Thursday, August 22, 2019

Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh

    Homesick for Another World contains stories both quick and dirty.  The characters are fashioned from pimples, concealer, ash, and perversion. They crave mostly another person's touch.  Some instead choose murder.
    The cover gives people the wrong impression.  On two occasions co-workers asked me whether I liked science fiction.  Then I had to explain how I liked my fiction less generic and struggled to describe this book.  It's raunchy without curse words or pornography.  And despite this odoriferous quality (or maybe because of it?) I respect the characters.  I can detect immediately how much they aren't myself; their worst feature always starts the story.  They drink despairingly, they lust, they stalk, and they shame themselves.  If redemption ever comes, it may be at the bottom of a Diet Coke.
   Critics who compare Ottessa to Flannery O'Connor know what's up.  A Russian writer, Gogol, comes to my mind.  He also stretches his characters until they appear more hobgoblin than human.  He stresses, however, civilization's shoddy construction.  I am not sure Ottessa is providing any criticism.  Her characters occupy too small a fun-house mirror.  It disturbs me that I can see myself there. 

Read-Alikes:

Collected Works of Flannery O' Connor - try not to be overwhelmed by this thousand page tome

Chronic City - wacky book by Jonathan Lethem, another literary wunderkind




Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Right Intention by Andres Barba

   A collection of four novellas, The Right Intention, juxtaposes our banal, familial responsibilities and our very private manias.  You've heard this before.  I don't believe either the stories or the style make this read as distinctive as its neon-pink cover suggests.
   Andres Barba takes some risks.  After a couple pages of Hemmingwayesque prose, he runs a sentence a paragraph's length.  Parallels are drawn between the main character's experience and office furniture instructions.  Such splicing invigorates the material.
   I like the last story best.  As her mother's condition deteriorates, a daughter confronts the past: how much more loving and graceful her mother-in-law was, what made her sister "the best child", and other soap opera scandals.  The story sounds a little bland when I summarize it.  Not only must I elide certain surprises but I forgo the author's style.  According to his back cover bio, he has quite a Spanish language reputation.
   This book is well-paced, groovy every now and then, a jack-of-all-trades.           

Read-Alikes:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami - a talented novelist describes his muscly hobby

Julieta  by Pedro Almodovar - a film which gleefully presents melodrama

Friday, August 16, 2019

San Andreas Shifters by G.L. Carriger


The San Andreas Shifters is a fun, queer paranormal romance series, and Carriger’s summaries are better than anything I could come up with, so here are some snippets.

#0.5: Marine Biology:  “A short tale of seduction, selkies, and sushi….Contains confused lovelorn werewolves and very pretty ex-Goth mermen who are exclusively interested in each other. May also contain fish, Irish mafia, and a shocking lack of tea.”

#1: The Sumage Solution: “In this charming offbeat gay romance from the comedic mind of New York Times best selling author Gail Carriger (writing as G.L. Carriger) a sexy werewolf with a white knight complex meets a bad boy mage with an attitude problem. Sparks (and other things) fly.”

#2: The Omega Objection: “A werewolf walks in the bar….Can a gentle werewolf with a trampled heart show a man who’s been running scared that sometimes there are monsters worth running towards?....This book contains M/m sexy times and horrible puns. If you get offended easily, then you probably will. San Andreas Shifter stories include blue language, dirty deeds, and outright admiration for the San Francisco Bay Area. Not for the faint of heart or mouth or tongue.”

#3: The Enforcer Enigma (forthcoming in 2020): No summary yet.

The San Andreas Shifters series follows the formation of this misfit pack with their new Alpha, their relocation from the East Coast to the West Coast, all the chaos that comes with moving (finding a place to stay, jobs, and getting registered with DURPS—the Department of Unnatural Registration and Processing of Shifters, the paranormal version of DMV but worse), building the pack, and settling in (i.e., adventures with other supernaturals and locals who are not sure if they want a werewolf pack).

This series is a fun and engaging read.  Carriger has a knack for words, and she writes it all so well.  Readers get punny chapter titles, names and nicknames that range from regular to kind-of bad, sharp, witty dialogue and banter (take that DURPS interview in The Sumage Solution that Max has with Biff, aka Bryan Ignacio Fredericksen the Fourth), ridiculous situations and awkward scenes piled on top of each other that are just plain fun to follow.  Carriger develops her own paranormal world with different types of shifters and paranormals and explains her version of pack dynamics, which is good for both new readers and readers familiar with paranormal tropes.  She subverts the usual roles with a cast that goes against type and is pretty diverse. The alpha is more brains than brawn and a scientist with a merman mate, the beta is a huge, muscular bear (err, wolf, you get it) with a gentle soul, and the omega is a loner with a bossy streak and is without a pack and wants to keep it that way.  The side characters are just as diverse and colorful, and they add to the sense of community the werewolves are trying to be a part of.  Underneath the fun and laughter, there is a central romance that gives heart to the story and captures such sincerity and chemistry.  Carriger supports love is love and love for all and exemplifies it with the characters throughout her different works.

