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Thursday, August 31, 2017


Author:  Carrie Vaughn
Genre:  Ecotopian; Cli Fi; Post-Apocalyptic
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
     Bannerless (e-book, paperback, audiobook7/2017)
     The Wild Dead (8/20180)

     I wasn't sure just how to categorize the genre for this series, so I went with a combination of ecotopian, cli fi, and post-apocalyptic because the series has elements of all three. Ecotopian fiction and cli fi (aka climate fiction) deal with the effects of man-made climate change, while post-apocalyptic fiction is set in the aftermath of a world-changing/world-destroying event or series of events.   

     The BANNERLESS world is set about a century after the Fall—which comprised a series of disease pandemics and climate disasters (mostly flooding)—that nearly destroyed the world, killing off the majority of its people and leaving the physical structure of their civilizations rotting away into dust or skeletal metal ruins, depending upon how buildings were constructed. In the small towns, "The shadow of that world still remained, the streets in the same places and the foundations of buildings still visible. But a new skin had been put over it." For the most part, the pandemics have ceased and the oceans remain stable at their highest levels, but gigantic, destructive, hurricane-strength storms still sweep across the land at frequent intervals.

     On her blog, Vaughn discusses the first novel of the series: "Bannerless is a more subversive, relevant novel than it was when I wrote it a year ago. In it, I posit a cascading failure for civilization. As more and more infrastructure and support gets knocked out, disasters like storms and epidemics become more difficult to recover from, until recovery is impossible. (For example, imagine Hurricane Harvey happening in conjunction with an epidemic on par with the Spanish flu of 1918…)."

     The life style of the descendants of the original survivors is reminiscent of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, but with the addition of some of the knowledge and technology of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, the people make heavy use of solar panels to heat their homes and also use sun energy to power a handful of cars. Fishermen go out to sea in fiberglass boats dating back to pre-Fall days—patched up over and over again to keep them afloat. Medics use a combination of old and new drug formulas to produce antibiotics and other medications to fight off epidemics. During the Fall, the survivors had to choose what to save. If a product or idea did not directly contribute to survival in this new world, it was tossed aside and forgotten, so there are no video games, televisions, diet Cokes, Pringles chips, or any other frivolity—not even computers. ("Mysterious plastic boxes with slots and wires and dead lights. Screens that stayed dark. Mysterious and a little bit sad.") This generation knows about these unnecessary things only from reading about them in old books or, in the case of computers, seeing them stacked on dusty shelves.

     The survivors also learned some lessons from the past about the perils of overusing natural resources, the evils of hoarding, and the horrific effects of overpopulation (i.e., famine and starvation). They have books and hand-written diaries from before and during the fall in which they read about the famines that swept across the globe when resources were depleted, partly due to natural disasters but also because of greedy hoarding by the rich. They are determined to avoid taking that pathway, which would inevitably lead them to a second Fall.

     In the section of the country seen in this series (at least in the first novel), people live in households, which combine to make up villages, which are run by elected committees. The villages lie along the Coast Road, which borders the ocean (probably the Pacific). The series heroine is Enid, of Serenity household, which is part of the town of Haven. Almost everyone belongs to a household, and the ones who do not are viewed suspiciously as untrustworthy outsiders. Every person in a household is required to pull his or her own weight, doing whatever tasks he or she is capable of doing. Those who don't work are thrown out of the household and are unlikely to be welcomed in any other household. 

     Two major edicts are of utmost importance in the laws of this society, and both are enforced by Investigators (of which Enid is one). 

&>1. Preventing Overpopulation: A man and woman are not allowed to produce a child until they set up a productive household and prove that they can feed and care for the child properly. If their petition to the town's Committee is approved, they are issued a banner"a piece of woven cloth, a foot square...a red-and-green-checked-pattern for blood and life"which they proudly display in their home. Both men and women are free to choose the parent of their child after each receives a banner. Usually they do not marry, but they frequently live together in the same household along with several other adults and children. Each female of childbearing age receives a birth-control implant in her upper arm that cannot be legally removed until she earns her banner.  "This was one of the bits of technology they'd worked hard to save after the Fall. Because if you could manage birthrate, you could manage anything, and they had the statistics to prove it." If a bannerless pregnancy occurs (either by accident or by illegal intent), the Investigators must determine what action is required to settle the case. Banners are the rewards that every household strives to receive.

