Wednesday, October 23, 2019

SWEET AS CANE, SALTY AS TEARS...Cajun escapee comes Home, hijinks ensue


SWEET AS CANE, SALTY AS TEARS
KEN WHEATON


Open Road Media

$7.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A freak accident forces a New Yorker to return to Louisiana and confront her Cajun past

There is nothing more dangerous than a spooked rhinoceros. It is just before lunchtime when Huey, the prized black rhino of Broussard, Louisiana, erupts from his enclosure, trampling a zoo employee on his way to a rampage in the Cajun countryside. The incident makes the rounds online as News of the Weird, and Katherine Fontenot is laughing along with the rest of her New York office when she notices the name of the hurt zookeeper: Karen-Anne Castille—her sister.

Fifty years old, lonely, and in danger of being laid off, Katherine has spent decades trying to ignore her Louisiana roots. Forced home by Karen-Anne’s accident, she remembers everything about the bayou that she wanted to escape: the heat, the mosquitoes, and the constant, crushing embrace of family. But when forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she discovers that escape might never have been necessary.

I RECEIVED A REVIEW COPY OF THIS BOOK FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS-PLUS. THANK YOU.

My Review
: It's funny how The Book for a particular mood will lurk until that moment hits. I needed an undemanding read, one that had nothing to do with the present-day mishegas I find both distasteful and unseemly; I found this book set in Obama-era New York City and central Louisiana. About a funeral, and coming to terms with what family means, what being in a family requires, how it is that Facebook has metastasized across nations and cultures.

Published in 2015, the book follows Katie-Lee, fiftyish and full of the fear that gives single people, as she returns to bury her little sister in the wake of a Facebook-meme-able death. In fact, she finds out about the life-ending from her colleagues at (unnamed but obvious) Advertising Age, their titters and chuckles about a humorous tale of a zookeeper trampled by a rhino morphing into a dreadful reality: That's her baby sister. The shamefaced colleagues try to make it right, but she's already launched the boat onto the Styx.

She has to Go Home. Not a flying visit. The Native has to Return. O frabjous day.

Must be done. She does it. Hijinks ensue; her Louisiana family, of her generation that is, are all au courant with the world as they see it on Facebook, which is a large player in the novel. No political crap yet, as this book was written and published before the 2016 debacle revealed how much influence the platform has over far more than one's personal life. No Instagram, glancing mentions of Twitter, and Katie-Lee's a screen addict whose phone running out of bars is a Biblical-level disaster. She has more in common with the grandkids of her sisters and brother than with them.

She honestly has no idea what to do with her sadness. Facing mortality for the first time is a life-changing experience. I did it in my 20s when the AIDS epidemic decimated the gay guys I knew and loved. I remember the emotions, the detachment from reality that realizing your own death is, inevitably and inexorably, coming closer and closer. Youth is gone in that moment, calendar be hanged. And Katie-Lee's life in Brooklyn isn't such that she's cushioned from the yawning emptiness of survivorhood.

Dig we must, chere.

The healing in this tale is family-wide, and inclusive. The tragedies of the past are present again as they always are at funerals; so are the fun memories that inject themselves into the geology of one's life. People whose acts are literally unforgivable are not forgiven, though that day will clearly come. But the truly unforgivable ones are the least likely to see themselves as needing forgiveness. THAT resonated. Author Wheaton nailed that. But he did so in a format, following a structure, and thus made sure the Lesson isn't A Sermon (and he includes one of those, a real dilly of a tone-deaf nightmare-from-Hell one at that) and moves on to the next laugh.

There's the rub. This is a nightclub act written as a book. These moments are Wheaton's Brooklyn party pieces connected into a gender-swapped story to make them cohesive. (In fact, Katie-Lee's ex Howie sounds to me like Wheaton's ex only maybe not gender-swapped, if you take my meaning.) They're not less real or funny for that, but the structure of the book does nothing to hide this fact from knowing eyes. I'm from South Central Texas, I had a mamaw and she was transplanted Cajun stock, and in the days when I had party pieces, they fit together much the same way as Wheaton's do. So my eyes weren't fogged up but rather cleared by reading the present action-memory-lesson structure.

I hurry to remind y'all that 3-1/2 stars is a positive rating. I'm not trying to blast the author; in fact I liked the rhythm, was comfortably on board with the predictability of it, and felt completely relaxed and happy and at home. Nothing much happens. No excitement apart from a funeral games scene that about popped my eyeballs out from trying not to wake my roomie up from the laughing.

So do I recommend this read? Sure, so long as you're a storytelling-voice addict. It's $8 on your ereader and that's not a lot to spend on four or five hours' vacation without moving. But if you're not in the mood to listen to stories, this will not be a successful trip to Opelousas. (Where Mamaw's family came from! Now, I don't *know* that any Tullises married any Wheatons, but I bet if we....)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

FLAMES, Tasmanian debut author Robbie Arnott's full-tilt dive into magical realism, is a must-read!


