Tag: Speculative Fiction

by Kerilynn Wilson

June lives in a world where everyone she knows has given up their emotions- by having their hearts removed and preserved alive in a jar of numbing solution. To avoid feeling pain, disappointment, sadness, anger, etc- but they also cannot feel any positive emotions. June is an artist and resists the social pressure to give up her feelings. She fears for her sister, and wants to find out if a removed heart can be replaced again. Then she finds an abandoned heart in a jar in an alley. There’s rumors of hearts being stolen from the medical storage facility. While doing research, June meets a boy (without a heart) who strangely, is starting to feel things again. What’s going on? Together they go looking for the scientist who started this all, and find out far more than they’d bargained for. The story reminded me a lot of that film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Some powerful themes on the importance of emotions, and how a selfless sacrifice can lead to healing. But there’s other aspects I still just don’t know what to make of it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
294 pages, 2023

More opinions:
Pages Unbound
No Flying, No Tights
anyone else?

by Laurence Gonzales

Eh. I had high hopes for this book, but they faded pretty darn quick. It was so reminiscent of Eva by Peter Dickinson, disappointingly not as well-written. I really liked the premise and wanted to see where the story went, but had to force myself to finish it. Writing style tells all, shows almost nothing, very straightforward and plain. Which is okay sometimes, but in this case it didn’t work for me. It was dull. The dialog was awkward all the way through. Even believing that the protagonist, Lucy, had grown up in the Congo alone with her scientist father who spoke very formally, she still didn’t sound right. I kept thinking: who talks like this? why does it all sound off? Not to mention there’s plot holes galore, inexplicable things happen that you’d roll right over if it were a J Fic novel, but in this case I couldn’t buy it. Well.

Premise: Lucy is half human, half bonobo. Her father was researching bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) in the Congo for some twenty-five years, and did some genetic engineering tinkering adapting a female bonobo to have some human genes, so that he could artificially inseminate her with human sperm. Thus Lucy was born. Raised in the jungle for fourteen years with her father among the bonobos. Then war broke out, the father killed, another scientist with a research camp nearby -Jenny- saves Lucy at the last minute and brings her home to the States. She’s unaware of Lucy’s real parentage at first, hoping to find some living relatives. The truth comes out eventually.

Jenny wants to help Lucy adjust and simply live life as a normal teenage girl. But everyone who meets her can sense something is different though it’s hard to pick up on (she looks almost exactly human). I did enjoy the descriptions of how Lucy perceived things differently, with her half-ape nature: sensing non-verbal communication from all the animals around her, having superior hearing and strength, etc. Her longing for home in the jungle clashed with her eagerness to fit in with human peers, but she soon found herself on the run for her life instead, when news finally gets broken to the public about Lucy, the first human/ape hybrid. Lots of people are willing to just accept her and support her desire to live a normal life, but plenty more are up in arms in outrage at her existence, insisting she is no more than an animal, has no human rights, etc. She gets kidnapped by government baddies who put in her in a lab for experimental purposes, and it is – of course- horrible. Can she escape? where will she go? is her adopted human family in danger? the end of this book reads like a fast-paced thriller movie. Last few pages really took me by surprise, it didn’t go where I expected but I kind of like that. It was strange that the final chapter was narrated in first person, when the rest of the book it had been third. Also jarring that for most of the book she mentioned getting “messages” from animals around her, but without putting it into words. Suddenly near the end a rabbit and then a crow speak to her in full sentences, which felt out of place. But there’s lots of things that feel out of place in this story, which is why I was unable to suspend disbelief and actually enjoy it. Sigh.

Rating: 2/5
307 pages, 2010

More opinions at: The Last Book I Read
anyone else?

by Paula Cocozza

This is one of the most interesting, strange and beautifully written books I have read in a long time. I found it very enthralling and unsettling at the same time. It’s about a woman living in London, going through the aftermath of a broken relationship. Interactions with her neighbors, who have a new baby and the mother is struggling. With her ex- at first just re-playing conversations and arguments with him in her head, then actual encounters when she suddenly finds out he’s living nearby. And most of all, with a bold fox that appears in her backyard. The fox is wary at first but then becomes accustomed to her presence. She gradually becomes more aware of its comings and goings, looks forward to its appearance, tries to follow it through the strip of woods crammed between two neighborhoods. The more her relationships with people unravel, the stronger her feeling of closeness grows with the fox, along with an increasing sense of alarm as her neighbors obviously don’t like foxes around and wish to get rid of them. So one day she swings her door open wide and lets the fox step into her house . . .

