Simeon Krug, creator of androids, has a new vision. Earth is receiving a transmission from deep space, and he’s determined to answer it. He’s building a tower in the Arctic tundra, a tall tower that reminds many of the Tower of Babel. With this tower he will send a return transmission to whoever is sending the message to Earth. He also has his androids building a spaceship, to be entirely manned by androids, to try to reach those sending the transmission. However, the androids he designed that now outnumber and serve humans have other things on their minds. They want to be recognized as equal to humans, their brothers of the womb. While some seek this politically, others seek it spiritually, worshiping their creator Krug.
Robert Silverberg wrote one of my all-time favorite books (The World Inside), so I now have an informal goal to read most (if not all) of what he has written. This one was, unfortunately, a miss for me, but at least the world he has created was fascinating to visit. The book presents a fascinating possible future that is marred by the rampant misuse of the term android and the length of time spent on the “android” religion.
I loved the idea of this book, and I love books about ai/androids/robots. I thus was horrified when within the first chapter we discover that the “androids” are, in fact, clones. They’re not machines at all. They are genetically engineered humans, created in vats, and whose genetic code is changed enough to give them plasticine skin so that humans can tell themselves apart from them. I like the concept of GMO humans vs non-GMO humans. I like the idea of the vat versus the womb. I cannot, however, tolerate the fact that everyone calls these folks androids. That is not what an android is! (Merriam-Webster definition of android). It really put a sour note on the whole book for me, and the misnomer is never explained. Did Krug just call them androids to make people think of them as robots when they actually aren’t? If that’s the case, he himself would not think of them as androids. But he does. He calls them machines. What scientist would genetically manipulate humans and then call the outcome machines? It just makes no sense, and in a scifi book, it’s something I can’t look past.
The plot is a bit of a bait-and-switch. The reader thinks it’s going to be about the tower, the possible aliens, etc… In fact this is the backdrop to the story of the “androids” fighting to have their humanity recognized. I liked that the book was ultimately not the Tower of Babel retelling I originally thought it was going to be, but potential readers might want to know that the “androids” and their fight for human rights are actually the focus of the book.
Readers should also be ready to have every minute detail of the “android” religion worshiping Krug outlined for them. While that type of scifi book definitely has its audience, it might be different from the one expecting the tower story. The one aspect of the telling of the “android” religion that I found incredibly annoying was how they recite their DNA strands as prayer. Think of it as like a Catholic person saying the rosary. Only instead of words, it’s series like “AAA-ABA-ACA-CCC-BBB-AAA,” and it goes on for a very long time. Perhaps this is less annoying to read in print than to hear in an audiobook, but going on for such long stretches of time each time an “android” prays seems unnecessary.
The characters are all fairly well-rounded. There is Krug, his son, a high-ranking “android,” Krug’s son’s “android” mistress, a couple of “android” politicians, and more. There are enough characters to support the complex plot, and it’s fairly easy to get to know all of them. The “androids” are also given the same amount of characterization as the humans.
The audiobook narrator was somewhere between pleasant and unpleasant to listen to. He has a very deep voice that doesn’t fluctuate much for various characters or narration. It works really well for Krug but not so great for the female characters. If the narrator’s female voices were better and if he emoted more for emotional scenes, his narration would be more enjoyable. Between this fact and the reading of the DNA mentioned earlier, I definitely recommend picking up the print over the audiobook version.
Overall, the book presents an interesting world of GMO humans worshiping their creator and seeking freedom while he is entirely focused on the project of communicating with the stars. The misuse of the term “android” throughout the book will likely bother most scifi readers. Some readers may find some aspects of the “android” religion a bit dull. Recommended to scifi readers more interested in the presentation of future religions than in contacting deep space or hard science.
