Recent SF: Hidden Gems from Mainstream Publishers

There are tons of science fiction and fantasy publishers these days. From Tor to Orbit, Del Rey to Night Shade Books, EOS, ACE, Solaris, etc, chances are you’re familiar with at least a few of these. Some of the SF publishers you’re familiar with are independent, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Most of them are owned by just five publishing houses (the big five).

As readers, we become familiar with the names of these publishers and trust them as marks of quality or as indicators that we might like a new book. I have particularly loved recent titles from Orbit and Tor, whose books have deservedly dominated the Hugo, Nebula and Locus award nominations and winners in the last few years. The flip side of this affinity for the same few publishers is that a lot of great SF novels published by non SF imprints can go under noticed by the SF community.

There have been several terrific recent science fiction and fantasy novels from mainstream literary imprints and independent publishers that I think deserve much more attention than they received. I’ve put this list together to remind readers that there is quality SF all over the place. Most of the books in this list are still from the big five, but I’ve included some from smaller, independent publishers as well. They are all wonderfully well rounded stories, told through beautiful language. Hopefully you’ll find something you like, or maybe even a new favorite. Enjoy!

Version Control, Dexter PalmerVersion Control, by Dexter Palmer (2016, Pantheon/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

Although Rebecca Wright has pieced her life back together after a major tragedy, she can’t shake a sense that the world around her feels off-kilter. Meanwhile, her husband’s dedication to his invention, “the causality violation device” (which he would greatly prefer you not call a time machine) has effectively stalled his career—but he may be closer to success than either of them can possibly imagine. Emotionally powerful and wickedly intelligent, Version Control is a stunningly prescient novel about the effects of science and technology on our lives, our friendships, and our sense of self that will alter the way you see the future—and the present.

Why it’s awesome:
Dexter PalmerThis was one of my favorite reads from the last few years. It came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass in 2016. It’s a slow burn novel with one of the most emotionally fulfilling conclusions that I have ever read. It’s a highly character driven, yet cerebral examination of causality, physics, and concepts like parallel worlds and time travel. But it never loses it’s core focus: humanity, and human relationships.

It’s set in a near near-future, and does a fantastic job of telling a beautiful story about the far reaching effects that advances in technology might bring to our lives, particularly the collision of the Maker/DIY community and advanced self driving vehicles.

Version Control is a masterpiece of literature, SF or otherwise.

Void Star, by Zachary MasonVoid Star, by Zachary Mason (2017, FSG)

Publisher Synopsis:

Not far in the future the seas have risen and the central latitudes are emptying, but it’s still a good time to be rich in San Francisco, where weapons drones patrol the skies to keep out the multitudinous poor. Irina isn’t rich, not quite, but she does have an artificial memory that gives her perfect recall and lets her act as a medium between her various employers and their AIs, which are complex to the point of opacity. It’s a good gig, paying enough for the annual visits to the Mayo Clinic that keep her from aging.
Kern has no such access; he’s one of the many refugees in the sprawling drone-built favelas on the city’s periphery, where he lives like a monk, training relentlessly in martial arts, scraping by as a thief and an enforcer. Thales is from a different world entirely―the mathematically inclined scion of a Brazilian political clan, he’s fled to L.A. after the attack that left him crippled and his father dead.
A ragged stranger accosts Thales and demands to know how much he can remember. Kern flees for his life after robbing the wrong mark. Irina finds a secret in the reflection of a laptop’s screen in her employer’s eyeglasses. None are safe as they’re pushed together by subtle forces that stay just out of sight.

