Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Writing: 4/5 World Building: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A “wow” book for me — a blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Real noir. I hadn’t heard of Lauren Beukes before but can’t wait to read more — luckily she is prolific.

Zinzi Lelethu December is our first person narrator — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment. Hints of being a post-apocalyptic, or at least a post-civilized world, it frankly sounds pretty close to parts of South Africa today — Zoo City is full of the hustle vibe. “Zoos” refer to the intense people-animal pairings that come unrequested to many of those who have committed a crime — Zinzi’s animal is a sloth; boyfriend Benoit’s a mongoose. Zoo City is the area of Johannesburg that has become a hustler ghetto for the animalled.

Zinzi is a finder of lost things — the “talent” that came with the acquisition of her animal. This helps her see webs of connection between people and the things they have lost. While this brings her some remuneration, she works off the bulk of her large drug debt by writing the form letters and processing the responses for current affairs sympathy scams. She is depressingly good at it. In the midst of her self-loathable existence as a petty criminal, she is offered a great deal of money to find someone. And then things start going very wrong.

Although there isn’t a great deal to like about Zinzi, we can’t help but root for her the whole time. I believe this is because we love flawed characters who have or are developing a strong moral sense. While Zinzi makes her way through an unsavory underground, she starts to gain a real sense of right and wrong and develops an interest in actually making something better.

City of Secrets by Victoria Thompson

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Nov. 6, 2018.

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

A thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery by the author of the Gaslight cozy mystery series. The second in the Counterfeit Lady series (I seem to have missed the first), this series centers on Elizabeth Miles, a “reformed” grifter who is making her way in New York polite society in the 1920s. In this episode, she is moved to help a new friend who was twice widowed and found herself penniless — her second husband having managed to go through all of her money as well as his own in a short amount of time. The plot twists in fun and surprising ways, leveraging an eclectic set of characters including ministers who are not what they seem, society matrons, and Elizabeth’s slightly unsavory (but utterly charming and oddly moral) pals from her grifting days. Nice historical touches covering the suffragist movement (not suffragette which they find demeaning), the social rules of etiquette as extracted from Mrs. Edith B. Ordway’s The Etiquette of Today, and the origin of safe deposit boxes. Interesting discussions on the rules of law, the roots of civilization, and how to determine what is morally appropriate in a situation.

Great read!

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A fun, tangled novel about mathematics, the search for truth, and some atypical family dysfunction. The Severys are a clan of advanced academics — Isaac is a top mathematician, working on the ultimate deterministic equation based on chaos theory; son Phillip is a well-known string theorist whose output has been dwindling in both quantity and quality as he ages; utterly anti-social daughter Paige is hard at work on her Book of Probabilities which she estimates will be 565 volumes and which she doesn’t expect to finish in her lifetime. Adopted grandchildren Hazel and Gregory are the “normal” members, a failing book store owner and police officer respectively.

The novel opens with Isaac’s self predicted death and continues with wild scurrying on the part of everyone else to get their hands on what might be the equation that can literally predict everything. While there is plenty of reference to interesting mathematical problems and the motivation of those who pursue them, there is even more familial drama with insertions of mysterious agents who also yearn for the magic equation.

While the existence of such an equation lends a speculative fiction aspect to the book, it’s really more of a mystery mixed with family drama and characters more intellectually oriented than most.  All in all pretty fun to read, well written, and hard to put down.

(OK – I realize this is two reviews within the space of an hour –  I’m fast but not that fast 🙂  Just took me awhile to finish the Morton review while this one just wrote itself…)

Irontown Blues by John Varley

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Irontown Blues by John Varley, which will publish August 28, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4 World Building: 4.5

A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery, in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley.

Chris Bach is a PI wannabe offering his services on Luna many years after the alien invasion of Earth (which basically depopulated the planet — see previous books in the Eight Worlds Universe for more details on this, but it’s not important for this story). He sets off to solve the case of a woman who has been given leprosy against her will (hard to believe anyone would willingly contract leprosy but in this world of acceptable and reversible extreme body modifications, disfiguring diseases can be a source of amusement for some — hmmm). “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown” — trust me when I tell you that the case does not go where you think it will.

