Book – Simon Newman has a very niche career – it’s the mid-2000s, and he and his best friend run a website of dark and creepy content. Desperate to attract subscribers for “Journey to the Darkside,” he hires a guide to take him through Cwm Pot, a notorious cave system in Wales where three cavers died in a flood. Simon escapes with his life, if barely; his guide does not.
But one success isn’t enough on the Internet, and the next one has to be bigger and even more dangerous, so Simon signs on to an Everest expedition, hoping to catch some footage of the climbers whose bodies have to be abandoned above 8,000 feet, where it’s too dangerous to try to bring them down. He learns the story of Juliet Michaels, who in the 1990s was trying to become the first woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen, but perished on the mountain. And in her diary, he finds an eerily familiar story. It seems Juliet was haunted by a lost adventuring partner, just as Simon is. But were they haunted only by memories and regrets, or is there something else out there on the mountain with them?
Sarah Lotz has become my go-to writer for psychological horror: she excels at the kind of atmospheric tension-building that I love. The White Road isn’t seat-of-your-pants scary, but it provides the kind of ambiguous, worrying feeling that I enjoyed so much in, for example, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Once you’ve read this, pick up Into Thin Air to see just how real Lotz’s depiction of death on the world’s highest mountain can be.
Book – Greta is one of the Children of Peace, hostages of the world’s leaders who live in the Precepture in Saskatchewan. If their country goes to war, they die. It’s one of the rules of Talis, the AI who rules the world – war should be personal, and the people declaring war should have to suffer for it. Talis’s scheme works to keep wars rare, but in a world where water grows scarcer by the day, Greta knows that, sooner or later, her mother’s kingdom will go to war to defend Lake Huron, and she is going to die. The arrival of Elián, the hostage from the newly-formed Cumberland Alliance, shakes both the calm society of the Precepture and Greta’s perception of the world – and her willingness to go peacefully to her doom.
There are a lot of ideas in this book: AI threat, water wars, population devastation, extreme solutions to the age-old problem of war. And they’re all secondary to Greta, who is an amazing character, someone who’s walked blindly for most of her life through a horrible, unfair, heartless system that she grows to believe is not the inevitable way the world has to work. It’s gorgeously written (the last couple of chapters in particular) and the characterization is impeccable. This was an incredible book – heartbreaking and brutal, not gratuitously, but as much as it needed to be. Although technically YA, anyone who loves science fiction or dystopian fiction should love this.
Book – Surrealism, as it was invented, wasn’t just an art movement but a political one as well, designed to help the practitioner break out of the mindset imposed on us by the culture we live in and invent a new and better world. Given that, it was really only a matter of time before China Miéville wrote a book about a surrealist city rising up to overthrow its fascist oppressors.
It’s 1950, and Paris is still occupied – both by the Nazis and by the manifs, physical embodiments of surrealist art and poetry that sprang into existence after the S-bomb exploded in a café in the 40s. The city has been sealed off to prevent the manifs from infecting the surrounding countryside. Thibaut is the last remaining member of Main á Plume, a surrealist Resistance faction, when he’s joined by Sam, an American photographer who’s chronicling the manifs for a book she wants to produce, The Last Days of New Paris. But Sam has other goals in mind, and they have to do with the Nazi scheme to leash the manifs as weapons, which is beginning to show signs of success.
This is such a perfect China Miéville book that I really can’t give it a better recommendation than that: If you like his books, you should love this. It’s probably a little easier to follow if you’re moderately familiar with the Surrealists, but there are some helpful illustrations (and an index chronicling the sources of the manifs, if you want to look them up). If you’ve never tried Miéville before, this isn’t necessarily the place to start (unless you really love Surrealism). May I recommend The City & The City, a surrealist mystery novel that’s recently been announced for an upcoming BBC adaptation?
Book – After the Sadiri homeworld was destroyed, their only hope for survival is in reaching out to the indigenous population of their newly adopted home for aid. Cygnus Beta is a world of refugees, all trying to re-create their dramatically different home cultures and governments. Grace Delarua’s job is to try to manage and integrate all this incredible variety; Sadiri Councillor Dllenakh is her point of contact with the Sadiri exiles, who are in search of a population that might be related to their own.
This is a short book, but it packs a lot into a few pages (which is my favorite kind of science fiction, really). Cygnus Beta is a fascinating world, so much variety and diversity packed up right next to each other – which really highlights how often science fiction forgets that we have just as much diversity on our own very small planet – and the overall story, about refugees trying to figure out what culture and heritage and history mean, is incredibly relevant right now. And for once, the slow-burn romance between Delarua and Dllenakh is one of my favorite parts of the story. If you like science fiction but are a little exhausted by breathless save-the-galaxy plots, give this one a try.
Book – Best friends Miel and Sam are inseparable, and have been since Miel spilled out of a water tower when she was five, screaming that she’d lost the moon, and Sam was the only one who could comfort her. Now teenagers, Miel grows roses from her skin and assists her guardian in magic to remove people’s lovesickness while Sam paints moons of every size and color and hangs them in the trees. They’ve loved each other since they were children, but their relationship is tested when the beautiful, cruel Bonner sisters – las gringas bonitas – decide that they want Miel’s roses for themselves, and threaten to reveal all of Sam’s secrets.