Why it’s awesome:
Zachary MasonIt not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jump-start your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

Read the full Heradas review of Void Star

Little Sister, by Barbara GowdyLittle Sister, by Barbara Gowdy (2017, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

Thunderstorms are rolling across the summer sky. Every time one breaks, Rose Bowan loses consciousness and has vivid, realistic dreams about being in another woman’s body.
Is Rose merely dreaming? Or is she, in fact, inhabiting a stranger? Disturbed yet entranced, she sets out to discover what is happening to her, leaving the cocoon of her family’s small repertory cinema for the larger, upended world of someone wildly different from herself. Meanwhile her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and has begun to speak for the first time in decades about another haunting presence: Rose’s younger sister.
In Little Sister, one woman fights to help someone she has never met, and to come to terms with a death for which she always felt responsible. With the elegant prose and groundbreaking imagination that have earned her international acclaim, Barbara Gowdy explores the astonishing power of empathy, the question of where we end and others begin, and the fierce bonds of motherhood and sisterhood.

Why it’s awesome:
Barbara Gowdy Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Read the full Heradas review of Little Sister

Gnomon, Nick HarkawayGnomon, by Nick Harkaway (2018, Knopf/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

In the world of Gnomon, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of ‘transparency.’ Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories–all in the name of providing the safest society in history.
When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn’t make mistakes, but something isn’t right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter’s death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn’t Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter’s psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future.
Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter–and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.
A dazzling, panoramic achievement, and Nick Harkaway’s most brilliant work to date, Gnomon is peerless and profound, captivating and irreverent, as it pierces through strata of reality and consciousness, and illuminates how to set a mind free. It is a truly accomplished novel from a mind possessing a matchless wit infused with a deep humanity.

Why it’s awesome:
Nick HarkawayGnomon is simultaneously many different things: A cautionary tale about our modern moment’s convergence of technology, surveillance, and human hubris. A matryoshkian novel, as narratively complex as it is straightforward and readable, that is itself ultimately all about storytelling, narrative, and books. A satisfyingly self-aware postmodern book that wants access to your mind as a tool to self-propagate. A beautifully designed physical book (Chip Kidd doesn’t mess around). A book that teaches you how to read it as you read it.

Gnomon is also staggeringly vast in its scope and ambition: It’s about math, immigration, surveillance, sharks, encryption, ancient Rome, video games, economics, hive minds, the near future, the far future, liberty and security, mirrors and parallels, disconnection, right angles, mythology, time travel, social manipulation, the human connectome, steganography, racism, intertextuality, detective novels, religion, castouts, manipulation, our ever changing definition of reality, interrogation, torture, and so many, many other things.

If you like books by Borges, Neal Stephenson, Cherise Wolas, David Mitchell, David Foster Wallace or Ted Chiang, this is one I think you will immensely enjoy.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeerBorne, by Jeff VanderMeer (2016, MCD)

Publisher Synopsis:

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.
One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.
“He was born, but I had borne him.”
But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

Why it’s awesome:
Jeff VanderMeerJeff VanderMeer is a literary author, writing almost exclusively speculative fiction. He’s at the center of that illusive Venn diagram containing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Literary Fiction, and belongs in whatever section of your bookshelf Octavia Butler, Adam Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, Dexter Palmer and Gene Wolfe inhabit.

All of the VanderMeer story staples are here in full force: Ruinous ecology, strange bioluminescent life, forgotten memories, a misplaced sense of self-identity, life that might not be human, animals that (maybe) used to be human, a hint of something much larger happening on the periphery, a creepy company meddling in things they shouldn’t, and a perfect mix of mystery and resolution in the story. All told through beautiful prose that itself lends an eerie literary landscape for the rich characters to inhabit.

The most obvious comparison here is VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, being his most recent work. I can guarantee that if you enjoyed those novels, you’re very much going to enjoy Borne. Maybe even more so. I could even make a case that it is entirely possible, and doesn’t take all that much head canon, to connect Borne to the Southern Reach novels.

Read the full Heradas review of Borne

Mort(e), Robert RepinoMort(e), by Robert Repino (2015, SOHO)

Publisher Synopsis:

The “war with no name” has begun, with human extinction as its goal. The instigator of this war is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who, for thousands of years, have been silently building an army that would forever eradicate the destructive, oppressive humans. Under the Colony’s watchful eye, this utopia will be free of the humans’ penchant for violence, exploitation and religious superstition. As a final step in the war effort, the Colony uses its strange technology to transform the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.
Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions and fighting the dreaded human bio-weapon EMSAH. But the true motivation behind his recklessness is his ongoing search for a pre-transformation friend—a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message from the dwindling human resistance claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will take him from the remaining human strongholds to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the source of EMSAH and the ultimate fate of all of earth’s creatures.

