South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

Cooper Gosling receives an Artist & Writers great from the NSF to join an eclectic group of intense scientists (“Beakers”) and maintenance staff (“Nailheads”) at the South Pole for a year in order to find inspiration and come to terms with the recent suicide of her twin brother. But that is only the tip of the iceberg (ha ha) of the plot for this deeply engaging and satisfying novel.

There are several different plot lines –  in addition to Cooper and her artistic struggles, there is a detailed story line devoted to the competing theories about the origins of the Universe, along with the scientists espousing them and the experiments designed to prove them.  This is well described and aligns with reality (according to Stanford News from March 17, 2014).  Also a lot of great description of the station(s), the people who fund them, maintain them, and work in them. Throw in some interesting political and ethical issues in the form of a climate skeptic who has been given research funds to disprove climate change due to human activity and the way he is treated by other researchers at the Pole and you have an engrossing set of stories.  Compelling from start to finish.

SPOILER ALERT – I have one small issue with the book. Frank Pavano, the climate skeptic, is at first presented as a reasonable man with some reasonable arguments for the research he is pursuing looking for alternate causes (heliocentric) for global warming.  There is some great discussion about how he is treated by the other researchers and how objectivity in science should be maintained.  However, towards the end the author made it clear that he was on the take from a group of politicians and oil companies and threw a whole conspiracy theory slant into what had been interesting scientific debate.  She also painted an unrealistic (to me) portrait of how Dr. Pavano became this dishonest scientist. It made me realize how much I rely on the author’s imagination and experience to paint portraits of people in different environments. In this particular case I think she did a really poor job – not up to the level of her other characters and story arcs.

That aside, South Pole Station was a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Lydia has established a life for herself after suffering a particularly traumatic event as a child. She works in the Bright Ideas Bookstore (named for the light bulb factory previously in residence) and collects “Book Frogs” – lost souls who inhabit the book store and find the same solace in reading as she does.  One day, seemingly of nowhere, Joey, her favorite Book Frog, hangs himself from the third floor just after closing.

Alternating between the present and her childhood we are presented with two mysteries that slowly resolve together.  More of a novel than a standard mystery, there is real attention to character, motivation, and tangled relationships. Books, libraries, librarians and a love of reading are ubiquitous.   Many of the characters are troubled and  a lot of effort is made to motivate their actions from their experiences. I found many of these connections be a bit too pat, more following a script based on current assumptions around the causes of social problems rather than any real experiences or insight.  However, that aside, it’s an easy, interesting, and a real page turner PLUS the author is a long time bookstore employee and is married to a librarian so he definitely walks the walk!

A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith

An apt title for this 12th installment of the Scotland based, Isabel Dalhousie series  There are many McCall Smith fans who shy away from these books.  This is understandable.  Isabel is not warm like Precious Ramotswe nor is she quirky like the denizens of 44 Scotland Street.  Isabel is a Philosopher, she is editor-in-chief (and owner) of the Review of Applied Ethics.  She is a good person, a moral person, even a generous person, but she is reserved and absurdly lucky in life (independently wealthy and cohabiting with a gorgeous, younger, musician who is head over heels for her).  In this book, another character tells her she is “muted” and she is surprised and a little hurt, but it is absolutely true!

The novel does have a thin layer of plot – Isabel is asked to look into the moral character of a man who has reputedly extracted money from wealthy women through nefarious means – but it is even more thin than usual. However, Isabel’s main activity is musing.  In fact, “Isabelle Muses” would be an apt subtitle for the series. She muses when she should be paying attention to people, her work, or the world around her.  I love her musings – they are far reaching, exploratory, and center around the kinds of things I like to think about myself.  A sampling of topics from this volume: population growth, enlightened capitalism, poetry, Churchill’s growl, psychopaths vs sociopaths, selfies, neuroscience, the generous obfuscation of titles, and the letters column of The Scotsman which is the “spiritual home of the combative and the contrary”. So while I don’t open these books in anticipation of spending time with a close personal friend, I do anticipate meeting with a very interesting conversationalist and this is why I remain a fan of this series.

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

I was completely surprised by how much I liked the first book in this (now finished) trilogy and both sequels have been equally fun.  While it’s not high literature (nor does it claim to be) Kwan’s writing is really good, the (many) storylines surprising and intriguing, and his characters are oddly realistic, though clearly exaggerated.  Lots of brand references which frankly go right over my head, but mostly I just keep turning the pages while laughing out loud at the soap opera satire.

In this third installment, Su-Yi, the grand dame of the extraordinarily wealthy Shang-Young clan, dies at the ripe old age of 94. The story covers the in-fighting of the family post-funeral, the honest emotions of the many who actually loved her, fascinating stories of Su Yi’s time during WWII in Singapore, and plenty of other integrated dramas.  Unlike typical soap operas, I never find the stories stupid or ridiculous – a real testament to Kwan’s writing prowess.

