Tag: Speculative Fiction

by Eowyn Ivey

Suprised at how much I liked this novel, which is kind of like a modern fairy tale, haunting and grittily real at the same time. Tender and harsh, it is the story of an older couple who make a new start homesteading in Alaska. They have long been childless, and one day playfully make a small figure out of snow. The next morning the snow has been scattered, the scarf and mitten they\’d placed on it missing, and a single set of footsteps leading away. Then a thin, strange girl starts to show up near their cabin- flighty and shy yet fierce and wild. She apparently lives alone in the woods. Concerned for her well-being, the couple tries to draw her into their lives, while their friendly neighbors are frankly skeptical of her existence, wondering if the middle-aged wife has symptoms of cabin fever. Years pass with the girl coming and going when the first snow falls, disappearing all summer. Until finally one day the neighbors\’ son, a young man who\’s been helping out at the homestead, spies her in the forest and realizes there is some truth to the crazy tales. The story isn\’t just about this wild mystery child, it\’s also about their struggle to live in the remote wilderness, the toll it takes on the couple\’s relationship, and what turns to bring them together again. How they come to depend on the neighbors, and help each other out when times are hard. How the wild animals circle in the dark trees, admired for their beauty or hunted for their pelts and meat, but always with their own secret lives just offstage. It\’s an intriguing story that I enjoyed very much, in spite of some frustration that there\’s no clear answer at the end, with a broad streak of sadness through it all.

Rating: 4/5         391 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Page 247
Savidge Reads
You\’ve GOTTA Read This!
Things Mean a Lot
Don\’t Be Afraid of the Dork

by Rob Levandoski

Kind of a modern fable. It\’s fiction, with all the horrors of factory farming, and the tenderness of a young girl\’s heart. The main characters in the story are father and daughter- Calvin Cassowary has an abrupt career change when his father suddenly dies, leaving the family farm in sad state. Calvin doesn\’t want to sell the farm to developers to be turned into housing, as some of his neighbors have done. But he can\’t keep it running the way his forefathers did, there\’s no profit. Instead of growing multiple crops and raising a variety of animals, he signs a contract with a huge corporation that produces eggs, and builds layer sheds on his land. His young wife keeps a small flock of hens in the yard and sells eggs to the local customers, while the confined company hens – literally a million of them- keep the farm afloat. Until they don\’t . . . Meanwhile, Calvin\’s daughter Rhea loves tending her mother\’s chickens, but is horrified by what she sees in the layer sheds. As her father starts to sink under growing debt, falling egg prices and strict company rules that never allow him to get ahead, Rhea becomes more involved with the chickens and more determined to do something about those million layer hens locked up in the sheds, forced to produce for a mere eighteen months before they are turned into pet food . . . Calvin\’s wife passes away, and Rhea carries on her memory with the small backyard flock, and then something very strange happens which draws the attention of local media. There\’s lawsuits and drama galore. I can\’t say what or it would spoil the story for any of you. It\’s disturbing and intriguing and by the way it all has a very tidy ending. Unrealistic maybe, but nice- and why not, for such a quirky story.

The tone of the book kind of reminds me of Jane Smiley. There\’s a slight mix of fantasy and reality akin to Tender Morsels (although this book doesn\’t  have such heavy topics). There\’s a part that takes place at the county fair, reminding me a lot of Geek Love. It\’s also a story of young first love, and a lot of it is about how the daughter\’s relationship with her father changes over the years, and how she finds acceptance with who she is.

Side note- one interesting detail is that Calvin\’s second wife suffers from multiple allergies and sensitivity to chemicals in the environment. Basically everything makes her sneeze or itch or both and she\’s always miserable except when having sex- it\’s the only time when her allergic symptoms abate. Oddly, there was another character in the story who had an unusual physical affliction, which only started to go away after the loss of virginity. I keep trying to figure out what the author meant by this, if there\’s some symbolism to it.

Found this one at a used book sale.