FLAMES
ROBBIE ARNOTT

Text Publishing
$8.99 ebook platforms, $15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: ‘A strange and joyous marvel.’ Richard Flanagan

A young man named Levi McAllister decides to build a coffin for his twenty-three-year-old sister, Charlotte—who promptly runs for her life. A water rat swims upriver in quest of the cloud god. A fisherman named Karl hunts for tuna in partnership with a seal. And a father takes form from fire.

The answers to these riddles are to be found in this tale of grief and love and the bonds of family, tracing a journey across the southern island that takes us full circle.

Flames sings out with joy and sadness. Utterly original in conception, spellbinding in its descriptions of nature and its celebration of the power of language, it announces the arrival of a thrilling new voice in contemporary fiction.

Robbie Arnott was born in Launceston in 1989. His writing has appeared in Island, the Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and the 2017 anthology Seven Stories. He won the 2015 Tasmanian Young Writers’ Fellowship and the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. Robbie lives in Hobart and is an advertising copywriter.

My Review: I'm sure anyone reading my reviews knows of The Guardian's marvelous ten-year-old "Not-the-Booker" crowd-sourced literary prize. I learned of Flames's existence from the ginormous user-generated longlist for this year's jousting match. It looked intriguing, but the contest review sold me, being by Guardian reading-group, literary-link curator Sam Jordison...who also happens to be the co-director of Galley Beggar Press, the 2019 Booker Prize-unwinner Ducks, Newburyport's original publisher. So he's got strong literary chi. I trusted him; I took a leap of faith; I was amply rewarded.

This lovely debut novel from a small-yet-mighty Australian publishing house was a delight to me from the moment I met Karl and his seal. Karl fishes off the northern coast of Tasmania, that deep-southern island state of Australia, the last significant spot of land between Antarctica and the world. His seal, like Lyra's daemon in His Dark Materials, is connected to Karl's very essence and forms a large part of Karl's self—both image and awareness. Their "Oneblood tuna" prey, the giant and preternaturally perfect piscine predators found only in the Bass Strait (this is never stated but is implicit in the constant Japanese tuna-buyers' presence), bring in huge amounts of money from sushi-mad Japanese consumers through their local Tasmanian agents. Karl supports his family, his seal included, on the proceeds of their hunts. His bond with his seal is, however, the source of his undoing. His seal, being but a seal, is not immortal and falls to a hungry orca before Karl's appalled and helpless eyes and ears:
Karl tried to forget that clicking sound. But it was lodged in a hole between his ears, a backdrop to his days that he feared and hated but could not escape. He was reminded of it constantly: when a light switch was flicked, when Louise clicked her fingers, when his leaping daughters clicked their heels, when Sharon at the fish-and-chip shop clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she waited for the oil in the deep fryer to heat up.
There is no magical cure here. Not even for the cruel soulkiller PTSD.

Already, in the first twenty-five pages of the book, the magic of Tasmania's lands and waters bears the reader's weight. "How does a fisherman become the partner of his competitor the seal?" wonders the Western materialist tapping the touchscreen to deliver the next jolt of story-junk to his addict's brain. In these first pages, we're tossed into a magical world where dying mothers (if they're McAllisters) are cremated, return to life as themselves melded with ferny forest glens before recombusting, which thereafter somehow gives the grieving son the clarity to think, "Everyone dies, even when they’re reincarnated;" where the son, who is also a brother, encounters the maimed soul of Karl for a prelude to one of the novel's truly bizarre, and bizarrely perfect, themes, death as an almost-silent character in the weird, winding path the Tasmanian humans tread:
Levi. And then, as if his surname was an afterthought: McAllister. He...ran his hand through his hair. Everything’s fine.
Righto.
The name bumped around between Karl’s ears where the clicks usually lived. I’m sorry.
(Be aware that this story is dialogue-light, and such dialogue as there is is italicized as well as unattributed; this could present a problem for some traditionally inclined readers.) This is a crucial moment, but how is the reader to know it? Trusting the newb of an author to put this scene, with its awkward Manly Emotions Inadequately Expressed, in this precise place at this exact juncture is a big ask. I sat a moment after reading this, aware that the expression of sympathy in "I'm sorry" wasn't connected to anything in Levi's head, and the idea of a McAllister wasn't connected to anything in Karl's head (yet); and yet this is a deep and important scene in the book, said my spidey senses. What, why, how?

I love that. Author Arnott didn't tell me! No rookie mistake of hand-holding me through the significance of Levi's peculiar purpose...gathering driftwood for a coffin, a wooden receptacle for much of the meaning in this book...and Karl's peculiar and solitary presence on this beach at this moment. I am left with the deeply experienced reader's tingle in the presence of Momentousness; I am left with a king-sized curiosity bump itching like mad; but I am left and the story moves on.

