fiction · science fiction

Book Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Last year, via an email conversation, Nick Clausen, author of They Come At Night, suggested that I read Replay by Ken Grimwood (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1998), after learning that I liked books about time travel. (I’m not much into sci-fi stuff- no space-opera-type novels for me, thanks- but falling back in time? NEAT!). I immediately slapped that book on my TBR after noting happily that my library owned a copy of it…and then it sat there. Because sometimes TBRs are where books go to die. Not usually mine- I work hard on keeping mine to a manageable number during non-pandemic times when the libraries are open- but sometimes you just don’t get to things in a timely manner. But Sunday morning was when I downloaded a library ebook of Replay to my kindle…and Sunday evening was when I finished it.

Yeah. It’s that good.

Jeff Winston, 43, is dying. His chest is exploding with pain- obviously something with his heart- and everything fades to black. Except when he wakes up- wakes up???- he’s 18 again and in college. A young body, a young life, everything in front of him. He can live his life over, make different and better choices, do things right this time. Except he dies again, at 43, and wakes up- again!- to find himself still in college.

Caught in an endless loop of repeating his life, Jeff takes multiple paths and explores options he never had the first time around, living lives funded by the invested money he earns by placing bets on remembered outcomes for various sports matches. It’s a long, lonely existence, always questioning why and never receiving any answers, when he finally, finally meets another replayer…but the answers don’t come easily there, either. But maybe it’s not about finding answers…maybe it’s about what you learn from living through it. And there have been so many experiences for Jeff to live through…

Man. This is a novel. Ken Grimwood’s writing flows like water, and he’s never, ever overly descriptive, spending only the exact time needed in each scene and using precisely the right amount of words to describe what he needs to in order to place the reader directly in the scene alongside Jeff Winston, and not a single word more. Far from feeling bare, this makes for a fast-paced page turner. I have no idea how anyone could possible linger for days with this book; I HAD to keep tearing through it in order to know what happened next. What would Jeff’s next replay look like? Who would he be? Who would he find? What did it all mean???

Pace isn’t something I normally notice in books, but Replay hits the mark in that category. As Jeff experiences many periods of the ages 18 to 43 in this book, Mr. Grimwood had to be brief, but he does so in the most informative way, capturing emotion and zeitgeist without ever leaving the reader feeling as though they’ve missed out. Would I have liked to know Jeff’s exact day-to-day details? Of course, but that’s only because this kind of stuff fascinates me. Each replay is written to perfection- it’s Groundhog Day over a longer period of time, and it’s delicious.

I was a little nervous going into this, to be honest. I don’t read a lot of novels by men, solely because I’m not interested in reading the kind of violence or Holden Caulfield-style navel-gazing that pops up in so many of them (to say nothing of the “She breasted boobily down the hall” style writing that seems to pop up far too often among male writers). I was hooked within the first few pages, though, and I couldn’t get enough.

There are a lot of deeper themes here- loneliness, isolation, self-examination (the good kind!), dealing with loss, but the book can absolutely be read as a guy’s adventures repeating his life, and either way is good. If you’ve read any of Ken Grimwood’s other books, I’d love to hear about them and if you enjoyed them. Replay was amazing. Major thanks to Nick Clausen for the recommendation; this made for an amazing Sunday!

Ken Grimwood passed away in 2003. You can read his wikipedia page here.

fiction · YA

Catfishing on CatNet- Naomi Kritzer

The first read (that I’m blogging about; I finished reading The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis out loud to my daughter, but I usually don’t blog about those reads) of the new year, and one of the promts of the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge that I would be the most difficult to fulfill: a book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character. I’m not the world’s biggest sci-fi fan, and I wasn’t quite sure what I would read for this…and then I remembered Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen, 2019), which I’d already requested that my library buy, both thanks to this article on NPR, and other reasons I’ll get to in a bit. It fits this prompt perfectly and kept me on the edge of my seat (and laughing!) until the very last page.

Steph has spent her whole life moving from town to town; she and her mother have been on the run from Steph’s arsonist father for as long as she can remember. Steph knows the rules: don’t get too close to anyone, don’t give out any important information, and never share your picture online. All of these rules have made making friends impossible, but Steph has found solace on CatNet, a social network where cat pictures are currency and where the people in her group (known appropriately as a ‘clowder,’ the term for a group of cats) totally get her, and she gets them. It’s the one place Steph feels like she belongs.

This new school, despite its lack of rigorous academics and its lame sex ed-teaching robot, shows signs of promise. Rachel, an artist, seems like someone Steph could be friends with. But Steph’s past- along with a few mysterious truths- comes calling, and after a member of her clowder steps in to help, she learns this friend isn’t the human being she’d been picturing, but a sentient AI (who goes by the screen name CheshireCat). With Rachel, CheshireCat, and the other members of her clowder, Steph goes on a cross-country dash in order to save herself and her friends, but there’s so much more at stake than just that.