Rating: 3/5                  252 pages, 2002

by Mary Stewart

Took myself by surprise, here. The book is a mystery and a romance- genres I don\’t usually read, but I could not put it down regardless. The characters are well-written, the situation intriguing, the descriptions of place vivid and real. Heroine is a young woman named Bryony, who grew up on an old family estate- now slowly falling into ruin, held together by a trust established by one of the family ancestors, and part of it rented out to strangers. Bryony had been living away from home for a while, but hurries back at news of her father\’s sudden death- and hears from their lawyer that the estate will now pass into the hands of her older cousin Emory. There\’s several older male cousins- Bryony has always found them rather attractive (this is back in the day when it was okay to marry your cousin?) and she wonders if one of them is he who has spoken with her telepathically since she was a child. It\’s a family gift handed down from a gypsy woman who married into the family once- but for Bryony it is much more than just an exchange of thoughts. She feels so close to the one she\’s been mentally communicating with, she calls him her lover, even though they\’ve never met in person. I found this- really odd and uncomfortable- especially with the idea it was her cousin- and I don\’t usually like stories that include paranormal elements at all- so that tells you what a darn good writer Stewart is, to get me intrigued anyway.

Well, Bryony finds a lot of subtly suspicious things going on when she gets home to the estate. She starts to wonder who is lurking in the shadows, who her \”lover\” really is, and was her father\’s death an accident- or did someone purposefully run him down. His last words were written down and handed to her- they seem to include a warning and she\’s determined to figure it out. Meanwhile, there\’s a wealthy American family living in the better part of the huge old house, Bryony soon meets them and that was pretty interesting- sorry to say I sometimes find English opinions of Americans to be rather- disparaging? – but this one was admiring and astute. She also meets some childhood friends who still live nearby, peruses old books in the near-empty library in search of clues (there\’s some lovely literary references, I always like it when characters in books are well-read), and puzzles out the overgrown maze in the center of the garden- which might also hide secrets to some long-ago obscured scandal.

I won\’t say more, except that this story surprised me at so many turns. What was hidden at the center of the maze- I really thought it was going to have some magical properties- an ancient curse perhaps- but the truth turned out to be much more matter-of-fact! Who the un-met lover was- this part surprised me too, but I also found it very satisfying. The cousins turned out to be nasty fellows, and really deserved what they got in the end, I thought. I don\’t know if I\’d pick this one up again- I\’m still a bit weirded out by the closeness of cousins and the telepathy stuff- but if I ever feel game to read a mystery again, I\’ll probably reach for a Mary Stewart.

Rating: 3/5             336 pages, 1976

more opinions: Indextrious Reader

by Michael Bishop

I have a feeling I may have tried this book once before, so long ago I remembered very little except the general premise. It\’s set on a Colorado ranch, where several disparate characters end up together- Libby who runs cattle on the land, her Ute ranch hand, her ex\’s cousin who comes to stay. He\’s dying of AIDS– this was written in the eighties- and some of the ways in which people talked around him, admittedly made me uncomfortable.  I gather from reading more opinions on Goodreads, that at its publication date, this book was way ahead of its time depicting gay men and issues they had to deal with- so it ought to be read in a historical context. But that isn\’t what bothered me. Nor the outright lack of unicorns- although I know they come more into the book later in the story- up to where I read they were mainly background material, a group up in the hills, their presence kept secret by the landowner and her very few friends. The unicorns appear to be unhealthy, and somehow they weave into the story with the other characters trying to put their lives back together, or keep things going as best they can. I didn\’t get far enough to find out though, because something put me off. It was when ghosts came into the narrative. I just don\’t do ghost stories.

Abandoned                    406 pages, 1988

More opinions: Speculiction      anyone else?

by Peter Dickinson

This one was a bit odd. It\’s apocalyptic fiction where humanity is seized by some kind of mass infectious horror of machinery. They smash cars and radios, go berserk in riots against technology and then flee cities en masse. Disease plagues spread and society breaks down with small groups of people surviving in isolation, wary of outsiders.

