Half-Resurrection Blues
Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Half-Resurrection Blues is the kind of novel that’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. Superficially, it’s the story of Carlos Delacruz, a partially (or previously) dead bounty hunter working the gray area between the world of the living and the world of the dead. There’s a shadowy Council calling Carlos’s shots, a fantastical plot afoot, a lot of intriguing and memorable characters, a love story, elements of noir and mystery and magic and romance and horror all mashed together.

Which all sounds well and good enough, but it’s not entirely fresh on the surface, excepting that for the most part HRB avoids the heavy religious under- (or over-) tones from a lot of other life/afterlife/death urban fantasies I’ve read. But even beyond that, what sets HRB apart is the phenomenal pacing, the expert character crafting, and the spot-on plotting Mr Older manages. There are a lot of events, a lot of characters, and none of it feels overwhelming or sketchy. Each major development is well-earned, the wildly imaginative sequences outside the vibrant Brooklyn he creates are all crisply narrated to avoid the muddled description issue that plagues some other writers in this space. But at no point does the book bog down, belaboring the machine underneath the plot. There is always something happening, something looming, something just about to surprise the reader. Some of this is probably due to the way the plot is delivered primarily through a lot of crisp, real-world-feeling dialogue instead of overblown narration. Carlos is a terrific guide through Older’s world, and even when he’s making mistakes, it’s impossible not to root for him to come out on top.

There is so much to like here, including the fact that even though I was worried the ending would be unsatisfying or rushed based on how much was left unresolved and how quickly the end of the book was approaching, but Older manages a neat trick of hitting the peak of all the major story arcs at once right when it needs to and then tidies up in just a handful of concluding pages. This is a complete book in and of itself, which is a relief even though there is at least one sequel; I’ve been burned a lot recently by series books that, by virtue of their ongoing nature, don’t feel inclined to find a legitimate conclusion.

I heavily recommend this book. It’s dark, fun, spooky, surprising, fast-paced, and wonderful. I can’t wait to read the next in the series, because I can’t wait to spend more time in the world and with these memorable characters.

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Adulthood Rites
Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I’m enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it’s very best, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of wild speculation. It’s post-apocalyptic and full of invading space aliens but it’s not grim, fatalistic or even swashbuckling. It’s about relationships, about potential, about sex and gender and adaptation and growing up. It’s about change. Change happens all the time, Butler points out, but can we—as humans—ever really embrace it?

Compared to Dawn, I kind of missed the presence of Lillith, who is relegated in this volume to a supporting role. Instead we mostly follow her son, Akin, the first male construct (hybrid oankali/human—basically the new generation of oankali) and the first to look almost completely human, at least in his larval stage. Lillith and the other human survivors introduced in the last part of Dawn have been transplanted to a repaired Earth and though some humans are working and breeding with the oankali, others have splintered off into human-only villages. They are bitter at being sterilized, at being at the mercy of the aliens, and early on Akin is kidnapped by a group of them. Fortunately, Akin is a wonderful character in his own right, and is absolutely the right person to see this chapter in the broader story through.

He spends enough time among the humans to develop a fascination with them, which informs the bulk of the book’s conflict. Oankali direct their evolution by “trading” genes with species they encounter. The constructs like Akin will be a merging of the two species but will call themselves oankali. Older branches of the oankali are allowed to continue as part of the alien society, but what of the humans? They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.

The brilliance of Butler’s work is that despite there not being a ton in the way of action or obvious tension, there is a gripping quality to the story. Much of the driving action is a series of small calamities and momentary dangers. But the underlying concerns are as big as they come, full of the sorts of thought exercises the very best SF can ignite. I loved thinking about this book. Did I sympathize with the Resisters? Would I be the sort of person to see the larger vision of the oankali? What would Akin’s solution near the end of the book mean to the people who were almost convinced but couldn’t get over the hurdle of being forced into breeding themselves out of existence? What did it say about humanity that the people originally selected to be re-awoken by the oankali in Dawn were potentially amenable to re-integration and so many of them chose to be Resisters?

