Review: Spoonbenders, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a copy of Spoonbenders from the publisher for review consideration.

Spoonbenders

Frabjous day! Daryl Gregory — one of my favorite new(ish) SF authors — has a new book out! Spoonbenders follows the adventures of the Telemachuses, who long ago achieved fame and fortune as the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing feats of telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis for secret CIA projects and live television audiences. But that is all twenty years in the past, and matriach Maureen Telemachus is long dead. Then Matty, the only son of human lie detector Irene Telemachus, discovers suddenly that he can astral project.

The above summary is roughly how the book was advertised, and it is a correct description of events. BUT, the thing that it does not convey is that Spoonbenders is one of my favorite type of books, wherein an array of disparate plotlines culminate in one massive, climactic Event where all hell breaks loose yet somehow still manages to resolve every plotline. In the case of Spoonbenders, that event is Zap Day, 4 September 1995, the date on which the clairvoyant Buddy Telemachus stops being able to his own — or anyone else’s — future.

I tell you this because Spoonbenders is slow to start, and I want you to stick with it. In the beginning, it prominently features the con-happy male members of the Telemachus family. Patriarch Teddy shops for ladies to pick up at the grocery store; eldest son (and sporadic telekinetic) Frankie plans a theft that will allow him to pay off his debt to a local mobster; and fourteen-year-old Matty discovers his new powers while lusting after his older step-cousin, Mary Alice. Yawn.

As the book goes on, though, we spend more time with Irene, whom I adore, and with Buddy, who is constantly trying to work around the bits of future he’s foreseen to produce the best possible outcomes for the people he loves. Daryl Gregory has a knack for teasing out the small, mundane implications of his wild premises, and he gets at some genuinely fun (and sad, and weird) ideas with Irene and Buddy’s powers.

Plus, Zap Day makes for a terrific climax: all the pieces click perfectly into place, and we get to see each of the family members at their strange, unselfish best.

There’s a very minor subplot that bugged me. (Spoilers.) In a flashback, Buddy goes to a prostitute called Cerise. The book uses she pronouns for her and casually makes reference to her cock — which I thought was terrific as far as it goes. Later on, though, Buddy finds this same person, who now goes by Charles and works as a waiter, and for whom the book now uses he pronouns. Again, fine, gender can be fluid, etc., etc. But Charlie says, nervously, “I’m not in that line of work anymore,” and I dunno. It felt like the book had set up Cerise as trans to begin with, in this refreshingly unfussy way, only to align her transness with her career as a sex worker. I wasn’t wild about it. I’d love to hear other folks’ opinions.

Apart from that and the slow start, I enjoyed Spoonbenders a lot. It’s Martin Millar meets Sylvia Browne meets American Shameless, and I’m about it.

 

My most anticipated books of 2015 (so far)

I love publisher catalogs, y’all. I can’t describe how much I love them. It’s because I judge books by their covers, and publishers’ catalogs offer me the opportunity to do that on a grand scale. So here are a few of the books from 2015 for which I am excited, in no particular order.

Flood of Fire

Flood of Fire, the last in Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful Ibis trilogy, appears in August, and then I can at last set about getting matching copies of all three. Sea of Poppies was one of my favorite books of its year, and while River of Smoke was not what I expected the second book in the trilogy to be, it was still a really excellent read. I’ve revised my expectations that the trilogy will be classically trilogyish, and I think it will maximize my enjoyment of Flood of Fire.

Re Jane

I choose to be optimistic about Re Jane, by Patricia Park, a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre that comes out in May. I’m choosing optimism because so far there are no good retellings of Jane Eyre, and that situation needs to end. Let’s see if Patricia Park can pull it off. The whole world’s counting on you, Patricia Park! No pressure!

