Cynthia Recommends

CynthiaCynthia served a tour of duty at Locus magazine. She still reads a lot of sci-fi.

Shovel Ready (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780385348997
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Crown, 1/2014
This odd little novel reads like the secret love child of William Gibson and Raymond Chandler, served with a side of Billy Graham. In post-apocalyptic New York, religion is just about the only thing enjoying a renaissance. This is not comforting good news, however; more like Old Testament fire and brimstone. Our main man is only ever referred to as Spademan. Once a solid-waste engineer -- yes, a garbage man -- he is now a hit man, a hungry ghost in a dead city, a killer of men and women, but he’s got a thing about kids. He never had any of his own, and he isn’t about to start hunting the children of others. He has, however, been hired to protect (or is it kill?) the 18-year-old daughter of evangelical megapreacher T.K. Harrow. Her name is Grace Chastity, but she goes by a much more appropriate nom de guerre -- Persephone. And when Spademan finds out that Persephone is in fact with child, everything he thinks he knows starts to unravel. This is a compelling story about the intersection of faith and greed, cyberpunk and film noir. Everyone here is flawed; everyone has secrets and stories. One hopes that this is just the beginning for this author and his gritty parables.

The Postmortal (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780143119821
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Penguin Books, 8/2011
This is a zombie novel without the zombies. Or, perhaps more precisely, all of the zombies in this book are very much alive. They are, in fact, “postmortal”; they have been given the cure for aging.

Does this make them think more carefully about their lives and decisions? Why, no. They gulp up resources, drinking expensive Champagne from golden cups while flying first-class to Vegas to party their immortal lives away; they have sex with the wrong people, breed indiscriminately (the author has a fascination with reproduction and childbirth usually found only in adolescent boys), and abandon the children they produce to be raised by cult-like megachurches. The results are predictable; the government starts paying contractors to terminate the oldest postmortals and repossess as much of their property as possible. Meanwhile, roving gangs of underprivileged people start taking matters into their own hands. Supposed redemption comes when the main character falls in love with a mysterious woman and her equally mysterious unborn child. Actual redemption, in a “Mother Nature bats last” kind of way, comes in the form of a plague that targets postmortals, only the wealthiest of whom can afford to buy immunity. While gritty and thought-provoking in many ways, I was still not particularly sorry to see these characters go. Even the most violent of technological change, it seems, won’t compel some people to grow up.

Without a Summer (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780765334152
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Tor Books, 4/2013
This delicate confection of a fantasy novel is set in a world very much like the Regency period so beloved by Jane Austen fans, only with a slight twist; ladies of good breeding are expected to master glamour, a subtle magic similar to illusion, in addition to their other feminine arts. The third novel in the Glamour in Glass series brings to life the further adventures of Jane, a talented practitioner of this elusive art. Now that Jane is settled into a happy marriage with the renowned glamourist Sir David Vincent, her attention is focused on finding a suitable match for her younger sister, Melody. Pretty, vivacious Melody is only too aware of this fact, however, and misunderstandings, miscommunications, and near-misses abound as they join the London season. Moreover, the secret work that Jane and her husband continue to perform for the Prince Regent lands them in prison, and very nearly breaks up their happy union. A happy ending is a given, however, and Kowall has yet to disappoint. This is a great summer read.

The Age of Miracles (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780812982947
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1/2013
Post-apocalyptic tales have long been popular on the YA scene, but here we have a slightly newer twist -- the during-apocalypse story. It’s an ordinary day at first for Julia, a middle-class, middle-school, thoroughly middling kid -- privileged, but not special. She lives in a surprisingly diverse suburban California neighborhood with her parents, having sleepovers with friends and thinking about boys, bras, and soccer practice. Then “the slowing” starts, and her world falls apart, in more ways than one. The earth slows in its rotation, changing the length of a day first by minutes, then hours, changing all life irrevocably, causing chaos and destruction that, somehow, never quite degenerates into panic for Julia. She’s somehow still worried about her birthday party and why her former best friend isn’t talking to her any more. This is especially surprising since, at the end of the novel, we find out it is a flashback, written when Julia is 23 years old. The “not with a bang but a whimper” scenario seems plausible -- this is, perhaps, a comment on climate change, which most sane persons will agree is happening, but no one seems to know what to do to stop. In the novel, however, Julia’s passivity has infected every government and agency on earth; no one has any information, no one seems inclined to do anything at all in the end, except send a rocket into space saying “we were here” -- and, perhaps, conjure laser-clear recollections of the vague misery of middle school.

The line on the front cover of the advance copy says, “It still amazes me how little we really knew.” This can applied liberally to the entire subject matter of the novel -- we don’t know why children grow up, why supposedly stable human relationships dissolve and reform, why people have to die, what holds our literal and metaphorical North Stars in place in our literal and metaphorical skies. In fact, we take it for granted that these things have always been so, and will continue long after we’re gone, in perhaps deliberate ignorance of the role of human agency as a catalyst for change. But one of the central tenets of science fiction is that there will be a future, and that somehow human beings will be a part of it. I just hope, should this particular version of the end of the world be visited upon us, that the children of privilege will think of something to do besides watch.

