Edge

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

Good Morning, Midnight: Your book club might enjoy this

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Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton’s general fiction novel, Good Morning, Midnight (2017), is literary in nature but uses speculative elements to contemplate isolation, hope, despair and human connection. The book has beautiful prose, especially in some of the descriptions of the arctic, and interesting insights into human nature, but it was not a completely satisfying book for me. In a few places, the hand of the author can be seen forcing events in order to make the story work, and some of these tropes, particularly the literary ones, felt too familiar. Still, it’s worth checking out for the writing alone.

Good Morning, Midnight follows two characters who are about as far apart spacially as one can imagine. Augustine is an astronomer who has remained behind at an arctic observatory site... Read More

Exit West: A slightly speculative exploration of love, migration and nationality

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

2017’s Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is definitely not speculative fiction. It is general fiction, literary in nature, which uses a trope of speculative fiction as one way to explore the nature of war, love and human migration.

There is always a risk when a general fiction writer “discovers” speculative fiction and tries to write it without having read within the genre. The story often contains hackneyed, tired-out elements which the writer trumpets as new and amazing. Hamid dodges this risk completely. His strange black rectangles, which appear in doorways, like in closets or storage sheds, and lead to other parts of the world, are not explained. Even though they lead to mass migrations, they are a minor part of the story. Exit West focuses on the impact of migration on nations, communities, ... Read More

The Coincidence Makers: Weaving an elaborate web

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The Coincidence Makers by Yoav Blum

Behind the scenes of our lives, pulling the strings for the benefit of humanity, are the people assigned as “coincidence makers,” arranging the events that need to happen in people's lives, both on a personal and larger scale. It may be making a particular love connection by arranging that two people meet at the right time, or taking steps to help an accountant find his true work in being a poet, or ensuring that an assassin is pointed in the right path to later do society a larger good. Coincidence makers work for a hidden organization that supervises and directs their generally benevolent efforts, along with those of imaginary friends, dream weavers, luck distributors and other useful employees, endowing them with supernatural powers, while insisting on compliance with a plethora of bureaucratic rules and restrictions.

Guy, Emily, and Eric are all... Read More

All the Light We Cannot See: Science, magic and morality

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See (2014) opens in the basement of a hotel in the port city of Saint-Malo in occupied France, 1944. The city is being bombed. Eighteen-year-old Nazi soldier Werner Pfennig is trapped below tonnes of rubble, his chances of survival increasingly slim, whilst across town, a blind French girl Marie-Laure is hiding in her attic. The pair is bound by a curiosity in natural science, years of surreptitious radio broadcasts, and a diamond that may bestow immortality upon its holder. Neither of them knows it yet. What follows is the tale of a boy who joins the Nazi regime and a girl who tries to evade it, and the series of events that will set their paths hurtling towards one another.

After these opening scenes, the story rewinds to 1934: Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta are orphans in the German mini... Read More

The Sky is Yours: We wrestled with this literary SF novel

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Reposting to include Bill's new review.

The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith

I wrestled with this review for Chandler Klang Smith’s 2018 novel The Sky is Yours from the first paragraph. I wanted to refer to it as a “zeitgeist novel.” After I wrote that, I glanced at Wikipedia and decided that, as Inigo Montoya says to the Sicilian in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So, I’ve decided that The Sky is Yours is not a zeitgeist novel. It’s more self-conscious than that. It is a novel of the zeitgeist, using a future-dystopia to comment on the values, concerns and fears of modern living.

The Sky is Yours is about t... Read More

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock: Fascinating and fun

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Most people imagine the enchanting, scantily-clad beauties of fairytale when they think of mermaids, but Imogen Hermes Gowar offers an entirely different creature in her debut, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Readers will find no glittering scales or flowing hair here. Tipped as one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2018, the story promises to be one curiosity and obsession.

