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review 2020-06-22 17:35
A fresh take on a familiar life
Rodham: A Novel - Curtis Sittenfeld

What is the value in alternate history? For most writers, alternate history provides an opportunity to play “what if?” games with the past, to imagine how much different the world would be had events turned out differently. For others, it serves as a sort of literary funhouse mirror that can be used to comment on the world in which we live, in subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle ways. In the hands of a very few authors, however, alternate history can become an acute form of character study, one that can use changes in circumstance as a means to considering questions of who we are as people and the ways in which our lives are shaped by the choices we make.

 

Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel is an example of the latter category. In it she offers a fictionalized account of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life, one that is altered from the one we know by her decision to break off her relationship with her soon-to-be husband Bill just after his failed election to Congress in 1974. No longer tied to his fate, Hillary Rodham goes on to forge an independent life of her own as a law school professor, activist, and United States Senator. These changes are chronicled in a narrative centered around three key periods of Rodham’s life: her time with Clinton at Yale and in Arkansas, the point when her political career begins while that of her former lover’s ends, and her climactic bid for the presidency. In each of them, events unfold involving a mix of historical, fictionalized, and fictional characters, with Hillary Rodham at the center of them.

 

In most works of alternate history, the focus of such a story would be on how a change in one moment transformed the subsequent course of history. In Sittenfeld’s hands, though, her premise becomes a means of providing a new look at a long-known personality. So many of the controversial associations are stripped away: gone is Whitewater, the Rose law firm, the health care plan of her husband’s presidency, and everything that follows. What’s left is the author’s assessment of who Hillary Rodham is as a person and the choices that person might have made free from a decision so pivotal to the arc of her life. Some of what happens is familiar, much of it is not, but all of it is true to that conception. In this respect Sittenfeld manages something extremely difficult to achieve: a fresh take on an ostensibly familiar figure.

 

Yet this novel isn’t just a reexamination of the Hillary Rodham we think we know. As Bill Clinton once declared, we get two for the price of one, as we see how her decision impacts his fate as well. In the first part of Sittenfeld’s novel, we see Clinton at his most charming, affable, flirtatious, and stimulating. Not only does it define his character, but it helps us to understand what Rodham saw in him as well, as well as why she agreed to become Hillary Clinton. Absent that choice, Bill Clinton’s life undergoes a different trajectory as well, one that illustrates the role she played in his success. Without Hillary, certain aspects of Bill Clinton’s character emerge in ways that define his life very differently from the history people remember, which then goes on to have its own impact on the events described in the novel.

 

Nevertheless, while Sittenfeld’s commentary on Bill Clinton is oftentimes sharp, her focus never wavers from her protagonist. The result is a novel that gives its readers a discerning meditation of one of the most important figures of modern times, one conveyed through the story of a life that she very well could have lived. In the process, Sittenfeld demonstrates one of the underutilized possibilities of a genre better known for using counterfactuals to consider different outcomes of major events than to better understand controversial personages. I doubt that others will follow her example, though, as her achievement in writing an alternate history novel that is both a perceptive character study and an entertaining work of fiction will be extremely difficult for others to emulate.

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review 2020-06-06 18:05
Lives lived in alternate worlds
The Coming of the Quantum Cats - Frederik Pohl

Dominic "Nicky" DeSota is a Chicago mortgage broker in trouble. Arrested by the FBI, he is accused of breaking into a nearby government lab — only at the time, DeSota was on a weekend trip to New York City. This isn't good enough, however, for a moralistic and oppressive federal government, because if it wasn't DeSota, who else could it have been?

Dominic DeSota is a United States senator enjoying a romantic night with the world-renowned violinist with whom he is having an affair when he is asked to fly to a military research lab in Sandia, New Mexico. When he arrives he learns that the military police have Dominic DeSota in custody, a man who is the senator's exact double. Under interrogation, the captive DeSota provides only cryptic answers — just before vanishing right before them.

 

Dominic DeSota is a United States Army major who has been assigned to an assault team invading another world. Their mission is part of a larger plan designed to use the newfound ability to cross over onto parallel Earths to defeat the Soviet Union and win the Cold War. This plan begins to fall apart, though, when the America they invade proves less than cooperative. And then there is the growing problem of ballistic recoil . . .

 

Frederick Pohl was one of the grand masters of science fiction's Golden Age. During a career that spanned over seventy years he wrote or co-wrote nearly five dozen novels, some of which endure as classics of the genre. This book is not regarded as one of his best works, in part because of its focus on a particular time and place. Set in the then-contemporary world of 1983, the novel follows the different incarnations of three characters as they discover the existence of their counterparts. As their worlds come into conflict with one another, these characters confront their alternate selves and ponder the differences suddenly before them.

 

While Pohl uses his premise to address the allure of the life unlived and the degree to which we are defined by the world around us, his main interest is on commenting on the growing conflict between the various Americas he describes. For the most part these worlds are satirical takes on the America of his time, consisting of a police state run by religious fundamentalists, a thinly-veiled military dictatorship, and a complacent self-obsessed superpower. What makes Pohl's novel stand out from similar works of its type is in how he presents these worlds, not by scattering extended infodumps in his text but through the differences between the characters from them. By showing how the lives of Dominic DeSota, Nyla Christophe, and Larry Douglas differed because of their circumstances, he provides a work of alternate history that is among the best of its type. This is why, for all of its datedness, it is still a novel that is very much worth reading.