As with Dawn, the set-up is deliberate but fascinating. The ending where things happen is a bit rushed and a lot of the relationships don’t develop in a comfortable way, which is to say it unfolds in an unpredictable manner and not all readers are really going to cheer for how it shakes out. Unlike Dawn, which felt like it had room to continue but was complete in itself, Adulthood Rites has a much less self-contained feeling. It’s book two of a trilogy, though, so I can forgive it that. Put another way, there’s no scenario in which I won’t read book three. I’m all in with the series at this point.

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Station Eleven
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it’s really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when life is stripped down to—essentially—bare survival. In that way, Station Eleven ends up being far more hopeful and beautiful than most novels that take place after or during civilization-ending catastrophes.

There are lots of overlapping elements in play, and it’s impressive to see it take shape. This is sort of the novel I read and realize it was something I wanted but never would have been able to describe or guess was an unscratched itch. It helps that Mandel realizes this ground has been trod before and doesn’t necessarily shy away from the obvious comparisons (The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, etc) and therefore isn’t defined by trying to either mimic or distance from those stories.

I did think the book was a bit slow to get started; the cast is connected by a series of loose coincidences and the book follows a non-linear path so at first it’s hard to reconcile the on-stage death of an actor, the photographer who gets wind of a breaking pandemic, the girl onstage during the heart attack who grows up into a traveling Shakespearean performer after the collapse of society, the actor’s second ex-wife who works endlessly on a personal graphic novel project—and so on—with, well, much of anything. But as the characters are filled in and revealed, as the events or happenstances both big and small that unite them and link them to each other become clear, the pacing starts to make sense. By the halfway point I was all the way into the world of the book, and scarcely put it down from that point until I had finished.

There is nothing, I don’t think, about the progression of the book’s plot that is particularly remarkable. If tracked chronologically, the chapters would tell snippets of stories from various viewpoints about life before, during, and after the end of the world as we know it. The way the book is structured though allows its themes to play off of each other, and allows for Mandel to specifically leave some elements here unresolved in a way that is actually—almost paradoxically—satisfying.

It’s a smart, thoughtful, curiously delightful book that has just the right elements of darkness and triumph and beauty and ugliness. Really wonderful work, and highly recommended.

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Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I finished The Handmaid’s Tale, I was impressed with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Having now finished Oryx And Crake, I’m falling in love with her storytelling.

To a certain extent, this is a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, wrapped in a similar framework of intersecting flashbacks all building toward the action set in the post of a post-apocalyptic (or post-dystopic in the case of Handmaid) world. Where Handmaid fretted about gender roles, Oryx fusses about environmental concerns and genetic/pharmaceutical research gone awry, but they’re really two means to the same end. They show a world not too distant from our own right before everything falls apart and then they show the aftermath. The effect in each case is deeply affecting and grim.

Where Oryx And Crake is, I think, a better book, is that the story is more compelling. The central mystery of how the pieces presented in the flashbacks come to result in the Robinson Crusoe-like existence depicted in the novel’s opening chapter is deepened by the conflicts that twist around each other like DNA backbone. The central characters of Snowman, Crake, and Oryx are all rich and fascinating. The way the whole thing converges into such a magnificent climax where all the pieces—past, present past, present future, and future—collide is like a master class on How It’s Done. It doesn’t feel forced that these three are pivotal to everything, it feels right.

Granted, as with Handmaid, the ending is abrupt to the point of absurdity. Unlike the earlier novel, Oryx has a couple of sequels so hopefully at some point there is a real resolution. But it’s not a complaint, it’s more like a promise.

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Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that’s where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.

So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it’s probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.

This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother’s attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.

The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero’s quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.

There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being “epic” (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don’t know that I finished it thinking, “I’d love a sequel to this.” But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back.