A God in Ruins

If you liked Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life but felt it would have been improved by the addition of more Teddy, you are in glorious good luck. A God in Ruins, due out in May of next year, will be a companion story to Life after Life, starring Teddy Todd. Huzzah! As far as I can tell, nobody has said whether or not this book will take place in a world where Ursula shot Hitler (it’s not a spoiler, she does it on the first page).

Harrison Squared

As I may have mentioned one or two times, Daryl Gregory is my favorite author discovery of 2014. Harrison Squared tells the backstory of the protagonist of We Are All Completely Fine, which is to say, the story of a boy hero in a world of monsters. This one’s out in March from Tor.

Game of Queens

When I was a kid, I had this wonderful book about Esther (as in the Book of) called Behold Your Queen. I therefore offer no apologies for being childishly excited about Game of Queens, by India Edghill, a novel about Vashti and Esther that’s slated to be released in August. Do I expect it to be awesome? Like, no. Not really. I expect it to be overwrought and to use the word “sex” as a euphemism for genitals, as many overwrought stories do. But if it did happen to turn out to be good, I would be elated.

Lovelace and Babbage

By contrast, I have only the highest hopes for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, a comic by Sydney Padua in which Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage fight crime together. Apparently this has been a webcomic for ages, a fact that demonstrates a parlous lack of internet awareness by me. Anyway, in April I’ll be able to read the whole thing for myself.

The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin, master worldbuilder and ferocious advocate for diversity in publishing, has a new book out in August from Orbit, called The Fifth Season. I need to do an NK Jemisin binge in early 2015. She has got several books out that I haven’t read yet, because I’ve been saving them slash I have to be really in the mood before I’ll read high fantasy. But her worldbuilding is just top-notch. Gotta get on that.

The Just City

The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton, are both coming out in 2015 (one in January, one in June), which feels like an embarrassment of riches. The premise of the world in which these two books are set is almost too bonkers to explain here, but suffice it to say that they feature Greek gods living among humans in an experimentally utopian city. Sounds great. Sounds like exactly what I never knew I was missing in my life.

I’m not mentioning the fourth Raven Cycle book because in my heart of hearts, I think it’s going to get kicked back to 2016. Likewise I am not mentioning Zachary Mason’s follow-up to the matchless The Lost Books of the Odyssey, because in my heart of hearts, I think it’s going to be 2017 at the earliest. And the people on Goodreads who put 2015 as an expected publication date for Robin McKinley’s Ebon are living on a prayer.

Review: We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a digital galley of We Are All Completely Fine from the publisher for review consideration.

DARYL GREGORY AUTHOR DISCOVERY YEAR CONTINUES. Not only has Daryl Gregory produced another fine piece of science fiction — this one a novella — but I have at last discovered why I love his books so much. It’s cause his wife is a psychologist! (He thanks her in the acknowledgements.) No wonder Gregory wrote about crazy people so brilliantly in Afterparty. No wonder he is always writing about confronting impossible, insane situations with the only available tools (science, therapy) and knowing all along that those tools are nowhere near adequate to the task. What do I love even more than creepy, inventive science fiction? Creepy, inventive science fiction informed by a background in psychology!

Ahem. Sorry. I’ll try to control myself.

The therapy group is composed of sole survivors: the only ones to survive horrific, supernatural incidents. At first only Stan will speak openly about his story, about the cannibals (demon cannibals?) who tied him and his comrades up for weeks and ate them, bit by bit, limb by limb. And the group knows a little — or thinks it does — about Harrison, who was, long ago, the model for a series of books about a teenaged monster-killing hero. Martin refuses to take off his glasses. Greta never lets anyone catch a glimpse of her skin, and Barbara will only say that she was attacked twenty years ago. The group leader, Dr. Jan Sayer, doesn’t push them for more. She’ll let the stories come in their own time.

Your question at this point may be, Do we find out gradually what happened to each member of the group, and is it inventively horrible in each case, and do they ultimately team up to do a mission together to fight against the darkness in their own small way? And the answer is, yes. That is exactly how it goes down. It’s THE BEST. If this were the pilot episode of a show on Syfy, I would set up a Change.org petition for six seasons and a movie.

