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review 2020-07-03 18:32
'The Bathwater Conspiracy' by Janet Kellough - a subtly subversive mystery
The Bathwater Conspiracy - Janet Kellough

'The Bathwater Conspiracy' is a quietly subversive book that imagines a world without men.


I've read some very good pieces of speculative fiction recently that have confronted me with the things men do to women, from 'The Southern Book Club's Guide To Slaying Vampires' with the vampire embodying all that is worst about the patriarchy through 'Girls With Sharp Sticks' and 'The Grace Year' which set women up in life and death struggles against the men controlling them. 'The Bathwater Conspiracy' takes a different, gentler but ultimately much more damning approach. It just makes the men disappear and wonders if we would miss them. The answer that I came away with was, 'not so much.'


Set in a future where men have been extinct for generations and humanity has moved on, 'The Bathwater Conspiracy' follows the investigation of Detective Carson “Mac” MacHenry into the exceptionally violent murder of a young woman and the subsequent attempts of the Federal authorities to cover it up. It set Mac on a path that will reveal a secret that could change the world.


I was initially a little thrown by the gentle, low-key tone of this mystery. Then I came to see that the tone was part of the evocation of an all-woman world where even an experienced detective has difficulty imagining levels of violence and aggression that we would take for granted.


It's actually quite a profound change, like suddenly not having any traffic noise in a city. It affects everything.


I also enjoyed the humour in this book. When Mac is researching ancient history to see what men were like, she finds that many religions imposed restrictions on how women dressed or even prevented them going out lest the men who see them are thrown into a frenzy of lust that they can’t control. Here’s her reaction:

'If men were so unreliable as to go off the deep end whenever they saw a stray tress or two, wouldn’t it make more sense to lock them up and just let the women get on with their lives? Otherwise, it would be like having a dog that bites and insisting that the people on your street stay inside so they won’t get bitten.'

I now want more of Janet Kellough's writing so I'll be taking a look at her Thaddeus Lewis series of historical mysteries set in mid-nineteenth-century Canada.

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review 2020-07-02 18:23
'Dread Nation' by Justina Ireland - highly recommended.
Dread Nation - Justina Ireland

The cover of 'Dread Nation', by Justina Ireland was almost enough to make me buy the book without knowing anything else about it. It's a cover that's proud of itself. A cover that shows grace and threatens violence. A cover that says, 'You don't know me yet, but you should'.


Still, everyone knows you can't judge a book by its cover. You judge it by reading its first page. If the author can't get themselves together to deliver a hook on the first page, how likely is it that the rest of the book is going to be worth your time? So this is what made me by the book:




The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life. 

It was the midwife that tried to do me in. Truth be told, it wasn’t really her fault. What else is a good Christian woman going to do when a Negro comes flying out from between the legs of the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky?

I love the tone of this and its immediacy. This is a writer with a voice and the voice belongs to an irrepressible negro girl called Jane McKeene, who I was already rooting for by the end of the first page.


Oh, and there are zombies. Not just any zombies. Civil War zombies. In Ireland's alternative history, the Civil War was brought to an end when the dead started to rise as 'shamblers' feeding on and infecting their comrades. Both sides in the Civil War recognised the need to stop fighting each other and start fighting the dead.


And where does our Jane fit in? The story starts with Jane being almost ready to graduate from 'Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls', after which she expects to find work as an Attendant assigned to defend a rich white woman from shamblers and inappropriate male attentions.


Justina Ireland explains at the end of the book that the Combat Schools were inspired by the 1860s concept of the 'American Indian Boarding Schools', which forcibly removed Native American children from their home and sent them to be 'civilised' in boarding schools that were designed to destroy their cultural identity by cutting off their hair, taking their clothes away from, forbidding them to speak anything but English and denying them contact with their families. In Ireland's alternate timeline, Congress passes the Negro and Native Reeducation Act, funding the creation of Combat Schools where negro and native children would be taken by force to be trained to stand between their white employers and the invading undead.


'Dread Nation' manages to be a lot of fun while avoiding being light-weight fluff. Jane is a remarkable creation: intelligent, resilient, brave and holding back a mountain of rage. The story is exciting and fresh. It would make great television.


