In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation,
by Jennifer Ellis
Publisher: Moonbird Press
ISBN: 0992153824
480 pages, eBook
Published: 26th April 2014
Source: Personal purchase

 There is nothing like being completely surprised at enjoying a book so much – not because you expected to dislike it – but because it was simply unknown and full of possibility, and you know that finding gold is rare indeed.
I can’t recall how, but soon after starting this site I came across Jennifer Ellis’ writing blog and became intrigued by what she had to say as an author, and by the description of her novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation. Though I didn’t win it through a Goodreads give-away, it proved enticing enough for me to purchase an e-copy, which turned out to be a great decision. I hope that more interested readers will discover this author and her fine post-apocalyptic novel.
In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is set on a fragile communal farm, a cooperative precipitously balanced between opposing camps of personality and goals as they struggle to maintain an island of civilization in a world rent asunder by economic and social collapse. Central to the community is Natalie and her husband Richard. Founded with family and friends in a move toward self-reliance during the start of the world’s collapse, the farm represents a new and defining beginning for Natalie. However, for Richard, a rising Vancouver politician, the farm is just Natalie’s pet project that by fortune became a safe haven to temporarily hold over until government regains control in the city and the good old days can return.
As friction in their marriage builds through Natalie’s increasing independence clashing with Richard’s personality of stubborn control and dismissal, Natalie finds herself drawn to the comfort found in the opposite personality of Richard’s twin Daniel. Faced with threats both from outside their isolated community and from betrayals and secrets within, Natalie and the other members of the community struggle to maintain a pocket of order, peace, and justice in the surrounding post-apocalyptic nightmare reality.
The plot of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation may seem rather familiar. A tight-knit post-apocalyptic community struggling to keep civilization in the chaos that surrounds. A cast of characters with disparate motivations and conflicting personalities bringing crises intentional and unintentional to the balanced status quo. A female protagonist showing independence who becomes stifled by her domineering husband and who is emotionally turned upside down by her attraction to another man. Yet, despite their familiarity, Ellis masterfully weaves these elements into a riveting story filled with characters that seem honest and real. In other words, she takes familiar story ingredients and uses them in precisely the right fashion and proportion to make a literary meal that satisfies.
The characters are mostly very well-rounded, both primary and secondary. While a few display a bit too-exaggerated villainy, this is an exception. For the most part the people in this novel are a combination of good and bad attributes, sympathetic and unsympathetic motivations. Natalie is a fine example of a woman displaying great strength, yet also signs that she is capable of so much more if she could just work past weaknesses. Daniel, in another example, shows qualities of heroism and seems at first glance to be the kind of perfect gentleman that a woman would swoon over. Yet Daniel’s apparent perfection for Natalie is shown to be illusory, with Daniel containing weaknesses that make him fail to live to his potential. Meanwhile, Richard who is shown in many instances to be a horrible person and spouse, is also realized as having important strengths and assets which in some ways make him fit perfectly in relationship with Natalie.
The triangle between these three characters and there imperfect relationships that nonetheless manage to balance one another is much akin to the overall balance in community member individuals in forming the farm society as a whole. How should a society work? If democratic, how should that work? How do we exist as both individuals and balanced communally. These are the matters at the heart of the novel, and Ellis does a fantastic job at posing all of these issues in an entertaining read.
Another strength I found in Ellis’ writing with In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is her sense of pacing and scope. The novel includes portions both in the farm community and contains excursions into the outside world, there are periods of calm and of action, of emotional reflection and serious dialogue, and each is handled fluidly. Despite my only mentioning Natalie, Richard, and Daniel here, there are several other characters, including some other point-of-view characters, giving a range of experiences that are beyond the scope of my comments here, but each were as well-handled as the main characters.
A final point I wanted to make concerns the romantic aspects of the novel. I am not one for romance stories, particularly when they become saccharine or depressing (either a bit too perfect or too ill-fated). There are many women writers out there who make a living writing books for a primarily female audience. They do what they do well I assume, just as there are male writers that write things targeted for male readership. I don’t know the demographics of Ellis’ readership (intended or achieved) but In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is definitely not something that should only appeal to or be read by women. The romantic aspects to the story are importantly vital, and brilliantly rendered by the novel’s close.
Just as the characters of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation struggle to maintain a balance between individual freedom and group responsibility, openness and safety, etc so too does a writer need to find a balance between the familiar and the alienating, action and still moments, entertainment and relevance, and so on. Ellis’ ability at balance is really impressive, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work – and would even love more stories in this universe. Most other readers that are willing to give her work a try should feel similarly.
Five Stars out of Five

 

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.

