The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson****

themercyofthe The Mercy of the Tide is Keith Rosson’s debut novel, and it’s a strong one. Set in a tiny, depressed town on the Oregon Coast during the Reagan Administration, things start out dark, and they’re about to get a whole lot darker. Thank you, Net Galley and Meerkat Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge for this honest review. This book will be for sale February 21, 2017, and those that love good fiction with a working class perspective will want a copy.

The tiny town of Riptide, Oregon is knee deep in grief. A recent head-on collision claimed the lives of Melissa Finster, mother of Sam and Trina, and June Dobbs, the town’s beloved librarian and wife of Sheriff Dave Dobbs. The blow has left everyone reeling and on edge.

Someone else is missing Melissa too, though he can’t say so. Deputy Nick Hayslip–a Vietnam veteran who has no patience for the madness associated with that category, a vet who figures that you go home when the war is over, you put on your clothes and go to work and therapy is for losers–is coming unstuck. Nobody knows about his past with Melissa, and he finds terrible ways to keep her memory alive.

The teaser for this novel tells us that the story centers around Sam and Trina, and since the author generally writes the teaser, that must be his intention. However, I found Trina to be the weakest element here, and it was the other characters that made this story work for me. Part of this is just pure fickle bad luck for the author; I actually taught deaf kids of the same age as Trina, as well as gifted kids that age; and in one instance, a gifted deaf kid that age. It’s true that the gifts of highly capable children vary widely in scope and range, and that every child is unique, but the vocabulary and abstract concepts Rosson bestows on this kid are just not within the realm of the possible, and so Trina isn’t real to me until later in the book, when things other than her obsession with nuclear holocaust are used in the development of her character.

The most interesting character and unlikely hero here is Hayslip. Also beautifully developed are Sheriff Dodds and Sam’s closest friend, Todd, known familiarly as “Toad”. Alternating points of view from the third person omniscient give us ready access to their thoughts, impulses, and feelings.

An interesting side character is zealous Christian wingnut Joe Lyley, who says in a somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, “These are unlovely times.” I also liked Leon Davies, whose role I will let the reader discover, because it’s such a fun surprise.

The setting is almost an anti-tourist brochure. The Oregon Coast is well known for its wild, rugged beauty, but Rosson chooses to introduce the other reality, that of the many local denizens that endure a hardscrabble working class existence in small, chilly, damp coastal communities that rarely see the sun. The moldering smell of rotting wood, porches and floors with a sponge-like give under foot are dead accurate, although the town of Riptide is fictitious; the recession of the 80’s plunged small beach towns into a depression from which there has never been a moment’s relief.

This is a strong story with a tight, tense climax and a powerful resolution. This darkly delicious novel shows that Rosson is a force to be reckoned with; I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*****

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

 thebearandthenigh

The Bear and the Nightingale is the most brilliant fantasy novel I’ve seen since Tolkien wrote, and I want you to understand how different, how special it is. I received my copy free in exchange for an honest review—and those of you that read my last two reviews know that this privilege has never made me obsequious. Thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the advance copy. It’s worth its weight in spun golden magic, and it will be available to the public this Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

 

“The brave live…The cowards die in the snow.”

 

Our protagonist is Vasilisa, affectionately known as Vasya; she’s an adolescent with many talents, some of which are supernatural. She generally keeps these abilities to herself, lest she be called a witch. Her father, Pyotr, is a minor prince in the frozen Northern hinterlands of Russia during the 14th century.  The setting here is mesmerizing, and from the first page I understood that this particular story is one I would save for late nights when my family is asleep. Let my other reading be interrupted by the minutiae of running a household, but not this one. This is a juicy tale, perfect for a cold winter night burrowed beneath the quilts. I open this magical tale and am lost inside it.

Our setting is ancient Northern Russia, then known as ‘Rus’, since no central government had formed yet. This is a time when women carry about as much social worth as a poker chip or livestock, and yet as the story progresses, I realize that this is a stand-up-tall feminist folk tale of the highest order; in fact, it’s a lot of things. This is the sort of debut that most likely causes writers like Harper Lee to go back in the house and never publish anything else, lest the second novel be considered a let-down after the first.  I hope, however, that we’ll see a lot more of Arden.

