centuries who depend on bees (more closely than the rest of us do). The three seemingly disparate characters also seek to impose order on their families, so that the next generation hums along and maintains the orderly status quo. Of course, this is an engraved invitation for everything to go topsy-turvy.

Lunde first takes us to the end of twenty-first century to show us a world without bees. Tao works as a pollinator at a massive pear orchard. Everyone is hungry and poor, yet they carry on because humans tend to be stubborn in Tao’s future China. The same cannot be said for the main character at our next setting. In England in 1852, William has refused to get out of bed for months because of ennui and malaise. He’s lost his passion for everything, until his son happens to leave a book on beekeeping in his room. The book relights William’s interest in science and he returns to life (though he’s irritable and too willing to throw in the towel with things go awry). In between Tao and William is George, who manages a large beekeeping operation in the Ohio of 2007. Until he’s hit with a serious case of colony collapse disorder, George’s greatest irritation is his son, who doesn’t seem to want to take over the farm (bee ranch? I’m not sure what to call it) after he goes off to college.

The chapters alternate between the three characters. Bees are an important part of all of their lives, but I feel that they have more in common as fierce, unbending parents. In each century, the parents face children who—like children often do—want to go their own way. Tao’s young son would rather run around and play than learn math. George’s son wants to be a writer and not a beekeeper. William’s son doesn’t want to do much of anything except carouse. The character’s lives would be a lot more simple if their children behaved like bees, preprogramed to fall into their genetic roles without any fuss.

I found The History of Bees to be compulsively readable, if melancholy. I wanted to yell at William and George and tell them not to be so set in their ways, that they’re making their children miserable. I had more sympathy for Tao because of what happens to her son early in the book. Also, seeing these characters’ dependence on bees made me think more of our general dependence on bees as pollinators. Without them, as we see in Tao’s China, our society would suffer its own collapse disorder as our agricultural system fell apart. We currently don’t know what causes colony collapse disorder and we still don’t know all the hows and whys of bee behavior, yet so much depends on them keeping the status quo. The events of the book make it seem like both the children and the bees are in rebellion.

What I loved about this book was its ending. The ending just shines. When I finished it, I put down my iPad with a big smile on my face.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.