Women Destroy Science Fiction!, Edited by Christie Yant

Women Destroy Science Fiction!
Lightspeed Magazine #49 (June 2014)
Edited by Christie Yant
Publisher: John Joseph Adams
ISBN: 1499508344
488 pages, paperback (special ed.)
Published 1st June 2014
Source: Personal purchase

Fiction Contents:

“Each to Each”, by Seanan McGuire
“A Word Shaped Like Bones”, by Kris Millering
“Cuts Both Ways”, by Heather Clitheroe
“Walking Awake”, by N.K. Jemison
“The Case of the Passionless Bees”, by Rhonda Eikamp
“In the Image of Man”, by Gabriella Stalker
“The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick”, by Charlie Jane Anders
“Dim Sun”, by Maria Dahvana Headley
“The Lonely Sea in the Sky”, by Amal El-Mohtar
“A Burglary, Addressed By a Young Lady”, by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall
“Canth”, by K.C. Norton
“Like Daughter”, by Tananarive Due
“The Greatest Loneliness”, by Maria Romasco Moore
“Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”, by James Tiptree, Jr.
“Knapsack Poems”, by Eleanore Arnason
“The Cost to Be Wise”, by Maureen F. McHugh
“Salvage”, by Carrie Vaughn
“A Guide to Grief”, by Emily Fox
“See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES!”, by Tina Connolly
“A Debt Repaid”, by Marina J. Lostetter
“The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced”, by Sarah Pinsker
“#TrainFightTuesday”, by Vanessa Torline
“The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23”, by Rhiannon Rasmussen
“Emoticon”, by Anaid Perez
“The Mouths”, by Ellen Denham
“MIA”, by Kim Winternheimer
“Standard Deviant”, by Holly Schofield
“Getting on in Years”, by Cathy Humble
“Ro-Sham-Bot”, by Effie Seiberg
“Everything That Has Already Been Said”, by Samantha Murray
“The Lies We Tell Our Children”, by Katherine Crighton
“They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain”, by Rachael Acks

Also including a novel excerpt, nonfiction, personal essays, artist gallery,  and author spotlights