When the Moon Was Ours is a beautiful combination of elegant magical realism, reminiscent of Alice Hoffman, and an emotionally wrenching story about coming to terms with your self. Sam was born female but is living as a boy, struggling toward a transgender identity but not sure of it yet; Miel lost her family at a young age and blames herself. Their struggles feel real, and its immensely gratifying to watch them both pull through them. Although published as YA, this gorgeous book is one that anyone who loves fairy tales would enjoy.
Book – In the city of Amberlough, morality depends upon the time of day and everything is for sale. The Bumble Bee is the city’s most notorious club, and Aristide Makricosta the club’s most notorious performer. His lover, Cyril DePaul, is a covert agent, adept at keeping Aristide’s secrets as well as his own. At least, until he’s sent on a mission to the northern reaches of the country, investigating a new political party that seems convinced they can take over the country despite their unpopularity. And if they do, both Cyril and Aristide are going to find themselves in dire straits.
Amberlough is a kind of fantasy mashup of Cabaret and the novels of John Le Carré, with lots of intrigue, behind-the-scenes nightclub shenanigans, and the creeping shadow of totalitarianism looming behind all of it. I found it rough going, emotionally; Cyril sacrifices his principles early on, and watching him attempt to play both sides is painful, especially when he’s dragging other people down with him. By the end of the book, though, I couldn’t bear not to know what would happen next. I’m immensely relieved to report that there are sequels in the works, but this book stands well on its own.
Book – In a remote castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, a young man joins the crew that’s working on turning the castle into an unplugged resort, a place you can go to really escape from everything. The crew is led by his cousin, who our narrator once abandoned in a cave when they were both children. In prison, a convict begins to write a story, trying desperately to impress the pretty young writing instructor he’s falling in love with. Which one of these stories is real, which one is true? Better not to try to figure it out, but just to go along for the ride – and what a ride it is.
I always enjoy stories with unreliable narrators, and this one has two, which is pretty terrific. The story in the castle is a little surreal and more than a little Gothic; the story in the prison is emotionally complex and exciting – not your usual writing-about-a-writer scenario. And I loved both of them, which is unusual for me; usually in a book with two parallel narratives I strongly prefer one or the other. Jennifer Egan is a strong, compelling writer, and I look forward to exploring more of her books. I’d recommend this to fans of Claire Messud and Haruki Murakami.
Book – Onyesonwu is a child of rape, a child of war. Her mother named her “Who fears death?” because after being attacked and impregnated, she didn’t any more. Onyesonwu is Ewu, the light-skinned offspring of a dark Okeke woman and a pale Nuru man, and she encounters disrespect and fear wherever she goes. But she’s also a sorcerer, thanks to her mother’s fervent prayers, and the older she grows, the more powerful her sorcery becomes. And then she learns of a prophecy, about someone who will turn the whole order of the world upside down…
It took me a little while to get into this book, because it’s got some pretty rough going – Onyesonwu’s mother’s rape; the genocide of the Okeke by the Nuru; and Onye’s Eleventh Year Rite, with an explicit description of female genital mutilation, all feature heavily in the first hundred or so pages. But Onye is such a strong character, so full of promise and determination, that I had to see where she was going to go. Your reward for making it through the brutality of her early years, like hers, is an amazing story of love, female friendship, solidarity, and the pursuit of justice. Onyesonwu isn’t perfect – she frequently loses her temper, and sometimes does irreversible things as a result – but she loves life and she loves her people and her world, and is determined to make all of them better. By the end of the book, I couldn’t put it down.
Book – Nancy’s parents don’t know what to do with her. She’s changed – she won’t wear colors any more, only shades of black and white; she doesn’t eat much, and sometimes, when no one’s looking, she goes very, very still. So they send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they hope she will become more like her old self. But Nancy’s parents don’t know what Eleanor West’s real business is. She counsels children who, like her, like Alice and Dorothy and the Pevensies, once stepped through a doorway into another world. And then they came home, to a world much less interesting than the one they’d visited (a different world for almost everyone), and more than anything they long to go back.
This briskly-paced little novella is an idea wrapped in a murder mystery: what would that kind of adventure, the portal-fantasy adventures that so many of us grew up on and dreamed about, really do to a person? What would they be like when they came back? The mystery is just something to keep things moving along, to give us an excuse to hear about all these kids (many of them teenagers, but some younger) and the worlds they visited. Anyone who’s ever dreamed about falling into a fantasy world will relish this story (and its sequel, due out in June).
Book – Lane Roanoke only lived in Roanoke House, a sprawling Kansas estate, for one summer, but it’s shaped her entire life. Her mother ran away from there, and her cousin Allegra refused to leave. Allegra was who was the one who told Lane, “Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.” When Allegra goes missing, eleven years later, Lane forgets the promise she made to herself to never go back and goes to look for Allegra, and hopefully to lay to rest some of her own ghosts.
I love a good Gothic novel, and this has all the elements: an isolated house too weird for its own good, terrible family secrets, codependency, hidden messages. Lane is a fascinating character in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Libby Day: broken by the secrets she’s had to keep, but unable to fully break free of them. The difference between a traditional Gothic novel and a modern one is that the unthinkable comes much more easily to mind nowadays; it’s pretty clear early on what’s been going on in Roanoke House, and the tension is in waiting for Lane to come to terms with it and, finally do something about it. This book doesn’t quite have the sharp edges I was expecting it to, but it was so compelling that I read it all in a day.