Thursday, January 29, 2015

Four Star Fiction and Non-Fiction 2014

Photo by roujo










All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Goodreads synopsis: A novel of exceptional heart and imagination about the ties that bind us to each other, broken and whole, from one of the most exciting voices in Canadian fiction. 
     September, 1983. Fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, lives in a small house in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto with his mother, Thao, and his four-year-old sister, who was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. Named Orange, she is the family secret; Thao keeps her hidden away, and when Bo's not at school or getting into fights on the street, he cares for her.
     One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a streetfight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. This opens up a new world for Bo--but then Gerry's boss, Max, begins pursuing Thao with an eye on Orange for his travelling freak show. When Bo wakes up one night to find the house empty, he knows he and his cub, Bear, are truly alone. Together they set off on an extraordinary journey through the streets of Toronto and High Park. Awake at night, boy and bear form a unique and powerful bond. When Bo emerges from the park to search for his sister, he discovers a new way of seeing Orange, himself and the world around them.
   All the Broken Things is a spellbinding novel, at once melancholy and hopeful, about the peculiarities that divide us and bring us together, and the human capacity for love and acceptance.


Beautifully written, strange and moving. 

Ru by Kim Thuy. Goodreads synopsis: A runaway bestseller in Quebec, with foreign rights sold to 15 countries around the world, Kim Thúy's Governor General's Literary Award-winning Ru is a lullaby for Vietnam and a love letter to a new homeland.
Ru. In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow - of tears, blood, money. Kim Thúy's Ru is literature at its most crystalline: the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters. In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream. As an adult, the waters become rough again: now a mother of two sons, she must learn to shape her love around the younger boy's autism. Moving seamlessly from past to present, from history to memory and back again, Ru is a book that celebrates life in all its wonder: its moments of beauty and sensuality, brutality and sorrow, comfort and comedy. 

Spare, but lovely. Unfortunately, the poetic nature of the writing seems to make it even more difficult than usual to remember details of the story. 

The Eliot Girls by Krista Bridge. Goodreads synopsis: For years, Audrey Brindle has dreamed of attending George Eliot Academy, the school where her mother, Ruth, has taught for a decade. But when she is finally admitted, she discovers a place of sly bullying, ferocious intolerance, and bewildering social standards. Ruth, meanwhile, finds her world upended by her attraction to a new teacher, and the ambitions and desires of both mother and daughter find themselves on a collision course. An acutely observed exploration of betrayal, cruelty, and fallen idols, The Eliot Girls deftly explores the intimacies and injustices of privileged female adolescence and the relationship of a mother and daughter for whom life will never be the same. 

Picked this up at random while at the library - something I do increasingly rarely. At first I found it a bit overwritten and self-consciously first novel-ish, and I still find that Ruth's character was sort of half-drawn, with some dimensions very finely shaded and others completely missing. I also wonder, in works like this, if there isn't a way to put in some characters that are normal, for lack of a better term. Everyone is always either the protagonist or a kind of caricature - all the other teachers are overly dramatic, or have dietary tics, or are too wrapped up in perfect motherhood. But on the whole I really enjoyed it - or admired it, is probably more accurate. It was a clear-eyed rendering of the savage arena of adolescent girlhood and of an incident of adultery, that made both things familiar and yet just different enough to be interesting. And the language was often quite striking.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Goodreads synopsis: Miriam Toews is beloved for her irresistible voice, for mingling laughter and heartwrenching poignancy like no other writer. In her most passionate novel yet, she brings us the riveting story of two sisters, and a love that illuminates life. 
You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking. 
But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.
 All My Puny Sorrows, at once tender and unquiet, offers a profound reflection on the limits of love, and the sometimes unimaginable challenges we experience when childhood becomes a new country of adult commitments and responsibilities. In her beautifully rendered new novel, Miriam Toews gives us a startling demonstration of how to carry on with hope and love and the business of living even when grief loads the heart.

