MIGRATORY ANIMALS, by Mary Helen Specht

22138421Migratory Animals
By Mary Helen Specht
Harper Perennial – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9780062346032 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss

About deep relationships that stretch across time and space, Migratory Animals is about the process of leaving home and returning, and more generally coming back to the familiar and strong personal ties after periods separate. This theme revolves around a group of friends who grew close during college, shuffled around, and are now drawn all back together by circumstances.
With chapters alternating between the points of views of each friend, the predominant and central point is Flannery, a climatologist who has lived the prior years in Nigeria, a spot she now begins see as another home. Flannery returns home to Austin, Texas, where her sister Molly has begun to show signs of Huntington’s disease, an inherited affliction that slowly killed their mother. Left behind by Flannery in Nigeria is her research position and a new fiancé. Flannery is thus burdened both by the uncertainty of her sister’s health and of when she will be able to return to her life in Africa.
Migratory Animals delves into the network of relationships and uncertain futures that surround all of these friends, as they are each challenged by the particulars of the present and the memories of the past. With a plot and themes that are relatively straight-forward, Mary Helen Specht’s novel on the surface appears to be unremarkable. However, what sets it apart as extraordinary how effectively she makes it all seem simple, and easy. Juggling a handful of points of view and a web of interactions, Specht successfully gives each character their unique vision and voice that gel together into a cohesive narrative, and a strong reflection of realism. Flannery and Molly, for instance, share some aspects of voice, personality, as you might expect sisters would, yet have individual highlights and faults.
Another quality to this novel that I greatly appreciated is that the narrative does not rest on outright strife. Their are challenges, sure, but this isn’t yet another literary novel about failing relationships due to poor communication and flawed personality. The characters aren’t rosy, but they are working through any darkness.
Specht’s writing is enthralling and there are layers both to her characters and to the symbols that populate the text. The novel will get you thinking about things like home, nostalgia, family, healing, and schism. While there isn’t much meat here in terms of plot, enough is present for any reader who like character driven fiction.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Harper Perennial via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Déjà Vu, by Ian Hocking

Déjà Vu, by Ian Hocking
(The Saskia Brandt Series #1)
Publisher: Unsung Stories
ISBN: 9781907389221
312 pages, eBook
Published: 30th June 2014
(Originally Published 2005)
Source: NetGalley

 It is the near future. European detective Saskia Brandt arrives with a foggy mind, despite a vacation, back into her office where she discovers the corpse of her receptionist. With all evidence pointing to her as the killer, Saskia is given mere hours to find a way to clear her name. This seemingly impossible task opens a door of revelation to Saskia, indicating that her identity, purpose, and past may not be what she now believes.
In the meantime, academic scientist David Proctor receives a strange visiter and message from his inventor daughter drawing him back to a research site where his wife died decades prior in a bizarre explosion. Accused of that explosion, but having no memory of it, Brandt travels in flight from European agents, including Saskia.
Shrouded in uncertain identity and memory, the pasts of Saskia and David mix together with their present and future in Déjà Vu, a self-described technothriller that mashes up science fiction and crime thriller genre tropes.
The opening chapters of the novel caught my attention, and Saskia Brandt and her predicament in this book regarding her identity and uncertain past hold a great deal of potential. The shift in narrative to Proctor was therefore a bit jarring, for the remainder of the novel remained on this protagonist. This is especially unfortunate because he isn’t a particularly fascinating or likable character. Also it ends up negating the potential of Saskia, who the series is named after. The female protagonist ends up never having any self-definition. Instead she remains something created and manipulated, within the story as much as by the writer. By the time she returns to the novel after the chapters of focus on David, her purpose becomes fully tied to David’s, and there she basically remains.
Beyond disappointing with the wasted potential of a strong female character, Déjà Vu, doesn’t find any other way to significantly impress either. It is not a bad novel; it’s just rather ordinary. Nothing in the plot is particularly novel in terms of technology or twist. The mystery of how the various plot strands come together between past and future of course involves time travel, again not something new to science fiction. Here though time travel is kept to strict rules of causality, so that if something happened in the past, it will happen in the future. No exception.
So, if you try to shoot Hitler to prevent him from rising to power, it won’t happen. The gun will jam. The bullet will fly off at a ninety-degree angle and hit a wall instead. Etc. This ends up effectively making a deus ex machina situation where the plot advances simply because that is how the past was written – quite literally here, by the author.
There are concepts within Déjà Vu that while done in science fiction plenty of times, could be handled anew in a fresh significant way. The start of Saskia’s story had me excited that this might be the case, but unfortunately that isn’t what the novel became. Again, Déjà Vu isn’t terrible and there are nuggets of creative quality here, that even writer Ian Watson gave it praise. But with a generic plot and characters that never became captivating or profound the work just comes across as flat.

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

In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker

In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2013
Source: NetGalley

Kage Baker is a name I was familiar with, but I had only read one of her stories in an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine years ago. Interested in experiencing more of her work I was excited at the opportunity to read this collection, but ended up feeling ambivalent during most of the time reading it. Yet for fans of Baker I am sure this will be a welcome and highly enjoyed volume, particularly in the absence of further works following her unfortunate death from cancer at a relatively young age.

