Tag Archives: western

cowboys, clones: my first brushes with 2021 lit

As usual, I’ve kicked off my reading year mostly with titles I already owned, mainly releases from the year before that I just hadn’t quite gotten around to. But shiny new books are too exciting to resist for long, so I’ve got a couple of 2021 releases to review now!

Outlawed

First up is Anna North’s Outlawed, a January publication that reinvents history. Set in the 1890s west, the US has been torn apart and rebuilt as something new in the wake of the Great Flu, which decimated the population enough to inspire a total societal fixation on reproduction. Women are valued only for their ability to bear children- many children. Ada, our MC, is in her late teens when she faces trouble: she’s been married for a year, tried a second partner in desperation, but her womb remains empty. She joins a convent to escape being hung as a witch, discovers that there’s a whole community of barren women just trying to survive, and joins the Hole in the Wall Gang to reclaim some of what’s been lost to her and to others marginalized by a zealous society with its cornerstone in bigotry.

Outlawed is tricky for me to talk about, because I don’t think it really has anything new to say and yet it has been the most fun read I’ve picked up so far this year. The writing isn’t anything flashy- I marked only three quotations, and all of them were chosen for their ability to capture the story’s essence in various ways, not on the basis of remarkable wording. The format is straightforward, chronological with a single first person narrator in a book that would probably have been served better with a wider range of perspectives- North apparently wants to deliver these characters’ backstories and rationalizations, but doing so through one primary MC means that Ada asks a lot of nosy questions and the reader gets to roll their eyes as her companions just… tell her whatever she wants to know. But there’s such a playful tone to it all that I found it to be an utterly addictive read nonetheless. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that spins out a theme in a mildly ridiculous way and just has fun delivering its messages, which are good one even if you’ve heard them before. Not for content, but my experience with Outlawed had a lot in common with my experience of My Sister, the Serial Killer; I loved them both for being theatrical, entertaining, a bit absurd.

It takes two chapters to get past the character introduction and plot setup, but then we’re thrown into a world of women and non-binary characters dressed up like men, running heists and getting into trouble and helping each other out again. The cast is lovable and diverse; I had a slight reservation at first about barrenness being highlighted as The Ultimate Persecuted Thing when there’s still racism and homophobia active in this world as well, but in the end I think North does a fair job of highlighting one issue without belittling others. There are squabbles and particular alliances among the outlaws, but the complicated dynamics between them all adds to the strength and appeal of this diverse found family.

“‘It’s a way of holding us up,’ Elzy said. ‘It’s how the Kid reminds us who we are.’ / ‘And who are we?’ / We heard hoofbeats in the distance. / The Kid appeared at the lip of the gulch then, nose and mouth already covered by a scarf of purple silk. Elzy smilied at me, then removed a checked bandanna from her pocket. / ‘Didn’t you hear?’ she asked. ‘We’re kings.'”

Other slight hangups for me included the brevity of the world building and a glossing over of morality. In the case of the former, small details are scattered throughout the book, leaving the politics of this setting feeling half-finished; we get small hints about the Great Flu and the Independent Townships that formed after America fell and the sheriffs who police them, but it’s bare bones- only enough to understand the logistics of the plot. As for the latter complaint, North delivers here a band of outlaws who are fully willing to kill any man who gets in their way, and there’s very little personal reckoning over this state of affairs. Of course the entire Hole in the Wall Gang has been cast out and persecuted, but it seems there should be a distinction made between recognizing harm from society as a whole and taking individual lives. Especially for a group with prices on their heads who are endeavoring to create a safe haven, I expected some deeper examination into the decision to murder, but instead its taken largely as a matter of course. The whole book, perhaps, could have been served well by an extra 50-100 pages in order to tease things out properly. That I never wanted the book to end probably serves as an indicator that I found it lacking in some ways even while the story engrossed me.

For all my little quibbles, I loved picking this book up every time I had a chance to read, was shocked at some of the twists, and heartbroken over a particular death. Outlawed has great energy. I was invested. I had a good time.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I could see myself potentially bumping this down to 4 in time, as it wasn’t a flawless read, but I was completely hooked all the way through and sad to reach the final page. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author.