Our story commences in the house of Pyotr, a minor prince whose wife has died in childbirth. He loved Marina dearly, but as his daughters grow closer to marriageable age, he knows he must go to Moscow to seek a new bride to run his home, and marry his elder daughter Olga to a man of wealth and power. And though Olga’s match is a good one, it’s in Pyotr’s remarriage that things go badly wrong.

A brief note about the setting and other details involved with time and place. First know that this story does require a relatively high literacy level; for those that struggle with a high vocabulary level, it may prove to be more work than fun. However—for those reading digitally especially—please note that there’s a glossary at the back of the book. And those that are able to read this digitally on a device with a touch screen will be happiest of all, because it’s so easy to touch a word and get a definition immediately. I also ran a few searches due to curiosity, since I was not at all eager for this book to end. I took my time with it, and while I was buried in this magical world, I was nevertheless learning details of history and geography that I hadn’t known before.

Because I taught teenagers how to write for a number of years, it’s my natural inclination, even in an absorbing story such as Arden’s, to go back and look again to see what specifically produced this alchemy.  Undoubtedly, the development of multiple characters in a deft, expert manner is essential. There’s not one character in this story that I don’t believe. Every last one of them is real to me, a feat in and of itself when writing fantasy. It takes confidence and authority to tell the reader that although the story contains all manner of supernatural elements, it’s all true, and so are its characters.

But also, there are real life details true to the time and place that Arden weaves in seamlessly. As I reread some key passages, I note that when the men come indoors from the snowy woods, they aren’t merely cold, dirty and tired; they’re covered in scratches, they’re voracious, and their boots steam and stink up the room once they remove them. In another scene, when Pyotr travels far from home, he can afford fine guest lodging, but although he gets a big, soft, fluffy bed, he also has to put up with vermin, because they were a part of everyone’s life.  Such details contribute to the immediacy of the story.

It’s Arden’s outstanding word smithery that makes this story a standout. When Arden writes, the mists clear and we are transported, quivering in the snowy forest of the 14th century Russia, tearing pell mell across frozen ground on the back of a noble stallion, facing down death as demons scream and shadows dance.

I won’t spoil any of the subsequent plot points for you, but please know that this is a multifaceted story with a lot of secondary threads that contribute to the main story rather than distracting us from it.  To do so in a debut novel is stunning. A particularly interesting side character is Dunya, the nurse that has raised Vasya and has held onto a talisman intended for Vasya at great personal cost.

Messages and possible themes come out of the woodwork once one looks for them. A story such as this one, in which Vasya defends the old pagan deities against the religion of Kostantin, would once upon a time have caused conservative Christian parents to come screaming to the school with their lawyers on their cell phones in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. It could happen still, but what greater honor could Arden ask than to find her way into the ten most frequently banned books?

Meanwhile, in this trying time for independent women, we need strong female characters like Vasya and Dunya to remind girls and women that we are powerful, and that together, we can conquer those that would strip us of our autonomy and march us barefoot back to our kitchens. I have no idea whether any such direct political purpose is intended by Arden, but it certainly serves as a potent message: we will be oppressed only if we let that happen. Those that have even a fraction of Vasya’s independence, confidence and courage can not only prevent the door opportunity from slamming shut;  we can knock that door off its fucking hinges, for ourselves, our daughters, and theirs as well.

 

’All my life,’ she said, ‘ I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’”

 

Those looking for themes here have a banquet of opportunities. Though I would say the story is one of solidarity among women, or of woman’s independence, there are so many other possibilities. One could make a case that this story is about loyalty; one could claim it’s about family. One could say it’s about the victory of the collective good over the pride, greed, and ambition of the individual.

One thing I can say for certain is that The Bear and the Nightingale is impressive any way you approach it. It holds the potential to become a favorite of the genre, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next.  Buy it for yourself, for your daughter, your mother, or for any woman that you love, or for someone that loves women and good fiction. A book like this doesn’t come along every day.

