THIS CENSUS-TAKER by China Miéville

China Miéville is an award-winning author, writing in the ‘weird’ genres – post-apocalyptic, fantasy, fabulism, specultive fiction, and of course, sci-fi.  But sci-fi covers such a broad spectrum these days that it is impossible to use it effectively as a category.

In this novella-length work, we readers are plopped right down in the middle of a world that is ‘after the wars’,  but just where its location is or the exact date or era is not given.  The locale is geographically located on the side of a mountain and its valley town. It features a young boy of 7 who comes running down the mountain into town, screaming because one of his parents has just killed the other.

Since the authorities in the town cannot take action without evidence, they go up the mountain to see for themselves, where they find the father, who shows them a letter purportedly from the mother saying she is leaving, to go back to her own people.  There is no trace of her, nor of any killing.

The boy is sent back to live with his father, a magical key maker.  But the father is also a mentally deranged man who kills animals and people just for the heck of it.  He then tosses the bodies into what seems like a bottomless pit inside a nearby cave.  The boy is sure his father has killed his mother and thrown her body into the pit.

One day, a stranger arrives in the town, a census taker, counting those scattered around the world of his people.  He comes to the remote house on the mountainside, has the boy wait some distance from the house after showing him the location of the pit, and some hours later, takes the boy with him to assist in the census taking.

In a flash-forward, or backward or something, we learn that the boy is now grown and is writing one of three mysterious books he is permitted (?)  forced (?) to write, having spent his years accompanying a census taker.  Who employs this census taker, what institution or what government, is never revealed.  The man now writing seems to be writing in a room that is guarded…..  and whether the guard is permitting no one in or keeping the man from leaving, is also not clear.

Is the census taker really an assassin, traveling world wide to locate and eliminate all those from the land of the boy’s father?  We never really know.

These are not my favorite kind of books.  I like things a little clearer, and a more linear plotline.  I really liked his Embassytown,  which was a more straightforward story.  Experimental literature is not really my thang.  I figure, after you are done experimenting, come see me.

 

ICE ON THE GRAPEVINE by R. E. Donald

This is the second in the Hunter Rayne Highway mystery series.  I read the 4th one first, and talked about it here, Sundown on Top of the World.   I may actually get to read the other two in the series as well.

In Sundown,  I felt the mystery was secondary to the characters and their stories.   In Ice on the Grapevine,  the mystery took center stage, and it was a good one!

A couple, newly married, in their late thirties or so, are a husband and wife truck driving team.  She is Canadian, working on getting her green card, and the hubs is an American.  The rules are they can each drive in the other country if it is a leg of their destination for the load.  But they cannot drive point to point within the other country.  Doesn’t really have much to do with the story, but I found it an interesting tidbit.

Along a deserted stretch of the highway in California, a local police officer with great ambitions, is called to the scene of a dead body.  But not just your average, run-of-the-mill dead body.  This one is curled up in a fetal position …. and frozen solid.  On the sole of his shoe is one of those bar code stickers.  The cop traces it to the border customs, and from there to the shipper, and from there to the truckers doing the hauling.  Guess who had the load?  Yep, you got it.   They are hauling a reefer … refrigerator trailer …  that has a load of meat destined for a wholesaler in L.A.   They get tracked down, and pulled over, and taken into custody for the death of the as yet unidentified ice cube.

Back in Canada, a young woman is missing her live-in boyfriend.  Because he is missing.  For 6 days now, so she goes to the RCMP, (the cops) and reports him missing.  The ice cube’s photo has been faxed around, especially to this office, because it covers the area from which the shipment originated.  The intake officer says, wait a minute, comes back with a photo, and OMG it’s the missing boyfriend, a musician.

What was a musician doing in a refrigerator truck?  If he was trying to sneak into the US, he had to know that he would last in that truck only about 3 to 5 hours, no guaranteeing someone would open the doors before he froze to death.   But he had damage to the neck, so looked like someone choked him into unconsciousness before shoving him in.

So are the happy honeymooners responsible?  And why?  The wife has a past, but how would that connect in any way to this?

Hunter Rayne, the former Mountie turned over the road driver does his best to try to find the truth and see that justice is done…. not just for the accused but for the victim as well.

Yep.  Thumbs up.  Really liked it.

THE ROSES UNDERNEATH by C. F. Yetmen

Did you see the movie The Monument Men?  Or read anything about the German Reich looting artworks, and finally stashing it in undisclosed locations?  This is another story about the Monument Men, told from a German woman’s perspective.

