The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley #9

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Flavia is back! I mean the real Flavia – not the one masquerading as Flavia in the last two disappointing books. Not only does this title bring us back to full-Flaviaciousness but the ending prepares an excellent path forward (no cliffhangers, I promise).

If you aren’t familiar with the character, whose motto might be “better detecting through chemistry”, it is summed up nicely by her answer to a young character who asks if she is a witch: “Yes I am. I practice a specialized kind of witchcraft called thinking. It’s a very mysterious power quite unknown to the average person.”

Flavia is un-gross-out-able – yes, I made up that word. The book starts with her pulling up a corpse from river by accidentally thrusting her hand in his mouth while thinking she is masterfully catching a fish while floating down the river. She is the quirkiest of highly intelligent, nonconforming, young, heroines.

As narrator, she has a unique and flippant way of describing things. For example, as her sister plays Bach – The art of fugue – she says, “It began with the sounds of a single pipe which sounded at first like a dry bone singing itself to sleep in a crypt somewhere in the night.”

I won’t go on giving anything else away – it’s fun, its quirky, and convoluted in the most pleasant way. It’s full of traditionally interesting Bradley characters – the dead man is named Orlando and is found in red ballet slippers and a blue silk suit. For Dogger fans he plays a bigger role in this story and promises to figure highly in future books as well.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 5
Worldbuilding: 5+

An astonishingly spectacular book! So many superlatives! This is not my typical reading material – my son has been trying to get me to read this for two years (literally) but I’ve been dragging my feet (it is REALLY long). Still, once started I was completely sucked in and could not put it down (luckily I’m retired and have plenty of time).

You could say Sanderson’s books are like Game of Thrones without all of the sex – but I found more interesting differences. While there is plenty of action and political intrigue, there were strong themes of leadership, righteousness, nobility, morality, and living by a code of ethics in the face of multitudes who are not. Sanderson has invented an entire world in meticulous detail from descriptions of the geography to the minutia of daily life in the multiple cultures that populate it. Entire histories and the mythologies that predate the written history are embedded in the current issues facing the characters. These highly complex sets of cultures, practices, and codes are delineated through individual stories so you absorb the culture by becoming part of it.

We follow three major characters tackling their own problems, all of which are part of the larger context of a world on the edge of disaster. Kaladin – with exceptional skills for soldiering and healing but somehow marked with a slave brand and trying to survive as one of the lowest classes of men – those who carry bridges for soldiers to use to cross large chasms in battle. He is driven by a desperate need to protect, but continually faces odds that don’t allow him to do so. Shallan is a young girl sent to steal a Soulcaster from the King’s sister, Jasnah, in order to save her family’s fortunes. However, she falls in love with scholarship and the burning questions on which Jasnah is focussed (in this world, men are warriors and women read and write and are the primary scholars!) Lastly, Dalinar is a high prince and the epitome of the noble warrior. He is beset by disturbing visions that make others assume he is losing his mind. He is proud, honest, and strives to live by a strict code of conduct that values life. These characters learn and grow throughout the story, something I find rare in typical adventure tales. The three stories weave together to explore what is happening in the world and how it relates to the mythologies of the past and the forebodings of the future.

I felt bound to the characters in this book and cared about them. The novel’s end provided closure (no cliffhangers) and yet set up the next in the series beautifully (there are five planned, three available now). Fascinating and skillfully described lessons on morality, ethics, and leadership via character’s reflections on their own struggles with these concepts. Some of the scenes literally made me cry because of the power of the nobility they expressed. I will say that there were too many battle scenes for my taste and I did have to skim some of them – carefully because within the battle scenes there was a great deal of character exploration and strengthening. But other than that, a top read for me. I need to catch up on some other reading first, but then will leap into book two…

Educated by Tara Westover

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 4
Disturbing in places

A remarkably level headed tale of the “education” the author received growing up. The youngest of seven children born to an ultra strict Mormon, survivalist, anti-government, and probably bipolar man and his wife in rural Idaho, Tara Westover never went to school, never saw a doctor (even for life threatening illnesses and accidents), and was not allowed to wear a seat belt. She was called a whore if skin showed accidentally or if her father or older brothers determined she was acting in a “whorish” fashion. When she wanted a birth certificate, the family could not even agree on the day that she was born.

This memoir takes her from birth through receiving her PhD from Cambridge at the age of 27. Her PhD topic: “The Family, Morality, and Social Science in Anglo-American Cooperative Thought, 1813-1890”, including a chapter on Mormonism as a social movement. The story is gripping, both in the details of actual events and in her reflections on how to become the person she is meant to be when there are such strong voices in her head telling her about government plots, whorish behavior, and false history. Homeopathic remedies, work in a scrap metal business, Y2K scares, some physical abuse and the lies people build around themselves – all told in a matter-of-fact style that lays is out without over-emotionalizing.

Great for fans of Jeanette Walls or Jill Kerr Conway.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5
World building: 5+

“The student wouldn’t stop doing her homework, and it was going to kill her” – a great first line in the best SF book I’ve read this decade!

In 2144, Property is king, bots run the gamut from carpet cleaners to fully conscious beings capable of love, people and bots are subject to indenture laws, and bio technology can keep you alive and young if you can afford it. Enter Judith “Jack” Chen, an IP pirate who has always dreamed of doing “Good Science”. She reverse engineers drugs from Big Pharma in order to finance giving anti-vitals and gene therapy to those in need. Unfortunately, her last money-maker, though correctly reproduced, is killing people and now the International Property Coalition is after her and they have a license to pursue using any means at hand.

That’s the story line, but the novel is so much more. The two agents sent after Jack are a human (Eliasz) and an advanced military bot (Paladin) with an embedded human brain. Throughout the chase, as Jack tries to engineer a fix and Eliasz and Paladin try to follow her tracks, we are plunged into a fabulous and yet utterly plausible world of the future.

Gender issues, love between different kinds of beings, what it means to be conscious, to have privacy, to be autonomous – these are issues that are explored in depth using the context of a society that has developed AI based beings and legislation to both protect and yet somehow further enslave them. I love when Paladin explores what actions stem from her programming and what from her conscious decision – so applicable to humans as well!

Newitz’ writing flows with such clear descriptions of the physical and networked environment that you slip into the world with no effort, learning a whole new language without struggle. Her characters feel real – each has complex motivations and desires, and each is trying to both survive and do something important in the world into which they have been born. They don’t easily fall into the typical “good guys” and “bad guys” so prevalent in most SF works.

Neal Stephenson says “Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the Internet” and I have to say I agree with him. There are plenty of analogies to our social issues but with the extrapolation to a future populated by bots at various levels of consciousness – it’s very hard not to give everything away I’ll stop here and just say – go buy now!