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review 2017-04-24 07:09
"A world has ended, and only tomorrow remains.”

The End of the Day

by Claire North

 

I cannot decide if this was the perfect book at the perfect time or the worst possible book at the worst possible time. And I don't know if it really matters. All I know is that as I watch the world I thought I knew fall apart, The End of the Day was a difficult and emotional but also an oddly cathartic read. It is an anguished, strident call to see the value of humanity, to see all people, even those who devalue others, as people. And if there's one thing we all need to remember right now, I think it is the maybe broken, maybe imperfect, but ultimately precious humanity that we all share.

The End of the Day is one of those books I think of as "stealth literature." Like basically all of the books written under the Claire North nom de plume, the story takes place in the real world, but with one fantastical element added: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and their Harbingers, are acknowledged and visible figures within the world. Death has an office in Milton Keynes from which he hires Charlie to be his Harbinger of Death. Superficially, the premise sounds like a cross between Mort and Good Omens, but the whimsical setup allows North to examine death and change and above all, what it means to be human. Charlie's job is to travel around the world, to talk to those chosen by Death, to bring them a gift, and to honour life:

"When you’re the Harbinger of Death, the thing that matters more than anything else, is seeing people. Not corpses, not killers or victims or soldiers or criminals or presidents or anything like that. You have to see…people. People who are afraid. People who have lived their lives, in their ways. You are the bridge. Death stands behind you, but you look forward, always forward, and humanity looks straight back at you."

I admit I was underwhelmed at first. I miss the lighthearted absurd fanciful creativity of the Matthew Swift series, but this crept up on me, slowly, gradually, ponderously, until I found myself with tears in my eyes. The story is episodic, almost picaresque, a meandering tune that slowly builds into a powerful crescendo.

I read this book with a lump in my throat as the news broke about America's decision to bomb Syria while refusing to take its refugees, as the US deported its first DREAMer, as America's climate change policy began to be dismantled, as budget slashes to arts and culture and history and science were declared, as the US dropped the "mother of all bombs" on Afghanistan, as Trump and Kim Jong-un posture and threaten their way towards possible annihilation. I read this book as I feared the end of democracy in my country, as I wondered if perhaps the idea of democracy had merely been a shared delusion, now shattered. As I read about war in Syria and warmongering in America and racism and hatred and genocide and death, death, death, about the ending of one world after another, I felt, as one character puts it:

"I look and all I hear is the beating of the drums and all I see is a world in which not to be one of us is to be something else. The scientist was right, reason is dead; the dream is dead; humanity has changed into something new and it is brutal."


But that hopelessness, that depression, that dehumanization, brought on as it is by compassion fatigue or news fatigue or bitterness with a world that deviates from our expectations-- that is not the point of the book. Despite all the death and misery, despite the failed battles and broken people, I think, at its core, this story is about seeing the humanity in each of us, even in those of us who do not see the humanity in others. Sure, there are a few missteps, a few tone-deaf moments. But at its core, the book is a celebration of a humanity, a desperate cry to all of us to see the humanity in one another and to build a more compassionate future.

"This is my city, my country, my home, this is my life, my battle, my war. This is my struggle to be seen as a person, to be human, this is my human body, this is my human life, this is my everything, this is my all, this is … [...] One day we will build Jerusalem."


Who would I recommend this book to? I'm honestly not sure. Don't go into it looking for an adrenaline rush, an amusing romp, or a tidy plot. But I found it poignant and cathartic and deeply meaningful. I don't know what it will be for you, but for me, it was a reminder of all the worlds that end, for good and ill, and that while I feel powerless, I am part of endings and beginnings,
big and small, and have the power to change them, if only the smallest bit.

"The world … no … a world is ending, and I was called to witness, yes? I was called to witness because I am part of the ending. My actions … I am the change. I am the future, and it is fitting, I think, that I should see the past too, yes?"

So for me, this book was about remembering the past, remembering the humanity in all of us, remembering to see people as people, not as something other. I don't know what it will mean for you, but there's only one way to find out.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Redhook Books, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-07-12 07:57
"A fate four point two degrees worse than death."
The Nightmare Stacks - Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files #7)

 

by Charles Stross

 

When Alex Schwartz took a lucrative job developing high frequency trading algorithms, he had no idea how literal his transformation into a bloodsucking vampire was going to be. In the world that Stross creates, higher mathematics open a gateway to Other Dimensions haunted by Lovecraftian beasties, including the V-symbiotes that invaded Alex's brain and gave him PHANG Syndrome (Person of Hemophagic Autocombusting Nocturnal Glamour), which, sadly, isn't yet covered by the Equality Act.

