The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi (SF)

Laugh out loud funny and full of action (which normally bores me to tears but Scalzi always manages to pull it off), this latest standalone novel from one of my favorite SF authors is a breath of fresh air.

Jamie Gray — a recently fired, PhD drop out (her dissertation was going to be on utopian and dystopian literature), is making an unhappy living as a deliverator when a chance customer offers her a job with an animal rights organization. Only as it turns out, the “animals” are more ecosystem than animal, are absolutely humongous (and scary), and don’t exactly live on this particular version of Earth. Armed with her sci-fi mindset and a talent for lifting things (think heavy, not theft), Jamie manages to save the day … quite often. Added bonuses: Godzilla origin story explained and Snow Crash properly revered.

For Scalzi newbies, a few writing extracts:

“It’s more like we have a workable service relationship with a tenuous personal history.”

“It was stupidly perfect how all my problems were suddenly solved with the strategic application of money.”

“I’m officially skeptical about this Godzilla origin story.”

“That thing looks like H.P. Lovecraft’s panic attack.”

“It’s not the trees, you dense argumentative spoon.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 15th, 2022.

French Braid by Anne Tyler (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3/5

A classic Anne Tyler novel following the lives of a Baltimore family through generations from 1959 to the present (including the Covid lockdown). Blending family dynamics with individual personalities in the context of the times, it is a study in the ways that families simultaneously work and don’t work.

Naturally well-written (Pulitzer prize winning author!) with a set of characters drawn in depth and with a high degree of verisimilitude. The characters were not always likable — in fact, I was struck by how few of these people I would actually enjoy spending time with. Not that there was anything terrible about them, but their very realness reminded me of the difference between live people with their selfishness, tiny cruelties, and obliviousness to the interests of others, and my favorite book characters who seem to always have their best foot forward even when making mistakes. This may be more of a commentary on why I don’t have more friends than anything else!

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 22nd, 2022.

A Mirror Mended by Alex E Harrow (Speculative fiction)

Book two in Harrow’s Fractured Fables series continues the adventures of Zinnia Gray — a self-professed “folklore major with a significant Grimm obsession” — hopping around the multi-verse helping young fairy tale princesses cursing their cruel fates. In the five years she’s been adventuring, she has never managed to escape the Sleeping Beauty narrative, but suddenly a beautiful and cruel face is beckoning to her through a mirror and asking for help. Enter not Snow White, but the Evil Queen, and while she lives up to her Evil reputation (Zinnia calls her “Eva”), things are not at all what they seem.

A good romp through the multiverse with plenty of non-venomous snark, academic folklore overlays, and welcome feminist twists on standard fairy tale princess tropes. Well-written (as always), funny, and great messaging on how to write your own story without succumbing to cultural expectations.

Book one was excellent! Read it while you wait for this book to be published! See review here.

Some great quotes:

“It’s just that they’re so damn happy. I doubt they’ve ever lain awake at night feeling the bounds of their narratives like hot wires pressing into their skin, counting each breath and wondering how many are left, wishing — uselessly, stupidly — they’d been born into a better once upon a time.”

“I’m sure Charm would explain about the psychic weight of repeated motifs and the narrative resonance between worlds if I asked, but I don’t ask…”

“The queen is watching me in a way that reminds me uncomfortably of a lean-boned stray watching a very stupid robin.”

“Am I in some kind of fairy tale mash-up? Is Chris Pine about to pop out and sing Sondheim lyrics in a confused accent?”

“There were plenty of other stories floating around the European countryside at the time — weirder, darker, stranger, sexier stories — but the Grimms weren’t anthropologists. They were nationalists trying to build an orderly, modern house out of the wild bones of folklore.”

“I know how I must sound, what you must think of me, but I only mean power over myself. Power to make my own choices, and arrive at my own ends.”

“Anyway, you’ve created a universe that runs on plot, and a main character who smashes plots like a human wrecking ball. In refusing to complete her narrative arc, she is compromising the integrity of the universe.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 14th, 2022.

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5

This is one book where the marketing blurb is spot on, so I’m going to quote from it rather than trying to describe it myself: It is “an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.” Own Your Unconscious — a technology that enables recording your own unconscious memories, and the attendant Collective Unconscious arising from the blending of millions of such externalized memories is transforming the world — for better or worse. In a set of tangled vignettes connecting characters who are, in their way, each pursuing the answers to their own existential dilemmas, we follow their reactions, reflections, experiences, and goals in this rapidly changing dynamic.