It is a cold September evening in 1785 when Mr Hancock finally gets the long-awaited knock on the door of his London home; he has been waiting for news of his ship, which he fears has sunk or disappeared. Yet the news he receives is far from expected: the ship’s captain has sold the vessel, and bought in its place a mermaid. When he pulls a gnarled, dead creature from his sack, Mr Hancock cannot believe he's lost his enti... Read More

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chilling and tense

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

In Our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

Margaret Atwood was once, via a review of her work, once taken a bit publicly to task by Ursula K. LeGuin for not wanting her books (specifically The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake Read More

The Cuckoo’s Calling: Rowling makes a break without forgetting her roots

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Reposting to include Ryan's new review.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Early in 2013, a new murder mystery came out. Written by an author named Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling was set in England and featured an army veteran detective with a prosthetic leg (he was injured saving other soldiers in Afghanistan), a strange family and an unusual name; Cormoran Strike. A few months later, through a series of different sources, it was revealed that “Robert Galbraith” was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, who wanted to publish her first murder mystery without having it connected in any way to her globally-famous, history-making, best-selling series of YA fantasy best-sellers.

Sorry that whole anonymous thing didn’t work out for you, Ms. Rowling. Read More

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young: Selected graduation speeches

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If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young collects nine graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in 2013, this posthumous collection is introduced by the writer Dan Wakefield. The earliest speech was delivered in 1978, while the latest was given in 2004.

These speeches are almost exactly what Vonnegut’s fans would expect of him — so much so that I wish I’d attempted to write a speech from the point of view of Kurt Vonnegut before beginning this book. The speeches feature his darkly humorous assessment of the human condition, as well as his deeply felt esteem for mercy, compassion, and contributing in spite of it all to make the world a slightly better place. He is also ha... Read More

Dragon Teeth: Palaeontologist wars

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Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

As anyone who reads the dust jacket will realize, Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (2017) is about dinosaur fossils and the obsessed palaeontologists who traveled into the American frontier during the Gilded Age to gently dig them up. Sadly, it’s not about dinosaurs eating people.

William Johnson is a student at Yale. The son of a wealthy Philadelphia family, Johnson goes west to win a bet against his rival. He joins Professor Marsh, an eccentric and paranoid man who specializes in the bizarre new science, palaeontology. It turns out that Johnson has entered the “Bone Wars” between Marsh and his nemesis, Edward Cope. Although I spent most of the novel expecting Johnson and his company to end in a gunfight against Sitting... Read More

Like Water for Chocolate: Recipes and romance

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

A bit of classic magical realism today. First published in 1989 in installments, Like Water for Chocolate was a bestseller in Laura Esquivel’s native Mexico and subsequently around the world. A popular film version earned the story a place in yet more hearts (if you are tempted to watch it, don’t watch the version with the English voice-over, stick with the Spanish). The story is a heady combination of love, passion, family drama, food, recipes, and magic, all set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.

Tita is the youngest member of the De La Garza family, destined never to marry but to serve her domineering mother, Mama Elena, until the end of her days. In the face of her mother’s tyranny Tita seeks solace in the family’s cook, the kind and supremely talented Nacha, who passes on her re... Read More

The Golem and the Jinni: A magical mural of the immigrant experience

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

A Genie. A golem. Nineteenth-century New York City. Boy, did I want to love this book. Drawn by its come-hither characters, its promise of poetry, and by its dark side in the form of a truly nasty character, I really, really wanted to love it. And truth is, I liked The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. But in the well-trod words of middle school, I didn’t “like like” it. Oh, it was fun, it made me smile sometimes and think sometimes and feel a bit sad at other times. I enjoyed hanging out with i... Read More

The Gods of War: Is Rome worth a life?

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The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

Every reader who starts Conn Iggulden’s Emperor: The Gods of War (2006) already knows that in this novel Caesar crosses the Rubicon, defeats Pompey, meets Cleopatra, and is ultimately betrayed by Marcus Brutus, his best friend. The point of the plot is not what happened but why. Caesar spent his life fighting for the Republic, but he betrayed it. Why? Brutus spent his life fighting for Caesar but chose to murder him. Why? The Gods of War should not work as a novel if it does not excel at character development.