Meanwhile her ex is also coming around more frequently, proffering help, wanting to make sure she’s okay- but she finds his presence distressing to say the least. And then there’s something strange that happens with the neighbor’s baby, and the reader starts to wonder if this woman is an unreliable narrator- some of the incidents are unlikely- is she perceiving them differently than everyone else? or imagining things entirely? I’m still not sure. You have to read between the lines a lot, where meaning slides around. It was hard for me to tell if the ex meant well, or was being subtly manipulative, for example. I don’t think the main character ever actually realized that her neighbor was suffering from postpartum depression and struggling with the new baby, it’s hard to see around all the difficulties that are just in front of her, that she surrounds herself with and then convinces it’s perfectly normal to not show up for work days in a row, neglect her personal hygiene, crawl around in the shrubbery looking for the fox’s den, tape up her mail slot in the front door when people knocking appear threatening, and on and on. I really loved how the writer’s words made me picture things so clearly, yet in such a unique way. And then there’s the segments written from the fox’s point of view- in a manner very different from any animal perspective I’ve ever read, and so aptly done.

I thought of Lady Into Fox and A Man in the Zoo by David Garnett while reading this one (there’s even a scene here where the main character imagines she’s in a zoo, but on the wrong side of the enclosure, looking out at people), and especially of The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God by Michael Ventura – a book that hasn’t come to mind in years. Due to the slightly surreal encounters with animals, the very precise, pinpointed and delicately descriptive language. But most especially I kept think of the film The Fox and The Child. I want to see that all over again now. Paula Cocozza has published another title, Speak to Me– how I’d like to read that one!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
278 pages, 2017

by Nancy Werlin

It’s a tad ironic that I picked as one of my reads for this year’s library challenge, a book that I won as a prize for finishing last year‘s challenge. Which I thought would be not quite my type- a teen romance, wrapped around an ancient family curse that nobody even realizes is hanging over their heads, until it’s almost too late. The story was inspired by that old ballad Scarborough Fair, and the seemingly impossible tasks that a man demands of a woman. When you start reading this book on the surface, it feels like an ordinary teen romance story- that goes awry pretty darn quickly when it becomes about an unexpected teen pregnancy. The main character, Lucy, is surrounded by supportive friends and family, but the hardest thing for her isn’t facing how much her life will changed, soon becoming a young mother- or even if she wants to keep the baby- but, is this all because of a curse? She finds an old diary, and some fascinating but garbled family history, and there’s a very real explanation for much of what appears to be going on- mental illness runs in her family, afflicting the women in particular. But she starts to wonder: is it madness, or is something else going on? and if it’s the curse, can she thwart it, solve the ancient riddle and perform the tasks? is doing them in a certain way cheating or not? how will she know if the curse is broken? At first she can’t tell anyone because of course they’ll just think she’s crazy, it’s the inherited schizophrenia (best guess) starting to manifest. Some of the things are too uncanny to be coincidences though, so she and her family determine to try and break the curse regardless. With a new love at her side (neighbor boy who was always just a good friend becomes something more), Lucy gives it her all.

I really thought I was going to find this story too improbable, or melodramatic, or heavy on the romance stuff. It wasn’t any of those things at all. The main characters are all so darn practical and methodical about things (but I love the family’s sense of humor) it feels like a story that could happen in a real life setting. (So I’ve labeled this on ‘speculative fiction’ because it feels more like urban fantasy than anything, but in a way that I like). It reminded me of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which is also a modern telling of college-age girl who ends up trying to foil a curse laid out in an old ballad. The neighbor boy was so good-hearted, rather too perfect if you ask me, but that’s okay. The romance was sweet, and it never went too far into those kind of details- you get all the heady thoughts they have about each other, and significant looks, and the touch of hands, but the intimate stuff is off-page and only alluded to later. So that’s nice, if you’re not into steamy romances. Which I’m not. So I enjoyed this one more than I anticipated, and it really kept me turning the pages to see how they’d solve the riddle in the ballad- I had some guesses, it was nice to see the characters unravelling the same ideas, though hampered by their impending sense of doom and panic as the crucial time to solve the tasks grew closer.

