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.

Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore

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Reincarnation Blues

Milo has had many chances to get it right—almost 10,00 to be exact. One would think that he’d be able to get it right and achieve not just perfection, but Perfection. At least, that’s what his definitely not gods think. In Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore, we see Milo on his last chances to live a perfect life. The only problem is that Milo isn’t ready to move on. He’s in love with Death (who prefers to be called Suzie) and they get to be together after every incarnation. What’s the point of perfection if it means leaving the person he’s loved for millennia behind?

We meet Milo just before he’s eaten by a shark. It’s the end of one more life on earth, but it’s routine for an old soul like Milo. (His favorite death was the time he was catapulted over the walls of Vienna in 1683.) Every time he dies, Milo gets to spend time with Suzie, who he’s known almost since his first death. When he gets the itch, he picks a new life and head to earth for a while. It’s a surprisingly cozy existence for Milo—until he learns that he only gets 10,000 tries to live a Perfect life. If he doesn’t get it right, his soul is erased. No more Suzie. No more interesting lives. Nothing.

In Reincarnation Blues, we see Milo struggle to figure out how to get it right and still hang on to Suzie. These last chances play out in short episodes, with glimpses of his past lives. He lives in an asteroid prison colony, is a student of the Buddha, and more. As his clock winds down, Milo tries ever more desperately to show love to his fellow souls and make huge sacrifices to show his worthiness for just a little more existence.

This book has so many of the things I love: a non-linear view of history, a quirky love story, and plenty of reincarnation. On top of that, the tone and storyline remind me a lot of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, one of my absolute favorite books, with its irreverence and off-kilter cosmology. I truly enjoyed reading this book because it kept raising the stakes for Milo in terms of what a perfect life might be. It’s not just a matter of following rules or being kind. Rather, a soul has to make a difference in the world with its lives, so that the arc of history really does bend towards justice. The best thing, in Milo’s universe, is to improve as many lives as possible. No wonder souls have 10,000 chances at it.

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

Riverworld and Other Stories, by Philip Jose Farmer

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Riverworld and Other Stories

Philip José Farmer was one of the leading lights of mid-twentieth century science fiction and his Riverworld series is considered some of his best writing. Unfortunately, mid-twentieth century science fiction has not aged well and this collection, Riverworld and Other Stories, contains only two Riverworld stories and a bunch of previously unpublished and unfinished standalone stories. I was disappointed in this collection.

I asked to read this book because it had Riverworld stories. I’ve been fascinated by the premise ever since I saw Syfy’s pilot episode/movie of Riverworld in 2010.  The Riverworld is a seemingly endless river valley where billions of humans have been resurrected. The world contains little metal or biodiversity, but everyone’s needs are taken care of through alien technology. No one knows why they’ve been resurrected or what they’re supposed to do now, which makes a great setting for philosophical stories about the meaning of life. While characters like Yeshua and Doctor Faustroll advocate personal reflection and improvement, most of the Riverworld is organized into kingdoms and empires run by violent warlords like Árpád the Hun or Kramer the Hammer, a German religious fanatic. This is what I wanted to read about. I got a little of it, but not enough.

The two Riverworld stories bookend a series of stories that I did not like. One of them contained a surprisingly pornographic scene in the middle of an interesting premise. I’ll admit to skimming them because I was disgusted or uninterested in the content. I only stuck around for the Riverworld stories. This collection is clearly not Farmer’s best work.

The biggest issue I had with these stories was the depiction of women. There are no female leading characters. The few prominent women seemed to have been written in solely so that the male characters would have someone to have sex with. They either have highly charged libidos (and are scorned by male characters as sluts or Jezebels) or are “good” girls who are willing to have sex with the male leads. Only the male leads and secondary characters—with two exceptions—get any kind of character development. The two women who get some development are only seen through the eyes of males who either despise or disrespect them. There was barely enough interesting content to keep me going through this collection.

I doubt that I will give Farmer another chance, no matter how much the Riverworld interests me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 August 2017.

The Refrigerator Monologues, by Catherynne M. Valente

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The Refrigerator Monologues

In 1999, comics writer and critic Gail Simone started a website called Women in Refrigerators to call attention to a troubling trope. In comics (and TV shows, movies, books, and other story media), hundreds of female characters get killed only to add pathos to the main character’s (almost always male) story. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente lets these characters tell their stories from their own perspectives. The stories in this short novella are poignant, fascinating, and profoundly angry. I plan to push this book into the hands of every reader I come across for the next several months. This book is absolutely brilliant.

