2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (F&SF)

Writing:  5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5

Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series (three are available to date) is every bit as good (if not better) than book one. I wouldn’t mind a (non-invasive) peek into Sanderson’s brain because his ability to world build is better than any I’ve seen. The variety and depth of the cultures that populate these worlds is overwhelming — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

While volume one reads well as a stand-alone (no cliff hangers), volume two does take up where it left off (by the way, I waited one full year before reading the second book and had no trouble remembering the characters or world — it was that vivid). Words of Radiance brings the storylines of the three main characters closer together as they each muster their own internal resources (and develop unexpected capabilities) to tackle the danger that faces Roshar. Dalinar rises to the challenge of refounding the Knights Radiant in spite of overwhelming and devious opposition of all the other High Princes; Kaladin contends with his own bitterness, mistrust, and divided loyalties in his new leadership position as most trusted personal guard of the King and family; and Shallan — meek supplicant scholar in book one — develops in every dimension possible to become absolutely essential for the preservation of the human race on Roshar.

Plenty of action and tension, strong moral and ethical themes around honor, blame, responsibility, and doing what is right. Great character development — the heroes make sometimes drastic mistakes and have inner as well as outer demons to fight while the villains are often motivated by similar values but conflicting needs and situation assessments. There are more answers — and more questions — on some fundamental concepts of the world such as the Spren, the Void Bringers and the Desolations. Sanderson is a master at introducing other cultures by way of natural storytelling rather than long descriptions. As an aside, I love the division of labor between males and females: females are the scholars, scientists, and engineers; males are the warriors and politicians. Reading is considered too feminine for most men. Crossover happens — some people are scandalized and others couldn’t care less. A fun twist on gender assumptions!

My favorite line: “Do not let your assumptions about a culture block your ability to perceive the individual or you will fail.”

(SF) Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group — Ace through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on April 16, 2019.
Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Elite gamer Dee Whittaker is 43 years old when she finds herself on a ship headed to the outer galaxies on a 20 year trip. She and the other 10,000 people on board are probably all that’s left of humanity as a nuclear war was launched by someone on the ship as a parting gift. Now she has just one mission left — find out who launched that strike. She gets help from an unexpected place…

The novel is for gamers — most of the action transpires under the guise of mysterious games she plays on board at the invitation of “a friend.” The games are very personalized — too personalized. She finds herself in game situations that are far too close to her own traumatic past. Our first-person narrative heroine has some real trust issues — her line: “I smirk at the way life always finds a way to remind me that I am fucked” says it all. As we play the games with her and are treated to scenes from her past, we come to understand this sentiment.

Triggered by these unwelcome reminders of where she came from, she works towards her goal of identification and retribution while simultaneously and studiously *not* dealing with the emotional detritus of her experiences. The ending is a big surprise (at least I didn’t see it coming) and there are some interesting themes of sentience vs programming for both AIs and human beings.

From a literary perspective, this is a good book. Great pacing, a Heinlein-style straightforward writing style and story elements that remind me of Wool, Neuromancer, and Diamond Age. From a “mood enhancing” perspective, it’s pretty sucky. The author makes no bones about writing “dark” fiction, and this book is plenty dark. There is more negative stereotyping than I like — Americans are all tarred with the religious nut brush: “To be American is to be openly, passionately, religious” and “What exactly do they mean by the American way of life? Hypocrisy? Lack of respect for anyone or anything that refuses to adopt its culture? Institutional racism and misogyny? Which Christian values exactly? What sort of religious observance?” To be fair, I realized that if the “bad guys” had been Muslim fanatics I probably wouldn’t have noticed so that was an eye-opener for me.

Bottom line — a fast, engaging read. Mostly action with threads of exploration of sentience, morality and ethics, and self-exploration.

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.

Shivering World by Kathy Tyers

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Fast paced sci-fi novel about the various people involved in trying to create a new viable planet (Goddard) through terraforming in the year 2134. In this universe, gene manipulation is both illegal and considered a denial of “the perfection of God’s creation” by the Universal Church. However, the Hwuite colonists have long been suspected of maintaining the technology to do just that. Women form the majority of the governing bodies as men have been deemed “too aggressive” to be fit leaders. And the Religious Liberty Act has made it illegal to proselytize any religion without a duly registered inquiry.

Graysha Brady Phillips suffers from a genetic disorder which both limits her lifespan and makes it inadvisable to have children. She goes to Goddard as a soils engineer in the hopes of unearthing illegal gene manipulation techniques that might save her — or at least enable her to have children without passing on the defect. What she discovers, however, is a viper’s nest of clashing agendas and a terraforming effort that appears to be going horribly wrong. Goddard appears to be cooling, rather than heating up.

Each character is the star of their own story, with their own goals and their own approaches toward others who don’t share those goals. No “good guys” vs “bad guys” (though some characters are a lot more irritating than others). I was originally put off by the “Christian / SF fiction” billing but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was mostly SF with a smattering of philosophical and heart felt Christianity. I loved the pioneer spirit embedded in the colonists.

A good read for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, Tyers combines science (terraforming, gene manipulation, hostile planet survival) with political and cultural clashes to make for a compelling narrative. Plenty of surprises throughout.

Stars Uncharted by S. K. Dunstall

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Stars Unchartede by S.K. Dunstall, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
World building: 4.5 plot: 3.5 characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

Thoroughly enjoyable, action-packed, sci-fi about a motley crew of spacefarers thrown together by circumstance. In this world, body modification for health, style, or pleasure is easily available if you have the cash, and the “modders” who do those modifications are held in far greater esteem than doctors. Nika Rik Terri is the acknowledged best, but some nasty customers who prefer not to leave witnesses have her on the run; Josune Arriola was sent to spy on Captain Hammond Roystan — clearly not the simple cargo runner he appears — but remains when her own ship shows up with a full complement of dead crew members.

In a galaxy where the big 27 Combines run the legal system, justice can be difficult to procure leading to intrigue and imaginative fight and / or flight scenes. Exploration of the art and science of body modification via genetic engineering is pervasive throughout — details of design, implementation, requirements, source materials, equipment, and the challenges of difficult cases make for interesting reading. Plenty of technical detail on fixing up their (oft attacked) ship as well. In addition to the action, I found a couple of other points interesting: Nika — the top notch modder — thinks about why style and appearance are so important to her and how that may have caused her problems in the past. Also, I found the contrast between current and previous modder training interesting — the newer training taught people to rely on technicians and equipment rather than their own deep expertise; Nika prefers to be able to maintain, extend, and even create her own equipment. A good analogy for traiing in many fields today.

Great for fans of Andy Weir, Becky Chambers, CJ Cherryh, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

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.