The 2018 Reading List

1. Parable of the Talents – Octavia Butler
2. A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James
3. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter – Daniel Heath Justice
4. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor (re-read)
5. Binti: Home – Nnedi Okorafor
6. Binti: The Night Masquerade – Nnedi Okorafor
7. Q2Q: Queer Canadian Performance Texts (plays) – Various (unpublished manuscript)
8. The Whole Beautiful World – Melissa Kuipers
9. Altered Carbon – Richard K. Morgan (re-read)
10. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur: BFF – Reeder, Montclare, and Bustos
11. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur: Cosmic Cooties – Reeder, Montclare, Failla, and Bustos
12. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur: The Smartest There Is – Reeder, Montclare, Bustos, and Height
13. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur: Girl-Moon – Montclare, Bustos, and Bonvillain
14. Indian Act (plays) – Various (unpublished manuscript)
15. Broken Angels – Richard K. Morgan (re-read)
16. Woken Furies – Richard K. Morgan (re-read)
17. One Thousand Fireflies – Charlene Challenger (unpublished manuscript)
18. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – Kelly Robson
19. Sodom Road Exit – Amber Dawn
20. The Plague – Kevin Chong
21. Adjacentland – Rabindranath Maharaj
22. So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
23. Before I was a Critic, I Was a Human Being – Amy Fung (unpublished manuscript)
24. The Plague – Kevin Chong
25. Adjacentland – Rabindranath Maharaj
26. Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City – Tanis MacDonald (unpublished manuscript)
27. The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
28. Sphinx – Anne Garréta
29. Hygiene and the Assassin – Amélie Nothomb (re-read)
30. Clean Room: Immaculate Conception – Simone, Davis-Hunt, Winter
31. Mapping the Interior – Stephen Graham Jones
32. Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
33. The Beauty – Aliya Whiteley
34. The Antagonist – Lynn Coady (re-read)
35. Listen Before Transmit – Dani Couture
36. Ten-headed Alien – David James Brock
37. An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
38. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture – Roxane Gay (ed.)
39. Autonomous – Annalee Newitz
40. Has the World Ended Yet? Tales to Astonish – Peter Darbyshire
41. Dear Current Occupant – Chelene Knight
42. Steroblind – Emma Healey
43. Ayiti – Roxane Gay
44. The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman – Courtney E. Morgan
45. We All Need to Eat – Alex Leslie
46. Love is Never Wasted – Carol Diana Patterson
47. Crow Jazz – Linda Rogers
48. The Book of Universes – John D. Barrow
49. Clean Room: Exile – Simone, Davis-Hunter, Winter
50. Clean Room: Waiting for the Stars to Fall – Simone, Geovani, Anwar, Winter
51. The Magus – John Fowles
52. Not One Day – Anne Garréta
53. Stranger Things Happen – Kelly Link
54. Demon Theory – Stephen Graham Jones (DNF)
55. In the Night Garden: The Orphan’s Tales Volume 1 – Catherynne M. Valente (DNF)
56. I’m Afraid of Men – Vivek Shraya
57. Negroland – Margo Jefferson
58. Be With: Letters to a Caregiver – Mike Barnes
59. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy – Erin Wunker
60. Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy – Paul Vermeersch
61. Let’s Talk About Love – Claire Kann
62. Get in Trouble – Kelly Link
63. Port of Being – Shazia Hafiz Ramji
64. The Saturday Night Ghost Club – Craig Davidson
65. Holy Wild – Gwen Benaway
66. Strike Your Heart – Amélie Nothomb
67. Nothing is Okay – Rachel Wiley
68. A Colony in a Nation – Chris Hayes
69. Split Tooth – Tanya Tagaq
70. Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes (re-read)
71. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan
72. Find You in the Dark – Nathan Ripley
73. We Have Feelings. We Are Serious. – Julie McIsaac

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2017 Wrap Up

Another year has passed, another year where my inability to drink had me at a distinct disadvantage. Fortunately, as is always the case in times of darkness, entertainment and media of all forms excelled. While I felt like I consumed less this year than in years prior (especially with respect to books), I do feel as though my consumption had more merit or worth to it than is sometimes the case. In some instances I felt like I needed to absorb or fall into specific things this year, to stave off some of the more harrowing aspects of reality, or to further/better educate myself on the task at hand (i.e., overthrowing the patriarchy, making racists afraid again… you know, the usual).

Let’s start with games. Didn’t play all that much this year in terms of breadth of titles, but the few that I did play… let’s just say that I used games as an escape in 2017 more than I have in the past. Part of that involved being completely and utterly taken by a narrative and world, as in the 100-plus hours I spent hunting robot dinosaurs in Horizon: Zero Dawn (which, point of fact, excels in representation, matters of class, race, sexuality, gender roles, etc., all wrapped up in a cogent, thought-provoking narrative involving a post-post-apocalyptic world, shattered in the past due to the actions of a single, exceedingly wealthy, war-mongering white dude—aspects of Native American appropriation aside, the game’s narrative blew me away). Part of it was spent alongside Wolfenstein II’s completely-over-the-top-yet-still-unnervingly-grounded-in-our-current-shitty-reality revolution against the Nazi takeover in 1960’s America. And yet another part of it was spent catapulting through the joy-for-joy’s-sake of Super Mario Odyssey, which proved to be a perfect, and perfectly happy balm for the open wound that was 2017’s news cycle.

