Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Flicker of Old Dreams

The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson
HarperCollins Publishers: 3/13/18
eBook review copy: 320 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9780062686701

The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson is a very highly recommended lyrical novel about small town outsiders, prejudices, and expectations.

Petroleum, Montana, population 182, is a very small, dying town. It has been in decline for twenty years, ever since the accident that took the life of a local high schooler and shut down the grain elevator, the town’s main source of employment. The younger brother of the victim was blamed for his death and sent to live with relatives.

Mary Crampton has lived in Petroleum for thirty years, her whole life, and during those years she has always been a social outcast. Perhaps it is because her father owns the mortuary, or because she grew up without a mother, but Mary has never belonged. Now that she is the embalmer for her father, she is even more set apart from the townspeople around her. She had dreamed of becoming an artist, but now she finds satisfaction in her job, trying to capture the essence of a subject’s life.

When Robert Golden, the brother who has been blamed for the town's demise for years, returns to care for his dying mother, old resentments and condemnations return and are all directed at him. In Robert, Mary finds an unexpected soulmate who is also an outsider. Neither Robert nor Mary conform to the expectations of the towns citizens, but Mary's burgeoning friendship and relationship with him shock and dismay the town, while Robert's presence evokes anger and acting out. 

The Flicker of Old Dreams is an exquisite, beautifully written, memorable novel. In fact, it is hard to comment on such a well-written novel that seems to capture the very heart and soul of two lonely people who have been considered pariahs by the town, yet are still expected to conform to the will and expectations set by the same people. These are finely detailed, well-developed, and wonderfully crafted characters. The town itself becomes a character, as the inhabitants seem to act as one.

Henderson has created an unforgettable character in Mary - heartbreaking and so tender, caring and loyal to her father and their dying town, even as it sucks the life right out of her.  Anyone who has ever lived as an outsider in a small narrow minded town or in a family of the same ilk will understand Mary's untenable position, where she can never be a part of the town and, really, must find the way to escape in order to truly live her life. Her father, and the town, expect so much from her, mostly to live up to their expectations, and yet give so little in return. The ending is perfect, presenting redemption and hope.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

The Feed

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo
HarperCollins Publishers: 3/13/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062651853

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo is a very highly recommended postapocalyptic dystopian debut thriller that begs the question: How would you live without technology?

Everyone is connected to the Feed. It is an implant, directly to the brain, that allows instantaneous access to... everything. Everyone is on, all the time, and able to follow all interaction, emotions, images, thoughts, and linked to all information and global events. There is no need to read - or even talk. It is "an internal global cityscape where everyone lives close by." Tom and Kate use the Feed, but Tom has resisted the addiction to it and insists that he and Kate live life slow sometimes, quiet, no Feed. It is a healthy thing to do - even though Tom's father is the one who invented it. When the Feed suddenly collapses, the collapse marks the end of modern civilization too. When the Feed stopped, most people died too, unable to function or help themselves. The end was facilitated further because something or someone was hacking people while they slept, and then had the taken-over people kill others.

Now, six years in the future, it is a dangerous world where you have to watch each other when sleeping to make sure that your mind is not taken over. People have to live by scavenging and trying to figure out how to survive and rebuild a world when they have no practical experience to accomplish this. They can look for books, which are rare, but can they read them? Tom and Kate have managed to survive in a small group, but when their daughter, Bea, is kidnapped they need to try and find her in a dangerous world without the help of technology.

Going from a world where your every thought and emotion can be shared instantaneously with millions of other people, to a society where you have to speak and explain yourself in order to be understood is captured by the reticence of his characters to say what they are thinking in this changed Feed-free world. The characters may seem to be under-developed, but I thought it was done purposefully to mirror the unconnected world, where you can't trust people to sleep without watching them. And then you have to kill them if they show signs of being taken over.

I enjoyed The Feed immensely. The writing is excellent and the tone is very apropos for the subject matter. The reluctance to share inner thoughts with others is well established at the beginning, when you didn't need to say anything, your thoughts were automatically known. These people are all still learning to express themselves. The pace is slow as the story begins to unfold and we learn what the new world is like. When Kate and Tom must travel along dangerous paths to try and find their daughter, the pace and tension increase. Then The Feed becomes the story of a quest, with a journey and lessons learned. They meet various characters along the way. They face dangers. They overcome adversity. They set a goal. There are a couple of startling developments in the narrative that blindsided me and are both game changers. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

To the Edges of the Earth

To the Edges of the Earth by Edward J. Larson
HarperCollins Publishers: 3/13/18
eBook review copy: 352 pages
ISBN-143: 9780062564474

To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration by Edward J. Larson is an examination of the most adventurous year of all time.

1909 can be said to be the climactic year in the modern age of adventure-based exploration. The three poles to be conquered in 1909 were the North Pole, the South Pole, and the so-called Pole of Altitude in the Himalayas. (The South pole was sometimes divided into the geographic south and magnetic south poles.) The expeditions would face extraordinary difficulties, extremely harsh conditions, tremendous hardship, and death to claim the fame of being the first to plant their flags on these poles.