 ‘Women don’t write real science fiction.’ ‘That isn’t what a story written by a woman should be like.’ ‘If women try to write science fiction they will just destroy it.’
Many things out there seem to be an all-male’s club (or predominantly so). It kinda boggles my mind that statements like those above were ever tossed around in the field – or that they even are still today. Compared to the past there are a lot of women science fiction writers out there, as this collection testifies. Part of any issues I feel come down to the matter of the definition of science fiction. What is ‘real’ science fiction? There is no single answer, and to some the answer is a sub genre that may be called hard science fiction which ultimately will come down to facts related to physics.
As there appears to be fewer women in the ‘hard’ sciences (a separate problem in itself) it comes as not too big a surprise then that there aren’t many female science fiction writers that could be put in that category of ‘hard SF’. Yet, even when they could, it seems like their inherent gender make people consider them something else.
Take Margaret Atwood – a writer whose stories feature reasonable futures based on present-day scientific reality (a relatively narrow, but common definition of hard SF as put forth recently for example by Norman Spinrad in Asimov’s). Her work is easily classified as hard science fiction. But she herself eschews the label, preferring to call her work speculative fiction to avoid the negative associations of ‘science fiction’ with a particular kind of space story and an interest in scientific details over a more human or literary picture.
Whatever the definitions and whatever the reasons why some have an issue with women writing science fiction, the stories here prove that one should be overjoyed if they continue to find voice in ‘destroying’ science fiction.
The stories included here make this easily a year’s best of collection in itself. They are varied in tone from the humorous to the serious, and in genre from hard and futuristic to the more fantastic (alternate) historical. As such, unless you enjoy a wide range of types of stories, there may be some stories in here that just don’t interest you despite each truly being top-notch. I personally had my favorites within each section of new fiction, reprints, and flash fiction. And there were some I just didn’t enjoy though I recognized their merits as intended. However, even if you only like a particular kind of story in the SF landscape, the collection is well-worth the cheap admission price.
I particularly liked the opening story by Seanan McGuire. Out of all the stories in this collection I feel this one significant to discuss due to its embodiment of what the entire collection represents.
There are conflicting expectations in a collection with the theme this Lightspeed issue has. On the one hand one has the expectation that the stories will relate the female-specific condition within the confines of the genre. They ‘should’ feature female characters that aren’t stereotypes, they ‘should’ deal with feminist issues, they ‘should’ focus on matters unique to female biology and social practices built around that.
Yet, on the other hand the point is that women writing science fiction should be no different, no less worthy or capable, than men writing it. And the point is that there is no single thing that women writing science fiction ‘should’ write about. If a female author writes a story with no female characters that says nothing about her gender, does that matter? Does it by virtue of her gender automatically become a feminist work even though the story itself is so devoid?
Seanan McGuire’s “Each to Each” is brilliant in its playing with expectations of what females are, the roles they ‘should’ serve, and how they are viewed both by others and by themselves. These sorts of themes echo throughout the remainder of the collection, whether explored implicitly or explicitly. The stories (and the nofiction in the issue) don’t offer any kind of clear answers to the matters of dealing with gender disparities, or of dealing with the general Other. Instead they offer a celebration of what all is possible with women writing science fiction. That celebration shows that women writing science fiction is just simply humans writing science fiction – a world of disparate experiences and possibilities, with aspects that no one really has a premium on beyond the fact that each is a personal story, unique and meaningful each to each.
They are women, but they are not just women. They are Charlie Jane Anders. They are Rachel Swirsky. They are Marissa Lingen. They are Nisi Shawl. They are. And listening to their voices is the closest we can come to understanding them, and for that their talented and competent voices deserve to be heard, however they choose to raise them.
One of the things I really enjoy with Lightspeed Magazine are the author interviews that accompany each story, that highlight the individual and personal nature of each story. These give insight into the author’s inspirations, writing process, and at times show interpretations which may coincide or be different from the reader’s. The other nonfiction here includes a host of personal essays. I found these okay by and large, though I do wish there were one or two longer and more in-depth essays or analyses rather than the more brief or superficial feel that some of these had.
If you haven’t picked up this issue yet, I really encourage you to do so, and to look for the two upcoming Women Destroy… issues featuring a Fantasy and a Horror focus, and the Queers Destroy… issue that will follow.
Decades ago a large part of science fiction was not just about technological or scientific speculation but also social speculation, a means to explore the disenfranchised and the Other. It is nice to see something returning in full force to this purpose.
Five Stars out of Five

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538154
368 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The elusive specter had apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it, and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.”
– from Afterwood, by Edith Wharton

While I really enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House for taking a literary, realist approach to the ‘ghost story’, I have to say it was delicious to read something with ‘supernatural enhancements’ of the literal and classically eerie kind.

Nestled in the isolated woods of Virginia, a creepy estate named Axton House with rumors of a ghost. Its eccentric and increasingly reclusive owner, Ambrose, suddenly dead. A suicide. At the same age and in the exact manner as his equally eerie father years ago. The butler, the last remaining servant of Axton House, vanished. The nearest neighbors recall the bizarre group of men who gathered at Axton House each year just prior to Christmas, upon the winter solstice.Ambrose’s lawyer greets the only recently discovered distant relative who has inherited the Axton House estate. The relative, named only as “A.” in the story, arrives with a younger mute companion, an Irish teen named Niamh with bright dyed hair and a punk style that contrasts here silence.

In communication with an “Aunt Liza” back in England, A. and Niamh begin to explore the physical estate (from the haunted mansion to a garden maze) and the history of its owners and their associates to discover the secrets of Axton House and a special all-seeing crystal eye.