The Echo Wife

Next is Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, which is a February 16 release- I received an eARC via Netgalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review. All of my thoughts and reactions come from the advance edition of this book.

This plot follows a renowned woman scientist who learns her husband is having an affair- with a clone he built from his wife’s research, programmed to be docile and accommodating in all of the ways Evelyn is not. At first Evelyn cuts her losses and keeps her distance, but soon the clone has as much reason to hate the man as Evelyn, and the two women bond over an attempt to cover up his murder.

I was under the impression that this book would be a fast-paced, plotty sci-fi, perhaps even a sci-fi thriller, but instead found it to be fairly slow and introspective. Part of what makes it drag is the narration’s tendency to over-explain, pausing each scene to tell the reader outright what each gesture, expression, and comment means, leaving nothing for the reader to decipher or interpret. The careful detailing of minutiae makes it easy to see which direction the book is going at almost every turn, before it gets there. It takes a full quarter of the book for the plot to progress beyond what’s stated directly in the synopsis, and each new piece of information (the affair! the clone! the murder! *gasp*) is presented as a plot twist even though it’s all setup, primarily, for what is in actuality a very character-driven story in which one woman grapples with who she is and who she could have been under other circumstances and who she could never have been at all- as well as an inquiry into that which makes us human.

I mostly agreed with and appreciated the book’s feminist commentary but didn’t feel it pushed any boundaries- that some women desire to reproduce, others do not, and both choices are valid is not new to me, nor is the narrative of a man taking advantage of a smart/successful woman in a quest to secure his own power both personally and professionally, though they’re nice points to see made in mainstream lit and I know there will be other readers newer to the nuances of both who will likely find these themes more exciting than I did.

Ultimately this story just wasn’t quite as punchy and innovative as I expected, though I did enjoy the focus on morality, on personality, on what (if anything) differentiates a human from a highly successful clone. The writing style never managed to win me over, though it’s competent enough and clearly shows that Gailey has put some effort into the science. To be honest most of the scientific details meant nothing to me without much of a background in the field myself, and thus some suspension of disbelief was required, but having them in the story did lend a sense of authenticity to Evelyn’s lab and increase my willingness to follow Gailey through that setting. In the end I’d say this is sci-fi for fans of books like Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife and/or Helen Philips’s The Need, both lighter on the actual science and heavier on feminist and woman-centered commentary; I’d recommend it to readers who like attention to detail and no questions left unanswered. Those who already know they like Gailey’s writing will probably fare well here, too.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, my expectations from the synopsis got in the way of fully enjoying what is actually presented here, and I suspect that in the end Gailey’s writing style is just not for me. This was my first time reading their work and I won’t rule out an exciting premise in the future convincing me to give them another go, but I don’t plant to read further for now.

Are either of these books on your radar for 2021?

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Blinds

When I came came across Adam Sternbergh’s new release, The Blinds (via BOTM), I was hesitant. It’s described as a speculative Western thriller, which sounded both chaotically fun but also a bit wackier than my normal reading material. The prospect of futuristic cowboys threw me off, but Sheriff Calvin Cooper does not disappoint– considering he’s one of the biggest criminals in town.

theblindsAbout the book: Caesura, Texas– aka The Blinds– is an experiment. 48 convicted criminals have signed on to have their past crimes and traumas wiped from their memories so that they can live in the “safe” environment of Caesura, under new names. 100 miles from civilization, with only a weekly supply truck and a police-use fax machine for contact with the outside world, Caesura has been constructed specifically for this experiment. But eight years after its inception, the experiment may be falling apart. There are deaths. Fires. Vandals. Liaison officers are coming in to investigate, and the outside world is clashing with the closed-off Caesura community. What happens when 48 of the nation’s most notorious criminals who remember their criminality but not their crimes are nudged out of their comfort zone?

“This may not be a prison, and it may not be purgatory, but it’s sure as hell not a paradise, either. This is the Blinds.”