Again: I’m not really a fan of sci-fi, most thrillers that involve people being on the run, robots and AI, etc, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Catfishing on CatNet has been on my list since before its release. I read Naomi’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories in 2017 and absolutely loved every single story- a rarity for me, as I usually don’t care for short stories (thanks for ruining those for me, seventh grade English teacher…). Cat Pictures Please is one of those books I recommend to everyone; my friend Sharon describes it as “great science fiction short stories that (usually ) start out as normal domestic scenes and then get turned a little sideways,” and this description is spot-on. They’re a little like Stephen King’s less creepy and more fantastical short stories, which I always loved. The other reason Catfishing and Cat Pictures Please ended up on my TBR lists…

I’ve known Naomi since 2002, when we were both part of the same small-ish online parenting group. She’s always been one of my favorite posters and I’ve been delighted to watch her success as a writer grow. (And another huge delight is being able to hear Naomi’s voice in her writing. Sometimes- and it was way more obvious in Cat Pictures Please, though she came through loud and clear in Catfishing– a line or a paragraph would pop up that sounded so much like her that I would actually laugh out loud to be able to ‘hear’ my friend’s voice in such a format.) If Catfishing weren’t up to snuff, I’d have no problems saying so; our parenting site taught us well to take seriously harsh criticism (it was that kind of site, the gloves came off at the door!), but Naomi being a friend is just incidental to this (and I wanted that out there as full disclosure). Catfishing is fabulous (and I’ve been joking in our private groups that Naomi totally named her main character after me).

CheshireCat, the sentient AI, is a joy to read. While they’re able to parse information at lightning-fast speeds, they’re still figuring out emotions and how to interact with humans, and they don’t always get it right, leading to scenes that had me laughing out loud multiple times in public. During one scene, Steph and crew conspire to get ChesireCat to take over her sex ed class’s robot (which only provides information on abstinence; all other questions receive a curt, “You’ll have to ask your parents about that”) in order to teach them actual, factual information. No spoilers, but the results are amazing.

Steph is sympathetic, a friendless teenager who’s been on the run her entire life, desperate for a place to fit in and to call home. Her clowder fills in the gaps for her lack of social life (total #goals, by the way; they’re placed together by CatNet, which- no spoilers!- has done a fabulous job of grouping together kids who need and understand each other, and I loved this so much), but real-life Rachel, and to a lesser extent Bryony, are the real-life connection Steph has been dreaming of.

This ends on a cliffhanger, and there will be a sequel. I’ll be pestering my library to purchase that one as well, because frankly, I want more of Steph, her ‘meatspace’ friends, her clowder, and definitely more of CheshireCat. Catfishing on CatNet really made me want to live in a world where AIs can become sentient (at least, in a benevolent CheshireCat-like manner), because I could really use someone like CheshireCat in my life, someone to have my back and save the day by zipping through the internet at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t we all use that?

So, to sum it up, if you like fast-paced YA, or you’re looking for something to fill the robot/cyborg/AI prompt in this year’s PopSugar challenge, Catfishing on CatNet is one you won’t want to miss! (And do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories, because it’s AMAZING.)

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · time travel

TheWriteReads On Tour Presents: A Different Time by Michael K. Hill

I fully blame my mother’s stash of time travel romances (so popular in the 80’s and early 90’s!) for my love of a good time travel story, and when I heard about TheWriteReads‘ latest blog tour book, A Different Time by Michael K. Hill (Tangent Press, 2019), the young teenager in me that used to sneak books from the downstairs coat closet leaped up and begged to join in, and who am I to say no when a story deals with communicating with the past???

Keith Nolan has been a little more than down on his luck for a very long time. His parents both died young, leaving him alone, fending for himself in this big lonely modern-day world. His job pays the bills, but it’s not exactly fulfilling, and his social life consists of a single guy friend with whom he eats takeout food and plays video games. No girls to speak of, Keith’s a little too shy and awkward for that. One of the few things in life that does bring him joy is spending his weekends combing flea markets for the comic books that will complete the collection of Uncanny X-Men his father left him. But when he finally manages to complete his collection, Keith is stunned by the realization that he never planned for what to do with his life beyond that. Enter Lindsey…

Or, not exactly. Lindsey, an artist and a dreamer, is trying to figure out her post-high school life in 1989. Her impatient mother isn’t willing to let her take her time, and her skeezy stepfather isn’t making Lindsey’s home situation any easier. Desperate for someone, anyone, to talk to, Lindsey pulls out an old camcorder and begins to record a video journal in the hopes of talking out her problems and getting her life in order.

The discovery of an old VHS-C tape at a flea market has Keith running for the VCR and an adapter tape, because merely touching the tape sends tingles running up his arm. And as the tape plays and Keith watches Lindsey, somehow, some way, the two realize they can communicate with each other. It doesn’t make sense to either of them, but Keith knows this is something special, something life-changing…if only he can track down Lindsey’s other tapes. But how? And will he be too late?

While it’s not traditional time travel, it’s still close enough to make my time travel-lovin’ heart squeal with joy. Keith is a sympathetic character from the start. In the beginning, we see him as a young boy, surrounded by the love of his parents on a birthday trip to New York where he’s saved from being run down in the street by the woman who turns out to be his favorite children’s book author, and the next thing we know, he’s a new adult, still aching over the loss of his parents who died on his fourteenth birthday. It’s easy to ache along with him and root for him as he searches (in some vividly disgusting situations!) for Lindsey’s other videotapes.