However most of the book isn\’t actually about that- it\’s only described briefly in the forward and epilogue, with a few instances where the main character herself is seized by a mindless urge of violence when she sees someone try to start a bus, for example, or hears someone talk about farm equipment or radios by name. She\’s ten or twelve, I was never sure of the age, and lost her family in a riot. She attaches herself to a travelling group of Indian Sikhs, originally immigrants. For some strange reason people of other nationalities were not affected by the madness against machines, only the English. The Sikhs let her join them as a kind of insurance, they call her their \”canary\” because she can tell them what kind of actions or conversation will trigger the rage of their English neighbors. They set up a community on abandoned farmland but then have to deal with nearby English group who have formed themselves into a feudal system. These neighbors are suspicious and afraid of the Sikhs, even rumoring them to be Old Ones or Fae. Most of the story is about the girl\’s adjustment to living among people foreign to her- I\’m not sure how accurately it describes Sikh culture but it depicted them as very honorable and relatively proud people. In the later part of the book, the girl takes a key role in their dealings with the English group, being a go-between and carrying messages, then later forming key strategies when it ends up in a battle. It seemed a bit improbable that a young kid would have such a leading role in strategies against the enemy, but what do I know. However I was doubtful enough that it kind of flattened my enjoyment of the story.

I got this book on swap because I acquired its sequel at a hotel, and wanted to read the series in order. Turns out this one was rather lackluster for me, but luckily the second one seems to stand on its own and I\’m already enjoying it more.

Nothing to do with the story itself, but I did really like the decoration on the cover and chapter headings, which has a medieval or celtic-looking pattern intertwining with gear cogs.

Rating: 2/5          187 pages, 1970

by Isak Dinesen

A book I\’ve had to read in pieces, it\’s kinda slow going. These short stories are thoughtful, romantic in the old sense of the word, and very introspective. I had to read them slowly because the style is very different from modern narrative prose- a lot about each character\’s inner thoughts and perceptions of the world and their past relationships to other people and their half-formed dreams of the future and so on- there is very little conversation and nothing much seems to happen until you get to the end when there is a often a sudden inexplicable connection to something else, which makes you sit up and take notice. The endings can be very odd, and often leave the reader with more questions- I frequently had a wait, what? type of response.

There is a story about an adopted child who naturally assumes himself to be from a grand family, even though he was raised in squalor, and the gracious airs he puts on affects everyone around him. There is a story about a pastor\’s daughter who helps her orphaned cousin (adopted into the household) fulfill his wish to run away to sea- meeting their disaster together. A young sailor rescues a falcon that tangled itself in the rigging, and later his compassionate act is repaid in a strange manner, when he runs afoul of some drunken men while trying to court a young girl in a town their ship stops at. A king muses on his past actions and friendships, rides down to the sea to speak to a hermit who used to be in his service, and finds something unexpected when a fish is presented to him for a meal. A young man falls in love with a beautiful lady at a resort (such establishments were called \”the watering place\” in these stories, which sounded quaint) only to find out all his assumptions about her position in life were wrong. And so on.

It\’s hard to describe these stories. They feel very old-fashioned, most are set in a time period well before Dinesen\’s own day, and I believe she meant to infuse them with an archaic feeling. They are often solemn. The viewpoints in them sometimes baffled me- not just the stern religious feeling and ideas about God, but also the rather stereotypical notion that poor people felt content with their lot in life and were simple, dull folk and that on the other hand folk born into high station felt an inherent nobility- even if they had not been raised in a grand household. Hm.

I\’m not sure if I can say I enjoyed these stories, but they certainly made me think and the mood in them is very tangible, like a dark landscape that presses on you. Many of them have a fantastic element just a bit removed from normalcy, which is more unsettling and surprising than delightful or wondrous. I feel like I ought to read them all over again just to puzzle out the characters\’ separate motives and try to understand what was the point.

In case you are unaware, Isak Dinesen is the author\’s pen name. She is Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa. Which was a much easier read and has long one of my favorites, by the way.