The real story for me and gaming this year, however, is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or, How Andrew Reconnected with his Sister over a Cumulative 500+ hours spent Lost in Hyrule. Yeah. That happened. Both of us had hellish years in terms of stress and overwork, and during the summer, when I was out west and helping the family deal with a (thankfully small) medical crisis, this was the thing that we both found we needed, even if we didn’t know it at the time—an enormous, puzzle-based open world full of endless nostalgia and discovery. That they finally go all the way and make Zelda that badass she should have been from the jump, and not just another damsel in distress, is just icing on the cake. And we’re still both engrossed in this damn game, having done almost everything there is to do, which is testament both to how wonderful an experience it is (especially having grown up with the now-thirty-year-old series), and how much we needed something to help us step outside of ourselves and our usual routines.

I managed to see more films in theatres this year than the past few, and was impressed by more than I usually am. Without wanting to recount them all (because I can’t), I’ll say that my top two spots go, without question, to Get Out and The Shape of Water, with honourable mentions to Lady Bird, War for the Planet of the Apes (unexpectedly, one of the best modern SF trilogies), Logan, Baby Driver (despite Kevin Spacey’s assholery), Atomic Blonde, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi—a.k.a. the most interesting Star Wars has been in… forever. Probably others, too, that I’m forgetting, but these are the ones that stand out most in my brain.

For books… well, due to a number of factors—work, school, starting a magazine requiring I read more short fiction than ever before—I actually read fewer books this year than the last ten. In fact, this is the first time since, I think, 2006, that I’ve read fewer than 100 books in a year. That said, the latter half of this year has included some of the strongest experiences I’ve had with books in some time. Because there’s nothing quite like a flood of terrific, soul-destroying reads to let you know that you’re not as jaded as you fear you’ve become, and you can in fact fall in love with reading again—you just need to find the right material.

For reference, a brief demographic breakdown:

Books read (including graphic novels and edited collections: 90 (DNF: 2)

Books by male-identified authors: 35

Books by female-identified authors: 47

Books by more than one author (i.e., edited anthologies): 10

Books by white authors: 39

Books by non-white/POC authors: 51

Graphic novels: 24

Best of the year (in order read): Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay; The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle; Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal, by eds. Kiera Ladner and Myra Tait (full disclosure: I was copy editor for this collection, but still think it’s a must read, despite my obvious bias); The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu; Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay; Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, by Octavia Butler; The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin; Brother, by David Chariandy; Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson; Scarborough, by Catherine Hernandez; What We Lose, by Zinzi Clemmons; What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah; An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay; Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado (apart from the terrible novella in the middle that kills almost all momentum); The Break, by Katherena Vermette; Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. (Not listed: books I’d already read, like Daytripper and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which are perennial faves.)

The worst: Beforelife, by Randal Graham (dear god it was terrible); White Noise, by Hari Kunzru (mostly just disappointing, as I’d heard such glowing praise for this book but felt nothing for it in the end); Dhalgren, by Samuel Delaney (did not finish); The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (did not finish); Brown Girl in the Room, by Priya Ramsingh.

And that’s it for my 2017 media wrap-up. And may 2018 provide both the content we need and a better social and political climate in which to enjoy it.

Cheers.