It is 1945 in Wiesbaden, Germany.  Anna and her six-year old daughter Amalia are living on scraps, sharing a one room apartment with her elderly aunt.   Anna’s husband, a psychiatrist, is still in a Russian-controlled  area working in a hospital there.  Anna sold what she could and after a huge fight with her husband, who refused to leave, managed to acquire a broken down truck in order to travel to her aunt in Wiesbaden.  The truck broke down 20 kilometers outside of the city, and she and her daughter walked the rest of the way, hoping that when she arrived that her aunt would still be alive and able to take them in.

She gets a job as a typist at the nearby museum which has been turned into a collecting point for the artworks the Americans are finding all over Germany.  There is a new law in place:  no artwork may change hands under any circumstances, not even between friends or family, until further notice.  The goal of the Monument Men is to sort out what is found, and redistribute it back to its rightful owners, or the families of the deceased owners, many of them being Jews, before the trade in artworks begins again.

The second in command of the place needs a translator for the field, when he goes out to investigate reported stashings of work in various abandoned houses, churches, etc., and learns that Anna speaks flawless English from her years living and going to school in London before being forced to return to Germany.

The story is all about the black market for art, the clandestine operations,  and life in 1945 Germany, just at the time when Japan surrendered.  It is about the guilt felt by the citizens, complicit in their knowledge of the camps and the possessions taken by the Nazis.  Anna struggles with this guilt, having living right outside the Theresienstadt camp, and feeling that the German people should all suffer for their actions and lack of actions, that they are all guilty.

It is a poignant story of the characters involved:  the Monument Men, the starving German people, forced to deal with the black market for scarce food,  Anna, her daughter, her Aunt, who remembers such better days, and the closet SS people who still believe in the purity of the Nazi policies.

The title is really interesting.  It is from the idea that although the ground may be covered by winter’s dead and decaying debris, they cover the roses which will appear in the spring. And thus, although Germany is covered with the blood and debris of war, as it is cleaned up, the flowering spirit of its people will once again bloom.

It is really not only a page-turner, but a sad one, and one that can serve as a warning as to what can happen when we ‘let George do it’.   Freedom is everyone’s responsibility, None of us are entitled to it for nothing.

 

 

LONG DIVISION by Kiese Laymon

An interesting first novel by  an American writer, editor and a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. What you think of it has a lot to do with who you are, your age, your race, your gender.

It features a young black 14 year old, who is a participant in a YouTube contest, Can You Use This Word in a Sentence, or something like that.  It is not a spelling bee, but rather a contest to highlight the most articulate students. Citoyen “City” Coldson is a clever kid, definitely more intelligent than most of his contemporaries in   Post-Katrina Mississippi.  He has a fast mind and often an even faster mouth.  The title of the book comes from:

“City, speed that up.  Why you gotta   be so long division?  For real, you don’t have to tell me all the background.  The story doesn’t have to go on and on and on.  “It doesn’t?”  “No.” Shalaya Crump said.  ·Everything with you is long division.  You busy trying to show all your work.  Just get in and get out.”

City has an on-camera melt down during the finals of the contest, railing against the system, against racism.  He has humiliated his family, and is sent to stay with his grandmother in a small coastal town.  As he is collecting his things from school, a teacher gives him a book titled, Long Division.  In it, all the characters are him and his friends and family, but set in 1985.  The small town is the home of a teen who has disappeared.   In the book he received, the characters find a portal in the woods which take them to 2013, or maybe even farther in the future.

OK, so we have time travel, fantasy, an ongoing theme of racism in America, an ongoing theme of being a young black male in America, an ongoing theme of being a teenager, all told in first person black southern teenage slang and rhythm.  It is just beautifully written.

My issues with this debut effort:  (1) too many themes.  It is hard to examine a serious and painful issue as racism in a short book that includes time travel and finding portals.  I have read many books where the idea of racism in a fantasy world was examined very successfully, but in this one, it is hard to reconcile. Are we readers supposed to be seriously contemplating the pitiful state of race relations in America today, or are we supposed to be having fun popping around the time line?  One or the other.

(2) Because of the intertwining of the current events (2013), and the events in the ‘book’, (1985), it was hard to follow.  I have an e-copy of the book, so maybe in print, there was some kind of differentiation — different fonts for each, perhaps.  It was a really fun idea, and a clever vehicle to carry the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, but definitely confusing to the e-reader.

(3) Because of the number of themes, and none of them layered sufficiently to work, none of the themes was explored enough.  It is a long novella length book, almost as if a story idea had been spun out long enough to create a bookish length.

(4) Essentially, the plot wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. What really shone in this work were the characters.  They were perfection.  They were real.  We didn’t need a plot.  We could have just followed them around for a few days of their quotidian lives, being enchanted by them.  All of that time travel was frankly just distracting.