I found this similar to A Complicated Kindness, by which I mean not that it was derivative, but that Toews has a remarkable gift for making the most unbearably sad situations hysterically funny without taking away any of the sadness. I love her. 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Goodreads synopsis: An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. 
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. 
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave. 
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleventells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it. 

Reviewed on blog

There but for the by Ali Smith. Goodreads synopsis: Imagine you have a dinner party and a friend of a friend brings a stranger to your house as his guest. He seems pleasant enough. Imagine that this stranger goes upstairs halfway through the dinner party and locks himself in one of your bedrooms and won't come out. Imagine you can't move him for days, weeks, months. If ever.

Read for book club. It was unconventional but interesting - the story of the people connected to the main character are almost more moving and engaging than the story of the character himself. 


Requiem by Frances Itani. Goodreads synopsis: Bin Okuma, a celebrated visual artist, has recently and quite suddenly lost his wife, Lena. He and his son, Greg, are left to deal with the shock. But Greg has returned to his studies on the East Coast, and Bin finds himself alone and pulled into memories he has avoided for much of his life. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, his Japanese Canadian family was displaced from the West Coast. Now, he sets out to drive across the country: to complete the last works needed for an upcoming exhibition; to revisit the places that have shaped him; to find his biological father, who has been lost to him. It has been years since his father made a fateful decision that almost destroyed the family. Now, Bin must ask himself whether he really wants to find him. With the persuasive voice of his wife in his head, and the echo of their great love in his heart, he embarks on an unforgettable journey that encompasses art and music, love and hope.
A story of great loss, a story of redemption, a story of abiding love, Requiem is a beautifully written and evocative novel about a family torn apart by the past and a man’s present search for solace.

The synopsis captures it pretty well for this one. This is a sad and affecting story, one of those that we need to help us put a human face on an ugly situation that can be hard to conceptualize in the abstract. 

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Goodreads synopsis: Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows.
With compassion and insight, author Richard Wagamese traces through his fictional characters the decline of a culture and a cultural way. For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he’s sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement.
Indian Horse unfolds against the bleak loveliness of northern Ontario, all rock, marsh, bog and cedar. Wagamese writes with a spare beauty, penetrating the heart of a remarkable Ojibway man. Drawing on his great-grandfather’s mystical gift of vision, Saul Indian Horse comes to recognize the influence of everyday magic on his own life. In this wise and moving novel, Richard Wagamese shares that gift of magic with readers as well.


The star system is kind of meaningless for a book like this. "I really liked it"? Well, no, I didn't, it made me feel like throwing up and committing acts of mayhem every few pages. Is it brilliantly done and viscerally enragingly disturbing? Yes, it is. Is there maybe a little too much exhaustive detail about hockey in it for me? Perhaps, but obviously that's understandable. Goddamn, why do people suck so energetically hard so much of the time?

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Goodreads synopsis: From Giller Prize winner, internationally acclaimed, and bestselling author Vincent Lam comes a superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting novel set against the turmoil of the Vietnam War. 
Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Chen Academy. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mahjong tables. But when his only son gets in trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival faces the limits of his connections and wealth and is forced to send him away. In the loneliness that follows, Percival finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the eve of the Tet offensive. Percival's new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see. 
Blessed with intriguingly flawed characters moving through a richly drawn historical and physical landscape, The Headmaster's Wager is a riveting story of love, betrayal and sacrifice.


The plot description really didn't pull me in on this one - I can't even remember why I finally picked it up, but I liked it much more than I expected to. It's not a setting I'm familiar with, so I enjoyed the strangeness of the sense of place, and the story - and Percival Chen as a character - were exceptionally well done. 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Goodreads synopsis: From bestselling author Meg Wolitzer a dazzling, panoramic novel about what becomes of early talent, and the roles that art, money, and even envy can play in close friendships.
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.
The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.
Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

Reviewed on blog.

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates. Goodreads synopsis: One game. Six students. Five survivors.
It was only ever meant to be a game.
A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results.
Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round.