3 out of 5 stars
Lizzie Brown, once preschool teacher turned demon slayer, is extremely excited to be marrying her true love, Dimitri Kallinikos, who just so happens to also be a magical shape-changing griffin. And she’s also fine with letting her adoptive mother run the whole show, even though her mother wants to make the wedding into a week-long event. She’s not so ok with having to tell her mother about being a demon slayer, though. Or about integrating her mother’s posh southern lady lifestyle with her recently discovered blood-related grandmother’s biker witch gang. She’s pleasantly surprised that her mother found a goth-style mansion to rent for the wedding. Maybe the magical and the non-magical can integrate fairly well, after all. But then it becomes evident that someone in the wedding is trying to kill her. Plus, they find demonic images around the property…..
This remains one of my most enjoyed urban fantasy series. The world Fox has created is bright, witty, imaginative, and a real pleasure to visit, even though sometimes the main character can rub me the wrong way (she’s a bit too straight-laced for me sometimes). Urban fantasy books can either keep the main character perpetually single or have her get married. If they choose to get married, the wedding book winds up with a lot on its plate. It’s hard to integrate the world of urban fantasy with the wedding scene a lot of readers enjoy reading about. Fox achieves this integration eloquently, presenting an intriguing urban fantasy mystery, the clash of urban fantasy magical folks and real world expectations, and manages to show the wedding is about the marriage, not the party.
My main gripe with the previous book was Dimitri and Lizzie’s relationship. Primarily that they don’t appreciate what they have, and how annoying that is. I think the events of the previous book really snapped them out of it, because here, Lizzie and Dimitri have taken their relationship to another level. They have a trust in and intimacy with one another that manages to withstand some pretty tough tests, and is a pleasure to read about. It’s easy to see that this is a couple that is ready for a marriage. It’s a healthy relationship that’s rare to see in urban fantasy. At this point in the series, I can appreciate that Dimitri and Lizzie aren’t perfect in the earlier books. Relationships change and grow with time, and Fox demonstrates that beautifully. Of course, it’s still more fun to read about a happy couple than one bickering with each other over minor things. But those hiccups in the relationship in earlier books helps make it (and the marriage) seem more real.
Similarly, Lizzie has grown with the series. Where at first she’s annoyingly straight-laced, now she is not just starting to break out of that but is enjoying breaking out of it. Seeing her adoptive mother pushes this issue to the forefront. Lizzie is finally coming into her own, and she, and her loving mother, have to confront that.
[Lizzie's mother] paused, straightened her already squared shoulders. “Is this type of style…” she waved a hand over me, “appealing to you? You look like a hooligan.” I let out a sigh. “Try biker.” (page 16)
Whereas this confrontation between Lizzie and her mother could have led to the mother looking like a bad guy, Fox leaves room for Lizzie’s mom to be different from her but still a good person and a loving parent. They butt heads over different opinions, just as real-life parents and adult children do, but they both strive to work through them and love each other for who they are. It’s nice to see how eloquently Fox handles that relationship, particularly with so many other plot issues going on at the same time.
The plot is a combination of wedding events and demon problems. Both ultimately intertwine in a scene that I’m sure is part of many bride’s nightmares. Only it really happens because this is urban fantasy. How Fox wrote the plots to get to that point is enjoyable, makes sense, and works splendidly. The climax perfectly demonstrates how to integrate urban fantasy and real life situations. Plus, I did not come even close to guessing the ending, which is a big deal to me as a reader.
The wit and sex scenes both stay at the highly enjoyable level that has been present throughout the series. Dimitri and Lizzie are hot because they are so hot for and comfortable with each other. The humor is a combination of slapstick and tongue-in-cheek dry humor that fits the world perfectly. I actually laughed aloud quite a few times while reading the book.
Overall, this is an excellent entry in this urban fantasy series. It tackles the wedding of the main character with a joyful gusto that leaves the reader full of wedding happiness and perhaps breathing a sigh of relief that no matter what may go wrong at their wedding, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as what can go wrong at an urban fantasy wedding. Highly recommended to fans of the series. You won’t be disappointed in Lizzie’s wedding, and you’ll be left eager to see her marriage.