The novel is written unconventionally, in a way that at first I feared would be gimmicky and annoying. Thankfully it felt neither. The story is related through a variety of records: diary entries, dream journals, Niamh’s notepad, letters, and transcripts of audio and video recordings. This creates a very effective situation where the reader is given exquisite details, but only in very limited contexts. These details need to be pulled out and fit together, and one must equally remember what isn’t being told or shown. Hence it is like a puzzle where you don’t know what the big picture will ultimately show.

The press describing this novel with words such as ‘clever’ ‘gothic’ and ‘fun’ are spot on and succinctly sum up the sheer joy that is The Supernatural Enhancements. This book truly felt like reading a children’s story again, but with adult themes within, for the ultimate effect of it all stands on the challenge of puzzle solving and the thrill of unexpected chills. Full of cryptography (messages one can attempt to decode) in various forms, each discovery only opens further mysteries and surprises.

Honestly, not everything was a surprise for me, I easily foresaw the role of certain characters. However, there were enough unexpected revealings of plot and twists to keep me pleased. I don’t want to ruin the nature of the secrets, but I can safely explain that I really enjoyed the union of the haunted/fantastic with a dose of scientific (neurobiology and quantum physics really) theory or speculation. This science element verges at the edge of actual scientific speculation and pseudoscience, the perfect spot for this kind of story.

The measured placement of The Supernatural Enhancements at this zone between the fantastic and that speculative region just beyond the limits of what science currently can describe is referenced throughout the novel with mention of The X-Files and Mulder & Scully’s relationship. The story is set in  the early years of the show’s run, and features other pop-culture references of the time as well. Just as The X-Files references the gothic, occult fantasy of the first half of the novel, a lovely reference to the classic PC game The Secret of Monkey Island gives a perfect nod to the treasure-hunting and puzzle-solving aspects of the second half.

The Mulder & Scully metaphor can also be extended in some respects to the relationship between A. and Niamh. This is not in the sense of faith vs. doubt that the two X-Files characters embodied. Rather, it is in the ambiguity of the emotions in their relationships. Niamh is described as being there to protect A. Yet, A. also shows the drive and ability to protect Niamh. They also obviously have deep connection and the apparent potential for romance, but their relationship seems to be platonic. This ambiguity that Cantero uses with A. and Niamh is absolutely brilliant, particularly given the novel’s ultimate close.

I really can’t think of much that I didn’t enjoy about The Supernatural Enhancements. It is entertaining, it has a good amount of depth, it is clever and challenging in the puzzle solving aspects, it is just all-around well written. Given the inclusion of non-standard elements like mazes and cryptograms and the like, I’d definitely recommend getting this in actual hard copy. I’m really eager to see the cover in reality and not just on a screen too. This is a book that I’m getting my own physical copy of to hold and enjoy again.

Five Stars out of Five

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

NOTE: Ending 28th July, 5 copies of this book are available to win from Doubleday through the Goodread’s Giveaway Program. Go here to sign up for the giveaway or to add this to your To Read list.

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 149760186X
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Cleopatra Brimstone”
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“Wonderwall”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Kronia”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“Echo”
“The Saffron Gatherers”

There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth).  Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.

These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.

Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.

This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.

The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.

I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)

However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.

I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook  release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Viking (Penguin UK)
ISBN: 0670923583
224 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication (US): 24th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads & NetGalley

So often, literature focuses solely on conflicts, the inability of people to reconcile with others, themselves, or their environment. Like any story, Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto contains conflict, adversity that its characters must face. The appeal of the novel is that despite the darkness it is suffused with humor and joy and is focused on how a family successfully holds together despite their hardship. In Em and The Big Hoom, communication abides even amid the unpredictability of madness.

Told from the perspective of a boy living with his family is small Mumbai flat, Em and The Big Hoom is a series of chapters that are each almost short stories themselves. Em, or Imelda, is the mother who is plagued with mental disease (bipolar disorder) that creates a paradoxical closeness to and distance from her husband (Austine or ‘The Big Hoom’), daughter (Susan), and son (the unnamed point-of-view character).

The son relates the emotional roller-coaster of life with a woman that everyone knows is ‘mad’, but whom they all love and try to support even through the darkest moments of attempted suicide. The son thinks constantly about both of his parents, their past and how they came together, the present, and the uncertain future that shows both promise of hope and the threat of instant disaster. Looking at his parents, the son is also forced to consider what genetic aspects he may have inherited from each: an admirable devotion of sacrifice and love displayed by his kind father, the sweet uncompromising honesty and playfulness of his mother, or her ‘madness’.

Both parents are well written, but Em is fabulously so, a woman who faces the weighty realization of her mental illness with a brutal honesty, yet simultaneously tries to lighten it with humor and memories of past joys. As the point-of-view character, the son is likewise complex, but the sister Susan seems present only to have another child in the story.

The beauty of the novel lies in Pinto’s writing, which mirrors the frank honesty of the characters. Though not flowery or decorated with an advanced vocabulary, Pinto’s writing is poetic. It flows gracefully and naturally with simple, but precise, words that convey deep emotion and thought, making the unnamed son who serves as the narrator familiar and relatable. The novel is highly quotable and many of the son’s thoughts or pondered questions would be excellent fodder for student or book group discussion.

A simple plot saturated with the dark undertones of mental illness, Em and The Big Hoom joyfully depicts a realistic optimism and hope that will be inspiring and enriching for readers of all kind.

Five Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher both electronically via NetGalley and through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

(In a rare case of timing I was granted NetGalley access and then won a physical copy moments after getting that notice, before I was able to withdraw from the Goodreads giveaway contest. The physical copy will go to a friend and reviewer I hope will enjoy it as much as I have.)

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie
Shattered Sea Book 1
Publisher: Del Rey
ASIN: B00HBQWGYO
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 8th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

I’ve been fortunate to have a recent run of phenomenal books. Like several of the novels I last read, Half a King took me a moment to get into. With a new fantasy story there is always a period of getting used to the universe and its style within the spectrum of the genre. This was also my introduction to Abercrombie and his style, so I had no expectations or baseline measurement entering in. For the first chapters the tone set in and I worried a bit. Half a King is a high fantasy, told in a universe of Western Medievalesque culture/political systems that are the traditional standard of the field. Though elves and magic are mentioned, these amount to legends of the distant past (with hints that this may in fact be technology – perhaps of our civilization). The story at this point is set realistically, and is set up in a straight-forward manner.

Prince Yarvi is studying to be a minister, a career of academics and serving as advisor to those who rule. With a nod to some classic fantasy series, Yarvi is a cripple, born with a half-hand. Physically deformed and weak, intellectually-inclined, and lacking a personality of confidence or leadership, Yarvi has no ambitions or plans to ever rule. However, the sudden death of his elder brother and their father the king suddenly forces the ill-prepared Yarvi into the role of ruling.

This set up had me fearing that the novel would proceed rather predictably, down a simple path of Yarvi gaining confidence in ruling, and showing how his shrewd mind was more important than battle prowess and physical intimidation. The relatively short length of the book also left me wondering just how much could be accomplished on any epic scale.

After these first chapters, however, a curve is thrown to Yarvi and the plot, sending our protagonist down a different path. Still one of personal growth, of finding his confidence and an ability to lead, the story quickly became far more captivating than I first expected. I fell in love with this world and with the character of Yarvi, despite the familiarity of his situation.

Abercrombie succeeds in making Yarvi’s story compelling through a couple of aspects. The first is by making this feel like an epic fantasy despite being short. (Originally thought to be a stand-alone novel, it is now clearly to be expanded into a series.) The plot is focused on Yarvi and the friends and adversaries he meets directly. But Yarvi’s personal and political struggles are set within a richly formed universe. Abercrombie puts in many details of the world-at-large and its culture, including religion and the afore-mentioned elven relics of a previous age. At first the many details inserted into the narrative seemed to be a way of making Half a King ‘sound’ like a fantasy, akin to inserting lots of foreign-sounding technical words into a SF novel. Abercrombie’s skill quickly became clear though, that this is setting up a sense of epic within the confines of this single small story. The history and characters of the offscreen larger world become clearer as the novel draws to a close and ties into what has occurred to Yarvi, giving the reader the sense of something epic and well constructed. Along these same lines, Yarvi’s story extends through a significant period of time and drastically-changing circumstances, but Abercrombie makes this flow realistically and naturally across the pages.