Rating: 3/5        313 pages, 1942

more opinions:
A Striped Armchair
Like Fire

by Lauren DeStefano

In the not-so-far future, every continent apart from North America has been annihilated by nuclear warfare.  For a time afterwards America was like a utopia- cancer and other diseases erradicated, only  perfectly healthy babies born due to genetic manipulation. Then the dark reality sets in- those born in the next generation die in their early twenties. All of them.

What this means for the story is that our main character finds herself kidnapped at age sixteen, taken to a mansion and coerced, along with three other girls, to marry a wealthy man who is among the desperate- they want to breed as many children as possible in hopes of finding a cure before humanity dies out. The main character is one of these girls kidnapped to be a bride. She is suddenly jerked from being in poverty and uncertainty to living in luxury and being well-cared for. But she isn\’t free, she\’s not happy, and she knows when she\’s going to die…

It\’s an interesting idea, but this one didn\’t work for me. The characters were uninteresting. I never got a sense of them as real people. And I didn\’t quite buy the premise. If everyone was suddenly dying young, would the reaction of wealthy men really be to kidnap young girls and marry them in order the get lots of progeny? To me it was an odd idea. Another issue I had was that the story is told a lot in flashbacks, so the background events are revealed in pieces. I prefer my narrative to be linear. I think if I\’d had chapters describing the chaos, the sudden flux of orphans when people started dying, the struggles the main character faced before suddenly being shoved into this mansion… it would have made more of an impact for me.

But again, I\’m not the target audience for this book. It\’s the kind of thing my near-twelve-year-old might gobble up. Except when I started to tell her about the premise (to see if she wanted to read it before I return it to the library) she said \”wait, so all these girls are getting raped by a rich guy?\” Well… they got married to him, but against their will, so yeah, rape. The whole idea of it is pretty distasteful once you start seeing past the descriptions of opulence hand-in-hand with oppression. However, as far as I read in the book, I didn\’t come across any sex scenes at all. The girls discuss consummation, who spent the night when with their husband, one of them gets pregnant, that\’s it. I can\’t be sure though- I started to feel distracted around thirty pages in, and just skimmed a bunch after that before ditching this one.

Abandoned         374 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Presenting Lenore
Rhapsody in Books
Dear Author
There\’s a Book

by Octavia Butler

The narrator wakes up alone, in the dark, with a severe head injury and a desperate hunger. She has no idea where she is, what has happened to her, or even her own name. She feeds on animals she catches (craving raw meat) and slowly healing, starts walking out of the forest. Gradually the names of items around her come back, and she starts to make sense of the world. But other things she cannot recall, so when she first meets a human she has no idea of their differences. She stumbles through the world unknowing, and so does the reader along with her.

She is Ina. An ancient species that lives by feeding on human blood, that cannot stand the daylight, that has extra-heightened senses and strength. Vampires, but not exactly the same as those in human folklore (even the characters in the book have misconceptions of the Ina). For example, they can\’t convert humans into their own kind, they are not undead, they raise their young and live in family groups separated by gender. The main character here- who looks like she\’s ten but in Ina years she\’s over fifty- gradually learns about herself as she comes across others of her own kind. It\’s an urgent matter, because almost as soon as she discovers what she is and where her people are, she finds out that someone is very seriously trying to kill them, and maybe they are targeting her in particular. Because it turns out she\’s not quite like the others of her kind. Her skin is darker and she can walk around in the daytime. She barely understands herself what these differences mean, but it\’s very apparent that someone else finds them threatening.

I liked the idea behind this book, and the themes it explores. Especially how it showed the Ina creating symbiotic relationships with the people they fed on- becoming bonded, giving something of value to the humans in return. Their social structure is different from what I expected, and it takes the humans in the story time to adjust to that as well.  Her first human partner is a grown man but oddly enough I didn\’t find it disturbing to read descriptions of this to-all-appearances pre-pubsecent girl being in such a relationship. I suppose because I expected a vampire story to be creepy or disturbing in some way. And this one doesn\’t really have any gross factors. But the other reason might be because I never really felt connected to the characters, it never felt real or engaging. The prose often felt stiff, the descriptions were not of things that interested me, and even though the backstory and explanations came through other characters, it felt like they were just there to do that: lots of people standing around telling each other stuff, in the most deadpan ways. I admit I skipped an entire chapter in the middle because I was loosing interest, then picked up reading again and skimmed more near the end.