The characters’ backstories are revealed in fits and starts, sometimes in great detail and sometimes in very little. Like the characters themselves, we aren’t privy to knowing why these things happened to them; only that they happened, and now they are part of that character’s emotional landscape, and must be dealt with. Without some of the details I wanted (who were the Weavers before the demon hybrid thing showed up? How did Barbara come within the orbit of the Scrimshander, and how did she get away?), I kept thinking how much I’d enjoy reading a full book about any of these characters in their lives before they join the group (or, in Martin’s case, after).

Some quick vague spoilers in this section only: I love that we find out at the end that Dr. Sayer has a story of her own to tell. Her own fight not to be defined by her damage turns out to include helping other people to heal from theirs. That is a true thing from real life. Sometimes people respond to the unimaginable pain they have experienced with this exact kind of generosity and grace, and it is remarkable and moving to me.

My only tiny gripe is that the chapters begin with a “we” section, where the group is speaking collectively about itself. This didn’t really work for me. Gregory doesn’t manage to make that “we” feel like an integrated part of the rest of the book, which is all narrated in third person, often from Harrison’s point of view and with detours into Barbara’s and Martin’s.

But really, that’s a small gripe for a novella I overwhelmingly loved. I was heartbroken when it ended, especially as it means that there will be no more new Daryl Gregory for me for a while. Up until now I have had a new Daryl Gregory thing every two months or so. I should have held off on reading one of his books, and saved it for a rainy day. I will just have to do some rereading.

Other Daryl Gregory books I have been excited about this year: Pandemonium, [Devil’s Alphabet was just okay], Raising Stony Mayhall, and Afterparty. I am a scary Daryl Gregory evangelist. (PS Ana please read Afterparty, cause I think you will love it.)

You can read an excerpt from We Are All Completely Fine over on Tor.com, to get the flavor of it. Then if you are interested, Publishers Weekly has good things to say about it, as does¬†Locus. See? Everyone agrees with me. Let me know if you reviewed it too, and I’ll add a link to this post.

Review: Afterparty, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a copy of Afterparty from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Not to be repetitive, but I’m going to go ahead and start this review the same way I’ve started all my Daryl Gregory reviews this year: I am so excited about Daryl Gregory. There are writers in this world I love better and will reread oftener, but I am excited about Daryl Gregory because he has such good ideas. He has such good ideas that I enjoyed a zombie novel. He has such good ideas that I annoyed my relatives by forcing them to listen to my recaps of the premises and payoffs of more than one of his books, along these lines:

Indie Sister: Stop! What? Don’t tell me the ending, I might read it!
Jenny: BUT IT IS SUCH A GOOD IDEA OMG I WANT TO TELL YOU.
Indie Sister: Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me! Shut up!
Jenny: CAN I TELL YOU A LITTLE BIT?

(Sorry, Indie Sister! Sorry, Mumsy!)

Afterparty,¬†Daryl’s fourth and newest novel, takes place in Canada of the near future, when drugs can be printed with chemjet printers in any quantity the drug dealers might desire. Suffering from withdrawal from a drug she calls Numinous, a teenager kills herself in the mental hospital where Lyda Rose lives. (Yes, she’s named after the song from The Music Man; yes, that song has been stuck in my head all week.) Lyda instantly recognizes the effects of the drug. She’s a member of the team that helped develop it, in an attempt to cure schizophrenia; instead they produced a drug that makes you experience God. Lyda herself is an atheist, but since her accidental overdose on the drug at a party that left her wife dead, she’s never been without her hallucinated guardian angel. Horrified that the drug is on the streets, Lyda leaves the mental hospital on a quest to find out who released the drug, and to stop it from spreading farther.