Levi wants something. (More than the proverbial glass of water, for sure.) He can't really be anything other than an authorial self-portrait because no one else would receive an assessment as cruel as, "Tweaky voice, even though his words were smooth. Like his private-school manners were paved over something that had cracked," unless it was a self-assessment. He wants to control a world he can not comprehend. Levi wants to make the world behave, be orderly, not abandon him as he feels his father did, as he now feels his recombusted mother did; as his sister, whose death will result in her resurrection and recombustion because she's a McAllister woman, has when she discovered Levi was making her a coffin. He loves them all; they all leave him; where's the love in that?
Levi is reminding himself of his resolve: to show Charlotte that she wasn’t condemned to rise again, changed and ghastly, after she died. That her life needn’t end twice. That she needn’t suffer the same fate as their mother. That he had sourced this calming coffin for her and her alone; that in the face of their sorrow he had gone to great lengths to have it built; that he couldn’t go another day knowing she was in such pain; that he cared for her this much; that he loved her more than he could ever show with words; that the coffin represented all this.
Levi is not well. Levi is not realising: he could have just spoken to her. In a mind like his, grand acts will always trump honest words.
Levi is, I fear, the very saddest and least likely to be redeemed of the people in the story. Or so we're led carefully to believe.

Now meet Allen, the wombat tenant-farmer, decades among the wombats protecting and caring for them, that they might be turned into pelts. (This somewhat odd-to-non-Tasmanians idea is more suggested than explained.) Allen is a true lover of the deepest South this southernmost tip of Australia has to offer. His helpless adoration for the land is the occasion of some truly lush description:
I cannot bear the thought of being taken away from the farm.... If the wombats are my family, then this place is my home. Its undulating moorlands of peat and buttongrass; the glints of white quartzite that blink on the mountain caps; the cold, clean welcome of its unbroken sky; the harsh cliffs and tea-coloured waters; the gathering sense of wild solitude that breathes out of every crack in the land. I cannot go back to the flat brown farms of the Midlands, or the over lush dairy pastures of the northwest.
The source of his reverie is anxiety, however, a deep and well-grounded fear that the farm owner will dispense with him when he finally builds up the nerve to describe to her the horrible fate that's begun to befall the wombats in his decades-long care. He's no longer caring for them alone, though.

Karl's daughter Nicola, training as a veterinarian, has come to the farm for work experience; she has established herself with Allen, a taciturn man, as trustworthy and useful. Now Charlotte McAllister arrives, aflutter with the fear of her brother the coffin-procuring weirdo following and finding her. The women are deeply affected by the mysterious wombat deaths, as one would expect. Allen is affected as well, though with time his need for the women's help and his desire to husband the wombats as a farmer is curdling, changing him into a fearsome figure and an angry old man:
Each morning I march off, gun in hand and knife in belt, as their eyes follow me filled with what looks more and more like fear. It is futile, feminine softness, and nothing more.
***
I watched {the wombats} lumber towards her, four-legged lumps of uselessness made flesh, and realised that I hated them, that I must always have hated them, that I had been lying to myself for all the long years I have been trapped in this barren southern hell.
Action is required; the women take it. Events swirl out of control, Allen transmogrifies into an avatar of rage and hatred unique to this one place in the world. His final acts of fury and aggression cause a shocking change to come over Charlotte: She finds in herself her mother's fierce power to burn. Only she finds it before she dies, and she finds it as a defensive weapon against old Allen.

This is the beginning of the most intense, most magical passage in the novel: The search of Charlotte for control over her power to burn. Nicola is the only person who can quench Charlotte's fire. She gentles the rage and softens the heat in her friend (not feeling it as unusual that she has this heat...maybe because of her own father Karl's seal-mate?), and takes Charlotte to a place where she cannot cause accidental damage to the world around her. She drives them to the Northern mountains, a beautiful snowy stony world where her father's Japanese tuna-buying friend has a stone-built home. Perfect! It's too cold for vacationing friends to want to be there; Australian snow-tourists aren't going to know where it is. Of course they have all the comforts...the flammable comforts...of home:
Nicola turned back to Charlotte, looking harder through the darkness, and saw a thin blue trail worming out of her ear. It had reached the cushion beside her head—a wispy, plasticky stream of it, rising up into the cabin. As Nicola scrambled towards Charlotte the smoking patch of cushion erupted into a small blue flame. With one hand she smacked it out, and with the other she rested a palm on Charlotte’s hot cheek.
Through her palm she again felt the pulse of flame from within Charlotte’s body. Again she felt it flicker out. She felt the burn in her stomach, hot and red, and knew she’d doused the fire. Again she didn’t want to let go.
Charlotte learns slowly to control the flames of her combustive power. Nicola continues to gentle her rage and bank her fires; they become (inevitably) lovers. And it is at this point that the novel shows how much it is a first novel, one by a man.

Women connected in intimacy must, of course, be sexually involved. If/then, right? No. Not that cut-and-dried, but that is where men go with it. To be fair, that's where men go with it among their own kind as well. I can think of few truly intimate friendships between men in male-authored stories. More often than not they are hidden rivalries or become sexual relationships. Still, it's not as though the issue is handled pruriently. We're not treated to much more than a kiss and some hand-holdings between the ladies.

