It’s rare for a new book by one of my favorite authors to sneak up on me, but somehow Garrison Keillor managed to publish The Lake Wobegon Virus with little or any fanfare last year.
Maybe it was because fans (well, at least this one) were disappointed by Keillor’s last journey to Lake Wobegon. Or maybe it was that his autobiography warranted a bit more of the marketing push and resources. Either way, it made it feel like reading The Lake Wobegon Virus is like discovering an episode of an old favorite TV show that you’d somehow missed through all the times watching and rewatching that show — comforting and familiar with a reminder of what you love about the property without necessarily stoking or diminishing the flames of your fandom.
A virus is sweeping through the small town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve with people acting strangely and being ruthlessly honest with each other. Some chalk it up to unpasteurized cheese getting out into the population while others think that mysterious billionaire buying up large chunks of real estate might be the culprit.
The thing that took me out of Keillor’s last several visits to Lake Wobegon was a feeling that he’d become too cynical for his own good — we were no longer laughing with the characters but at them. With The Lake Wobegon Virus. Keillor inserts a fictional version of himself into his fictional town and the novel feels like early works. There were moments that brought a smile to my face and a chuckle while reading that were, quite frankly, not present in the last few novels.
Keillor’s fictional doppelganger makes repeated references to avoiding writing his memoirs — which makes me think the real-life Keillor was having fiction reflect reality a bit. I could see Keillor using this novel as an escape from writing his memoirs or maybe as a warm-up to doing the work of examining his own life and putting down those details on the printed page.
The storytelling is very episodic in nature, feeling like Keillor is tying together some of his monologs from the waning days of his hosting The Prairie Home Companion. And while there is the pervading threat of the bad cheese hanging over things, it’s the stories of the lives of the people and the town that kept me going.
In many ways, this one feels like Keillor putting a final bow on his fictional small town — and I’ve got to admit that had me feeling a bit sentimental as the final page flipped by. I came away from the novel feeling a bit like I’d spent the last few moments when one of my favorite writers in the fictional world of his that I loved so much. If this is the end, it’s a nice way to go, reminding me of what I feel in love with Keillor’s writing and the town of Lake Wobegon all those decades ago.
Chris Chibnall owes James Goss a thank-you note for giving Doctor Who fans something besides the implications of the Timeless Child to focus on during (yet another) gap year in new installments.
The second installment in the Paul McGann entry of the “Time Lord Victorious” arc features the Daleks (because, of course, we can’t not have the Daleks in there somehow) and builds on the foundation provided by “He Kills Me, He Kills Me Not.” “The Enemy of My Enemy” is a bit more successful and entertaining of a story than the previous installment, though I couldn’t help but feel there was some potential overlooked here. Some of the connections to the larger story come through here — especially the weapon held by the Wrax. There are probably Easter eggs to other installments of this series that I’m either not getting because I haven’t experienced them yet or I wasn’t taking notes as I listened to/read other parts.
McGann is up to his usual standard of excellence here, proving once again that he would have been a great on-screen Doctor if he’d been given the chance. Nicholas Briggs once again gives us an impressive array of Dalek voices and he even manages to make most of them distinctive enough that this listener could tell which Dalek was speaking. I will admit that years of watching classic Who has me expecting Davros to turn up at some point, but I am thinking that’s more and more unlikely.
The story builds to a point and then ends of a cliffhanger. As the middle installment of a trilogy, a lot of what we’re getting here is moving pieces into place for the end game to come. I’m interested enough that I will listen to part three.
An updated take on Lucifer’s Hammer, Claire Holroyde’s The Effort speculates that it (still) wouldn’t take much for civilization as we know it to collapse and our world to descend into chaos. In the case of The Effort, it’s a large comet that is on a collision course with our planet. Holroyde bounces between multiple characters in the story, from members of a team, tasked with finding a way to save the planet from destruction to those dealing with civilization as we know it falling into chaos as some of humanity’s more base tendencies toward self-preservation kick in.
Like Lucifer’s Hammer, I found myself slowly starting to root for the cosmic calamity to befall the planet and start getting rid of certain characters, chief among them the head scientist Ben. Ben’s worst tendencies include not allowing members of his team to manifest any physical appearance that time is passing and his lack of consideration for those he doesn’t consider of immediate benefit or impact to the group trying to find a last-second way to save us all from destruction. Continue reading
Have you ever got to the end of a book and wondered — what the heck did I just read?!?
If not, then you might want to pick up Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes because it’s got one of the most WTF endings I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, the ending is so WTF, that any conversation about the book is going to naturally have to go into detail about it. You are suitably warned.
When single-mother Louise meets David in a bar, the chemistry between them is electric. But, he’s married, so Louise ends up not pursuing more than a semi-drunk flirtation with him. Things get a bit more awkward when it turns out that David is the new doctor at the counseling clinic where Louise is employed part-time. Despite a conversation in which both of them declare that seeing each other is a bad idea, the chemistry continues to be there.