There was one part that bothered me, though- a scene where Lucy goes to visit her insane mother who’s in a hospital, hoping to find out more about the curse, and to discover from the doctors there if any kind of medication which helps the mother, might help her in the future, should she also go insane as the curse implied. She finds her mother too sedated by medication to have any real conversation, and then the chapter ends, and the next one doesn’t have any follow-up! Did they ever talk to a doctor or not? I was just annoyed that that part was skipped over so abruptly, it almost felt like there were pages missing from the book (nope). Sometimes it also felt awkward the way the characters talked to each other in the story- the conversations didn’t feel real, but I was willing to gloss over that and just enjoy the puzzle of the story in this case.

Rating: 3/5
376 pages, 2008

by Clare Bell

I was blown away by this book when I first read it long ago as a pre-teen. I still recall very distinctly how enthralled I was with the beginning storyline, the startling turn the narrative takes into new and intriguing directions, and a very physical shock I felt when a sudden tragic event occurs- I literally had to snap the book shut with a gasp, my heart leaping. It’s not often that a book affects me so strongly. I’ve read it multiple times, though it’s been decades since the last re-read. Of course the surprises no longer leap out at me, but the story was very much still engaging, I loved revisiting all the details, and I grasped much better than my younger self, the parts that took place in historical Egypt. Warning: I love this book so much I want to say a lot about it, so there’s gonna be SPOILERS, though I’ll try not to give everything away.

Well: it’s about a race of sentient cheetahs, that live in a far-distant future when humans have abandoned Earth. The planet is not in great shape- the cheetahs struggle to survive harsh conditions, with rapidly diminishing plant life and scant prey to make their living from. Kichebo is a young cheetah born into difficult circumstances, to say the least. Her mother dies in an accident when she’s very young, and she struggles with fears of abandonment for most of her life. Her aunts begrudgingly raise the orphaned cub (cheetah culture frowns on this, she was supposed to be left to die) and are first appalled, then frustrated when she starts to mature. Her adult fur coat grows in completely black, with gold tear lines and tail tip. This anomaly is a serious threat to her survival- it’s nearly impossible to hunt, when she is so visible against the pale desert scenery. She learns to manage by using ambush techniques, or sticking to crepuscular times, but longs to run freely out in the open, to be the way a cheetah is supposed to be.

So there’s all that- this daily struggle to survive, this one cheetah in particular dealing with trying to accept her differences and find a way to fit in. I would have been totally satisfied to read an entire novel just about that. The cheetahs are so alive, their personalities very distinct, their catlike mannerisms, customs and expressions reminding you strongly that these are not anthropomorphized characters, even though they talk to each other. But then! Strange alien flying craft start to appear, and it becomes obvious they’re tracking the cheetahs, focusing on Kichebo in particular. Which makes it even harder for her to fit into cheetah society. Things happen, and she ends up fleeing to live on her own, just barely in possession of her adult skills. One day she finds an alien craft crashed in the desert, on fire. There’s a naked apelike creature trapped in the wreckage- she drags it free intending to eat it, but then doesn’t. For some strange reason she is reluctant to kill the creature, ends up letting it follow her, then eventually adopts it in a manner of speaking. It is a humanoid, somewhere in the toddler age range. The relationship that slowly develops between the lonely outcast cheetah and this little defenseless human is so believable and tender- and not without its amusing moments either. I loved the details about how Kichebo tries to communicate with the creature she ends up calling Menk, tries to teach it to speak– but finds its lack of ability to use expressive gestures, having no tail or whiskers- such a handicap that she can only get the most basic messages across. Imagine! A story in which animals pity humans for the limitations of using just verbal sounds to communicate. This story got better and better.