There are so many good things about Afterparty that I scarcely know where to start, so I guess I’ll start with an ideological one: Diversity! First of all, here is a book with two queer women as the main characters (yay!); second, the supporting characters are pretty widely diverse as to gender, race, sexuality, socioeconomic background, and mental health status, and none of this is exoticized or fetishized. Third and my favorite, Lyda (who is white herself) includes “white” in physical descriptions of characters who are white. Which was so, so nice to see, although really everybody should be doing it. The common authorial assumption that the reader will envision every character as white unless notification is given to the contrary is just one of many yucky ways that whiteness is reaffirmed as a societal standard from which other races are deviating.

Next up: Ollie! How I loved Ollie. She’s described thus on first appearance: “Ollie used to do things for the US government, and the US government used to do things to Ollie.” Lethally brilliant and increasingly paranoid when she’s off her meds, Ollie breaks out of the mental hospital to help Lyda on her mission to track down the source of the Numinous. Like Harriet Vane, Ollie is one of those love interest characters who make me think more highly of the person they’re a love interest to. Lyda isn’t the most sympathetic heroine I’ve ever encountered — she can be ruthless and unkind, including to Ollie — but I stayed in on her because of how hugely and how consistently she admired Ollie’s genius:

“It’s the fever talking,” Ollie said. She straightened, but her eyes held mine. Oh, she was quick. All she needed was the smallest nod to point her in the right direction.

There aren’t enough good things to say, too, about Lyda’s drug-induced angel. The angel is Lyda’s better half, the voice of her conscience and of her subconscious, as helpful to Lyda as she is irritating. Though Dr. Gloria sometimes says angel-type things (“Lo, I am with you always”), she’s more prone to wry remarks and smartassery:

“This is a Sig Sauer P226 with an E-squared grip. It’s my favorite side-arm. I’ve had it since Toronto.”

 

I didn’t know what was more alarming, that she had a gun, or a favorite.

 

“It’s that she’s got a gun,” Dr. Gloria said.

and

“I’M SENDING GPS coORDinates. DRIVE THERE.”

 

“Why are they using so much distortion?” Dr. Gloria said. “There’s perfectly good speech modification technology out there.”

 

I ignored her. The voice said, “PARK and turn OFF your LIGHTS.”

 

“They could sound like a British nanny or Samuel L. Jackson, any accent they like, and it would be just as untraceable….I suppose they think it makes them sound tough,” Dr. G said. “It’s like a font for gangsters.”

If I had one quibble, it’s the reveal at the end of the book, in a section that you think is going to be denouement but it turns out not exactly to be. In a book as thoughtful and nuanced about human motivations as Afterparty, this reveal felt out of place. But it’s a very minor thing in a tremendously fun book. If you haven’t read anything by Daryl Gregory yet, Afterparty is an awesome place to start.

Other reviews I enjoyed: Bookworm Blues, Here There Be Books, NPR, io9, Locus Magazine — let me know if I missed yours!

Review: The Devil’s Alphabet, Daryl Gregory

As mentioned in this space a few weeks ago, I was more excited by the first couple of chapters of Pandemonium than I have been by the first few chapters of any book I’ve read in a while. Naturally, I was excited to check out more of Gregory’s work. Like Pandemonium, The Devil’s Alphabet drew me in with its premise, but didn’t quite succeed in bringing the plot home.

Okay. Here’s the premise. Bear with me for a bit. When Paxton was a kid, his town was hit with what’s now known as Transcription Divergence Syndrome, which killed some of the inhabitants, left others (including Paxton) untouched, and entirely rewrote the biology of the rest. Paxton’s close childhood friend, Deke, is an argo, with enormously lengthened bones; the friend whose funeral Paxton returns for at the start of the book, Jo Lynn, became a beta, a bald parthenogenetic species; and his father, the one-time hellfire preacher to the town, is a charlie, grotesquely fat and evidently capable of producing a hallucinogenic substance the town’s mayor calls the vintage. Everyone who remains in the town of Switchcreek belongs to one of these three strange species, or clades.