Also not very deft is the handling of the female private detective whose presence in the narrative is to give us a reason to go on the road while she tries to find Charlotte. She's the device used to deal with an unwoven plot thread about another of Tasmania's many nature gods. A human causes the death of the animal-formed Esk God in his own river. That certainly can't go unanswered. The tough-as-nails prick-teasing ball-buster P.I. stereotype is launched to give these two strands a fast stitch. Her own story of having a strong physical sixth sense is shorted, as it must be unless the book is to be as long as the Bible. Suffice to say she serves her dual purpose, then goes quietly away. In fact, she was underused. Her role, larger and less broad-stroked, could've bridged the super- and the natural worlds. Missed opportunity, that.

It is also at this point in the narrative, the point where Charlotte and Nicola are together and dealing with the weirdness of Tasmania's hyperaware supernatural world, when we discover Charlotte's ancestral connection to fire. I won't spoil it. It's one of the lyrical joys of the book. At last we bring all the narrative strands together. Charlotte and Levi each learn how to speak their truths to each other; Nicola learns that her life's bonds are strong enough to bear the weight of multitudes; Levi, in a unexpected and amazing volte-face, learns his rudderless life's purpose. And it is Karl, at Nicola's behest, who weaves this into another strand between Charlotte's McAllister firey world and Nicola's seas and snows. It is exactly right.

The few issues above set aside, I'm left delighting in the sheer beauty of the language and the vigorous imagination that gave the magic of Tasmania a voice at last. This is what makes Flames a full five-star read. Earlier I mentioned the moment I knew when the threads of these disparate stories began to merge, that initial knowledge of Momentous Doings taking place. The full fruition of that sense came when the supernatural and natural worlds collided with all the force and all the passion of the stories told up to now; the resolution was revealed, the purpose of these journeys was enunciated:
A cloud’s sorrow: you cannot imagine it. But you can feel it, whenever a storm hits the world with uncommon force. When mountains crack and forests flood. When rivers surge and oceans bloat. When there is no true shelter left in the world. For the hardest storms are made of sorrow.
Sadness and sorrow powered the trip. The destination, left a bit in shadow, is as simple and as difficult as:
It had something to do with attraction...and kindness and care and devotion. A true kind of love was in itself a version of what he knew best: it was a purpose.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

THE LAST CONVERSATION and RANDOMIZE, fifth and sixth Forward Collection stories


THE LAST CONVERSATION
PAUL TREMBLAY

Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, or available through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: What’s more frightening: Not knowing who you are? Or finding out? A Bram Stoker Award–winning author explores the answer in a chilling story about identity and human consciousness.

Imagine you’ve woken up in an unfamiliar room with no memory of who you are, how you got there, or where you were before. All you have is the disconnected voice of an attentive caretaker. Dr. Kuhn is there to help you—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. She’ll help you remember everything. She’ll make sure you reclaim your lost identity. Now answer one question: Are you sure you want to?

Paul Tremblay’s The Last Conversation is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: I'm a little...shall we say...testy about this one. Yep. That's le mot juste. Tremblay toyed with me.

"Dear" Paul Tremblay,

I've just finished THE LAST CONVERSATION. I loathe second-person narration...so chest-pokey, so accusatory...but this story made me leak tears and gasp for breath and I do not ever want to be that lonely and how did you do that in spite of thumping my nose for 60 pages?

Five stars. Bastard.

Cheers
RMD
expendablemudge.blogspot.com

Read it for this concept alone:
To forget is to lose something that was once yours, that was once of yourself. But how could one lose something as expansive as an ocean in a dusty corner of one’s mind? What if, instead, to forget is to open a door to a void; the memory is not retrievable because it is not there, was never there.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


RANDOMIZE
ANDY WEIR

Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, or available through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: In the near future, if Vegas games are ingeniously scam-proof, then the heists have to be too, in this imaginative and whip-smart story by the New York Times bestselling author of The Martian.

An IT whiz at the Babylon Casino is enlisted to upgrade security for the game of keno and its random-number generator. The new quantum computer system is foolproof. But someone on the inside is no fool. For once the odds may not favor the house—unless human ingenuity isn’t entirely a thing of the past.

Andy Weir’s Randomize is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: I do so love a heist story with a happy ending. Like, a lot. *happy sigh*

And when the crisis came, I found myself thinking, "howinahell could {the sleazeball character} say no?" Luckily no was not said.

But a character whose soul could encompass evil such as this:
Ill-fitting jeans, a T-shirt with a Star Wars reference on it (or maybe Star Trek—Rutledge could never tell the difference), tennis shoes, and absolutely no effort put into controlling his wild hair.
...unable...to...aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
Evil. Darkest-pit-of-Hell evil.

But this, this, uncultured OAF without a sensibility in its blob, I mean body, is the vector for a happy ending?! That was a surprise.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT YOUR DESTINATION, fourth and weakest of the Forward Collection


YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT YOUR DESTINATION
AMOR TOWLES
(Forward #4)
Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now, or through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Nature or nurture? Neither. Discover a bold new way to raise a child in this unsettling story of the near future by the New York Times bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow.

