Category Archives: Netgalley

Ink by Amanda Sun

 Ink by Amanda Sun has a cool set up: people with the power to make drawings – even calligraphy – come to life, and an unusual setting: modern Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast. Though the main character is a gaijin, all of the other important characters (discounting her aunt, who isn’t hugely important) are Japanese teenagers in a local school. Katie Greene has moved to Japan to live with an aunt after the death of her mother, and is just a couple of months into her time there. Her spoken Japanese isn’t great, though passable, and her kanji is bad. (Which is not a criticism; kanji is hard.)(And, I just quizzed a friend about living in Japan, and about the writing systems more generally, and I’m feeling pretty impressed about how difficult they are to master.) 

I admit I was a little worried about this set up, because while the whole fish-out-of-water, new-girl-at-school trope can be a nice metaphor for more general teenage alienation (e.g. Twilight) or the dislocation of grief (e.g. Mac’s relocation to Ireland at the start of the Fever series after the death of her sister), sometimes this trope can fall into the whole exoticized other thing that’s either lazy at best, or racist at worst. I don’t actually have the background in modern Japanese teen culture to back up this statement, but I felt like Inkavoided this trap, and the Japanese cultural milieu wasn’t played as backdrop or stage-set. The depictions of the city and school systems were matter-of-fact and not romanticized, but with the short bursts of wonder, like the sequence with the cherry blossoms – beautiful! – that runs to a rainstorm and rotting petals in clumps. Foreign cities are sometimes really irritating for the new resident – I can’t read anything - but then they knock you down at the odd moment with their civic power. This book captured that well. 

Katie is occasionally too quickly cognizant of when she makes a misstep – oh no, I just used the familiar, not the formal! or whatever – when I think the slightly later dawning horror of screwing up in an unfamiliar social system might have worked better overall. While the mystery of the magical drawings starts with a pretty tense situation – Katie is eavesdropping on an ugly break-up, by accident – that tension runs out pretty fast into the usual bad boy with a heart of gold and couple other dudes for a triangle-ish situation. Her friends get sidelined equally quickly, going from lifelines to bit characters and plot-expedience-devices. The aunt also exits stage right for the most part. The plot dissolves into a lot of prêt-à-porter angst, never really harnessing the real traumas of Katie’s backstory, and the magic ends up being a little dumb and convenient. 

Which is frankly a crying shame. There was potential here for the magical ink to function as a grief mechanism, a dangerous and seductive escapism into the built-worlds of our desires, and Katie’s attraction to the bad boy could have been an expression of grief-fueled anger, the self-destructive grief tendency made manifest. But, nope. Katie is milquetoast and often drearily stupid, and her love interest’s vacillation between being a douche-bag and dreamy are obnoxiously obvious. Why is he pushing me awaaaaaay? Is it because of his feeeeeeelings? You think? Jesus. Katie should have just gone and made out with Tanaka, because he was funny and straight up. Jun and Tomo can take their angst and stuff it. 

Which, I’ll admit, is my old talking here, and might not be a cogent criticism of a YA novel published by Harlequin Teen. But I’ve been schooled enough in both romance and YA to know that very interesting things can happen in those genres, especially when the dissociation of the paranormal is thrown into the mix. Especially when potent metaphors for the aliveness of writing is the basis. That this ended up being perfunctory and cliche is disappointing – yet another average-yet-special girl must choose between assholes – but it might not actually be surprising, all told, and at least it has a setting that I enjoyed.


from Amanda Sun’s blog



Oh, and one last thing: I received this as an ebook from NetGalley – thank you! – and I was initially confused by the little drawings at the corners of the pages. The first third has these little petals in various formations, and then later a bird, etc. There are also larger pen drawings, usually illustrations of what the various characters were drawing. I did enjoy the full illustrations, which had a drippy, sketchy quality that was in line with the tone. I was perplexed by the smaller drawings – the petals, for example – which didn’t seem to correlate to scene breaks. It wasn’t until halfway through the bird drawings that I realized these must be planned as a flip-book, which is really cool design, one that works beautifully with the themes of the book. Good design that is totally lost in the ebook format. I have embraced ebooks – partially out of necessity, and partially out of expedience – but it behooves publishers to translate this paper-bound stuff to the electronic medium a little better. A YouTube video, an app: something should be linked at the end so we can experience this piece of the book that is just straight up nifty. Alas. 

