Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Writing: 5 Characters: 4 Plot: 3
New words to me:
Xenomorphs – strange or foreign forms
Pareidolia – seeing faces in unusual places, a type of apophenia
Botrytis: “noble rot” used by vintners
NSFW – not safe for work

Lois Clary is a Computer Science whiz from Michigan recently recruited to San Francisco to work on control systems for robot arms at General Dexterity. She is known as one of the “newly Dextrous” and is accompanied solely by a cactus named Kubrick. A menu for CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH appears on her doorway and her life takes a very interesting turn.

Story tendrils include … a love affair conducted almost in silence; the Lois Club serving as a kind of Greek chorus for the action; a magical tale about a mysterious people called the Mazg; a bizarre sourdough starter that seems to have a greater personality than one would expect from … bread; a literary paen to the microbial world in which we swim.

A good story, some quirky (though slightly one dimensional) characters, and excellent writing. The descriptions of baking and baking technology, SanFrancisco and environs, and (especially) the belletristic exploration of microbiomes are absolutely top notch. I’m unimpressed by the stereotyped (and somewhat uninformed) descriptions of working for an intense tech company and I was somewhat confused by the conflicting themes of robotics utility and the joy of individual labor, but it was an enjoyable read, I learned a lot about interesting subjects on the ride, and I was particularly impressed with the writing.

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

Plot: 4 Characters: 4 Writing:4
#tearjerker #uplifting

Solid, well-written, historical fiction with an emphasis on family in times of duress. The Brights – Thomas and Pauline and their daughters Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa – leave their rural life to join Thomas’ uncle in his undertaking business in Philadelphia. The time is 1918.

Told through the alternating perspectives of the women in the family over the next 8 years, the story weaves through mortuaries, speakeasies, mental institutions, and hospitals as the community reels from the double crises of WWI (and the expanded draft) and the Spanish Flu pandemic and slowly heals by knitting itself together in new and unexpected configurations.

Good storytelling, heartfelt characters, and many surprising plot twists. Strong themes concerning family, loss, love, and finding the life you were meant to read. Worth reading.

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

Writing: 5 Characters: 4 Plot: 3
World building: 5

Vivian Lawler is odd. Very odd. She’s been told that she is a changeling so she roams about Dublin looking for paths back to Fairyland. But this is not the point of the book. Vivian tells her own story with nary a narrative arc. Instead she describes in meticulous detail her perceptions, her thoughts, her actions, and the reactions of others. Vivian is trying to learn how to engage with the world and we are along for the ride. I give the author top marks for world-building, but it is an interior world she has crafted. A very rich, excruciatingly different, interior world.

It’s a rare book that can give the reader the full experience of what it is like to *be* someone else. Not to be yourself and live through other experiences, but to literally be another person with a completely different mental environment. This book does that so well that you literally become this strange creature and perceive the world from inside her head. As an aside, when interviewed the author expressed no plans for sequels saying “it’s a pretty intense head to live in for a year”.

The writing is exquisite – every sentence worth reading. Some of my favorite lines:

“I never know how to respond to people who want small complete sentences with one tidy meaning.”

“They each talk as if the other wasn’t there. They would shove their words into the ears of a cockroach if they thought it would listen.”

“Employers wont hire me to work in their offices when they can hire a shiny woman who speaks in exclamation points.”

“I change the channel to a large woman singing a soaring tune in another language before an orchestra. I close my eyes and try to imagine living a life that demanded such climaxes but my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.”

I found this book interesting to read for the reasons above but wouldn’t say it was enjoyable. Good craft, well implemented, but I didn’t look forward to reading it. Vivian is not a person I would want to know or with whom I could have an emotional connection, but I did enjoy the writing and the author’s ability to skewer her reader directly into such an abnormal brain.

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!

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4
Environment / World Building: 5

Tom Hazard is 420 years old and looks 30. He was born in March 1581 and “suffers” from a condition that causes him to age a single year for every fifteen years that elapse. Having these kinds of “powers” during the 1600s does not always attract the right kind of attention and Tom is forced to separate from family and friends on more than one occasion. At some point he discovers he is not alone – there is a “society” of people with the same condition – he joins this society, hoping it will be a kind of family to help ward off the incredible loneliness that comes from consistently outliving his loved ones, but there are certain rules one agrees to when joining which are not always easy to follow.

Tom serves as our narrator in this rich tale exploring the psychological and physiological ramifications of a life lived more slowly than average. The story moves back and forth from the present to various times in his past (each carefully labeled to avoid reader confusion – thank you!). We travel to London in the 1600s, the 1800s, and the present (as well as other places and times) and experience each as a first person memory.

Haig (clearly a well-read man!) brings in philosophy, poetry, music, and an incredibly vibrant sense of history as experienced and synthesized by a man who has literally lived through it all. The quotations (from the likes of Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Dickinson, Dr. Johnson, etc.) are meaningful, concise, and on point. The historical figures (William Shakespeare, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson, etc.) are vividly presented as live characters as seen through the subjective lens of our narrator.

I enjoyed most of the writing – particularly where Haig focuses on sympathetic characters and areas such as music, history, and philosophy – the prose in these sections just flows beautifully. There are a few parts where the writing becomes a little stiff and blocky, particularly around some of the less sympathetic characters. I was pleased with the ending – without giving anything away I thought it was realistic – not particularly uplifting and certainly not depressing but completely plausible and not contrived. A very enjoyable read infused with both perpetual nostalgia and hope for the future. As an aside, I spent some time looking up some of the historical events, language, and characters and found every one to be completely accurate – nicely done!

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4
#YA #mystery #romance

Breakfast Club meets Big Little Lies but then gets a lot better. I started off unenthusiastic but then literally could not put this book down – read it in a day, extending past my bedtime (and leading to a nasty crick in my neck from reading in bed – oh well).

Five Breakfast Club style teens are sent to detention for an infraction that none of them admit to committing. Before detention is over, one of them – a Hedda Hopper style school gossip columnist – is dead and only one of them could have done it.

Simple enough premise but the twists keep piling up and the relationships between the remaining four, their families, other students, the media, and the police are really well done. McManus manages to avoid stereotypes while subtly illustrating the way people are treated differently depending on their gender, group identity (jock, brain, etc), or sexual orientation. I found the characters multi-dimensional and was completely surprised by the way the story played out. My only complaint might be that the initial characters reminded me so much of the Breakfast Club that I had a hard time not seeing Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez every time their mirror characters came up – could be worse 🙂

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5
#uplifting #historicalfiction #epistolary

chilburyI love British WWII novels that focus on home front life and this novel is a perfect example of the type. The story of a group of women who make the decision (against conventional wisdom) to continue singing in their choir once all of the men have left is told through the letters and journals of the main characters: Mrs. Tilling, a somewhat timid widow and bulwark of the community; Kitty Winthrop, the 13 year-old daughter of the Brigadier, a bully who needs a male heir to hold on to the family fortune; Venetia, Kitty’s beautiful older sister; and Edwina Paltry, a midwife whose morals may be easily deformed by the offer of cash.

Just the right amount drama, romance, and action to keep you reading. The story has many interesting plot twists (some of the problems are solved a little too easily in my book but not egregiously so). Timely descriptions of issues of the day make appearances in the form of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, a dying homosexual soldier, and a variety of pregnancies. The writing is excellent. Really pleasant read – a great story with characters I would have loved to meet.