Look for the San Andreas Shifters e-books on Hoopla.  For more queer paranormal fiction, try E.J. Russell (Fae Out of Water series, Supernatural Selection series, and Enchanted Occasions series) and Charlie Cochet’s Third series, all available also on Hoopla.  Try more paranormal fantasy and her teen steampunk series under Gail Carriger. Her Supernatural Society novellas are a spin-off from the Parasolverse books and feature more queer paranormal romance.

Reviewed by Tracy

Thursday, August 15, 2019

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine


A Memory Called Empire is a space opera debut featuring diplomacy gone horribly wrong.

Newly-appointed Lsel Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is sent to the capital of the Texicalaanli Empire. She represents her small mining station, who are an independent territory who want to continue to remain independent of the Empire and its continual expansion.  She arrives to find her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, is dead, possibly murdered.  As she catches up on her duties, navigates a foreign culture as an outsider and “barbarian”, and tries to find out what happened to Yskandr, she discovers he was involved in politics and schemes that reached as high as the aging Emperor, and they involve a Lsel-exclusive and secret technology—a neural implant called an imago that records a person’s memories, experiences, and knowledge and is integrated with a recipient to create a line of people sharing their knowledge.  Mahit has an imago of Yskandr implanted, but it is quite out-of-date and seems to be malfunctioning, so she is left almost completely alone to navigate through the intrigues and political unrest she arrives to.  Talk about a long, busy first week at a new job.

This debut features intricate world-building with an original culture.  Mahit is an outsider, with a cultural liaison assigned to her to help her around the capital, and readers see the complex relationship and pull  a powerful society and culture who believe they are superior have over outsiders. Mahit observes and analyzes the subtleties in mannerisms and words, even names, which allows the readers to experience and immerse themselves in the foreignness of the Texicalaanili culture. Martine also provides a handy glossary to navigate the names and objects that appear, plus a pronunciation guide for her language system.  Though quite action-packed, the story is multi-layered and deep with a strong plot, is full of politics, and showcases plenty of character study and sharp dialogue, all through a filter of uncertainty of an outsider adapting to a foreign culture and not knowing who she can trust.  For readers looking for something fresh, different, or challenging, try this read!

Look for A Memory Called Empire in the VBPL Catalog.  The sequel is A Desolation Called Peace and comes out in 2020.  For more intriguing world-building, try Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (see review), Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire books (see review), and China MiĆ©ville’s Embassytown (which also features a unique language system and ambassadors).  For more speculative fiction with politics and scheming, try Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles (which also features the Bene Gesserit with their own unique memory system) and Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series (see review).  For more fantasy featuring the complex relationship between conqueror and conquered, read Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant (see review) and S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy (see review).

Reviewed by Tracy

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire


Trigger warning: attempted suicide

Middlegame is what happens when Seanan McGuire dissects The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, mashes it up with Frankenstein, and transforms it with her own brand of alchemy into a creation full of alchemists, man-made monsters, experiments gone awry, twins, chess themes, alternate dimensions, and time travel (kind of).

In Middlegame, alchemy is this secret study of knowledge somewhere between science and magic.  There is a revolutionary mastermind and alchemist named Reed who wishes to embody the laws of nature into human bodies that he can control and thus attain godlike powers.  He has created many sets of cuckoos, pairs of children that possess half of a doctrine (such as chaos and order). One of his sets embodies the Doctrine of Ethos, named Dodger and Roger. Yup, twin names at their worst. Part of his experiment is to have them raised separately with adoptive families until they are old enough for their powers to manifest. Dodger is a math genius and understands the world through math, which makes her a pro at chess.  Roger possesses the power of words and story, and language fascinates him, and, when he comes into his power, he can use his words to command reality.  Together, they can bend reality and reset their timelines.  As a set and half of each other, they keep trying to connect despite living on opposite sides of the country, and Reed and his people continue to observe their progress and interfere to keep things on track.  This standalone novel tracks Dodger and Roger’s story from the beginning when they start trying to connecting and each genius is developing to when they learn about their reality-bending powers, realize they are pawns in an experiment, and it becomes a showdown between them and Reed.

Middlegame reads like alchemy, a story somewhere between fantasy’s magic and science fiction’s science.  The world-building and structure makes a solid basis for the story’s alchemy and makes for fun thoughts about meta in stories and the nature of reality.  McGuire also incorporates The Over and Under, her own Oz or Harry Potter variant as a story-within-a-story and a sort-of guide, and with that and the chess references each add layers to the story.  The characters are well-developed and unique.  McGuire plays against stereotypes all over: Dodger is a girl who likes and excels at math, Roger is better socially adapted than his counterpart and sometimes the one who needs protecting, Leigh is the scariest and least-maternal mother figure, and Erin is deadly, smart, and scheming behind her pretty face.

Look for Middlegame in the VBPL catalog.  Try other books by Seanan McGuire and her alter ego, Mira Grant. Her Wayward Children novellas feature similar meta-heavy fantasy with children who do not fit in.  For another female math genius in the lead, try S.L Huang’s Zero Sum Game (see review) and Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (see review).  For more mad scientists trying to take over the world, try The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.  There are references to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, so this story and its iterations and sequels would be fun to visit (or re-visit).  If the chess themes intrigue you, there are plenty of titles about chess and learning to play chess.