The Best Man by Kristan Higgins

The Best Man was an idle Netgalley request which I read also idly, over the course of some time. Probably not the best way to read such a thing. The set up and a lot of the characters are very romantic-comedy broad: Faith was left at the altar years before by a dream boyfriend, Jeremy – high school football star, dreamy, caring – when he was outed as gay by his best friend, Levi – wrong side of the tracks, taciturn. She returns home to her screwball small town to keep her dad from marrying a “gold-digger”, which gives her the opportunity to work out her past with the gay ex-fiance and the meddling best man.

Her relationships with the former fiance, now a dreamboat doctor, and the best man, now an honorable sheriff, are the best parts of the book, but especially the former fiance. These three have history and weight behind their relationships, and it was really nice to see the process by which Faith forgave and came to terms with Jeremy. She and Jeremy have the sweetest relationship in the book. Levi was a little too much in the mold of Sam Shepard in Baby Boom, and I bridle at folksy small-town stuff. That’s really a matter of taste though.

The larger cast of characters was less awesome. There are some squabbling grandparents who I think are supposed to be funny in their bickering, but they genuinely seemed to hate each other and had wasted their lives being stuck with one another. That was depressing. Much of the comic stuff fell flat for me, like a series of first dates that ranged from dumb to offensive. Don’t use trans people as a punchline. The gold-digging girlfriend was ridiculous, and the panic about widowed parents beginning to date again was directed in the wrong directions.

So, a fine little bit of frothy small town rom-com with some sweet moments and some really terrible ones.

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

About halfway through Fiend: A Novel, I thought, fuck, what am I doing. I’d sworn off drug abuse fiction after Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Christ, already. I get it. Drugs are bad. (And before you go humorless on me, understand that I’m kidding about “drugs are bad” being the PSA of Requiem.) But good thing Greg sent me a message alerting me to the existence of this, because it’s also got zombies and it’s set in the Twin Cities, two things I pretty much adore when they’re done right. This does them right, in my humble, undead, Midwestern opinion. I always fucking knew St Paul was full of zombies. (Minneapolis might be too, but our heroes never venture to my side of the river.) 

Chase is coming off of a week-long tweak when a little girl tears the throat out of a Rottweiler, then attempts to eat his face off too. Being on the end of a meth binge, he’s not so sure she’s real until his friend Typewriter caves in her skull and sets the house on fire. Like 28 Days later or Rick in Walking Dead, Chase and Type have missed the zombie apocalypse in their altered state: turns out everyone died one night, and then the next day, a bunch of ‘em got back up. Following the odd, but mostly unbroken convention in zombie lit, no one calls them zombies. Because the zombies giggle – which is hugely ominous at points, all this soft laughter coming from god knows where, or loudly from behind a straining door – the band of survivors call them Chucks. For the chuckling, you see. And the really fun part: only people high on meth, and continuously high on meth, survive the zombie apocalypse. The tweak shall inherit the earth. 



Concentrations of meth labs in the US. 



The voice is first person, with a stripped down punctuation and almost stream-of-consciousness. I say almost, because its really more stream-of-highass-award. This sort of damaged-by-drugs narration can grate, I find, often taking the lazy way out when it comes to control of the prose or the tone. I found Stenson to be quite good at both, and he just did a masterful job of vacillating through the extreme highs and lows of the junkie. There was a lack of affect and incuriousness running through even the highest sections, so that it wasn’t too precious either (a problem sometimes in druggie lit, I think). Lots of body horror, juicy, yucky descriptions, and repellent metaphors. The horror went comic a lot too, because bodies are funny as often as they are gross. The lack of quote marks on the dialogue was cool, running it so that you sometimes can’t tell if Chase said it or just thought it real loud, and it’s not like he knows or anyone is really listening anyway. The obvious analogy to make here is The Road, but I think it’s much more like The Reapers Are the Angels in terms of use of dialect, idiom, and genre pulpiness. (Though this isn’t nearly as stagy or ponderous, for better or for worse.) Certain punctuation won’t survive the apocalypse, apparently; literacy is as cooked as the meth when you’re dealing with zombies. 