>2. Maintaining Quality of Life While Conserving Resources: Each household has a quota that it is required to meet in terms of crop production, woodworking, blacksmithing, or any other helpful product that is necessary for the prosperous existence of the village. The goal is to hit the quota squarely—not over and not under. Although exceptions are made for accidental or unavoidable divergences from the mandatory quotas, punishment is swift if Investigators suspect fraud in any form. For example, if a household plants a secret field of wheat or corn so that the harvest can be hoarded away from the other households, members of that household (and anyone in the village who assists them) will pay severe consequences. This quota system keeps natural resources from being used up too quickly and is based on a long-term outlook that allows fields to lie fallow for alternate seasons and for trees to be cut down only when absolutely necessary. On her blog, Vaughn sums up the economic system this way: "Bannerless depicts a society where economic strength is measured by whether or not everyone is healthy and taken care of, not by how much profit is accumulated."

     Punishment for law-breaking does not rely on a prison system, which the people have learned through their reading didn't work back before the Fall. Instead, they rely on either shunning people who commit crimes (i.e., making each one a persona non grata within the town and up and down the Coast Road) or by breaking up the household and scattering its members far and wide to other households. A shunned person or household also loses any hope of ever again receiving a banner, which is a highly motivational tool that generally keeps people on the right side of the law. "Being bannerless meant a person lacked protection. Lacked a home and safety."

     The only people who do not follow these laws are the outliers who barely maintain a hardscrabble existence in the ruins of the pre-Fall cities. No one from the villages ever visits the ruins. The townsfolk are content with their lives and happy to have had strong ancestors who survived the Fall, and they strongly believe in learning from their ancestors' bitter experiences.

     A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice Investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.

   Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.

     Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?

     In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

    Vaughn alternates the chapters from present (odd-numbered) to past (even-numbered—fifteen years earlier). The odd-numbered chapters form the core of the novel's plot in which Enid and her partner Tomas investigate a suspicious death in the town of Pasadan, a several-days walk from Haven. The even-numbered chapters provide a view of Enid's childhood and her romantic road-trip adventures with Dak, a traveling musician with whom she hooks up when she is just a teenager. These flashback chapters provide invaluable character development for both Enid and Dak, which serves the story well when Dak turns up in Pasadan while Enid is in the midst of her investigation.

     Sero, the Pasadan victim, is rumored to have been a bannerless man. He lived alone by choice and was known by the townsfolk to be quiet and standoffish. Sero's body was found on the floor of his immaculately kept wood shop with a gash on the back of his head. To Enid and Tomas, it is immediately obvious that the three Committee members are in major disagreement about having Investigators in their town. The eldest, Philos, insists that Sero's death was obviously an accident, while Ariana (who called in the Investigators) appears to be holding back information. 

     Pasadan reminded me of David Lynch's fictional town of Lumberton, the setting for his iconic film, Blue Velvet. (Click HERE to watch BV's opening sequence, Lynch's snapshot of perfect small-town life that almost immediately begins to disintegrate.) Both towns have the outward appearance of honesty, wholesomeness, and pride, but both have an undercurrent of danger and death. Like Lumberton, Pasadan—with its sturdy buildings, neatly gridded streets, whitewashed fences, perfectly squared fields, and green pastures—is attractive on the outside, but beneath its wholesome surface is the stench of betrayal and duplicity. Both Investigators immediately pick up on the uneasiness of many of the townsfolk and their unwillingness to answer questions in a straightforward manner. Hidden secrets must be pried out and pulled into the open, and Enid is just the person for the job.