5 out of 5 stars
Maria is working on her thesis at a genetics research lab specializing in looking for ways to get human limbs to regenerate. When the owner’s son brings back a new species from Peru, a tiny worm-like creature with pyramidal tentacles, she discovers that the larger clones made from them are intelligent. But the owner’s son wants to conduct brutal experiments on them, involving cutting off their appendages, which grow back. Can Maria strike the balance between life-changing science for humans suffering from disabled or missing limbs and respecting the lives of an intelligent species?
Near-future books that question where to draw the line in research are a particular favorite of mine. It’s a gray area in many people’s minds, and scifi lets us explore the myriad possibilities and options at a bit of a distance, which allows for clearer thought. This book does an admirable job setting up a realistic near-future world to explore this issue, although the characters don’t quite live up to the world-building and story.
The near-future world of genetics research is established both clearly and with subtlety early on in the book. There are two competing genetics research organizations, and rather than looking into something monstrous or far-flung, they are looking into regenerating limbs. It’s a logical next-step for a near-future book. The research labs themselves, as well as how they are run, including the field-work, have a real-world, logical feel to them.
At first I was concerned from the book’s official description that the creatures discovered would be aliens, since alien experimentation would be less of a gray area to explore. They are not, in fact, aliens, they are a newly discovered species originating on Earth. The mystery is whether they were always sentient or if something in the modification and cloning process made them sentient. This makes the conflict of how to use the creatures to help humans without harming them better, because exactly what they are is a bit unclear. It’s not as simple as if they were simply aliens or some sort of cute, fuzzy creature. They’re these slightly creepy worm-like things with tentacles, and the conflict is do we still respect these kind of ugly, cloned creatures for their intelligence, or do they need to look cuter or more humanoid to gain that respect?
The plot is complex and keeps the reader guessing. Even though I was fairly certain things would ultimately end up ok, I wasn’t sure how they were going to get there. This made it an engaging and quick read.
Unfortunately, the characters are rather weak and two-dimensional. I never was able to truly connect to any of the characters. If anything, I connected to the creatures a bit more than the main characters. There are also a few instances that feel out of character for the small amount of characterization done. For instance, Maria thinks she can’t date because her family wants her to have an arranged marriage to keep the family Spanish. This type of arranged marriage situation could definitely happen, but I had a hard time believing that a woman so strong in the sciences, with so much agency for her career and for her grandmother’s well-being would actually even think about not seeing someone she cares for in order to have an arranged marriage. It felt out of character and simply forced upon her to add conflict. Similarly, there is an incident that at first is considered a rape and then later brushed off as not a rape. Without giving anything away, I agree it wasn’t a rape, but I also don’t think the character who at first mistook it for a rape would have made that error in judgment. It was out of character for their level of intelligence. This again felt forced to provide extra conflict that wasn’t needed. The main plot had plenty of interest and conflict to keep the book going without these out-of-character moments. I also felt the accent written for one of the characters was badly done and distracting. This character is a scientist with an advanced degree, yet he speaks in an informal, unrealistic accent that primarily consists of him dropping g’s and using a lot of contractions.
In spite of these characterization short-comings, the book still tells a unique near-future genetics research story with a quick-moving, engaging plot. Recommended to those looking for a scifi-style beach read.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman
In 1889, the world was obsessed with Jules Verne’s fictional work Around the World in 80 Days. So when Nellie Bly, a human rights crusading female reporter in New York City, suggested taking a shp to Europe in first class then coming back in steerage, she was surprised to get a counter-offer: try to beat the fictional Fogg’s record for traveling around the world. When The Cosmopolitan magazine heard about it, they sent their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip trying to beat her. Only she left a day later and would go the opposite direction. Bly would travel east to west (Europe first), Bisland would travel west to east (continental US first). The women weren’t just taking different routes around the world, they had quite different backgrounds and personalities. Bly overcame a northern, working-class background to break into newspapers and crusaded for the less-fortunate whenever the paper would allow her to. Bisland was the daughter of a plantation owner. Raised in southern gentility and with an intense interest in everything British. She wrote a literary column for The Cosmopolitan. One of these women would win the race, but would either beat the fictional Phineas Fogg?