So whether this was aimed at young black people, who all seemed to love it, as it represents their reality,  or at the general reading public, for whom I think it misses the mark on several literary levels, I don’t know.  Being an old white lady, I am surely not the target demographic.  I think it is a literary mishmash, but we all have to start somewhere.

SEAGULL by Lawton Paul

This is one of those novels usually referred to as ‘poignant’.  I don’t know about you, but I like a poignant novel from time to time, in between the post-apocalyptic depressing stories and all those bodies that abound in the murder mysteries.  A little ‘cheer me up’, you know what I mean?

This is a  sweet story, set in 1980s Florida, featuring 14 year old Jesse, who lives with his older brother Tyler, and his Aunt AJ and his Uncle Art, to whom he always refers as The Old Man.  They live on the St. Johns River, where his uncle makes a living crabbing.  Whenever possible, the boys help out on the boat.  His parents have been dead since he was about 3.  He has developed a phobia about large sea creatures, such as dolpins, sharks, etc, which has carried over into fear of deep water and of the dark.

It is a YA, but yet has more depth than the usual self-obsessed teenager novel.  Jesse’s nemesis at school is a big kid who bullies everyone, and seems to get into fights with impunity.  His father and older brother are just recently home from a stint in prison, his home life is unsavory.  He takes out his anger and pain on his fellow students.

Jesse discovers an old photo of his uncle as a boxer, and asks his uncle to teach him how to box so he can defend himself against that boy.

At one point, the bully taunts him, telling him he knows nothing about his mother, and that his aunt is feeding him lies about her, so he sets off on a quest to find out the truth.

I don’t really know much about this author.  other than he lives in Japan with wife and kids, and has a multivolume paranormal mystery series.  So if you want a lovely, easy, soft read, this is for you.

 

 

A JOURNAL OF SIN by Darryl Donaghue

A pretty good police procedural.  The twist with this one is that it is like one of those Agatha Christie trapped in an isolated house themes, but here the inhabitants of a small English village are trapped due to a vicious storm that produced terrible flooding, cutting off all the roads out of the village, cutting off the cell phone, the telephone and the electricity.

Constable Sarah Gladstone, only on the police force — oh, pardon me, the police service, she is at pains to point out, — for two years,  had been visiting with her mother when the storm hit, and now is stuck in the village until the flooding goes down.

The elderly priest of the village goes missing.  The townspeople knowing she is with the police, come to her to help find him.  They want to report him as a missing person. As she reluctantly does what she can, looks in his rooms, the church, with the help of a geeky (or is it nerdy) alcoholic young divorced man.  She finds, buried deep in the flower pots of some plants, a number of small journals, dating back decades.  She takes them home to her mother’s house to read later, hoping for some clue in them.

When she holds a town meeting to advise of her findings, she is undermined by the elderly self-appointed town manager, who is there with his mousy quiet wife.  Sarah organizes a search of the woods, and the priest is found  partially buried deep in the woods.  The torrential rains have washed away part of the earth and leaf debris that had covered him.  An examination reveals terrible wounds, evidence of torture.

Now she has a homicide on her hands, no communication with her superiors, no help, and no clear idea of how she should handle this.  No forensics team, no one to officially examine the body, and in fact, nowhere to put the body.  Since the electricity has been off for a number of days, there is no refrigeration or freezers.  She talks the helpful young man into storing the body in his shed, where the odor is definitely off-putting and wafting into the house itself.

The young man turns out to have an injunction against him forbidding him to see his ex wife or child, but he is seriously stalking her through the computer.  That doesn’t look good, since the ex-wife had had a number of counseling sessions with the priest.  Did he write about it in the journal?

It also turns out the that priest had been keeping a journal of the sins of the parishioners who came to him for confession or counseling.  This news quickly gets around and a number of folks become quite anxious to possess those journals and destroy them.

She makes some bad judgment calls, but does the best she can, being just out of probationary status, and all alone, all the while being hampered by the old hotshot.

I enjoyed it, because it seemed to hit the right note as far as her competence and her frustration at the lack of machinery and help.  She was limited as to what she could do.

It rather telegraphed who the perp was, but that’s OK.  I guess right on so few of these,  that when I am actually on the correct scent, I feel like a big shot myself.

Nice mystery.  Hey, they all can’t be P. D. James.

 

LILITH’S BROOD by Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler is an award-winning Black female author,  a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant.”   Her work always ends up on Recommended reading lists, usually in the category of Science Fiction, or Female Science Fiction Writers, or Black Writers, or Black Female Must Reads, or Black Female Sci Fi Authors.  So of course, I have several of her works in the queue, because Black, Female, Science Fiction.   Any of those categories would be calling my name.