Don’t even think of missing this book. You can get it Tuesday, or better still, you can pre-order it now.

A Death in the House and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak****

adeathinthehouse.jpgClifford D. Simak wrote fiction, mostly science fiction in the form of short stories, for more than fifty years.  Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media, I’ve been binge-reading for the better part of a year. I received this DRC, as I did the others, in exchange for an honest review.  This is my fourth Simak collection; most of its stories are brilliant and have stood the test of time, though a couple of them haven’t aged as well as the rest.

The collection begins with one of his best, “Operation Stinky”, which is about a skunk with supernatural ability. A hallmark of a truly brilliant science fiction writer is his capacity to take a truly preposterous premise and make us not only believe in it, for a short time, but respond to it emotionally. I laughed out loud at least once at a wry moment here, and in other places I was really moved. Simak does that to me a lot.

Another favorite was “Green Thumb”, about a plant that comes from outer space and is horrified to learn that its new host is actually—dear heaven—eating plants! Again, Simak plays this string like the sweetest violin, and at the end I had to put my reader down and assimilate what I’d read before I could read anything else. “The Sitters” made me think of Stephen King, though of course Simak’s story was written before King had published a novel at all. I also enjoyed the title story as well as “Tools” and “Nine Lives”, but the one I liked best was “Target Generation”, a longer story about a huge spaceship that had hosted so many generations of people, many of them born right there on the ship, that an entire origin myth had become the basis for the ship’s culture and the beliefs of its residents…all but one. When the character—if we can call it that—called ‘The Mutterer’ came, I could not move until that story was done.

That said, there were some weak places. In some respects this may be unfair of me, because I don’t think Simak wrote with the knowledge that anyone would ever sit down and binge-read his stories end to end; he submitted one story at a time to magazines and earned his living that way. Nevertheless, I really wish he’d write more stories in which nobody gets named “Doc”.  And the story titled “War is Personal”, while I am sure it was well received by many readers when he wrote it during World War II, really upset me. I found the “J” word a couple of times and together with the overall flavor of the story, was disturbed enough to straight-up skip to the next entry. I began the lengthy novella, “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell”, and was absorbed, but part way through it was shot through with some unbelievably bad dialogue and trite expressions. And although “The Birch Clump Cluster”, the final entry, wasn’t bad, it didn’t measure up to most of his work.

Two stories give unfortunate titles to disabled people and refer to them in a disrespectful way. Again, it was common at the time the stories were published, but as a society we are more enlightened now, and so this aspect of his work hasn’t aged well.

Unless you are a diehard Simak fan, skip the introduction. It was written by a close friend of his and has to do with a break from writing on the part of the author. I didn’t care at all and decided not to finish it, because trying to slog through it was going to prevent me from getting to the stories themselves.

The good news is that most of the stories here are fantastic, and this collection was published this summer, so you can have it now. Recommended for those that love good science fiction.

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems, by Timothy Zahn*****

Just released today; reviewed in November and bringing it back to remind you, because this is science fiction/fantasy at its best.

Seattle Book Mama

pawnsgambitPawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of kick-ass science fiction stories, including a novella, produced digitally for the first time. This is the cool thing about Open Road Integrated Media: the publishers find outstanding work from the pre-digital era and bring it to present-day readers anew so that it can be widely read and appreciated all over again. But though these stories were written earlier, many of them have never been published in book form before. I got to check out the collection free in exchange for an honest review, and I struck oil. I wondered why I hadn’t found this writer earlier, since I have been known to binge on sci fi now and then since the 1990’s. What Zahn is best known for is the Star Wars series, which I didn’t read. In passing it by, I nearly missed a fine writer, and I will watch…

View original post 266 more words

The Children’s Home, by Charles Lambert*****

Hot off the presses! I reviewed this just before Christmas, and it is available today. Fantastic read.