I also really liked the local setting, because I totally know those kids from White Bear Lake – called, uncharitably but accurately “White Boy Lake” around here – who come rolling in with their privilege and rebellion, and then acclimate to the leveling effects of a decade of being strung out. The Hmong cook certainly has some shit to say about Chase and his ilk, and the demarcations of the neighborhoods and landmarks comes from someone who hasn’t just googled that stuff. Locals, heed this passage:

At Summit, the apex of our shitty little town, stands the governor’s mansion with its slabs of imported stone and then the Summit Club, and I picture F. Scott sitting in there writing about Bernice bobbing her hair. From this elevation we can see West Seventh, the flats of St Paul, where we see poor white Chucks shuffle around, tiny as ants, each and every one of them unified in their singleness of mind. Beyond them, across the Mississippi, not really visible, streets like Chavez and Independence, the skin once again darkening. Our city: each neighborhood segregated, first by economics, then by race. Each neighborhood now hosting its own walking dead, its own hidden pockets of shit-smoking motherfuckers trying to find the next hit.

I almost has the fury of Colson Whitehead’s final pan of a zombie New York in Zone One, but St Paul isn’t New York, and Mark Spitz’s averageness is a different coping strategy than being fucked up. Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz could never get up to the grandiloquent bullshit of a junkie, the sine waves of hope and despair; Chase would never ruminate with such urbane disconnect. There’s no taxonomy of survival narrative, just a sloppy, ugly existence from one hit to the next. Plus, really, fury isn’t a Midwestern thing when you get down to it. These autopsies of cities are personal things, and I respond to that personality immensely. I can see my house from here. And it’s on fire.

I thank Netgalley heartily for the ARC, and apologize if I’m not supposed to quote. 

Strange Attractors by Charles Soule

My husband and I were talking recently about the aphorisms that people dish at you and then act like they’re revelatory or meaningful. The one that we heaped the most scorn on was, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.” O, rilly? Pretty much the opposite of any emotional state is the lack of an emotional state, from a certain observational angle, so you might as well say, “The opposite of hate is being in a coma” or, “The opposite of feeling itchy is being dead.” True enough, as far as it goes, but not helpful. I mean, I know that this proverb is mostly deployed in situations when love’s gone wrong, but it’s just so freaking dumb and unhelpful. The opposite of irritation is slumber! 

Anyway, somewhat wobbly point being, I had classed the saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, we can get an hurricane in another,” as one of those stupid aphorisms: something someone says to you when a tree flattens your garage or something. Oh those damn butterflies! Add in the fact that since Ray Bradbury‘s A Sound of Thunder, where time travelers squash a butterfly in the Jurassic, leading to Planet of the Apes-style changes in the hear-and-now, the whole butterfly thing has become something of a hoary old chestnut in sff. 

Marge from the Simpsons tells Lisa that it's raining again, as doughnuts fall from the sky
What happens when Homer squashed a butterfly. Donuts!

But, turns out, it’s an actual mathematical thing! From the wikis:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.


Oh look! Attractors! Maybe some of them will be strange.

So the story starts with grad student Heller Wilson bopping around New York, complaining about the soulless thesis topic he was given by his adviser, and just generally having the pre-graduate crisis. The art is sepia realism with bright punctuations of color, and the scientific-y drawings are wonderful, crossing a sort of biological feel with more airless, computer-generated structures. The image I found of one of these complexity maps has decided not to work, so you’ll have to take my word for it, sadly. I’m just saying I liked the art. 

In order to kick-start his thesis, he goes to meet the old math department crank, Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who is a cross between a hobo and Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, but less sexy than the latter. Brownfield’s been working on something called “complexity theory” for the last 30 years – a mix of Asimov’s psychohistory and the Butterfly Effect – and believes himself to be the guardian of New York. He’s forever doing these inexplicable “adjustments” – things like setting a rat loose in a restaurant or subtly driving people towards a different subway entrance – which he believes keeps New York’s “immune system” robust. 

