Book – Imagine that every time you do something wrong – tell a lie, steal something, think an uncharitable thought – everyone can see it, in the form of a little puff of smoke that comes up from your body. It leaves soot on your clothes, your pillowcases, your furniture. You must be perfectly good at all times, or clean everything constantly, or both. And if not – everyone will know.
That’s the world of Smoke, a tremendous new literary fantasy by Dan Vyleta. In Victorian England, the aristocracy are trained from childhood to never Smoke, to repress all their baser instincts to demonstrate their inherent superiority over the lower classes. But what if it doesn’t really work that way? What if Smoke isn’t sin, but something else? Thomas and Charlie, two boys at an elite boarding school in the countryside, begin to question what they’ve been told after a trip to Smoke-filled London, and before long their whole world is unraveling.
I loved this book and its incredible explorations of good and evil, sin and repression. In addition to telling the story of Smoke, it’s also full of all the things that make Victorian novels great – family secrets, corrupt leaders, criminals with a heart of gold, murder, disguise, horse chases, and romance.
Book – Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of murder, and in the spring, she will be executed. The governor has decided that it’s too expensive to send her to the seat of government in Denmark, so she’s been sent to the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, to live there with his family until the execution date can be set.
Between scattered documents – real translations; this is based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland for murder – detailing the problems the government is having in getting an execution set for Agnes and her two co-defendants, we learn more about the family hosting her and about Agnes’s own life. She grew up practically an orphan, working for her keep in a variety of small farms, before falling in love with Natan – the man she’s been convicted of murdering.
This was a moving story, stark and bleak but beautifully told, of a woman who is famous but not very sympathetic in her home country. Hannah Kent helps us to understand Agnes, who has been so terribly isolated for much of her life, who fell in love with the wrong kind of man, who lost a life she had never been very successful at in the first place.
Book – Agnieszka grew up next to the dark enchanted wood, in the shadow of the Dragon’s tower. The Dragon is a wizard, not a fire-breathing lizard; he doesn’t eat the girls he takes, but he does take one every ten years or so, and she never comes home again. At least, not for very long. Everybody knows that he always takes the best, the cleverest, the most beautiful, the most talented girl, so they’re shocked when he picks Agnieszka instead.
But unlike the other girls, Agnieska’s been picked for a reason – she has the talent to become a wizard herself, and by the king’s law, she must be trained. (No matter how much she hates it.) And then, as war threatens and the enchanted wood begins to overflow its borders, spilling monsters and poison out into the surrounding lands, she has to learn, if she wants to save her home and everyone she loves from a terrible end.
I absolutely adored this book, and I resented everything that made me put it down until I could finish it. While it has a lot in common with fairy tales, it’s also a deep, complex story full of very human people who make the wrong decisions for the right reasons (and sometimes the right decisions for the wrong reasons), and how they face the consequences of their actions. Fans of Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon series and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor will love this, too. It also has a Hungarian flavor that would go very well with Steven Brust’s Dragaera series.
Book – Anna Senoz is, somewhat secretly, an ambitious scientist. When she was in college she wanted to change the world, but doesn’t everyone? Since then she’s gone through a lot – a miscarriage, a marriage, a child; several career dead-ends, a revolution, a discovery – and learned a lot, and she still wants to do is her piece of the work. The work, it turns out, is Transferred Y, a discovery about the evolution of human sex chromosomes that might change the world after all.
Life is a quiet, meditative story, part of that peculiar sub-genre of science fiction that is really more about people doing science than about any particular discovery. It is, as Jones has described it, “a fairytale about how change, real change in the world comes about,” through struggles and frustrations and the constant struggle of choosing to do something revolutionary or choosing to continue to feed your family.
It’s also very much a feminist story, in that Anna has to face a lot of issues her male colleagues never consider. Her friend and shadow-self, Ramone Hollyrood, becomes a famous feminist writer; Anna is never a feminist herself, but she wants to be treated as a person, which she finds is nearly impossible sometimes. She’s a tremendously real character, full of flaws and inconsistencies, but after finishing the book I find that I miss spending time with her.
Book – The first three days of the Beautiful Dreamer‘s cruise are perfectly normal. It’s a budget cruise line, so sure, there are some problems, but nothing to draw anyone’s attention. And then, on the fourth day, things start to go wrong. A usually cantankerous psychic becomes generous and welcoming, even to people who haven’t paid her fees. Security covers up the fact that they’ve found a young woman dead in her cabin; the man who’s killed her tries desperately to pretend that everything is normal. A housekeeper sees a boy who couldn’t possibly be there. A fire breaks out in the engine room, stranding the ship at sea.
And then things get weird.
I absolutely adored Lotz’s debut solo novel, The Three, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised that Day Four was so good, but I was. A good horror novel can be hard to find, but Lotz has a deft touch with atmosphere and she never lets the plot slow down. She doesn’t let you get too attached to the characters, though – which can be a good thing in a story like this, where you almost wish she’d start killing people off just to relieve the tension.
Day Four is technically a sequel to The Three, but the connections are thin; you wouldn’t miss much if you haven’t read the first one. (You should read it anyway, of course, it’s excellent.) If you’re looking for a good, disturbing, plot-driven horror novel, give Day Four a try. But if you’ve got a summer cruise planned… maybe wait until you come home.