The book moves along at a clip, with smooth, effortless world-building delivered as part of a tight plot where current actions are set in context by old letters between Jane and her mother. I found myself wanting to turn the pages to see what would happen next but most of all I wanted to learn more about the irrepressible Jane.


The book is full of dry, angry humour, most of it directed at the dangerous stupidity of bigotted white men too convinced of their own superiority to protect themselves from threats. Racism is front and centre, driving the actions of men disappointed by the inconclusive end to the Civil War.


I found that, by the second half of the book, I was deeply engaged with Jane and her companions. Hers is a life filled with pain, mitigated by very little hope and motivated by rage and a refusal to submit or give up.


'Dread Nation' is great entertainment. It's also a great way of showing the way racism and slavery twist the world out of shape, making the racist and slavers more monstrous than the shambling undead.


I strongly recommend this book to you. I was so impressed by Justina Ireland's writing that I immediately got a copy of the second book 'Deathless Divide' which carries on the action.

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review 2020-06-29 12:25
'The Grace Year' by Kim Liggett - Highly Recommended
The Grace Year - Kim Liggett

One of the best books I've read this year.

A dystopian novel that manages to be both a deeply thought-through vivisection of what patriarchies do to women to keep them powerless and an action-packed, character-driven thriller filled with intense emotions.


'The Grace Year' is a high impact 'I have to tell EVERYONE to read this' book. You don't just read 'The Grace Year', you experience it and the experience changes you and you want to talk about it but the only people who will get what you're saying are the ones who've read the book. So feel free to stop here, read 'The Grace Year', give yourself a day or two to recover and then come back and read the rest of the review.

The opening of the 'The Grace Year' is irresistible:


'No one speaks of The Grace Year. It's forbidden. We're told we have the power to lure grown men from their beds, make boys lose their minds and make the wives mad with jealousy. They believe our very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That's why we're banished for our sixteenth year, to release our magic into the wild before we are allowed to return to civilisation.


But I don't feel powerful. I don't feel magical.


Speaking of The Grace Year is forbidden but it hasn't stopped me from searching for clues. A slip of the tongue between lovers in the meadow. A frightening bedtime story that doesn't feel like a story at all. Knowing glances nestled in the frosty hollows between pleasantries of the women at the market.


But they give away nothing.


The truth about The Grace Year, what happens during that shadow year, is hidden away in the tiny slivers of filament hovering around them when they think no-one's watching. But I'm always watching. The slip of a shawl, scarred shoulders bared under a harvest moon, haunted fingertips skimming the pond watching the ripples fade to black, their eyes a million miles away. In wonderment? In horror?


I used to think that was my magic, having the power to see things others couldn't, things they didn't even want to admit to themselves. but all you have to do is open your eyes. My eyes are wide open.'

This is an invitation to all of us to open our eyes and see the things we don't want to admit to.


This opening left me really wanting to know what The Grace Year was and why it is and if she survives it. I loved the intimate, introspective tone of the Tierney, the narrator. She sounds like someone I'd like to get to know, and of course, I'm intrigued by the content which suggests a thriller and not just ideological symbolism.


As soon as I started reading the main body of the text, the tone changed, becoming more personal, more focused on threat and response and much more emotionally intense.


The first half of the book, which does the initial world-building and describes the first few months the girls spend in their Grace Year was so thick with fear, rage, spite and betrayal that it was emotionally exhausting to read. The patriarchal cage these women are raised in is wrought in a fine filigree of taboos, violence, public shame and private unvoiced rage but it's as nothing compared to what the women are willing to do to each other when they're alone in their Grace Year.


'The Grace Year' is wonderfully written but I found myself reading it in shorter slices than usual because I find the tension hard to take. Kim Liggett is superb at creating a sense of a growing, unnamed but unavoidable dread. 


You know that many of the girls on the Grace Year are doomed. You may even be able to guess at the form that the doom will take but that misses the point. That suggests that rationality and analysis and pragmatic compromise could hold the doom back but, as you share the world the girls live in, you know that isn't true because that kind of thinking doesn't take magic into account.


The girls have been raised to believe that they will come into their magic at sixteen and that the purpose of the Grace Year is to purge that magic, so they're waiting for it, hoping for it and fearing it at the same time.


One of the ways that Kim Liggett makes the tension and the dread so palpable, so hard to bear, is that she focuses on the power of belief. Magic is always based on belief. Faith has power at least in as far as those who have it see the world differently, act differently and judge themselves and others differently. 


When the belief is in something benign - treat others as you would want to be treated- all life is precious - then the consequences are more likely to be benign (although the 'all life is precious' can still lead to bombing abortion clinics and 'treat others as you'd like to be treated' can still sustain a regime of unrecognised privilege and make us blind to difference).


When the belief is based on the release of a wildness that needs to be purged and that cannot be controlled then the consequence is likely to be violence, the unleashing of hate and fear and the abrogation of individual and collective responsibility. You know that, when the magic ebbs, all that will be left are shame, guilt and stubborn denial.


Kim Liggett never articulates this. There are no long passages of ethical discussion. She's the ultimate in 'show, don't tell' and what she's showing feels so real that it's very hard to watch.


In the second half of the book, Kim Leggit changes the pace. I won't share the plot details except to say that what happens next goes beyond and comparison to 'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Lord Of The Flies' (Ligett has quotations from both prefacing the book) and goes back to the idea of Tierney having her eyes wide open. What she sees over the remainder of her Grace Year changes everything: what she wants, how she sees the other girls and fuels her rage at and contempt for the men who placed them all in this situation.


The ending is... well, I was on the edge of my seat, desperate to know what the ending was. The short answer is 'very satisfactory'. It has the punch of a thriller with a brilliant denouement but it also has a deeper level of thought that gives an insight into how women, stripped of overt power, will still work together to nurture hope and find limited freedom through subversion.


Nothing is simple in 'The Grace Year'. It's not painted in primary colours. It's immersive and complex and feels very very real.


I listened to the audiobook version and was deeply impressed by Emily Shaffer's narration. She took Kim Liggett's text and delivered the emotion, the drama and the nuanced thought perfectly. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.



And after that, go read the book and then tell everyone about it.





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review 2020-06-21 11:40
'Girls With Sharp Sticks' by Suzanne Young - highly recommended
Girls With Sharp Sticks - Suzanne Young,Caitlin Davies

'Girls With Sharp Sticks' by Suzanne Young (2019), is about girls at the 'Innovations'Academy' who are being taught to be 'better girls', obedient, respectful, compliant and pretty. It's the story of one of the girls, Mena, waking up to the fact that the Academy is not what it claims to be and claiming her rage at what is being done to her and the other girls at the school.


The plot and pace of this book make is a compelling, I-have-to-know-what-happens-next and Oh-no-they're-not-going-to-do-that-are-they? thriller.


The first person narrative lets us share Mena's journey, investing the reader in Mena's struggle and binding us to her emotionally. It also lets the reader see, and often rage at, the gap between what Mena sees as going on and what we think is happening. Initially, it seems that Mena is just too nice, too passive, too inexperienced and too trusting to work out what's going on. Then, slowly we realise that Mena isn't naturally like that, the Academy is making her like that.


I'm not going to disclose what's really happening at the Academy as part of the fun of the book is guessing the nature of the malfeasance, being sure you've got it right and then having to guess again, so I'm going to focus on how reading the book made me feel.


The dominant emotion I felt throughout this book was rage. Rage at the men running the Innovations Academy. Rage at the men funding them. Rage at the soul-crushing cruelty of what is being done to these girls.


One of the things that fueled my rage is how believable the Academy is. The lessons being given on how to be 'better girls' are not so far from what would have been taught in a Finishing School sixty years ago. Although the teachers at the Academy are misogyny incarnate, weak, angry men who hide their hate for women behind a mask of patriarchal concern expressed through punishment, they are not cartoon monsters, they are the kind of men we've all met. Giving men like this with absolute authority over girls like Mena is deeply wrong. This is the core truth that the rest of what is happening at the Academy simply amplifies.


My rage as a reader was like a bow wave, always a little ahead of the rage that slowly builds in Mena, moving from disquiet to outrage. I loved Mena's rage. By the time I was a quarter of the way through the book when I still wasn't sure what was going on, I was already looking forward to the revenge I assumed Mena and the girls would eventually take on these men.