I loved this book — full of the complexity and layering of life where we are all spinning in and out of our each others’ stories. Egan has fantastic insight into so many wildly different characters — full of depth and quirk with none of the shallow explanations for behavior we (too often IMHO) accept in fiction. Each vignette is written in a slightly different style, depending on the “voice” of the main character — I liked them all but my favorites were those told from the perspective of a troubled (and troubling) child, one from an autistic perspective, and one told in a set of text / emails spreading out to include ever more surprisingly (to them) connected characters. I wish I had drawn out a character map from the beginning because I sometimes lost track of current (and past) relationships. If you read Welcome to the Goon Squad, you will recognize several of the characters.

Plenty to think about — lots of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology applied to the social media ++ of shared memories and identities within a well thought out slightly speculative fiction setting. Some interesting multi-generational family dynamics and a particularly thought-provoking examination of the role of fiction in a world which has the actual recording of experience as opposed to those crafted by authors. Egan’s writing — as always — is flawless.

Some good quotes:

“He was known not to curse; his mother, a sixth-grade grammar teacher, had heaped such withering scorn on the repetitive dullness and infantile content of profanity that she’d managed to annul its transgressive power.”

“Gazing up at the lighted windows on one, Bix thought he could practically hear a potency of ideas simmering behind it.”

“I never know what’s going on, and because my attempts to find out lack the tactful goo that typicals smear all over their actions and words to blunt their real purpose, I come across as lurching and off-putting.”

“But whereas in music, a prolonged pause adds power and vividness to the refrain that follows it, pauses in conversation have the opposite effect, of debasing whatever comes next to the point that a perfectly witty riposte will be reduced to the verbal equivalent of a shrunken head, if too long a pause precedes it.”

“… no one escaped the roving, lacerating beam of my judgement. I can access that beam, even now, decades later: a font of outraged impatience with other people’s flaws.”

“In this new world, rascally tricks were no longer enough to produce authentic responses; authenticity required violent unmasking, like worms writhing at the hasty removal of their rock.”

“Social media was dead, everyone agreed; self-representations were inherently narcissistic or propagandic or both, and grossly inauthentic.”

“Here was his father’s parting gift: a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective. He was feeling the collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.”

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 5th, 2022.

Conversations with People who Hate Me by Dylan Marron (Non-fiction)

This is an extremely well-written, thoughtful, and reflective book that tackles the Hate pervading the internet in the form of nasty ad hominem attacks on anyone who has had the guts to post an opinion. Dylan collected many such disturbing posts in his Hate Folder, and then proceeded to create podcasts where he talked to (some of) these people in an attempt to find common ground for conversation.

He takes us through the process, starting from his own gleeful participation in the internet’s “holy trinity of cynicism, apathy, and dismissal” as he plays the shame game himself, through to his own hurt and betrayal as his posts / podcasts incurred various incarnations of “die you #)()(#@,” attacks, and finally to actual recorded conversations with those of his detractors that were willing to engage (and were clearly not dangerous or severely unbalanced).

He promotes empathy and conversation as an antidote to Shame — one of the big weapons in the snarky attacks on … everything. Lucid writing, good reflection on his own role, no rants, clear thinking, and a willingness to shut up and listen. For me his messages were not necessarily new but were refreshing and his experiences were enlightening (I spend a lot of time on the internet but very little engaging with anonymous strangers — a few months of the vitriol on NextDoor during the early days of Covid cured me of that habit). My only disappointment was that while he did a great job remaining open and listening to those who had called him names and (obviously) held very different views, there was never a point at which I thought he was listening to their actual views with an open mind. He lowered the anger thermostat and was able to see these strangers as human — and get them to see him that way too — but he remained firmly entrenched in his own view of the world as ever. To me, real conversation MUST include people being open to the idea that the other person may have good, rational reasons for having the opinion that they do and learning from that.

