Dec 12 2018

The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley

I did not love this nearly as much as the book that first introduced Aliya Whiteley’s genius to me (The Arrival Of Missives — go pick it up, it’s amazing,) but it was still an incredibly deep and powerful meditation on an important aspect of the human condition, examined through a sci-fi what-if filter. In the case of The Loosening Skin, that aspect is love and the filter is this: humankind moults off its skin every seven years or so, shedding with that skin all manner of prior attachments. Primarily, this involves romantic love, with often devastating consequences. Changes can also be found in more mundane preferences, such as career or taste in personal furnishings. Regardless, entire systems of belief and coping have sprung up around this aspect of human biology that forces emotional along with physical renewal.

Rose Allington is our heroine. She suffers from Extreme Moult Syndrome, a condition where she moults much more frequently than every seven years and often in times of extreme duress. After being discharged from the RAF, she finds a job as bodyguard to Hollywood superstar Max Black. Almost in spite of herself, she falls deeply in love with him, a feeling he returns with fervor. Max believes in pills and the power of medical science to stave off moulting, but Rose thinks it’s all quackery. When her condition strikes once more and she leaves him, he is far more devastated than he lets on.

Fast forward several years and Max has tracked Rose down in order to ask for help: someone has stolen his old, very valuable skins and is likely going to sell them to the highest bidder. Old skins retain the emotions of their former wearers, accessible to the touch, and Max is understandably leery of being exploited like this. Rose reluctantly agrees to take the case, and soon finds herself tangled back up in a world of horrors she’d sought to outrun with each shed skin turned to ash in her past.

TLS is a poignant examination of what it means to leave love behind. Moulting is a terrific physical manifestation of the emotional process, and I was completely drawn in by the almost fatalistic notion that romantic love must always die. I don’t necessarily believe or agree with that — I personally feel that love evolves between people and, as with any evolution, survives and grows stronger or withers away — but it’s fascinating to see a world where the maxim holds true, and the lengths that people will go to in order to hold on to love. I also straight up loved the sci-fi, even as the criminality that sprang up around the moulting made me feel a bit queasy. That factory scene was especially chilling.

What didn’t really work for me was the bit with Mik, and his fluctuating views on others. His feelings at the end felt far more adolescent than the feelings he displayed in the flashback scenes, or even earlier in his quest for Rose. Since he’s pretty much our viewpoint character for the last part of the book, it’s a rather disconcerting way to end an otherwise excellent novel.

TLS was sent to me by its original, British publisher Unsung Stories because of our mutual admiration for Ms Whiteley’s work. I’ll be reviewing some of their other books in the near future as well, so stay tuned!

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Dec 11 2018

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #2) by Theodora Goss

At 702 pages — nearly twice the length of its predecessor in the series — European Travel For The Monstrous Gentlewoman is an unfortunately ungainly novel. Whereas The Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter was a sprightly reimagining of classic monstrous tales especially as they pertained to the much abused daughters of horrible men, ETftMG is an overlong journey through Europe that had me as fatigued as travel-weary Mary Jekyll by the end.

It continues the narrative begun in TSCofAD, and while it’s hard to be churlish at the great slate of characters introduced as a natural progression of the story given the richness of the source material, it’s almost too much. I had quite a bit of literary fangirl squee at all the semi-obscure references brought to life here, and can see why they’re all pertinent to this particular plot line, but I felt that the narrative dragged far more than it should have. As much as I appreciated the attention to place and historical detail, it felt a bit too vacation slideshow for my tastes. I do feel that loads of set pieces could have been cut or spliced together to make this book feel like less of a slog. I was also not a fan of Theodora Goss’ action scenes, which felt disjointed and, worse, unimmersive.

However, I did continue to enjoy the distinct voices of each member of the Athena Club, particularly in the interjectory passages, tho I scoff at the idea of Mary not knowing that the Greek goddess Athena kept an owl as a familiar. I also enjoyed the way Ms Goss mulls over the costs of scientific progress (tho honestly one would think that voluntary experimentation should be the rule when it comes to human testing) as well as morality in general, particularly in regard to Mary/Diana and Justine’s musings on guilt and responsibility.

Overall, I’m hoping this is a case of sophomore slump and the next book will return to the sparkling form of TSCofAD. Tho I haven’t the slightest idea for the basis of Alice/Lydia, and would welcome direction in that regard.

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Dec 09 2018

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

In the eight linked tales that comprise Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff takes readers on mind-stretching journeys across time and space, far more frightening trips across the mid–twentieth century US, conjures ghosts in Chicago, banishes them in New England, and summons up a sparkling cast of friends and relatives who are doing their best to live in Jim Crow America when the supernatural suddenly walks off the pages of the pulps and the comics and into their day-to-day life. The title story, first in the volume, introduces Atticus Turner, who is on his way back to Chicago after an unhappy post-Army year in Florida. A blown tire during his first hour in Indiana brings him face to face with discrimination in the North, but a fellow African-American (though the book uses “Negro,” as a sympathetic writer of the period would have done) who owns a garage in Indianapolis tows his car, and on the way back they discover a mutual interest in the science fiction of the period. Both men’s dads had also given them a hard time for liking the pulp adventures, not least because of their relentless whiteness and the often crude stereotypes on their pages.

Atticus makes it to Chicago, not without yet another encounter with a harassing white police officer, to discover that his father, Montrose, has already left, departed for a rural backwater in northern Massachusetts where, he claims, Atticus’ late mother’s family was from and where a significant legacy awaits. Atticus and his father have had a combative relationship in the past, but he does not hesitate to go and find Montrose. Joining him is his uncle George, who owns the company that publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, Ruff’s fictional counterpart to The Negro Motorist Green Book. George is the one who calls Montrose’s destination “Lovecraft Country,” and he knows not only the author’s work but also some of the places where fiction might not have been so fictional. Also joining them is Letitia Dandridge, a friend of the family since Atticus’ childhood, who needs a ride to a nearby part of Massachusetts. She had been the only girl in the science fiction club at school, until her mom “put an end to that, insisting that Letitia stop wasting time on foolishness and start earning her keep like her siblings, after which Atticus rarely saw her.” (p. 29)

And with that, they are off to an adventure to rival anything in the books that the three of them enjoy. Letitia is as resourceful as either of the men, providing a crucial intervention when a tip that George got for potential inclusion in the next edition of the Guide turns out to be dangerously wrong. The legacy that Atticus travels to find provides not only the climax to the first story but the bridge to more Lovecraftian intrigue in the mid-century Midwest. And elsewhere, of course. Sometimes very elsewhere.

The stories that follow — including “Dreams in the Which House,” “Abdullah’s Book,” “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” or “Jekyll in Hyde Park” — riff on those themes: supernatural doings, the everyday dangers of being black in 1950s America, the joys of the interrelated characters, their varying personalities facing the usual questions of life as well as more unusual questions of the universe and everything. There are tales of passing, of unquiet ghosts, of coming to terms with terrible choices, of what one does when one is just tired of everything, of how power behaves when it thinks it can get away with anything. The characters are funny and lively, grounded even as they show their flaws and occasional pettiness.

With the characters facing mundane dangers and degradations along with the supernatural plots, it would be all too easy for a certain grimness to set in. Thinking back over the stories, though, I remember more of the characters working out what to do next while also teasing each other about one thing or another. They may not approve of each other’s actions — some of the churchier folks definitely do not think much of the apparent magic that other seem to command — but they never give up on one another. The paralysis that afflicted so many of Lovecraft’s characters is almost nowhere to be found in Ruff’s book. Visiting Lovecraft Country is great, but don’t trust the maps, things have changed.


Doreen’s review of Lovecraft Country is here.

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Dec 07 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Not every fantasy features swords and sorcery, though most of them involve a mythical creature of one sort or another. Amor Towles names his in the title: A Gentleman in Moscow. In midsummer 1922, following a brief trial, Count Alexander Rostov is not ordered immediately shot as a class enemy. It seems that senior Bolsheviks value a pre-revolutionary poem that appeared under his byline, and so the usual punishment is held in abeyance. Instead, he is marched out of the Kremlin and ordered to return to the Hotel Metropol, where he has spent the previous four years. He is further ordered to remain inside the hotel for the rest of his natural life. If he sets foot outside of it again, revolutionary justice will take its course, and he will be shot.

The Party has left him his life, but it does not leave him the luxurious suite where he had lived since 1918. He is required to relocate to a small room in the attic, near the utility stairs. “Up they wound three flights to where a door opened on a narrow corridor servicing a bathroom and six bedrooms reminiscent of monastic cells. This attic was originally built to house the butlers and ladies’ maids of the Metropol’s guests, but when the practice of traveling with servants fell out of fashion, the unused rooms had been claimed by the caprices of casual urgency—thenceforth warehousing scraps of lumber, broken furniture, and other assorted debris.” (pp. 10–11) That small room is to be the Count’s indefinite home, the hotel the limit of his world.

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Dec 02 2018

Night of Stone by Catherine Merridale

“We made the journey in 1997, at the end of October. The winter had set in early that year, and even St Petersburg had its first covering of snow. Outside the city, and especially as we travelled north, the snow had taken over the landscape completely, levelling the gentle contours of the forest floor and turning the black pines a brilliant white. We had left the city at midnight, and now, as the late sun rose, we were already in another world. Lake Onega lay becalmed, a dead sea of rose and grey-blue. ‘It’s like a fairy story, isn’t it?’ whispered one of my neighbours [on the train]. The remark would have been banal in any other setting. But the woman who had said it, a paediatrician in her thirties, was trying to control fresh tears. It is hard to find things to say when you are on your way to a mass grave, the burial place of murdered grandparents whom you never knew. There are no social conventions to cover unmourned loss. ‘They brought them here in their shirts, you know’ she continued. ‘It must have been so cold. They would have been frightened, wouldn’t they?’ …
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Nov 30 2018

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Connie Willis at her best tells tales of engaging characters in surprising situations and then lands an emotional blow that can still be felt a decade or more later. I can’t, offhand, think of another author who has done what Willis does two-thirds of the way through Passage. When she’s merely very good, Willis can do anything from a romp to a heartfelt sideways look at people and research, or a screwball comedy trying to get out of a Hollywood dystopia. Even Willis that I think ought to be pared down a great deal offers lovely moments, and a strong ending.

Crosstalk ramps up the madcap, throws in a good bit of family, and leavens it with some interesting almost-here tech crossed with the all-too-believable speed and dysfunction of the contemporary tech industry. Briddey Flannigan is a manager at Commspan, a telecommunications company that feels a lot like the labs in Bellwether. Lots of people are very busy, but only a few are actually getting things done. Briddey, as Willis refers to her throughout the book, is in middle management, and is romantically involved with Trent Worth, a senior vice president. The company is a fishbowl of intrigue and gossip, but that’s nothing compared to the intrusiveness of Briddey’s family. They are a large and loud Irish-American clan, with everybody up in everybody’s else’s business, particularly some the aunts who promote an Irishness that people from actual Éire would be hard pressed to recognize.

The first chapters send up the intersection of office life, technology, and romance. The characters around Briddey are so full of their own preconceptions and concerns that Briddey can barely get a word in edgewise, let alone get anyone to actually listen to what she is saying — one of the many forms of crosstalk that fill the novel. The company also has a resident reclusive genius who’s skeptical of the very tech that he is instrumental in developing; but he’s not so skeptical that he won’t deliver a new wow product to keep Commspan riding the wave. Among the aunts, mom, cousins and siblings of her voluble clan, Briddey has a niece, Maeve, who is a girl tech genius with a mischievous streak, “The last time [Briddey had] been with the family, Maeve had done something to her phone so that half the time it said it was [Trent] when it wasn’t, and Briddey hadn’t been able to fix it.” (Ch. 1)

The latest rage in this near-future world is the EED, a supposedly minor surgical procedure to implant a device that will enhance an emotional connection with someone who has received a matching device by enabling direct transmission of feelings. It’s not meant to be telepathy, but the next best thing. As Crosstalk opens, Briddey and Trent have just agreed to get implants, presumably as a prelude to marriage and happily-ever-after, along with all the fruits of success at Commspan. Things go wrong, of course.

Briddey starts hearing voices, not just the vague feelings the EED is supposed to transmit, and the one voice she is definitely not hearing is Trent’s. The product Commspan is supposed to release next is meant to connect people along the lines of the EED, but if the implants work so strangely for Trent and Briddey, then the company’s plans to steal a march on Apple could come crashing down. And all the while Briddey’s family keeps butting in with worries, concerns, news and views about everything except what’s worrying Briddey. More crosstalk.

The din gets louder and the book gets faster until, at the end, Briddey figures out what’s going on and what she wanted all along. The ending is not a great surprise, but getting there is quite fun. It’s warm, sometimes zany, sometimes tart, and in the end the signal comes through on a clear channel.

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Nov 29 2018

Maria Stuart by Friedrich Schiller

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent queen?” is something that Elizabeth I of England does not ever quite say in Schiller’s five-act verse drama, Maria Stuart, but the sentiment lurks behind practically everything that she does say. The play begins with Mary, Queen of Scots, under house arrest in Fotheringhay, the place that will eventually become the location of her execution. In the early scenes, Mary swings among the modes that Schiller depict her in throughout the course of the tragedy: prayerful, her thoughts fixed on God and eternity; hopeful of release through the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth; proud, disdainful that any court of mere lords and earls should try to judge her, a sovereign queen; crafty, using any means at her disposal to convince people to plot to win her freedom and return to power, and heedless of how easily that could cost their lives; remorseful about the choices that she has made that have led her to this pass.