Lindsey is just as sympathetic. Still reeling from her parents’ divorce and subsequent move from Hawaii to California, Lindsey is so many of us in the years after high school, unsure of which way to go and which path to take. Her mother has, for all purposes, abandoned her emotionally in favor of focusing on her new and extremely skeezy husband (there’s a content warning here for an attempted assault, along with what skews toward emotional abuse from her mother, so please beware if you’re sensitive to these subjects), and Lindsey’s sadness and confusion make her a character you’ll desperately want to find a happily ever after.

What Keith and Lindsey discover together through the tapes is close to instalove, but it’s magical and spellbinding and otherworldly. Some of the best descriptions of the entire book come when Keith is desperately tearing through flea market dumpsters in a frenzied search for Lindsey’s other tapes. Do NOT eat while you’re reading this section; the phrase “garbage juice” alone should tell you enough of a reason why, and I was applauding Mr. Hill’s ability to create a scene I could practically smell from my comfortable reading place in my (better-scented!) home. It was entirely grotesque, incredibly entertaining to read, and it ended up being my favorite part of the book because of how easily I was transported right into those dumpsters alongside Keith.

This had a completely different ending than I expected it would, which pleased me quite a bit; I love when I think I have everything figured out, but it turns out that I was wrong and the ending is actually far more interesting than the one I was expected. The concept of being able to communicate with someone in the past has intrigued me for years, I even adored it in my childhood- if you’re familiar with the book Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, that book involved both time travel and communicating with the person with whom Charlotte switched places via letters strategically hidden in a bedpost- but the concept of being able to speak to someone through old VHS tapes was a new (and deeply intriguing!) one to me, and A Different Time has now got me wondering what time travel books will look like in the future when characters travel to and communicate with people of this era. Youtube videos? Files on old jump drives? There are so many possibilities here!

What a fun and ultimately charming book Mr. Hill has written. I’m so happy I got the chance to be a part of this blog tour, and if you’re a fan of books with elements of time travel and a little bit of the supernatural, A Different Time is worth YOUR time.

Thanks for stopping by on this blog tour- huge thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads and Michael K. Hill for allowing me to take part- and I hope you’ll check out some of the other stops!

Visit Michael K. Hill’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction · time travel

Kindred- Octavia Butler

I’d heard of Kindred by Octavia Butler (Beacon Press, 1979) before; it was the first science fiction novel written (or published, maybe) by a black woman, which is huge. Since I’ve never really been a big sci-fi fan, I never really considered reading it until Anne Bogel recommended it on an episode of What Should I Read Next. As soon as she started to describe the plot, I sat up out of bed in the dark, looked Kindred up on Goodreads, and hit that Want-to-Read button. I. Was. In.

Dana, a black woman, has barely moved into the new house with her white husband when she finds herself thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, just in time to save a young boy from drowning. The act of doing so nearly gets her killed by the boy’s parents and she returns to her own time with seconds to spare. She’s barely back before it happens again: she’s thrown back to the past to save this boy’s life again, and she comes to realize she’s there to keep him alive, distasteful as he and his slave-owning family can be, long enough to father the child who will become her great-grandmother.

The biggest challenge is, of course, learning to live as a slave. The literal backbreaking work, having no power or control over one’s life, the whippings, the constant disparagement, watching families split apart when someone is sold, it’s almost more than Dana can bear, but she just has to hold on until this despicable boy can become her great-great-grandfather…

What a mesmerizing book. During one of the trips, Dana’s modern day husband, Kevin, is dragged back with her. He poses as her owner, and there are unforeseen consequences that I won’t spoil that really make this novel shine. The descriptions are, on occasion, stomach-turning, and they should be; slavery was a horrible stain in American history and its consequences live on today, so Kindred and books that depict these horrors definitely need to be more widely read. I’m sorry that it took me this long to get to it.

Ms. Butler does a fantastic job at portraying Rufus, the boy who grows up become Dana’s great-great-grandfather, as both a decent human being and a hideous monster. I didn’t quite understand how Dana was able to keep herself from fully hating him, after seeing all the pain he and his terrible father inflicted on the slaves; I’m not sure I could do that, and maybe I’m all the worse for not being that kind of person, I’m not sure. Maybe it was what Dana did in order to survive her time in the past. Either way, though Dana tried her best to influence Rufus to be a better person, both for her sake and for the sake of the slaves on the plantation, for whatever reason, it didn’t take, and his behavior, along with that of his father, is often monstrous.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Race relations, class, women’s issues, politics, I think I could reread this and still miss quite a bit, because it’s an absolute tapestry of complexity. This is one of those books that I feel like almost anything I say will result in a massive spoiler; if history intrigues you, this is your book. Don’t let the sci-fi label fool you. There are no aliens, no space ships, no dystopian societies with robot overlords. This is time travel, pure and simple and terrifying, and it makes for a powerful novel that everyone should read.

Octavia Butler passed away in 2006.

Visit her website here.