The 2017 List

1. Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
2. Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
3. Beloved – Toni Morrison
4. The Vegetarian – Han Kang
5. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu (re-read)
6. Yardwork – Daniel Coleman (unpublished manuscript)
7. Falling in Love with Hominids – Nalo Hopkinson
8. Berlin-Warszawa Express – Eamon McGrath
9. Rough Patch – Nicole Marcotic
10. Oreo – Fran Ross
11. Difficult Women – Roxane Gay
12. Concrete Park Vol. I: You Send Me – Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander
13. Concrete Park Vol. II: R-E-S-P-E-C-T – Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander
14. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? – Kathleen Collins
15. The Devil in Silver – Victor LaValle
16. Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal (unpublished manuscript) – ed. Kiera Ladner and Myra Tait
17. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 10 Volume 3: Love Dares You – Christos Gage, Nicholas Brendon, Rebekah Isaacs, and Megan Levens
18. Angel & Faith, Season 10 Volume 3: United – Victor Gischler, Will Conrad, Kel McDonald, and Cliff Richards
19. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 10 Volume 4: Old Demons – Christos Gage, Nicholas Brendon, Rebekah Isaacs, and Megan Levens
20. Angel & Faith, Season 10 Volume 4: A Little More Than Kin – Victor Gischler, Cliff Richards, and Will Conrad
21.Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 10 Volume 5: In Pieces on the Ground – Christos Gage, Rebekah Isaacs, and Megan Levens
22. Angel & Faith, Season 10 Volume 5: A Tale of Two Families – Victor Gischler and Will Conrad
23. Buffy the Vampire Slater, Season 10 Volume 6: Own It – Christos Gage, Rebekah Isaacs, and Juanan Ramírez
24. The Killing Moon – N.K. Jemisin
25. The Shadowed Sun – N.K. Jemisin
26. Thou – Aisha Sasha John
27. MxT – Sina Queyras
28. The Effects of Isolation on the Brain – Erika Rummel
29. All That is Solid Melts Into Air – Carole Giangrande
30. Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person – Daniel Zomparelli
31. Universal Harvester – John Darnielle
32. Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture: The Developmental Theory of Embodiment (unpublished manuscript) – Niva Piran
33. The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss
34. The Twenty Days of Turin – Giorgio de Maria
35. Tomie: Deluxe Edition – Junji Ito
36. The Sum of Us – Ed. Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law
37. Let’s Play White – Chesya Burke
38. 100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
39. 100 Bullets: Split Second Chance – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
40. 100 Bullets: Hang Up on the Hang Low – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
41. 100 Bullets: A Foregone Tomorrow – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
41. 100 Bullets: The Counterfifth Detective – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
42. 100 Bullets: Six Feet Under the Gun – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
43. 100 Bullets: Samurai – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
44. 100 Bullets: The Hard Way – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
45. 100 Bullets: Strychnine Lives – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
46. 100 Bullets: Decayed – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
47. 100 Bullets: Once Upon a Crime – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
48. 100 Bullets: Dirty – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
49. 100 Bullets: Wilt – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
50. Read, Listen, Tell: Indigenous Stories from Turtle Island – eds. Sophie McCall, Deanna Reder, David Gaertner, and Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill
51. Transparency, Conspiracy, and Surveillance: Information Politics and Street Vendors in Urban Indonesia (unpublished manuscript) – Sheri Gibbings
52. Beforelife – Randal Graham
53. Normal – Warren Ellis
54. The Princess Diarist – Carrie Fisher
55. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter – Scaachi Koul
56. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu
57. Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring – Bassem Youssef
58. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body – Roxane Gay
59. White Noise – Hari Kunzru
60. Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh
61. Wild Seed – Octavia Butler
62. Mind of My Mind – Octavia Butler
63. Clay’s Ark – Octavia Butler
64. Patternmaster – Octavia Butler
65. The Ecstatic – Victor LaValle
66. Dhalgren – Samuel Delaney (did not finish)
67. The Doomsday Book – Connie Willis (did not finish)
68. Seizure the Day! (Happiness in Spite of Illness) – Brian Orend (unpublished manuscript)
69. Don’t Tell Me What to Do – Dina Del Bucchia
70. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
71. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin
72. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin
73. Brother – David Chariandy
74. Son of a Trickster – Eden Robinson
75. The Changeling – Victor Lavalle
76. Brown Girl in the Room – Priya Ramsingh
77. Voodoo Hypothesis – Canisia Lubrin
78. Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez
79. Oracle Bone – Lydia Kwa
80. What We Lose – Zinzi Clemmons
81. A Separation – Katie Kitamura
82. What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Lesley Nneka Arimah
83. Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall – Suzette Mayr
84. An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
85. Daytripper – Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (re-read)
86. Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado
87. Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay
88. The Break – Katherena Vermette
89. Downwind Alice – C.C. Adams (re-read)
90. Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

2016: Hell Year Wrap-Up

Well.

So.

That was an… interesting twelve months. And by interesting, I mean harrowing, depressing, occasionally downright terrifying and void of hope. But also, personally, weirdly great. More than great, actually. Kind of amazing, both in terms of my life and relationships, and my career. This was the year my work finally started appearing in anthologies, that I gave my first public reading—and didn’t totally shit the bed, even if I did talk a mile a minute. It was also the year my first novel sold, and to a publisher I both love and respect. It was the year I was forced to put this blog on hiatus, not because I lost interest in it or was overwhelmed by the shittiness of life but because I was drowning in paid reviews, as well other forms of editorial work. As a result, Backlisted, for which I’ve never seen a cent, had to go and sit on the bleachers for a while.

Technically, it’s still there, chilling on the sidelines, waiting for its time to again step out onto the field. That day will come at some point in 2017 (I really want to get around to writing a review for Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, among other titles currently vying for my attention), but for now I wanted to take a moment and reflect on the year that, thankfully, is coming to a swift end.

For the first time since starting Backlisted, I think I was moved this year more often by experiences outside of books. The films Moonlight, Midnight Special, Arrival, Sing Street, Loving, and Under the Shadow all managed to burrow deep into my psyche, as did the video games Thumper, Inside, Virginia, The Witness, and The Last Guardian—complete opposites all in terms of style and approach, but each something that spoke to me on an almost impossible to describe level, doing things with narrative and/or style (because Thumper is nothing if not wall-to-wall style) that I felt missing in a lot of what I read this year. I don’t think this is as much about the quality of the books I read so much as, perhaps, feeling a bit of burnout within the medium, as well as simply not finding myself as capable of detaching from my own writing and editing work enough to truly sink into certain books. In short, I felt for a lot of this year wanting to step outside of books and absorb experiences in which I had no stake, professional or otherwise.