Which is my segue to talk about New York. First and foremost, Strange Attractorsis a love letter to the cityest of American cities, a place with infrastructure so unbelievably barnacled, complex, and jury-rigged that it’s astonishing that it works at all, let alone that it weathers the shocks of terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and various NY mayors. One of the many facts that blew my mind in The World Without Us was that, without the pumps working every minute of every day, the subway system would revert to the underground rivers that every inch of the underground strains to become. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent destruction were just a hairsbreadth from knocking out these pumps and flooding the system. This could be repaired after months and months of work, but. Soule and Co do an excellent job of capturing the vibrancy, texture, and fragility of life in NY, as Heller gets more and more caught up in Dr. Brownfield’s crazy theories and such. 

The plot is pretty perfunctory. Heller thinks Dr. Brownfield is a loon, but a brilliant one; he gets more caught up in Brownfield’s ideas; Heller gets in trouble with The Powers That Be over Brownfield’s influence; Brownfield asks for more than Heller is willing to give, etc, etc. The crisis and resolution is a little dorkily cheerful, with a whole pay it forward vibe that makes me gag just a little. But! Just a little. I am not immune to feel-good stories about majestic, chaotic cities repairing themselves in the wake of disaster, or in the forefront of it. I <3 cities. They might even <3 me back. Awww. 

Also, way back in the day we had a bird named Boolean, and Dr. Brownfield has a dog with the same name. Nerd pet names represent!

I received my copy from NetGalley.com.

assasin's curse

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

 The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the completion of the duology started with The Assassin’s Curse. The author’s afterword notes this is a duology because The Assassin’s Curse got too long, so the book was bisected, and it shows. The first novel doesn’t end satisfactorily, and this one feels dissipated, bled out into the more wangsty concerns of the bildungsroman. 

This is functionally the third act of the coming of age romance, and third acts are the parts of coming of age romances that I like least. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Pirate’s Wish, the characters, and the choices Clarke makes on a narrative level, just that maybe it could have been more ruthlessly edited to be a single novel. Young adult readers aren’t afraid of doorstoppers, bless their hearts, though I am cognizant that they are more likely to pick them up if the author is named Meyer or Rowling, and not a first time novelist. So I get it. 

The first book details how Ananna, a pirate’s daughter, flees from an arranged marriage out into the world without much more than her ambition and wit to get by. She’s a likable protagonist, competent in many ways (ways such as pick-pocketing, which is badass) but also a little naive. So, you know, like someone you knew or were or wanted to be. (Pick-pocketing!) She ends up with her fate tied to the assassin Naji through a curse, and an odd one. In the terms of the book, an impossible one. Naji cannot abide having Ananna in any kind of danger, or have her move too far away from him without pain – real, physical pain. 

It’s an interesting wrinkle, because put that way, that reads a little like the crazy instalove mania that you find in a lot of both young adult and adult romances, where lovers cannot be parted and the hero must stalk and pedestal the heroine for her own good and his. But that’s not Naji and Ananna’s relationship. He’s a little scarred and mysterious, sure, but he maintains his rationality in spite of the curse, and doesn’t treat Ananna like a child. Or not exactly like a child; he is still sometimes high-handed, but it reads as age-gap and not jerk ownership of Ananna. 

Possible spoilers for the first book ahead. 

Ananna and Naji are given a series of metaphorically vague tasks to complete in order to break the curse, one of which is something to the effect of true love’s kiss. Which, despite the fact that Naji and Ananna are not eye-gazing or spooning, you pretty much know is going to be between the two of them. So it’s a cool choice that Clarke makes to dispense with that oracular kiss first in a confounding and complicating way: she may love him, but he does not love her, and everyone becomes harshly aware of it when the first task is completed. Bummer.

But even though I kinda appreciate the whole confounding the expectations thing, it makes Ananna and Naji’s relationship a whole bunch of annoyance from this point on. She deals with this revelation reasonably well, in that she doesn’t fall apart or become a dishrag, but there’s still far more blubbering and storming off than I prefer. Naji, who has the whole mysterious scarred assassin thing going for him in book one, starts pouting and hanging out in his room in a way that diminishes his character. And while there’s something touching about the restraint in explicating his back story – a person is not just the story of how he got his scars – it makes it hard to understand his motivations. But! I do adore a lot of the characters here, even if Naji is not my favorite. The manticore and her kin are wonderful, and the lesbian queen and her pirate consort are pretty much the best ever. 

