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.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

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My Real Children

What if. What if. What if. This question drives to much fiction, but we rarely see it overtly addressed. Books like Kate Atkinson’s stunning Life After Life are few and far between, unfortunately for me. Jo Walton’s My Real Children, while not as wildly experimental as Life After Life, gave me another chance to wonder what if along with a character.

When we meet Patricia, she is very confused. She would know this even if her caretakers weren’t writing this phrase over and over again in her patient notes. It’s clear that Patricia is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She can remember her childhood fairly clearly. When she follows the thread of her life further, however, she has memories of two completely different existences. In one life, she is miserable in love, but has a large family and lives in a peaceful world. In the other, she has a lifelong love, but lives in an increasingly violent and radioactive world.

Each chapter in My Real Children alternates between Patricia’s two lives, never revealing which one is “real.” Both lives are entirely plausible, diverging at the moment in which Patricia decided to marry Mark or decided not to. For a good half of the book, I thought Walton was heavy-handed in preferring Patricia’s life with her female lover, Bee, over her life of domestic mystery with Mark. Mark is relentlessly awful and Bee is so charming and that other life is so blissful. It isn’t until near the end of the book that Walton balances the scales a bit by placing Patricia in world in which the great powers frequently lob nuclear missiles at each other.

I pitched this book to my book group, but they passed. It’s kind of a pity because there’s so much to talk about here: sexuality, chaos theory, feminism and women’s liberation, parenting. The first half of the book is clunky, I’ll admit, but when things balance out, My Real Children ends on a particularly thought-provoking note.

The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis

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The Wolf Road

Elka has always done better in the woods, on her own, than in the middle of civilization. She didn’t get on with her nana when she was left there by her parents before they went north. Nana and people just had so many rules that Elka didn’t understand that it was almost a relief to be taken in by Trapper when she was seven. Before you get too cozy with this story of rough man and pseudo-daughter bonding, Beth Lewis has a bombshell to drop in the first chapters of The Wolf Road. The gruff Trapper has a dark secret: he’s a cannibal.

Elka’s world implodes one summer day. She’s been living with Trapper for about ten years when she has to make a trip into town by herself for the first time. In town, she meets Magistrate Lyon. Lyon is hunting Trapper, also known as Kreagar Hallet, who she knows killed her son and several women over the years. Lyon follows Elka back to Trapper’s cabin where they find indisputable evidence of his murderous hobby. After Lyon and her men burn the cabin down, Elka lights out north with a vague plan to find her missing parents, not get arrested, and not get killed by Hallet.

What follows is a tense, slow-burning chance all across a devastated, devolved British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Elka, after spending years mastering woodcraft, has to learn the hard way about who to trust and who to run from as fast as her legs can carry her.

The Wolf Road is one of the best tales of survival and justice I’ve read in a while. What sets it apart from similar books and what really won me over was the issue of Elka’s complicity. She doesn’t remember anything about Trapper’s crimes. For a long time, she thinks of Trapper as another of Kreagar’s victims. But as time goes on, memories of things Elka has repressed start to surface. Elka torments herself by worrying about what she did that she isn’t remembering and how much blame she bears for being Kreagar’s accomplice. The Wolf Road is not True Grit, though it bears some similarity to that novel’s setting and vibe. It’s more like The Reapers Are the Angels in that no one is truly innocent here. It’s just that some people are more guilty than others.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 July 2016.

A Borrowed Man, by Gene Wolfe

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A Borrowed Man

Who better to solve a mystery you don’t want official investigated than a mystery writer? A mystery writer, who has spent their whole life studying crime, is perfect—especially when that writer is a cloned version that can be “checked out” from a library and threatened with all kinds of things to keep them from talking. When E.A. Smithe is checked out by Colette Coldbrook in Gene Wolfe’s A Borrowed Man, he has no idea that he’s going to land right in the middle of a huge conspiracy. Even though the case is dangerous, he has to accept because solving it might help him avoid the fate of all cloned authors: eventual burning once they’re no longer checked out.

Smithe has a very boring existence in the Spice Grove Library. No one is particularly interested in checking him out and he’s not allowed to write. It’s a relief when Colette Coldbrook checked him out for ten days to ask him about a side project he wrote in his original life. The book, Murder on Mars, was nothing special, but Colette suspects the book contains the secret of her father’s sudden wealth and her brother’s murder. Like most women in noir plots, Colette is lying; she has her own secrets to conceal. But in the world outside the library, she’s one of the few people Smithe can trust as he gets deeper and deeper into the mystery.

The plot kicks into high gear when Colette disappears from her hotel room after she and Smithe question the physicist her father had consulted before his death. Alone, Smithe is sent back to the library system. He doesn’t stay there for long, however. He is soon checked out by two cops (of a sort) and beaten for information. The only thing he can do after that is start investigating, putting to use all the information and tricks he picked up during his first life. Then things get really weird once he discovers what Colette’s father was actually up to in his laboratory.

I did get a little lost towards the end. Smithe falls into the habit of many Golden Age detectives of concealing what he learns from the people he questions and the clues he finds. We have to wait until almost the end when Smithe starts talking. I knew things were more complex than they appeared, but I didn’t twig to one character’s complicity until near the end.