Fiend (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780770436315
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Crown, 7/2013
Remember what I said about all of the classic monsters being metaphors? Forget all that. Peter Stenson is here to turn the entire hackneyed zombie genre on its head. Chase is a regular guy. Sort of. He’s got some problems. He’s been too busy smoking meth with his buddy Typewriter to notice the end of the world. Once he does notice, he’s got other problems; how to steer clear of the maniacally-laughing undead and keep himself, Typewriter, and a motley cast of others alive. How to rescue his ex-girlfriend, KK, who is arguably the only person he’s ever loved. How to find out about the fate of his parents. But far, far more importantly, how to find his next meth hit, because he needs it. Now. The only people who haven’t turned into zombies, or died quietly in the night, are addicts like himself, and now he has even less incentive than ever to clean up his act. Chase is a smart guy, and you’re willing to follow him pretty far before it occurs to you that he is wildly unstable and, quite possibly, exactly the kind of unreliable narrator your mother warned you about. I won’t spoil it for you. This is a glimpse into a world that most of us never see -- and for that, I am forever grateful. But this is a wild ride of a book.

Reamde (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780061977961
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: William Morrow, 9/2011
Stephenson’s latest work is yet another foray into online gaming and gold-farming a la Ready Player One and For the Win (am I the only person on earth who doesn’t play World of Warcrack?), and, like anything else he’s ever written, it’s dense. As such, it gets off to a slow start, but the final product is worth it.

Richard Forthrast is a black sheep; he’s a former draft dodger and marijuana smuggler whose success at online game design has hardly redeemed him with his right-wing fundamentalist gun-nut family. When his niece Zula gets involved with the Russian mafia by way of her gold-farming gamer boyfriend, however, it’s up to Richard to track her down and save the day--but then things really get weird. Ultimately, the conceit that multinational terrorists would be no match for gun-toting middle America is realized in an apocalyptic battle at the Forthrast family compound. Not to spoil anything for you, but this is Stephenson--the good guys win, and there is a happy ending in store for the majority of the characters.

As usual, the characters are quite likable, and the mayhem is unpredictable enough that I kept turning pages. What’s odd about Reamde, however, is that it doesn’t address the usual Stephensonian obsessions (technology and/or religion)--this is a meditation on family, both the kind you’re born into, and the kind you choose for yourself as you venture out into the wider world. Maybe Stephenson is mellowing in his old age. If this book leaves a touch of melancholy in your mind, perhaps that’s only appropriate considering the weight of the subject matter.

Warm Bodies (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9781439192313
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Atria Books, 4/2011
A friend of mine once explained that all of the classic movie monsters are metaphors.

Vampires, for example, are metaphors for addiction; thus, all of the bad-turned-good vampires you see in fiction these days stand in for addicts who have gotten clean and gone straight. They are still dangerous--a junkie who has gotten clean, as any 12-step program will tell you, is still a junkie, albeit one exponentially less likely to steal your TV. Or bite you on the neck.

Zombies, he said, are metaphors for, well, zombies--people who shuffle lifelessly from office, to car, to couch, to bed, and back again, without ever looking up at the stars and wondering what it’s all about. And perhaps the current fad for zombies means that those real-life zombies are finally waking up.

Which brings me to Warm Bodies.

R is a zombie, a shuffling undead who starts to change after a chance encounter with a living girl who dreams, and her boyfriend, who’s given up on his dreams. The boyfriend dies; the girl lives. And R decides to leave behind everything he knows in order to follow her to the fortress-like stadium that she and the remaining living people call home. There he takes a stand, not only against the Boneys, the authoritarian elders of the dead, but against the half-dead authoritarian rulers of the living. He can’t do it alone -- he gets by with a little help from his friends --but his actions change everything, not just for R and the other undead, but for the living, and for the weary old world itself.

How do you bring a zombie back to life? You can’t--the zombie has to want to live.

This is a stunning book, an entirely fresh look at a genre that has been done to death in recent years, and a new set of metaphors all its own --on authority and authoritarianism, creativity and the dreams of youth, and the nature of human evil. Heartwarming, and highly recommended.

(A big shout-out to Luisa for turning me on to this book--THANKS!)

ISBN-13: 9780062004758
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Harper Voyager, 7/2011
Like The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, this trim volume is a collection of short fiction, artwork, and faux-scholarship loosely arranged around the mythological figure of Dr. Lambshead and his fabled collection of unusual objects. Like a true wunderkammer, there’s something here for everyone: from a very different sort of kindergarten to the bittersweet tale of a bear who tries to live as a man, from a holy man who’s anything but holy to a shell-shocked former secret agent trying to do the right thing for God and country. If you like your steampunk served with a side of Halloween dark-carnival macabre, by all means, step right up and don’t be shy. Wonders await.