With my interest in women’s history, I was surprised when I saw this title on Netgalley that I had never heard of this race around the world, although I had heard of Nellie Bly, due to her investigative report into Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution). I knew I had to request it, and I’m quite glad I got a review copy. Goodman tells not just the story of these two women but also immerses the reader into the newly global world of the late 1890s, both the good and the bad.
Goodman starts the book by introducing us to the two women who will race around the world. He does an excellent job using primary source materials to give us both how others saw these women and how they saw themselves. For instance, in describing Elizabeth Bisland, Goodman writes:
One of her admirers, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she had befriended in New Orleans, called her “a sort of goddess” and likened her conversation to hashish, leaving him disoriented for hours afterward. Another said, about talking with her, that he felt as if he were playing with “a beautiful dangerous leopard,” which he loved for not biting him. (loc 241)
While introducing the women, Goodman also talks at length about the role of women in journalism in the late 1800s and how hard it was for them to break into real reporting. Jumping off from Bisland and Bly, describes how women were blocked from many journalism positions with excuses such as that the newsroom needed to be free to swear and not worry about a lady’s sensibilities. Women were often barred to what was deemed the ladylike journalism of the society pages. The hardest part of being a hardhitting female journalist at the time wasn’t the actual reporting but instead the reception of women in the newsroom.
The successful female journalist, McDonald suggested, should be composed of “one part nerve and two parts India rubber.” (loc 465)
Bisland and Bly and their race came at the beginning of having women journalists do some form of stunt journalism, which is how they started to break into hardhitting journalism. Editors and owners discovered that readers enjoyed reading about women in stunt situations, such as learning how to stunt ride a horse, so this was their way in. Thus, even if the reader dislikes the personalities of either or both of the racers, they come away with some level of respect for them both breaking into the business.
From here, Goodman starts following the women on their race around the world. He takes the different legs of their journeys as a jumping-off point to discuss something historically relevant to that portion of the journey. For instance, during Bly’s trip on the ocean liner to Europe, he discusses how the steamships worked, from the technical aspects of the steam to the class aspects of first class down to steerage. During Bisland’s railroad trip across the United States, he discusses the railroad barons and the building of the transcontinental railroad. Thus, the reader is getting both the story of the race and historical context. It’s a wonderful way to learn, as the historical explanations flesh out the settings around and expectations of the women, and the women lend a sense of realness to the historical situations and settings being described.
After the completion of the trip (and, no, I won’t tell you who won), Goodman explores the impact of the trip on the women’s lives and follows the rest of their lives to their deaths. This part may feel a bit long and irrelevant to some readers, however often when people become famous for doing something, no one talks about the long-lasting impact of that fame or what the rest of their lives are like. Seeing how both women reacted to the trip, their careers, and others puts them in a more complete light, giving the reader a complete picture of what the race did in their lives. This complete picture of both of their lives is something I really appreciated and that also demonstrated that one shouldn’t judge people too fast. They and their lives may turn out differently than you expect at first.
What would have made me love the book is if I had come away feeling like I could respect or look up to either woman. Unfortunately, by the time I heard the full story of both of their lives, I found them both to be so deeply flawed that I couldn’t do that. I respect them for breaking into the newspaper business, and perhaps if I was a journalist myself that would be enough to make me look up to them. But each had a fatal flaw that made this not be a book about two role models but instead a book about two women. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep it from being a book I would return to over and over again.
Overall, Goodman does an excellent job using the true story of two female journalists’ race around the world in 1889 to 1890 to build a solid picture of the increasingly global world of that time. The reader will come away both with having learned an incredible true story and details about the 1800s they might not have known before, told in a delightfully compelling manner. Some readers might be a bit bothered by how flawed the two women journalists are or by the fact that the book goes on past the race to tell about the end of their lives in detail. However, these are minor things that do not distract too much from the literary qualities of this historical nonfiction. Recommended to those interested in an easy-to-read, engaging historical nonfiction book focusing in on women’s history. Particularly recommended to modern, women journalists.