Acclimatizing to his new job in the Laundry, the super-secret magical equivalent to MI5, is never easy, but Alex entered the trade at a particularly difficult time: as the number of humans and computers increases, intrusions into the Dungeon Dimensions become increasingly common. As Alex learns,

"Training for the end of the world is an ongoing part of the job."

Right now, most of the Laundry is focused on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the apocalyptic eventuality where magical saturation causes Cthulhu and Azathoth and all their friends to converge upon Planet Earth. However, The Nightmare Stacks takes a break from the looming threat of GREEN to focus on a NIGHTMARE of quite a different colour. While the previous book took on superheroes, this one combines James-Bond-style shenanigans with yet another geeky fandom. I can't tell you which--spoilers--but I can say that the results are vastly entertaining.

The Nightmare Stacks is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series because it has barely a mention of Bob Howard, arcane sysadmin and protagonist of most of the rest of the books. Personally, I was thrilled to get a new protagonist. Alex is a bit of a passive nebbish nonentity, but I found him rather more likeable than the Bob of recent books. The protagonist-- and NIGHTMARE-- switch makes this an ideal starting book for anyone interested in the series. (Apparently it depends heavily on The Rhesus Chart, but as I've not read it--it's the only Laundry book I skipped--and I got along fine, I think this would be entirely readable without the context of the rest of the series.) I did find the narrative style a bit odd, however; we're told this is Alex's journal, yet most of the story, including the Alex-POV sections, are told in third person. I admit to being a bit mystified by that.

Alex, our hapless protagonist, has more on his mind than PHANG Syndrome. His new employers are sending him to the last place on earth he wants to be: Leeds, his childhood home, where he's

Doomed to be dragged back into the infantilizing maw of his family's expectations."

Alex's interactions with his family are so utterly cringingly awkward that they induced sympathetic winces from me, as did his amusing attempts to flirt with his love interest, who takes the MPDG thing to a whole new level.

"Alex's experience of dating is similar to his experience of string theory: abstract, intense, and entirely theoretical due to the absence of time and opportunities for probing such high-energy phenomena."

I thoroughly enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on the amusing mundanities of Alex's life, but like many of Stross's book, at some point, the content switched over to extremely graphic and disturbing scenes of battle and slaughter. I've never quite figured out if all the gore was intended to be funny. I certainly don't find them so, but the scenes are liberally swathed in dramatic irony and Stross is peculiarly detached from the slaughter. I suspect the familial scenes and war scenes will appeal to vastly different audiences, and that plenty of other reviews will be complaining about the aspects of the book that I adored.

I find Stross reliably hilarious and The Nightmare Stacks was no exception. I adore urban fantasy and the way it mashes together the banalities of life with a genre-savvy take on traditional fantasy. Along with explaining how a salt circle traps mages and describing the intricacies of governmental PLAN PURPLE PEOPLE EATER, this book involves perhaps the most unique usage of a selfie stick I've come across. If you find Stross's unique combination of magic, maths geekery, Rube-Goldbergian bureaucracy, and bumbling spycraft as entertaining as I do, The Nightmare Stacks is definitely worth checking out.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. (Thanks!) Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-05-21 18:51
"Do you want to destroy Perfection?"
The Sudden Appearance of Hope - Gillian Burke,Hachette Audio UK,Claire North

The Sudden Appearance of Hope

by Claire North

 

Given the circumstances, perhaps it's not surprising that Hope Arden's disability never made it into the DSM: while she can interact with the world, from everyone else's perspective, it is always for the first time. As soon as people are distracted from her presence, they forget her, their minds conveniently substituting new Hope-less memories and explanations. And then Hope gets to meet them all over again. As she puts it:

First impressions-- my life is about making a good first impression. When one attempt fails, I will go away, and reinvent myself, and return to try again. Though first impressions may be the only thing I have, at least I get to practise until they're right.

Naturally, Hope's career and relationship options are somewhat limited. As she notes:

Things that are difficult, when the world forgets you:
  • Dating
  • Getting a job
  • Receiving consistent medical attention
  • Getting a loan
  • Certificated education
  • Getting a reference
  • Getting service at restaurants
Things that are easy, when the world forgets you:
  • Assassination
  • Theft
  • Espionage
  • Casual cruelty
  • Angst-free one-night stands (w/condoms)
  • Not tipping

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she ends up embracing a career as a thief, drifting through life, choosing score after score, often to settle some petty spite of her own. No matter how incompetent her heists, she never gets caught because all she needs to do is distract her captors for a few minutes to erase her presence. But then Hope encounters Perfection, and her unmemorable life is irrevocably changed.

 

Perfection: a brand new lifestyle app. Give it your schedule, your access, your health stats, your bank accounts, your total attention, and in return it will optimize your life, shaping a new perfect you. Touched by the tragedy of a woman who fails to satisfy Perfection, Hope finds herself set on a course to destroy it.