Why it’s awesome:
Robert RepinoA terrific, wholly original story. Brutal, straightforward and unflinching yet really fun at the same time. It had elements of Planet of the Apes and the better works of Heinlein, but with a lot more heart.

Mort(e) did that thing that only SF can do so well. It told a story about humanity and all the things that we get wrong, transplanted into a completely alien, unfamiliar point of view, so as not too come across as obviously preachy. Repino removed the “serial numbers” from a great story about humanity, and turned in a thrilling science fiction tale.

The Gone World, Tom SweterlitschThe Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch (2018, Putnam)

Publisher Synopsis:

Inception meets True Detective in this science fiction thriller of spellbinding tension and staggering scope that follows a special agent into a savage murder case with grave implications for the fate of mankind…
Shannon Moss is part of a clandestine division within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In western Pennsylvania, 1997, she is assigned to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL’s family—and to locate his vanished teenage daughter. Though she can’t share the information with conventional law enforcement, Moss discovers that the missing SEAL was an astronaut aboard the spaceship U.S.S. Libra—a ship assumed lost to the currents of Deep Time. Moss knows first-hand the mental trauma of time-travel and believes the SEAL’s experience with the future has triggered this violence.
Determined to find the missing girl and driven by a troubling connection from her own past, Moss travels ahead in time to explore possible versions of the future, seeking evidence to crack the present-day case. To her horror, the future reveals that it’s not only the fate of a family that hinges on her work, for what she witnesses rising over time’s horizon and hurtling toward the present is the Terminus: the terrifying and cataclysmic end of humanity itself.
Luminous and unsettling, The Gone World bristles with world-shattering ideas yet remains at its heart an intensely human story.

Why it’s awesome:
Tom SweterlitschThis is a disturbing and unique take on time travel and alternate worlds that’s unlike anything I’ve read. Think the horrific existential dread of Lovecraft or Robert Chambers, that so obviously inspired the first season of True Detective, filtered through Arthur C. Clarke’s grand ideas, all told as an incredibly tight mainstream suspense thriller with a terrific protagonist. Throw in a dash of Minority Report, and a pinch of the complexity of Primer and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Mysteries in mysteries in mysteries, and they all resolve pretty well.

Usually I’ve found Science fiction suspense thrillers to be a little ham fisted. There’s often a solid idea but the execution is clumsy, or the SF aspects are merely genre tropes. Sometimes the mystery is a little too obvious, or the characters are as translucent as the paper in a cheap paperback. Worst of all is when the story gets bogged down by the science and it becomes more of a textbook than a novel. This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of “hard” sci-fi, but story and character need to come first. The Gone World doesn’t succumb to any of these traps. It works surprisingly well as both science fiction and a modern mainstream suspense thriller. The SF aspects help the story to avoid the tropes of suspense thrillers and vice versa, each genre serving to make up for the possible shortcomings of the other.

Read the full Heradas review of The Gone World

The New and Improved Romie FutchThe New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott (2015, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

A debut novel that is part dystopian satire, part Southern Gothic tall tale: a disturbing yet hilarious romp through a surreal New South where newfangled medical technologies change the structure of the human brain and genetically modified feral animals ravage the blighted landscape.
Down on his luck and still pining for his ex-wife, South Carolina taxidermist Romie Futch spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet before passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he replies to an ad and becomes a research subject in an experiment conducted by the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia. After “scientists” download hifalutin humanities disciplines into their brains, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs start debating the works of Foucault and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. The enhanced taxidermist, who once aspired to be an artist, returns to his hometown ready to revolutionize his work and revive his failed marriage. As Romie tracks down specimens for his elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he develops an Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog that has been terrorizing Hampton County. Cruising hog-hunting websites, he learns that this lab-spawned monster possesses peculiar traits. Pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists, Romie becomes entangled in the enigma of Hogzilla’s origins.
Exploring the interplay between nature and culture, biology and technology, reality and art, The New and Improved Romie Futch probes the mysteries of memory and consciousness, offering a darkly comic yet heartfelt take on the contemporary human predicament.