     Enid has been an Investigator for just three years, but this is her first time as Lead Investigator in a murder case, so she is a bit nervous. She and Tomas look over the crime scene, interview the villagers, and consign poor Sero to his funeral pyre (which is the means by which bodies are disposed of in this world). As clues begin to surface, it soon becomes obvious that Sero's death was no accident. Someone slammed his head into a beam, killing him almost instantly. Who is the murderer? (There are several suspects and motives.) Is this case more complex than it seems? Is there another crime the Investigators need to solve?

     Complicating Enid's investigation is the fact that her former lover Dak (from the even-numbered chapters) is currently a member of Ariana's household. Even though Enid is happily settled into Serenity household with Sam, the man she loves, old emotions surface and must be dealt with. Plus...Enid knows Dak well enough to suspect that he knows much more than he's telling her about what is going on in Pasadan. Could he be the killer?

     Interestingly, the arts have value in this world. Before Enid’s former lover, Dak, settled down in Pasadan, he earned his keep by walking the length of the Coast Road singing songs for the townsfolk and teaching their children to play his guitar. In the even-numbered chapters, if you look carefully at the subjects of some of Dak's songs, you might recognize them. In one, "the chorus was about dust in the wind, and how everything would eventually blow away and come to naught." Dak explains that he learned it from an old man who said that it "came from a place called Kansas." This is a marvelous example of the informational twists that occur as songs (and stories) are handed down generation to generation, and the song itself is a terrific metaphor for this series. (If you don't get the joke, click HERE.) Another of Dak's songs is "about lemon trees and love gone wrong." (Click HERE to hear a performance of this one.)

     I have always enjoyed Carrie Vaughn's novels, and this one adds another winner to my Vaughn list. Enid is a fascinating young woman living in a seemingly simple society that is—at the same time—quite complex and layered. I love this mythology, which Vaughn says that she created more than a year ago. On her blog, Vaughn talks about the new relevancy of the BANNERLESS world, "now [that] we have an administration that has proposed cutting, if not eliminating, so many of the support structures that are specifically designed to help our society survive and recover from disasters." As I write this review, Houston is just beginning to recover from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey, yet the U.S. has pulled its support from the international coalition of countries trying to solve our world's worsening climate problems (which include an ever-increasing number of severe storms and a relentless rise in sea levels). 

     Don't get me wrong, Vaughn's novel is by no means a screed against climate change. It is a riveting story about a society that remakes itself on the ashes of the society in which we are living right now—a cautionary tale with wonderful characters, a suspenseful story line, and just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing all the way to the end.

     Vaughn includes some interesting sections in which Enid muses about the stories she heard during her childhood from Auntie Kath, one of the last survivors of the Fall. Kath told her listeners that back then, people "didn't know what they needed to save. They couldn't save it all, so they had to choose. How later she wished there were things people in the early days of Haven had saved." Kath regaled the townsfolk with memories of objects like cameras and latex glovesthings that the people of Haven can't even imagine. Enid and Tomas chuckle over Kath's description of plastic wrap, which "had been an obsession with Auntie Kath, who insisted the item had a million uses, and she brought it up every time one of those uses occurred to her. No one had ever really understood what she was talking about." 

     If our world were to collapse as this one did, what would our descendants make of a fidget spinner or a piece of dead electronic wizardry (like a cell phone or a Fitbit)? Will all of our scientific knowledge be locked into unreadable files on dead computers? Will paperback romance novels be the only books available for our descendants to study the history of the 21st century? (That last one makes me smile!)

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

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Bannerless is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.

BONUS: Here is a preview of the second novel, which has a publication date of 7/17/2018:

                         NOVEL 2: The Wild Dead                          
     Decades after environmental and economic collapse, pockets of settlements struggle to maintain a much-reduced civilization by strictly rationing resources—including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven, an investigator in this community, travels to a far-flung village with her new, inexperienced partner to settle a minor resource dispute. But while there, the murder of an outsider demands her attention, and leads to explosive secrets.