The final task is kind of a mess. Not in the way it’s written, which is beautiful and odd, but just in how it plays out. Why and how did that happen at all? But I did appreciate the final conclusion between Naji and Ananna, which took their characters into account in a way I rarely see when dealing with romantic couples. By way of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just gesture to the Norse legend of Skaði, a goddess of hunt and woods, who must choose a husband only by the look of his feet. She chooses Njörðr, a deity of the sea. Their relationship is always going to be a compromise – sea or woods – and while love may be transformative and all, it probably won’t change your basic nature. It is very cool to see a young adult novel not magic away very real, character-based conflicts between people – something that happens even in stories that are not literally magical. Nice. 

So, a nice conclusion on the story, but not as awesome as the first two acts. I want to say this could have been tighter and less peripatetic, but then I liked the shaggy bopping around of The Assassin’s Curse. Maybe I just don’t like coming of age, as a brutal, cheerful pirate’s daughter is way more fun than one who has been tempered and changed. Good story though. 


I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly. 

Worm by Tim Curran

an infographic of all the sandworms in fiction: the pit of Saarlac, the things from Beetlejuice, the sandworms from Dune, and the Tremors monsters
from DanMeth.com

Worm is a gross, nasty little smash-and-grab about toilet monsters, and absolutely as fun as that description implies. You know, if you like nasty body horror stuff with a queasy sexual overlay, which I do! Sometimes. Here, anyway. (Sheesh, this review is stupid so far.)

 One fine morning in a possibly Midwestern town, the streets all fill with black, disgusting sewage, like all the underground pipes have flushed onto the street. There’s not a lot of screwing around with characterization or motivations, because really, when you’re being attacked by a blubbery sludge-dripping razor-toothed worm, how much other motivation do you need? 

I wasn’t very into this at first because the first character you meet is one of those unemployed assholes who’s dealing with his (supposed) emasculation by being a total fuckwit about his wife and dog. If it’s such a chore to have someone feed and clothe you, then GTFO. But that’s before I realized that this story wasn’t going to be about whatever interpersonal gender blahblah, but ass-eating toilet monsters. The sludge in the streets starts bubbling up through the sinks and drains and (yay!) toilets. All the possible gross permutations of phallic sewage monsters with chainsaw-ish teeth killing people are explored, including a few that surprised me. Go toilet monsters! 

Unlike the various sandworms from fiction I can think of – and Tremors is probably the best comparison here, though that’s more intentionally campy – these are sewage worms, and as such, are pretty great. I almost always think that horror novels should be shorter than they are, unless they’re, like, psychological and shizz, so the brevity here is good: gross out, gross out, gross out, BIG BOSS, the end. Worm is apparently one in a series of horror novellas put out by Dark Fuse, and I have totally put in for a couple more of them from Netgalley (which is where I got this one.) 

I’m a sucker for pulp imprints, because while they put out a lot of dross, the experimental nature of the manifesto can result in some really electric stuff. This wasn’t one of the electric stuffs, for me anyway, but slogging through the sludge is part of the fun of pulp, and that’s made horribly manifest here. Toilet monsters’re gonna getchu!

Reluctant Boy Readers: Peregrine Harker and the Black Death

I requested Peregrine Harker the Black Death from NetGalley because I have a shine for the Black Plague, and young adult novels about ridiculously awful social and bacteriological devastation appeal to me in the abstract. Unfortunately for this reader, it wasn’t really about bubonic plague. This book also skews younger than the young adult label implies, really more for the 10-14 demographic than late high school or slumming adults. There’s been a lot of fracture in the age distinctions for novels in the past however long – apparently there is a category called New Adult these days? – but I think that sometimes those distinctions can be fruitful. Or if not fruitful, than useful for readers to determine interest level. 

Peregrine Harker the Black Death by Luke Hollands absolutely screams to me reluctant boy reader, with its parentless boy detective type first-person narrator who is a cross between the pre-radioactive-spider-bitten Peter Parker and Tin Tin. He is hauled in by a superior at the newspaper and ordered to stop going off on wild tangents, and then immediately goes off on a wild tangent that gets him knocked on the head and embroiled in a Scooby Doo style mystery. There’s some mild family angst, but everybody is too busy running around and avoiding being buried alive and the like to really delve into melodrama. 