I'm kind of a sucker for these "they were the best of friends...deep dark secret....blah blah blah" books, with a healthy dose of skepticism, because when done badly they can be unforgivably melodramatic. This one is done really well. The addition of a layer of British classism adds depth, as well as the shady manipulations of Game Soc. The heady mix of intellectual ferment and young adult freedom (and hubris) is captured perfectly, and the description of the personalities makes it easy to overcome the "but why wouldn't they just stop?" reaction. Above all, this book really brings home the truth that there's nothing an enemy can do to you that can compare with the devastation that can be wrought by a friend. 

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty. Goodreads synopsis: At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read
My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died...
Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .
Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.
Acclaimed author Liane Moriarty has written a gripping, thought-provoking novel about how well it is really possible to know our spouses—and, ultimately, ourselves.


I was expecting this to be more mystery than 'women's fiction', but I ended up really enjoying it. I agree a lot of it was contrived and implausible (although my friend Zarah would like you to know that the incredibly unrealistic part about the one woman's husband and his lover expecting her to feel bad for them because they were so sorry that they fell in love does actually happen), but it was internally consistent enough that I could get over that, and I did enjoy the various crossing paths and the thoughts about wifedom and motherhood. And if you're thinking that you already read about this one in a previous post, you did - I accidentally included it in the three-star books. Oops. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Goodreads synopsis: It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

We read her previous book, The Secret History, in my book club years ago and I really didn't like it, and I was surprised at all the positive buzz about this one. I got it out of the library for my mother and she finished it so quickly that there was time before it had to go back, so I cracked it open. I ended up happily eating my words (or hers, as it turns out). This was as wide and deep and moving as The Secret History was shallow and flat and annoying (for me, anyway). I couldn't put it down.


Non-fiction: 

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. Goodreads synopsis: Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice. 
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

I started this out feeling ever-so-slightly cranky about it, like Strayed was just using people's letters as a flimsy framework to hang her own flighty musings and memoirings on. As I read on, I started to think, well, after all, these people wrote to her in full knowledge that she's not a licensed therapist or psychiatrist, and she did it for free. In addition, there's some pretty goddamned good writing AND some fairly decent life advice on offer. So, yeah: Dear Self: Get over yourself.


Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened by Allie Brosh. Goodreads synopsis: This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative--like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it--but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:
Pictures
Words
Stories about things that happened to me
Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
Eight billion dollars*
Stories about dogs
The secret to eternal happiness*
*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness!


I always think a big part of the secret to eternal happiness is laughter - even about sad, horrible things like death and crippling depression - so I don't think she's really lying. She is gifted and hysterically funny, though. I gave this to Matt's uncle and his wife (who are not that much older than us), and their seven-year-old got hold of it, read a few pages and said "this book has every swear ever invented in it". He doesn't actually know all the swear words ever invented (I know - I quizzed him), but maybe exercise some parental discretion if that kind of thing bothers you. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Four-Star Mysteries, Short Stories, Fantasy and Science Fiction 2014

Photo by roujo













Mystery:

Deadline by John Dunning. Goodreads synopsis: When a circus tent fire calls "Tribune" reporter Dalton Walker into action, he's disturbed to find that no relatives have come to claim the body of a young victim. Dalton is also covering the story of a young Amish woman turned famous New York dancer. But not every story is what it seems, and soon Walker is heading down a terrifying seductive path toward the truth, and the unrelenting deadline. Fawcett reprint.

I love John Dunning. I love Cliff Janeway's rambling discourses about books and bookstores, I love the labyrinthine plots revolving around long-lost first editions and people who love books to an insane degree. This is an earlier book, and it has the same delicious aura of printer's ink and page dust, although the protagonist is a reporter rather than a used bookstore-owner. I love the rapturous musing on old-style journalism and the ferocious need to get to the bottom of the story. The whole book had a kind of quaint, old-fashioned patina to it - the romance was sweet and courtly, and the subplot about the Amish people lent a nice counterpoint. 

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer. Goodreads synopsis: 'The dead can't speak to us,' Professor Madoc had said.
But that was a lie.
Sometimes, only an outsider can get to the truth.
Patrick has been on the outside all his life. Thoughtful, but different, infuriating even to his own mother, his life changes when he follows an obsession with death to study anatomy at university.
When he uncovers a crime that everybody else was too close to see, he proves finally that he has been right all along: nothing is exactly as it seems.
And that there have been many more lies closer to home.