When I began reading, I sadly concluded that the novel would disappoint. The initial chapters do not stand out for their complex characterization. Instead, Iggulden focuses on staging — politics without ... Read More

The Field of Swords: Caesar abroad

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The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden’s The Field of Swords (2005) follows a Caesar who is no longer young. Though he is still eminently capable and still driven to work day and night in pursuit of glory, he is exhausted rather than energized by his work in Spain. Naturally, the real story begins when he returns to Rome to form an alliance with Pompey and Crassus.

Rome considers itself the greatest city in the world, but, to our eyes, it is consumed by corrupt political intrigue in search of power and recognition, its enemies are tortured and slowly executed in public, and its people are entertained by merciless spectacle. Julius is the hero of this text, but he is not given contemporary attitudes. He enjoys the spectacle, the fame, and the glory of Romeo a... Read More

The Death of Kings: Julius comes into power and loss

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The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden

Julius is a young soldier. He fights in northern Africa, but he is not in command. Still, he is very well trained, is charismatic and trusts his instincts, and he is beginning to learn what it means to command and why he loves everything Rome stands for. He is confident, idealistic, and capable, a potent combination that leads to many victories. By the end of the novel, he will deal with Spartacus and Sulla, pirates, and senators who wish him ill. He will taste true power, love, and loss.

Published in 2004, Conn Iggulden’s The Death of Kings, the second of four entries in the EMPEROR series (after The Gates of Rome), is... Read More

Lincoln in the Bardo: A uniquely structured tale of great empathy

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’ve long been a huge fan of George Saunders’ short stories, which I consider to be generally brilliant both individually and taken as a whole in terms of their commentary on this world and the strange creatures (us) who inhabit it. That commentary is often a blend of satirical fireworks and a warmer, more human exploration of the human condition, and it is the latter of those two that one recognizes most often in his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, though Saunders doesn’t wholly dispense with the darkly comical.

The precipitating event for Lincoln in the Bardo is the death in 1862 of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln and his entombment in a Georgetown Cemetery, and Abraham Lincoln’s ensuing grief, expressed by several visits to the tomb that go so far as to see him removing th... Read More

The Mindwarpers: An oddball addition to Russell’s canon

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The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell

For his ninth novel out of what would ultimately run to 10, English sci-fi author Eric Frank Russell pulled a bit of a switcheroo on his readers. The book in question was initially released in the U.K. in 1964 in a hardcover edition by British publishing house Dennis Dobson, sporting the title With a Strange Device. A year later, it was released here in the U.S. as a 50-cent Lancer paperback (the edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire at Brooklyn bookstore extraordinaire Singularity), as its author was turning 60, but with a new and perhaps catchier title: The Mindwarpers. Written at the height of Cold War tensions, and at the peak of the world... Read More

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: How can one resist?

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is (breathe in) an alternate history science fiction noir police procedural that won plaudits from the literary mainstream as well as several top honors from the science fiction community (breathe out).

There’s a great deal going on, but perhaps it’s best to introduce the setting. In this alternate history, America created a temp... Read More

Hold Back the Night: Not for the faint of heart

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Hold Back the Night by Pat Frank

Hold Back the Night (1951; 2017) is the third of Pat Frank’s classic Cold War-era novels receiving a re-issue from Harper Perennial, after Mr. Adam (1946; 2016) and Forbidden Area (1956; 2016). Originally published during the Korean War, Hold Back the Night finds inspiration from the very real events which occurred during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and tells the story of a single group of U.S. Marines. Frank’s intimate descriptions of military life during wartime, especially the differences separating enlisted men and their commanding... Read More

Never Let Me Go: A quiet exploration of the human condition

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about clones, but don’t get your hopes up. This is an unconventional clone story.