Monday, August 28, 2017

NEW NOVEL: Victor Lavalle's "The Changeling"

Author:   Victor LaValle
Title:  The Changeling 
Genre:  Dark Fairy Tale/Fantasy
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (an imprint of Random House) 
Publication Date: 6/13/2017

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                          
    When Apollo Kagwa’s father disappeared, all he left his son were strange recurring dreams and a box of books stamped with the word IMPROBABILIA. Now Apollo is a father himself—and as he and his wife, Emma, are settling into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Apollo’s old dreams return and Emma begins acting odd. Irritable and disconnected from their new baby boy, at first Emma seems to be exhibiting signs of postpartum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go even deeper. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

     Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood, to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest, which begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts, takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever.

    This captivating retelling of a classic fairy tale imaginatively explores parental obsession, spousal love, and the secrets that make strangers out of the people we love the most. It’s a thrilling and emotionally devastating journey through the gruesome legacies that threaten to devour us and the homely, messy magic that saves us, if we’re lucky. 

                         MY REVIEW                          
     There is so much I love about this book, but I don't want to spoil the reading experience for you by revealing too much, so if this review seems a bit disjointed, it's because I wanted to point out the best bits without including spoilers.

     In the preface to an LA Times interview with the author, Nichole Perkins summarizes the plot of The Changeling, as "a horrifying fairy tale about the maze of parenthood, shrouded by the shadows of our own upbringing. The award-winning author blends literary allusions, horror and social commentary to create a riveting piece of work that will have readers examining their own views about parenthood while worrying if they’ll ever sleep again.”

     Although the title of LaValle's novel takes its name from the changelings of ancient folk and fairy tales, the story itself is a changeling of a different sort, beginning as a family saga set in the reality of 21st century New York City—specifically, Queens—and then slipping into a horrific, dark world of betrayal and abandonment, drowning and burning, and—eventually—monsters and witches and things that go bump in the night. So...don't be deceived by the early chapters that lay out Apollo's family history like an summary of a typical American immigration experience. If you read carefully, you'll recognize the dark seeds that LaValle has planted throughout the story—seeds that will sprout and blossom and then, just as quickly, wither and die.

     LaValle divides the 103 short chapters into eight sections, the titles of which give you an outline of its early lightness followed by its delirious descent into madness and horror. The first three sections (30 chapters) introduce Apollo; Lillian, his mother; Brian, his long-absent father; Emma, his wife; Brian, their baby; and Patrice, Apollo's best friend and fellow book seller.  Those titles are: 1. "First Comes Love"; 2. "Then Comes Marriage"; 3. "Then Comes Baby in a Baby Carriage." But then, we come to Section 4, (which, here, includes a lot of dashes to mask the profanity): "Sh-t, D-mn, Motherf----r," and you know immediately that this family's story has jack-knifed into a very dark and scary place.

     The Changeling is a cautionary tale for modern parents who deluge their Facebook and Instagram accounts with dozens of pictures of their beautiful, talented children doing all sorts of cute things. The lesson to be learned about social media is verbalized by one of the villains in this story when he warns Apollo, "There are no secrets anymore. Vampires can't come into your house unless you invite them. Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can enter." Apollo certainly opens that door, snapping photo after photo of Brian, sending them to Emma, and sharing them with friends and family on social media. But then Emma begins to receive photos of Brian that don't come from Apollo, and when she pulls out her phone to show him, the photos are always gone—as if they were never there. Apollo tells Emma that she is overtired and is just imagining things, but she is certain that those pictures were there. If Apollo is right, is Emma suffering from fatigue and postpartum depression? If Emma is right, then who is spying on them? And why? By this point, I was riveted to the page, dying to know what was going on and what would happen next. That feeling never left me. In fact, it was almost impossible for me to put the book down, even for a moment.

