The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008. The Prize is given for the entire body of a person’s work over his or her lifetime. In Ms. Lessing’s case, pilule that includes a good deal of science-fiction novels. (The Nobel Prize committee can’t say, information pills “We’re only giving this to her because she wrote that one book.” It doesn’t work that way.) She’s not the first Nobel Laureate who didn’t write strictly realistic contemporary or historical fiction; see Friday’s review for more details. In any case, Ms. Lessing’s science fiction period was mostly in the 1970s, and it included dystopian as well as classic-style SF work. It was not well-received by critics who loved her straight fiction novels. I don’t know very much about them otherwise, but she wrote them, they exist, and she won the highest prize awarded in literature.

This novel, however, isn’t science fiction, in particular; it exists on the edges of Gothic horror and perhaps fantasy. Harriet and David meet at a party in the mid-1960s. Each is a bit of a throwback to an earlier time, in that during an era of sexual and personal liberty, they both have nonexistent or very small sexual histories and they both want a large family with a stay-at-home mother. They start this family nearly immediately after they get married, although not by choice; it’s a financial strain on both of them. Fortunately, David’s father has money, but even so, the fact that they produce five children in seven years is a problem. Unfortunately, the fifth child, Ben, is even more of a problem. Harriet had an entirely miserable pregnancy; she felt as if he were trying to kick his way out from the inside. Once he is born, it is obvious that he isn’t normal — as Harriet points out right away, he looks like a goblin or a troll. He is also violent, and a danger to himself and everyone around him. What can they do with him? Continue reading The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing

Armageddon Summer, by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville

Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville are, urologist separately, two very important children’s fantasists. Ms. Yolen has written hundreds of books for children of all different ages, plus a handful of books intended for adults. One of her novels, Briar Rose, was a “Fairy Tales” series novel, like Tanith Lee’s White as Snow, and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. She lives in New England. The first Bruce Coville book I read was My Teacher is an Alien, but the majority of his work has much less lurid titles. He lives in Syracuse, as does Tamora Pierce; they appear to be friends as well as collaborators, as he founded Full Cast Audio. This novel is, as it says, the first collaboration between the two, although Mr. Coville and Ms. Yolen have been friends for years.

The novel is written in alternating chapters; half belong to Marina, a girl about to turn fourteen, and the other half to Jed, who is sixteen. Each has a connection to a strange cult that believes that the world is going to end in fire on July 27th, 2000 (Marina’s fourteenth birthday). Marina’s family is true believers, except her father; she has convinced herself that she believes as well. Jed’s father, after Jed’s mother left them, sank into depression, and only the strangely charismatic Rev. Beelson, could get him out of it. Jed absolutely doesn’t believe that the world will end so soon, but he ends up, with Marina and her family and enough other people to make exactly 144, on top of a mountain for the two weeks before the supposed ending of the world. What is going to happen on that day? Continue reading Armageddon Summer, by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville

Psychological Methods to Sell Must Be Destroyed: Stories, by Robert Freeman Wexler

Robert Freeman Wexler contacted me after seeing my review of Song of Time by Ian MacLeod; he was the designer for that book, audiologist and had apparently liked my review of it. In addition to being a book designer, he writes. This work is a chapbook, a smallish book of about 64 pages with a paper cover; it’s held together with staples, and most of the stories are printed in a two-column newspaper-like format. In addition to this collection of stories, published by Spilt Milk/Electric Velocipede Press, he has a novel from PS Publishing due out in 2009. He lives in Yellow Springs; his wife, Rebecca Kuder, is also a writer. They have a small child (about a year old) together.

The chapbook consists of five previously-published stories and one previously-unpublished one; the titles are as follows: “Suspension,” “Tales of the Golden Legend,” “Valley of the Falling Clouds,” “The Green Wall,” “Indifference,” and “Sidewalk Factory: A Municipal Romance.” The first is about a man with four arms having an epiphany in the snow; the second is about bread speaking to various people; the third is a sort of Western story; the fourth is about a man who works in an art gallery and comes home to find a rainforest projected on his wall; the fifth is about a man whose wife has recently left him; and the last story, the previously-unpublished one, is about a governmentally-repressive near-future society and a man’s attempts to break out. Continue reading Psychological Methods to Sell Must Be Destroyed: Stories, by Robert Freeman Wexler

The Cusp of Something, by Jai Claire

Welcome to Day 3 of Small Press Week II! I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about British small presses, anabolics so when Elastic Press offered me a review copy of a book, about it I asked Andrew to provide a short bio of his press. He gave me this:

Elastic Press was founded in 2002 by Andrew Hook, specifically to plug the gap in the short story collection market. It has regularly published at least one book every three months since that date, and has most recently released its twenty-ninth title – The Turing Test by Chris Beckett. They publish a mix of genres and have won four British Fantasy Society awards (Best Small Press 2005, and Best Anthology for the years 2005, 2006 and 2007). They can be found at

I’m impressed. The book I chose was written by a woman named Jai Claire; she looks extremely young, but based on the amount of things she’s accomplished in her life, she must be somewhat older than she looks. She teaches creative writing to adults and has what appears to be the British equivalent of an MFA in creative writing. Her website (here) is interesting although not exactly full of the normal information I put in these little blurbs.