At the end of the year the explorers were celebrities. Americans Robert Peary and Matthew Henson were hailed as the discovers of the North Pole. Britain’s Ernest Shackleton set a new geographic "Furthest South" record. Shackleton's teammate, Australian Douglas Mawson, reached the Magnetic South Pole. "Italy’s Duke of the Abruzzi set an altitude record that would stand for a generation during his mountaineering expedition to the Himalaya's eastern Karakoram. The Duke attempted K2 and established the standard route up the most notorious mountain on the planet.

Larson points out in the preface: "This book especially benefited from my participation in the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which allowed me to go where the Antarctic explorers went, camp where they camped, and climb where they climbed. Always traveling with others, and frequently in the company of experts, through this program I saw much of what Shackleton, Mawson, and the other early visitors to the Ross Sea region saw, from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet and Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole and summit of Mount Erebus. Extended stays at Shackleton’s Cape Royds and near Scott’s Hut Point and Cape Evans, where the explorers’ primitive winter quarters remain intact down to their unused crates of hardtack biscuits and long-frozen meat in the larder, gave insight into how the parties lived beyond what I could hope to glean from archival research."

The finished book contains notes, an index, photos, and maps. While I thought Larson did an admirable job following the three expeditions over the course of the book, my reading experience would have been greatly enhanced by the inclusion of photos and maps, which those who get the pleasure of reading the published editions will no doubt appreciate immensely.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

The Neighbors

The Neighbors by Hannah Mary McKinnon
MIRA Books: 3/13/18
eBook review copy; 384 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9780778311003

The Neighbors by Hannah Mary McKinnon is an exploration of marital relationships and domestic drama.

Abby is responsible for the car crash in 1992 that killed her beloved brother, something for which she can't forgive herself (and neither can her mother). After the accident she rebuff the affection of Liam, her boyfriend and true love, and broke up with him because she knew he would soon hate her as much as she hated herself too. It is now twenty years later and Abby is married to Nate. Nate pulled her to safety the night of the accident, but was unable to save her brother before the car burst into flames.  It is their shared guilt that binds them together, as well as their daughter Sarah. It is clear that Nate is much more committed to their relationship than Abby.

Now a new couple has moved next door and much to Abby's shock it is Liam, his wife Nancy, and their son Zac. When Liam doesn't admit to knowing Abby, Abby follows suit. Their unrevealed past results in more complications. The attraction between the two is still evident, although Abby pretends to dislike their new neighbors. She also is desperate to keep Sarah and Zac apart. Adding to the complications is Nancy's flirting and secret agenda regarding Nate.

Get ready for a melodrama of daytime serial magnitude in The Neighbors. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and between the different voices of the characters which serves to showcase the background of the characters and their current thoughts. There is a plethora of entanglements and scheming. Expect an abundance of secrets, hidden history, and duplicitous plans going on behind the scenes. It all becomes a rather entangled mess.

The writing is good and moves the plot forward, albeit rather slowly at the beginning while the various complications and deceit between the characters is being set up. And there is a whole lot to set up...  While many reviewers seemed to enjoy The Neighbors, I had two looming problems with it: the sheer predictability of the plot and the uninspired ending. I knew what the twists would be almost immediately. I continued reading simply to see when they would be revealed - and if I was correct (I was). It took a long time to get there, though. The Neighbors is a good novel; however, it isn't quite to my preferred inclination in fiction.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books.

The Girl in the Moon

The Girl in the Moon by Terry Goodkind
Skyhorse Publishing: 3/20/18
eBook review copy; 488 pages
ISBN-13: 9781510736412

The Girl in the Moon by Terry Goodkind is a so-so violent thriller.

Angela Constantine considers herself to be a girl who was born broken. Her mother was an addict who would do anything to get a plethora of illegal drugs. While her grandparents were protective and loving when they were alive, she spent most of her time with her strung-out mother and the abusive scum that hung around their trailer. She escaped as soon as she could and Angela has made a private life for herself with a secret mission.

Angela has been born with the ability to recognize killers by looking into their eyes. Not only does she recognize their capacity for violence, she also knows who they killed and how they did it. She uses this secret ability to take revenge on men who victimize women, by killing them first.

The first thing any prospective reader needs to know immediately is that this is an over-the-top bloody, graphically violent novel that features multiple rape scenes. This was almost a Did Not Finish, a very rare event for me. I set it aside more than once, asking myself how much more violence and rape could I put up with in order to finish the story. Angela has no redeeming qualities. Okay, maybe just one, she loved her grandparents. The writing is uninspired and flat. The only reason I kept reading was I wanted to know how her ability to identify killers was going to be tied into fighting terrorism.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Guardian Angels and Other Monsters

Guardian Angels and Other Monsters by Daniel H. Wilson
Penguin Random House; 3/6/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781101972014

Guardian Angels and Other Monsters by Daniel H. Wilson is a very highly recommended collection of fourteen short stories that examine how artificial intelligence both saves and destroys humanity. The writing is excellent and the stories are well-paced, thoughtful, and emotional. This compilation starts out and ends strong. Guardian Angels and Other Monsters is an outstanding selection for science fiction and short story fans. I was captivated by the majority of the stories with the exception of one story that I liked less than the others, which is a stunning recommendation for any short story collection.