 

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book out of left field. As the names may have indicated, subtle the book is not, but it makes up for its directness in pure passion. I suspect that reader enjoyment will be heavily predicated on tolerance for pretty anvilicious "message" books. Plus, I had to love the gleeful mileage North got out of double entendres with Hope, Perfection, and more. I'm already a fan of Kate Griffin/Claire North, so perhaps unsurprisingly, I found North's heavily descriptive, almost stream-of-consciousness style utterly captivating. At moments, it's also just plain funny, particularly in the lists that Hope continually writes for herself.

 

For me, the book's major weakness was the characters. I never really felt connected to any of them, which may have been something of a blessing, as North is as casually brutal to them as she is to the sidekicks in the Matthew Swift series. Perhaps some of my sense of alienation came from Hope's condition. As one character says of her,

It's a peculiar thing, but I find emotion, when it comes to you, rather hard to engage with [...] Instead of feelings, I find with you there are only facts.

She is, naturally, a drifter, herself oddly disconnected from the world. Despite her many heists, she spends most of her time simply drifting, and more often reacts to situations with blind flailing rather than planning. As she puts it:

Having no one to define the limits of me, I have to define myself, otherwise I am nothing [...] I don't know what my destination is, but I keep on travelling, surrounded by other people's stories, absorbing them, and in their way, though they are not me, they become me. I am just… travelling.

This was clearest in her efforts to stop Perfection and Byron. What on earth was her plan? She disagreed with Byron and sought to stop her, but had no plan of her own except, apparently, blindly hoping for the best. And that also seemed to be the sum of her plan to stop Byron.

(spoiler show)

With a character who cannot be remembered, development of relationships is effectively impossible, and for me, this led to a sense of alienation from the other characters, a perspective that Hope seemed to share. As she says towards the end of the story of one of the major characters: "How strange to think of her as something human."

 

Unsubtle it may be, but my favourite part of the book was the way North uses Perfection and Hope's condition as a lens to examine the feedback loop that is human interaction with the world. Some of the more memorable quotes:

Perfection is derived by a consensus of society, Perfect-- to perfectly fit the mould.

Alone, you can lose yourself, or you may find yourself, and most of the time you do both.

Shall we break down the truth, the bitter, unloved, bloody-nosed truth? Tell me, in a world where wealth is power, and power is the only freedom, what would desperate men not do to be heard? [...] The internet gave us all the power of speech, and what did we discover? That victory goes to he who shouts the loudest, and that reason does not sell.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a unique story, and I'd have a hard time describing its perfect audience. However, if you're intrigued by an unusual character and a thought-provoking dialogue about the way society shapes us, Hope is well worth a look. As she says,

I think there has to be a moment when you turn round and permit yourself to be defined by the world that surrounds you.

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Redhook Books, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-03-21 05:23
"The dead were dreams that dreamed themselves alive. Maybe the living were too."
Fellside - M.V. Carey

Fellside

by M. R. Carey

 

Mike Carey has a real genius for making me care about characters that I don't want to care about. No matter how unprincipled or corrupt they are, no matter how destructive their decisions, no matter how foreordained their fates, I end up empathizing with them despite myself. In Fellside, he exploits this talent more ruthlessly than ever before.

Fellside is a very different book than anything else I've read by Carey. Yes, like 90% of his other books, it involves ghosts. Yes, like several of his most recent books, it's in some ways a story about stories, with the narrative woven in and around the life stories of the characters. But Fellside is darker, grittier, and grimmer than any book that came before. Much of this has to do with the cast of characters. The narrative switches between the perspectives of a convicted childkiller, a corrupt guard, a viciously sanctimonious nurse, a pliable and defeated doctor, and more. And the worst of all of it is that I ended up caring about almost all of them, aching as they made destructive choice after destructive choice. <i>Fellside</i> deals punch after punch to the gut, then somehow transforms itself into something heartwrenching but also bittersweet and oddly beautiful. 

Jess was the worst. She made so many stupid decisions, from going with the armed guard to failing to shut Devlin into the prison. I was shocked by the ending, partly because I thought life would, for Jess, be harder than death, and a more bittersweet ending. I was also a bit fascinated by Alex: although he is at the center of the story, in some ways, he's the eye of the maelstrom: we end up knowing no more about him than we did at the opening of the story.

(spoiler show)


I can't describe much of the plot; I don't want to even give my usual blurb for fear that details will lessen the book's impact. While there is an overall mystery, it isn't the driving force behind the plot. Instead, the story is composed of smaller arcs and the slow complex entangling of the characters' lives. While I did guess the solution to the mystery, the ending took me utterly by surprise. Most of the narrative is an exploration of morality through the microcosm of Fellside prison. Some of my favourite quotes:

“The facts are in the outside world. You can verify them with your senses or with objective tests. The truth is something that people build inside their heads, using the facts as raw materials. And sometimes the facts get bent or broken in the process. [...]
Justice? Justice is even more problematic than truth. It’s an emergent property of a very complicated system. [...] It’s neither an ingredient in the pie nor the pie itself. It’s the smell that rises up out of the pie if you’ve cooked it right. We don’t aim for justice, Ms Moulson. We perform our roles and justice happens."