The second aspect to Half a King‘s success is Abercrombie’s tone. The book is written with a voice that fits Yarvi to a tee, with shades of being archaic and Medievalesque fitting to the universe, but not overtly or comically so as some genre books can get. There is a lyrical quality to the writing, helping this story to go by with fantastic pacing and being engrossing all the way. The novel is marketed under the Young Adult umbrella. As is often the case, this is largely due to the protagonist being a young adult. However, it is also the tone and content. Though featuring violence and talks of a sex, they are treated quite tamely, making this a PG sort of adventure story. The work is also pervaded with a sense of optimism, a resilience to survive, and a joy for the beautiful moments in life. This makes it a fine counter to the more pessimistic fantasy of something like A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet, despite the optimism, the novel continues to be believable and relatable, peppered with loss, disaster, and cruelty. With themes such as honor, promises, confidence, and loss, Half a King is ideal for a young fantasy reader, but shouldn’t be limited to that audience.

Half a King has been featured on “Best of” lists for summer reading and garnered significant advance praise. Whether fantasy is your thing or not, the novel stands well as a coming-of-age story that should captivate you and whet your appetite to learn more about this world in which Yarvi lives.

Five Stars out of Five

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, by Albert Wendland

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, by Albert Wendland
Publisher: Dog Star Books (Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738615
236 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 25th June 2014
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press