Seattle Book Mama

thechildrenshomeLambert is a brilliant writer, and his absorbing new novel, The Children’s Home, is the best literary fiction I have read in some time. Thank you to Scribner and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

We start with Morgan, a bitter recluse rattling around in his immense family mansion, afraid to leave its walls for fear someone will see his face and ridicule him. His sister Rebecca runs the family business, and she hires Engel to serve as housekeeper and cook to him. Moira and David are two children that magically appear at his estate. Unlike normal children, they don’t leave messes lying around, whine, or need to be cleaned up; Morgan notices that whenever he wants to concentrate or not have the children around, they seem to vanish, appearing again when wanted.

Motherhood should be so sweet.

But back to…

View original post 366 more words

The Children’s Home, by Charles Lambert*****

thechildrenshomeLambert is a brilliant writer, and his absorbing new novel, The Children’s Home, is the best literary fiction I have read in some time. Thank you to Scribner and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

We start with Morgan, a bitter recluse rattling around in his immense family mansion, afraid to leave its walls for fear someone will see his face and ridicule him. His sister Rebecca runs the family business, and she hires Engel to serve as housekeeper and cook to him. Moira and David are two children that magically appear at his estate. Unlike normal children, they don’t leave messes lying around, whine, or need to be cleaned up; Morgan notices that whenever he wants to concentrate or not have the children around, they seem to vanish, appearing again when wanted.

Motherhood should be so sweet.

But back to the manse. Soon more children come, first in ones and twos, then in waves. Eventually Morgan can’t tell how many children are on his estate. Investigators show up eager to find that he’s breaking the law; they sniff around and leave without seeing anything. And to the burgeoning household a doctor is added. Morgan wants someone discreet and trustworthy to deal with his medical issues, and soon Dr. Crane is not only making house calls, but has a room of his own. And subtly, the power dynamics start to shift. A seismic change is in the wind.

Morgan doesn’t dare leave the estate. At first, the reader believes it is because he is afraid his appearance will be ridiculed, but then others also mention fear for his safety should he leave the walls of his property. And eventually we see the flipside of all this bitter privilege, the big house with the on call servants and medical care. Because someone has to pay in the end; there’s not enough wealth to go around when the few get so much of it, and we learn what is taking place outside those walls. That said, this is not a simple nod to social justice, but a juicy tale full of surprises.

I won’t take you any farther than that, but I must say that Lambert is a writer of undeniable talent. The Children’s Home is brilliant literary fiction. The allegory is a mite on the heavy handed side, but it doesn’t matter when the spell woven is as magical as it is here. I was expecting something along the lines of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but this is so much more than that.

Parents may want to be aware that there’s a great deal of violence inherent here. For some adolescents, it will be all the more delicious for it, but it is written for an adult audience, and some parents may want to read it themselves before passing it on to younger folk.

When you come down to it, you want to read it anyway. It comes up for sale January 5, 2016, but you can order it now, and you know you want to!

Alien Blues, by Lynn Hightower*****

alienbluesAlien Blues, the first in the David Silver series, was originally written in the 90’s, when I was busy returning to school, having my fourth child and raising the first three. I mention this only because I am dumbfounded that I missed this amazing series the first time around, and that’s the only possible reason; I was too busy trying to find a few minutes in which to sleep back then. Thank goodness Open Road Integrated Media has re-published it digitally. After reading and being really impressed by Flashpoint, another of Hightower’s terrific novels, I searched Net Galley for anything else she had written that was available to read and review, and I scored this little treasure. It’s a brave, bold genre cross of detective fiction and science fiction, and if I can read the others in the series, you had best believe I will.

First, of course, we have a murderer. Machete Man, as he is known, enjoys hacking his victims and their belongings into portable pieces. A nice touch is the would-be victim that gets away and can describe him. He hacks up all her stuff, and we know that if she hadn’t been as quick as she was, she would have been among the sliced and diced items in her bedroom. And I find the scene that occurs later between David’s wife Rose and Machete Man spectacular.

