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Saturday, August 19, 2017

John Scalzi: "The Dispatcher"

Author:  John Scalzi
Title:  "The Dispatcher"
Plot Type:  Science Fiction 
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality0; Humor—2   
Publisher:  Subterranean Press (4/2017, e-book, audio CD, audiobook, & [expensive limited edition] hardcover)

                    WORLD-BUILDING                     
     In this alternate Chicago, when a person is murdered, he or she almost always returns to life. There's only a one-in-a-thousand chance that the dead person will remain dead forever. At first glance, this mythology may seem simple, but in actuality it is astonishingly complexjam-packed with ethical and moral conundrums.

     In order to maintain control over reincarnations, the government trains and licenses Dispatchers, whose job it is to kill (i.e., dispatch) people on the brink of death—under tightly controlled conditions and strict regulations—so that they will revive in the same condition in which they were several hours prior to their death. Most Dispatchers work in hospitals, where they dispatch patients who have been declared by a physician to be teetering irretrievably on the edge of death after car accidents, heart attacks, surgeries gone wrong, etc. Don't forget...only murder victims come back from the dead, so the only way that patients dying from non-murderous causes will revive is for someone to kill (dispatch) them. As soon as the doctor officially "calls" a patient's imminent death, the Dispatcher steps up and administers a shot of liquid nitrogen to the victim's brain, after which (if everything goes as it should), the person dies, disappears in a whoosh of air, and reappears stark naked in a place he or she deems to be safe and secure—usually at home in bed.


     So...you ask, why are Dispatchers needed? If almost all murdered people come back to life, why can't anyone kill a dying person in order to bring him or her back? There is a key phrase in that question: the words "almost all." For example, if a father kills his beloved son just before he dies from injuries suffered in a chain-saw accident, what happens if his son does not revive? Answer: That father would have to live with the fact that he murdered his own child, and he would spend the rest of his life in prison for murder. Also, Dispatchers are trained to dispatch people only under specific conditions, and their means of killing is as quick and clean as possible because the people they kill remember everything about their deaths, including all of the pain and suffering.


     Anytime death and reincarnation are possible on a large scale, there are going to be legal gray areas. Here, Tony (the story's protagonist) gives an example: "[A] film crew [is] filming a complicated stunt...it all goes wrong and the stunt person breaks their neck...That...person isn't ever going to walk again—but they're not going to die from it...It's not my job to dispatch people who are critically, horribly injured but aren't going to die...but...no one in this situation...wants this guy to go on living like this...So [someone]...hands you an envelope with forty thousand dollars of cash in it and asks you to take care of it. And you go over...and pop one into their skull. The stunt person shows up at home, neck unbroken, gets on a plane to Chicago...and everyone's back to work the next day." 


     This novella deals with a Dispatcher who finds himself in desperate trouble after he takes a private job that goes horribly wrong.

PUBLISHER'S BLURB:

     One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life. 

     Tony Valdez is a Dispatchera licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death's crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death, and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge what they see as a wrong. 

    It's a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it's too late...before not even a Dispatcher can save him. 

MY REVIEW: 
     Tony Valdez has been a Dispatcher for eight years, and he has a perfect record so far—hasn't lost a single patient. Earlier in his career, Tony stepped into the legal gray area, taking some dodgy private jobs for the money and doing some things that he's not proud of. That all stopped several years ago; now he's clean and plans to stay that way.

     One day, Tony gets a call from Jimmy, another Dispatcher, who asks him to take over a job because he has an unavoidable schedule conflict. Since Tony is on call that day, nothing about Jimmy's request seems out of the ordinary. Tony heads for a Chicago hospital's surgery rooms and dispatches an elderly man who nearly dies on the operating table. The hostile reaction of the surgeon to Tony's presence in her operating theater is fascinating. Dr. Chao views Tony as a looming presence that hints that she may fail at her job. 
She verbally attacks Sheila, the hospital administrator who accompanies Tony: "You're taking away my right to give the best care I can to my patients, and all you have to say to me about it is 'the insurance insists on it.'...It's crap and I shouldn't have to work this way. No surgeon should have to." Shiela reminds her, "We have to allow him into the room. If we don't and something goes wrong, the hospital is open to being sued for negligence. And so are you." Tony believes that doctors hate him and his fellow Dispatchers "because I remind them that they're not God,...And that if there is one, I'm closer to Him than they are."