Read more about it in the reviews linked to below- I didn\’t even tell you some of the more interesting points because I\’m tired now.

Rating: 2/5        316 pages, 2005

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
Speculative Book Review
Amy Reads
Savidge Reads
Rhapsody in Books
Literary Omnivore

by John Ajvide Lindqvist

This  was intense. I saw the movie version a few years ago (subtitled). The first thing that struck me about the book was that it goes into far more detail (of course) about the characers, and there are lots of minor characters whose lives weave into the storyline, which the movie left out entirely. I liked that. The book also, aside from the bloodiness involved in a vampire story, shows the plain ugliness of human nature- especially those who are lonely, desperate, bored- much more than the movie did. Not far into it I was about to set it aside, not wanting to read about lonely, drunken men who are pedophiles or kids who beat each other up- but there were other parts of the story that interested me so I kept reading. There is a prominent thread in the story about bullying, for example. The main character, Oskar, is a lonely bitter kid with divorced parents and few friends. He gets picked on mercilessly at school and dreams of revenge, has a fascination with serial killers. After striking up a tentative friendship with the strange girl next door he learns how to stand up to the bullies. But they don\’t back down, they just come back at him harder…. meanwhile a series of mysterious murders are happening more and more frequently, and the whole neighborhood becomes tense and suspicious. By the time Oskar realizes what is going on he feels more inclined to protect his new friend than anything else. There\’s all kinds of subplots going on here- the teenager whose mother\’s new boyfriend is a policeman involved in searching for the murderer. The handful of drunken men who hang out together doing practically nothing- they get roped in when one of their gang disappears. I don\’t really know how to say more about this, but that the look at a lonely and dysfunctional society was more interesting to me than the vampire aspect of the story. In the end it got too brutal for my taste and I doubt I\’ll read this again. Definitely creepy.

This is a pretty famous book, and a lot of reviewers have done it more justice than I. See the links below for just a few.

Rating: 3/5    472 pages, 2004

more opinions:
You\’ve GOTTA Read This!
Novel Reflections
Avid Reader
Vishy\’s Blog
Book Monkey Scribbles
The Ranting Dragon

by Theodore Roszak

Roszak retells the story of Frankenstein from the viewpoint of Victor\’s unfortunate bride, Elizabeth. An inquisitive and intelligent young woman, she is taught by tutors in the household, and more particularly, by her adoptive mother the Lady Caroline. Her closeness to Victor is encouraged; more than just brother and sister, they are destined to marry and their union is (apparently) also part of some great experiment (which I could not make head or tails of, as you shall see). So… as part of her education Elizabeth learns to take no shame in her body and gets initiated into a secret cult of women which reveals to her all kinds of ancient female knowledge. I was blasting through the book, enjoying the writing and intrigued by the story until it got to a certain point. Elizabeth\’s gradual awareness of her sexuality was not repugnant to me, but things started to get really weird when Victor was included in some of the secret rites, which started to combine alchemy with eroticism. It was so bizarre. I thought alchemy had to do with turning stuff into gold? what does that have to do with sex? and all the obscure symbolism made no sense either and I got weary of trying to figure it out. The more interesting part of the story was the constant contrast between Victor\’s hunger for scientific knowledge- dissection, mathematics, the new discovery of electricity (we all know to what use he put that!)- and Elizabeth\’s blossoming understanding of the strengths of women- founded in the wonders of nature. But all that alchemy/mystic sex stuff was just too bewildering. It actually started to bore me. Who else has picked up this book? what did you make of it?

I am remember now and have no idea how this book got onto my TBR list. I think I read a review of it somewhere online that sparked my interest, but can\’t find that now. For a few other reader\’s opinions, check out the links below.

Abandoned…….. 425 pages, 1995

more opinions at:
Las Risas
somewhere i have never travelled
The Actress and the Bishop


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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