Contents include:
Miss Gloria: Chiron is a robot whose life's work is to teach and protect Miss Gloria until she can take care of herself. Miss Gloria knows that Chiron is an excellent playmate and she loves him. In his own way, the machine also loves the girl.
The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever: After seeing images on the television that only a few people understand the implications of, an astrophysicists rushes home to his 3-year-old daughter.
Jack, the Determined: Jack, a most loyal and obedient student, is accompanying the Professor while he delivers a report on his most important scientific work.
The Executor: In order to protect his daughter, a man visits the Executor’s office in an attempt to get control of a family inheritance.
Helmet: The wordless huge, robotic Helmets appear and show the strength of the controlling Triumvirate by violently stopping uprisings.
Blood Memory: A mother is determination to do anything to help her daughter, the first and only human being born to teleportation.
Foul Weather: A meteorologist discovers the truth behind the adage: "Foul weather breeds foul deeds."
The Nostalgist: An old man tries to live in the past the only way he knows how.
Parasite: a Robopocalypse Story: A horrific war story of a battle against a thinking machine that calls itself Archos. (This is a Lark Iron Cloud story.)
God Mode: "In all of this forgetting, there is this one constant thing. Her name is Sarah. I will always remember that. She is holding my right hand with her left. Our fingers are interlaced, familiar. The two of us have held hands this way before. The memory of it is there, in our grasp. Her hand in mine. This is all that matters to me now. Here in the aftermath of the great forgetting."
Garden of Life: A taxonomist collects samples when he stumbles across something that he has never seen before.
All Kinds of Proof: A drunk is hired to train a mail-carrying robot that he names the Shine and considers him a friend. "[H]e doesn’t judge, doesn’t interrupt, and he goes with me everywhere. When he walks, it makes this nice wheezing sound. His narrow little feet are coated in a layer of tacky rubber and each step lands quiet and smooth. And he always keeps up. The two of us walk together..."
One for Sorrow: A Clockwork Dynasty Story set in England, 1756, and starring the childlike avtomat Elena Petrova.
Special Automatic: James is an abused and bullied teen who has a neurostimulator sunk into his brain behind his ear to prevent seizures. Although everyone thinks he is stupid, James is much more intelligent than they realize. The proof is found in the robot he built and named Special Automatic.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The City Where We Once Lived

The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes
Arcade Publishing: 3/27/18
eBook review copy; 244 pages
ISBN-13: 9781628728835

The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes is a highly recommended look at a dying city that is part dystopian and part premonition.

Our unnamed narrator is living in the North End of an unnamed city during an unnamed time. Many years ago the North End was abandoned and left to decay, while the population and resources went to the South End. There is a small population in the North End, a few thousand, spread out across many miles. They think that something in the ground is killing them because there are no mice or rats or cats or dogs or roaches. All the trees and plants are dead too. Extreme weather hits both North and South, but help is provided only for the South. Levees are breaking and flooding is increasing. The death of things is spreading.

The small population stays in the North End, for reasons of their own, amid the decay. Our narrator is staying in the city to escape his past. He is the writer for the local paper, the only writer, and he photographs and records the indicators of the ensuing decline that will eventually mark the end of the North End. He burns down abandoned houses at night to alleviate his inner pain. The city commission doesn't care about what happens to them and most want to force them out of the North End. The water and electricity have been left on (although they are constantly threatened to be turned off by the commission), which allows the small population to stay there with a degree of comfort. They have set up a community, of sorts, with garbage collection and corner shops, and live there quietly. Scavengers clear remaining buildings of raw materials.

There is also an increase of strangers coming to the North End. Some are simply trying to hide or escape the South and want to live quiet anonymous lives, but some are feckless teenagers, looking for trouble and violence. Soon, as it becomes clear that the people living in the North End must respond in some way to the strangers. The questions are: What is a community? What is your capacity for violence? What is your capacity for compassion? What is the right response?

The City Where We Once Lived is extremely well written and Barnes keeps the same heavy tone throughout the novel. It is a slow moving, relentlessly desolate, bleak novel that offers little impetus to keep following our unnamed narrator who seems captive to a existence full of depression and despondency. The second half of the book is better than the first, but the first sets the dreary, hopeless, aimless tone to the novel and captures the idea of living in a decaying no-man's-land with other unnamed survivors in a loosely organized community of sorts. The second half, although still much in keeping with the tone of the first part, does have a bit more plot to it and continues to reach a conclusion that offers a slight, meager sliver of something close to hope. It also gives us some insight into our unnamed narrator and why he felt the need to distance himself from society. (This was a hard one for me to rate. perhaps a 4.5 but...)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Arcade Publishing.