     While Tony fills out his paperwork for that job, Nona Langdon, a Chicago PD detective, interrupts him to announce that Jimmy has gone missing and to request his assistance in locating him. The camaraderie that slowly builds between Tony and Detective Langdon is beautiful to watch. They begin as prickly adversaries, but gradually (and with much snark) become allies as they work together to track Jimmy's movements during the days preceding his disappearance. Back in the day, Tony was instrumental in getting Jimmy some lucrative private, off-the-books jobs that weren't entirely legal. After Tony turned his life around, Jimmy's wife nagged him enough that he also cleaned up his act. Unfortunately, it appears that Jimmy has returned to his old ways, and that's what has gotten him into a world of trouble.

     The cause and effect of Jimmy's situation is impossible to predict because Scalzi plays it all out so perfectly with a scary stand-off, an unexpected dispatch, an ambiguous parceling out of clues, a steady rise in suspense, and a rush of action at the end as the conflict is resolved.

    Scalzi has done an amazing job of creating this fresh and inventive mythology in just 130 pages. Every time I began to form a mental question about an aspect of the world-building, a scene in the story would answer it in a dramatic but natural manner. I truly wish that this novella had grown to novel length and breadth because I was so taken with the concept and the characters.

     I enjoyed this story immensely and would love to see Scalzi develop it into a series. Tony and Nona could get into all sorts of weird and wonderful situations on the mean streets of Chicago.

     Click HERE to go to this novella's Amazon.com page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking either on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 
     John Scalzi is one of the most popular and acclaimed science fiction authors to emerge in the last decade. His massively successful debut, Old Man’s War, won him science fiction’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His New York Times bestsellers include The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts, which won 2013’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. Material from his widely read blog The Whatever (whatever.scalzi.com) has also earned him two other Hugo Awards. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter. Click HERE for a full list of his published works.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

UPDATE! Simon R. Green: ISHMAEL JONES SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Simon R. Green's ISHMAEL JONES SERIES by adding a review of Death Shall Come, the fourth novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Friday, August 11, 2017

UPDATE! Dianna Love: BELADOR SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Dianna Love's BELADOR SERIES by adding a review of Dragon King of Treoir, the eighth novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

UPDATE! Jennifer Estep's ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Jennifer Estep's ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN SERIES by adding a review of Snared, the sixteenth novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Monday, August 7, 2017

UPDATE! Kresley Cole's IMMORTALS AFTER DARK SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Kresley Cole's IMMORTALS AFTER DARK SERIES by adding a review of Wicked Abyss, the 18th novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Friday, August 4, 2017

NEW SERIES: Thea Harrison's MOONSHADOW TRILOGY

Author: Thea Harrison
Series: MOONSHADOW TRILOGY 
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR) 
Ratings: Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Teddy Harrison LLC (print & audio); Amazon Digital Services LLC (Kindle)
          Moonshadow (12/2016)
          Spellbinder (7/18/2017)
          Lionheart (2018)

NOTE: Some sources are labeling the novels in this trilogy as ELDER RACES SERIES #10, #11, and #12, but I am reviewing them here as a stand-alone series because they don't really overlap much with the original series (even though they are set in that world).

                    WORLD-BUILDING                     
     Although this trilogy is set in the ELDER RACES world, it turns its back on America and focuses on the Fae of Great Britain. On Harrison's website, she describes the trilogy in these words: “The three stories follow the classic ELDER RACES format chronicling ancient, ongoing conflicts told in modern settings while focusing on passionate love stories between strong heroes and heroines.”


     The opposing Fae groups—the Dark (Unseelie) Court and the Light (Seelie) Court have been at war with one another for centuries. As the series opens, Isabeau, Queen of the Light Court, is in control because Oberon, King of the Dark Court, is in a deep coma and his power is raging out of control. Isabeau has increased her strength by enslaving the infamous Morgan le Fey, who serves as her chief enforcer and commander of her deadly Hounds.