Things get even more complicated with Louise runs into Adele, David’s wife. The two strike up a friendship, though Louise conveniently omits that she flirted with Adele’s husband and that she and David have started an affair (apparently behind Adele’s back, though the first-person chapters from Adele’s point of view make it clear that she not only knows about this, she’s also manipulating both sides for….well, more on that later).
If you’re thinking we’ve even reached the depths of the WTF, we aren’t even in the same zip code yet.
Through flashbacks, we find out that Adele has an interesting past — her parents died in a fire, she’s wealthy but she’s signed over all her money to David, and she spent time getting mental help while David was in college. It’s at the institution that she meets Rob, who she gets close to during her time. They get so close that Adele invites him to come to stay with her should Rob’s family kick him out if and when he backslides from his drug habit.
If you’re wondering who Rob is and why Behind Her Eyes keeps flashing back to him and turns over a good bit of the novel’s real estate to him, the answer becomes clear in the final pages. And it’s once the answer becomes clear that the question of whether or not you love the novel or want to throw it against the wall in frustration will be answered. Continue reading
Being naked in Cat’s bed was a fantasy I was already entertaining, and I ran my hand along her white marble countertop, making a silent vow to christen that surface, also.
Cat Winthrope seemingly has it all — the perfect husband, William, the gorgeous home, the social standing among the who’s who of their California community.
Enter Neena, the life coach who can help put William’s company over the top. But Neena is harboring deep-seated jealousy of everything Cat has — and Neena is willing to do whatever it takes to set herself as the next Mrs. Winthrope.
Filled with dark, duplicitous characters, A.R. Torre’s Every Secret Thing will have you questioning your allegiances and changing “sides” in the ongoing struggle between Cat and Neena throughout the course of the book. Neena and her husband, Matt, buy the house next door to Wiliam and Cat, insinuating themselves in the lives of the Winthrope’s at every opportunity — both professionally and personally. But neither side knows the other is playing a long game, leading to a suspenseful, “I can’t believe she’s doing this” final third of the novel. Be warned that once you get past a certain point, odds are you won’t be able to stop turning the pages in order to see what happens or develops next.
Part of that hook is Torre’s telling the story from the alternating viewpoint of Neena and Cat. Seeing how each views the other and the mounting frustration and conflict between the two makes for a rich, rewarding payoff in the final pages. The final third of the novel is rich with melodrama – but it’s all earned by some Torre’s laying a solid foundation for it early in the story.
As I said earlier, don’t be shocked to find your allegiances changing — or that you’ll at least understand what motivates each side in the ever-escalating conflict. There is a final twist or two that had me raising an eyebrow a bit, but at that point, I’d just decided to go with the crazy and enjoy what was unfolding.
Learning that Cassandra Rose Clarke was penning a couple of Star Trek tie-in novels, I decided to sample some of her back catalogs. The first book that hit my library reserve pile was the young-adult urban fantasy, Forget This Ever Happened.
The town of Indianola, Texas is off-the-grid, even in the early ’90s. That’s because there are monsters who live out by the old power planet who live in a tentative alliance with the town’s humans. And anyone who leaves town forgets about the monsters and details of their lives in the small town.
In the summer of 1993, Claire is exiled to Indianola, Texas to care for her aging grandmother. When a monster shows up in her yard, taunting her, Claire calls the local exterminator to remove the creature back to the power plant. That’s how she meets Julie, whose family owns multiple local businesses. Claire’s grandmother is convinced that Julie’s family “stole” their family home out from under them years ago and is less than pleased with Claire and Julie’s strike up a friendship. Claire’s grandmother would rather she spent time with Audrey, the girl who is almost too good to be true.
The first third of Forget This Ever Happened builds the world of Indianola and the budding relationship between Julie and Claire. Pieces of the larger mystery of what’s happening in town and the connection to everyone are slowly sewn and established. Once the pieces are in place, the novel proceeds at a slow-burn toward the final revelations of just what’s going on in the town and why. Clarke earns each of the reveals, all while giving us a good dollop of teen angst. This angst comes in the form of Claire’s rising attraction to Julie and her feelings about it.
To say too much more would probably ruin some of the developments of the novel’s last third. Forget This Ever Happened is an intriguing treat with strong, female protagonists that earn most of the surprises from the novel’s final third. Given that Clarke’s upcoming TNG novel will focus on Dr. Crusher from season seven, I can’t help but look forward to that book arriving on my shelf later this year.
Until then, there are more novels from Clarke to explore — something I’m looking forward to doing.
Victoria Schwab is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers — and I’m having a lot of fun exploring her catalog.
One aspect that makes Shwab’s output so appealing is her world-building. And that strength is fully on display with This Savage Song. In an urban fantasy world, a monster wants to be a human, and a human resisting the urge to become a monster. August and Kate come from the ruling families on opposite sides of a brewing conflict who are sent to the same school. Kate has been trying to get back home with her father since her mother died and August is sent undercover to keep an eye on her.