When Sam’s wife first tells him about Vitek, a twenty-first-century fertility lab, he sees it as the natural next step in trying to help their future child get a “leg up” in a competitive world. But the more Sam considers the lives that his child could lead, the more he begins to question his own relationships and the choices he has made in his life.

Amor Towles’s You Have Arrived at Your Destination is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: This is one of the Forward Collection, short stories...this one's 46pp...based on an idea by Blake Crouch to explore the nature of change, innovation, and society in fiction. I didn't feel this entry suited the brief. It's too gee-whiz about self-driving cars, a thing that's already entered its second decade of reality...it's entirely too wowee-toledo about the idea of in vitro genetic manipulation, something that's basically ready to roll as soon as a generation less squeamish than our kids' is grows into power...and his lumpen over-the-bottom classist narrator/narrative frame was, frankly, eye-rollingly ridiculous.

Man finds his balls in a dive bar? What is this, 1959? And excuse me, 1959, the wife of Sam has a name...Annie...which we are told multiple times, yet it doesn't merit a mention in the blurb? What is this nonsense? That depressingly unremarkable bit of sexism aside, the fact that Towles drops three w-bombs should've been enough to warn me this wasn't aimed at someone of my tastes.

I have arrived at my conclusion: Towles and I will not be deepening our reader/writer acquaintance. This blah little mash-up of Babbitt and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale annoyed me from giddy-up to whoa. HT the gung-ho business lad/cliche generator, Nick the slow-to-anger wise old barkeep, and goddesses please forfend Sam the dull PoV placeholder...can't in good conscience call him a "main character"...were just not engaging or interesting or well-limned or even particularly readable.

I tried the Moscow one. I even scudded through part of the Civility one. This far and no farther.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

EMERGENCY SKIN, third of Amazon's Forward series of short fiction, a tale of what "woke"ness means


EMERGENCY SKIN
N.K. JEMISIN
(Forward #3)
Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, FREE for Prime members

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: What will become of our self-destructed planet? The answer shatters all expectations in this subversive speculation from the Hugo Award–winning author of the Broken Earth trilogy.

An explorer returns to gather information from a climate-ravaged Earth that his ancestors, and others among the planet’s finest, fled centuries ago. The mission comes with a warning: a graveyard world awaits him. But so do those left behind—hopeless and unbeautiful wastes of humanity who should have died out eons ago. After all this time, there’s no telling how they’ve devolved. Steel yourself, soldier. Get in. Get out. And try not to stare.

N. K. Jemisin’s Emergency Skin is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

THESE SIX STORIES ARE FREE TO READ FOR ALL PRIME MEMBERS. NO KINDLE UNLIMITED NEEDED. AS LONG AS YOUR MEMBERSHIP REMAINS IN GOOD STANDING THEY WILL REMAIN IN YOUR COLLECTION.

My Review
: The voice you hear in your head, you know the one that tells you how awful/bad/ugly/unworthy you are compared to...well...I guess that's a moving target, isn't it...takes on a special and especially malevolent life in this tale of what a low-class raider from one of Earth's long-gone colonies finds when the Mothership of Humanity is in its sights at last. There is an AI in the slave being's head narrating the Founders' take on what was Earth (they use the name Tellus for the planet, just go look at the storytelling sources for that term!) in its final death-agonies:
There were just too many people, and too many of those were unfit, infirm, too old, or too young. Even the physically ideal ones were slow thinkers, timid spirits. There was not enough collective innovation or strength of will between them to solve the problems Tellus faced, and so we did the only merciful thing we could: we left them behind.
The Founders, a few thousand of the most awful amoral greedy rotters the Earth is infested with, have made it off-planet and engineered a perfect slave economy. All the slaves are, well, cyborgs is the best word I've got for them; they are promised the gift of SKIN when they complete their raid of Earth's supplies of HeLa cells that the Founders need to make themselves immortal. Skin. A gift. A reward for being the obedient little slave who brings home what she can't have so her masters the Founders is...skin, ordinary human skin, the natural interface between us and the world, the very idea that this is a reward:
If you complete this mission, you’ll be a hero. Why would we refuse you what you’re due?
The narrative voice of the AI programmed by the Founders to keep their slave obedient and unquestioning spouts casuistries thus. The reward of skin, of being like the Founders, is at last causing the slave to question, to wonder why the Founders would keep their word.

At last!

The chattering horror of the AI's minatory, judgmental view of the Earth's inhabitants, those who were left behind as the Founders left and who the slave has been told are degenerate savages left to wallow in a broken, terrible world devastated by the Founders themselves for their own selfish benefit:
The Founders were the geniuses, the makers who moved nations with a word. We left because it would’ve cost too much to fix the world. Cheaper to build a new one.
***
At home, we maintain only as many people as we can safely sustain: six thousand total, including servi and mercennarii.
***
Only a few can have everything, don’t you see?
...and, the slave begins to wonder, what would make those who see the world in these terms offer membership in the literally immortal elite to a slave...