     Centuries ago, the Dark and Light armies clashed at a crossover passage (aka portal to another realm) on the border between Wales and England. During that battle, Morgan used his power over the land to destroy the passage, leaving the Daoine Sidhe Knights of the Dark Court stranded on Earth with no way to return to their homeland of Lyonesse. For hundreds of years, these warriors have been pursued by Isabeau and her forces, and their numbers were whittled down from 100 to just nine: Rhys, Ashe, Thorne, Gareth, Cael, Rowan, Braden, Gawain, and their commander, Nikolas Sevigny. The dark Knights are vulnerable to attack by Isabeau's forces because they must stay away from one another most of the time to prevent Morgan's Hounds from detecting their power signature, which becomes extremely strong when they are together. As the series opens, they are low on funds and are fighting despair and loneliness. Some of the warriors have family on the other side—back in Lyonesse—and they fear that they'll never see them again. 


     The Dark Knights appear to be human, but in moonshadow their true nature is revealed. For example, Nikolas looks like a tall, dark, and handsome modern man, but in moonshadow he wears medieval armor and leopard spots flash across his skin. While standing in moonshadow, Gawain's gargoyle nature is in full array: "[His] face came straight from a nightmare, and gigantic wings flared behind him. He wore chain mail armor, and a sheathed sword marked with magic runes was strapped to his back." Ashe and Rowan are dhampyres "born of a union between a half-breed Fae or Elf and a human undergoing the transformation to Vamypre." Several, like Nikolas, have Wyr blood, with some having stronger animal natures than others. Cael is a medusa
"The Fae of the Light Court called them abominations. Nikolas called them brothers." 

     "They were all Fae yet not fully Fae. They were among the rarest of all the Elder Races. In modern-day slang, they were 'triple threats,' creatures with the blood of three different races flowing through their veins. The strongest, most magical—the most tainted." Nikolas' three natures are leopard, knight, and prince. The Knights are fair-minded, skilled warriors who are dedicated to the protection of Oberon and the Dark Court, and all they want is to go home. 
If they don't find a crossover passage soon, they will certainly lose more Knights, and with Oberon unconscious and unable to control his powers, Lyonesse is threatened with destruction by rising seas and famine caused by the loss of its farmland.

     Click HERE to go to a page on Harrison's web site with links to various aspects of the ELDER RACES universe. Click HERE to go to my review page for the ELDER RACES series, which includes a discussion of its world-building as well as reviews of all of the novels, novellas, and stories in the series. Click HERE to go to Wicked Scribe's annotated bibliography of the cast of characters in ELDER RACES

                         NOVEL 1:  Moonshadow                          
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     From bestselling author Thea Harrison comes the first in an explosive new trilogy set in the Elder Races world.

     Her past is a blank, her future uncertain. Recovering from a shooting, LAPD witch consultant Sophie Ross leaves her job and travels to the U.K. to search for answers about her childhood. When she encounters a Daoine Sidhe knight of the Dark Court, she becomes entangled in an ancient hatred between two arcane forces.

     He has given his body and soul to fight for his people. Barred from his homeland along with his surviving brother knights, Nikolas Sevigny is embroiled in a conflict that threatens everything he holds dear. Only by uniting their resources can his people hope to prevail against Isabeau, the deadly Queen of the Light Court. He will do anything and use anyone to return home to Lyonesse.

     When Nikolas encounters Sophie, he sees a tool to be used. The insouciant witch might be the key to unlocking every passageway that has been barred to the knights of the Dark Court, even as a fascination for her takes root in what's left of his soul.

     Sophie has no intention of becoming anyone's pawn, yet the fierce Nikolas is so compelling, she can't deny the temptation that endangers her guarded heart.

    As magic threatens Lyonesse, Queen Isabeau unleashes her merciless Hounds, and Nikolas and Sophie become embroiled in a race for survival. Meanwhile, the passion that ignites between them burns too hot to be denied and quickly turns into obsession. Thank goodness they both know better than to fall in love.

MY REVIEW: 
    Sophie is recovering from three gunshot wounds received during a mission with the Los Angeles Police Department, for whom she works as a magic consultant. She has strong magical powers, partly because she is part Djinn but mostly because she has actively sought out teachers and mentors who taught her runes and spells that she then tweaked to make them personal and powerful. She is an orphan and has always hoped to find her biological parents, but has never been successful.

