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review 2017-03-17 01:17
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer
Version Control: A Novel - Dexter Palmer

I'm seeing a theme in this year's Tournament of Books shortlist (or, I should say, those books whose samples appealed to me): genre-bending and concerns about identity. I like to think about the lines between or blurring genres, and I appreciate the lens of race or sexuality, both of which are commonly excluded from much genre fic.

 

Dexter Palmer's Version Control is speculative, but only just: its future is near, and there are certainly elements that are not at all far-fetched and therefore frightening: self-driving cars that can endanger passengers when, say, a firmware update has a glitch; data mining and what it could be used for; digital avatars, operating much like bot accounts on social media sites. There are also reminders for our own present, such as the real goals of online dating services--to keep you using (and paying) as long as possible, not successfully find a partner.

 

Palmer's novel is marketed as "time travel like you've never seen it before." I'll go ahead and preface my questions about and problems with the book by saying I'm easily confused by time travel narratives, no matter how well explained.

 

The book is structurally tight, with thematic echoes across points of view and timelines, of which there are two. The idea of "the best of all possible worlds" is central; when it's inevitably discovered that the device the protagonist's husband is working on is, well, working, despite a lack of scientific proof, the characters realize what we as readers learned about halfway through the book when details of their lives change (character x is dead instead of y; characters go--or don't go--by certain nicknames; character a cheats with character b rather than c, etc.): every time someone enters the "causation violation" chamber, a new timeline branches off.

 

Before the characters themselves are in the know, in the first timeline explored, the protagonist feels something's not right, but can't explain what. She's not alone; the phenomenon is experienced by others and has become a diagnosis. What I don't understand is why they have that sense of wrongness. I was also confused by Sean, the physicist and protagonist's son. Is his mural as his mother, Rebecca, sees it, or as Alicia sees (or doesn't see) it? Is he simply an artistic child suffering from loss?

 

Though thematically sound with some fresh explorations of gender and race in the hard sciences especially, Version Control didn't quite come together for me. I didn't particularly like or care about any of the characters; I'd say Carson was most interesting to me. The end was fairly predictable; I enjoyed the first half more. I have some stylistic quibbles that are just my bias, like chunks or pages of dialog, which reminded me of exposition in movies, and what felt like unnecessary section breaks. But I wanted to know what happened next, and the mystery of what was going on and why definitely kept me reading.

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review 2017-01-23 18:30
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett
Rush Oh! - Shirley Barrett

This is the second novel in a row I've read (after Enchanted Islands) that's written as a sort of memoir from the perspective of an older person looking back. I'm not overly fond of traditional memoirs and wonder if this may in part account for my less than enthusiastic reaction upon finishing.

 

What this book does have going for it is a charming, somewhat unreliable narrator. Her asides and style as a storyteller often delighted and amused me. Mary is a naive girl at the start, and as an adult seems not much wiser. As a reader you may arch your brow at the gaps in her knowledge or what lies beneath her personality quirks (e.g. as a woman in her 50s at the end, she has developed a kind of fetish for reverends, owing to her first love, explored throughout the book). Mary is so plucky (and often critical of others) that I assumed she was still a child when the story began (in fact, she's a young lady already).

 

Returning to what I'm describing as memoir-ish--and an author's note explains that Mary's father was a real person, if not the whole family--there's only so much narrative thrust to the story. The plot advances in short chapters interspersed with others that give some background to the characters and to whaling. Essentially, Mary relays an account of a particular whaling season in Australia, most significant for her because she meets her first (and only romantic) love.

 

The novel was pleasant enough to read, but I needed something more and was also left confused by the end. Why end on that moment?

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review 2016-12-01 21:59
Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
Lovecraft Country: A Novel - Matt Ruff

Another book with a fantastic premise and strong start that doesn't quite live up to its potential. The novel establishes 1954, post-Korean War, Jim Crow America as Lovecraftian horror for its African American characters.