My impression of Daryl Gregory so far is that he is all about logistics. He’s good with the particular, often creepy, detail. Here’s one for each clade:

  • Deke gets stopped by the cops incredibly often, even when he’s not doing anything. It’s just because argos are huge, and you can tell from the road that a huge scary guy is in the car. Cops don’t care for it, and they make up reasons to stop Deke when he’s driving.
  • Someone says that “loving mother” is the highest–and basically the only–compliment that the (hyper-fertile) betas give.
  • “Blisters erupted over the skin of [the aging charlie’s] belly: tiny pimples; white-capped pebbles; glossy, egg-sized sacs. The largest pouches wept pink-tinged serum.”

Yeah, that last one happens. If you can believe it, it only gets ickier from there. As in Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory doesn’t shy away from body horror. The blisters on Paxton’s father’s stomach produce the vintage, and Paxton immediately becomes–I’m legit shuddering as I write this–addicted to it. If you can think of a way for that to get any grosser, by all means share it in the comments.

The problem with the first half of The Devil’s Alphabet is Paxton. He’s not enough of an outsider to Switchcreek to be a good surrogate pair of eyes for the reader, and what he wants is too poorly defined to make me want it for him. Also, his being addicted to a substance that oozes out of blisters on his father’s body is just too yucky.

The real meat of the story–to me–is the mayor, a charlie whom Paxton calls Aunt Rhonda. She’s the Mags Bennett of Switchcreek, savvy and ruthless, but her commitment to the financial and physical security of Switchcreek and its people is obvious. Halfway through the book, TDS strikes a town in Ecuador; the urgency of finding out the risk factors and causes of TDS returns to Switchcreek; and for the first time, the story had real stakes. When Rhonda gets in a room with the researcher who’s doing the most research into TDS, and they start talking about what they can do to protect their town from legal and medical intrusion, that’s when I started to feel the same excitement I felt when I was reading Pandemonium.

Which, yes. That is a long time to wait for the story to get good.

“I don’t believe this,” the reverend said. “That all this could happen by chance.”

 

The doctor bristled. “I’m not going to argue with you about whether this is an act of God.”

 

“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” the reverend said.

 

Rhonda rapped the table with the underside of one of her rings. “Ladies. It doesn’t matter whether God did it, or a virus, or quantum Santa Claus.”

 

“Of course it matters!” the reverend exclaimed.

 

“Elsa, hear me out. It doesn’t matter what we think, it only matters what the government thinks, and what the public thinks. Because that’s what’s going to decide if they quarantine us again.” She looked around the table. “You saw what I saw. Doctor, your friend Preisswerk bailed out when he was asked about the quarantine. Obviously they’ve talked about it. And if public opinion turns, then sooner or later they’ll have to isolate us. That’s what I’d do in their shoes.”

 

The reverend made a disgusted noise. “Of course you would.”

 

“Yes I would. Elsa, the only reason they dropped the quarantine last time is because it stopped spreading, and because the babies hadn’t started arriving. Now it’s started again, and they know those people will start breeding too. We’re not disease victims anymore, we’re a race–three races–and from another universe, of all things.”

What is good sci-fi about, my friends? VALUES. Why else would I like it so much? And would I watch a show about Rhonda arguing about values and ferociously bending Switchcreek and the American government to her will? I sure damn would.

I wouldn’t watch is a show about Paxton. Paxton is boring. When the story shifted back to Paxton, I lost interest and just missed Rhonda. I didn’t care about what happened to Jo–Paxton didn’t care enough to make me care–and I cared absolutely zero about whether Paxton was going to break free of his addiction to the vintage. The book broke into awesomeness now and then (whenever it ditched Paxton for someone else’s viewpoint), but overall it was kind of disappointing.

