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.

CALIFORNIA, by Edan Lepucki

California, by Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316250813
393 pages, hardcover
Published: July 2014
Source: NetGalley

In a post-apocalyptic near future, a young couple cling to one another in passion and isolation among the trees of the west coast US wilderness. Discovering their nearest neighbors (and only friends) dead, Cal (California) and Frida drop into deeper fear for the future. Discovering that she’s pregnant, Frida feels a greater need for stability, safety, and those vanished comforts of their past life before civilization’s collapse. As her mind turns to thoughts of the potential joys and fragility of relationship and family, Frida is reminded of the tragic actions and death of her brother. Cal and Frida leave their little piece of isolation to seek out a nearby secretive community and the support that the people there could potentially give. They find that Frida’s name is recognized by members of the community and that the town’s apparent safety is built around dark secrets and shadows of the past.
Works such as this that fall within the folds of literary post-apocalyptic fiction can be tricky beasts. The genre tends to bypass exploration of the means by which collapse occurred (or any action-packed epic scale looks at what the world has become) to instead focus on psychological effects on people and their relationships. Sharing similar themes structured around family and community these more literary works of post-apocalypticism end up seeming a lot alike. With Cormac McCarthy’s The Road these themes centered on a father and son. Here in California the core is Frida, her state of mind and particularly her definition in relation to the men in her life.
And here is where I run into my biggest problem with Lepucki’s novel: Frida is exceptionally weak. She appears primarily driven largely by biological urges of sex motherhood, and the memories of her brother. Much of the novel rests on her apparent need for seeking safety and solace in either her brother or in Cal (the latter who is equally weak-willed). Frida and Cal allow much to happen to them and don’t seem to have much ability to direct events in the novel, and despite questioning themselves seem incapable of actually questioning one another adequately to avoid those misunderstandings that help drive the plot.
With Frida being so defined as a character by the men around her and her biological circumstances I was rather surprised to find the novel is written by a woman. And I’m honestly equally puzzled by how strongly many female reviewers have loved this book. After reading a few misogynistic comments directed at Frida relatively early in the novel I considered abandoning it. I wrote a colleague about this and she told me that she had abandoned reading California for the same feelings.
The end of the novel is dark and discomforting in terms of its plot, leading me to wonder if this is simply the whole point of the novel, to tell a story about a pair of characters who are unlikable and doomed in their faults. Yet, whether written intentionally to convey these kinds of interpretations and reactions I had, or not, I simply didn’t find California that notable of an addition to the rather over-crowded post-apocalyptic field.

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

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

 