About the format: The book is divided into sections by day, Monday through Friday of one eventful week in western Texas. These sections are further divided into chapters, and the chapters are further divided into smaller sections within. The narration flows smoothly from one character’s perspective to another, sometimes between sections, sometimes between paragraphs with no clear division of where one character’s experience stops and another begins. In this way, the reader is given a sense of the Blinds on a wider scale, which also makes it harder (and more fun) to guess who’s involved in what.

Now let’s talk about the premise. The implications of the memory wipe alone is highly intriguing, but the town… a whole town of convicted criminals fenced in together who may or may not remember key details of their past activities is the perfect literary recipe for disaster. They’re even allowed to leave whenever they want– with the caveat that no one who leaves is allowed to come back. That’s what hooked me. The idea of those 48 criminals, strangers living together by choice, suddenly provoked by the outside world. But Sternbergh is not an author who wins readers with a strong premise and then leaves them dissatisfied with a boring plot– the town is a constant mystery, between the unexplained deaths inside it and the unexpected attention from its outside connections. The characters are a ceaseless surprise with how far they are willing to go, and for what, or for whom. And just when you think you’ve got it down, there’s another level of conspiracy revealed. And none of it would be possible without this unique cast of fogged villains.

“It’s hard enough to live with what you’ve done. It’s immeasurably harder to live with knowing you’ve done something, but not knowing what exactly it is you did.”

The characters are excellent. The writing style, and the present mysterious situation in Caesura, reminds the reader of each character’s humanity, vulnerability, and the promises that have been made to them about their quality of life in Caesura. No matter what crimes they’ve committed in the past, they are all (slightly muddled) citizens of a small town– neighbors, friends, assistants. They work together: the town has a nurse, a librarian, a repairman, a bartender, a commissary man… They’re all just people, looking for a break from the real world, and a fresh start. Some of them will turn out to be surprisingly evil. Some surprisingly good. They are all morally gray (at best), and yet the reader can sympathize with so many of them because at heart, they’re all just fighting to survive.

“The minds of the innocent are simple and so easily explained. The minds of the guilty, however– they are endlessly fascinating, once you really roll up your sleeves.”

I would not call this a thriller, exactly. A mystery, certainly, but the pacing is not as break-neck suspenseful as I usually expect from a thriller. There’s an interesting style used for the reveals in this book though– a little hint that someone knows more than they should about some crime or other, and then the next section of their perspective proceeds as though the reader knows about that crime and that character’s involvement, but then something further happens. The surprise is rarely ever a dramatic whodunnit moment; the surprise comes in the fact that the murder everyone’s concerned about is only the beginning– and that the characters who thinks they’re in charge are just players in someone else’s plot. The surprise comes from the “wait, there’s more?” moments, which happen repeatedly and never disappoint.

It’s not the kind of horror book that will give you nightmares, but be prepared for some criminal details that boggle the mind. There’s not much gore or senseless maliciousness described, but keep in mind that there are at least 48 criminals in this book that even the prisons didn’t want to hold on to.

“Some stories are probably better lost forever, never remembered, never told.”

But The Blinds is not one of them.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars.¬†This is a great read. It’s the kind of well-plotted, well-characterized book that anyone who appreciates adult literature should pick up, regardless of genre preference. I wasn’t sure about this one when I looked up its genres, but I’m immensely glad I stepped out of my normal reading zone to give¬†The Blinds a chance. I’ll be keeping an eye on this author in the future, but more immediately I will use this experience to try stepping out of my normal reading zone more often. There are some gems out there in the rarely-reached-for genres. (Who even knew Speculative Western Thriller was a genre?)

Further recommendations:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another speculative fiction tale with a unique sort of “prison.” In this book, the failing U.S. economy drives whole communities into experimental towns in which the population spends six months in prison voluntarily (half at a time), which creates enough employment and resource for the other half of the town to live on. And every six months, the citizens switch, until things start to go awry…

What’s next: I’m picking up The Bane Chronicles next, a collection of short stories written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson. It’s the next stop on my tour through the Shadowhunter books, now that I’ve finished The Mortal Instruments. It’s all about Magnus Bane and his warlock exploits.

Have you dabbled in any unusual genres lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant