THE GRACEKEEPERS by Kirsty Logan

Yesterday, my latest review for Strange Horizons was published as part of their ‘Our Queer Planet’ summer special, highlighting international, queer, and fantastic writing. The novel I reviewed: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan from Crown Publishers.

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“…Expanded from a component in Logan’s collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014), her debut novel contains a minimal, slow-building plot. But it is full of sensual prose that overlays a core of rich characters, a corporeal yet deeply intellectual feminism, and an overarching theme of transcendence….” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through the Crown Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

THE WORLD BEFORE US, by Aislinn Hunter

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The World Before Us
By Aislinn Hunter
Hogarth – 31st March 2015
ISBN 9780553418521 – 432 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Blogging For Books


My latest review is up today on Strange Horizons, a great weekly SFF eZine. Hunter’s The World Before Us is a literary novel with dabs of historical and fantasy genres, written in a voice that I really enjoyed.
“…Within the corridors of a small, present-day London museum that is dying from lack of funds, thirty-four-year-old archivist Jane Standen seeks solace in a final research project. She is investigating the mysterious disappearance from a Victorian-era mental institution, Whitmore, of a woman known to history only as “N.” Though records mention the woman in a mere passing whisper, Jane feels compelled to uncover the truth of N’s identity and ultimate fate…”

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

NEAR ENEMY, by Adam Sternbergh

22078949Near Enemy
Spademan Series
#2
By Adam Sternbergh
Crown – 13th January 2015
ISBN 0385349025  – 306 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


Near Enemy does everything that you could ask from a sequel, and it does it all well. If you are new to Adam Sternbergh’s Spademan protagonist and post-terrorist-dirty-bomb New York City setting, then do yourself a favor and go find Shovel Ready, which I reviewed here previously. If you enjoyed Shovel Ready, chances are you’ll like this even more.
 The second novel takes something that is introduced in the first, the limnosphere, and expands upon its implications into a plot. As a virtual world where the affluent can escape from dilapidated reality, the limnosphere is not a new concept to science fiction universe. But Sternbergh does explore it in interesting ways that make Near Enemy a fun kind of mystery/cyber punk mashup. The novel opens with the morally ambiguous Spademan contemplating the target he has been hired to kill, a young ‘bed-hopper’ who is part of an underground that effectively hacks into other people’s limn experiences. Spademan’s hesitance over carrying out the hit turn dangerous when this limnosphere voyeur informs him that someone has worked out a way to kill people within the virtual world so that the physical body dies too. Spademan soon finds himself further involved in a situation that threatens one of the only pillars of stability holding up the post terrorist attack society of the city.
The previous novel in this series focused mostly on Spademan as a character, and was cast in a distinct noir tone with the standard femme fatale to get mixed up in the protagonist’s business. These noir stylings remain here, but Near Enemy goes a bit further in exploring the state of this devastated near-future New York City, where the leaders and officials maintain a rough order through corruption and conspiracy.
The plot from the first book is further developed alongside the main threads of this novel, with key characters returning and progressing further, in interesting ways. Most notably, one of the villains from the first book becomes increasingly apparent as an actual ally, creating a morally ambiguous character complementary to (and distinct from) Spademan’s ‘hitman with a heart’ persona.
As with Shovel Ready, this will likely appeal to people that go for mystery/crime thrillers inthat classic vein of gritty protagonists, and to readers that appreciate the speculative plot built around these limnospheres, both in terms of their societal role and potential to be abused for nefarious purposes/power. A fun read with well handled plot twists and characterization, Near Enemy proves Sternbergh does have a series in him, and I look forward to enjoying it continue.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Crown Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
402 pages, ebook
Published 1st January 2013
Sources: Blogging for Books & Edelweiss

 Somehow, this notably well-reviewed novel slipped under my radar even past its release. Only upon perusing the Blogging for Books offerings did I discover it, and I am glad I chose to give it a try. If you haven’t heard about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena yet, or if it has been sitting on your to-read or consideration list, I’d recommend getting a copy ASAP. Then clear some nights for engrossed reading.
For those not familiar with the plot of Anthony Marra’s award-winning novel, it is set in the war-ravaged region of Chechnya and traces the intersecting experiences of a small cast of characters as they struggle for life, a combination of survival and purpose.
When Russian soldiers come for her father, eight-year-old Havaa flees into the surrounding Chechen woods, where her father’s friend Akhmed rescues her and takes her to hide at the nearly deserted hospital. There, the sole doctor left in this war-torn wasteland is Sonja, a European-trained physician who has returned through a sense of responsibility both to home and to a sister that has gone missing. Reluctantly, Sonja agrees to help care for Havaa, and – in testament to dire conditions – accepts the inept medical help of Akhmed, who has failed out of medical school and yearns more for artistic expressions.
Thrown together in awful circumstances, these characters share a stubborn commitment to hope for individuals and a future that fights against the despair surrounding them. With recollections of the past years of the Chechen conflict, and the constant threat that present friends may turn on them for personal gain with the Russians, these characters discover their lives intertwined, past, present and future.
The novel’s title comes from a definition for life given by a medical text/dictionary in the novel. The term is remarkably difficult to biologically define in one sentence. Typically, biologists will talk of characteristics of life, rather than settling on a strict definition. But the one here given title is particularly resonant in capturing the essential sum of those characteristics of life. They form an interlocking constellation of phenomena, individual traits that put together form a picture unique and new with a story. Similarly like stars each of the characters in Marra’s novel interact together to form a constellation in this historical space of humanity.
Metaphorically one could speak of a certain balance between the stars in forming a constellation. Similarly, Marra’s novel succeeds so well because of the careful balance he is able to strike in its construction. The shifts in time from chapter to chapter (or even within chapters) is managed without any sense of rupture or confusion. Each of the characters is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses and even the villains are shown with traits of sympathy and compassion.
(The novel does appropriately stay focused on the Chechens. The Russians in the novels are an outside force of the plot and setting more so than characters, and the villains, heroes, or mixtures in the story are each Chechen here.)
The emotional weight of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena could quickly take it into a story that feels utterly bleak. Marra nicely finds balance here as well, with the character’s vital hopes and perseverance working to counter the negative, and the young Havaa in particular offers a bright ray of humor and compassion that symbolizes a certain hope for the lives of a future generation.
The events of the novel’s ‘present-day’ plot consist of a mere five days, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes these points to form a picture over decades of conflict, personal and spiritual. The novel will pass similarly fast while reading, but its power and humanity will echo with the reader far longer.
Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Crown Publishing Group via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
Publisher: Crown Publishing
ISBN: 0385348991
256 pages, hardcover
Published 14th January 2014
Source: Blogging for Books
(Crown Publishing Group)

I had wanted to review this novel closer to its initial release, but my reading queue was just too full at the time and the opportunity unfortunately had passed. I was happy then to learn about Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books program and request this for my inaugural selection. The plot description seemed like something that would be right up my alley, a genre mashup between the gritty, hard-boiled, noir thrillers you might expect to find in the Hard Case Crime lineup and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Count me in for the fun.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I cracked this open not long after it arrived and finished it within a couple of sittings over the course of the day. If I were able I probably would have just torn through it in one, and would have had just as much fun savoring it. During the opening section of the novel I wondered why it had the sci-fi setting to it, the story could have just as easily existed in a present reality. Thankfully my worry dissipated as the novel continued and the science fiction element became integrated seamlessly into the plot beyond the post apocalyptic setting.

Shovel Ready is set in a near future New York City that has been decimated by a terrorist dirty bomb detonated in Time Square. This event, in conjunction with smaller coordinated bombings and follow-ups has a greater psychological and economic effect on the city in aftermath than the actual physical destruction it causes. New York becomes fragmented between a wealthy upper-class able to hire security and care in high-rise apartments, permitting their retreat into virtual reality utopias, and a lower class seeking to survive in the lawless rubble below. If they choose to stay.

As in Delaney’s Dhalgren, the New York City of Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready is an isolated zone of chaotic culture, an apocalyptic blip within an America that otherwise may be completely ‘normal’. The people who have chosen to stay in New York have nothing else, are committed to its condition and either the opportunities or curses it provides. The novel thus fits into a fascinating area of apocalyptic literature where the disaster and subsequent conditions are relatively localized.

Within this environment is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Spademan, a former city garbage collector who lost his wife in the initial dirty bomb-related attacks, and who now survives as being a dispassionate hitman operating under a strict professional code. Despite wanting to keep a professional distance from his clients and targets, Spademan finds that his latest client is a powerfully famous religious leader (cultish one may say) involved with providing the hopeless ‘heaven on Earth’ through virtual reality tech. More problematic, the target given to Spademan turns out to be his client’s own rebellious daughter, and she may not fit into Spademan’s code.

Spademan is a fantastic character, worthy to fill the pages of any pulp or ‘serious/literary’ crime novel. Sternbergh does a fabulous job introducing the reader to the flawed and vulnerable character, establishing the rules of his hitman profession, and slowly divulging the details of his past that have led him to his current employment.

Mixed into the great hard-boiled protagonist creation Sternbergh includes many noir hallmarks, from shady thugs, double-crosses, big bad crime leader villains, and a femme fatale. Spademan’s initial target, who becomes an asset he desires to protect fits the femme fatale mold generally well. On a surface level she seems painted the weak female needing a strong male figure (a rather awful misogyny of course on its own), but in reality she is in greater control, and more capable, than one may think, and from the start Spademan learns that she can pack a deadly bite.

In some way these noir aspects of Shovel Ready make it familiar and expected. This could have led it being a decent, slightly above-average hard crime story. The setting and the use of the virtual reality technology as an integral element to the plot make this rise above to something even better. While becoming relevant to the plot, the technology is also used as commentary for class division in this post-apocalyptic New York. While this ‘have vs have not’ kind of message is nothing new or handled rather superficially here, it is refreshing to see it in the kind of entertaining quick read here that could easily still be an enjoyable novel without its inclusion.

By putting the sci-fi aspect in with a dash of blatant social commentary, Sternbergh manages to give a little weight to Shovel Ready without stifling the pure entertaining joys of the thriller. This is a mashup that will certainly appeal to almost all crime/hitman-type story lovers and as a mashup to certain speculative fiction fans. Though I probably shouldn’t encourage more series out there, Spademan and his gritty environment could easily expand into further works, and I’d pick up one of them without hesitation. On the other hand, this makes me curious to see how far Sternbergh’s talents extend.

Four and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Crown Publishing via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

More info from the publisher

Author bio from the publisher

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne
Publisher: Crown
ASIN: B00GVZZL7A
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

The blurb for Monica Byrne’s debut novel compares it to elements from the works of three authors. Often I don’t care for these kinds of comparisons, and never put much faith in them. In this case while I don’t particularly see the Gaiman comparison (and I don’t even recognize Morgenstern), the similarities in themes to Atwood are warranted to my mind. In terms of genre there is a match in literary style and depth with strong undertones of science (or Atwoodian ‘speculative’) fiction, where near-future technology ends up both drawing people together while leading to their exploitation or estrangement. There is also a strong sharing of themes, with Bryne here tackling complex biological and social issues of gender and sexuality, and to a lesser extent issues of spiritual faith.

“The Girl in the Road” is actually a contrapuntal novel of two girls from two periods of time and two places (India and Africa). There stories are related in alternating chapters, but are intertwined both symbolically and ultimately in reality. Certain parts of it are written in a fashion that approaches magic realism, which may have engendered the comparisons to those other authors, but mostly the story resides in a speculative reality that feels familiar and emotionally fragile. With well-rendered moments of beauty, resilience, despair, and ugly tragedy alike, Bryne’s writing demonstrates a tremendous range in capturing mood and emotion. Although some may struggle through some of the more intense passages or may be confused by some of the more surreal moments, I think the novel is worth making the effort to work through them each.

I do wish the closing chapters of the novel had been more drawn out; the ultimate convergence of the two storylines seemed to happen to rapidly given the slow establishment of each thread and the journey to reach their meeting. This is, however, a minor quibble with what is really a consistently captivating and purposeful novel. I highly recommend giving it consideration to read.

Four Stars out of Five

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, by Sean B. Carroll

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Revolution to the Nobel Prize, by Sean B. Carroll
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN: 0307952339
592 pages, hardcover
Published September 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Having focused on biology and French in college, I was obviously intrigued when I saw the description of this book. Amazingly I hadn’t realize the wealth of connections between these subjects that intersected in the decades from World War II to the Cold War. The achievement of Carroll’s book is that he is able to merge disparate forms into one cohesive, enthralling, and compulsively readable volume. A combination of biography, military history, literary/philosophical history, and science, Carroll somehow makes it all work, focusing on the lives of Camus, Monod, Jacob, and others. Mostly these stories are physically separated, coming together in time and space only briefly. Yet each individual’s separate story is linked together by shared global experiences of political and social strife and coming each, individually to a personal philosophy and pursuit of some passion for their own personal betterment and the benefit of their fellow humans. Camus’ story in terms of his journalism, literature, and Existential philosophy is the most widely familiar, but strikingly similar to the genius and passion displayed by Monod, Jacob, and others through their pursuit of science. For anyone interested in literature, science, or the history of World War II, this is a book I would seek to devour. What sets it apart from a mere history of compelling characters is the inspiration it engenders to fight against situations of injustice and concern that you may see in the world, giving an applicability that transcends any particular historic period or society, one that you can easily see reflected in many issues of politics, science and culture today.

Five Stars out of Five