Journal of the Plague Year

Journal of the Plague Year:
A Post-Apocalyptic Omnibus
 by Various
Publisher: Abaddon Books
ISBN: 1781082464
400 pages, paperback
Published: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
Orbital Decay, by Malcolm Ross
Dead Kelly, by C.B. Harvey
The Bloody Deluge, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 Though I’ve read plenty of shared-universe novels, they all have fallen into the media-tie-in category, but I’d been intrigued by titles in the Abaddon catalog and the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic setting of this “Afterblight” series seemed like something I’d easily enjoy. And this omnibus collection ended up being basically what I expected, nothing flashy or awe-inspiring, but a fresh and varied series of genre stories that keeps the reader entertained.
Each of the three novellas in the omnibus has its positive qualities, but each also came with problems for me. As such, no single story stood out above the others: none exceptional, yet each ultimately satisfying and worth the read. What impresses me most about Journal of the Plague Year is how unique each of the three novellas is. All apocalyptic, each falls into a particular sub-genre.
Orbital Decay has an emphasis on science fiction, and in terms of plot and set-up I found this the most intriguing. The American and Russian crew aboard a space station in orbit of Earth watch in isolation from the rest of humanity as the disease known as “The Cull” begins to spread throughout the world. The physical and psychological stresses of space coupled with international and personal tensions between crew-members become exacerbated as the characters watch the Apocalypse unfold below them to friends and family and some struggle to figure out the disease’s cause and how safe they are on the station.
The strengths of Ross’ contribution to the omnibus center on the characterizations, their individual psychology and interactions. Unfortunately in terms of science fiction, serious errors occur when dealing with biology, with Ross apparently confusing critical differences between viruses and bacteria. The sections dealing with the nature of the disease took me right out of the story into sighs and groans. There are also a lot of technical details in the story, but I can’t really comment how believable or accurate these were.
Dead Kelly is best classified in crime, or horror, being a tale full of degenerate criminals struggling for control and pursuing personal vendettas in the power vacuum following civilization’s collapse. Kelly is the former leader of a group that fell apart when a big heist went sour. Having faked his death, Kelly has been hiding out in the Australian outback, but now returns to his old familiar haunts and colleagues in the new post-Cull world. This story has a lot of raw energy, with a protagonist who is both revolting and compelling depending on the particular passage being read. It is a brutal story of betrayal, justice, and revenge.
And as such it is a lot of fun. Readers that can’t stomach intense situations or unlikable protagonists won’t want anything to do with this. The overall tone of Harvey’s novella as a revenge tale is rather familiar, however. Most of the story proceeds in expected fashion and thereby comes across as too simplistic. But to Harvey’s credit, it does end in a particularly strong fashion that is unexpected, yet ends up feeling just right.
The Bloody Deluge was the deepest of the three novellas, about big ideas of faith versus reason, order versus chaos, freedom versus control, hope versus despair. Here, Tchaikovsky tackles the big issues of what could happen to society and individuals faced with a post-apocalyptic landscape. Set in Eastern Europe, it has a certain novelty of setting, which helps against the familiarity of tackling these sorts of issues in the post-apocalyptic genre. Though the themes are well-worn, Tchaikovsky still has important things to say and handles them in a far more balanced and nuanced manner than I first expected.
This final novella falls into a general adventure genre where a group of individuals on the run from one cult-like community/power ends up falling into the protection/influence of another. The story can be separated into three distinct parts: the chase, the rescue/protection, and an ultimate battle. I found the final portion vastly superior to the opening, which really seemed to drag. I’m glad I stuck with it to read completely, but it would’ve been improved shortened.
In the end this should be a straight-forward decision for anyone considering reading Journal of the Plague Year – it’s safe to judge on its marketing appearance. If apocalyptic sci-fi and adventure stories are a genre you generally enjoy then this is worth checking out. If you are looking for a particular kind of emphasis (sci-fi, horror, or adventure) then you may want to just read a particular novella here rather than them all.
Three Stars out of Five

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

 

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Permuted Press
ASIN: B00DX0F4L4
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

In “Suffer the Children”, DiLouie successfully provides readers with a horrific scenario, the start of civilization’s collapse when all the children in the world drop dead. Then he ups the ante by making the situation get even worse. He does this with writing, with language that is chillingly conveyed without hesitance or sugar-coating. The result is a terrifying ride through a parent’s worst fears realized (creepy and personally moving even for someone without children) and the rapid decay of individuals into monsters, embodying genetic selfishness at its most extreme.

The novel, in this way, is exceptionally powerful horror, built upon a basic human fear tied to our reproduction and sense of family, told at a great pace and keeping fans of the genre entertained. However, a significant criticism lies in the fact that this horrific scenario playing out in the novel seems utterly fabricated. DiLouie spends small sections later in the novel to try and give a rational explanation behind the events. More developed (and modern) than a similar type of attempt in a similar kind of story, “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, DiLouie makes a similar error of trying to give definition to a horrific event of fantasy (a negative ‘miracle’). The explanation has a reasonable basis, but still fails to explain the facts of the plot, not least of which is the simultaneous death of children en masse within time zones, traveling a morbid constant wave around the globe.

The plot thus feels very artificial, set up precisely by an author to maximize the horror and the worst of humanity that ends up being brought to surface. Similarly, DiLouie employs characters that end up feeling increasingly like puppets. On the one hand this is because the adults become puppets of sorts within the actual plot. But also they begin to act with extreme personalities and defects that simply seemed designed by the author.

If the reader is able to maintain enough suspension of disbelief to ignore or look past the ample set up and card tricks being employed in plot and character within the novel, they will probably love this. If these kinds of details and authorial maneuvers negate or take away from positive aspects of the novel, the reader will be disappointed. There is exceptional horror and deep rooted human fear here, writing that will pull at the heart-strings of emotions. But this can only be enjoyed if you can look past the fabrications that are so clearly in play to produce the effect.