I did like Wolfe’s blend of futuristic science fiction and old style noir. A good noir plot will always work, no matter the setting, because people will always be people in spite of their post-scarcity world and their robots. The science fiction elements—cloning, the library system, the flying cars, etc.—added a little spice to the book, while the noir elements kept everything grounded enough that the setting didn’t feel completely alien. The flaws in the book (if you consider them flaws at all) are all callbacks to noir and Golden Age detective novels.

Barren Cove, by Ariel S. Winter

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Barren Cove

I didn’t know when I started Barren Cove, by Ariel S. Winter, that it would be the second book in a row that dealt with existential crisis. The difference between this book and The Elegance of the Hedgehog is that the protagonists in Barren Cove are almost all robots. Winter’s brief tale is a retelling of Wuthering Heights. But, you know, with robots.

Sapien, a robot, arrives at Barren Cove for a vacation. He has been damaged and is using the time at the beach house to think. Once at Barren Cove, he discovers that the inhabitants have secrets that are much more interesting than whatever he was planning to think about. He hacks the house computer, Dean, to find out what the inhabitants of the main house are hiding from him.

I didn’t know that Barren Cove was a retelling until about halfway through, when I twigged to the similarities between the robots and the characters from Wuthering Heights. The house computer named Dean niggled at my memory until I figured it out. Then I saw the tortured relationship between Kent and Mary (robots) and Beachstone (one of the only humans in the book) and the framed structure of the narrative. Plus, all the angst made a lot more sense.

I didn’t like Wuthering Heights, but I did like what this novel was up to. Even though the robots are all caught up in their computerized emotions, they keep running into questions about their purpose. There are few humans left in the world. Most robots are made by other robots. But without humans to tell the robots what to do, the robots are left to find their own reason for continued existence. Some, like Kent, turn to hobbies. Mary finds love with Beachstone. But Clarke, Kent and Mary’s “child,” spends most of his time testing the limits of his physical abilities. Some of the older robots choose to permanently deactivate because they cannot bear to just be without humans. In Wuthering Heights, the characters never seemed to rise above their emotional turmoil.

Barren Cove is a disturbing little novel. There is violence, of course, but the questions raised by the characters are much more unsettling than the fights and betrayals.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 26 April 2016. 

 

The Lost Time Accidents, by John Wray

The Lost Time Accidents
The Lost Time Accidents

In some circles, a lost time accident is a goof up or problem that requires fixing before any progress can be made. It’s wasted time, essentially. In the Toula/Tolliver family, lost time accidents refer to the family’s quest to travel through the time-space continuum. John Wray’s demented tale of that family’s quest, The Lost Time Accidents, begins with the latest scion of the family reporting to his lover that he has found himself out of time. Where he is, it’s always Monday morning, at 8:47 AM. Since he has nothing better to do and has found a convenient supply of paper and a pen, he writes his family’s history, from the day in 1903 when his great-grandfather supposedly discovered the secret of time travel to the theory of relativity, Nazi “science,” science fiction, hoarding, and a cult.

It’s lucky for us that Waldemar Tolliver, the latest in the Toula/Tolliver line, was trained as a historian, however briefly. If the story had been left up to one of his other relatives—whacked out physicists, for the most part—The Lost Time Accidents would be even more bizarre than it already is. After a brief report on his location and status outside of time, Waldemar takes us back to the beginning, in a small town in Moravia that’s famous for its pickles. On the day that he died in a car accident, Ottokar Toula supposedly discovered the secret of time and time travel. He died with some of his notes missing. His sons, Kaspar and Waldemar, spend some time trying to work it out. Kaspar eventually gives it up for family and a homelife but Waldemar goes completely off the deep end.

Going beyond the bounds and ethics of science (and sanity) becomes a recurring theme in the family. No one in the family goes as far as the first Waldemar, but the rest of the family is deeply strange. Many of them think in schizophrenic ways, seeing meaning in patterns that isn’t there, having conversations with a cicada that only visits every seven years, weird coincidences, and on. Waldemar (the second one, our narrator) tends to give his relatives a fair hearing, in spite of their eccentricities and possible mental illnesses. I’m not sure if Waldemar suffers from his family’s thought patterns or if there really is a possibility that, in his universe, his family really is just on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Most of the Toula/Tolliver family search for the secret of “lost time” for no particular reason, just to see if they can, as far as we know. But for the last Waldemar, his desperate experiments in time travel add an emotional depth to the book that surprised me, given the mad scientist vibe of most of the first two-thirds of The Lost Time Accidents. Waldemar the Younger is the emotional center of this book; without him, this book loses a lot of its power. The Lost Time Accidents is the kind of science fiction I adore. Not only is it weird, but it asks questions about the way we see the world and speculate about what’s possible and why. In this case, Waldemar and his family are asking us to reconsider how we see time. Waldemar’s father writes a very poignant phrase about how we experience time:

We travel through time all our lives—into the future at the speed at which we age, and into the past each time we remember. There is only the brain, after all; however we chose to employ it, we have no other device…Our consciousness is all the time machine we need. (307*)

It’s shockingly profound considering that Orson Tolliver spent most of his career writing pornographic science fiction for a living. I do love a book that can bounce between the sublime and the ridiculous.

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* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.