Will spur inevitable comparison's to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, which is fine - they're both good. This is quite different from her Exmoor trilogy, (the third book of which I reviewed in this post) but I loved it just as much - and it's fairly rare that I find a writer where I'm equally smitten by her series books and standalones. In addition to being good reading, books like this one, and Haddon's, and Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark can perhaps be heplful in helping neurotypical people come a step closer to understanding what it's like to live inside Asperger's Syndrome. This is a mystery in so many senses of the word, an exceptional character study, a story filled with compassion and insight, and just a really great read. 

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly. Goodreads synopsis: Of course it was love for my children, love for my son, that caused me to act as I did. It was a lapse of judgement. If I could have foreseen the rippling aftershocks that followed I would have acted differently, but by the time I realised the extent of the consequences, it was too late.
The MacBrides have always gone to Far Barn in Devon for Bonfire Night, but this year everything is different. Lydia, the matriarch, is dead; Sophie, the eldest daughter, is desperately trying to repair a crumbling marriage; and Felix, the youngest of the family, has brought a girlfriend with him for the first time. 
The girl, Kerry, seems odd in a way nobody can quite put their finger on - but when they leave her looking after Sophie's baby daughter, and return to find both Kerry and the baby gone, they are forced to ask themselves if they have allowed a cuckoo into their nest...
Gripping and chilling, with a killer twist, The Burning Air reaffirms Erin Kelly as one of Britain's foremost psychological thriller writers.


This is another read that veered more in the direction of women's fiction (I know, what the hell does that even mean?) than pure mystery, and one case where impulsively clicking on the download button of a library ebook didn't go horribly wrong. I can still call to mind quite clearly an opening scene where one of the characters goes from her dying mother's hospital room to giving birth to her own child (the fourth, I think). There was some good writing about family relationships, personal betrayal and how one poor choice can set things on a catastrophic course. 




Short Stories (which, as it turns out, are all science fiction/fantasy, with one horror):

Bending the Landscape: Original Gay and Lesbian Horror Writing edited by Nicola Griffith. Goodreads synopsis: A unique collection of horror stories focuses on the work of gay and lesbian writers, including Kraig Blackwelder's Coyote Love, Leslie What's The Were-Slut of Avenue A, and other contributions from Holly Wade Matter, Mark Tiedmann, Brian A. Hopkins, A. J. Potter, and Alexis Glynn Latner. 

An anthology of great writing that just happens to be by gay and lesbian writers. Really well-done on the whole - varied, skillful, deeply unsettling. Some of them made me feel actual nausea. Mostly in a good way. If you know what I mean.

In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips. Goodreads synopsis: In the Palace of Repose is a collection of nine such stories, ranging from the delightfully fantastic "In the Palace of Repose," to the delicately horrific "One of the Hungry Ones," to the hauntingly literary "The Other Grace." Here indeed are young women, and young men, who have seen too much, and who have been abandoned to wrestle alone with the strange, the wonderful, the terrifying. Some triumph, some tragically fail. Most struggle on beyond the boundaries of their stories, carrying their wonders and horrors into their lives, into their worlds - worlds, and lives, startlingly like our own.

I'm going to steal from another Goodreads reviewer who called the stories "beautifully written, oblique, yet highly readable". I thought the stories were better than her novel. 