     Early in the book, Sophie has a meeting with Dr. Kathryn Shaw (a Wyr Falcon woman who appears in several ELDER RACES novels), who has some information about Sophie's childhood. Dr. Shaw explains that her father rescued Sophie from human traffickers when she was a toddler. Unfortunately, his records contain no information as to the identity of Sophie's biological parents. Then, Dr. Shaw offers Sophie the possibility of full ownership of the Shaw family's estate in the Welsh Marches on the border of Wales and England if Sophie meets a single condition. All Sophie has to do is provide proof that she has entered the house. This may sound simple, but in fact, no one has been able to get into the house for centuries because the house itself decides who can enter. Dr. Shaw's ancestor built the house on top of a broken crossover passage that was the location of a huge magical battle centuries ago. Consequently, the mansion is full of magical power, and its rooms and hallways contain many shifts in time and place. Sophie, who has always loved adventure and new experiences, jumps at the chance for a new life. 

     Click HERE to read more about the Welsh Marches, whichby the wayHarrison mislabels as "West" Marches in this bookperhaps a typo or an over-zealous autocorrect. The West Marches did actually exist, but they were on the border of England and Scotland. Harrison corrects this error in the second book.

     As Sophie is driving to the village nearest to the estate, her car breaks down and she has to walk the last few miles. During that walk, she finds a stray dog with the remains of a dark-magic chain around his neck. Kind-hearted Sophie rescues the "dog," who is much more than a family pet and who turns out to be a key player in this series.


     Nikolas knows exactly who/what that dog is, so he heads for the same village that is Sophie's destination. They have the usual I-hate-you/well-I-hate-you-more meeting that is common in paranormal romances, so you know from the beginning that they are soul mates. All through the book, they bicker back and forth as Nikolas tries to order Sophie around and she profanely refuses to do anything he asks. Sophie has a particular fondness for the curse word, f--k, which she uses constantly in all of its varying forms: noun, adjective, verb, interjection...whatever. Of course, all of this heated arguing ramps up the sexual tension so that it quickly escalates from a flicker to a flame. Once their emotions erupt in fiery passion, their scenes together become hot and graphic. Their consummation scene comes halfway into the book, and we get Nicolas' inevitable "Mine, he thought. Mine." declaration shortly thereafter. Their relationship is studded with the usual doubts, misunderstandings, and anxieties, so there are lots of angst-filled interior monologues strewn throughout the story.


     When Nikolas meets with his men early in the book, he summarizes their needs: money, a magical healer, a sanctuary, andmost of allfor Oberon to wake up and vanquish the Light Queen. As soon as you read the word "sanctuary," you know exactly how Sophie and her mansion fit into this picture.


     Meanwhile, Sophie has to get into the huge mansion so that she can claim the property as her own. That becomes even more important when Isabeau sends Morgan and his Hounds after the couple. The story ends in a mixture of victory, betrayal, love, and fellowship, but there are sill plenty of loose ends for Harrison to tie up in the next two novels.


     This is a typical paranormal romance, but it doesn't quite meet the standard Harrison set in ELDER RACES. The relationship between the starring lovers—hunky über-alpha hero and profane über-feisty heroine—has been done to death; therefore it was so predictable that it didn't really hold my interest. The over-arching story line involving the war within the British Fae world has possibilities. We'll see how it goes in the second book, which features Morgan as its hero.


Two final quibbles: 

1. Harrison tries to have her cake and eat it too when it comes to Nikolas' use of language. She has him make old-timey exclamations like, "Oh dear Lord and Lady...Cease talking." on one page and then switches him to modern slang on the next page: "You're a damn mouthy broad." Considering that he keeps slipping into his ancient language and speaks rather formally most of the time, calling her a "mouthy broad" seems quite out of character (and there are other similar examples sprinkled through the story). 
2. The two are always giving each other "speaking looks," which is a phrase that's fine to use once or twice, but not over and over again. It would be more effective and less annoying to the reader to use a specific adjective to replace "speaking" (e.g., an eye-rolling look, an exasperated look, a disbelieving look, a disapproving look).
    Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Moonshadow on its Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. 