I loved the idea of that a poem, 'Girls With Sharp Sticks', was the wake-up call that unlocked Mena's ideas and emotions, that let her see who she was and what she wanted.


The plot went into a different and better direction than I expected. When Mena awoke, her focus wasn't on revenge. Her focus wasn't on men at all. Her focus was on regaining her own agency and on freeing and protecting the other girls.


What the Academy was really about was also more complicated and more interesting than I'd initially assumed and I admire the skill with which I was led and misled to the journey's conclusion.


If you're looking for a light, exciting, speculative fiction read, 'Girls With Sharp Sticks' will deliver it to you but along the way, my guess is that you'll also find that you're reading something that challenges the humanity of patriarchal misogyny and makes you question what a 'better girl' would really be like.


The book works very well as a standalone, but it also made me hungry for more, so I'm glad to see that the sequel 'Girls With Razor Hearts', is already available.


Caitlin Davies does a great job at narrating 'Girls With Sharp Sticks'. I recommend listening to the audiobook if you can. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.



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review 2020-06-03 12:50
'The Gaslight Dogs' by Karin Lowachee
The Gaslight Dogs - Karin Lowachee

In 'The Gaslight Dogs', Karin Lowachee has built a powerful, convincing vision of a world in the throes of a familiar colonial conflict, has populated it with real people who have very little in common except their enforced servitude and then added an original, credible supernatural twist that gives the story its edge.



The first thing that hit me about 'The Gaslight Dogs' was the quality of the writing. Language here isn't a thin skin stretched over the bones of a clever plot, it's an invitation really to see the world that Karin Lowachee has created, to take in its sights and scents, its beauty and its ugliness with the fresh eyes and nose of a stranger. It's not language designed to get you to the next piece of dialogue or the next action scene as competently as possible. Nor is it purple prose of the over-long self-indulgent guitar solo kind. Its language that says: take the time to take in the place or you will not understand the journey.


This story is really two linked journeys, neither of which is voluntary and both of which are shaped by the obsession of a ruthless powerful old man with an insatiable hunger for conquest. We start with Sjennonirk, a young Aniwi spirit walker who is taken in chains from her home in the Arctic and brought south to a city built of brick and lit by gas, where high walls block off the view of the horizon in every direction. Then we meet a Captain Jarrett Fawle, a young man who, uncomfortable and unloved at home, only feels free when leading his men to hunt and kill the aboriginal tribes as part of the push to expand his country's territory. He is sent home on leave and kept there until he complies with his father's will. His father, General Fawle, is the man whose plan for power effectively enslaves both Sjennonirk and Captain Fawle. He sees them both as commodities to be exploited and makes their freedom conditional on meeting his goals.


It's easy to see 'The Gaslight Dogs' as a story about the ruthless use of technology by colonial powers to gain territory, to paint a picture of genocide and environmental destruction but I see it as more than that. This isn't a 'good guys stand up to bad guys' kind of story. Nor is it the Star Wars fantasy of brave rebels opposing an evil empire. The power of this story comes from its refusal to move to that Big Picture, Sweep Of History perspective. It stays focused on Sjennonirk and Captain Fawle and the choices that they make. Neither is a hero. Neither wants to be on the journey that General Fawle has sent them on. In their different ways, each just wants to go home. Each of them both representative of and outsiders to their own cultures. Their struggle is not primarily a clash of cultures but of two individuals pushing against their fate.


It seemed to me that a lot of this story was about the power of belief. Sjennonirk believes in the power of her ancestral spirits. She feels the little wolf inside her and knows its hunger. Her world view is one of respecting the spirits who, through her and spirit walker like her, protect her people. She is hungry for nothing more than to live at home in peace. She is passive, stoic and pragmatic, except when her wolf wakes.

Captain Fawle is not a believer. He does not believe in the Seven Deities of his people, nor in the destiny of his country, nor in the possibility of being loved by his father. He fills the hole where his belief should be by winning the respect of his men when on the frontier and with alcohol when at home in the city.


When 'The Gaslight Dogs' was published in 2010, it was billed as the beginning of the 'Middle Light' series. It works well as a standalone book but I still holding out hope that Karin Lowachee will find the time to come back to this world.

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