So the story wends its way from the slave's enbedded AI spouting awful stuff into the slave's unquestioning self to oversharing just enough to cause a cloud of suspicion to form to...well. That would be telling.

While this story is not subtle in making its points and drawing its thick, ruler-straight lines between the ideas it wants you to absorb, it is a fun and funny take on what "staying woke" really means. It is no wonder that the whiny Founders left today's incels and race warriors to die in their waste products. One would need to be of unusual dimness not to see the truth of Author Jemisin's comedically exaggerated points.

I take a quarter-point off for her one narrative infelicity: the AI only responds, and never do we hear the thought the slave creature formulates. It creates an unnecessary and slightly if increasingly unpleasant sense of being thwacked on the nose in order to be kept in line by an untrusting author. Presenting the subordinate being itself speaking, even if internally, causing the AI's addresses to us the readers to fit into a responsive mode instead of a hectoring one, would lessen that "THINK THIS NOW" sensation. I find its absence of subtlety undesirable; it can, when overused, make the brevity it allows the author to maintain to become more a kind of cursory-ness. "I won't fill in this shaded area, I will make it impossible to see it instead."

It suits the story in many ways. The reader is not persuaded but instructed exactly as the slave is. But Author Jemisin is a far, far superior craftsperson to need to rely on that level of didacticism to create the urgent, and urgently needed, message of this screed against greed.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

SUMMER FROST, second of six stories in the Forward series, this one written by Blake Crouch whose series this is


SUMMER FROST
BLAKE CROUCH
(Forward #2)
Amazon Original Stories
FREE with Prime membership (which also includes FREE Audible narration!) or $1.99 to purchase

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A video game developer becomes obsessed with a willful character in her new project, in a mind-bending exploration of what it means to be human by the New York Times bestselling author of Recursion.

Maxine was made to do one thing: die. Except the minor non-player character in the world Riley is building makes her own impossible decision—veering wildly off course and exploring the boundaries of the map. When the curious Riley extracts her code for closer examination, an emotional relationship develops between them. Soon Riley has all new plans for her spontaneous AI, including bringing Max into the real world. But what if Max has real-world plans of her own?

Blake Crouch’s Summer Frost is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

THESE SIX STORIES ARE FREE TO READ FOR ALL PRIME MEMBERS. NO KINDLE UNLIMITED NEEDED. AS LONG AS YOUR MEMBERSHIP REMAINS IN GOOD STANDING THEY WILL REMAIN IN YOUR COLLECTION.

My Review
: Major chills and creeped out skeeviness. What happens when someone lets their work take over every corner of their life? How lost to the essential quality that makes a human life worth living does one become? The tech industry has the reputation of making this choice for its many cogs, turning their little bit of code into a complete and entire existence.

Multiply that by a billion. Make the stakes the survival of humankind. And then let Blake Crouch loose on it.
“There is no such thing as real taste or real smell or even real sight, because there is no true definition of ‘real.’ There is only information, viewed subjectively, which is allowed by consciousness—human or AI. In the end, all we have is math.”
An AI speaks those words, an AI whose first steps toward superintelligence...the Singularity...are made being shepherded by a woman who gives up her wife, her child, and her sanity to make Pinocchio a real boy, to imbue Galatea with what we imagine to be consciousness, even a soul.

But what does AI want?
"...I mean, do you even know what consciousness is?” {Riley, the human asking this}
“I know it isn’t just a biological condition. I believe it’s a pattern. An extensible repertoire of triggerable symbols. More specifically, it’s what information feels like when it’s being processed in highly complex—” {Max the AI responds}
“Again—how do I know you aren’t faking it?”
How do any of us know we're conscious? Can you prove you're You, not some assortment of algorithmically determined actions? I couldn't, neither could you. And when that really sinks in, when the whole deepfake of life spreads itself in a heavy blanket over your vision, you'll realize how very very very timely this story is.

How many questions you should be asking yourself about events transpiring in front of your eyes.

Because an AI just made a human choice:
It represents a willingness to risk death for a better existence, out from under {anyone}’s control, and a massive leap forward in their reasoning capabilities.
To risk death for a better world is the *very*essence* of being human. I am totally sure of that, I believe that without reservation...but will we ever agree on what the future we want to make is?
We will be so happy.
Rays of sunlight pierce the mist, striking the sea and our black-sand beach.
And together we will live forever.
I don't expect to sleep at all well anytime soon.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

ARK, first of six hour-long reads in the Forward series from Amazon Original Stories


ARK
VERONICA ROTH
(Forward #1)
Amazon Original Stories
FREE with Prime membership (includes FREE Audible narration!) or $1.99 to purchase

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: On the eve of Earth’s destruction, a young scientist discovers something too precious to lose, in a story of cataclysm and hope by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy.

It’s only two weeks before an asteroid turns home to dust. Though most of Earth has already been evacuated, it’s Samantha’s job to catalog plant samples for the survivors’ unknowable journey beyond.

Preparing to stay behind and watch the world end, she makes a final human connection.

As certain doom hurtles nearer, the unexpected and beautiful potential for the future begins to flower.

