book review: the lathe of heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is an awesome bit of science fiction. There’s a man named Orr who sometimes changes reality in his dreams. No one else knows that anything has happened, but the guilt over the responsibility of shifting reality is too much for him, so he does too many drugs to stop sleeping, is caught and put into therapy. This is in the first few chapters. Then it gets interesting.

His therapist has a machine that makes Orr’s dreaming more regularized and controllable and then starts using him to radically reshape the world to better fit his idea of what would be better.

It’s an amazing Dickian conceit but less madly written. I don’t know how I’ve missed reading this for so long. I found a trove of Le Guin paperbacks at a recent used book sale so I’m hoping to find a few more such gems in the heap (and am not reading anything about any of them ahead of time).

book review: in the shadow of blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.

Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.

I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.

One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.

Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.

So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).

book review: wildwood

Wildwood is Colin Meloy’s fantasy novel about Pru, a girl in Portland whose brother is stolen by crows. The crows take him into the Impassable Wilderness on the edge of town and Pru goes in to rescue him, along with a nerdy classmate. Within the wilderness there’s a world of talking animals and magic and politics, three nations plus bandits and coyotes and witches trying to destroy it all out of spite.

Meloy tells the story well, creating sympathetic characters who aren’t idiots. There are places where a lazier storyteller could have fallen back on cliches, but he generally avoids that kind of thing. Still, nothing feels terribly new. It’s predictable in the way an old story (or perhaps more appropriately for the lead singer of the Decemberists the way a song) is. The bandits aren’t as terrifying as they might seem, a hero is tricked but manages redemption, there’s military assistance when all seems lost.

It’s good. I enjoyed my time in the world of the book (whose atmosphere was helped by Carson Ellis’ illustrations). And though there’s a sequel, this didn’t end on a cliffhanger, so I can go about my life thinking of the story as its own little thing.

book review: excession

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are the kinds of books that make me want to be very elsewhere, living in a post-scarcity economy with control over your biology and the ability to live for hundreds of years and be eccentrically apart from society for decades if you want. I got Excession in Portland for a dollar and it was much more than worth that, just for the ability to have conversations about switching genders and carrying children simultaneously and letting the kid gestate for 40 years with no ill effect. And to have incredible intellects machinating about wars and science and the power to do whatever the hell you want.

This isn’t much of a review. I’m sorry. I just love this kind of book. It’s aspirational and the kind of thing I’m never going to see outside of a science fiction novel. The possibilities out here in reality feel so limited some days. Sigh.