Everything is extremely action-driven, and moves fairly breathlessly around an almost overdone Victorian England. The prose is very pip pip cheerio old bean bloke lorry loo, and it took me a while to determine that this wasn’t meant to be funning on British prose style, but straight up. Or maybe it is funning after all, but it is very over the top in its Britishiosity. I didn’t exactly like this, but I think for the demographic who should be reading this, it would be fun and novel. 

I’m going to admit here I didn’t finish Peregrine Harker the Black Death. A book aimed at boys who don’t like to read and therefore gives them scads and scads of action to the detriment of anything else a novel might provide isn’t really my bag. I think I’m sounding a little bitter here, but I don’t mean to go that way. Stylized action vehicles are completely valid, especially if you’re trying to sucker some snot-nosed brat into reading instead of Minecraft. I think my 9 year old, who is an unreluctant boy reader, would probably enjoy this as action fluff. Young people who are afraid that books might have girl cooties all over them will likely enjoy this too. This is mostly cootie-free. 

But I don’t think somewhat mindless action vehicles are ultimately going to turn the reluctant reader into an avid one, because there’s not a lot of here here. I don’t believe that reading is ennobling, and I don’t think it has to be didactic or educational to be worthwhile. The things that make reading rewarding, or differently rewarding than building Legos or Mariocart – finely drawn (or even exaggerated) emotional states, engaging or challenging prose, thoughtful plotting, any kind of character study – are not in evidence here. And not that this one novel has to adhere to my cranky old standards or solve all the issues I have with how reading fits into other media, gendered divisions in marketing, and whatnot. A perfectly slap-happy read for someone other than me.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

I am coming down with something bad. I could feel the cement hardening in the cracks in my skull all day, and now my brain is both solid and lacy with an underwater stupidity. I had started reading some trash fiction this morning, as usually illness sends me crawling to comforting junk, but it didn’t suit this time. It turned out my misery wanted miserable company, which made There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya more or less the perfect companion. 

Sometimes short stories can be really constructed things, like a spring-loaded trap that snaps down hard on form or concept or what have you. These short stories are instead morbid and wry anecdotes, told with a sort of uniformity of structure, in a uniformity of locales. Which isn’t exactly true: when I could tell the time period, these stories ranged around from just post-War Soviet state to the now Russian Republic grumbling about New Russians. But poor, miserable, drunken, bureaucratic assholes are a time-transcendent fixture, as are the drear cabbage-redolent apartments and disconnective, though central, family structures. At a point, the whole collection started feeling like an extended rake joke, and I kept stepping and stepping on the tines that would aim the handle straight for my cement-filled head. Whether this will work for other readers is, as usual, up in the air, and it’s possible my single-sitting reading of this work helped my sense of the dark humor. 

One of the best set of classes I ever took was a Russian Literature and History two-fer in high school, and we decided to stage a reading of The Cherry Orchard. We didn’t know much about it, and the teacher (in a very interesting and, ultimately, rewarding choice) didn’t read up on The Cherry Orchard‘s very long history on the stage; she was not directing our impressions. It’s a pretty dire story, in terms of plotting, a family broken up and sold off, dashed hopes, dissolution. And we couldn’t stop laughing as we read, not at all. It got to be a pain in the ass because we couldn’t even get our scenes completed as the giggling took up from on to the other like an infection. Then we would all wonder, why the hell are we laughing at this? Though there are elements of farce, The Cherry Orchardisn’t unserious in its treatment of its characters, not running them as some kind of broad parody. 

Turns out, Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but its tragic aspects are inescapable. The laughter it provokes is uncomfortable, the burst of laughter after a startle. Many folk smarter and better’n me at theatre history have droned on about this at length, so let’s have an end to that and get back to Petrushevskaya, who manages to hit a Soviet version of the Chekhovian tragicomedy in a blur of miserable similarity. And who manages to do it turning Tolstoy’s famous aphorism on its head: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Here, this is what happened,” so many of these stories start, and then not quite tragic but nonetheless inconsequential lives continue inconsequentially until they end, or the narrative does. 

