Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear (SF)

World building: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: good but too long for me…

Space opera with an emphasis on how society has evolved across the millenia. A small salvage operation finds aeons old technology and evidence of a terrible crime at the outer edges of the galaxy and have to battle space pirates and corrupt outpost bureaucrats to see justice done. A well-developed, quirky crew: our narrator Haimey — an engineer escaped from the human female isolationist Clade which simultaneously gave one a sense of belonging and an utter inability to disagree; Connla the pilot — born and bred on Spartacus where everyone seems to look and behave like Kirk Douglas; Singer — the endlessly curious ship mind (easily my favorite character); and a couple of cats who … behave just as you’d expect cats acclimated to space to behave!

The best part for me was the many discussions about the interplay between society, government and the individual — freedom vs social controls, right-minding vs brainwashing, human control of AIs vs slave intelligences, etc.  I loved the ability (and sometime reluctance to use) the crew had to tune their own chemistry on the fly and the ensuing discussion about what made a person who they were and how personality was formed.

For me the book was way too long — I liked the world building, the ethics discussions, and the character development, but I got tired of all the science / engineering talk and the action. Which means that if you’re a hard science fiction fan you’ll like this book a lot more than I did. I would say the book breaks down into 25% action, 35% science / engineering / surviving by your wits and tools, 20% discussions about right, wrong, and how to live, and 20% character development. I like her writing style — plenty of insight, good banter, clear descriptions — there was just too much repetition, and I realize that I have simply gotten bored with action! Chase scenes, battles, blah, blah, blah — give me a good discussion on what makes us human any day over that 🙂

Great for fans of The Martian!

Some good quotes:
“The thing picked out in iridescence on my skin looked like renderings of the intergalactic structure of dark gravity.”

“Bureaucracy is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Synarche that makes the whole galaxy revolve.”

“In the face of the unthinkable, there wasn’t much else to do except think about it obsessively.”

“He gazed at me with the sort of interest one reserves for reprieves from the guillotine and similarly refocusing events”

“But where’s the line between right-minding and brainwashing? Or, in the case of an AI, programming for adequate social controls versus creating slave intelligences.”

“If they could, cats would invent full-time full-sensorium VR for all humans everywhere so they could sleep on our immobile bodies eternally. And probably eat our extremities , too.”

“…I got a string of programming jargon that was so far beyond me it might as well have been one of those twelve-tone semi-ultrasonic methane-breather languages that shatter ice crystals and sound like a glass harmonica having a bad dia at work.”

“Maybe I was a nice, safe little puppet of the Synarche, or Justice. Or maybe I was a person who valued community and well-being of the mass of sentient life over the individual right to be selfish.”

“Total freedom for the ones who can enforce it, until somebody comes along and murders them to take their stuff. Slavery for everybody else. Pretty typical warlord behavior in any society, and one of the reasons we have societies in the first place.”

“I was floating near a viewport with my screen and Jane Eyre. It’s kind of horrifying to think of an era when people were so constrained to and by gender, in which the externals you were born with were something you would be stuck with your whole life, could never alter, and it would determine your entire social role and your potential for emotional fulfillment and intellectual achievement.”

The Flavors of Other Worlds by Alan Dean Foster (SF)

This new collection of short stories is classic science fiction. Updated for modern times in terms of access to social media, etc, it nevertheless focuses primarily on old themes: how would human beings react and adapt to new situations.  Stories range from alien takeovers so subtle that nobody notices … to a dangerous addiction to knowledge… to a way of channeling the aurora borealis for unlimited power… to the reaction of a colonized world that is none too happy about receiving the “benefits” of a conquering race (us).

Each story is prefaced with a note from the author about the origins of the story — these are almost as interesting as the stories themselves. The writing is concise and clear — reminiscent of, well, Foster himself — the guy has been around for a long time! Like a lot of good science fiction, the stories allow us to think about many of today’s issues in the guise of “other” worlds, people, and cultures. A nice addition.

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.