You can read this one without the others but why would you do that?  Go start at the beginning!  (By the way, the Crazy Rich Asians movie is in post-production – looks well cast (release date still TBD sadly).

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison

I can definitely see why this book won the Hugo Award.  I had never read anything by N. K. Jamison before, but she is clearly a major talent. The craft and thought embedded in the pages are inspiring.

We are thrust into a catastrophic event in the first pages that is likely to launch the next Fifth Season. Fifth Seasons are Father Earth’s revenge for what humanity has done to the planet in this post-apocalyptic world.  These disastrous “seasons,” lasting for months, years, or centuries,  go by names like “Choking Season”, “Shattering Season”, “Acid Season”, and “Madness Season.”  The theme of this dark, intense, and utterly compelling novel is survival and control. The players: Orogenes have evolved to be able to control the massive powers of the Earth; Guardians have evolved to be able to control the Orogenes; Stills do neither.  And then there are the mysterious Stone Eaters who are just odd and not very human, who clearly have their own, hard to decipher, agenda.

The action filled and psychologically oriented plot begins with three distinct story lines that slowly evolve into one, explaining how we got to the current state described in the prologue.  It is a fantastically well developed world, with coherent themes, nomenclature, and social customs. It’s clearly a post-apocalyptic Earth and its fascinating to see how the author extrapolated from our present to this environment clearly millennia in our future. While this book doesn’t quite end with a cliff hanger, there is plenty left to reveal in the next two books (luckily, the third and final book will be available in less than a month).

The Paper Magician by Charlie N Holmberg

I usually like to write reviews about good books.  Who wants to hear about books not to read?  HOWEVER, this book annoyed me so much that I decided to write a review about it anyway.

I’m a sucker for books about magic and if you throw in a nervous student and a school of magic such as the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined I’m completely hooked.  We are launched into the world when Ceony Twill, our magician-in-training, is annoyed about being assigned to work Paper Magic rather than being bonded to one of the more interesting materials such as Metal, Plastic, or Glass.  Once bonded to a particular material, the magician will only be able to work magic with that material for the rest of their life.

Two great chapters introducing the concepts and setting and then a long tumble of disappointment and ending with a grunt of disgust.  The writing is just fine – nothing astonishing but clean and well put together – but the plot is long and pointless and the main character is an embarrassment.  The book is supposed to be about how much she wants to be a magician, how hard she has worked and what is important in her life, but within pages of first meeting her (older, more experienced) mentor, Emery Thane, it’s clearly going to be a romance novel instead of a fantasy novel.  She briskly sets about “helping out” by doing his laundry and cooking him wonderful meals, and neatening the house.  He tells her she doesn’t have to do this but she wants to take care of him.  Ugh.  This begins to make me ill.


The entire plot revolves around his ex-wife, who has gone to the dark side of the magic world.  She appears one day – beautiful of course –  and uses her magic to pluck the still beating heart from his chest and disappears.  Ceony manages to make him a paper heart to tide him over and goes tearing after the ex-wife.  Fully 1/2 of the book is Ceony traveling through his heart (the ex-wife tosses her in there) and witnessing his good memories, his hopes, his bad memories, and his fears (in the four chambers of the heart).  Then a quick bit of action while she figures out how to stop the ex-wife and get the heart back to him to save the day.  When she comes downstairs the next morning after he is all better, she puts on makeup, curls her hair and puts on a nice outfit whereas she hadn’t bothered before.

What kind of a heroine is this?  Honestly, I was disgusted. I don’t mind women wanting to look attractive for men, or looking for ways to show their love through cooking or whatever, but this whole character – our protagonist no less – was one giant stereotype for the traditional woman – complete with falling for the more experienced, older man, so that she could be his help-mate and support system. Yuck.  OK – to be fair – people have the right to live any way they like and write about whatever they like – but please don’t hide a traditional romance under the guise of cool magician story!

The Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Olivia Birch is a serious, dedicated, doctor coming home from a stint treating victims of the terrible Haag virus in Liberia. Subject to a seven day quarantine on reentry to Britain, she and her family will be holed up in her mother’s aging family estate for seven days over Christmas.

The quarantine participants include Olivia, father Andrew (one-time Lebanon war correspondent turned snarky restaurant columnist); high-born mother Emma (who discovers a cancerous lump but doesn’t want to spoil Christmas); party girl Phoebe (the sister who has just become engaged to a man nobody else cares for); and lastly Jesse – Andrew’s surprise offspring from a one night stand in Lebanon.  Jesse serves as a kind of Greek Chorus looking in from the outside and moving the plot along with subconsciously deft manipulations.

Each chapter of the book covers a single day; each section within the chapter is a timestamped story told from one of the five characters perspectives during that day evolving the plot.  And what a plot! Ridiculous coincidences abound but serve only to tighten the strings that stitch the players together and are therefore somehow completely believable.

The book is simultaneously serious and funny as we watch a family that has become stale and distant in its regular interactions rediscover the importance of family and what is important to each of them personally.  Artfully done and genuinely fun to read!