Tales of the Hidden World by Simon R. Green. Goodreads synopsis: Seventeen delightfully unexpected stories from Simon R. Green--including a brand-new adventure of the Droods--take us deep into the Darkside, embroil us in the Secret Histories, and lead us into the shadowy places where monsters and demons roamWelcome to the worlds of Simon R. Green. In this wide-ranging collection, the "New York Times"-bestselling urban fantasist opens doors into hidden places: strange realms bordering our own mundane existence and prowled by creatures of fancy and nightmare. Here are the strange, frequently deadly--and sometimes even dead--things that lurk in garbage-strewn city alleyways and grimy subway stations after midnight, visible only to the most perceptive human or inhuman eye.In these tales, Green revisits the ingenious worlds within worlds that he created for his wildly popular novels. Take a stroll on the Darkside with a jaded street wizard, an underpaid government functionary responsible for keeping demons, vamps, and aliens in line. Enter the hidden recesses of Drood Hall, where the aging family member who creates powerful weapons that protect humankind recalls his long and bloody career. Join a squad of no-longer-human soldiers dispatched to combat the all-consuming jungle on a distant planet. Visit a house at the intesection of two realities that serves as a sanctuary from the evil of "all" worlds. Confront the unstoppable zombie army of General Kurtz in a brilliant homage to "Apocalypse Now." And whatever you do, never forget that there "are" monsters out there. Really.Each story includes a new afterword by the author.

Outstanding collection overall. I have heard of Green's Nightside series but never read any, although I likely will now. I have no idea what the Droods are, but the 'new story about the Droods' called "A Question of Solace" was enjoyable anyway - sort of sweet and sad and redemptive. "Street Wizard" is lovely; an old-fashioned detective-type story except with wizards and magic, and a nice sense of community and outcasts looking out for each other.
"Down and Out in Deadtown" is an effective horror story and an incisive critique on how society treats the homeless. "It's All About the Rendering" is a wonderful, wonderful story that has echoes of Terry Pratchett. "Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest Things" is a heartwrenching story of despair and also a thumping good read about space and the future. And "From Out of the Sun, Endlessly Singing", should be included on some anthology of greatest science fiction stories of something - it's one of the most affecting and memorable stories I've ever read. 
I was impressed both by the skill and the variety of tone and topic in these stories.


The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams. Goodreads synopsis: Famine. Death. War. Pestilence. These are the harbingers of the biblical apocalypse, of the End of the World. In science fiction, the end is triggered by less figurative means: nuclear holocaust, biological warfare/pandemic, ecological disaster, or cosmological cataclysm.
But before any catastrophe, there are people who see it coming. During, there are heroes who fight against it. And after, there are the survivors who persevere and try to rebuild. THE APOCALYPSE TRIPTYCH will tell their stories.
Edited by acclaimed anthologist John Joseph Adams and bestselling author Hugh Howey, THE APOCALYPSE TRIPTYCH is a series of three anthologies of apocalyptic fiction. THE END IS NIGH focuses on life before the apocalypse. THE END IS NOW turns its attention to life during the apocalypse. And THE END HAS COME focuses on life after the apocalypse.
THE END IS NIGH features all-new, never-before-published works by Hugh Howey, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jamie Ford, Seanan McGuire, Tananarive Due, Jonathan Maberry, Robin Wasserman, Nancy Kress, Charlie Jane Anders, Ken Liu, and many others.

Being a fan of apocalyptic fiction in general, and this editor in particular, I was all over this anthology, which did not disappoint. I didn't realize at first that many of the authors are actually writing three linked stories for the three anthologies; I recently got the second anthology and have been toggling between the two on my Kindle, re-reading the first stories before reading the second. They are almost all of uniformly high quality, which several stand-outs.  Also, at the time of writing, the second book is $.99 on Kindle. 

After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran. Goodreads synopsis: From the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh to Norse prophecies of Ragnarok to the Revelations of Saint John to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and any number of fictional zombie Armageddons and the dystopic world of The Hunger Games, we have always wondered what will happen after the world as we know it ends. No matter what the doomsday scenario - cataclysmic climate change, political chaos, societal collapse, nuclear war, pestilence, or so many other dreaded variations - we inevitably believe that even though the world perishes, some portion of humankind will live on. Such stories involve death and disaster, but they are also tales of rebirth and survival. Grim or triumphant, these outstanding, post-apocalyptic stories selected from the best of those published in the tumultuous last decade allow us to consider what life will be like after the end.