     Along with the social media warning flags, LaValle stirs in elements of an old fairy tale—not a Disney fairy princess story, but a dark, violent, scary story with roots in the original 19th century Grimm Brothers' tales that were meant not to entertain children but to frighten them into behaving properly. If you have never read any of those unsanitized original fairy tales, you can click HERE for more background on the changeling legend in folklore. You can also find a more modern version in Maurice Sendak's book entitled Outside Over There, which features prominently in Apollo's childhood because it was the book that his father read to him over and over again before he disappeared. Apollo still knows the book by heart and flashes back to it many times during the darkest parts of the novel. This part of the story, of course, plays on the ultimate fear of all parents: the fear of losing their child. At the core of the story is the need of parents everywhere to be good parents, to do the right thing, and to protect their child at all cost. 

     One of the ongoing themes of the novel is the lies people tell themselves in order to justify their own behavior. At one point, Apollo muses about a time when he was impatient with and cruel to Emma. "[H]ow had he justified it to himself? He was trying to focus on Brian to be the kind of father he'd never had. What lengths will people stretch to believe they're still good?" Many of the people in the book, including Apollo's own mother, keep secrets and tell lies because they believe that they are doing the right thing, only to realize the damage that such secrets and beliefs cause in other's lives. They tell themselves that they are good people while committing unforgivable emotional and physical acts against their loved ones.

     Another theme running through the story relates to living happily ever after—that HEA ending of modern fairy tales (and all paranormal romances)—which we all wish for ourselves and our loved ones. But Apollo learns early that although periods of happiness are certainly possible, it's the "ever after" that is the problem. Early on, Apollo finds a rare, signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird at an estate sale and happily dreams of how the money he will receive for it will change the lives of his young son and his beautiful wife. But he soon learns that the particular happiness of that moment will never happen. As events in Apollo's life take him into dark, violent places, he learns that happiness must be taken as it comes and that there is no guarantee that it will even last the day, much less for ever after. 

     LaValle uses Harper Lee's opposing portrayals of Atticus Finch (in Mockingbird and in Go Set a Watchman) to reinforce the duality of most people's personalities and the masks they use to put their "good" side forward. In signing the rare Mockingbird first edition, Lee has written "Here is the daddy of our dreams," as if she knew very well that her readers would prefer the perfect Atticus—the dream daddy—in Mockingbird over the racist version of the same man in Watchman. In an interview, LaValle states, "It’s interesting to me, as I became a father and in thinking about my own missing father, to understand how much power we give to the idea of the father and how much many people need to believe in the idea of a good and beneficent father." 

     There are times in the later chapters when it seems almost certain that Apollo will never have another moment of true happiness, but as dark as Apollo's situation becomes, LaValle—masterful writer that he is—slips in unexpected jolts of dark, dry humor. In a scene between Apollo and the most evil man in the book, the old man—a Scandinavian immigrant—riffs on the HEA ending. "Do you know how much harm 'happily ever after' has done to mankind? I wish they said something else at the end of those stories instead. 'They tried to be happy.' Or "Eternal happiness is a fruitless pursuit.' What do you think?" Apollo stares at him and deadpans, "You're definitely Norwegian." I laughed out loud at that line, but maybe you have to be a Garrison Keillor fan to really appreciate the dry humor in Apollo's succinct, poker-faced response. 

     One of the joys of the story is the way LaValle portrays Apollo's relationships with his mother, his wife, and his best friend, Patrice—a computer whiz and military vet with PTSD. Early in his life, Apollo started his own used book business selling the worn and well-used books and magazines that his mother begged from various businesses in order to feed his reading habit. By the time he meets Patrice at an estate sale, Apollo, though young, is a veteran in the used book business. He and Patrice become fast friends and their easy back-and-forth dialogue is so natural and real that I wished I could run into them at an estate sale and have a conversation with them about books and life. 