Why it’s awesome:

Julia ElliottA glorious postmodern tale of a mid-south middle-aged burnout divorcee taxidermist who hits rock bottom and answers a classified ad to become a guinea pig for some experimental neurological enhancements. It’s incredibly good writing, while being effortlessly engaging, humorous, poignant and actually kind of endearing too.

Julia Elliot’s prose evolves as the novel builds, expertly juxtaposing the realities and habits of uneducated southern life with the transformative power, and self reflection that accompanies an acquisition of knowledge. She crafts characters that drip with such potent realism, I swear these are actual people – some of whom I absolutely know from the mid-size mid-south town I currently reside in.

Tin House is one of my favorite smaller independent publishers in the business today. In addition to publishing ten or so terrific books each year, they also run the Tin House literary magazine, which recently published a new all time favorite story by Julia Elliott in their Candy issue.

Read the full Heradas review of The New and Improved Romie Futch

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

“Get your own head straight before hanging around in someone else’s.”

Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

Our protagonist is a woman who never really got a chance to know herself. She’s been drifting through her own life as a passenger; never really taking an active role. She’s stuck in a lot of what I would call soft-traps: caring for her mentally deteriorating mother, running the family business: a movie theater that screens classic films, and then there’s her adequate (but never exciting) romantic relationship that she settled for after a string of bad ones. She has large choices to make, but she can’t see them yet. I really think it’s a novel about escapism, the many different ways we deal with and process grief, and what we can learn from each other if we could only walk a mile in their shoes. Reading between the lines a little, I also think it’s about how important fiction can be for our personal development.

Barbara GowdyInstead of escaping into reality tv, soap operas, or novels, Rose’s escape is the main fantastical element of the story: during a string of summer thunderstorms she loses consciousness and finds herself inhabiting a different body. She has no control over this body, but feels and experiences everything that it does. These “episodes” as she calls them, have the feel of a mythological God toying with its creations. The woman she inhabits lives a much more exciting, soap operatic life, full of ups and downs that Rose has never experienced in her own life. She finds herself enraptured and confused, unsure whether she’s dreaming, losing her mind like her mother, or if something truly fantastic is happening. She becomes very invested in this other person, and begins a quest to confirm or deny this mystery woman’s existence, and regain her sanity.

In addition to the main narrative, there is a secondary story that unfurls in Rose’s past, involving her sister and a tragic accident she feels partly responsible for.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Little Sister is out May 23rd from Tin House Books.

 

 

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

“When death comes, it very often comes with eyes averted, and with interceding machinery.”

I don’t think anyone who has read this book would argue that there isn’t a fierce and creative intelligence at work here. Zak Smith’s memoir of working in the dual capital-a industries of Adult entertainment and Art scene in NY is pretty scathing, and as honest feeling as a memoir can hope to be. It also paints the alt-porn industry, as well as the greater Adult film industry, as pretty much exactly what you’ve always imagined them to be: complicated as hell. Things are never, not ever, black and white. Shades of grey abound.

Zak SmithI’ve read a few reviews of this book that spend most of their time talking about him specifically: He’s an asshole, or a misogynist, etc. All of which may or may not be true, I don’t really know enough to make that call, however, this isn’t a review of Zak as an individual, but of his book. I’m really not interested in an ad hominem angle. You have to separate the art from the individual. Look at George W. Bush for example, his paintings are just fucking adorable, and he’s literally a war criminal. Keep the individual separate from their art. It’s hard to do, but at worst it’s a good mental exercise, and at best it keeps you from being an asshole.