Elizabeth first appears in the second act, facing choices more complex than those that consume Mary’s attention. Elizabeth is considering a French marriage to make an ally out of England’s traditional enemy, and she discourses long about a sovereign’s lack of freedom, about owing everything and every action to her country and her people. She is at once not particularly happy to be queen but certainly has no intention of giving it up.

The action of the play touches on various efforts to free Mary, on Elizabeth’s unwillingness to directly order Mary’s execution, and Mary’s keen desire to meet Elizabeth face-to-face, convinced that such a meeting will lead to mercy, perhaps even to freedom. I found that Maria Stuart had less drama than Schiller’s other historical plays — The Maid of Orleans or The Death of Wallenstein — and far less than the semi-historical William Tell. In the latter, everyone knows about the scene with the bow and apple, but the way that Schiller executes it makes the event surprising, and powerful. Even The Death of Wallenstein, an ending telegraphed by the title, has better suspense around how the events transpire and what they have to say about ability and ambition (a theme also explored in Maria Stuart).

There is also some dramatic tension around the various lords in service to Elizabeth, particularly Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Dudley was long Elizabeth’s favorite, and he hoped to become her husband. In Schiller’s telling, he also had a youthful interest in Mary. Over the course of the play, he appears to support both at various times. When he receives a letter from Mary detailing plans to free her, is he her savior in the heart of her enemy’s court? When his role is uncovered, is he the true servant of the Crown, luring its enemies into a trap to expose their treachery? Does he even know which side he serves?

I was less convinced by Elizabeth’s temporizing. Some of that may simply be the temporal distance from the play, which premiered in 1800. Crowned heads still ruled, rather than merely reigned, across much of Europe. At the time Schiller was writing, the idea of executing a king or queen possessed a special horror because of the revolutionary terror that had followed the beheading of France’s Louis XVI seven years before the play’s first performance. Elizabeth’s characterizations of the crowd — asking for one thing one day, demanding its opposite the next — owe as much to the later century’s events in France as to anything that took place in her England. Some of her advisers say the same, adding that no sooner will she have had Mary executed at the crowd’s behest than it will criticize her for having done just that. Eventually, Elizabeth seems to say, “Well, what can ya do?” and signs an order for Mary’s execution. She does not directly say it should be delivered, however, and the speed of the order’s delivery and implementation appear to owe as much to courtier ambition as to royal intent. When it is too late, Elizabeth tries to disclaim her desire to be rid of Mary. I was more annoyed than moved.

Mary’s final hours, however, provide some of the play’s best scenes, with the execution itself as effective as the high points of Schiller’s other historical dramas. The ending, which leaves Elizabeth bereft of advisers to face the consequences of Mary’s execution, has no historical basis, but it fits the play.

Maria Stuart has been translated into English several times, and continues to be performed, including a West End production in 2005 that traveled to Broadway in 2009. It joins a vast number of plays, operas, novels, television, and movie treatments of her life.

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Nov 28 2018

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

Oof, I did not expect The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps to end as a tragedy, nor when it did. Looking back, though, I am not at all sure that the ending is a tragedy, at least from the perspective of the principal characters. Glancing at my review of Kai Ashante Wilson’s other novella set in this world of strong magics and desert caravans, I see that its ending also took me by surprise. Straightaway, there is one of Wilson’s strengths as an author. (I read this novella on my Kindle, and there is a substantial excerpt from A Taste of Honey following The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, so it looked like I was further from the end than I was. Sneaky!)

The two novellas share a world, one roughly cognate to earth, and the stories take place in and around the equivalent of the Mediterranean. In Wilson’s world, the greatest wealth and power are to be found in the city of Olorum. Reading A Taste of Honey, I thought Olorum would be a Maghreb city, on the southern shores of the sea; from the geography in Wildeeps, I thought it south of the parallel Sahara, for Wildeeps is a story that takes place in a caravan in and around its visit to an oasis city known as the Station at the Mother of Waters. The leading characters are all members of the guards who have protected the caravan so far, and will do so again after the break at the Mother of Waters, as the train of people and camels crosses the magical and monster-infested Wildeeps to get to the fabled wealth of Olorum.

Some of the guards are old, and some are young, some are veterans of many trips, some have left home for their very first adventure. They all follow their Captain, whose preternatural speed and endurance are just a few of the hints that he is far more than he seems. The Sorcerer, one of those making his first journey across the deserts and the Wildeeps, tries to pretend that he is not much more than he seems — he would not have his nickname if he hadn’t already shown some supernatural ability — but does not convince the others.