Butler is known for blending science fiction with African-American spiritualism.  Her works are concerned with issues facing humanity.

In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race. To insure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy.

Ok so now that we know the series, collected under the title Lilith’s Brood, is all about moralizing, we can get on with describing the aliens, because it is all about aliens.  ALIENS, people!  ALIENS!

The US has experienced a nuclear war between the two great powers, which destroys almost everything on earth, leaving a few non-human live forms and a handful of humans.  The Oankali have been watching the process, tsk-tsking all the while, like someone’s maiden aunt, and after everything is gone, kaput, done and dusted, they swoop in and save what remnants they can of the world, and put the humans into deep sleep, waking them up a few hundred years later, when the earth has healed itself and once again become habitable.

They are self-described traders, something for something.  They want something in exchange from the humans, knowledge and a different way of  seeing things.  But there is only one way of seeing the aliens…. as truly uggs.  Like Ugg Boots, only uglier.  They are bodies with a whole lot of tentacles, and it takes the humans a while to adjust to them.  I guess so.  If I came face to face with a creature like this:

I would be a little freaked, too.

The story opens in Dawn, with the title character Lilith (a black human female) awakening centuries later from stasis on an Oankali ship. She meets her saviors/captors and is repulsed by their alienness. The Oankali don’t have eyes, or ears, or noses, but sensory tentacles over their entire bodies with which they can perceive the world much better than a human can. Stranger still, the Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and Ooloi. All Oankali have the ability to perceive biochemistry down to a genetic level, but the Ooloi have the ability to directly manipulate genetic material. Ooloi can mutate and “evolve” any living thing they touch and build offspring gene by gene using the genetic material from their male and female mates. Despite their differences the Ooloi Oankali are strangely alluring, sexually arousing even while being visually repulsive. The Oankali have made earth habitable and want Lilith’s help in training humans to survive on earth without human technology. In exchange the Oankali want to interbreed with the humans to create a new human-Oankali hybrid race. They are particularly enthusiastic about the human “talent” for cancer, which they find beautiful. This book focuses on the conflict between Lilith’s desire to stay human and her loyalty to her species and her desire to survive at any cost.

She is given a group of awakened humans to train to live as primitives on a primitive earth.  They are just what you would expect.  A bunch of ingrates and paranoids, still with all their cruelty and egocentric personalities in tact.  The trade that must be accepted to live on earth is that the humans must interbreed with the Aliens, because human babies will not survive, and the human species will go extinct.  But the addition or exchange of the Alien genetic material will keep them functional.  They will look like humans until puberty when they will undergo a change becoming more like their Alien progenitors.  Eeeuuu.  Imagine …. teenagers with tentacles.  Now THERE’S a visual for you.

So the second book,  Adulthood Rites,  takes place years after the end of Dawn. Humans and Oankali live together on earth though everything is not peaceful. Some humans have accepted the bargain and live with the Oankali and give birth to hybrid children called ‘constructs.’ Others, however, have refused the bargain and live in separate, all human, Resister villages. The Ooloi have made all humans infertile so the only children born are the ones made with Ooloi intervention. This creates a great deal of tension and strain as the humans see their lives as meaningless without children, as well as seeing themselves being outbred by the Oankali-human constructs. Desperate humans often steal human looking construct children to raise as their own. The main character of the second book, Akin, is the first male construct born to a human mother (Lilith). Akin has more human in him than any construct before him. This book focuses on Akin’s struggle with his human and his Oankali natures.  Eventually,  Humans will be given Mars, modified sufficiently to (barely) support human existence, despite the Oankali certainty that the Mars colony will destroy itself eventually. Akin returns to tell the resisters and begin gathering them up to have their fertility restored before transport to their new world.

The final book of the trilogy, Imago, is the shortest. Imago shows the reader what has been hinted at for the last two books, the full potential of the new human-Oankali hybrid species. The story is told from the prospective of Jodahs, the first Ooloi construct. Through its unique heritage it has unlocked latent genetic potential of humans and Oankali. This book brings a sense of completeness to the story by allowing the reader to understand the Oankali better by understanding Jodahs.

Bottom line, humans still need a god of some kind, and it looks like the Oankali serve as that in the meta view.  The series is all about genetic engineering, race, species, the innate drive of survival.  It is very readable, but for me, the issues of who is better and more worthy that thread their way through it all got to be a smidge irritating.  OK, a LOT irritating.  I think it is my age;  I already did all that hand-wringing over the moral issues.  Now I just want to eat pizza, and have some chocolate and read a story that is not preaching at me too much.