 

Each chapter/section explores the point of view of a member of the (extended) Turner family and their dealings with some batshit white people who are wizards of a sort. I've seen some readers refer to the book as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but the stories are too closely connected narratively and chronologically. The upside of the structure is that each member of the family has a moment in the spotlight, a chance to illustrate how living in this time as a black person has shaped the extent to which they can pursue their dreams. The downside is that you may prefer some characters' perspectives than others and feel as if you don't get to know any one character enough. Though the chapters are connected, the novel can also feel disjointed.

 

Another plus is the black SF fans in the book whose love of the genre is complicated by its persistent racism (Lovecraft himself wrote racist material). It is a sort of sweet revenge to put these characters in charge and watch them respond to and take control of the very forces being used to make them tools.

 

(This bit is a tad spoilery, but I've kept it as vague as possible). I struggled with one chapter in which the protagonist is able, through magic, to transform physically into a white person. Predictably, she is treated radically different, even in a northern city like Chicago, where much of the novel is set. However, I feel this chapter plays into the notion that all black people secretly want to be white. It also illustrates something we already know: that white people in America are privileged. The white characters are the ones who need to get woke.

 

Mostly this book made me think about how little has changed in some respects. A few characters in the novel work on something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide whose purpose is to help black people know where safe(r) spaces in the country are while traveling (or conversely, where to steer clear of absolutely). The guide is based on a real thing, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Jim Crow may be over, but as events in the past decades indicate, it is still less safe for a black person to travel or simply be in this country.

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review 2016-09-24 23:11
We Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge
We Love You, Charlie Freeman: A Novel - Kaitlyn Greenidge

This novel quickly went from very good to fantastic. The premise and sample interested me immediately--an African American family who speaks sign language(s) moves to a scientific institute as part of a study to see if chimps (one in particular, the titular Charlie) can learn to sign.

 

At first it feels almost quirky; the first point of view we're given is that of Charlotte, the older of two daughters in the family. She is not happy about her parents' decision to move the family from Boston to rural New England. But as soon as they arrive at the institute, it's clear something with this situation will not be kosher. Much of the book you wait for the other shoe to drop, and as soon as additional points of view from the past and present emerge and repeat, that dread becomes specific until the reality confirms it.

 

Each family member relates to Charlie--or doesn't--in their own way. Charlotte is standoffish and more concerned with fitting in at the almost entirely white school she begins attending--a hallmark of the town's past (and present) segregation. She begrudgingly becomes friends with the only other black girl and hangs out with her and her mother, who both appear to be radicals. Younger sister Callie is left to her own devices and does her best to be a "big sister" to Charlie; in the meantime, food becomes her comfort. Mother Laurel has the tightest bond with Charlie--too tight, as Charlotte first discovers. Father Charles loves math and Laurel, and his devotion to her is tested by her bond with Charlie.

 

Alongside the family drama come flashes of the past when the institute first opened. The lens is that of a black woman who begins a disastrous relationship with one of the institute's scientists--a man who proclaims he does not believe white people are biologically better than black people but whose slowly revealed study of local black people proves otherwise. Past and present merge and culminate in one bizarre Thanksgiving dinner, followed by a telling letter written by the institute's foundress (I'm making this word up).

 

The novel presents one of the most nuanced contemporary portraits of race in America that I've read. Everything stems from the characters, who are deftly drawn, and the structure and lovely prose make it an engaging and subtle read. We Love You, Charlie Freeman earns my "recommend like whoa" tag, and I look forward to seeing more from this author.

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text 2015-03-22 16:01
Reading progress update: I've read 35%.
The Stand - Stephen King

There've been some harrowing, chilling scenes (there'd better be, amirite?)--Larry (and Rita) in the Lincoln Tunnel, the chapter where the country is basically going to hell, those left alive who die by other means, being trapped in a prison cell--and it's exciting because the characters are beginning to meet.

 

Still put off by some troubling depictions of race and gender, though.

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