Over the course of the novella, Wilson gradually shows more and more of the Captain and the Sorcerer. He sketches the other guardsmen (they are all men, as far as is known), giving them vivid personalities and hinting about all the different places they have come from to take on this risky journey. Seeing the camaraderie within the company, mixed with rivalry and the knuckleheadedness of some young men, is one of the pleasures of this story. Another is perceiving how Wilson’s world works, based on the glimpses this tale shows. Socerer of the Wildeeps is a story in the world, not of the world; that is, its characters do not shape the world with their actions. Their stories are important to a reader because Wilson has drawn convincing human beings, and what happens to them matters, and that is more than enough to carry the weight of the story.

I think that A Taste of Honey is a better work, but I also think that Wilson could not have written it without having first written Wildeeps. They both show fascinating parts of a rich setting, and Wilson populates them with people who feel real, whose heroism and stoicism are moving, whose follies are exasperating, and whose ultimate fates have stayed with me long after I finished the novella.

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Nov 28 2018

Firefly: Big Damn Hero by Nancy Holder and James Lovegrove

First, can I talk about just how beautiful this book is? Titan sent me a hardback copy which, as always, has an incredible cover. That dust jacket needs to be felt to be believed. And it comes with a ribbon bookmark! I don’t usually go gaga over the physical format of a book, but this truly feels like a collectible.

The contents are fairly accessible for people new to the Firefly universe (or ‘verse, as it’s known) but the book will really shine for Browncoats who’ve seen every episode plus the movie. While it’s no surprise that Nancy Holder knows the mythos back and forth, James Lovegrove masterfully continues where she left off to produce a damn fine piece of writing. You know how sometimes you read an official novelization and it reads more like self-inserting, wish fulfillment fanfic than something that feels authentic to the characters and series? This book skillfully avoids any of that while still illuminating not only a huge chunk of Mal’s past but also showcasing a perfectly plausible chapter in the adventures of the Serenity’s crew.

I did have several reservations that have little to do with Mr Lovegrove’s writing. In fact, in many parts, it feels like he does his best to make up for the premise he has to work with, tho how much of this is due to Ms Holder’s benign influence is unknown. The problem, of course, is how weirdly the Browncoat experience feels like revisionist Confederate history. It’s not, but it’s hard to ignore the parallels of romanticism, among others, that make for uncomfortable reading in the era of Cult 45.

My second issue was with how poorly the crew of Serenity treat Jayne. There is a lot of telling instead of showing as to why, and it sets up this weird dichotomy where Mal is a precious fragile bb who must be tended and deferred to whereas mean ole Jayne is always right but everyone hates him because he refuses to kowtow. I kinda want to go back and watch the series again to see if this was always a problem and I never noticed before, or if this is specific to this novel. Tbh, I kinda want to go back and watch the whole show again period. And? I’m totally panting for more of these books! It makes me so happy that two more are guaranteed. I’m also hoping that they go beyond (unfilmed) chapters and tell us what happens after the movie (which I’m currently watching on Netflix having turned it on since the beginning of writing this chapter, whee!)

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Nov 18 2018

Three Dark Crowns (Three Dark Crowns #1) by Kendare Blake

So I’d been avoiding this book for a while, despite owning another of Kendare Blake’s acclaimed novels (Anna Dressed In Blood, one of many on my To-Read pile) because, while the premise is interesting and the author’s reputation confidence-inspiring, I thought Queen Katharine’s power incredibly lame compared to the other two. She can ingest any poison, wooo, whereas Queen Arsinoe can command flora and fauna while Queen Mirabella can command the elements themselves. But then HarperCollins sent me this book in the course of my completing a survey on fantasy novels for them (with the caveat that they’d ask me several questions about it later on, ofc) and I figured, ah, hell, why not, it looks like a quick read anyway.

And it was, but not only that, it was good! Katharine’s powers in the blurb are deliberately underplayed, as is the fact that this book isn’t just about three queens (a la Black Trillium: shoutout to a classic!) but also about the people and politics they’re surrounded by. It’s a sprawling family saga with surprisingly complex relationships, distressing setbacks and shocking plot twists (and a love triangle that isn’t super stupid,) and I’m really glad I was, shall we say, compelled to read it. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the series, tho probably in the New Year, as I have fifteen more books to read and review before the end of the year. Adult me tries to tamp down my rising panic with the knowledge that young, vicious me would cry with happiness at the fact that I’m living her dreams rn.

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