Three Stars out of Five

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00HE2JK7G
836 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
(Original Publ: 1974)
Source: NetGalley

a behemoth. Certainly there are much longer novels out there, but rarely does one see a creature matching this degree of size and power. Dhalgren is the first novel that I’ve read that manages to effectively transform the reading process itself into an experience of culture. In other words, Delany’s construction and style make this a metanovel where the reading of it, in all its nonstandard ways, creates the sensations of Dhalgren’s characters and settings a reality in the reader. Just as ‘The Kid’ enters into the bizarrely incomprehensible city of Bellona, so goes the reader into a hazy experience of uncertainty and wonder that catalyzes introspection and revelation. Now granted, not everyone is going to find this to be a good thing. If you only care about entertainment and story, don’t bother, but if you appreciate something more, this is a city you should enter, an experience of which you should partake.

Dhalgren is apocalyptic. Typically this genre within science fiction uses the popular definition of the word, to convey disaster, or post-disaster. In Dhalgren Bellona has gone through some sort of disaster, but the remainder of the world is said to be fine. Bellona is isolated in its trauma. Delany does not use this genre to explore post-apocalyptic action, such as the contrasts of human decency or barbarism that come in response to a loss of civilization. Instead he is using it to explore the concept of apocalypse in its original sense: a revealing. Within the novel itself isolated Bellona provides the environment for the unreliable, point-of-view protagonist to discover himself. ‘The Kid’ is an amnesiac – of sorts – with a mental history suggesting much of what he sees and records may be incorrect. Though he never determines who exactly he is, he does go through revelations regarding his nature. Delany seems to link this process of apocalypse intimately with the culture of art and community, of creativity and the act of creating to explore with others this business of existence and living. Lost in Bellona, “The Kid” becomes the leader of a gang, an influential poet, and an excellent recorder of the details of living in this weird city. Simultaneously Dhalgren is a revelation to the reader: the unveiling of a period of history, of a counter culture. Like any good apocalyptic literature, Bellona is a symbol for a time that has largely passed, but that does not make the novel dated, for its themes are universal. Though I wasn’t born until after the era of culture this novel manifests, I suspect that reading Dhalgren is a fair approximation without a time machine on hand.Dhalgren is inspirational, either for adoration or derision, or sometimes both. It is easy to see why the novel is beloved by those like William Gibson, who writes a lovely introduction to this edition. Yet, other critics hate this novel with zeal. If it’s not your cup of tea, it’s easy to see how it could infuriate you. The opening and closing portions of the novel are the most daunting, so I wouldn’t suggest giving up on this until you reach the third chapter and still find it unreadable. If by that point you are interested it is worth continuing. Yet, Dhalgren isn’t a perfect novel (or metanovel even). It has its own proper issues. By the last chapters all points have been covered really, and it begins to weigh as excessively written. Given how quickly the first publication of Dhalgren was rushed out (with numerous errors that later had to be fixed – and couldn’t have been easy to find considering how much intentional errors/incomprehensible bits there are) one wishes that an editor would have taken a sterner red marker to the manuscript. Dhalgren is literature, only minimally science fiction, and in keeping with its focus on detail over ‘big picture’ there are some rather frank depictions of sexuality in its myriad forms.

Dhalgren is special; I will not forget the experience of stumbling through its pages, lost on the ever-shifting streets of Bellona, entranced by the mysterious wonders writ upon the skies in moments of bright clarity amid hazy gray fogs.

Dhalgren is

Five Stars out of Five

Wasteland Blues, by Andrew Conry-Murray & Scott Christian Carr

Wasteland-BluesFINWasteland Blues, by Andrew Conry-Murray & Scott Christian Carr
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738593
220 pages, paperback
Published March 2014
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press

The only thing I didn’t enjoy about “Wasteland Blues” is that it ended, just as my interest continued to grow and grow. ‘Leave them wanting more’ I guess is the phrase that Carr &Conry-Murray are putting into practice here. And honestly this sort of surprised me from where I came from starting this novel.Reading the opening chapters my response was rather luke-warm, the post-apocalyptic situation seemed so very familiar, and the plot seemed pointed squarely onto a simple quest with cut-out characters, which ranged from crass to dim to impotent. I knew ‘apocalyptic’ was a genre of story I adore, and even something run-of-the-mill could provide some entertainment, but I was eagerly looking for something more, something that set this apart.

