My torrid reading year continues apace…
Red Dirt Girl by C.A. Lupton
It’s the late postgenomic era and the loss of habitable landmass has led to severe limits on human birth. In the drive for species perfection, fewer and fewer can breed, and the long-simmering tension between the reproductive ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is coming to the boil.
A young woman’s body is found, and Detective Cooper-Clark (Coop to his friends) thinks it a routine case: yet another victim of the ‘red-dirt cocktail’ of drugs, disease and despair. But when he discovers the female had recently miscarried an illegal pregnancy, the case turns anything but routine.
Convinced the lost baby is the key to the murder, Coop finds himself sucked into the dirty waters of state-sponsored eugenics and to the heart of an existential struggle for control over human reproduction.
My thoughts: This sci-fi noir novel sets up a murder mystery in a dystopian near future where human genetic modification is used to curb population growth and bio-engineer perfection. When the body of a young woman is found, detective Cooper-Clark begins an investigation that reveals some troubling secrets about his ordered community. The author creates an interesting world not all that removed from our own, setting up an intriguing puzzle whose missing pieces end up casting a light on various suspects as well as where we may be headed as a society. There are some interesting twists in the narrative, but I didn’t find the characters engaging enough to make an emotional investment in their varied stories. A good book. Just simply not one that stands out amongst 2022’s many offerings.
Tantalus Depths by Evan Graham
Mary Ketch signed on to the deep space survey mission to Tantalus 13 to get some time and distance between her and her problems at home. It was supposed to be a simple piloting job to help an artificially intelligent, self-constructing factory called SCARAB build a mining base on a barren rock.
That all flew out the airlock when that barren rock turned out to have a solid sheet of pure platinum from pole to pole just under its surface: platinum just a bit too pure and uniform to be natural.What first seemed to be a big pay bonus soon becomes the greatest discovery in human history as Tantalus 13 is revealed not to be a planet at all, but a titanic artificial construct of unknown purpose. However the crew’s sense of achievement dwindles as crewmen begin to experience violent and fatal “accidents,” and Mary suspects the guilty party may be the increasingly deranged SCARAB. But SCARAB may not be acting alone, and Tantalus has only begun to reveal the secrets that lie in its depths…
My thoughts: It’s Ringworld meets Alien by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey in this engrossing novel about a mission to an A.I.-constructed mining base that ends up holding much more than expected. It’s a fantastic set up that builds beautifully as the team discovers that the world they have landed on is composed of pure platinum, and then that beneath the surface of this prized rock lies a dangerous extraterrestrial life form. It becomes clear early on that the A.I., SCARAB may not be wholly trustworthy which is a problem considering its ability to monitor all communications and its operational control over a bevy of killer drones. Following a deadly accident during a deep dive exploration, crew members begin to drop and our protagonist, pilot Mary Ketch, must face off against a formidable opponent who could pose a threat to Earth itself.
I was totally on board for most of this novel and absolutely loved it’s hard sci-fi elements and creeping sense of foreboding throughout that early goings. I was hoping we’d delve more into the backstories and personalities of the crew but, outside of our protagonist, Mary, we don’t really get to know any of them. As a result, their deaths don’t really land with much of an emotional impact. Finally, the ending, doesn’t do justice to the superbly constructed opening, shifting from clever SF mystery to more of an action-driven finale. And while that’s not to say it can’t work, Alien being a perfect example, there are two instances where our protagonist manages to escape free and clear only to make highly dubious decisions that serve no purpose other than to set up a more decisive showdown.
I’d give the first three-quarters of this book 5 stars, while the last crucial quarter gets a 3.
And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…
Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?
My thoughts: Unreliable narrators tell the story of a near future where their fellow citizens are transformed into flesh-eating creatures. OR their fellow citizens are stricken by a disease that makes them imagine others are being transformed into flesh-eating creatures, prompting them to kill these imaginary monsters. There’s an underlying message here about the divisions in our world and how the absolute certainties of our beliefs can rob us of empathy and understanding, and in that respect, this short read is very successful. But from a pure story standpoint, it’s confusing and ultimately frustrating as some of the book’s bigger questions remain unanswered.
The Villa by Clare Boyd
Two weeks in a stunning villa in the South of France was supposed to heal the rifts in this fractured family. Flaky croissants and rich black coffee every morning before long days by the sparkling pool. Balmy candlelit dinners once the kids have gone to bed.