Into the mix we have the murder of an Elaki. Elaki are another species, but to a certain extent they work and interact with humans. They shimmer; they walk on fringe; they have flippers instead of hands. Roof tops are terribly dangerous, because they are slender and lightweight, and can easily blow away in a breeze. They are shorter than humans and because they have no legs, they must fold themselves to ride in an automobile made for humans. Their own are specially adapted. But we learn all these tidbits as we go along. Hightower doesn’t waste a lot of time describing them, but makes everything we learn part of the action. And so String, an Elaki that has never fit in well with his own folk, volunteers to aid in the investigation; some suspect his motives are other than what he says.

Lurking in the background is David’s traumatic past. He grew up in a ghetto, the tunnels underground known as Little Saigo. The tunnels were invented originally to house the wealthiest members of society from Earth’s degraded environment; imagine a carefully controlled housing development where there is no fear of skin cancer or other environmental hazards. But humans tend to crave the sun, and when the rich didn’t want to buy in, the project was never completed. Squatters populated the many half-completed nooks and crannies in the enormous subterranean catacombs, and eventually an implant similar to a microchip was developed so that those that lived there could identify one another, achieving a measure of safety from those that came to pillage and wreak chaos among the vulnerable.

David has not lived in Little Saigo for a long time; he has a modest but comfortable home, a wife, and darling daughters. But ultimately, he is forced to return to Little Saigo, home of his worst nightmares, in order to solve the crime.

It’s riveting.

Hightower is brilliant. The Elaki are the most memorable nonhuman characters in literature since Spock, and her female characters defy all possible stereotypes. Her pacing, character development, and capacity to develop setting that we can nearly see and breathe is outstanding. She has won the Shamus and her work has been included in the New York Times Most Notable Books list. She’s been published on four continents, and thanks to Open Road Integrated Media, those of us that missed her the first time around can now read her work digitally. And it’s available for sale now.

Highly recommended!

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems, by Timothy Zahn*****

pawnsgambitPawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of kick-ass science fiction stories, including a novella, produced digitally for the first time. This is the cool thing about Open Road Integrated Media: the publishers find outstanding work from the pre-digital era and bring it to present-day readers anew so that it can be widely read and appreciated all over again. But though these stories were written earlier, many of them have never been published in book form before. I got to check out the collection free in exchange for an honest review, and I struck oil. I wondered why I hadn’t found this writer earlier, since I have been known to binge on sci fi now and then since the 1990’s. What Zahn is best known for is the Star Wars series, which I didn’t read. In passing it by, I nearly missed a fine writer, and I will watch for him in the future.

The settings, situations, and moods within this collection are artfully staggered, ranging from the ethical and philosophical dilemmas that the fertile imagination runs up against when what if scenarios are presented, to surprisingly funny situations. I love the characters Zahn creates, and the way they drive his stories forward. From that first “multi-tentacled grin” of the “Sk’cee” in The Price of Survival, I was hooked. The Giftie Gie Us had an infuriating ending that left me thinking of alternative possibilities. My own personal favorite, Cascade Point, was apparently the favorite of many others also, because it won the Hugo Award in 1984.

A couple of times I noted some gender stereotypes, but for work of its time period in a genre rife with this issue—which is probably why I need time out from my sci fi binges to read other things—it was surprisingly muted. Of 82 marks I made while I read it, only 2 related to gender stereotyping.

There are no weak links, nothing that seems like filler in between good stories; everything here is strong. At a couple of points I had to bite back the urge to laugh out loud while cruising through late at night while my spouse slumbered next to me. My second favorite story is the title novella, Pawn’s Gambit; I found it unexpectedly hilarious.

This brilliantly crafted collection goes on sale January 5, 2016. The only real question for the science fiction lover is how you are going to wait that long. Mark your calendar; you won’t want to miss out on this one.