Joyously, the book grew on me quickly, the characters turning deeper than I expected, the plot turning inward and becoming more about the journey and its diversions than that bright far-off quest goal, and intriguing elements introduced that aren’t simple post-apocalyptic tropes. This turnaround in my response is a testament to how well this novel is plotted. With Carr’s background in TV, this strength is understandable in hindsight. The novel unfolds as if it is on the screen, drawing the reader into this world bit by bit, making us start out curious, hating the characters one moment, only to find some part of them that draws our sympathy instead the next. Each character is clearly a ‘type’, yet the majority of them are rounded enough to show struggles and depth, hints of what made them act the way they are, and that perhaps there is more to them beneath the exteriors they parade. As the core cast of characters continue their journey new faces are introduced, each more fascinating than the next, adding further dynamics and threads to the tale.

In terms of style the writing reminded me most of Stephen King, with its moments of humor, absurdity, rage, and general off-kilter characters. Despite being written by two men, the novel maintains a unified voice, and I can see how (as the introduction posits) the two authors complement one another to reach a fine balance in tone. At first, despite the post-apocalyptic setting, the story appeared to have more elements of fantasy to it than science fiction. This feeling in style occurs easily in the genre what with humanity often being pushed back in terms of civilization and technology due to the ‘Collapse’, ‘Devastation’, ‘War’, etc.

But again, it is as if the authors were delighting in throwing the reader off-balance, for elements of science fiction and technology entered into the story in the latter portion of the novel, in unique and intriguing ways, leaving one to wonder what additional surprises may be in store with any future visits to this universe. These portions of the story may come from the influence of Conry-Murray, but regardless of the source, they make for a well-appreciated infusion of science and technology into a wilderness tale.

Which brings me to the downside to this novel, the end. As the pages remaining grew few, I realized that there was no way the plot would be able to wrap up in the sense that their quest, their journey could not possible conclude. Why end the novel now, after one diversionary episode in this grand adventure? Why now, rather than the previous one…or the next? Simply enthralled with the ways the story was going I didn’t want the ride to end, and forgot for a moment that there is more to “Wasteland Blues” then the simple quest plot and its initial set up of simple characters. The diverse characters, each very separate individuals, after their own personal goals, were now at this point an actual family of sorts, an actual traveling group with goals more in common than they may have originally suspected. The most twisted and volatile character has had moments of genuine reflection and calm. They have grown into something, and in a sense, it makes perfect sense for this segment of their overall journey to end at this point where they have reached something substantial, maybe not in plot, but in their own personal characters.

“Wasteland” isn’t fine literature, it isn’t some staggeringly insightful commentary couched within a post-apocalyptic symbol. But it is a solid and engaging journey of reading in the genre, with a bit of depth, some interesting innovations, good laughs, and a ton of heart.

Five  Stars out of Five

 

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738461
224 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn’t fight in the war and couldn’t care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he’s forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.’s peace-keeping force. It’s soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.” – publisher description

A quick read that surprised me in how much I enjoyed the ride. “Odd Men Out” largely works positively because Betts appears to have had so much fun writing it, and such an endearment for fun pieces of genre fiction from sci fi to horror. Mention of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the introduction to the novel got me excited and hopeful; entering into the story fulfilled those emotions, Betts manages to keep the story serious enough in tone while still having a lot of fun poking at troupes and throwing in amusing references. One lovely pun in reference to “Jaws” made me chuckle for a while.

As others note, the novel is a hodgepodge mix of genre elements from apocalyptic to alt history, to steampunk, to B movie monster movies, and on and on. What makes this work is that Betts keeps the same tone throughout and above all the same style. Despite many elements, the book at heart is a simple adventure story, full of action and crisp writing. The story, and its execution are just simply fun.

What disappointed me about the novel was firstly that it is too short. Some portions seem rushed, with action taking place off-screen that I would’ve been curious to ‘see’. Betts could have also used some more room to get in better characterization (without losing the story’s pace and pulse). At the end of this I have a vague sense of who the characters were – as in their ‘role’ to the story. Their identities, however… What really makes them tick and unique… not so much. In addition their interactions – particularly in the romance aspect – is predictable, clichéd, and thus kind of lifeless. Obviously though, these sorts of issues aren’t what’s at the forefront of a book like this, so while I could imagine it being better, these disappointments didn’t seriously detract from the entertainment at its core.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, this isn’t the type of book I’d normally first go to and pick up cold without knowing the author or trusted reviews. I had entered a previous giveaway from the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title I actually was more interested in from the blurb. Failed to win that, but at the time I had looked into the publisher and their entire independent catalog I was intrigued. When I saw this from the same publisher I signed up more to see one of their titles moreso than this particular novel. I’ll gladly seek out future works by Betts though, hoping they’ll keep the fun and magic with improvements to boot.