4 out of 5 stars
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them. He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire. When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list). I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA. The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.
Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective. He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious. It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire. Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist. Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series. It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.
Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world. The characters are multiple races and classes. Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace. Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at. Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together. They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.
I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself. The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group. I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it. I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous. Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did. I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA. Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.
The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises. There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict. The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading. Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!
Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series. Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary. Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
When Richard’s physicist professor uncle dies tragically in a plane crash and leaves him his coin collection, he is shocked to find a brand-new dime from 2012. The only thing is, it’s 1989. A note from his uncle states that the coin is important. Richard thinks the answer to the mystery might be in his uncle’s personal diaries he also left him, but he’s not a physicist and can’t decipher them. As the year 2012 approaches, Richard increasingly wonders what the coin is all about.
I had previously reviewed a book by Glen Cadigan, Haunted (review), whose concept I really enjoyed. When he offered me this novella, I was happy to accept. This fun novella tells an old-fashioned scifi mystery story in a way that reminded me of reading similar works from the 1800s.
Richard’s first-person narration follows a style similar to that used often in older scifi; it reads as if the main character is writing everything down in his journal for longevity. It’s a cozy narration style that works well for the slow-moving mystery it tells.
This narration style also helps establish Richard into a well-rounded character quickly. The reader almost immediately feels an intimacy with Richard as he discusses his sorrow at his beloved uncle’s sudden death, why he was close to his uncle, and his thoughts on the mysterious coin. The uncle is, perhaps, less well-rounded but only in the sense that the reader comes to know him only through the eyes of a loving relative. It thus makes sense that mostly his good qualities come through.
Cadigan artfully maneuvers Richard’s handling of the mystery from the days before the internet to present. Richard first employs old-fashioned research techniques to try to figure out the mystery then loses interest. With the advent of the internet, though, he regains interest and starts researching again. This is completely realistic and reads just like what a person might have done.
Some basics physics of time-travel and time-travel theories are included. They are written at the right level for a general audience reading a scifi book, neither talking down to nor being too technical.
What really made me enjoy the book was the resolution to the mystery. I should have seen it coming, but I did not, and I always enjoy a surprise that feels logical when I think back on it.
So why four stars and not five? The novella left me wanting something more. It felt almost too short. Like there was something left out. Perhaps more time spent on Richard’s researching of the mystery or snippets from the uncle’s journals or some photos of the uncle and his airplane might have helped it feel more fully fleshed-out and real. The old-school narration style was enjoyable but some additions of some of the types of things a person might put in their journal would help it feel more complete. Even some simple sketches or perhaps a poem by Richard about his uncle, since he’s in the humanities, would have helped.
Overall, this novella is a fun new take on the storytelling method of having a character write in their journal about a mystery. The science is strong enough to be interesting but not too challenging, and the result of the mystery is surprising. Some readers might be left wanting a bit more to the story. Recommended to fans of scifi classics such as The Time Machine or The Invisible Man.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Zak wakes up from a night of drunken revelry to find himself in his apartment but not his apartment building. His apartment is now part of a massive structure of multiple different architectural styles that looks like it goes on forever. Plus his bathroom is missing. Shreya wakes up in her car in a parking garage to Hungry Eyes playing on the radio and an ominous car nearby nicknamed “Die Pflaume.”
This first entry of a new serial does a quick job establishing a strong setting but just when the action gets going, it leaves the reader hanging.
When I accepted this review copy, I must admit that I didn’t realize it was the first entry in a serial, I thought it was in a series. Serials offer small episodes of an overarching story in bite-size chunks the reader picks up. Think of it as reading an episode of your favorite tv series. I think it would help if this was marketed more clearly as a serial, since certain readers love that reading experience and others aren’t too keen on it. Making it clearer that it’s a serial will help it better reach the right readers.