Valente created a universe that closely mirrors our superhero universes. There are analogs for Aquaman, Batman, the Joker, Harley Quinn, and the X-Men. Part of the fun is figuring out the references. The purpose of this universe is the opposite of those universes, however. In The Refrigerator Monologues, we spend our time in Deadtown, listening to a series of women tell their origin stories, talk about their deaths, and let us know how they feel about being killed off to motivate their boyfriends and husbands to take on the Big Bad in their stories. As Daisy Green says during her story, “It always stings when there’s this whole story going on and you’re really just a B-plot walk-on who only got a look at three pages of the script” (102*)

All of the stories are sharp and interesting, but three stood out to me. Julia Ash (an analog to Jean Gray, I think) has a very confusing story because she’s been retconned so many times by a villain actually named Retcon. Julia is a super-powered mockingbird (mutant), so powerful that even her partners fear her and want to keep her on a leash. She keeps changing her appearance and popping in and out of the afterlife because Retcon keeps rewriting her story. Then there’s Pretty Polly (a Harley Quinn) who is still in love with her Mr. Punch (Joker) even though he killed her. She is a chilling portrait of the disturbing psychology of the love-obsessed female villain who is never allowed to really develop self-awareness.

The character most talked about (rightfully) is Samantha, who becomes a literal woman in the refrigerator at the end of her chapter in her boyfriend’s story. While her boyfriend, Chiaroscuro, messes about with his super pals and fights crime, Samantha pays rent, keeps up the apartment, and tries to have a normal life. But then the plot swoops in and she dies because the Big Bad wanted to hurt her boyfriend. The other monologues in this book capture the range of wronged womanhood in comics, etc., but Samantha’s story really captures the sting Daisy mentioned and the sadness of being a bystander in someone else’s story.

The Refrigerator Monologues was the book I needed to read after Rebellion. In Rebellion, I felt like the women never really got to speak for themselves. In The Refrigerator Monologues, you’re given a front row seat while the characters tell you exactly what they thought and felt. This book turns the trope inside out to ask, “Why can’t the woman ever be the hero in her own story?** Why is the girlfriend always cannon fodder?”


* Quote is from the 2017 kindle edition by Simon & Schuster.
** Yes, I know about Wonder Woman. But how many refrigerated women are there compared to female heroes who have leading roles?

The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin

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The Blizzard

Platon Ilich Garin has a mission. He must get a vaccine to Dolgoye to stop an epidemic. But there’s a blizzard. And he’s stuck in a town with no way to get to Dolgoye. And the epidemic is a zombie virus. This kind of set up is what I’ve come to expect from Vladimir Sorokin. The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) just keeps piling on the weird until things get downright surreal.

Platon Ilich does eventually find a way out of town. He gets a ride on the bread deliverer’s sled—which is powered by horses so small it takes fifty of them to pull the sled. The rest of the book is a small saga, in which Platon Ilich and Crouper make their way to Dolgoye. As the blizzard gets worse and worse, they have numerous accidents in the sled, crash into a giant, encounter a foul-mouthed baker, and more. With each page, things get stranger and stranger.  Platon Ilich, however, keeps pushing on with his mission.

I’m not sure when The Blizzard is set except that its some time in the future and somewhere in Russia. The lack of details (apart from those about the tiny horses and such) gives the book a timeless, fable-like quality. The lack of details about the setting and world outside of the snow and epidemic also kept me grounded in what Platon Ilich and Crouper were up to as they battled the elements. This book is like the weirdest take on the on the serum run to Nome anyone has ever cooked up.

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

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All the Birds in the Sky

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls

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Mrs. Caliban

Rachel Ingall’s Mrs. Caliban is an odd novella of a bored housewife who suddenly finds someone who needs her: an amphibian man who has recently escaped from captivity. Dorothy’s husband has been drifting away from her for years. Frank stays late at the office and doesn’t say much when he is home. They’re planning separate vacations again this year. And yet, Dorothy hangs on to her life as it is, until Larry shows up at her backdoor.

Dorothy remains admirably calm when a giant amphibian man appears at her house and starts eating her prized vegetables. When she hears his story of abuse at the hands of guards and scientists, Dorothy feels sorry for the poor, murderous creature. Their affair isn’t inevitable (because he’s a gigantic amphibian man), but it does make sense in that they are two misunderstood beings with no one to love them.

Most of this short books covers Dorothy’s efforts to help get Larry back to his home in the Gulf of Mexico, while her domestic life unravels after a few deaths and some further revelations about Frank. Even though this book was originally published in the early 1980s, it doesn’t feel very dated. There are no cell phones, of course, but apart from Larry, this story could be set any time in the last fifty or so years. It’s so brief, however, I don’t think I really understood what the story was trying to communicate to me. Dorothy is the only character we get to know in this novella. Everyone else is something that just happens to her. Still, I was entertained by this weird little tale.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 September 2016.

Curioddity, by Paul Jenkins

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Curioddity

Wil Morgan lives a boring, miserable life. His landlady lets cats swarm around her house. His bathroom sink constantly rattles. He’s behind on all his rents. He’s failing at being a private detective and the clock in the building next to his office is slowly driving him insane. At least he no longer blows things up, which makes his father happy. But, on the morning that Paul Jenkins’s Curioddity opens, Wil takes a job that will set his life back on the weird, adventurous path it was always supposed to be on.

