Flimflam men, rock eaters, and robots – book reviews

It’s been awhile since the seven+ of you who follow my admittedly unimpressive exploits — my video podcast is even worse, just a 24-hour camera focused on a ficus plant — had an update. On anything.

My bad.

So here’s a few book reviews on novels that I can whole-heartedly recommend. That’s the whole heart, mind you. None of that putting an aorta aside in case of emergency here. You get the whole organ.

That’s how much I love you. You big lug.

Dr Brinkley's TowerDr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough (House of Anansi, 2012)

I fell hard for Hough a few years ago with his brilliant novel The Culprits. I’m happier than anyone that my love was not a one-night stand, ‘cuz Hough is the real deal, a CanLit star in the firmament, and Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

There’s a touch of classic John Nichols (The Milagro Beanfield War) in Hough’s lovely narrative. In a small Mexican township with little chance of survival save the brothel, a chance to revive its fortunes comes in the form of a radio tower built to broadcast Dr. Romulus Brinkley’s many shows and promote his medical practice (including a miraculous goat-gland fertility operation). Basing his tale around the true exploits of the snake-oil salesman, Hough crafts a vivid set of characters, all of whom have a stake in either the construction or destruction of the tower. There’s a beautiful love story, desperadoes, wild women, intrigue, betrayal, tragedy, hilarity…Dr. Brinkley’s Tower hit me on a tonne and a half of levels, all bulls-eyes. I predict this’ll be a book I revisit every few years to spend more time with the denizens of Corazón de la Fuente.

There are many great books. This one, for me, is special.

The Lava in My BonesThe Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012)

As is this one. Special, that is. Webster hits as many targets as Hough, but whereas Dr. Brinkley scored 100% on the visible bulls-eyes, Lava hits marks I didn’t know I had.

I met Barry when we toured a few provinces alongside Chris Gudgeon (Song of Kosovo, go read it!) and Ian Colford (The Crimes of Hector Tomas, highly acclaimed and on my TBR pile!). He’s a great guy, but being such doesn’t necessarily translate to being a great author (*cough*). But based solely on Lava, Barry is beyond great. This is a startlingly wonderful book that pressed all my sweet spots again and again. Boy, this review is far more sexual than I anticipated.

But maybe that’s okay, as sex forms a substantial portion of Lava’s narrative. In a virtuoso display, Webster twists and turns his characters into shapes heretofore unimagined. Sam, the geologist, eats rocks; his sister Sue sweats honey; his lover Franz becomes Veronika. Magic realism is in short supply in Canadian fiction, but it’s on full display here. Combining the sexual and the ecological, Webster sculpts a story that explores intensely personal issues while also expounding upon the nature of the world and how it functions in relation to the hairless apes that run around its surface. It’s a bold, surefooted story that is unlike anything I’ve read before. Not to push it too far, but this is likely one of my favourite books of all time.

vNvN & iD by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012/13)

Fair warning: I’m soon appearing alongside Ashby at the Kingston WritersFest (alongside promising up-and-comer Margaret Atwood), so you can be sure I wouldn’t post a negative review. But Hell, take a risk on my telling the truth; Ashby’s a great talent, and her two novels thus far are amazing.

vN and iD are the first two novels in a serious yet never overbearing examination of artificially intelligent humanoids finding their place in a world that isn’t sure it wants them. That would be enough, but the series is also a crackling adventure that echoes the works of Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov yet creates a world all its own. In this world, a religious sect engineers the first vNs to help take care of those left behind after the rapture. Said rapture never coming to pass, the robots are now a class unto themselves, with corresponding rights and freedoms, but it’s a tenuous existence that threatens to tear itself apart when one vN, Amy, is able to transcend the automatic failsafe that ensures robots will be subservient to humans and never cause harm.

iDAshby balances profound questions on individuality, gender, race, and personal freedoms within the framework of a crackling cyberpunk chase thriller. Like the best of Asimov and Dick, Ashby’s world functions on its own rules yet mirrors our own, and she populates this world with generously intriguing characters. Amy’s transformation in vN from innocent to near-deity is wonderfully done, and her companion Javier is a charming rogue who keeps the second novel chugging along. Together, the novels form a spectacular debut and follow-up that expand the Artificial Intelligence genre into heretofore unexplored realms. Here’s hoping number 3 comes quick.