Really solid collection, with only one or two that didn't grab me. Favourites: Never, Never, Three Times Never by Simon Morden, Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn and A Story, With Beans, by Steven Gould. The Brian Evenson story was predictably bleak and creepy (in a positive sense, as odd as that sounds).

Lightspeed: Year One edited by John Joseph Adams. Goodreads 
synopsis: Lightspeed (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) is the critically-acclaimed, online science fiction magazine edited by bestselling anthologist John Joseph Adams. Lightspeed publishes all types of science fiction, from near-future, sociological soft sf, to far-future, star-spanning hard sf, and anything and everything in between. Each month, Lightspeed features a mix of originals and reprints, from a variety of authors - from the bestsellers and award-winners you already know to the best new voices you haven''t heard of yet. 
Now, in Lightspeed: Year One, you will find all of the fiction published in Lightspeed''s first year, from new stories such as Nebula Award finalists, Vylar Kaftan''s "I''m Alive, I Love You, I''ll See You in Reno" and "Arvies" by Adam-Troy Castro, and Carrie Vaughn''s Hugo Award-nominee "Amaryllis," to classic reprints by Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, and more.

There were one or two I skimmed, but overall this collection blew me away - a few of the entries were so unutterably stark and sad that reading them felt like swallowing stones, and yet they were so brilliant that I went back and read them again. And then there was Susan Palwick's Cucumber Gravy, like a sunny glade in a dark forest. So, so good. Made me a reader of Lightspeed magazine.


Store of the Worlds: the Stories of Robert Sheckley by Robert Sheckley. Goodreads synopsis: An NYRB Classics Original
Robert Sheckley was an eccentric master of the American  short story, and his tales, whether set in dystopic city­scapes, ultramodern advertising agencies, or aboard spaceships lighting out for hostile planets, are among the most startlingly original of the twentieth century. Today, as the new worlds, alternate universes, and synthetic pleasures Sheckley foretold become our reality, his vision begins to look less absurdist and more prophetic. This retrospective selection, chosen by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich, brings together the best of Sheckley’s deadpan farces, proving once again that he belongs beside such mordant critics of contemporary mores as Bruce Jay Friedman, Terry Southern, and Thomas Pynchon.

I had it in my head that this was one of the books I'd read because it was referenced in Among Others (there's a whole section for those books in this post), but now I realize that I read it too recently for that to be true. So I'm not sure who mentioned or recommended it, but it's wonderful - his sensibility is prescient, insightful, melancholy, kind and funny. 

Science Fiction/Fantasy:

The Martian by Andy Weir. Goodreads synopsis: Apollo 13 meets Cast Away in this grippingly detailed, brilliantly ingenious man-vs-nature survival thriller, set on the surface of Mars.
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.
It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.
But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Okay. Guys. I read about this book and the review was all 'you HAVE to read it' and I was all "okay, fine, but it's about a guy stuck in space, it's going to be all philosophical and meandering and all about the lone and level space-sands stretching far away etc. etc. 
It's not. It's like if The Bloggess got stuck on Mars and knew sciencey stuff.
I started reading this at Zarah's and couldn't stop reading it. I told her to read it. I gave it to my mother-in-law's husband for Christmas and he read the whole thing on Boxing Day. I gave it to Matt and he finished it before new year's eve, when he lent it to a husband and wife couple at our new year's party. They both read it and loved it even after we hyped it to a ridiculous degree. Now it's being made into a movie. 

Lexicon by Max Barry. Goodreads synopsis: At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics--at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as "poets", adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.
Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization's recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school's strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Bronte, Eliot, and Lowell--who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school's most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he's done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.
As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry's most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love--whatever the cost.

Like Harry Potter except with dysfunctional grown-ups instead of charmingly quirky kids, and everyone does a lot of twisted freaky shit with twisted freaky words. I loved it. Not entirely sure I can recommend it to anyone but a small sub-section of twisted freaky friends. 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Goodreads synopsis: On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.
Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions. 