When Wil meets Mr. Dinsdale, the curator of the Museum of Curioddity (located on a street that probably doesn’t exist), Mr. Dinsdale is bent in half, busily un-seeing everything around him. Wil does his best to argue why he shouldn’t take the job Dinsdale offers, but his careful reasonableness is no match of Dinsdale’s stubborn illogic. Wil is hopelessly caught up in Dinsdale’s apparent nonsense. But, once Wil learns to un-look at the world around him, he comes fully to life for the first time since his delightfully wacky mother died.

Curriodity‘s plot plays out over one hectic week. To summarize the plot further wouldn’t do justice to it, as the story involves several time paradoxes, compound interest, half-magical devices that shouldn’t work, and a lot of Wil just hoping for the best and winging it. This book was the perfect choice to read while waiting at the mechanic’s, though I did get some odd looks as I chortled aloud at Wil and Dinsdale’s antics.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 30 August 2016.

The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats, by Mark Hodder

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The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats

Time has been out of joint for a long time in Sir Richard Francis Burton’s life. Ever since Edward Oxford went back in time to stop his ancestor from attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria, history has been running amok. Burton and his friends and allies have been trying for centuries (and five previous books) to get history back on track. In Mark Hodder’s The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats, Burton has yet one more mission to fix the pernicious effects of Oxford’s interference.

There is far too much plot to summarize and, cleverly, Hodder doesn’t really try. Other books in the series are much more closely tied together. While The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats follows directly after the events of The Return of the Discontinued Man, the narrative takes a step to the side and a slightly different reality. In this reality, Burton’s life followed its original course. He is now dying in Trieste in 1890. As he dies, he sees a bright, white light and inexplicably finds himself in Bath in 1864. Not only has he been seemingly resurrected, so have his friends, Algernon Swinburne and William Trounce.

All three are suitably confused. They grow more so when they are summoned by another version of Burton who charges them to follow their instincts while he finishes closing off a bunch of time paradoxes. The other Burton also gives the protagonist Burton the job of impersonating himself to the government. (The plot is also too bizarre to effectively summarize.)

There are two plots in The Rise of the Automated Man. The apparent plot involves Burton, Swinburne, and Trounce working to stop an insane Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Babbage from becoming immortal dictators. The plot going on in the background is more complex and, often, more philosophical. The surface plot is highly entertaining and full of action. The underground plot asks readers to think about the purpose of government, the nature of time, and the meaning of life.

The entire Burton and Swinburne series (which I very much hope is not over) has been an amazing ride. They are books that I hand off to new readers with the warning that these books will mess with their heads and the promise that they will enjoy it.

The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan

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The Sunlight Pilgrims*

Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims has, in all of the reviews I’ve seen so far, been billed as the latest climate fiction must-read. According to the reviews, the world as we know it is coming to an end as a new Ice Age arrives. We watch the weather get colder and colder through the eyes of a man, a woman, and the woman’s daughter. I expected characters that would be busy with worries about the future. How would they grow food? How would they stay warm? But the climate, while a constant concern, is not what occupies the characters’ minds. Instead of a book about apocalyptic winter, Fagan gave me a moving story of a transgender teenager in the midst of her transition and a young man struggling with grief over the loss of his mother and grandmother. The Sunlight Pilgrims is a bait and switch, but I don’t mind a bit.

There is a small caravan park (trailer park) in Clachan Fells, Scotland. In one of the trailers, Constance Fairbairn lives with her daughter, Stella. Stella has been transitioning for a little over a year, but is on the cusp of puberty. Even if her hormones weren’t about to derail her efforts to be a girl, Stella has to contend with the bullying of her classmates. Her mother champions Stella, castigating the bullies whenever they hurt her daughter emotionally physically, but Constance is about the only ally Stella has. Even her father still hasn’t adjusted to the fact that his son is now his daughter. He keeps sending her boy’s clothes.

Fortunately for Stella, Dylan MacRae has just moved into the trailer next door. His mother bought it for him when she knew that she wouldn’t survive her cancer and that the London art-house theatre where Dylan grew up was buried in debt. Dylan has nowhere else to go except for the so-to-be frozen north of Clachan Fells. The first person Dylan meets at the caravan park is Stella and the two seem instantly comfortable with each other. When Dylan meets Constance, he’s a goner for the fiercely independent woman.

The Sunlight Pilgrims opens just as an early winter arrives in the British Isles. The plot skips ahead a few months, then a few more months, as the temperature keeps dropping. The climate change provides a strong background to the plot. The cold and the snow and the wind are always there, providing a sense of urgency to the character’s emotional arcs and raising the stakes of every conflict and crisis. By the end of the book, I worried even more for these characters because they had more to contend with than the possibility that spring might never come.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 19 July 2016.


* This is the cover of the British edition. I’m using it here because I like it much better than the American edition’s cover.