Schwab resists the urge to make August and Kate into a Romeo-and-Juliet-like couple, instead opting to make them become friends and reluctant allies in an attempt to keep a seemingly unstoppable impending war from happening. Each has his or her own secrets (August’s is particularly intriguing) and could be a useful pawn in the other side’s attempts to sway the balance of power.
Schwab’s world is full of strong characters, careful world-building, and earned dramatic escalations. The novel builds up the tension and does end on a cliffhanger that left me curious to pick up the next installment in the series and continue to explore this world and the lives of August and Kate. Continue reading
Thanks to the quirks of KTEH’s (a bastion of Doctor Who in the U.S. back in the day) scheduling of Colin Baker’s first season as the Doctor, I saw season 22 of classic Who a lot during my first decade or so as a fan. That kind of explains why it’s been a hot minute since I dusted off that particular season on either my VHS or DVD collection. It’s probably been at least a decade since I really dabbled in season 22 in a serious way — and boy, did revisiting Philip Martin’s adaptation of his script for “Vengeance on Varos” show that.
Martin takes a page from the master of the Doctor Who adaptation, Terrance Dicks, and gives us essentially the same story we get on-screen. Though to Martin’s credit (and Dicks in the early days before they chained him to a typewriter and he churned out eight novels in a year), he does at least try to make the story feel like it unfolds over a longer duration of time than what we got on-screen. Martin makes it feel like the Doctor, Peri, Jondar, and Arata spend a bit more time wandering around the punishment dome, trying to find a way out and escape. He even extends things out enough so it appears the Doctor has passed away for longer than five-minutes than we see on-screen.
There is an extended sequence where we pull back the curtain and see how the Governor truly lives when he’s not negotiating with Sil or being sprayed with death rays. And don’t forget that part where he has Sil fall into the vat of liquid that he’s constantly being sprayed with on-screen.
But despite all these flourishes, it’s the story of “Varos” that continues to shine through and where the success or failure of this particular story lies. Continue reading
One of the eternal questions debated on many a playground is if you could pick one superpower, which one would it be and why? Odds are that a lot of the responses are going to be the old standards of flying, running fast, or becoming invisible.
The becoming invisible portion is the basis for one of the building blocks of the science-fiction genre in H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Odds are that even if you haven’t read it, you’re aware of the basic outline of the story thanks to multiple pop-culture retellings or uses of the character over the years.
For this year’s Vintage SciFi Month, I decided that I’d take a look at the foundational novel in the genre and see if it holds up.
Since it was included as part of my Audible subscription, I decided to take advantage of it and began listening. And immediately found myself not really looking forward to going back to it. The story of a scientist who invents a serum that allows him to become invisible and then becomes a raging ball of id just never quite connected with me this time around. Doing a bit of research, I found that Wells initially serialized the story, which then put into the Doctor Who frame of mind of figuring out where the cliffhangers all were. And maybe the story would have worked better unfolding in weekly or monthly installments. But I’m honestly not so sure. Continue reading
About mid-way through Avery Bishop’s debut thriller Girl Gone Mad, Emily Bennett remembers her high school reading of Lord of the Flies and her teacher’s assertion that was the island inhabited entirely by girls, the cruelty inflicted upon each other couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened. Apparently, the teacher didn’t know that sitting in his classroom were five young ladies who could and would inflict cruelty on par or worse than anything the boys dreamed up on Wiliam Goldman’s deserted island.
Girl Gone Mad looks at bullying gone horribly, horribly wrong. In middle school, Emily and her friends form a clique known as the Harpies. When a new girl named Grace arrives at school, Emily invites her into the group, only to see the other members bully and belittle her. Years later, Emily is atoning for her behavior as a psychologist, working with boys and girls who face the type of trauma she and her friends inflicted upon Grace.
And that, as it often does it these books, the past rears its ugly head. The death of one of the members of the Harpies leads Emily down a path as she begins to wonder if someone from her past is intent upon exacting revenge for her and the Harpies’ actions in middle school.
The sheer level of cruelty and bullying inflicted the various members of the Harpies inflicted upon each other will make your skin crawl, especially if you’re the parent of a girl. It starts off seemingly harmless with the initiation ritual involving “borrowing” something from a store at the mall but gets progressively worse as time goes along. The long-term damage to all the girls in the group becomes evident with each page — especially in the case of Emily, who has decided not to have kids in fear of one of the following in her footsteps and how this slowly begins to alienate her seemingly perfect fiancee Daniel.
Full of red herrings and plot twists, Girl Gone Mad keeps piling on distraction after distraction until it the entire story collapses under its own weight in the first quarter of the novel. It’s a case of a couple of twists too many in the final pages and an attempt for the author to attempt to wrap up everything into too neat a final bow. Once we get past the huge shock of Emily seemingly losing her entire life in the course of a few hours thanks to the sins of her past, the twists and turns seem a bit piled on and like Bishop wasn’t necessarily sure how to pull the crazy-train into the station.