Chris is aided by his sidekick, Sherlock. Sherlock is a CEC — a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine. The tale is told through their alternating voices — Sherlock’s via the aid of a canine interpreter named Penelope Cornflower (β-Penny in Sherlock parlance). The book is worth reading for Sherlock’s story alone — if you’re at all a dog person you’ll enjoy (and crack up at) his interpretation of the world and events. Other cool characters include Chris’ not-very-maternal mother (retired police chief and now prehistoric-reptile rancher), and some pretty nasty soldiers from Charon, a once prison-planet turned … not-so-nice but now fully acceptable part of the Eight Worlds.

Great world building and descriptions of future life, both technologically and culturally enhanced. Surprising plot and interesting characters. Plenty of fun references to our favorite detectives both current and past (Elvis Cole and Marlowe are mentioned a lot as is Hildy Johnson. Heinlein gets a whole subculture.) Threads on libertarian ideals, body modification, creative habitats, and slightly insane AIs, run liberally through the story.

Hugo-and-Nebula-Award-Winner John Varley has been writing since shortly after I began reading, and I’ve read most of his work. His short story collection, The Persistence of Vision, is possibly my number one favorite SF short story collection (which is saying quite a lot). I confess I had lost track of him for the past few years and haven’t read his last couple of novels — but I’ll remedy that shortly.

Head On by John Scalzi

Writing: 5 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 4.5

Classic Scalzi — a cool, well-explored, futuristic world with non-stop and non-predictable action and funny banter. This is the second book in his “Lock In” series. It can be read on its own, but “Lock In” was great, too, so why not read it first?

Both books are mysteries in a sci-fi setting. In this world, 1% of the global population has Haden’s syndrome — a condition where the person is “locked in” to his/her own body. A number of technologies have been developed to support this population — implantable neural networks that link their brains directly to the outside world to humanoid personal transport units (called “threeps” after C-3PO) and an online universe called “The Agora.”

In this installment, FBI Agents Chris Shane (himself a Haden) and Leslie Vann (a female version of the crotchety senior detective persona) tackle a difficult case: the physical death of a Hilketa player during a game in which the play is all via threeps and should be no danger whatsoever to the human player. Hilketa is a (very weird to me) game played by decapitating a targeted player and carrying his / her head across the goal line.

I’m happy to say that Scalzi is back in top form. This is only the second book published after he signed a huge multi-million dollar, multi-year, multi-book deal with Tor. The first book published after the contract was Collapsing Empire — the only Scalzi book I have ever disliked (and I’ve read them all) — so I’m quite relieved that he is back on track.

Great writing and pacing, plenty of plot twists, and generally difficult to put down. I started in the morning and finished as I went to bed (only put it down briefly when I was grudgingly dragged outside to help shovel dirt into the new tomato planter). This is accessible to all readers — similar to Andy Weir’s books (The Martian; Artemis) but funnier, more inventive, and offers more exploration of the cultural and political impact of the technologies in addition to the scientific-technical angles.

Secrets, Lies, and Crawfish Pies by Abby L. Vandiver

Thank you to Henery Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of Secrets, Lies, and Crawfish Pies by Abby L Vandiver, which will publish June 12, 2018. All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A fun, cozy, mystery – full of colorful Southern characters surrounded by good food and music.

Romaine Gabriela Sadie Heloise Wilder is a medical examiner in Chicago, in love with the married Chief of Staff of her hospital. When she loses her job and man through one swift act of downsizing, she is dragged home to East Texas (Roble, to be exact) by her voodoo and herbal remedy-wielding Aunt Zanne. When they arrive they find a surprise guest at the Ball Funeral Home and Crematorium — the family business. He fits right in, though, as he is quite, quite, dead. Romie solves the mystery with the help of her Aunt, the sheriff (a first cousin), and a couple of attractive beaux-in-waiting.

Fun, light, well-written. For those who care about these kinds of things, the author and most (perhaps all) of the characters are African American. I hadn’t heard of this author before, but she is quite prolific with three additional mystery series to her name — so if you like this one, you’ll have a lot more to read!