ANNA by Sammy H.K. Smith

“… Anna is a tautly written dystopian thriller immerses readers in a brutal world of struggling for survival and personhood. It is not inspirational. It is a horrifying and brutal first-person account of traumatic abuse and finding a possibility of some freedom or power despite it…”

Read my entire debut review for Fantasy Book Critic of Anna HERE

Solaris (Rebellion Press) – May 2021 – Hardcover – 300 pp.

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Permuted Press
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

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert
Publisher: Sourcebook Landmarks
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

There is something magical in stories that focus on the relationship between the young (particularly in the tween and teen years) and the elderly. The traumas and uncertainties in the lives of the teen find a certain solace in the wizened eccentricities of the elder. The elderly have gotten through that period of their lives, but are not like the other adults. They are no longer in their productive prime and they are in another transition stage of our existence, one even more uncertain and potentially traumatic. From the other side, the connection with the vibrancy of youth seems to magically transform the elderly, as they recall with fondness moments of their own history, and perhaps reconsider past events that were more dark and difficult to confront in their earlier years. With “The Memory Garden”, M. Rickert explores these themes of the young connecting with the old through one teenager (Bay) and three older women, her adopted guardian (Nan) and two of Nan’s childhood friends, who Nan hasn’t had contact with in years (Ruthie and Mavis).

I know Mary Rickert’s name from her stories that have appeared in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and it is always a joy to see novels appear from authors who I fondly recall from those pages. Like her stories, “The Memory Garden” is written in a delicate, understated manner. Bright, lush, and full of life on the surface, the lives (and deaths) in the novel hide dark matters underneath. Nicely, these serious (and unfortunately very realistic, not fantastic) horrors are included perfectly, neither downplayed nor exploited.

Rickert’s writing is beautiful, full of rich, sense-evocative elements. Most overtly, chapters are built around descriptions (definitions) of particular plants that fit into the theme or events of that given chapter. But throughout the book Rickert is able to fully immerse the reader in this fairy-tale like world with its sights, smells, feelings, and tastes. The highlight of the novel in this respect comes at a high point of the narrative arc as Ruthie concocts a lavish feast for the others built around edible flowers.

Although a couple of secondary characters are not strongly developed and largely fulfill plot-related purposes, the major characters of the novel – Bay and the three elder women – are superbly written, realistic women with personalities each unique and fitting for their ages and experiences. Given the three older ladies, my mind happened to go immediately to “The Golden Girls”. Indeed, each of the women had aspects to their personalities that I could map to Dorothy, Blanche, or Rose. (With Ruthie for instance reminding me often of Rose with here naive nature, to the point where my mind would read “Ruthie” as “Rose”). However, these personalities didn’t line up perfectly, and as the novel progressed, these elderly characters also changed significantly, and the reader learns that they each are far more than they show at first sight. These characters don’t just have secrets that get revealed, Rickert is able to show how they hold more of themselves inside than just some historical events. They keep emotions and personalities hidden due to their experiences, which in turn inform how they are interacting with Bay and the crises she faces.

The plot is more firmly in the ground of fantasy than the more agnostic ‘fantasy realism’, but it should nonetheless be an easy fantasy pill to swallow for general fiction readers. The plot of the novel is slow-moving, as well as the character development. Coupled with its understated style overall, it is not the most ‘engaging’ novel from the onset, requiring patience and lingering appreciation for the quiet beauty of the text as things slowly unfold. With the complex conclusion to it all, I can’t be remotely disappointed with the novel as a whole. Though I look forward to future novels from Rickert, I really hope to keep seeing “M. Rickert” in the table of contents in F&SF in the future still too.

Five Stars out of Five

The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh

The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh
Publisher: Spiegl & Grau
320 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

McHugh’s debut novel is an impressive thriller covering a coming-of-age crisis for Lucy, a seventeen year old growing up in a close knit rural town of the Ozarks, and the tragic history of her mother Lila, who mysteriously disappeared while Lucy was still a baby. When a classmate and minor friend goes missing and subsequently turns up dead, Lucy begins to investigate the crime, drawing her to truths about her town and family that have lied hidden, barely beneath the surface, and revelations about her mother’s life and disappearance.

The novel is told in two parts, the first alternating chapters between the points of view of Lucy and flash-backs in the view of her mother, Lila. Readers are thereby introduced to the cast of characters, many spanning across both time periods, until the second part when the point of view cast is expanded to the secondary characters of each period. The expansion serves to relate plot points out of the protagonists experiences, but also helps to lend greater complexity and understanding to some of the secondary characters who previously come across as largely one-dimensional and utterly unsympathetic. While the expansion of view in the second part was a bit surprising, the story would have had trouble succeeding by keeping things limited to Lucy and Lila.

“The Weight of Blood” is only nominally a mystery. The ‘bad guys’ of the novel are clear rather early on, and the only mysteries lie in the precise details of the crimes and the precise fate of Lila. Instead of mystery, the lure of this novel rests with its characters and setting, and the themes woven into them. Physically and spiritually similar, Lila and Lucy differ dramatically in their pasts and ‘present’ conditions. Raised in foster care and disfunction, driftless and exploited, Lila elicits the reader’s sympathy with her intelligence, heart, and strength to find a settled life of happiness amid the distrust and hostility of rural America. Lucy, in contrast, has been doted upon, raised under the close love and support of her family and neighbors, relatively ignorant of the ways of the world, but with a desire to explore. Lucy is largely sheltered, and the novel in a large part is about the opening up of her world as she reaches adulthood. Opening it up to the reality of boys and sex and opening it up to the realization that her loving town and family are not all perfect and good, but that terrible things go on which people she loves and respects have either perpetrated, or allowed happen while turning a blind eye.

The revelation that her family has dark secrets brings up the other major theme of the novel, distinct from the ‘coming-of-age’ aspects. And the novel is perfectly named for this other theme, the weight of blood. Once Lucy has come to knowledge of adulthood and her innocent, naive views of her family and town are shattered, she then most decide what to do about these secrets her family holds. Not only does Lucy have to deal with this issue, but so does her father, and by extension the entire ‘family’ of this small Ozark town. The ties between blood relations, the degrees to which we as humans are willing to forgive, to look past, or to ignore faults and evils in our kin is at the heart of what McHugh is writing here. In a small town where everyone knows each other’s business, how can horrible, evil crime occur without people knowing about it? Because they lie to themselves, they ignore it, they look away, they explain it away; that is far easier than having to turn on your kin, on someone you love, and who has been a vital support throughout your own life. These human social complexities in the background of the plot in this novel are what make it truly special.

The final piece of McHugh’s writing that makes “The Weight of Blood” a special book is her insight and appreciation for the Ozark setting. The dialogue in the novel is okay, not stellar, and at times even sounds as if spoken by Captain Exposition. But the descriptions are lovely, with McHugh vividly painting the settings so that it is almost a character unto itself controlling the lives of those that populate it. Set beside other chapters relating inhumanity and brutality, the beauty of the Ozarks makes a nice contrast in the novel.

Four Stars out of Five