But Nora is shaking as she gathers her family around the large oak table on the terrace at the front of the villa. Her two daughters eye her suspiciously as she tops up her wine and clears her throat to speak. But when she opens her mouth, the secret Nora came here to tell won’t come out…
My thoughts: A family gathers at a villa in the South of France. There, the mother plans to reveal the secret she’s been keeping from her two adult daughters. But, it turns out, it’s not the only secret that will be revealed in his somewhat soapy tale. We’re heavy on the melodrama as mother, Nora, does an absolutely terrible job as matriarch, making some truly questionable decisions that end up driving a wedge between her and her daughters. They also rob the character of some much-needed sympathy especially in the late goings as developments that should pull on the heart-strings feel more firmly unfortunate than sad. Clearly, I’m not the audience for “sentimental fiction” (although the genre has pleasantly surprised me in the past) but, on the other hand, I think that even this book’s target audience might find it a underwhelming.
My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura
Turn this page, and you may forfeit your entire life.
With My Annihilation, Fuminori Nakamura, master of literary noir, has constructed a puzzle box of a narrative in the form of a confessional diary that implicates its reader in a heinous crime.
Delving relentlessly into the darkest corners of human consciousness, My Annihilation interrogates the unspeakable thoughts all humans share that can be monstrous when brought to life, revealing with disturbing honesty the psychological motives of a killer.
My thought: My second unreliable in as many days headlines this confusing Japanese thriller that is, at times, a little Memento, at other times, a little Shutter Island, and still at other times a little like that old Fritz Freleng cartoon where Bugs Bunny hypnotizes Elmer Fudd into believing he’s a rabbit. The characters are very surface and secondary as the focus is on the narrative sleight of hand that keeps the reader guessing. There’s an interesting twist or two, but they’re predicated on at least one coincidence that makes the whole feel contrived rather than dramatically satisfying.
The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks
England, 1364: When married off at aged twelve to an elderly farmer, brazen redheaded Eleanor quickly realizes it won’t matter what she says or does, God is not on her side–or any poor woman’s for that matter. But then again, Eleanor was born under the joint signs of Venus and Mars, making her both a lover and a fighter.
Aided by a head for business (and a surprisingly kind husband), Eleanor manages to turn her first marriage into success, and she rises through society from a cast-off farm girl to a woman of fortune who becomes a trusted friend of the social-climbing poet Geoffrey Chaucer. But more marriages follow–some happy, some not–several pilgrimages, many lovers, murder, mayhem, and many turns of fortune’s wheel as Eleanor pursues the one thing that all women want: control of their own lives.
My thoughts: A feminist retelling of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale follows the life of the titular character, from adolescence to old age, through the Black Plague, the Peasants Revolt, and five husbands. Our heroine is an endearing protagonist, whip-smart and determined in the face of enormous obstacles She’s a woman who struggles to make the best of the bad hand dealt her by a male-dominated 14th century society. Yet despite the odds, she enjoys several victories, big and small. The author does not shy away from the more controversial aspects of the original tale, choosing to address issues like child marriage and domestic abuse, and passing harsh judgment on their reality. Despite the rather somber subject matter, the book has plenty of humor, which makes for an immensely entertaining read, at least until the late goings when things take a dark turn following the death of one of the book’s best characters. After that, the story, robbed of the core relationship that propelled the early narrative, loses momentum enroute to a somewhat drawn-out conclusion. Overall, a little too long, but a pretty fine read nonetheless.
The Latinist by Mark Prins
Tessa Templeton has thrived at Oxford University under the tutelage and praise of esteemed classics professor Christopher Eccles. And now, his support is the one thing she can rely on: her job search has yielded nothing, and her devotion to her work has just cost her her boyfriend, Ben. Yet shortly before her thesis defense, Tessa learns that Chris has sabotaged her career—and realizes their relationship is not at all what she believed.
Driven by what he mistakes as love for Tessa, Chris has ensured that no other institution will offer her a position, keeping her at Oxford with him. His tactics grow more invasive as he determines to prove he has her best interests at heart. Meanwhile, Tessa scrambles to undo the damage—and in the process makes a startling discovery about an obscure second-century Latin poet that could launch her into academic stardom, finally freeing her from Chris’s influence.
My thoughts: Tessa Templeton is completing her Doctorate in Philosophy and is looking forward to a bright future – but it all comes undone on the heels of a terrible letter of recommendation written by her mentor, Professor Christopher Eccles. He has apparently sabotaged her career in order to keep her close. She confronts him. He denies. She digs and finds proof. He admits it. Then the bulk of the novel sees Tessa going off to explore an anthropological find while Chris deals with his ailing mother. The narrative is dense and academic and, at times, tough slogging. Chris, as a character, vacillates from detestable to pathetic while Tessa’s behavior is at erratic and baffling. I understand this is a retelling of the Daphne and Apollo myth and that, in itself, is a little baffling given my familiarity with the Greek legend and the way this story plays out. Not exactly a page-turner although it has its moments. Maybe something for fans of scholarly thrillers.
So, what have you been reading?