Reviewed by Tracy

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie


The Raven Tower starts off like a fantasy retelling of Hamlet:  A son who has been away comes home to find his father, the king, gone, presumed runaway to avoid paying his due, and his uncle on the throne. Besides the usual questions of succession, there is a Raven god who is supposed to guarantee the line of succession, and no one can serve as both King and the Raven’s successor without pledging and sacrificing their life.  Things are complicated, and, more than succession drama, there is a long standing feud between divine forces, of which the Kingdom of Iraden and its succession is a small part.

Though The Raven Tower contains kings, princes, and gods, it does not read like any typical fantasy and is worth trying out for readers who want a challenge and something different.  The novel is well-crafted, and the world building in regards to the creation and existence of gods is unique, based on the power of words, language, and truth.  Leckie challenges readers with the use of second person tense, with one of the gods talking to the reader or to Eolo (one of the characters), or maybe a bit of both.  The setting feels historical, almost primitive, more similar to tales of the warlord Arthur than the romantic King Arthur with his knights and chivalry.  Even the action is not flashy and fast-paced, though there are divine forces warring with each other, so forget Godzilla: King of the Monsters-type action, though the humans are just as powerless.  This fantasy is more subtle and requires thinking. These divine forces establish a system of negotiation with people where they make agreements to provide the people a service in exchange for some kind of worship, but these agreements and anything they say have to be precisely worded to avoid untruth that can harm or undo them.  Communication makes for an interesting issue when the gods and people do not speak the same language and still have to establish some way to communicate.  This system is further complicated with feuds between the people and the gods who ally with them.  How the gods’ power works and their stories leading up to the current situation are interspersed with Iraden’s succession woes. The convoluted agreements and even storytelling can be a challenge to follow and piece together, but can be worth the investment for something different and unique.

Look for The Raven Tower in the VBPL Catalog.  Try Ann Leckie’s other works.  Try the Mabinogion on Hoopla (Evangeline Walton's adaptation is very readable and accessible), a collection of Britain’s earliest prose for some really old fantasy and an older version of Arthur the warlord.  For more fantasy that challenges the reader and storytelling in second person, try N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (see review).

Reviewed by Tracy

Monday, August 12, 2019

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell


Carry On makes a case for that saying, “do not judge a book by its cover.”

Apparently, the same can be said for its title and initial responses that Carry On is just a Harry Potter knock-off.  It is a Rainbow Rowell book, and the jacket summary is awesome, if that helps.

It sounds like a Readers Digest version of the Harry Potter series (seven books with the last one running at 750+ pages) crammed into one book just over 500 pages with the fun and notable bits getting a flashback or a remember-when mention to get to the finale.  A chosen one is destined to fight the ultimate villain in his final year at a boarding school for wizards.  Except this chosen one, Simon Snow, is apparently the worst chosen one ever and a bit of a loose cannon with his magic.  His rival and sworn enemy, Baz, is his roommate but has a chip on his shoulder, is a vampire (maybe), and has tried to kill him several times over the years.  The headmaster of Watford and Simon’s mentor is only known as the Mage and dresses like Robin Hood.  Adding to awful monikers in the vein of You-know-who and He-who-must-not-be-named, the mysterious villain goes by the Insidious Humdrum.  Simon returns to Watford with no new ideas for his final confrontation with the Humdrum, his mentor is avoiding him, his girlfriend dumps him, and Baz has gone missing.  Simon’s meddling and book-smart BFF, Penny, drags him on investigative scavenger hunts, a ghost visits, plus some romantic tension and drama keeps the story moving to its conclusion.

Superficial similarities aside, this is a fun and fast-paced read.  Rainbow Rowell makes it work with skipping all the coming-of-age mishaps and adventures and going straight to the showdown with a big dose of romance drama.  Rowell has fun with fantasy tropes.  This story does not read like the usual fantasy fare of good vs. evil showdowns.  Her magic system involves the power of words and phrases, so readers are treated to magic spells from familiar phrases and songs.  There is as much talk as there is action to carry the story, maybe more, but the dialogue is full of banter, tongue-in-cheek humor, and engaging.  The characters are well-developed with plenty of personality, and the interactions feel genuine, so readers can relate and root for the characters.  The romance has plenty of chemistry, the enemies-to-lovers trope does not feel forced or overdone, and it works that there is history between them with a sense of the characters growing up and seeing each other differently. 

Look for Carry On in the VBPL Catalog. The sequel, Wayward Son, comes out fall 2019 (did anyone have Kansassong running in their heads just now?).  Try Rainbow Rowell’s other books (her earlier Fangirl features snippets of Simon Snow as one of the character’s fan-fiction).  For more LGBTQIA+ couples in teen fantasy, try Cassandra Clare’s The Red Scrolls of Magic, Cinda Williams Chima’s Stormcaster, Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy’s Once & Future, and Sally Green’s Half Bad trilogy.

Reviewed by Tracy