Still, this was an easy and engaging read and did get me thinking. I would love to see more conversation, discussion, empathy, and open mindedness on the internet. When did it become cool to be jaded, nasty, and cynical? When did hope and optimism become naive and stupid? Maybe we’ll learn that in book two. 🙂

Some good quotes:
“In the politically fractured climate of 2016, I saw the term used mostly by conservatives against people like me, which is to say politically correct internet users who vocally advocated for social justice. It was a way to mock those of us who talked about things like feelings and respect and safe spaces and pronoun and trigger warnings.”

“And what I had perceived as ‘hate’ was often discontent expressed hyperbolically.”

“Just as I have found that conversation is the antidote to both the game of the internet and the sport of debate, I also see it as the most potent antidote to shame.”

“Without the ability to keep up with the latest shame army, I am more able to take stock of what I actually think rather than defaulting to the opinion factory of social media.’

“Was seeing my conservative guests as human some sort of ideological treason?”

“In trading nuance for easy coins, complexity for simplicity, was I the social justice advocate I thought I was, or was I simply playing one online?”

“..I was a brown, Mohawked, pearl-earring-wearing gay guy whose tank top revealed an upper body that clearly screamed, ‘Chosen last for dodgeball!’”

“Was it because apathy, snark, and sarcasm were more in-keeping with the onslaught of bad news that dominated our news cycle? Did public expressions of joy undercut the severity of the unfolding sociopolitical mess? Whatever the reason, I had to figure out how to maintain my success on a platform that would shun me for daring to express my true self.”

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 29th, 2022.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
Another upbeat, can-do, WWII based piece of historical fiction from Jennifer Ryan, author of The Kitchen Home Front and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Three women in Aldhurst Village help transmute the local sewing circle into a shining example of community spirit during the deprivations of war — launching a wedding dress sewing circle, transforming old, often moth-eaten wedding dresses into modern beauties available for loan to brides in need. Grace Carlisle — the dutiful vicar’s daughter, soon to marry her father’s curate; Cressida Westcott, renowned fashion designer, returning to the village manor house (from which she was evicted decades before due to non obedience) when her home and business in London are reduced to rubble; and her spoiled niece Violet Westcott, who wants nothing but to marry a title and live the luxurious life to which she is entitled.

There was romance and it is handled well, but the real treats for me were the friendships, the awakening of awareness of opportunities and alternate lifestyles for each of the women, and the well-researched details of life on the home front. Ryan’s tidbits about wartime clothing were fascinating: The rationing (40 coupons per year — about enough for a a couple of dresses), the government Make Do and Mend program, the restriction on bathing to 5 inches of bathwater twice per week to save on fuel, the “paint on stockings” made from gravy — useful if there are no dogs around! — and most interesting, the challenges for designers who had to make do with “less fabric, more synthetic materials, and absolutely no metal fastenings or elastic.” It was just technical enough on the design and sewing aspects to be interesting but not overwhelmingly confusing to a sewing ignormus like myself.

As always, Ryan captures the real community spirit of wartime in Britain — ordinary people “joining forces to overcome the difficulties of war.” While not avoiding the terror and depression of the time, the book manages to focus on the positive and uplifting aspects of people coming together to do what needs to be done.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 31st, 2022.

The Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore (Audio Book — Science Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 World building: 5/5
A wild ride blending linguistics, gaming, technology development, and yes — saving not just the planet or the universe, but reality itself from the “Thunderstorm” which simply unravels reality as it progresses. This reminded me strongly of the feeling I got from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash — one of my old favorites — plenty of action and a recognizable world which has developed in unexpected and pretty cool ways through technology. A main difference — this story is propelled by girl power — most of the very strong, very capable, and very imaginative characters in this book are women. Plenty of men, too, and the hero(ine) / evil nemesis extremes are liberally distributed among both sexes so it doesn’t set off my wild stereotype alarm. Warning: There is glitter.

There is plenty of snark which the audio book reader pulled off almost too well. Very interesting and convoluted world building in terms of blending linguistic concepts with symbiotic alien lifeforms, influences on the way we think, and embedding power in language. Lots of blurring between “game” life and real life, supported by the ability to move the action (with real implications) between the two. Although I listened to this — and so was unable to highlight great lines — the writing was very good with an impressive vocabulary and well structured thoughts. Way above the quality of your typical SF fare (I say this as a long time SF fan). Some over the top disdain for rich white guys and distrust of big government (which is beginning to bore me) but honestly very little and not the main point.


Thank you to RB Media and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on January 11th, 2022.