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2014 Winner NaNoWriMo

Used with permission from National Novel Writing Month

Well, I managed to finish the NaNoWriMo project—from their 50,000-word guideline perspective anyway—once again at or near the midnight hour. I have been terribly off pace since early in the month and it’s taken a lot of gritted teeth to power through to the finish line. I think, more so than anything else, the challenge this year has been simply that there are other things I would have rather been working on. At no point did this novel ever really capture my imagination and demand to be written down. But as I said going into the month, that’s probably a good thing. Having the luxury of working on the latest inspiration isn’t something it would be wise to come to expect. So I set the goal and I stuck with it, even when it was difficult. Because this year, more so than the other two where I participated, there were times that I really wanted to just call it off. To pack it in and shrug it off. It’s just a silly self-directed contest, after all.

Right?

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Halfway House Cafe BBQ

Andrew Morrell via Creative Commons

Just a quick check in today to update a few things.

  • Halfway through the NaNoWriMo month and … well, I’m behind. I don’t think it’s yet at the point where all is lost, but I should be at the 25,000 word mark and I’m about 7,000 words off the pace. Now, that’s not something I can’t overcome: I’ve written 3,500-4,000 words in a day plenty of times. But it’s a daunting place to be in. Looking back on last year, I see that I was woefully behind around mid-month then as well and I ended up rallying and coming through with a strong second half. I hope that’s the case again. I’m still struggling to get into this story the way I would like, which worries me because at least last year I was enthusiastic about the problem, even if I was struggling with having been laid off right around the beginning of the month. Most days this time around I feel like it’s a chore to reach the standard 1,667 words. But I’m still plugging away as best I can, hoping I can find some inspiration somewhere and finish strong.
  • A small part of my NaNo struggles also come down to the number of other related tasks I’m dealing with. I’ve been trying to keep this blog more frequently updated, and part of that involves doing some reading for the Short List series that I’m still enthusiastic about. Plus I’m reading a really good book right now and a lot of my friends keep getting really great stories published which are piling up on me. I’ve also been reading chapter books (not picture books) to my oldest daughter at bedtime, which has been fun and I want to write some new reviews of these children’s books based on the new readings and the conversations they spark with her, but finding time is so challenging. Not to mention I’m still trying to check in on the slush reading gig regularly. And, of course, there are non-literary issues to contend with including a baby who’s teething and not sleeping well, illnesses that keep nagging our family, and a renewed effort on my part to fix some of my health issues by eating better and exercising. These are things every person—and particularly every writer, I’m sure—contends with, but sometimes they seem to pile up a little higher and this month feels like one of those periods.
  • On the bright side, some writer friends of mine turned me on to QuarterReads, a new site for writers and readers that operates a little on the microtransaction model that was sort of hot a number of years ago. Basically you drop $10 into the site and that gives you 40 reads at twenty-five cents. The stories are all under 2,000 words and most of the money goes directly to the author. If you like the story, you can tip up to another seventy-five cents. They do read and vet each submission which gives some quality control to the site so you know you’re not getting unfiltered, unedited garbage. And there are some pretty heavy hitters posting work there now, such as Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, and a couple of people I know and can personally vouch for: Alexis A. Hunter and Natalia Theodoridou. Anyway, I think it’s a really interesting model, and I genuinely hope it succeeds. I even have a story up there now, Corkscrew, which you may recall appeared on the Toasted Cake podcast earlier this year. This is the first print version of the story available, so if you missed it first time around, here’s another chance to catch it.
  • Speaking of publications, it seems that October ended my rather unlikely streak of publications. From April through September of this year, I had a new publication come out every month. I have one publication pending, an anthology I’m thrilled to be a part of and can’t wait to see come out. But even my most optimistic hopes for it wouldn’t permit the streak to stay alive; the publishers are putting out an advance review copy (ARC) and only finalized the contributors list in September. Not too much chance of a one-month turnaround there. Still, I’m amazed and humbled by this past year’s small step forward. Six stories this year was more than I could have hoped for, and in the meantime I’ve continued to write and (hopefully!) improve, so I’d like to say this is only the beginning. For those who have supported me by reading or signal boosting—in particular my ever-patient wife who also manages to make time to be my biggest cheerleader—I thank you. I write for me, but I try hard to be better for you.