That being said, I still read over 100 books again this year, and wanted to take the time to give some shout-outs where deserved. (The full list of titles I read this year can be found here: https://backlisted.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/2016-cant-stop-wont-stop/)

While I don’t normally like to rank things, the two at the very top of my list for 2016 are N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy and China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris. The former is a 1000+-page epic detailing the rise and fall of a single kingdom, the family of feuding gods at the centre of it and all creation, and the interplay between them. It’s enormous in scope but remains personal at all times. It is dramatic, hilarious, incredibly fucking dark and intense, and at no point failed to completely, utterly impress. It plays freely and fearlessly with race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, art, and destiny, and… I really can’t say enough good things about it (it’s the only 7,000-word review I’ve ever written: https://backlisted.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/review-the-inheritance-trilogy-by-n-k-jemisin/ ).

The latter, to the total opposite end of the spectrum, is a tight, 170-page novella in which a surrealism bomb is detonated near the end of World War II, thus extending the war and bringing all surrealist art into the battle, as a normalized, nightmarish part of it.

A fucking surrealism bomb. Christ, why didn’t I think of that…

This entire book is an experiment in repeated visual orgasming, and I loved every goddamned page of it.

Other notable titles this year (in no particular order other than that in which I read them):

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, by Cordelia Strube
God in Pink, by Hasan Namir
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You, by Jill Sexsmith
North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor Lavalle
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
Gutshot, by Amelia Gray
The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall
Stories of Your Life and Other Stories, by Ted Chiang
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Books I loved but didn’t want to rank because they’re written/edited by close friends, but I still loved them and want to give them the attention they deserve:

The Society of Experience, by Matt Cahil
The Humanity of Monsters, ed. by Michael Matheson
The Angels of Our Better Beasts, by Jerome Stuart (doubly cannot rank this title as I edited the bloody thing, but it’s great and you should read it)
Those Who Make Us, ed. by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (I mean, I have a story in this collection, and it’s one of my favourites, so like hell I wasn’t going to mention it. Good thing the rest of the book is pretty goddamn terrific, too)

Books I was severely disappointed in:

Three Moments of an Explosion, by China Miéville (case study in why it’s not a good idea to just stuff everything possible into a collection. There’s no sense of cohesion to this bloated mess of ideas, and only five or six stories out of its twenty-plus are actually worth the time)
The Monstrous, ed. by Ellen Datlow (not a good first experience with Datlow, who is a legend of an anthology editor. While there are a handful of good-to-great stories in this collection, the worthwhile reads number fewer than a quarter of the total)
What is Not Yours is Not Yours (I have read all Oyeyemi’s work and generally like what she does, but her short fiction sadly did not work for me—there’s a stark lack of focus to the majority of the stories in this collection, and her exceptional wordplay does not make up for it, or for the lack of truly interesting characters)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid (how this mental illness-phobic piece of shit has become one of the year’s best sellers and best-reviewed titles is utterly beyond me. It’s like my experience with Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist all over again—that book was complete trash yet wound up on so many year-end best-of lists that it hurt my brain to think about)
Three Years with the Rat, by Jay Hosking (another best seller. Big ideas in this one, but did not carry any one through to the end with any degree of satisfaction)

All right, I think that’s all I have to say for now. Like I mentioned up top, Backlisted will return in full at some point in the coming year, but for now I wish nothing but the best in 2017 for everyone reading.

-Andrew

Review: And Again, by Jessica Chiarella

25110965>>Published: January 2016

>>Finally got around to it: May 2016

“Is it what they were talking about on the radio?” he asks, releasing my hand and sitting back in his chair. “A few years ago all anyone could talk about was the UN passing an exception to the ban on human cloning. They were saying it was probably for medical research.”

“It was,” I reply, though I shouldn’t be surprised that Dr. Grath would put the pieces together. “There are four of us, in Chicago at least. I’m not sure how many across the country.”

“How does it work?” He’s very calm, for someone who’s just realized he’s sitting across the table from a clone of his best friend. It makes me want to hug him, though I don’t.

“They cut into your brain. The process kills you, but they’re able to extract pieces of the memory center of your brain and transfer it into a new body, into a clone of yourself. It’s sort of like injecting stem cells. The brain matter takes room in the clones and grows there. You become a new person,” I say. “Well, the same person, but a new body.”

“So how old are you?” he asks. He looks a little pale. I wonder if it was a good idea to tell him, if he’s too old and too fragile for these sorts of revelations.

“I guess, maybe a few months old? But they use hormones to rapidly age the clones so they match up with the age you are at the time of transfer. I guess they figured it would be a bit unnerving for adults to wake up in the bodies of infants. They’re all about the psychological effects, let me tell you. I have to go to a support group every week for a year.”