                         NOVEL 2:  Spellbinder                          

PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Kidnapped while on tour, musician Sidonie (Sid) Martel is transported to the mystical land of Avalon. A human without magical ability, she is completely vulnerable to the deadly forces surrounding her. When she defies her captors and refuses to share her music, an act of violent cruelty leaves her broken, her ability to play silenced, maybe forever. Her only hope is a whisper in the dark, gentle hands that offer healing, and a man who refuses to show her his face yet who offers advice she dare not ignore.

    One of the most feared and powerful sorcerers in history, Morgan le Fae serves a Queen he despises, Isabeau of the Light Court. Once a famous bard and an advisor to kings, Morgan has been enslaved to Isabeau for hundreds of years, acting as enforcer and the commander of her deadly Hounds.


     Sidonie’s music touches Morgan in places he had abandoned centuries ago, and her fiery spirit resurrects feelings he had believed long dead. For Sidonie, trapped in captivity, passion offers a comfort she cannot resist. 


    But Isabeau holds Morgan bound in magical chains that only Death can break. And in the court of a cruel, jealous Queen, the only thing that burns hotter than love is revenge. 


MY REVIEW: 
     Harrison mines the Arthurian legend for her two major male characters in this novel. The hero is Morgan le Fey, slave to the Light Queen Isabeau and commander of her Hounds. Harrison describes Morgan as a mash-up of Morgan le Fey and Merlin from the traditional Legend of King Arthur. We met Morgan as the antagonist in Moonshadow when he and his Hounds attacked the ancient mansion in which Sophie and the Daoine Sidhe Knights of the Dark Court had taken refuge. Although Morgan appears to be in his late thirties, he is centuries old and has extremely powerful magic skills. His most spectacular talent is his land power, which is what he used to shift the earth beneath Sophie's mansion, nearly destroying it. The villain is Mordred, Isabeau's lover and sadistic right-hand man. (Note: Morgan also appears in the ELDER RACES novella, "Pia Does Hollywood," in which he poses a threat to both Dragos and Pia.)

     Although most of the magical world believes that Morgan is working with Isabeau of his own free will, that is not the case. Centuries ago, Isabeau met Morgan when he was a human soldier and decided that she wanted him in her service. She slashed him with a dagger called Azrael's Athame (aka Lord Death's knife), which bound Morgan to her, put him under a geas, and turned him into a lycanthrope (werewolf). Ever since then, Morgan has had to follow Isabeau's orders to the letter, which meant killing and torturing people, destroying property, and doing many other horrific things because he can never refuse to do anything that Isabeau commands him to do. The geas also prevents him from telling anyone about the geas so there is no way for people to know that Morgan is essentially Isabeau's slave—not her willing accomplice.

     As this book begins, Morgan is still recovering from the silver-inflicted wounds he incurred during the battle with Nikolas and his Dark Knights. When Queen Isabeau banishes him from her sight until he is completely healed, Morgan realizes that she has given him a perfect way to keep himself out of her clutches. All he has to do is keep injuring himself so that he never heals. Unfortunately, Isabeau soon realizes what she has done, so she sends the Hounds after Morgan and he is on the run throughout the entire book.

     Morgan skedaddles from Isabeau's castle and heads for Earth to hide out while he researches Azrael's Athame. He is determined to discover a way to break the geas. One night, he decides to enjoy an evening of music. Long ago, when he was still human, Morgan was a talented bard and lute player and truly loved music. When he hears Sid's beautiful performance, he becomes obsessed with her and her music and follows her from concert to concert. 

     Thirty-year-old Sidonie Martel is a musical prodigy who has been performing since she was a child. She is skilled at playing five different stringed instruments, but is particularly proficient on the violin. Sid is an internationally acclaimed star who has won multiple Grammies and many other awards. She also suffers from OCD, which frequently puts a damper on her personal relationships. Sid is quite familiar with the Other world—the Elder Races. In fact, some of her biggest fans are the Djinn, who owe her several favors for allowing them to attend her concerts in their natural (invisible-to-humans) form. (These favors from the Djinn become a key plot point late in the book.)

     Unfortunately, a magical creature we met in book one takes note of Morgan's fascination with Sid and arranges for her to be kidnapped and sent to Isabeau. This creature (who knows nothing about the geas) wants to drive a wedge between Morgan and Isabeau and believes that Morgan will rush to Sid's rescue and stand up for Sid against Isabeau.