Just after starting this novel a gentleman riding across from me on the metro and pondering the cover asked me, “So what makes an alien landscape, and why does he love them?” I speculated rather generally and explained I had only just read the first chapter.
This wasn’t the only comment I’ve gotten while reading this about the cover and title, something that sadly can’t occur with eReaders. The reactions and questions I got are testaments to the draw, the hook, of the evocative cover and title. The title is representative of the care that Wendland has put into this novel from cover-to-cover and how so many aspects of it can be compared back to those words The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.
The plot also first unwraps with a typical series of hook. Something monumental – and dangerous – is unexpectedly discovered in orbit of an alien planet  by a group of people and one of them, Henry, ends up murdered. This crime leads the police to the novel’s protagonist, Mykol Ranglen, who is somewhat unwillingly dragged into the fray of the situation, as it escalates from a simple murder and missing person’s investigation to a hunt for an artifact that can alter or destroy human civilization.
The cops seek out Ranglen because he is an acquaintance of the deceased, linked to him through Mileen, an artist and former student and lover who had become Henry’s fiancée. Mykol Ranglen is a poet and lecturer who values privacy and separation from others, including the various governmental factions that control Earth and extraplanetary settlements. However, Ranglen cares deeply for Mileen, and her disappearance following the murder of Henry leads Mykol into a personal quest to locate his love and learn what happened on the voyage through space to lead to the situation.
Ranglen already has a fair idea of what may have occurred, but it is a secret he has divulged to very few, and is not about to tell the police. Ranglen is responsible for locating a technological artifact of an ancient, long-extinct alien race, one of a handful of related artifacts (called Clips) which have given humanity blueprints for the development of interstellar travel and stations.
With his artistic appreciation for things alien (such as landscapes painted by Mileen), Ranglen seems to have a related knack for locating the mysterious and small Clips. And it is this ability that led Henry to seek his help when Henry learned about the potential location of another Clip. Ranglen knows from personal experience the power of greed and desire to find a Clip and win the wealth and renown that could come with it, factors Mykol has eschewed. He also understands the danger that more incomprehensible technology could have for humanity as it accelerates at break-neck speed, and the possibilities of it falling into the wrong hands.
It is truly astounding how much Wendland is able to fit into The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. With forward momentum from its start, the pacing is ideal. A mixture of adventure, mystery, and science fiction, each aspect is included in the recipe in just the right proportions for the scope of the tale. The intricate web of the plot and its characters makes Wendland’s work particularly impressive for its size. Overall coherence is managed while also delighting readers with details into the world, such as some of the ‘hard’ science behind the technology (as far as the characters can understand the alien tech). He also includes tidbits into past history that could be further developed into future works.
Though remarkable in execution, the word-count constraints on Wendland’s novel do show in some areas. There just isn’t space to develop characters other than Ranglen. The other characters range from complex to thin and some of their changes in behavior from one part of the story to another feel rushed or forced. Along those lines, the Big Bad seems particularly like a caricature of a Bond villain. His motivations are given to the hero in a rush, just as his plan is going to come to fruition (of course to be thwarted). This Bond-like quality to the novel may be intentional, and the title itself is reminiscent of a title one might see for a 007 adventure.
On the surface then, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is a well written science fiction adventure, a story complete within the confines of this volume, but allowing for the development of further fleshing out. Wendland certainly whets the appetite of the reader, but nicely also leaves you satisfied.
But, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes isn’t just an entertaining sci-fi adventure, it is also about some interesting deeper issues, again alluded to within the title. The title gives a sense of desire – of not merely an appreciation of ‘alien landscapes’, but also of an intense yearning for them. Indeed, the novel begins with a chapter entitled “The Finding”  and closes with one entitled “The Longing”. In between is really a dialogue, even a conflict, between these two ideas. The theme is embodied in the general plot, in the relationship between Ranglen & Mileen, in the antagonism between Ranglen and the villain, and the paradoxical personality of Ranglen himself.
In all these there is a sense of longing for something, and even when something is found it isn’t necessarily enough, or it comes at a price, such as giving up a piece of oneself or of independence. Ranglen is described as a “loner” and “paranoid”, and indeed he is. Though he wants to be left alone, other desires overcome this (such as a yearning for Mileen and her happiness/safety). Yet even without this, Ranglen seems to be constantly dreaming, on the move searching for something more to reach that ‘alien landscape, or that ‘undiscovered country’. He is the person that goes to a party and wants to sink into a corner, yet deep within is simply yearning for some kind of human connection. He is someone who can’t stay just with themselves and the familiar because they crave something new, alien, and beautiful.
Despite a life full of secrets, Ranglen seems unable to prevent divulging them, illustrating this conflict between the two extremes of separation and a longing for engagement, sharing, and adventure. This theme is born out most directly in a key conversation between Ranglen and the villain about half-way through, highlighting the similarities and differences between these two strong-willed characters and echoing the alien conflict that has set up the present situation for humanity and the characters in this universe.
Thus, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is a notable book in many regards, and I’m not surprised it is written by a professor with combined experience in literature and in science. The book has deservingly been recognized by Publisher’s Weekly, but it is a shame that it does not have wider recognition to date. This is something that I should have seen on those “Must read” lists on speculative fiction themed sites like Tor.com or io9. This should attract a wide audience in the genre, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Five  Stars out of Five

 

The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

The Hundred-Year House,
by Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Books)
ASIN: B00G3L163K
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Somewhere in the first part of Makkai’s impressive The Hundred-Year House there is a line or two referencing classic ghost stories of history that were not really about anything supernatural, but were rather psychological, about the descent of a character’s mind and the loss of their grip on reality or self. And in this first part, set in the late 1990s, it seems as if Makkai is doing something similar here with her characters.

The protagonist of this first part is Doug, a failing academic who (seeking to find a university position) should be working on a paper about a relatively unknown poet, but instead has become involved in writing formulaic children’s books. To aid his chosen (or forced) research and get back on track, Doug takes advantage of his connections through marriage. Zee, his wife and an established professor, who is heir to an estate which once served as an artist’s colony where the poet had stayed. Zee and Doug go to stay in the old house on the grounds, where they are joined by Zee’s mother, step-father, and her step-brother and his wife.

While Doug finds writing about the poet difficult, he becomes increasingly pulled into the mystery of what occurred at the artist’s colony in the past and why Zee’s mother-in-law seems so averse to letting him access any records or memorabilia from the time stored in the attic under lock. As Zee sets in motion a devious plan to create an open position for Doug at her university, Doug enters deeper into guarding his secret investigations into the house’s past and his clandestine children’s book writing from Zee. And unexpectedly, he finds himself drawing closer to his sister-in-law.