***

SUBlife: an experimental procedure, up for FDA approval, in which participants are selected via lottery to receive a new lease on life—quite literally. The lucky few, all of whom are dying from one thing or another, are cloned, their bodies aged to be what they were upon the death of their original models, and then given a transfer—bits of the brain’s memory centre are ported into the clone, so that the individual in question is able to start a second life with a full memory of their first.

If only it were so simple, though; as with any experimental procedure, the humans at the heart of it have their own issues, agendas, and reasons for wanting the ultimate of do-overs. Only in this instance they are forced to grapple with some larger-than-life questions, such as whether or not they are in fact the same people they once were, or if the transfer process, if vacating one body for another, has changed them or made them somehow less human.

Author Chiarella focuses the narrative on only one of these groups of people, cloned at Northwestern in Chicago: Hanna, an idealistic young painter with metastatic lung cancer; Linda, a mother and scholar trapped in a waking coma for eight years following a car accident; Connie, an actress who burned bright, got into drugs, and contracted HIV; and David, a right-wing US Congressman with a brain tumour the size of a golf ball.

Upon winning this lottery of lotteries, the four are given certain stipulations—they’re not to take up potentially life-altering pursuits such as skydiving and smoking, for example. Additionally, they are to meet as a support group every week for a year, to chart their progress, as the success of the program’s wider implementation rests on their cloned shoulders.

It’s during the support group, however, that we learn the most from these characters—both of their pasts (all of which are troubled in some way, shape, or form, though none more than Linda’s) and of the challenges and fears they must confront due to the fact that, effectively, they’ve died and pulled a Jesus 2.0. Some of their challenges are quite personal, such as Hannah realizing that her muscle memory for painting has not carried over to her new body; on the other hand David’s plot deals not only with the fact that he bought his way into the experiment but that he did so knowing that the God his constituents believe in, and indeed their beliefs in general, starkly oppose human cloning and, in essence, humans playing god.

Right about now I need to say a couple of things, in the interest of fair play: first, I greatly enjoyed Chiarella’s novel. It plays fast and loose with the science, naturally, but she sells it about as much as she needs to. Because it’s not about the hows or the whys, or if it’s even possible, on any conceivable level, for something like this to work; it’s about the characters, and the asking of a very real, very straightforward question: What is it that makes us human?

The second thing I need to say, and this is where it gets a bit awkward for me, is that I am a very biased reviewer with respect to this specific book, and that what prompted me to pick this title up in the first place was in reading the synopsis and saying aloud in the bookstore, “Well, fuck me, this sounds familiar.” In short, my second book, which I’ve been working on for six years now and which is currently in its fifth round of edits, shares a number of elements with Chiarella’s at the DNA level—from the cloning and transferring of minds to the resultant questions and attempts to understand what’s lost in the process, as well as what’s gained. In short, this was both exciting and a little unnerving, because the last thing any writer wants to see is their ideas or similar approximations in another’s text—we all want to view ourselves as original snowflakes, after all.

Thankfully, however, Chiarella and I differ in our focus, and with respect to the specificity of certain things. As such, I was able to detach a little more from my own work and enjoy this for what it is—a fast-paced character study with some rather lofty ideas.

While I never lost interest in what was happening or the ways in which the story progressed, I do have a few issues with certain narrative choices, and things dropped too quickly or not touched upon at all.

On the strictly narrative side of things, the affair between Hannah and David, who on paper are ethical opposites that despise one another, never really rang true. While it’s justified as two basically reborn people attempting to rationalize their new and old lives and to better understand how to define their current existence, it still felt like one of those things that is inserted into the text because the author simply needed to create further conflict. In short, it didn’t feel earned, and was not helped in this regard by the gaps of sometimes months between each part, in which a fair amount of off-the-page development seemed to occur.

I also would have loved to see further exploration into questions of their autonomy, and whether or not their lack thereof in certain circumstances alters their individual perspectives on what they now are: humans, or products of a larger corporate and/or scientific entity. This concern is most evident when Linda becomes pregnant, at her husband’s request, to try and save their splintering family, only when she has second thoughts she learns she cannot abort the child because the SUBlife committee needs the data from her pregnancy. And because her life and body had been signed over to them, she is given no say in the matter.

It also would have been interesting to witness more of the political and societal fallout from the story getting leaked to the outside world. While yes, this is meant to be an intimate tale of what’s lost and what can be regained or reset on a life-by-life basis, it’s difficult, sometimes, to take a story like this and place it in such a tight bottle—because the ramifications of such a thing merely existing would be so far reaching and dramatic as to change the tenor of the world. It’s the Robert Sawyer problem—stories that change the world but feel like they’re the size and scope of a stage play. Where Chiarella succeeds, though, and where Sawyer fails and fails and fails some more, is in having strong, intelligent characters who are struggling to figure out what their changed identity means.

To bring it back around to my aforementioned bias, I felt while reading And Again that certain character changes came about a little quickly. There’s nothing paid to the idea that their bodies are new save for their fresh and youthful appearances and an inability to taste as they once did, or handle their liquor—or, as revealed later, to be able to carry a pregnancy to term. But there’s nothing to the idea that these bodies, prior to waking up, are unused and would need extensive physical rehab; there’s also little on the medical side of things concerned with the ways in which they function differently, with respect to remembering certain skills but not having the muscle memory to carry them out (ie: Hannah and her painting). One would think they’d be given more attentive care throughout, to adjust and track such things, given all that’s riding on their ability to re-enter their lives as effortlessly and conflict-free as possible. But again, I’m projecting my own ideas onto what is, in the end, a very different story with only a similar overarching conceit.