     After Sid is thrown into a filthy, rat-infested, windowless dungeon cell, a stranger visits her each night, healing her fingers (which Mordred broke with a mallet) and providing food and water. He won't reveal his name or anything else about himself, but she gradually begins to like and then trust and love him even though he warns her not to. Much of the story is devoted to their clandestine visits, during which she never sees his face (which is highly implausible).

     Eventually, Sid (who is quite resourceful and very feisty, of course) figures out a way to get out of her cell, and that's when the action picks up. Morgan and Sid work on a plan to free themselves from Isabeau's clutches (with assistance from a helpful frenemy). Some of the plot points are somewhat improbable because the author has to stretch things in order to make the conflict resolution work, but still, this is a fantasy, so everything is improbable. 

     Just as in book one, the love action begins about halfway into the book with the couple's first kiss and quickly accelerates into a stream of graphic scenes filled with sensual bedroom athletics. If you are looking for high levels of sexy love scenes, you'll find plenty of them in the second half of this book. 

     The lead characters in Spellbinder follow the usual paranormal romance tropes: the beautiful, feisty-but-flawed heroine (who is, of course, an orphan); the handsome, brave-but-flawed über-alpha hero; and the one-dimensional villains. I wonder if it is possible to write a paranormal romance with a fresh, inventive approach and new and dynamic personalities. So far, that has not happened in this trilogy, but if you love the old, familiar paranormal romance style and character types, you will probably enjoy this series.

     The funniest scene occurs when Sid plays her music for the Queen. She doesn't play her usual concert pieces. Instead, she chooses pop classics that are actually insults to Isabeau—if she only knew the lyrics...songs like "Mrs. Robinson" and "You're So Vain."

     Lionheart, the final novel in this trilogy, will go back to the Dark Fae and tell the story of what is happening in Lyonesse as Oberon lies in his ensorcelled sleep while his out-of-control magic continues to destroy his realm. (Note: It was Morgan who put Oberon into his coma.)


    Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Spellbinder on its Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

NEW NOVEL! Barbara Gowdy's "Little Sister"

Author:  Barbara Gowdy  
Title:  Little Sister 
Plot Type:  Supernatural domestic thriller 
Ratings:  Violence2; Sensuality2; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Tin House Books

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                     
     "For almost 30 years Barbara Gowdy has been cutting wildly surreal, sometimes hyperreal, paths into the kind of truth recognized with the heart as much as the mind…Little Sister is a supernatural domestic thriller and a crackling tour de force. Thanks to Gowdy’s electric style and vision, the result is unforgettable."The New York Times 

     "ELECTRIFYING...Gowdy sucks readers into this suspenseful, supernatural story like a strong wind in a squall." (Kirkus Review


     Thunderstorms are rolling across the summer sky. Every time one breaks, Rose Bowan loses consciousness and has vivid, realistic dreams about being in another woman's body.


     Is Rose merely dreaming? Or is she, in fact, inhabiting a stranger? Disturbed yet entranced, she sets out to discover what is happening to her, leaving the cocoon of her family’s small repertory cinema for the larger, upended world of someone wildly different from herself. Meanwhile her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and has begun to speak for the first time in decades about another haunting presence: Rose’s younger sister. 


     In Little Sister, one woman fights to help someone she has never met, and to come to terms with a death for which she always felt responsible. With the elegant prose and groundbreaking imagination that have earned her international acclaim, Barbara Gowdy explores the astonishing power of empathy, the question of where we end and others begin, and the fierce bonds of motherhood and sisterhood. 

   
                    MY REVIEW                     
    Thirty-four-year-old Rose lives in Toronto with her mother, Fiona, who is slipping away into dementia. They own a magnificent, historic movie theater that has been the center of their lives for many decades. Currently, the theater shows classic films every evening, with Rose managing the film bookings and the tickets, Fiona handling the concession stand, and handyman (and former drug dealer) Lloyd running the projector. Rose's father died several years ago from cancer, and her younger sister, Ava, died 23 years ago when she was just a child—a death the haunts Rose to this day with feelings of guilt and loss.