I'm not sure if I can review this without sounding like I've added all my friends' reviews together and averaged them out. 
For at least a third, maybe half, I was thinking "I don't really like this. It's glib. Ursula is so gormless. Why does she keep letting herself die in such tiresome ways? I don't like this. I would probably like this more if Kate Atkinson hadn't written it". For the second third, I started to think that there were actually moments in it that I loved, but I still wasn't wholly swept up in the work as a whole. Then at some point I started to become aware of the elaborate, spiralling structure of the book, and certain things were repeated to great effect, making me wonder if other things were repeated and I was missing them, and I felt like maybe I wasn't doing justice to it. I used to always feel like it was my failing if I didn't grasp a book, and then for a while I switched over to thinking it was the author's fault, and now I think it's probably hard to say, sometimes one, sometimes the other, dependent on many factors (a nice, middle-aged, wishy-washy stance, don't you think?) I'm still not convinced that it was entirely successful, but I ended up feeling more admiration than I expected to.


The Quick by Lauren Owen. Goodreads synopsis: An astonishing debut, a novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures up all the magic and menace of Victorian London. 
London, 1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing-rooms of high society, and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Unnerved, his sister, Charlotte, sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine city that greets her, she uncovers a secret world at the margins populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of one of the country’s preeminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the most ambitious, and most dangerous, men in England. 
In her first novel, Lauren Owen has created a fantastical world that is both beguiling and terrifying. The Quick will establish her as one of fiction’s most dazzling talents.
Named One of the Top 10 Literary Fiction Books of the Season by Publishers Weekly

One of the quirks of reading NetGalley copies of books is that I request them because they look interesting, but by the time I read them I've forgotten the plot synopsis, so the process is even more one of discovery than usual. I started reading this book, which seemed like a pleasant little Victorian tale with some interesting characters. The experience was akin to (in the words of one of my English professors) being led down the garden path and then clobbered by a birdfeeder - you know, in a good way. It was "oh, it's actually a THIS KIND OF book - neat" and then shortly thereafter, "oh, and also a THAT KIND OF book - cool". It was a little different, with a lot of action, a new spin on an old trope, and two unconventional and affecting love stories. 
I also feel like I should add that if you type the title into the Goodreads search box and accidentally leave out the 'i', you get a book called What's Wrong With My Handgun Shooting? Make of that what you will.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares. Goodreads synopsis:An unforgettable epic romantic thriller about a girl from the future who might be able to save the world . . . if she lets go of the one thing she’s found to hold on to.
Follow the rules. Remember what happened. Never fall in love.
This is the story of seventeen-year-old Prenna James, who immigrated to New York when she was twelve. Except Prenna didn’t come from a different country. She came from a different time—a future where a mosquito-borne illness has mutated into a pandemic, killing millions and leaving the world in ruins.
Prenna and the others who escaped to the present day must follow a strict set of rules: never reveal where they’re from, never interfere with history, and never, ever be intimate with anyone outside their community. Prenna does as she’s told, believing she can help prevent the plague that will one day ravage the earth.
But everything changes when Prenna falls for Ethan Jarves.
From Ann Brashares, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, The Here and Now is thrilling, exhilarating, haunting, and heartbreaking—and a must-read novel of the year.
 

Reminded me a little of When You Reach Me, although not quite as transporting - what could be? Quite good, though - solid world-building with an all-too-credible extreme logical conclusion resulting from the way we live now; empathetic characters, and lacking the thing which makes me spit in these kinds of books, which is the time-traveller/alien/whoever saying "I can't tell you my secret" and the love interest saying "but I love you and you should trust me" and the time-traveller/alien/whoever saying "oh, okay" (this is because the way Ethan first meets Prenna already makes it obvious that she's not 'from around here'). Great story

Vicious by V.E. Schwab. Goodreads synopsis: A masterful, twisted tale of ambition, jealousy, betrayal, and superpowers, set in a near-future world. 
Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end? 
In Vicious, V. E. Schwab brings to life a gritty comic-book-style world in vivid prose: a world where gaining superpowers doesn’t automatically lead to heroism, and a time when allegiances are called into question.'