What carries this book in the end is the journey of its four main characters. Their paths are unpredictable, for the most part, and even when they do fall into either uncharacteristic or seemingly unearned behaviours, we give them grace because they are, in some ways literally, no longer themselves. And they are figuring out what that means at the same time we are learning both who they were and who they now are.

And Again is a quick read, and while I’m not always a fan of the first person, especially when switching between characters, Chiarella gives them each a unique enough voice that one never becomes lost. This is terrific summer reading that asks a little more of its readers than the standard popcorn fare, and is successful in what it sets out to do. Definitely recommended.

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

9781594634635_custom-2593ed815285acb4dca2b31593cb227d0e62e676-s400-c85>>Published: March 2016

>>Finally got around to it: April 2016

Mum and Dad wouldn’t be thrilled by my new career ambitions. Don’t forget your Uncle Majhi… Majhi the mime… and ask yourself, do we really want more people like that in our family? My parents worked a lot—no need to bother them with something that might not work out. The thing to do was gain admission first and talk them round later. I bought a brown-skinned glove puppet. He came with a little black briefcase and his hair was parted exactly down the middle. The precision of his parting made me uneasy; somehow it was too human at the exact same time as exposing his status as a nonhuman. I got him a top hat so I wouldn’t have to think about the cloth hair falling away from the center of his cloth scalp. You gave me a hand with some basics of ventriloquism, even though you definitely weren’t supposed to help—it was then that I began to hope that you’d stop saying I wasn’t right for you—and I taught my puppet to tell jokes with a pained and forlorn air, fully aware of how bad the jokes were. Sometimes you laughed, and then my glove puppet would weep piteously. When you took the glove puppet he alternated between flirtatious and suicidal, hell-bent on flinging himself from great heights and out of windows. I noticed that you didn’t make a voice or a history for the puppet, but you became its voice and history. I’d have liked to admire that but felt I was watching a distressing form of theft, since the puppet could do nothing but suffer being forced open like an oyster.

***

Her first short fiction collection following five novels and two plays, Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Your is Not Yours is a bit difficult to get a feel for—at once quite intelligent and decidedly well written, it’s also detached, its characters and plots for the most part removed from one another, at least on an emotional level.

The nine stories in the collection all revolve around or contain some reference to a key of one sort or another. Characters occasionally exist in multiple stories, and threads of connectivity do exist, but the stories are primarily independent of one another, save this shared conceit.

In “Books and Roses,” a young girl named Montserrat is abandoned with a key around her neck, the purpose of which remains for years a mystery. She comes to befriend another woman with a key of her own, an artist awaiting the return of her possibly murderous lover. “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” begins by discussing the narrator’s friendship with a man named Chedorlaomer, and then diverges into its primary tale about a violent, ill-tempered musician named Matyas Füst who abuses a prostitute, and when knowledge of this goes viral, proceeds to fumble his apology—and then continues to fumble the apology to his apology in much the same way, by focusing entirely on himself and not at all on the individual he hurt.

With the DNA of Pinocchio at its core, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” is a story about puppeteers and students of puppetry, with a shifting narrative voice: the first half belongs to Radha; the second to her living puppet Gepetta. In “Drownings,” a man named Arkady plots to kidnap the daughter of the tyrant who orphaned him, having his parents drowned in the middle of the night when he was just a boy.

“Presence,” one of the collection’s strongest entries, follows a couple as they undergo a psychological experiment charting their presences, and the possibilities inherent to their lives and futures, when not in the same location. In an interesting turn of events, and as one of the more affecting sequences in the entire book, the wife, Jill, goes so far as to hallucinate, in a very believable way, a son that never existed in the first place. The experience is described intriguingly as “an implosion of memory. And as the subjects drift through the subsequent debris, they calmly develop a conviction that they do not do so alone.

“A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society” explores two university societies as they go head-to-head with one another while issues of interpersonal love and lust go unabated. “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose” is another entry obviously influenced by fairy tales, imagining if Red Riding Hood were older, wiser, widowed, and had struck a deal with the Big Bad Wolf—to find for him a sacrifice rather than to allow him to feast on just any unfortunate passerby. A charming story about things from youth being locked away, to be sacrificed or bargained for in adulthood. It’s in this and the first story that the use of the key as a narrative device works best.

“Freddy Barrandov Checks . . . In?” introduces us to the titular nursery school teacher, the son of two Hotel Glissando employees who wish their offspring to follow in their footsteps—whether it’s what he wants or not. And lastly, “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think” dives deep into office gossip subculture as a new employee—Eva—is at first idolized for her mystery and appearance, and then ostracized for being an adulterer. She carries with her a diary she’d stopped writing in years earlier—the story’s lock in need of a key, of course.