Leesh Adamerovich's
illustration for the
NY Times review of
Little Sister (6/30/17)
     One day during a thunderstorm, Rose has a weird experience in which her vision suddenly becomes hyper-clear. This is swiftly followed by a swirl of hundreds of geometrical black flecks obstructing her vision "like bits of broken lettering." Next comes "nausea, a sense of her skin shrinking and cooling, of wired flesh clinging to light-weight bones." Then, all of a sudden, she is in a different room and inside someone else's body: a woman named Harriet who works as an editor for a publishing house. Harriet is a petite mini-skirted woman who has just learned that she is pregnant as a result of an ongoing affair with a colleague. As Rose describes it to her boyfriend, Victor, she was wearing "a living Harriet suit, and I was lost in it. I was a thread. A glint."

     At first, Rose tries to approach her experience logically. Did Lloyd slip her an amphetamine? Did she have a "silent migraine" triggered by too much caffeine or by a drop in barometric pressure (her meteorologist boyfriend's favorite theory)? Is it narcolepsy? A lucid dream? Is Harriet a character in a dream, or is she real?

     As thunderstorms continue to sweep through Toronto, Rose's weird out-of-body experienceswhich she now calls "episodes"continue. Soon, Rose is obsessed with trying to find Harriet, her married lover, and Marsh, another man who appears in one of the episodes. If they actually exist, then this can't be just a simple dream. But, what else could it be? Rose gets busy on her computer andto her astonishmentlearns that everyone in her episodes is a real person, so she sets out to see them in their real lives. Soon, she becomes obsessed with Harriet and her life and even begins to try out some of Harriet's habits (e.g., smoking, eating Smarties candy, doing yoga). Within days, Rose becomes addicted to her out-of-body experiences, and her emotional connection with Harriet strengthens even more when Harriet begins making some decisions about her pregnancy. And one more thing...Harriet's eyes are exactly the same shape and the same shade of green as those of Rose's dead sister. Pretty, petite, vulnerable Harriet reminds Rose of tiny, pale, sensitive Ava, who was the total opposite of tall, dark, zaftig Rose. 

     Meanwhile, between storms, Rose deals with the everyday details of running the theater and dealing with her mother's failing mind. The two have a comfortable, if prickly, relationship, but Fiona's most obnoxious quirks are getting stronger as her inhibitions fade. Gowdy presents Fiona in a sympathetic light, but sometimes when she does something really outrageous, even Rose has to smile (or, alternately, lose her patience). Ruefully, Rose contrasts her mother's life with her own: "Memory by memory Fiona was losing herself, while she, in the most concrete way possible, was finding another self."

     The bulk of the story is set in the summer of 2005, but Gowdy includes several flashbacks to the spring and summer of 1982 in order to provide back-story on the Bowan family, particularly the relationship between Rose and Ave and the tragic circumstances of Ava's death. Halfway through the book, Gowdy interrupts the action to take us through Rose's love life from her first awkward high school sexual experience all the way up to Victor, the nerdy weatherman. Gowdy uses this chapter to provide deep insight into Rose's reasons for her romantic choicesreasons that reach back to her childhood and to that awful summer of 1982.

    Rose's intimate participation in Harriet's agonizing struggles with her impossible situation forces her to reevaluate her own life. As Rose (who is barren) finds herself completely focused on Harriet and her pregnancy, she is forced to deal with her own feelings, and when the storms finally fade away for good, the clouds of guilt and loss and inadequacy surrounding Rose's life begin to disperse. 

     Gowdy masterfully pulls us directly into Rose's story. We are right there with her as she desperately tries to mentally communicate with Harrietto dissuade her from taking some horrific actions. We feel her initial confusion and then understand why she soon yearns for the sound of thunder so that she can once more inhabit Harriet's mind and body. I was immediately pulled into the story both by Rose's strange body-traveling experiences and by Gowdy's elegant writing.

     Gowdy is one of Canada's foremost fiction writers. This novel comes after her ten-year absence from the publishing world, and it is a welcome addition to this summer's fiction scene. As Zoe Whittall says in The Literary Review of Canada (April 2017), Gowdy is "[one] of Canada’s most innovative writers. She offers us something startling and original. A suspenseful, cinematic romp through a series of external and internal storms, a sometimes sexy comedy, a graceful story of a woman trying to make sense of her life choices. Well worth the wait."

     Click HERE and click on the cover art to read an excerpt from Little Sister on it's Amazon.com page.