Newly Released: Nirvana, by JR Stewart Excerpt

Nirvana

After a big-time rewrite and vast improvement, this hot new novel hits the shelves today. Below is an excerpt, courtesy of the publisher:

The shrill five a.m. siren jolts me awake to the usual calamity. The bunker’s stale air; the pelting of dust balls and stray debris. I groan and hear Andrew’s chuckle. When I open my eyes, he’s getting dressed.
“Are you leaving already?” I ask.
Andrew leans down for one long kiss. “It’s eight o’clock.”
I bolt up in bed. “The five a.m. just went off.”
“Nope. You slept through that one.”
I groan. “I’m late.”
He leans over me. “You always are, Kenders.”
I rub my eyes. “When will you be home?”
“Late. I’ve got a meeting with my boss.”
I let out a long yawn. “Cheating on me again?” I wink.
He laughs and pulls out my photo from his breast pocket. “I’ve got
this framed on my desk.”
“You should get a better picture.”
“The green dress matches your eyes.”
I turn up my nose. “My grad photo is outdated.”
“It says everything about you. No one dictates what Kenders does. You wouldn’t wear school colours like the rest of the class did. Your green dress stood out, just like you do.”
He’s right. Our punk band was protesting the loss of habitat for bees, and this wardrobe choice was one of many anti-establishment statements we made that year. Since 2080, when Hexagon became the university’s major sponsor, it had been a new tradition to wear school colours. We boycotted that convention, and even at graduation we were handing out flyers, standing up for what we believed in.
Andrew kisses me on the lips. “I’ll see you at lunch.” About an hour later, I wake up to a softer buzzing. This time, Andrew has set the alarm for me. He knows me well enough to be sure that I’ll drift back to sleep the moment he leaves. I jump out of bed to get ready. I run a comb through my tangled bangs, and pull up a mat of brown hair, covered in dust. That’s what happens when you hit the shower too late: no water in the reservoir, not even enough to brush my teeth. I rub at the dark splotches of dirt until my pale skin turns bright pink, and then give up on my hair and pull it into a ponytail while I step into my uniform. I stop for a moment before heading out the door, and pull Andrew’s sweatshirt over my head. It drapes in a large fold over my narrow shoulders. I rush to jump onto the bus rumbling down the road, but it’s already passed by my compound.

Nirvana, by J.R. Stewart****

NirvanaNew rating and review based on updated DRC:

Larissa Kenders is a musician living in a post-apocalyptic world; her lover Andrew is missing. This newly revised young adult novel is a winner, and it will be published  November 10. Thank you to Blue Moon Press, Net Galley, and Adam Mawer at DigiWriting Book Marketing Agency for including me on the second spin. It was time well spent.

The problem on Earth began when the bees began to die. How can anyone grow food, flowers, or anything else if pollen can’t be transferred? And indeed, how does pollen get from one plant to another without the bees? Corporate giant Hexagon has created an alternate world, and humans are dependent upon the company for their sustenance. Nirvana is a virtual world that workers can visit, for a hefty price, on their days off. The question Larissa has, then, is whether the Andrew she sees in Nirvana is the virtual Andrew of her memories, or whether he may in fact still be living, hiding out from those that may wish him gone.

Various topics are explored, from alienation and the question of whom to trust—one that will resonate with teenage readers—as well as environmental issues such as GMOs, and more futuristic philosophical questions. Edward Snowden comes up, and why should he not, in a story in which many researchers have uploaded their brains to the Cloud so that their work will remain once they are gone?

I was one of a handful of reviewers that read the first draft of this book. I reported that it was dreadful because it lacked character development. This new and vastly improved version creates a Larissa Kenders that is believable, a character to whom we can bond. The remaining stereotypes, such as the jealous female that is our main villain, along with the preponderance of males rather than the usual fifty percent of the population, are problems that are so rife within the genres of science fiction and fantasy that it’s hard to hang the whole problem on this one writer, who has created a truly original and interesting plot .

Teachers considering its classroom use should be forewarned that there are a couple of sexual situations; the porn industry, a pet project of one of the villains, also gets multiple mentions. I should emphasize that this reviewer sees no problem with today’s teenagers reading the book, since most of them have seen far more explicit material on their own. But those that teach in school districts so conservative that the villagers bring everything but flaming torches to the school board meeting may want the information ahead of time prior to going out of pocket for a classroom set.

In revising his story, Stewart has plucked victory from the ashes; a job well done.