HOWEVER. My feelings of excitement about Daryl Gregory as an author are unchanged. I thought Pandemonium was great, I thought The Devil‘s Alphabet had a lot of potential to be great, and I am on board to read anything Daryl Gregory wants to write for the foreseeable future.

Cover report: Meh. The cover’s the same in Britain and America, and I could live without it.

affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository

Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory

Am I just reading a lot of good speculative fiction lately, or is speculative fiction being extra awesome recently?

The beginning: Pandemonium has a killer premise in a lot of ways. First, the basic premise baldly stated — a world exactly like ours except that starting in the 1940s/1950s, random acts of demonic possession started happening — is awesome. Second, the particulars of the premise — there are only about 100 known demons, who possess people for brief periods of time (a few minutes to a few days, usually), act out fairly consistent scenes, and then jump to another victim — is awesome. Third, the dilemma the protagonist (a one-time victim of possession) has is awesomely horrible. It’s so awesomely horrible that I’m going to need to quote it directly.

When I was a teenager I had a swimming accident, and after that I started hearing the noises. That’s what I called them, anyway, what everyone in my family called them. But they weren’t exactly sounds. I didn’t hear voices, or humming, or music, or screams. It was more physical than that. I felt movement, vibration, like the scrape of a chair across the floor, a fist pounding against a table. It felt like someone rattling a cage in my mind. …Every few minutes, I felt a lurch and a flurry of clawed scrabbling, like a raccoon in a cardboard box.

Not recommended: Reading a passage like this before you go to sleep at night. I am hella suggestible, and I ended up with a pounding headache. And anxious thoughts about what I would do if a maybe-demon was living all up in my head. I waited until morning to read the end because I was afraid it would be too scary.

The end (spoilers in this section only; skip down to “the whole” if you don’t want to know): OH SHIT this is so great. I have a goofy grin all over my face from what the ending revealed to me. Anastasia says she figured this out before the characters, so maybe it’s not as much fun if you’ve had time to think about it. But speaking as someone who’s coming from the first couple of chapters, this is an excellent reveal: Del was never a boy trying to keep a demon contained; he was a demon trying to keep a boy contained. The scratching in his head is little human Del trying to get out. HOW CREEPY IS THAT?

The whole: No wonder Daryl Gregory won a Shirley Jackson Award. If there is one thing Shirley Jackson would have thought of but just didn’t get to in time, it’s having a something inside your head scritch-scritch-scritching at your brain box trying to get out. I finished this book a couple of days ago and that idea still sends shivers up my spine.

(Shirley Jackson wouldn’t have tried to explain the demons though. Shirley Jackson strikes me as the sort of person who would think demonic possession was what we should have expected all along anyway, in the same spirit as when you go to the store desperately trying to buy sugar so you can make a damn last-minute birthday cake for your friend whose birthday you’re trying to pretend you didn’t forget, but then of course the damn store is all out of damn sugar because of course it is.)

In more reasoned analysis, Pandemonium is a first novel with some first-novel flaws. The premise is so fantastically creepy that attempts to explain how the possessions work and what might be causing them fall flat. Gregory rescues it at the end, moooooostly, from feeling too X-Files-y (I’m speculating; I have watched very little X-Files), and the very ending, the final chapter, is quite strong.

Mainly, the book is fun, and specific in a way that keeps catching you off guard: The first demonic possession you witness is a demon called the Painter, who uses the body he’s possessing to make a picture on the floor of the airport. Science fiction writer Philip Dick shows up at the demonology conference, alive and well and pretending (?) to be possessed by a demon called Valis. It’s fun. I can’t wait to read another book by this author.

Thanks, Anastasia, for recommending this! See, I wasn’t lying! I did promptly check it out and read it! (Well, promptlyish.)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone! This is sort of an apt post for St. Patrick’s Day, right? He didn’t cast out demons but he did cast out all the snakes from Ireland, which is sort of like demons! I’m not wearing green today because I own almost nothing that’s green. Hopefully nobody will pinch me. That is annoying.

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