LAST TRAIN TO BABYLON, by Charlee Fam

20783291Last Train to Babylon
By Charlee Fam
Published by William Morrow – 28th October 2014
ISBN 0062328077 – 352 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads First-Read Giveaway


What I found most striking about Fam’s debut literary novel is just how effectively she takes the strengths of the short story format and applies them to the longer form. The plot of Last Train to Babylon is basic: Aubrey Glass, a young woman with a history of mental darkness and suicidal sentiments returns home for the funeral of her former best friend Rachel who has recently killed herself. Aubrey’s struggles to get through the present collide with traumatic memories dredged up from her past as she reunites with family and former classmates in the wake of Rachel’s funeral and questions over what had finally pushed her to take her life.
Alternating between events from the past and Aubery’s current situation Fam uses Aubrey’s point of view, flawed personality, and simple, honest narrative voice to delve into incredibly important themes revolving around young women growing up in America. Many of these issues are uncomfortable, ferocious and dark and Fam manages to balance this all with a certain touch of light humor and irony. The seriousness of some elements: suicide, rape, assault, bullying, shaming are treated responsibly, but it does bear mentioning that for readers who have experienced any of these to extremes in their own life may find this a difficult or triggering novel. For it seems so real, with a sad beauty that comes from delving fully into what humanity is capable of, in this case specifically how young girls can treat one another and how society pressures them to behaving or being in expected ways.
A short story can typically manage to address one, perhaps two, specific elements such as these for a protagonist. Fam extends that literary focus on characterization to encompass more temporally, and a greater network of issues that young women can be faced with. She doesn’t change the heart of a good shorter work, she just keeps up the same brilliance for the expanded explorations possible in a novel.
On the one hand both Audrey and Rachel are sympathetic, relatable characters and they have certain aspects that one may find likable. But they are each so powerfully realized as realistic humans that they are filled with flaws and cruelty to the point that they can also at moments completely disgust. Some readers may shun this kind of literary realism, but surely that is exactly how each of us are, filled with moments of exquisite nobility one time and ugly savagery another.
The Last Train to Babylon has its darkness, but it is emotionally moving to all ends of the spectrum of empathy. How much of this is personal for Fam or creative genius is unclear to me, but I will happily reach for her next publication based one how strongly this one makes readers feel, and how relevant and important the themes she tackles are.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from William Morrow via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Archangel, by Andrea Barrett

Archangel, by Andrea Barrett
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393348776
238 pages, paperback
Published: 7th July 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

 This small collection of five interconnected stories was a fabulous discovery. National Book Award winning author Andrea Barrett is now a professor of English at Williams College, but graduated from college with a degree in biology. With these stories she uses these interests and experience to brilliantly and lovingly explore the process of scientific investigation and discovery and its effects on society’s view of the universe and the ties between individuals.
The five stories non-chronologically span from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, linked both by science and character relations, covering monumental discoveries of evolution, genetics, Einstein’s relativity, and particle physics over the sociopolitical historical backdrops of each ear. They therefore will appeal to readers that appreciate fiction that is historical, scientific, literary, or (like me) all three.
As a scientist I was immediately struck by how realistically Barrett portrays the practice of science.  I often think that the genre term science fiction is better dubbed speculative fiction, or even technological fiction. Rarely is SF concerned with the actual process of science and its social implications, rather it becomes about future applications of science and their effects on life. I’ve always looked for science fiction that was realistically just that: fictionalized accounts of doing current or past science. In Archangel, the characters and stories themselves are infused with a sense of excitement, wonder, and impatience,  yet also a bit of skepticism, doubt/uncertainty, and inadequacy. Barrett touches upon the differences between science and pseudoscience and the sometimes hazy divide that can appear between the two.
Ultimately, science is a social activity, it is not a cool Vulcanesque rationality divorced from humanity, culture, and relationships. Barrett’s recognition and exploration of this is what wraps the historic and scientific foundation of her writing with a delicate literary silk. The characters of Archangel exist in periods of world-shifting ideas that call into question the beliefs and assumptions of individuals and society. They must struggle with their own preconceptions and the expectations of others as they are confronted with new evidence and models of the universe. This is difficult when one has built their reputation on alternate ideas, when one’s respected and accomplished mentor is falling on the wrong side of scientific understanding/history, or when family members or the national culture have deeply seeded convictions that stand in opposition to what rational evidence presents to oneself.
Despite its historical nature, Archangel thus has significant relevance to even our current times: the rights of women, anti-science politics, alteration of the environment, and hope in a better, prosperous, and enlightened future. By linking the stories through time Barrett is able to explore shifting attitudes through changing generations and individual lifespans. These are captivating stories that stand on rich character and solid foundations of setting rather than plot, and Barrett’s writing flows pleasingly with artistry without being bogged down with academic or haughty pretentiousness. I’m really thankful to have won the giveaway for this and am looking forward to discovering Barrett’s past work and seeing what is to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Her, by Harriet Lane