A good serial entry will read much like an episode in a tv show with a large, overarching plot, but also a smaller plot that can be told in one episode that is, ideally, tied to the overarching plot in some way. This gives the reader the satisfaction of completing a piece of smaller plot but also keeps them engaged in the series as a whole. This serial does a good job setting up the overarching plot. People are waking up in what appears to be an alternate universe that is possibly punishing them for something they did that they can’t remember with sinister beings chasing them or tormenting them from afar. It’s a good mystery, but it is just getting going when the serial entry stops. This would be ok, but the big weakness of the serial entry is that there is no self-contained smaller plot. Thus, instead of feeling any sense of satisfaction of having learned something or completed one mystery, the two main mysteries of the overarching plot are just getting going and then stop abruptly. Without the presence of a second, self-contained, smaller plot for this entry in the serial, this just leaves the reader feeling cheated out of getting the whole story, rather than the dual experience of satisfaction at the wrap-up of the smaller plot and intrigue at the larger plot.
The setting of the alternate universe is well-established and delightfully creepy. Everything being just a little bit off is creatively written without being in the reader’s face. The author also includes a drawing of a mysterious symbol that Zak sees, which helps build the atmosphere.
In contrast, Zak and Shreya feel a bit two-dimensional, but this is possibly because they have such a short time in which to be established. Similarly, the demonic character who chases Zak comes across as corny, straight out of a B movie, not frightening like he is, presumably, supposed to. The world building is so good that the two-dimensional good guys and cheesy bad guys stick out like a sore thumb.
The one flaw in the writing style is there are way too many similes. At times it feels that every other sentence contains one. Any descriptor used too much can go from artful to annoying. A lighter hand on these would be helpful in future entries.
Overall, this first entry in the serial establishes a delightfully creepy alternate universe where everything is just off. The lack of a smaller, self-contained plot in addition to an overarching plot will make this frustrating to read, unless the reader has the next entry at hand to read immediately. Recommended primarily to horror fans who like their horror in small bites and enjoy the concept of a serial who won’t mind waiting a bit for the conclusion to the mystery in future entries.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books. This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism. Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1956 to 1958. The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (1956)–When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it. Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress. They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)–In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other. The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been. This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first. In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains. Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen. Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive. Which he does. What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.
A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)–A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet. Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest. Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet. The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate. While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth. Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.
Who? by Algis Budrys (1958)–In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets. The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet. The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line. But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm. Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (1958)–It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for. Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war. Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation. One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.
This is my third Library of America collection and, unfortunately, is the one I’ve liked least so far. Perhaps I have simply discovered that the Red Scare overtakes American scifi of the late 1950s more than I had previously realized, and that is just not to my own personal scifi taste. The collection still does what it purports to, though: it gathers a selection of the best of American scifi in a particular time period, letting the reader immerse herself and truly come to know a particular genre in a particular period.
Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I have reviewed the books individually as I read them. Thus, here I will simply summarize my reviews to give you a feeling of the collection as a whole.
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society. A fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit. The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story. Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.
4 out of 5 stars
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals. Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here. Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting. Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.
4 out of 5 stars
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences. It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created. However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.
3 out of 5 stars
Who? by Algis Budrys
An interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed. It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today. A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers. Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
A thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war. Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless. How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening. Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.
3 out of 5 stars
This is an interesting collection that shows how gradually fear of Communism came to take over American thought by the end of 1958. The two earliest books in the collection are set in a far future with no concerns about the long-reaching impacts of the Cold War. By the last two books, the futures are heavily impacted by the perceived threat of Communism, with one book even having time itself being unraveled and re-written in an attempt to stop the Russians. The most light-hearted, entertaining book in the collection is Double Star. I would recommend fans of witty scifi pick it up as soon as they get the chance. The most thought-provoking, with a cool world that could work quite well for cosplay is The Stars My Destination. It withstands the test of time quite well. The most interesting world is the planet and culture of Lithia in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience. The collection as a whole is primarily recommended to scifi fans with a heavy interest in how the Red Scare of 1950s America can be seen in scifi of the time.
3 out of 5 stars