While I loved the mystery of the final story’s ending, and how it felt somehow complete in its ambiguity, that’s more than I can say for many others in this collection. Which, I suppose, is one of my chief complaints: that the majority of the stories don’t feel so much as they end as they limp off into the distance having been shot in the calf.

The second issue I have with this collection is with respect to the key, both as an object and a theme that runs throughout. Frequently the presence of these keys felt unnaturally forced into place in each story. I was made aware of the conceit of the key prior to reading this book, upon reading an interview given by the author. I can’t be sure had I not known about its purpose ahead of time that the sense of discovering a key in each story might have been stronger, but going into the collection with this knowledge in mind, I think, helped to draw additional attention to their existence—an unfortunate thing in this instance, as they routinely stood out as items injected into scenes not always necessary to the whole, as if the author had decided upon the shared imagery after the fact.

Lastly, I have to admit I struggled with the nested aspect of many of these tales. Oyeyemi’s short stories are like Matryoshka dolls that begin with an outer layer not necessarily linked—at least not intrinsically—to what’s inside; often I felt as if I was being taken on tangents too many to count, and as such found myself not necessarily losing focus but certainly losing interest in the “main” narratives of several of the stories. However, this is a personal issue. I am pickier about short fiction than I am any other form, and what I often like most about the works of short fiction that have stuck with me over time is their focus—the promise of a single idea stretched and spiralled to its limit. Oyeyemi’s short stories, on the other hand, meander and take their time finding their way to the end. I can’t really fault this as it is a stylistic decision, and a valid one at that, but in this format it did not work for me, and I was left at the end of each story feeling more frustrated than not.

On a purely technical level, Oyeyemi’s craft is second to none. Her use of language is skilful as always, and her abilities only seem to increase with each book. Narratively, though, I flip-flop on her work, and often come down on the side of wanting to love it so much more than I actually do. To date, I’ve read four of her novels, and her first, The Icarus Girl, is still my favourite, with the wickedly constructed White is for Witching a close second; Mr. Fox failed to connect with me, and though I found the writing in Boy, Snow, Bird to be exceptional, its narrative fell apart for me in its final section.

Given my issues with the narrative structure of many of the stories in this collection, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, though I would likely still place it in the middle of the pack—it doesn’t reach the heights of Icarus and Witching, but it’s an interesting work all the same. I only wish I could say I enjoyed it more than I did, but the best I can offer is a tepid shrug and a recommendation for maybe three or four of the nine stories: “Presence,” “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose,” “Drownings,” and “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think.” And of these, “Presence” and “Drownings” were the only two I felt successfully established any sort of emotional connection. Which means either I’m dead inside, or perhaps this collection just wasn’t right for me.

Crossing my fingers for the latter.

Review: City of the Lost, by Kelley Armstrong

9780345815613>>Published: January 2016

>>Finally got around to it: March 2016

“I keep thinking about this place,” she blurts. “And don’t laugh, okay? Because I know it sounds crazy, and maybe it just proves how desperate I am. But in my therapy group, there’s this woman I have coffee with, and we talk about our escape plans, what we’d do if things got too bad. She has a place she’d go.”

“A cabin or something?”

“No, a town. For people who need to disappear. A place where no one can find them.”

“Like an underground railway for abuse victims?”

“For anyone in trouble. It’s an entire town of people who’ve disappeared.”

I shake my head. “I’m sorry, Di, but that sounds like a classic urban legend. Think about it. An invisible town? In today’s world, you’re never really off the grid. How would a place like that work? The economy, the security…”

“I’m not saying I believe in it. The point is that it proves how far I’ve fallen, Case. I can’t stop thinking about it. Obsessing over it. Telling myself maybe, just maybe, it could be real.”

“It isn’t,” I say. “Now, if you want to talk real strategies and escape plans, we can do that. But no fantasy bullshit. It’s a real problem; it needs a real solution.”

***

Detective Casey Duncan is haunted by her past. When she was just eighteen, she shot a man dead—her ex-boyfriend, Blaine. It wasn’t a cold-blooded murder, though, nothing so simple or premeditated. See, Blaine was a low-level drug dealer, and a child of Montréal’s Saratori crime family. He and Casey hooked up while she was a fledgling police cadet; he was, for lack of better phrasing, her “walk on the wild side.” But Blaine was more reckless than Casey at first realized, and when they were accosted one night by men who claimed Blaine was dealing on their turf, Casey’s would-be beau took off into the night, leaving her to face a wrath better directed at him.

She was left for dead that night, with, among other things: several fractures all over her body, a severe concussion, an intracranial hematoma, and lacerations. Oh, and she was probably raped, too, but somehow the rape kit mysteriously vanished before it could be processed.

It takes Casey eighteen months to recover from the attack, during which time Blaine never once visits or expresses concern. And when she finally does confront him, he wastes no time shirking all responsibility, going so far as to blame her for “allowing” herself to be raped and assaulted.

So yeah, he pretty much got what he deserved.