The whole business reminded me of the Grandma Dory’s ironic anecdotes of her childhood, her Bestamore locked in by a stroke for the last 20 years of her life, left minded by teenage granddaughters who had better business to attend to. Bestamore had a tendency to push herself out of wherever she was propped, rolling down hills and gurgling in a way my Grandma would imitate. I guess she was trying to say something, Grandma would shrug with an old woman’s shoulders, laughing past her childish cruelties. Grandma’s lessons are always subtle. Petrushevskaya has an almost dismissively reductive narrative voice – “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. The girl was used to it and didn’t get too upset” – but the opening dismissals are almost always belied by strange, glancing connections and the fact that she is focusing on these dismissed lives at all. 

I often try, when I’m writing up collected short stories, to sort them individually: this one, this theme; this other, its voice. I’m not going to do that here because I think this functions best as an album, in the old school records-slotted-in-a-cardboard-box sense, but also in the sense of family album, all those nameless and half-remembered ancestors, sitting in a row of schoolchildren or dapper in their military swag or holding armfuls of children destined to die before the age of five. Here are the stories of unremembered lives lived in squabbled over apartments and stupid jobs. Amen.

a line of people in a black and white photo in front of building, one of which is my great-grandfather (though I don't know which) on the eve of his running from Lithuania during the Revolution
One of these men is my great-grandfather, on the eve of the Revolution which will send him out of Lithuania. I don’t know which one.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

The Archived

To be clear, I only read the 108 page sneak peak of The Archivedby Victoria Schwab available on Netgalley, and not the whole novel. I’m unlikely to read the entire novel, not because this book is bad, but because I’m of a mind that most young adult fictions, especially paranormal fictions as sloppily built as this one, should be read in a sitting so you don’t have time to tear it down. The teaser ended up being a flinch. 

The idea here, in the abstract, is wonderful: people, upon death, are kept as recordings like books in an archive. But they have bodies like ghosts, like cordwood stacked. There’s a grief-stricken girl, and a family that has moved to escape grief, and a nifty old hotel. I liked those parts. But the girl is also one of those precocious ingenues that I don’t cotton to, who is talented beyond her experience. She is not the worst of these kind of characters, not by half, but when I put her sort of world-weary kvetching about responsibility alongside a magical system that makes zero sense once the flinch took, it just killed it for me. 

Again, I am not saying this is bad by any stretch, and The Archivedcould certainly tighten up and go somewhere in the end. The set-up, as I said, has some pretty great metaphorical possibilities, especially if you are a book nerd. And certainly, I have enjoyed many a book that had sloppy or silly paranormal systems, because the system is more framework for felt experience than it is some nerdily exact taxonomy. (Divergent, for example.) Credible examination of grief, from what I saw, but also annoyingly naive for grouches like me. Sometimes young adult literature is more for young adults than us slumming grown-ups, which isn’t really the fault of anyone. 

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A strange book, to be sure. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord wears its influences on its sleeves so much that it’s more patchwork quilt than whole cloth. Star Trek (lots of Star Trek), Ray Bradbury, possibly Bujold (though it could just be similar influences, but the central characters remind me very much of Aral & Cordelia), the Janes Austen and Eyre (and I know it is monumentally unfair to conflate a real writer with a fictional character just because they have the same first name, but still I do it), the obvious Voltaire (or possibly Candide), LeGuin’s anthropology that often quests for the humaneness in our humanity. This is not going to work for many readers, especially after giving the usual your mileage may vary disclaimer about the influences. But the quilted quality, for me anyway, worked pretty decently with the the overriding themes of the novel: hybridization (as Mike notes, and you should read his review), the intersection of the domestic with societal, and love, love, love, baby.

This is the second science fiction novel I’ve read in the last month that focused at least as much attention to their interpersonal and romantic upheavals as to the more traditionally science fictional elements, and I find I like this a good deal. (And, the science fictional stuff here – like aspects cribbed pretty hard from some of my least favorite things, like Star Trek’s The Chase - were the least interesting part of the story for me.) Space opera especially can be very dudes-in-smoking-jackets-avuncularly-solving-society-with-reason, and that this book takes that reasonable computation – here is how we will solve our problems with Science! - and then puts the rubber to the road is actually quietly subversive. Yes, that’s a very nice theory you’ve got there, but when you resolve that plan down to specific human beings, who tend not to run to spec, you’re gonna have some problems. And the problems are not with the people, but with the plan.