Book – In the mid-1980s, dozens of childcare providers were tried, and some convicted and imprisoned, for sexual abuse of children on an unprecedented scale. While in some cases abuse really occurred, the charges were massively inflated, the product of accusations made by children who had been through hours and hours of aggressive interrogation and “therapy” designed to help them recover memories they had suppressed. Into the 90s, adult women were coming forward with allegations of abuse, often connected to Satanic cults, that they had not known about before the memories had been “recovered” in therapy. And by the year 2000, almost all of the charges and convictions resulting from these kinds of allegations had been dropped or rescinded.
Beck does more describing the situation than explaining it in his book, covering the groundbreaking McMartin trial (one of the longest and most expensive in American history) in great detail, but also drawing connections with other, similar cases going on around the country. Beck puts the whole thing down to a growing cultural discomfort with the disintegration of the nuclear family and the development of new therapeutic techniques that turned out to be more damaging than helpful.
The McMartin case broke six months before I was born, but I remember reading about it as a teenager in connection with the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who were convicted as part of the “Satanic panic” and only released in 2011. I’ve always been amazed – and a little scared – at how huge the whole thing got before anyone was willing to step up and say, This is ridiculous, this cannot possibly be real. The destruction of one accused family is chronicled in Andrew Jaerecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which Beck mentions in the book.
Book – When I started reading this book, I didn’t know much about it, other than that it had a glow-in-the-dark octopus on the cover. And really, what else do you need to know? The octopus, fortunately, is a character (although he doesn’t glow in the dark) – Katsu, a mechanical octopus made by the titular watchmaker, Mori, a Japanese nobleman who has moved to England to practice the art of making tiny things out of even tinier gears. We meet him through Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphist recently recruited by Scotland Yard, who is being used by his superiors to investigate Mori as a suspect behind a high-profile bombing.
This is fantasy only by the thinnest hair, and steampunk only because of the prominence of Mori’s fantastic clockwork creations (and their proximity to Japantown’s fireworks shops). The plot circles around the investigation of the bombing, but Thaniel and Mori’s relationship is the real core of the book, growing slowly through mistrust and uncertainty into a deep, heartfelt connection. I was a little iffy about it for the first few chapters; by the end, I was entirely in love.
Book – Books of Hours are the most common book we have from medieval history – beautiful, elaborate manuscripts created for one (very wealthy) person, providing them with a list of holidays throughout the year and prayers throughout the day. Inspired by this format, Jenkins has created a kind of uber-trivia book, a collection of small historical stories and interesting bits of information that match up with the hours of the day and the months of the year.
The cherry-blossom festivals of Japan, duelists who dreaded getting up in the morning more than the upcoming duel, writers’ personal schedules and national holidays, recipes and recommendations (including a recipe for Nostradamus’s aphrodesiac jam, and a recommendation not to try it), historical snapshots of Renaissance Florence, 1930s Shanghai, and desserts that you set on fire before serving – this book has a little bit of everything. More in-depth than a usual trivia book, but without a wholly defining theme, other than the passage of time, I found this perfectly wonderful for curling up on a rainy day with a cup of tea.
Book – The body you are wearing used to be mine. So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her. She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own.
The single most important thing in a book written in the first person is that the reader likes the main character, preferably right away. Fortunately, I liked Myfanwy within about a page and a half. She has an entirely reasonable reaction to waking up surrounded by dead bodies without knowing who she is: she checks herself into the most expensive hotel she can find and panics. And then she thinks, I have got to figure out what is going on. And she does.
Myfanwy is that rare character who strikes a perfect balance between perfectly normal and exceptionally capable. The way she handles her job as supernatural administrator is hilarious – lots of “um, sure, okay, let’s move the meeting with my colleague’s second body up by half an hour.” If I have a complaint, it’s that the mystery behind the whole plot of the book is a little slight. There are so many characters coming and going that when the traitor was finally revealed, it took me a few minutes to remember who he was.
This reminded me delightfully of China Miéville’s Kraken and Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series; readers looking for more deeply weird urban fantasy will like those as well. The sequel, Stiletto, is due out in June.
Movie – Caleb works for Bluebook, the world’s largest search engine, and he’s just won a contest whose prize is to spend a week living with the company’s founder, Nathan. When he arrives at Nathan’s isolated, ultra-modern estate, though, Caleb signs a nondisclosure agreement and learns that he’s been hand-picked to test Nathan’s most audacious new project: an artificial intelligence. Her name is Ava.
Ex Machina starts off as a beautifully realized science fiction story – one of the rare ones that make it all the way to film with all their complex ideas intact underneath the special effects. This is a small movie, resting on the shoulders of the actors and the characters rather than the effects (although the special effects on Ava’s transparent android body are so good you forget they’re special effects). Nathan embodies the modern brogrammer, and Oscar Isaac is note-perfect throughout. Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson (son of award-winning actor Brendan Gleeson), is the more stereotypical computer nerd. But neither of them are as compelling as Alicia Vikander’s Ava. Caleb is supposed to be testing whether or not Ava is really conscious, but as an audience who’s already seen plenty of movies where Robots Are People, Too, we’re waiting to see what he’ll do when he decides that she is.
And that’s where Ex Machina turns into a horror movie – a quiet one, nearly bloodless, but no less bloodcurdling for that. Why, after all, did Nathan put his AI into a female body?
And what are they all going to do with it?