     New York City becomes a major player as Apollo takes off on his quest for the truth about his father, his wife, and his son. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, LaValle explains, “New York City is incredibly well-known, but I still think people don’t know all of these tiny, little weird [places] we have. That kind of magic is here, but it’s far from where people actually want to go to. ... There are hidden islands in the East River … And without giving too much away, there’s actually a really big forest in the middle of New York, not in Manhattan, but it’s an enormous piece of land that could hide some profound, magical secrets. It’s a real place in Queens, my hometown.” (Oddly enough, a few years ago, I read an urban fantasy novel that included a major battle scene that took place on the same East River island that features in The Changeling. I wish I could tell you the title, but it's lost somewhere in my subconscious. Perhaps one of my readers can jog my memory.)

    Lavalle’s observations about race are stinging and humorous at the same time. In a prime example, when he gets stopped by the police shortly after arriving in a white section of Queens, Apollo, who is black, looks impassively at them and says, “That was fast.” (LaValle goes on to use what Apollo receives during that police stop to solve a plot issue a few chapters later, and it all flows along quite naturally.) And here's another example: In an early scene, Apollo convinces a group of black teenagers to block the windows of a stalled subway car in which Emma is giving birth to Brian (on the floor). Luckily, the kids do their job so well that the TV stations have no birth video to show on the 11:00 news. The only cellphone footage available "showed four black kids waving and smiling and looking gleeful, and generally speaking news outlets don't find that sort of thing worth sharing."

     LaValle's imagery is a source of immense satisfaction. My favorite comes when Apollo steps into a brown, shag-carpeted room and feels like he is "inside a Wookiee’s armpit.” In a more violent image, Apollo wakes up to find himself attached to a hot steam pipe with a bike lock. When he pulls his head forward, "the back of his exposed neck touched the steam pipe like a pork cutlet pressed against a hot skillet. He hissed, the same sound as frying meat..." That scene is so real that I felt as if I were a horrified, helpless bystander.

     I highly recommend this novel for the many reasons I have discussed above, particularly its magnificent imagery, beautifully drawn characters, compelling plot, and electrifying suspense. LaValle has created a fresh and inventive hybrid—a mash-up of fairy tales, horror elements, social commentary, and the literalization of myth (in this case, Internet trolls vs. folktale trolls). Although this is the first of LaValle's books that I have read, I now plan to dip into his previous novels and novellas for more of his vibrant, exciting fiction. 

     Here are links to four excellent reviews of The Changeling. I include them so that you can appreciate the wide diversity in the reviewers' perceptions of LaValle's work. Just click on the pink-link titles below to go to the reviews:

> "The Changeling Is Itself, a Changeling of a Book," by Amal el-Mohtar in The Atlantic (6/17/2017).

> "This New York Love Story Subverts Its 'Happily Ever After'," by Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times (7/17/207).

> "In 'The Changeling,' the Dark Fears of Parents, Memorably Etched," by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times (6/20/2017).

> "LaValle's 'The Changeling': A Creepily Good Modern Fairy Tale," by Brian Truitt in USA Today (6/13/2017).

                         ABOUT THE AUTHOR                          
Here is LaValle's biography from his official web site: 

Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, four novels, The EcstaticBig MachineThe Devil in Silver, and The Changeling and two novellas, "Lucretia and the Kroons" and "The Ballad of Black Tom." He is also the creator and writer of a comic book Victor LaValle's DESTROYER.

He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.

He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and kids. He teaches at Columbia University

     Click HERE to go to LaValle's Wikipedia page. Click HERE to read an essay entitled "Finding the Emotional Truth in Horror Writing" that LaValle wrote for The Atlantic (6/13/2017). Click HERE to listen to and read excerpts from an interview LaValle did with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air back in 2012. (Click on the white arrow in the blue circle at top left to access the audio.) 

Thursday, August 24, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing review post for Jeaniene Frost's BROKEN DESTINY TRILOGY by adding a review of The Sweetest Burn, the second novel in the series. 

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing review post for Shelly Laurenston's CALL OF CROW SERIES by adding a review of The Unyielding, the third novel in the series. 

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

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)

     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. 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 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 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.


     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. 

     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 page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking either on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

     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 ( 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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