I could never afford to get lots of their releases, (being independent small press, they aren’t likely to be easy to find second-hand) but I would also be willing now to try ones at full price that did look good. Normally I wouldn’t comment on price and construction like this, but this book is also one of the sturdiest and nicest paperbacks (trade) that I’ve had, and for once I’d consider the full price of a trade paperback to be worth it. I carry books around all the time, on the bus reading to work, etc, and usually they become bent, scarred, creased, despite my best attempts at keeping them pristine. This kept its corners rigid, had no easy creasing, etc. I was so impressed I thought I should say something.

It should be easy to tell if you like this kind of book: the genres, the easy reading, etc. If you do, definitely try getting ahold of a copy. Then watch some MST3K, you’ll be in the mood assuredly.

Four  Stars out of Five

While merging this review from Goodreads and adding a publisher link I noticed that Odd Men Out has garnered some award nominations. Check out the news here.

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DTTQBDE
363 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
(Originally Publ. 1990)
Source: NetGalley

The entry for M.K. Wren in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” aptly describes this novel as ambitious and eloquent. I was unfamiliar with her work before coming across this ebook reissue, but now I will eagerly pick up the “Phoenix” fantasy trilogy for which she is apparently best-known.

“A Gift Upon the Shore” uses the post-apocalyptic scenario to delve into two unique responses to wide-scale tragedy where civilization has collapsed and individuals are forced to give up or survive. The first response is one of fear and the erection of a rigidly controlling, false worldview based around the worst of Biblical literalism. The second response is one of careful rationality, deciding to preserve what is beautiful about humanity: art, knowledge, and compassion.

The conflicts between these two world-views drives the plot of the novel, related through the first person present point-of-view of protagonist Mary Hope, an elderly teacher living amongst (though philosophically apart from) a small Christian community. The origins of her present conflicts within the community are related through her first person past recollections of the advent of nuclear holocaust, her survival along with friend Rachel in solitude as they turn to preserving Rachel’s library, and their joyous, though ultimately disastrous, encounter with another survivor sent forth from “The Ark” to find potential mates to repopulate the devastated Earth.

The dichotomy between the rationally agnostic (or atheist) Rachel or Mary and the fervently ignorant religion of other characters has led some to criticize the novel as anti-religious or anti-Christian. This is only true, perhaps, if you accept reason and faith as diametrically opposed. Instead, the novel is more aptly described as being a reaction against the anti-intellectual Conservatism that we sadly see all to frequently coming from political and social news. Wren’s target is not Christianity itself, but rather a form of religion that grabs hold of simple, comforting answers or interpretations and holds onto them vehemently in the face of reality, because if they were to acknowledge reality their rigid and weak system would crumble, leaving them exposed to fear and despair. Rather than investing energy to support a dogmatic system of suppression, Wren argues that something more divine (and, I would argue, more religious) is possible, namely focusing on what is beautiful about humanity and about creation.

Wren masterfully uses female characters, something sadly not that common in science fiction. Rachel and Mary are each memorable, finely rendered and realistic characters. However, the other characters are less developed. The major antagonist is dogmatic repression made manifest and many of the rest are simply literal weak-willed followers. This arises from Wren’s separation of the two philosophies: one very liberal humanistic and the other totalitarian and thus unsympathetic and less ‘humane”.

These religious or philosophical points of the book are thus perhaps too overt and not presented as complexly as one would hope. But, the heart of the novel doesn’t lie in simply presenting the conflict between these two opposing ideas, it lies in Wren’s appreciation for life and the world, which the beliefs and behaviors of Rachel and Mary merely echo.

Here is the true gift presented by Wren to the readers of the novel: her descriptions of nature are profoundly beautiful. Numerous passages describing the Oregon coast and its surrounding ecosystems are rendered in hauntingly poetic language. Reading this and thinking of another literary ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel, “The Road”, I can only think how much more evocative and meaningful is “A Gift Upon the Shore”, though admittedly, they are very different kinds of books. This is truly eloquent and ambitious, and though it may not attain the profound heights that it strives for, I would easily recommend it.

Five Stars out of Five