That’s right. There aren’t any mad scientists, nor are there any daring escapes. There isn’t even a sterile cloning facility run by a ruthless villain. So forget about a daring infiltration scene in which the sterile cloning facility is shut down from within.

Ther... Read More

Forbidden Area: As chilling now as when it was first published

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Forbidden Area by Pat Frank

Foreign espionage and sabotage undermining the credibility of American armed forces. A counter-intelligence group mocked and silenced for its theories. Shadowy plans, decades in the making. The fate of the world caught in the balance between devastation and salvation. Pat Frank describes all of these in Forbidden Area, which was first published in 1956 and is still terrifying sixty-one years later.

Harper Perennial’s 2016 re-issue of Forbidden Area only clocks in at just over 200 pages and contains four interlocking plotlines, each of which is essential to the overarching story. First there’s the introductory tale of Henry and Nina, two teenagers who happen to be necking in the Florida surf on what, in hindsight, will be an extremely momentous night. They see something that should be impos... Read More

Coco Butternut: A brisk “Texas Weird” adventure by the master

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Coco Butternut by Joe R. Lansdale

Coco Butternut, which came out in January 2017, is a short HAP AND LEONARD novella written by the inimitable Joe R. Lansdale. You may already have read some of these East-Texas, sort-of-detective stories, or seen episodes of the television show on Sundance. While Coco Butternut has no supernatural elements at all that I can spot, it is a fast-paced, enjoyable read with perfectly timed banter, strange and wonderful characters, and perfect, quirky descriptions of the landscape and countryside.

I don’t believe there is a sub-genre called “Texas Weird,” but if there were, Lansdale would own it. He owns it here with a story that kicks off in bizarre-mode from the first sentence. A man who runs a... Read More

Citadel: A satisfying novel for those familiar with Mosse’s style

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Citadel
by Kate MosseI have a strange relationship with books by Kate Mosse. On the one hand, I love the atmosphere and descriptive qualities of her work — it transports you to the south of France in vivid prose; filled with the sights, sounds and smells of another time and place. She clearly loves the history and ambience of the Languedoc, and every page is filled with sensory detail.

On the other hand, Mosse's plots are slow and rambling, packed full of extraneous details and unnecessary subplots. Often chapters can go by where nothing particularly interesting or important happens, and with a little ruthless editing I'm sure each book's length could be halved.

So is the way her story told worth the story itself? Well, ever... Read More

Invisible Cities: Philosophical sketches of imaginary cities

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Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino has long been on my list of foreign writers of the fantastic who have been deeply influential to SFF writers while remaining only tangential to the genre. This would include the great Jorge Luis Borges, as well as Stanislaw Lem. All these writers revel in philosophical musings, magic realism, and intellectual play. They belong to the deeper end of the fantastic literature swimming pool, but adventurous readers and authors have often plunged into those depths to one degree or another.

Invisible Cities was first published in Italian in 1972 but appeared in English in 1974 and was a surprise nominee for the Nebula Award in 1976. It is a unique and al... Read More

Arrowood: Creepy, tragic Gothic mystery

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Arrowood by Laura McHugh

When Arden Arrowood was a little girl, her younger twin sisters vanished without a trace. The last Arden saw of them was a flash of blonde hair, speeding away in the back of a gold car. A local man with a car fitting the description was questioned; nothing could ever be pinned on him, but the whole town thought he was guilty anyway.

The girls were never found, and their loss became a wound that destroyed the Arrowood family and continues to haunt Arden, now in her twenties. Then her father dies, and Arden learns she has inherited the family home, also called Arrowood, in Keokuk, Iowa. Reeling from academic and romantic troubles, Arden decides to go home and regroup. But the old house is full of secrets, and Arden soon learns that there might be more to her sisters’ disappearance than she realized as a child.

Arrowood is a... Read More