Anyway, The Cusp of Something is a collection of twenty-five short stories; many have been published in other places such as literary magazines. The earliest piece in the collection was published in 1998; a few are original to the collection. The stories all have in common a similar dark, lush tone; some are in first person, others in second or third. They are mostly set during the current time, but they do range into misty times in the future and intimations of the past, as well. The author describes them as literary fiction; most are such, but a few involve magic, mysticism, and the unknown in various forms. Continue reading The Cusp of Something, by Jai Claire

Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen is from Miami; he’s apparently been writing about Florida and Miami for many years. At the moment he’s a columnist for the Miami Herald; I don’t actually know what his columns are about, allergy but I’m sure I should. He’s written a good deal of strangely funny books for adults, sales including Sick Puppy and Skinny Dip. Hoot is his first novel intended for children/YAs, and considering that it was a Newbery Honor Book a few years ago, I’d say he did just fine for his first time out. It was turned into a movie by Walden Media some time recently. I haven’t seen it yet, because I thought I ought to read the book first. After reading the book, I definitely intend to find the movie at some point.

Roy is the new kid at Trace Middle School; he’s usually the new kid somewhere. His father works for the Department of Justice, and therefore the family moves around a lot. Being the new kid, of course people want to beat him up; one day, as Dana Mathewson is trying to strangle him, he sees a strange boy without any shoes running fast and far. Roy jumps off the bus and follows the kid, but before he can catch him, he’s hit by a golf ball. Who is this kid, and why is he running around without shoes? Secondarily, why has there been random acts of vandalism (pulling up the survey stakes, painting a sleeping cop’s car windows black, removing the seats of the heavy equipment) on a construction site for Mother Paula’s Pancake House? Does someone hate flapjacks? Continue reading Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut passed away a couple years ago. So it goes. I generally assume that anyone over the age of eighteen has read Slaughterhouse-Five, shop his magnum opus about the bombing of Dresden, gerontologist aliens, and time travel; this probably isn’t a very good assumption, as the only reason I read it was because it was on Modern Library’s top 100 books of the 20th century. (In other words, my school didn’t assign it, unlike Jurassic Park and Brave New World. But I digress.) Anyway, he was definitely a powerhouse of literary science fiction, if such a thing is said to exist. This was his last novel, published in 1997.

In the introduction, Mr. Vonnegut explains that he had written a novel, henceforth referred to as Timequake One, with which he was not satisfied. Instead of scrapping it, he took bits of the plot, which center around Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer and sometimes Mr. Vonnegut’s alter ego, and combined it with philosophy and anecdotes from his life to create a semi-autobiographical ‘stew.’ The central premise is that the universe, in a fit of self-doubt, contracted — but just a bit — and made everyone re-live a ten-year period, from 1991 to 2001. Unfortunately, they couldn’t change anything in this ten-year period; at the end, however, when free will returns, they have a clambake. Continue reading Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

Black and White, by Lewis Shiner

Subterranean Press, about it purveyors of such novels as this one, order this one, and this one, made an announcement last week that Lewis Shiner’s new novel, Black and White, was to start shipping last weekend, so I thought a Monday review would be good timing. The Subterranean Press edition is the only edition of this book, as far as I know. I’ve talked about the lovely book-objects that Sub Press produces so often that I won’t say any more here. I will mention that they auction books on eBay as seller ‘subpress’ quite often, and sometimes at bargain rates. Check them out!

Michael Cooper’s father Robert is dying, and he has asked to return to Durham, where Robert lived when he and Ruth (Michael’s mother) first married. There have been some questions that have plagued Michael for years, such as why do he and his mother get along so badly, and why has he never seen a copy of his birth certificate? Being back in Durham, where Michael was born, he starts looking for answers — and finds a whole lot more than he bargained for. Vodou, history, race relations, highway construction, and comics all combine to make the answers not quite what Michael was expecting. Continue reading Black and White, by Lewis Shiner

A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

The final book in Old Favorites Week is by Madeleine L’Engle, allergist and most readers would expect this to be a review of A Wrinkle in Time. As much as I loved that book, sales though, advice A Ring of Endless Light is the book that had more of an impact on me. I originally wrote this review when Ms. L’Engle died (September of 2007), and here it is, again, for your reading pleasure.

Technically this is the third book in the Austin family series (of which there are four, with a tangentially related fifth book), but I believe it can be read on its own. Vicky Austin is fifteen the summer that her grandfather is dying from cancer, and the whole family goes to stay with him on the island where he lives. Her older brother, John, has a summer job on the other side of the island, working with dolphins. One of his coworkers is a young man named Adam Eddington, also an aspiring marine biologist. An old acquaintance of Vicky’s (from the previous book, The Moon by Night), Zachary Gray, also makes an appearance. Continue reading A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

Austenland, by Shannon Hale

This, approved Hale’s only book in the adult market, is a short but lovely homage to Jane Austen. The dedication is one of the funniest I’ve ever seen:

For Colin Firth
You’re a really great guy, but I’m married, so I think we should just be friends.

To digress a moment, the cover is fantastic as well. The front features a young woman, dressed in contemporary clothing, facing away from the camera. She is staring at an imposing English country house, in a post-Elizabethan style (the house, when viewed from above, forms an “E”, but the decorations are a little more Georgian). The back of the cover features the same house, but at the top, turned upside down.

The novel itself is concerned with Jane Hayes, an early thirty-something New Yorker who has rotten luck with men. When she’s down, she watches the BBC Pride and Prejudice with the aforementioned Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. At one point, in between men, she happens to talk to an elderly great-aunt of hers, and admits the Pride and Prejudice fascination. When that great-aunt dies, Jane inherits an all-expenses-paid trip to a place called Austenland — an English country house run as an odd sort of tourist site. The tourists are wealthy women who stay for a few weeks, pretending to be in the Regency era, complete with clothing and lack of contemporary things, including cell phones, cars, and take-out.

Jane goes, of course, but not everything is quite what it seems. Continue reading Austenland, by Shannon Hale