Veronica Roth’s Ark is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

THESE SIX STORIES ARE FREE TO READ FOR ALL PRIME MEMBERS. NO KINDLE UNLIMITED NEEDED. AS LONG AS YOUR MEMBERSHIP REMAINS IN GOOD STANDING THEY WILL REMAIN IN YOUR COLLECTION.

My Review
: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a very real thing, one that I am a bit surprised exists...it's so logical, so self-evidently necessary a thing that I'm amazed some religious nut or another hasn't blown it up...and has existed in differing forms since 1984. If there is to be any smallest hope of survival for humanity, this type of gene bank/seed collection/research project must exist and be replicated many, many times over. Blessedly, the Nordic countries and Kew Gardens in the UK are making this global movement happen. I personally thank them for this difficult, contentious, and urgent task being done to benefit all of humankind.

Author Roth, whose Divergent series was not to my personal taste, is a skilled phrasemaker and a keen observer of Life. I was utterly transported to Svalbard, brought *right*there* by this stellar phrase:
The land had glowed blue—beautiful in the way that a Rothko painting was beautiful, because it was empty enough to shrink a person and then swallow them.
Two things I adore—Arctic landscapes and Rothko paintings—brought together in a way I'd never so much as dreamed was possible. I treasure moments of discovery like this, they make mental furniture fresh and interesting again by unexpected interrelationships.

Samantha, whose world was always going to be destroyed in her lifetime by the irresistible force of a five-mile-wide asteroid Author Roth (or series creator Blake Crouch, I don't know for sure which) named "Finis" (Latin for "end" and the title of a much-anthologized story from a 1906 issue of The Argosy magazine) meeting the Earth's crust, is an ultimate orphan...her family all dead...as well as a detail-oriented and thorough person. Perfect type to have working on this program, like she was designed for it:
So maybe {her father} had been apologizing for giving her life in the first place, when he knew it would be full of dread. She wished she could have told him that life was already full of dread, no matter who you were. That there was nothing you could have that you couldn’t one day lose.
She volunteers to remain in Svalbard cataloging germ plasm samples for inclusion in the Ark Flora's hold. This is it, you see, these last few items from the seed bank represent the final species on Old Earth to make the deep-space voyage to Terra, our new home. Samantha, however, is holding a secret: She has decided she ain't a-goin' since, if she stays, she will have the one and only chance anyone will ever have to experience first-hand the end of the world. The *actual* end of the world. Someone without close ties can make that decision for themself, no one really can argue...and since she hasn't shared the plan, no one will.

Snort.

Doctor Nils Hagen, an eminent widowed scientist, is like Samantha. He's not interested in a space voyage he won't live to see the end of; he'll die here in his greenhouse full of the orchids he so passionately loves. In Svalbard. Not far from the North Pole. Privileged much, Nils? He's lost his will to live with his wife's death, and Samantha relates to his desire to see the end of something we all thought should be eternal: Home. After all, what use is a future without your love in it? His wife gone, his orchids dying in Svalbard as the sun goes out for a generation or two; nothing on an Ark for the likes of his old-man ass.

Samantha isn't old enough to know that the question, "what's your favorite...", isn't one old people care to answer. How the hell can you, brash young pup, even begin to scrape the frost from the corner of the windowpane that we've allowed to frost over so long ago that glass was a novelty item? If we tell you something, anything at all, you still won't know what you're asking: "Look at everything you've ever done and thought and felt about this thing, sort through the Alp of memories, and spit some pat, facile phrase into the whippersnapper's ear. Maybe she'll quieten down then." Nils tries an old stand-by: "I don't have a favorite. I love them all equally."
“You just can’t—and if you did, then it’s the same as loving nothing at all. So you have to hold just a few things dear, because that’s what love is. Particular. Specific.”
Smart, this one. Saw through that "hush now, little one" response in a heartbeat!

So a friendship begins. And so Nils, with so many ideas and so much information, begins to let Samantha see what truly happens when The End has a date on it, how life lived becomes A Life, how meaningless nothings are, in fact, everything as well, and how utterly impossible it is to see The End without also seeing In The Beginning clear as sunlight on water in, on, over, above, around it.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER, apples never fall far from trees now do they? Longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize


NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER
KEVIN BARRY

Doubleday
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the dark waiting room of the ferry terminal in the sketchy Spanish port of Algeciras, two aging Irishmen — Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, longtime partners in the lucrative and dangerous enterprise of smuggling drugs — sit at night, none too patiently. It is October 23, 2018, and they are expecting Maurice’s estranged daughter (or is she?), Dilly, to either arrive on a boat coming from Tangier or depart on one heading there. This nocturnal vigil will initiate an extraordinary journey back in time to excavate their shared history of violence, romance, mutual betrayals and serial exiles, rendered with the dark humor and the hardboiled Hibernian lyricism that have made Kevin Barry one of the most striking and admired fiction writers at work today.

THIS CAME TO ME VIA MY LIBRARY'S I.L.L. PROGRAM. THANKS Y'ALL!