"Doing time, she thought inconsequentially. As though time were a drug. If it was, she might have dosed herself more carefully."

"The dead were dreams that dreamed themselves alive. Maybe the living were too. Another time for that."

Fellside itself is startlingly different than Carey's other works. While I'm not quite sure its audience is a perfect match for fans of The Girl with All the Gifts or The Steel Seraglio, if you're in the mood for a uniquely dark, peculiarly gripping story, Fellside is well worth a look.

~~I received this ebook from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you! Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

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review 2016-01-03 01:50
"It's not in the facts we live, but in the memories."
The House of War and Witness - Mike Carey,Linda Carey,Louise Carey

The House of War and Witness

by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey

 

House of War and Witness was suspenseful in a unique way: from the outset, I could predict how the story would end, who would live and who would die, yet even so, I found myself thoroughly engrossed, the plot made no less suspenseful by an outcome foreseen.

The ghosts, Magda in particular, make Drozde's eventual fate clear from the outcome, when they talk about what she always says and say it's so good to see her "like this...this is a special time, and it's so short."

(spoiler show)

While the setting is very different, thematically, it reminded me strongly of Steel Seraglio: like Seraglio, it is a story about storytelling, the greater plot fueled by smaller tales.

 

The story starts gently enough. A regiment of Austrian soldiers is sent to a rural village on the border of Austria, ostensibly to shore up support for Archduchess Maria Theresa, but also to ensure that the village does not change its allegiances. Another regiment had been posted to the village, but had disappeared, and the frail and rather ineffective Lieutenant Klaes is tasked with discovering unearthing the secrets that the village is concealing. Drozde, a camp follower and mistress of the regiment's quartermaster, Sergeant Molebacher, sets out to make the old mansion that the regiment will use as a home base livable. Although Drozde is used to ghosts--she has seen them all her life-- she is shocked by the number and vividness of the spirits inhabiting the old house. As the ghosts begin to share their stories with her, tensions between the regiment and the village begin to mount, and the true natures of the characters are revealed.

 

The larger plot naturally wraps itself around the stories of the town, for Drozde's very business is stories. While she receives protection and legitimacy by selling her body, most of her earnings come from the daring and raunchy puppet shows she puts on for the regiment. As she thinks:

"Of all the stories she told, the most important was the story that her stories were indispensable. Without that, she was just a grown woman who'd never put away her dolls."

Chapters told by ghosts and townsfolk intersperse sections told from the perspectives of Drozde and Klaes, and these tales both break up and propel the main plot. Not all of the storytellers are good people; as one puts it:

"This is a story about choices, and I'll never know whether the choices that were made were right or wrong."

All of the stories are vivid and varied, ranging widely over time and tone, yet many are unified by a common theme: that of violence stemming from possessiveness and control. The repetition of choking fear, of victimization, of violence against women, can make for a difficult narrative, and I was often frustrated by the obtuseness of the characters and their inability to realize the dire and damaging nature of their situations.

In the opening pages, Drozde's coquette puppet is damaged, her face scratched and nose broken. Molebacher tells her she should be more careful with her things, and yet she doesn't pick up on the obvious threat.

(spoiler show)

For me, the true stifling agony of the book was the invasive sense of powerlessness shared by the protagonists. As one character thinks,

"That was life, in small [...] you spent it grubbing desperately for the physical things that would prolong it. For food mainly, and then if you were lucky enough to be fed, for shelter. And all the time in between you spent dreaming of places you couldn't go and things you could never have. You used it up trying to fit yourself into the spaces that would work, instead of unfolding yourself into the space that was yours and then seeing where that took you."


Even though many of story's scenes are comic, the other overarching themes are often dark and intense. Apart from the choking aspects of possessiveness and powerlessness, it deals with the corruption of authority, the construction of an enemy, and the definition of duty. Yet even here, the characters' lack of agency reverberates. Within the hierarchical structure of the military, there are stringent limits to what one man--or woman-- can achieve. As one character tries to explain to another who seeks to choose "the path that leads to the least bloodshed":

"That's not in your power to choose."

Yet despite poignancy and tragedy, the story is ultimately uplifting: their agency may be limited, but indirectly, they have the power to change the world. Even when all choices appear to be blocked, the characters find a way to move the world around them instead. The House of War and Witness is a story that glories in the power of stories, and I was utterly captivated.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Diamond Book Distributors, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

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