I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who requires a likable protagonist. Personally, I do not, and I thought this was great, in a sort of chilling, stark way. I enjoyed the attempt to put a scientific spin on "superpowers", and the drawing of the relationship between two highly intelligent, completely dysfunctional personalities was artfully done. The question of whether one can have powers and still remain human was also thought-provoking.

Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress. Goodreads synopsis: Aliens have landed in New York. 
A deadly cloud of spores has already infected and killed the inhabitants of two worlds. Now that plague is heading for Earth, and threatens humans and aliens alike. Can either species be trusted to find the cure?
Geneticist Marianne Jenner is immersed in the desperate race to save humanity, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Siblings Elizabeth and Ryan are strident isolationists who agree only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Marianne’s youngest, Noah, is a loner addicted to a drug that constantly changes his identity. But between the four Jenners, the course of human history will be forever altered. 
Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent human extinction—and not everyone is willing to wait.

Interesting, thoughtful and plausible, both scientifically and in the family and human interactions. Marianne's character is believable and sympathetic, and the description of the aliens and the alien/human interaction is really well done. The Sugarcane drug is a particularly clever device. Nancy Kress has always been adept at envisioning the extreme logical conclusion of present-day attitudes and trends - the U.S. isolationism in this book is a good example. The character of Noah, as the lost, drifting youngest child of the family is quite compelling, as is his ultimate fate. 

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell. Goodreads synopsis: From the author of the New York Times bestseller Swamplandia!, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, an imaginative and haunting novella about an insomnia epidemic set in the near future.
A crisis has swept America. Hundreds of thousands have lost the ability to sleep. Enter the Slumber Corps, an organization that urges healthy dreamers to donate sleep to an insomniac. Under the wealthy and enigmatic Storch brothers the Corps' reach has grown, with outposts in every major US city. Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the lethal insomnia, has spent the past seven years recruiting for the Corps. But Trish’s faith in the organization and in her own motives begins to falter when she is confronted by “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the mysterious "Donor Y."
Sleep Donation explores a world facing the end of sleep as we know it, where “Night Worlds” offer black market remedies to the desperate and sleep deprived, and where even the act of making a gift is not as simple as it appears.

Hauntingly beautiful. As someone periodically plagued by insomnia, the descriptions rang utterly true to me. This had all of the eerily lovely imagery of her short stories, with a stronger plot. As sleep comes at a higher and higher premium in modern society, this scenario seems horribly realistic. I don't know if it's part of some zeitgeist or just a fluke that I've happened upon quite a few books about insomnia plagues recently (this one and this one,  and this one). I just wish we weren't all so tired. 

We Are Here by Michael Marshall. Goodreads synopsis: An intelligent, page-turning thriller from the international bestselling author of THE STRAW MEN.
It should have been the greatest day of David's life. A trip to New York, wife by his side, to visit his new publisher. Finally, after years of lonely struggle it looks as though the gods of fate are on his side. But on the way back to Penn station, a chance encounter changes all of that. David bumps into a man who covertly follows him and, just before he boards the train, passes by him close enough to whisper: 'Remember me.'
When the stranger turns up in his home town, David begins to understand that this man wants something from him...something very personal that he may have no choice but to surrender.
Meanwhile, back in New York, ex-lawyer John Henderson does his girlfriend Kristina a favour and agrees to talk to Catherine Warren, an acquaintance of hers who believes she's being stalked by an ex-lover. But soon John realises that Catherine's problem is far more complex and terrifying than he could ever have imagined...
There are people out there in the shadows, watching, waiting. They are the forgotten. And they're about to turn.
 

"Intelligent, page-turning thriller" is a pretty good way to describe most books by this author, in my opinion. You never get quite what it starts out looking like, and it's always more challenging and thought-provoking and imaginative than you expect. I don't know if I mention this every time I review a book by him, but I once emailed him a fan letter saying that I found his books "both insightful and readable, suffused with a kind of hopeful melancholy", which he said he really liked as a description. Nothing I've read since has changed this opinion. He told me that he once met Stephen King and was so awestruck that he couldn't speak. I think he's more than capable of matching words with Stephen King.