Among Others (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780765321534
Availability: Out of Print
Published: Tor Books, 1/2011
Among Others is an unselfconscious fairy tale, a coming-of-age story, and a love song to genre fiction. Teenaged Morwenna Markova has survived the death of her twin sister, Morganna, at the hands of their mother, the evil witch Elizabeth. She’s escaped her mother’s clutches, but, being under-aged, she is then sent off to boarding school in the care of the father she’s never met. At first all seems lost -- and then she discovers that the English countryside, so different from the Welsh one she grew up in, is also populated by the fairies that she and her sister befriended back home. She is also a voracious, lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy. At first, books are her only friends, but first her school’s librarian, and then a scifi book group at the town library, show her that she isn’t alone. When the final confrontation with her mother comes, she is ready, despite the fact that the battle is not what it seems.

This is a tender, beautiful, and timeless story. Morwenna is sympathetic and believable, and her subtle version of magic verges on soft science. Someone who has not read a lot of SF won’t get all of the in-jokes, but someone reasonably well-read in the genre will find gems in these pages. It reads a bit like an “It Gets Better” for SF fans, something that is remarked upon in the dedication, and the sentiment never goes out of style.

At one point, someone asks the main character if she would rather meet an elf or a Venusian, and I thought immediately of both Ready Player One and this novel. They are both bildungsroman, one set in a magical England, the other in a post-industrial USA; one is so clearly a boy’s adventure story, while this is a girl’s coming of age, discovering her own power and her capacity for love. Kline is the Venusian; Walton is the elf. I loved this book. It could be considered YA, but it works for adults as well.

Luminarium (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9781569479759
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Soho Press, 8/2011
Fred Brounian is having a rough time of things. His twin brother George is dying of cancer; he’s just lost his job at what was his own company, which now belongs to his brother Sam; his aging parents have problems of their own. This is post 9/11 New York, and many people still bear the scars. His answer is to seek meaning in technology--specifically, a study being done at New York University, in the neurology department. The program is supposed to provide him with a kind of elevated mental state, which another character defines as “faith without ignorance”. It leads him on a wild goose chase through Hindu mythology, trying to find meaning in the random events of his life--and his life is getting more random all the time. (Brounian=Brownian. Get it?)

Is it actually science fiction? The technology at work is something that could easily happen in the here and now. The little voice in my head says yes, but I couldn’t tell you why; only that it will go over well with anyone who remembers the dot-com boom.

ISBN-13: 9780765324078
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Orb Books, 9/2010
This is a reprint, originally published in 1991, and I must say it has aged remarkably well, which is unusual in genre fiction. This is, more properly, a horror story--ut a subtle and literate one, imbued with the magic of San Francisco.

A writer of two-bit horror stories named Franz has survived the death of his wife, and has allowed himself to be swept along on a tide of alcohol and grief for over a year. When he quits drinking and starts to live again, he finds himself residing in what was once a hotel in San Francisco, surrounded by friends--his landlady and her brother and daughter, his neighbors Gunnar and Saul, and even a new love in the form of Calpurnia, an enigmatic musician twenty years his junior. But he finds himself in the grip of an obsession. He has been studying a rare book, one he bought while drunk in a mysterious shop he can’t find again. The book contains a theory of the magic of big cities, called “megapolisomancy”, and the spirits of San Francisco begin to become visible to Franz; not all of them are benign. He begins to feel like he is haunted or cursed, and his research into everything from the author of the book to the origins of his apartment building seem to tighten into a spiral of madness and death. Only the simple truths of friendship, love, and music can save him.

This is a slim little volume, and made for a quick read, but it is an elegant story, more creepy than terrifying. Its emphasis on books and the city of San Francisco make it a natural for Bay Area readers.

Ready Player One (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780307887436
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Crown, 8/2011
Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future where the environment is polluted, we’ve run out of fossil fuels, and people live fictitious lives logged into a virtual reality game world called OASIS in order to forget how miserable their real lives are. The protagonist, Wade, is no exception. He is a player in the ultimate game, a “gunter”, where the top prize is incalculable wealth, unlimited online power, and real-world fame. The evil corporation IOI, however, is determined to win the game themselves, and they are willing to kill to do it. Along the way, Wade gets a real job, makes friends, finds love, defeats the evil corporation, and, ultimately, wins the game (as if there was ever any real doubt).

My first impression was, “Somebody’s been playing waaaay too much World of Warcraft and/or Second Life.” But ultimately, this is a cautionary tale; Kline advises geeks everywhere to move out of their parents’ basements, get some exercise, get a haircut and get a real job, or else they’ll never find true love--which, in his mind, is the ultimate prize. Who can blame him? Sometimes the opportunity to live a normal life is its own reward. This lesson is perhaps especially relevant to today's plugged-in young adults.

My husband read this in a single afternoon... which he simply does not do. He’s not much of a reader. (How I ended up married to “not much of a reader” is another story.) But he has been a fan of Kline’s spoken-word art for many years, and we both found
Ready Player One thoroughly enjoyable, as well as a fast read. Not surprising, considering it’s very much a “boy’s own adventure” for grown-ups, and should appeal to the young and young-at-heart.

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