Her, by Harriet Lane
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 031636987X
272 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 6th January 2015
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Alternating each chapter between the points of view of two women, Harriet Lane’s Her is a  subtle, slow-building thriller that exudes a sense of foreboding and imminent disaster. When crises does actually drift into the plot it is easy to gloss over amid the now familiar unease of the women’s narratives.
Nina is a fairly successful painter who radiates a refined elegance and control. With an older husband and aloof teenaged daughter, she seems often left alone with her own thoughts and memories. As Her opens, Nina spots Emma, a woman from Nina’s past who for reasons unknown to the reader induces a rush of nervous and fearful excitement in Nina. Increasingly obsessed with Emma, Nina manipulates events to insert herself into Emma’s life. As a young, overwhelmed mother impressed with Nina’s status and grace, Emma appreciates Nina’s presence and seeming friendship.
The stalking and twisted maneuvers of Nina to gain the companionship and trust of Emma (who apparently doesn’t recognize Nina from her past as Nina does Emma) makes Her‘s slow crawl forward in plot deliciously unsettling. Only upon the novel’s close is the past relationship between the two women made clear, and all questions in the reader’s mind are addressed.
With a longer work, the alternating and at times overlapping points of view of events from chapter to chapter could grow tedious, but Her is kept short, simple, and sweet. The personalities of each woman are made clear throughout, and only key events are kept from the reader to maintain a sense of mystery and intrigue in the story, and to retain that uncertainty of just what will go wrong.
Her is thus a sort of psychological thriller, focusing on the twisted mind of Nina and the relative ignorance and inherent trustfulness of Emma. While it doesn’t contain much in the way of action, the pace of the novel stays quick – even with replaying scenes from Nina’s view and then Emma’s, the novel does not linger on unimportant matters but proceeds directly to the next important event in time of the two women’s’ relationship. It is a quick, easy read (as long as you pay attention to the nuances of emotion) – and Lane uses moments of levity or irony break the creepy tension or play with the reader’s expectation that now is when something bad is going to happen.
Readers that want lots of action, twists, and rapid payoff will probably be frustrated by this novel, but those that appreciate a quiet little understated horror, Her is masterful.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Little, Brown & Company via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert
Publisher: Sourcebook Landmarks
ASIN: B00HUTVFYE
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 Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00J84KLNK
273 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
(Original Publ: 1986)
Source: NetGalley

Pat Murphy’s name and writing were only familiar to me from the nonfiction articles that she coauthors for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Always interesting and well written, I was excited for the opportunity to read some of her fiction, this one a Nebula award winner.

Structured as alternating chapters between the points of view of Elizabeth, a respected archeologist leading an expedition studying Mayan ruins, and her estranged daughter Diane, the book explores dichotomies that exist within us all and how these influence both the individual and relationships. A certain conflicting contrast is present throughout “The Falling Woman” at al levels. There is the realism/fantastic divide in its genre: it could arguably be either a fantasy novel, or firmly grounded in reality. Elizabeth is haunted by her past, and by visions of ghosts, such as the Mayans who continue to wander the ruins and talk to her, sharing their own secrets, and their own world views. Unsure if she is crazy, or merely ‘gifted’, Elizabeth, and the reader are forced to consider whether it matters, or whether the two possible extremes can exist comfortably side by side.

The novel also delves into cultural divides, of being Western or Mayan, from the United States or a Mexican, Christian or ‘pagan’. How are these each different, and how might they be surprisingly similar? However most prevalent, the book explores the dichotomies of male/female and mother/daughter. Elizabeth’s eccentricities and uncertain sanity are tied to emotional pains she has dealt with in her life to varying success. She has cut herself and has attempted suicide. These and other darkness led her to separation from her husband, and abandonment of her daughter. Unable to conform to the accepted societal maternal position, and female submissive position, Elizabeth goes out on her own, to deal with her emotional darkness, gain a college education, and try to find a passion for something in life. Diane as a result, views her mother as a mystery, but with love and devotion despite her abandonment, Diane seeks Elizabeth out, and together begin to evoke certain maternal aspects in each of them, and deeper connections.

The emotional frailty of Elizabeth, relatively frowned upon by traditional American society is contrasted nicely with the maternal cultures of the Mayan, with their infant sacrifices. Similarly it is contrasted with the traditional, and largely accepted, male answer to addressing emotional pain: drunkenness. Filled with these sorts of relationship complexities and profound insight in feminist and other cultural matters, “The Falling Woman” is simply a brilliant novel. The writing is simple and straight-forward, but in that way it is delicate and poignant, precise, without ever being over-bearing or too frenetic. Although marketed as SciFi/Fantasy, this is far closer to a literary novel, and fans wanting hard genre adventure may be disappointed with what is here. But those open to exploring dichotomies of culture and characters will find this richly rewarding. Open Road Media, who is publishing this in ebook format, is putting out other works by Murphy as well, and I am definitely putting those on my list to pick up.

Five Stars out of Five

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne

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

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

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

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

Four Stars out of Five

Women Destroy Science Fiction!

I am very excited about Lightspeed Magazine’s special June issue: Women Destroy Science Fiction!

“It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t, or can’t, write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties. So to help prove how silly that notion is, LIGHTSPEED’s June 2014 issue is a Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue and has a guest editor at the helm.

The issue features original fiction by Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders, N.K. Jemisin, Carrie Vaughn, Maria Dahvana Headley, Amal El-Mohtar, and many more. All together there’s more than 180,000 words of material, including: 11 original short stories, 15 original flash fiction stories, 4 short story reprints and a novella reprint, 7 nonfiction articles, and 28 personal essays by women about their experiences reading and writing science fiction.”

Read the complete table of contents here.

Lightspeed_49_June_2014_200px

 

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