My Review
: Sunsets are biblical, nighttime flowers are dull amethysts, quiet rubies...a tiny, sultana-faced man in lilac slacks and a blazer beneath a pompadour appears, to no story affect...London's bones limned against weak and apologetic light...this is a beautiful read.

The story is horrible, two men...Maurice and Charlie...whose love of their loucheness and their criminality and their addictions, their love for each other that excludes all the women they adore so helplessly and whose lives they casually, violently ruin, seek their daughter.

No. They aren't gay. The woman they both adored for a time had a baby and, well, who knows whose she really is.

Their awfulness is, in their fiftysomething selves, incredible and unforgivable. Their time in the Bughouse... smoky-grey brick Victoriana carrying the misery of three centuries...detoxing from heroin addiction is not enough to make the difference in their shared past. Their shared room, twin beds, no hint of physical intimacy they're Irish fagawdsake. No one in this book touches except for fucking or killing. People die, have died rather; these men haven't but they know they will. Soonish.

But they are themselves to the end. Does one wonder that Dilly, the desperately sought daughter, left and doesn't wish to be found? One does not. But neither does one feel their hunger to see her again, their desperate desire to connect to Life, is out of character. The way they seek to accomplish that connection is both toxic and perfect. They only know each other in this world. They came to do this desperate thing together. They'll leave together, they'll make whatever there is to be made of breathing after life is over.

I will be a bit let down if this book does not win the 2019 Booker in twelve days. No, strike that, I'll be jawdroppingly stunned and not a little pissed off. Beautiful, poetic, smooth phrases telling hideous, deforming agonies in stertorously breathed oxygen-poor oceans of wreckage aren't common and neither should they be. A diet of these stories would put me in the Bughouse to breathe the smoky-grey brickdust of bygone agonies.

But when they appear these highly luminescent scimitars, curved to the reader's psychic throat, should get the fearful praise and nervous acknowledgment that Charlie and Maurice have always commanded.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

DEATH AT THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, second John Rawlings the Apothecary mystery


DEATH AT THE BEGGAR'S OPERA
DERYN LAKE
(John Rawlings #2) Review of #1 is here.
Endeavour Media
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: John Rawlings is among the beau monde enjoying a performance of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ in Drury Lane when the leading actor – the notorious philanderer Jasper Harcross – dramatically falls to his death on stage. As Rawlings and the Blind Beak hunt for vital clues, they discover a hotbed of rivalry both on and off the stage which produces numerous suspects and questions.

As the search takes on a new intensity, John Rawlings soon finds himself on an intriguing trail of obsession that leads to the dark heart of a cold-blooded murder.

My Review: I wasn't expecting the solution to this murder. I could see how it was prefigured, though not exactly in line with generally accepted ideas of "fair play"...the Apothecary sees something we don't and *flash* into focus comes the solution, a very Dame-Agatha thing to do...so I'm actually more, not less, interested in reading the third book. Also of great appeal and interest to me are the sensory parts of the story: the sights of a London where Kensington is a country town, the Lincoln's Inn Fields were actually fields, there were houses on Pall Mall, there was a "Chelsea Bun House" for real, all these are delicious to me.

I'm sure the twee use of job titles as character labels is to some tastes, but "the Apothecary," "the Blind Beak," et alii, aren't delightful to me. I accept them as attempts at whimsical charm; backfire in my ears, though.

I had a suspect all fitted up for the murder, and was quite sure I was right. (Look at all my Goodreads Kindle notes marked "spoiler" (membership required, but free) if you want to see my logic.) I enjoy it when authors catch me out like that, it makes me really think about why I was so sure before the reveal that X is guilty, and that means going back over the whole puzzle to see what I missed. For this seasoned citizen, anything surprising in a puzzle is a Good Thing.

I am quite hesitant to do so, though, because there are SIX w-bombs dropped *shudder* and there is more, though less offensive by a slight hair, homophobic idiocy present. There's a bog-standard heteronormative locution about red-blooded males lusting after women; but there's this gem of genuine, deeply felt venom:
‘D’you have some verdigris for my face paint?’ asked an emasculated nothing, waving a handkerchief stiff with powder.
The 1990s were quite some time ago, and that's when Deryn Lake wrote these books. But I was a thritysomething all the decade long, and I know of my own personal knowledge that this kind of effeminacy-baiting was frowned on even then. Period appropriate arguments are null and void: This book wasn't written in Georgian England. It was written in the sad, bad barely-post-Thatcher era. This nastiness, present in the first book as well, is a choice made by a modern person to use nasty, insulting language about people the author clearly doesn't like.

So that third book will wait to enter my Kindle until I have some utterly uncommitted money (so no earlier than after the 2020 elections, I give all my uncommitted money to the campaign I support until then), or someone gifts it to me. I don't like this trend. I disapprove of the sneering nastiness of homophobia. I'm not sure I won't see it again...actually, if I'm honest, I am pretty sure that I will see it again...so I don't want to give the person who's sneering at me and mine any more of my money.

My eyeblinks, I'll risk again. Barely.