There’s more. Kichebo and Menk acquire another companion- an elderly cheetah who has also dealt with physical differences her whole life. They all take up residence in a place no other cheetahs are interested in claiming as territory- because it’s near an ancient human ruin. The massive remnants of buildings are impressive by their sheer size, but strange things also happen when Kichebo walks among them. She’s taken by fits (that sound like epilepsy) and makes a mental connection to another black cheetah who lived far, far in the past- in ancient Egypt during the time of Tutankhamen. So now there’s another parallel storyline, about this other black cheetah who lived among royalty, with details on how the Egyptians kept cheetahs in captivity, trained them to course game, some of their customs of worship, court intrigue surrounding the young King Tut, and much much more. I admit when I was a kid a lot of this part went over my head, even though I found it fascinating. This time around I was able to pick up on more subtleties. For her part, Kichebo is at first terrified by the experience of mind-melding (I don’t know what else to call it) with a long-extinct conspecific, then she becomes eager to learn more about herself, from the only other black cheetah she’s ever encountered. Is he real, though? Her elderly companion gently suggests that maybe Kichebo made the whole thing up, that heatstroke and her strange fits are giving her delusions.

So they travel past the ruins to a site Kichebo had learned about from her friend in the past, just to prove to herself that he really did exist. She finds far more than she expected to. Long ago this ending section of the book felt rushed and confused to me, I didn’t quite grasp all the implications. But this time around it was pretty clear. Kichebo the rare black cheetah, at last gets the answers she’s sought her whole life- why she looks so different from all the others, why she felt compelled to keep Menk as a companion instead of eat her as prey, even about some abilities she wasn’t aware she had, and where her future might lead her.

Man, if only there was a sequel or companion novel to this book! I’d snap it up in a heartbeat. Done talking now, before I tell all the things I’ve skipped over in this post. Have to leave something for other readers to discover- if you can find a copy of this novel count yourself fortunate.

Rating: 5/5
292 pages, 1986

by Allan W. Eckert

Wow, this book. It was a bit rough going at first. Due to the age of the story, the way people talk felt awkward, the background explanation of the boy’s family felt over-explained in a rather stiff way. But once I got into the real part of the story, I was blown away. Especially by the ending. Very traumatic, bittersweet and delightful all at the same time. It’s about a boy who has a secret ability- he can transfer his consciousness into any animal nearby. There’s no element of magic (why I tagged this one as ‘speculative fiction’) it’s just something he’s always been able to do. He can taste, hear, smell, feel every sensation the animal experiences- including exhilaration, fear, pain, etc- but not control them at all. So not quite like the Animorphs series, though I was strongly reminded of that (it’s so different though).

The boy has tried to share his experiences with his parents, what he feels and learns when spending minutes to hours as an animal- but they think he’s daydreaming and brush it off, then get impatient that he doesn’t give up the idea, then get concerned that there’s something wrong with him mentally or emotionally. They go away on a planned trip and leave him on a horse farm the mother’s friend owns. The boy has never been around horses before and he’s fascinated by them- and of course he goes inside them (as he calls the phenomenon). He has to be careful to keep what he’s doing hidden from other people, having learned from reactions not only by his parents but also his best friend, that nobody understands this, people make fun of him, avoid him, or are suspicious of his activities. However when a veterinarian visits the farm, the boy is intrigued by his work and hangs around watching. He’s able of course to feel what the animals do, and tries to hint at the vet what’s wrong if the problem is not found. This works for a while but it starts to get more difficult to hide his ability, the vet (who becomes a close mentor, almost a father figure) starts to get suspicious. And then a prized horse in the barn falls deadly ill, but nobody knows except our protagonist. He tries to do something, but it all goes terribly wrong . . . leading to an almost tragedy.

I won’t say more in case someone actually wants to read this. If you have a deep interest in animals, or ever daydreamed (like I did as a kid) about being able to fly like a bird, run as fast as a horse, walk quietly in the night as a cat seeing everything clearly . . . this book will become an instant favorite. There was so much love of nature woven into the story, and fantastic details about how wild animals live their lives, even new things the boy discovered about them (but then couldn’t tell anybody how he’d learned it). This is the greatest by Eckert I’ve read so far- even tops Incident at Hawk’s Hill, which has always been steadfastly among the best books ever, in my mind.

Rating: 4/5
225 pages, 1980

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

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?

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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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