historical fiction · review · science fiction · thriller

Noir, by Christopher Moore

35301333At the opening of Noir, by Christopher Moore, Sammy Two-Toes is in deep trouble. He has just found his boss dead on the floor and learned that there’s a black mamba on the loose. Then the book takes us back to the beginning, when a gorgeous woman walks into the bar where Sammy works. Noirs always start with a dame, but in Christopher Moore’s hands, the standard noir setup quickly goes off the rails. Before long, Sammy is dealing with men in black, his hustling boss, his growing romance with Tilly, racist cops, and more. He does a lot more running around than one might expect from someone who’s lacking a few toes.

Sammy’s first problem is that it’s too easy to blackmail. Right around the end of the war, he punched a cop while he was drunk and escaped from a labor detail. Now two years later, in 1947, his boss, Sal, can get Sammy to run little errands for his schemes just by threatening to reveal Sammy’s real last name to the authorities. Sammy’s not a bad guy. He’s actually quite sweet once you get to know him, as Tilly learns and his very loyal friends know. But since Sammy wants to keep his easy, pays-just-enough-money job at the bar, he agrees to help Sal with his little schemes. Sammy’s second problem is that he has a knack for blundering into other people’s schemes without having a clue what’s going on. As things spiral out of control, Sammy barrels through to the other side because there really is no other way out.

Noir is packed with Moore’s trademark humor: plenty of word play; lots of inappropriate jokes, especially about sex; and piles of sheer goofiness. I laughed more than once at the ludicrous scenes Sammy landed in. That said, there’s a lot of ethnic humor, especially about Asians and Asian Americans, which may turn off some readers. I know this book is set in San Francisco in 1947, but it doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall jokes about how Asian people eat weird things and have mysterious and inscrutable ways. For me, Noir was entertaining until it made me cringe.

Even though I enjoyed parts of it, Noir is not Moore’s best. The plot is a great ride, but it lacks some of the heart I saw in Lamb and Coyote Blue. This is a great read for those looking for a screwball noir with a dash of science fiction, with just enough edge to keep the stakes high. Any readers who want a little depth with the humor or who don’t care for kind-of racist jokes about Asians can skip Noir and try some of Moore’s other books.

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review · science fiction

Before She Sleeps, by Bina Shah

Trigger warning for references to rape.

36544896The women of Green City have one duty. As soon as they come of age, they must take at least one husband (usually more) and have as many babies as their bodies can manage. We’re not sure how the crisis is handled in other countries in Bina Shah’s chilling novel, Before She Sleeps. In Green City, women are tracked and monitored and bombarded by propaganda about their very important role. There are some women who have managed to rebel against the system. In an underground bunker called the Panah, there are women who struggle to live a life that is not tied to their biology.

Before She Sleeps is mostly narrated by Sabine, a young woman who belongs to the second generation of Panah women. (Panah, we’re told, comes from a Persian word for sanctuary.) She found them on the Deep Web just as her father was putting plans in motion to get her married. Through Sabine’s eyes, we see how the women of the Panah maintain their independence. They take on clients—always powerful men with important connections—and sleep with them. They don’t have sex; they just sleep with these men and offer them the comfort of sleeping next to a woman who is not also married to one or more other men.

The only problem with the Procreation Bureau’s very logical plan for repopulating and dealing with the shortage of women is that, like so many other very logical plans, it does not take into account that people are not logical. Sabine’s limited freedom is jeopardized when one of her clients decides that he loves her and won’t take her repeated noes for an answer. The inevitable crises sends all of the characters rushing around Green City trying to hide their secrets, hide and move Sabine, figure out what happened, and work out what will happen next.

To be blunt, there are a lot of parts in Before She Sleeps that read like thought experiments that are more academic than realistic. I have some serious doubts about how things would play out if most of the women in the world died. There are hints that things were not always peaceful for women in Green City that ring truer to me than the (mostly) rigidly compliant citizens we see in this novel. Plus, the plight of the constantly pregnant wives is not pleasant to contemplate. By having an outsider tell the story, I think we miss out on the possibilities this book’s premise offers. At the risk of sounding harsh, I think Before She Sleeps could have used more thought and a lot more psychologically realistic character development to make it feel plausible.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 7 August 2018.

review · science fiction

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck

35110377Anyone familiar with myth knows that names have power. If you know the true name of something, you can control it—as Rumpelstiltskin learned to his sorrow. In the colonies of Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck, names have the power to shape reality. Names have so much power in the colonies, in fact, that if the residents don’t constantly tell things what they are that the things will dissolve into sludge if they’re not named frequently enough. They just know that this is the way things are. No one questions this, at least until Vanja arrived in the colony and starts to wonder.

Vanja has been sent from the big city to the freezing colony of Amatka with a strange task. Her job in the brutally depressing colony is to learn more about their hygiene habits so that her sisters company in Essre can sell them different soaps and products. Her job seems so decadently capitalist in a colony that seems to some straight from central casting’s idea of dreary communism. Supplies and information are limited. Jobs are assigned. Children are raised communally and only visit their birth parents on the weekends. Most people work in the mushroom farms, for cripes’ sake.

For such a short novel, Amatka is a surprisingly slow burn. It isn’t until about halfway through that the already tense conditions get worse. When good paper (paper that doesn’t break down like the mushroom-based stuff) is requisitioned and the archives are endangered, Vanja sees the colony start to collapse even as she tries to figure out why it’s necessary to name things. What if, she wonders, someone calls something by a different name? She was punished for mispronunciations when she was a child. Now that she’s an adult and no one is watching her, she starts to play around with names.

Amatka is a science fiction novel that is in love with words. One of Vanja’s allies is a librarian. A poet ends up playing a major part in the story. For all its uncanniness, I enjoyed it a lot. Throughout the book, I wondered about the power of a collection of sounds to assign a reality to something. What is a name except something that a language speaker invented for something? Linguists and some literary critics would argue that there’s nothing inherent in names, but in Amatka and the colonies, those names are the only thing keeping something sinister and chaotic at bay. There is so much food for thought contained in Amatka that it will keep readers chewing over its ideas for a long time.

review · science fiction · thriller

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.

review · science fiction

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.

historical fiction · review · science fiction

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. 

historical fiction · literary fiction · review · science fiction

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.