This first section is thus filled with secrets and intrigue, deep mysteries, catastrophic assumptions, and lies. Set against the backdrop of an old house where odd things occur and rumors of ghosts abound, all seems poised for the novel to continue down a course where Doug, Zee, and the others fall apart (individually in the psychological sense; and quite literally in their union as family). But rather than continue down this path and allow the characters to fully uncover one another’s secrets and the complete history of the house and estate, Makkai leaves these people and takes the reader back into the past with a step to the mid 1950’s, and in the parts that follow additional steps back, ultimately to the very foundations of the house.

For The Hundred-Year House isn’t just a ghost story with emphasis on the people, it is a story about place, as the title betrays. The novel later contains a comment by a character that living in this house in the presence of ghosts doesn’t feel to them as they would expect or understand. We normally view ‘haunting’ as the past coming to intrude and influence our present, to the point that the phrase “haunted by the past” appears redundant. In this house, the character explains, it is more as if its future is reaching back to form the history. And this is indeed the precise experience the reader is having, most obviously from this backward stepping through time as we learn some of the truth of events or unexpected relations between people we met through stories earlier in the novel, in the future.

This makes it necessary, and rewarding, to pay careful attention while reading Makkai’s novel. It is beautifully crafted, a complex weave of characters that makes the tapestry of this house, this estate, which becomes almost a life in itself for the reader and for those people in the story who feel manipulated by what is to come. Quite ingeniously this playing with time and cause-and-effect is more literally born-out in the sub-plot of the first section when Zee manipulates and creates a false story to try and destroy the reputation of a professor. Though based on lies, the charges end up becoming accepted true by all (even the falsely accused) as if history were rewritten by the future (paralleling the rewriting Zee does of the other professor’s Internet browsing history).

The Hundred-Year House is quite good, and rich. It is a novel that invites rereading to capture all the details – I can only guess the many things I missed through the nature of its construction and my spotty memory. Although I read it on a Kindle due to the format of NetGalley advanced reading copies, I’d recommend buying or checking out a physical copy of this, it is the type of work where you’ll appreciate the physical text and scents of reading in front of you, permitting you to flip back and forth between sections and time periods when those ‘aha’ moments hit. This is a haunting book, in no way supernatural, but surely powerful.

Five Stars out of Five

 

Fearful Symmetries, Edited by Ellen Datlow

Fearful Symmetries
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Publisher: ChiZine
ASIN: B00EXOT73U
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:

“A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister
“Kaiju” by Gary McMahon
“Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan
“In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall
“The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling
“The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones
“The Window” by Brian Evenson
“Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman
“Power” by Michael Marshall Smith
“Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren
“The Worms Crawl In,” by Laird Barron
“The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
“Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow” by John Langan
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix

Ellen Datlow’s name to me is synonymous with horror anthology. I see the two together so often, and usually with accolades, that I decided I really did need to just read one of her collections. This one really impressed me in its variety and its quality. I typically enjoy reading horror stories like these around Halloween time, and this collection would be suited well for that kind of celebration. The hard decision will be whether to reread this one or try out another one of her collections.

A review of each single story seems excessive, and there isn’t a single story that failed here. There are no common themes uniting this collection other than the very general fitting into the category of horror or dark tales. They range from very realistic to paranormal, from gruesome gore-filled feasts to nuanced, atmospheric tales, from pulp to literary. Fairly well-ranged in background and style, this is an ideal volume to discover new authors or names that you may merely recognize.

Frankly, it is hard to even pick out favorites from this. For someone like me who has a wide range of tastes across the genre, each of these represents top contributions to their respective category of story type. If you are discriminating regarding the type of horror you like then this may not be the best collection. There will certainly be some or several stories here that you like, but others may hold no interest, in which case you might search elsewhere for a themed collection or just read certain selections here. But for those wanting an intro or return to the range that the horror genre has available, “Fearful Symmetries” is absolutely perfect.

Five Stars out of Five