Speaking of Star Trek, the opening is very much what happens in the third act of the most recent Star Trek movie – so spoiler alert on that, if you haven’t seen it – where the entire planet of Vulcan is destroyed, leaving a smattering of Vulcans in exile traumatized by genocide and weighted with the monumental task of rebuilding/preserving an entire culture. (I suppose this also happens in Star Wars when Leia’s home world of Alderaan is vaporized – seriously, that is not a spoiler – but that’s treated so topically as to be callous. Hey, a boy’s quest to manhood is way more important.) Ms. Lord notes in her afterward that this idea for her was sparked by reading about the lingering effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more. Because of a quirk of timing and culture, women were killed disproportionately, leaving sometimes whole communities of family-less men. A culture without women, without children, is not one that going to survive. (The reverse is true, certainly, but that’s not what happened.) So this is where we are with the Sadiri as well, and Cygnus Beta is suddenly a pioneer settlement filled mostly with Sadiri men.

Because the Sadiri are pretty much Vulcans – cool, mannered, intellectual – they build a little plan to entice (functionally) mail-order brides from the pluralistic society of Cygnus Beta to act as the new mothers of Sadiri. Ambassador Spock is tasked with surveying outlying communities for quanta of Sadiri genes, and mid-level Cygean bureaucrat/scientist Grace Delarua is sent along with him and his team. This is a pretty terrible idea – the whole assessing ladies for their breeding/genetic potential – and Grace even knows it. But whatever, road trip! We’ll just sort this shit out on the way. There’s a lot of sly commentary on racial construction in the novel – how the ways people look define how others respond to them, how racial characteristics are constructed and enforced, etc. (I actually laughed when someone exclaims “But slavery is illegal!” when the dawning realization that they are dealing with a culture predicated on slavery hits the group.) Which makes the white-washing of the cover that much more discouraging; I don’t think there is one character in this novel described as having white skin, and certainly Grace (who that is?) does not. But this has been going on in sff covers for a long time, witness the very dark-skinned Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea who has been subjected to whitewashed covers and “color-blind casting” (snort, as if) for decades. I kind of can’t imagine Ms. Lord had anything to do with this cover decision, and boycotting her work is punching a bystander, so I don’t really know what the solution is here. Strongly worded email to the publisher? Vocal bitching? Heaving dramatically ironic sighs?

The story is told mostly in Grace’s voice, which, as I gestured to in my last paragraph, is pretty breezy and chatty, sometimes irritatingly so. Sometimes less than snappy banter goes on for too long, and there are occasional dips into preciousness. But I think part of it is deliberate. Grace has an encounter with someone (trying not to go spoiler here) which is a pretty brutal assault on her mental autonomy, and it took me several chapters to have the magnitude of the assault sink in, partially because Grace jumps up and dusts off. Well, are we getting back to work or what? She’s got the glossomania of the traumatized, running scads of cheerful commentary on everything but the injury (not unlike Rae from Sunshine.) Mr Spock is doing the same thing, in his way, retreating into logic and genetics as solutions to a problem that is cultural, and therefore infinitely more non-linear. (To put it super dorkily; jeez.) It’s only through a series of glancing conversations – ones not about their traumas at all – that I began to see the avoidance mechanisms at work. Very subtly done.

Anyway, I predict that there will be many reviews of this book that dismiss it as just a love story, but The Best of All Possible Worlds - very overtly in places – reads to me as that sly kind of women’s fiction that says occasionally dangerous things about how we construct our societies, very gently and chattily drawing out our idealized visions of how people work and resolving them down to individuals. The syllabus is not the moment of insight. That Ms. Lord pulls this off in the historically all-male fantasy playset of the space opera is charmingly subversive as well. So, as I said in my opening, an odd book, patchy in places, with the kind of narrator who can even set the teeth of those inclined to like her voice (and for those who aren’t, forget about it). This book puts the soap in space opera, and I enjoyed greatly what came out in the wash.

I received my copy from NetGalley.com