Part of my difficulty of appreciating these stories likely stemmed from my ignorance about this “Company” universe that her stories mostly fit into. This is probably not an ideal book to start out for an introduction to Baker’s works. Oddly, the last story in the collection, written by Baker’s sister from notes and fragments that Baker left prior to her death, does the best job at imparting a background to this universe and the rules that defines its characters and their abilities. Sadly this comes at the end, and is written in a very stated fashion rather than anything particularly literary.

The second hurdle inherently facing these stories is their length, primarily novellas. The novella is a tricky beast, too long for the artistry and impact of a short story, too short to develop complexities and overall meditative themes that a novel can afford. Really it fits best stories that are pulpish, prolonged, multi-staged adventures that mix lightheartedness with bits of excitements and thrills. For me most of the stories here dragged, and simply wore out my interest, perhaps because I just don’t have an appreciation for Baker’s style of humor.

Nonetheless, there were a couple of high points to the collection that I enjoyed. The opening story, “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park” was engaging and sublime, and succeeds in part because it maintains an appropriate length. Rather than going for word count the story stays on point and has a profound hook in its investigation of a character with characteristics of autism who is immortal and is exploited for his unique abilities. “The Women of Nell Gwynnes” was the most enjoyable of the novella length pieces, really a combination of two intriguing stories. First it covers the history and recruitment of a srong-willed independent woman into a secretive organization and then for the second portion goes into her first ‘mission’ with this group. Here the story is exciting and the additional portions of text and background that fill out the main ‘action’ are of note for Baker’s no nonsense tackling of the feminine.

Two-and-Half Stars out of Five

In Retrospect, by Ellen Larson

In Retrospect, by Ellen Larson
Five Star Publications
(Gale-Cengage Learning)
268 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
Source: NetGalley

As a light sci-fi mystery this novel works really well. The characters are interesting, the writing is professional, and the plotting is done well to keep you guessing how things will exactly turn out. Beyond an entertaining diversion there isn’t much here, and that’s fine if a little diversion is all you’re looking for. I would have liked a little more emphasis on the world-building here, and on the science that allows this little mystery plot to unfold. Most jarring, the characters speak exactly like we do today, slang and all, despite being set over a millennia into the future. So to enjoy this one does have to suspend a certain measure of disbelief at the setup and go along for the ride.

The narrative is told through chapters that skip back and forth between different time periods of the life of the protagonist, Merit, starting at the onset with her apparent murder. Larson manages to write these narrative shifts in time without losing the reader, and this is really important, because the book simply wouldn’t work except written in a round-about temporal manner. It is this construction that allows the mystery, as events of Merit’s past now come back to force the present situation.

Merit is probably what I enjoyed most about the novel. Her character is complex and conflicted, unsure of who she can trust any longer, and uncertain of her own capabilities and strengths. Although the novel lacked aspects that I would usually want to see in a sci-fi book, the depths of that character really brought this novel into something interesting to read.

Three Stars out of Five

Long Division, by Kiese Laymon

Long Division, by Kiese Laymon
Publisher: Agate Bolden
ISBN: 1932841725
276 pages, paperback
Published June 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

True or False: If you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened.

So reads one of the ‘questions’ in a test given to Citoyen (City), the protagonist of “Long Division”, a test that appears both near the beginning and the end of the story. Or perhaps one should say, stories. With the qualifications of ‘for me [dot dot dot] for this novel’ the above statement is most certainly true. On the surface Laymon’s debut novel is filled with straight-forward social commentary on race, age, and family. These weighty topics are dealt with moments that are humorous and a style that shows joy at playing with language. But I also get the sense that there is more behind that surface, a trove of thought-provoking bits that could easily fuel dissection in some academic setting. This is a novel that one finishes, and decides to return to again one day.

You can read the summary of what this novel is about, so I won’t go into its complexities here, but it is indeed a book with another book called “Long Division” within it. And that secondary “Long Division” even has yet another “Long Division” within that. We the reader don’t delve into that level, though one gets the impression that it may circle back into the world of the primary “Long Division” one holds in his or her hands. Thankfully, this complexity does not detract from the novel, it is actually an integral part that drives the whole. The fantastic aspects of the novel (time travel across historical eras) actually take place in the secondary “Long Division”, while the primary work stays rooted in a realistic manner until the end when a bit of magic possibilities enter in, at least how I interpreted things on a first read. I felt some uncertainty in both events of the plot and what ideas to take from the novel upon concluding it. On the one hand this fuels thinking, reconsidering, and rereading. On the other hand, some readers may not like doing this at all.

Laymon desired (from what I can tell) to write something unique that spoke to a particular audience, but still capture certain essences of ‘classic’ Am literature that we all grew up with in school. He has surely achieved this kind of balance both in story and characters. On the back cover of the book, Tim Strode is quoted “…City…feels totally singular and totally representative.” This statement is dead-on, both in characters and the overall style of the work. Layman’s most impressive achievement is that of voice. The City of “Long Division” prime is both similar, and quite distinct from the time-traveling counterpart of “Long Division” secondary. In a book that focuses commentary on stereotypes, clichés, acting a part, etc, it becomes essential that the author stays well-clear of falling into the same trap. Laymon manages to keep each character utterly believable and sincere: simply human, whether young or old, male or female, black or white. Primarily focused on issues of race, it was profound to see Laymon also masterfully handle those other considerations such as gender.

The varied styles and personalities of each character really does make this novel go beyond being a clever social commentary or homage to classic literature; it makes it art worth consuming. That fact, along with the book’s easy flow, strong plot, and tendency to make one chuckle make this something well-worth your reading.

Five Stars out of Five