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review 2020-05-13 23:55
Weighed down by the author's need to show his research
Dominion - C.J. Sansom

Much like American history, British history seems to have a default setting when it comes to alternate history novels. For U.S. history, that setting is the Civil War, for which innumerable stories playing around with different outcomes and their consequences. For British history, however, the default to which authors keep returning is 1940, as they hypothesize how very different things might have turned out had Winston Churchill not become prime minister and fought on. Invariably the outcome is worse for Britain and the world, as the story's protagonists have to cope with the jackbooted heel of the Third Reich pressing down upon the nation's neck.

 

C. J. Sansom's book is just one example of this. Set in 1952, it imagines a world in which Lord Halifax was selected as prime minister in May 1940 instead of Churchill. The result is grim: after the German triumph in France in June, the British agree to a treaty that cedes domination of Europe to the Nazis. With their empire increasingly straining for independence, fascism steadily takes root in British politics. Yet a resistance movement headed by Churchill fights back against the slowly settling authoritarianism of the British government. Among their number is David Fitzgerald, a veteran of the "1939-40" war who supplies intelligence to the Resistance from his post as a civil servant in the Dominions Office. But when a friend from his years at university reaches out to him, Fitzgerald finds himself drawn into far more dangerous work. Before long Fitzgerald is on the run with his friend, with both Special Branch and a Gestapo agent hard on his heels.

 

The best alternate history novels tell gripping stories within a plausible world. Sansom succeeds brilliantly in the latter respect, as he has envisioned an alternative outcome that is distinctively different without being unrealistic. Yet the considerable amount of work Sansom put into detailing his ahistorical setting proves a weakness, as the author succumbs to the temptation to display his research in the text, Few chapters go by without details dropped about recent history or headlines from the contemporary world, all done in clunky bits of exposition. Though it demonstrates the impressive amount of thought Sansom put into his book, the sheer weight of it drags down the text. So too does Sansom's laborious retelling of his characters' backstories, which often drain any momentum from the plot. The combination causes Sansom's novel to collapse from its own weight, making it one of the more disappointing examples of a genre from which readers have an abundance of alternatives from which to choose.

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review 2020-05-05 19:49
Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
River of Teeth - Sarah Gailey

I downloaded this audiobook because I was hoping for a fun ride. I mean, how could it not be? Feral hippos have overtaken parts of the Mississippi and there is a gang of gunslingers running around on hippos. This should have been like a B-movie creature feature! I wanted blood and revenge and dismemberment by hippo! Unfortunately that is not what I got. 

 

This is a pretty short novella, the audiobook was only 4 1/2 hours. But honestly it felt like I was listening for 45 hours. The first three hours are a long and tedious introduction to the members of Houndstooth's gang. One or two of the characters also use non-binary pronouns for some reason. I am not opposed to this being used in a book but since it wasn't explained or introduced it was very confusing. And the character's name is Hero, which isn't really a name at all. I had a really hard time following that because you have a not-name and a not-pronoun being used constantly. The history was tedious, I really want to get to something interesting and it seemed like it was never going to happen. It took three hours just to find out what job the gang had been hired for!

 

When we finally did get to the action it was abrupt and didn't make much sense. The author shows a very strong lack of knowledge about how dams and rivers work. The lack of knowledge about hippo physiology I can excuse since it was a creature feature. But you don't know that water naturally runs downhill? And that dams are built upstream to create larger, still bodies of water? Dams don't have gates for boats to travel through, that is a loch. All of these questions quickly took me out of the story. It all ended with not much blood, not much gore, and a shocking lack of hippos. This was supposed to be about hippos and I feel like we hardly saw them in action.

 

Also, there was a short history of how hippos came to be so rampant in Louisiana at the end of the book. It explained what "The Harriet" was, which frankly I was not able to piece together through the whole novella. It might have been better to have that at the beginning. This history says that in this alternate history that Lincoln never got around to the Emancipation Proclamation because he was busy with hippo legislation. So, if the Civil War never happened and the slaves were not freed, then how did you have so much acceptance of such a wide array of people in Louisiana (which was a slave holding state)? We have Hispanic people, African American people, non-binary people, bisexual people, feminists...all in this gang and everyone accepts it, doesn't mention it, and remembers everyone else's pronouns flawlessly. That is a head-scratcher right there. Slavery is still a thing but we're embracing non-binary pronouns. It was weird and nonsensical. The best alternate histories need to make sense.

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review 2019-08-11 23:37
Slow plot compromises the book
Early Riser - Jasper Fforde

I enjoyed the concept of this one and the world building. It was interesting and definitely something different. 

 

Charlie is your lovable loser who doesn’t have much going for him but has this perfect opportunity to do better. Other characters make the story colorful and engaging (The Toccata/Aurora arc is amusing and fun to read). Each character has their own quirks and personality traits which makes the book develop a personality of its own. 

 

The concept of people going into hibernation, and the viral dreams is interesting and makes the world unique and unbelievable but also fun to read. The world building itself in the novel is also interesting. I took a liking to the Villains and their stamp collecting, although they play a small part in the novel, think of them as elegant pirates with a penchant for stamps. 

 

So although the characters and the setting is interesting, the plot itself falls flat and is very slow. There’s sporadic moments to carry the book along, but overall the book in its entirety is slow paced. It did feel a bit of a chore to read for the most part which is unfortunate as there the setting and the characters proved to be promising but the plot could have been better.

 

This was my first Jasper Fforde book, so I’m willing to give the other books a chance as I’m sure they’re better this one. It’s not that I didn’t like reading it, but it was the slow pace of the plot that nearly compromised my attention and rather affected my reading and enjoyment of the book.

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