I always take memoirs with a grain of salt anyway, because seriously, you have to be completely bonkers to believe everything in them. Memory is mostly fiction. Just get together with some old friends or family and talk about the time you… or the other time when so-and-so… and see how often your versions of truth agree with each other’s.

“Give four art people a banana and they will say: It’s wonderfully yellow, it’s too yellow, it’s not yellow enough, I’m so glad it isn’t yellow, and then say it’s wonderfully squishy, it’s too squishy, it’s not squishy… and on and on until the banana gets so famous that they start getting paid to agree that the banana is yellow and good.”

Onto the actual content: This book is well written. There are some absolutely gorgeous sentences, metaphors, and sentiments presented, and I really want this guy to write some novels, because I would read them all. His published art project relating to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow aside, you can tell that Zak Smith’s literary influences swing heavily toward the postmodern side of things. I’m guessing that David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, and Hunter S. Thompson were all influential in the intended direction for this book.

This is basically a three year slice-of-life character based story on those in the alt-porn industry in Los Angeles and New York from 06 – 08. Everyone’s names are kind of changed, and supposedly details have been altered and swapped around and shared to make it not so obvious who is who for those that are familiar with these real life people. If you’re like me, you’re not very familiar with porn stars, but there are a few stories in here that broke into the mainstream a little, that you’ll most likely recognize. If you are familiar with porn stars, you’ll have a good time trying to match these fake names with their “real” fake names.

Zak Smith DrawingIt seems like he really wanted to give another angle on the people involved in the porn business. Something different from what’s already out there. There is so much misinformation, bad information, and downright obfuscation on the subject, from a lot of different camps. Pornographers have been very unfairly pushed into categories of sluts, whores, and victims (the women), and misogynist abusers (the men). Well, if I have to point out just how sexist that demarcation is, then you probably should read this book, or maybe something more along the lines of The Woman That Never Evolved, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, or really just any Feminist writing (please just make sure it’s not Tumblr feminism, go for the legit stuff). Not to say that there aren’t abusers, or victims involved in the Porn industry, I’m sure there are, and probably a lot. But again, things are never black and white like that.

Between the memoir bits there are a few sections with scans of his artwork; mostly drawings and paintings. Personally, I really like his art, but completely understand why someone else wouldn’t. He spends some time contrasting the art world with the porn world, drawing similarities and differences among the two. He’s very aware that both industries are kind of bullshit. He also seems very aware of how incredibly lucky he is to be able to make a living from his artwork.

It has one of the best ever descriptions of how bizarre the middle-zeroes were, which I think was intended to read as a “look at how strange things were then in comparison to how much better they are now” vibe, but in hindsight it works very well as an illustration of the starting point for exactly when our current issues (Trump, “alt facts”, not agreeing on objective reality, etc) began and stem from. It’s pretty disheartening that things seem only to have gone downhill from there on:

“I’m not sure future generations, comfortable with all the names in their history books, will appreciate the degree to which, in the mid-zeroes, everything even remotely resembling public life in America felt like a crudely mounted shadow-puppet play smoke-screening some unspeakable underlying soul-death.”

Zak Smith drawingI love what this had to say about sexual abuse, and abuse of all kinds. There are a disproportionate amount of porn stars that have experienced some kind of abuse in their past. And if you’re like me, you have a hard time understanding why anyone who had been abused would want to be in the porn business, especially in some of the darker or more kinked corners of it that more closely resemble their abuse. But, it really makes a lot of sense when it’s all laid out. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Really, anyone who chooses a life on the fringes or edges of what’s considered mainstream or normal society is utterly fascinating to me. There are all kinds of people, and just because the majority of people behave in one way doesn’t necessarily mean that way is right, and all others are wrong. Again with the black and white reference.

“Things that are supposed to make ordinary people happy or sad are molehills in the shadow of a morbid, thousand-mile-high monument to suffering and shame at the center of the city of the brain.
“The abused person then not only wants to not be abused–but she also wants to try to set up experiences of pleasure that equal or exceed the mental and emotional peak of pain that, otherwise, will be the highest and clearest peak in the history of her feelings.
“So she goes to the place the heavy bad thing came from–the sex place–and tries to see if there is a heavy good thing there, too. Because nothing else has that weight. You can’t erase pain from life, but you can get enough pleasure that life seems worth living anyway.”

I know quite a lot of people who are sexual assault survivors, probably more than I realize. It’s a widespread problem, and the victim blaming platitudes that I hear constantly from politicians and religious leaders infuriate me to no end. It appears that this double standard also pisses Zak off, and I can appreciate that. There are some sections in here talking specifically about the ways that politicians (esp. those on the right), and religious leaders have perpetuated and exacerbated the cycle of abuse through their rhetoric and actions. It’s very satisfying to hear someone lay it out so clearly.

In conclusion, a lot of this book is pretty vulgar, but then again it is about pornography and those in the industry. I think it’s important to talk about these things in our society rather than just push them off to the side and pretend they don’t exist. They exist. These people exist. And yes, they are people. I think the whole point of this book is to maybe force people to acknowledge this world that he’s familiar with. It’s real and we should talk about it.

 

 

Relief Map, by Rosalie Knecht

Relief Map, by Rosalie Knecht

This was a such a great story, with a cast of characters that I swear I grew up with. It brought back a lot of memories of the shadier aspects of being a teenager in a tiny town, and how much can change for you in one summer when you’re young and haven’t really done anything terrible yet.

The characters were mostly teenagers, but I wouldn’t call this YA fiction. It’s more of a coming-of-age story set within a powder keg of a small town, featuring universal human themes.

Rosalie KnechtThe prose was clear and descriptive, which really brought the story to life. The style here is reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, and his favorite location of Holt Colorado in some ways. Although, it’s entirely separated from that geographic location. The main idea being that this city and these characters are of that same rich, multi-layered caliber.

I have to admit that Tin House has quickly become one of my favorite publishers. They tend to publish these very human stories that you don’t usually find from the big 5. Everything they publish feels like it’s been personally curated for me, and their cover design in consistently on-point.

The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott

 

 

Julia Elliott
Julia Elliott

Synopsis:

Meet the South’s newest antihero: Romie Futch. Down on his luck and pining for his ex-wife, the fortysomething taxidermist spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet, then passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he becomes a research subject at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, where “scientists” download humanities disciplines into his brain. Suddenly, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs are speaking in hifalutin SAT words and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. With his new and improved brain, Romie hopes to reclaim his marriage, revolutionize his life, and revive his artistic aspirations. While tracking down specimens for elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he learns of “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog with supernatural traits that has been terrorizing the locals. As his Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging the beast brings him closer and closer to this lab-spawned monster, Romie gets pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists.
Part surreal satire, part Southern Gothic tall tale, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a disturbing yet hilarious romp through a strange New South where technology can change the structure of the human brain and genetically modified feral animals ravage the blighted landscape. In Romie Futch, Julia Elliott has created an unwitting and ill-equipped protagonist who nevertheless will win your heart.

 

A glorious postmodern southern gothic tale of a mid-south middle-aged burnout divorcee taxidermist who hits rock bottom and answers a classified ad to become a guinea pig for some experimental neurological enhancements. It’s incredibly good writing, while being effortlessly engaging, humorous, poignant and actually kind of endearing too.

The New and Improved Romie FutchJulia Elliot’s impressive prose evolves as the novel builds, expertly juxtaposing the realities and habits of uneducated southern life with the transformative power, and self reflection that accompanies an acquisition of knowledge. She crafts characters that drip with such potent realism, I swear these are actual people – some of whom I absolutely know from the mid-size mid-south town I currently reside in.

It’s a smidge of Flowers for Algernon, a little bit of Moby-Dick, and possibly even some Max Barry thrown in, and the whole thing is romantic and realistic while simultaneously bringing the fantastical to life.

P.S. Have a dictionary handy, and you may want to brush up on your Baudrillard, postmodernist theory, and various mythologies.