But Casey is unfortunately left shouldering the emotional burden of her crime, and though she has since become a respected detective (who also happens to be a black belt in aikido), she is unable to escape her past. So she periodically visits with new therapists, immediately confessing to them what she did, waiting for that day when one of them breaks confidentiality and Leo Saratori’s goons come knocking on her door; or that of her closest friend Diana; or Kurt, the troubled bartender with whom she’s sleeping (who is not-so-secretly the most interesting and trustworthy character in the book).

Her friend Diana, whom Casey has known and confided in for years (and is the only other person who knows what happened to Blaine), has demons of her own in the form of her ex-husband Graham, a lawyer and psychopath who has terrorized and traumatized Diana for years. When Graham steps back into the picture and beats Diana to within an inch of her life, and a Saratori henchman tracks Casey down and wounds Kurt trying to get to her, Diana is able to convince Casey to flee with her to a city that might or might not exist—a place where they can retreat from their pasts, until their pasts forget they exist.

This is the premise for author Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lost, the first of a new series starring Detective Casey Duncan (or Butler, as she’s later renamed). The titular city, called Rockton, is a wilderness town that doesn’t exist on any map. Home to some two hundred souls seeking to escape crimes, traumas, and the mistakes of their pasts, its closest neighbour being the Yukon Territory’s Dawson City, Rockton is a mostly self-sustaining environment surrounded by a dark and sometimes violent forest. And like any city or town, regardless of size, it has its share of problems: prostitution, drug use (a local opiate called “Rydex,” or just “dex”), and of course, murder. Which is why, despite her past crime, Casey is allowed into town alongside Diana—because the existing sheriff, a rough plank of wood named Eric Dalton, needs all the help he can get to bring some semblance of justice to a town comprised of, as he puts it, women fleeing shit choices in men, and men fleeing shit choices in life.

Rockton itself is a fascinating idea, one rife with potential for mystery and subterfuge. (Even the town’s origins, as a refuge for those escaping McCarthy-era America in the 1950s, offer tantalizing possibility as to the sorts of individuals it houses or might house in future instalments.) And Armstrong does a pretty great job setting the stage for a hostile environment in which one could believe people living to avoid having to pay the price, or suffer the consequences, for the unfortunate ways in which their lives have turned out. At its core, however, this book is popcorn pleasure, and while I can see the many ways in which this sort of environment could be used for more in-depth commentary on modern society and what one must jettison to live a life (mostly) free from one’s demons, Armstrong never strays much from the core mystery’s path.

Where she does falter, however, is with respect to the novel’s core relationship between the aforementioned sheriff and town hardass Dalton, and our protagonist. From the jump, the two have a strained relationship, with Dalton initially untrusting of Casey, and Casey working to figure out how to adapt to life in Rockton and with what’s expected of her as Dalton’s partner in crime—so to speak. Both are strong characters, and the manner in which their friendship builds atop all their sarcasm and personal scar tissue—both literal and figurative—is done exceedingly well… but that’s all it ever was or should have been. A friendship. Or, that’s how I felt while reading.

The single largest issue I have with this book is that Armstrong wrote a hell of a friendship, one that felt both natural and, more importantly, earned. But I never got even the slightest hint of actual romantic chemistry between its two leads. So when events push them together, it simply never worked for me. Worse, their coming together almost immediately alters both their personalities and they become like puppy dogs to one another. Whatever fire existed at the core of their friendship, the fire that linked them as people, is readily tossed aside and, for the final third of the book, it feels like we are left following two new and different people. They share the same lives and histories as the characters we’ve been following from moment one, but once they decide to couple up they stop resembling their former selves on an emotional level. As a result, the events of the final chapters, and the threats to both their well-beings, simply don’t land with the same weight they could have had the characters remained more true to who they were, and felt less shoved in a direction that simply wasn’t natural.

Honestly, it felt to me like light character assassination, and in the end I lost interest in both of them. Oh, how I wish they would have remained friends, and built something more sibling like in terms of trust and experience, rather than what felt like a very forced coupling. That, and the fact that their first physical experience together, out in the woods, is deeply uncomfortable for a myriad of reasons—and is far too easily brushed aside once Casey decides to push ahead with their relationship.

Second on my list of complaints is something I don’t want to get into with too much detail, as to do so would be to spoil the ending, but holy shit the glut of information provided by the villain at the climax reeks of needing to finish the novel as quickly as possible. It’s a monologue so complete and inorganically detailed as to make even the best (or worst) Bond villain cringe… or maybe the better comparison would be that of some old amusement park owner whose evil schemes were thwarted by a bunch of kids and a dog driving some sort of Mystery Machine…

There is some satisfaction to be had in the revelations of the book’s latter half—Diana’s true nature, Dalton’s shady and complicated past—but I will say I was more frustrated than anything, both by the speed at which the plot wrapped up (via the aforementioned info-dump), and by the lack of closure experienced at the very end. Granted this is the start of a series, but there should still be some sense of closure at the end of a story like this, and I simply did not feel that was achieved. In other words, it felt too much like the first chapter of something larger, and not a complete tale in and of itself.