A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo

Read  March 2018
Recommended for fans of acceptance, gay marriage, hopping, voting
★    ★   ★    ★ 

A sweet little story about bunnies falling in love and an animal revolution in one.

I would have passed, because I suspected it would be more of a publicity stunt than story, but I couldn’t resist the audio cast: Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) as Marlon Bundo the bunny; Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family) as Wesley the bunny; John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) as Stinkbug, Jack McBayer (30 Rock); Ellie Kemper (The Office); and RuPaul in supporting animal cast.

It turns out, it was a cute little story, with a solid children’s book feel. In the tradition of multi-generational appeal, it has veiled jokes for the older folks and solid messaging for the younger ones.

Proceeds go to the Trevor Project, which provides services to prevent suicide in young people struggling with sexual identity. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/#sm….

Listen to John Oliver talk about Pence and Bundo on his show (and the very frightening revelation that the Pence book promotion includes a Focus on the Family stop). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs2Rl…

Oh, and I needn’t have worried about the art–Oliver’s piece has an animated excerpt of the story and the style is lovely, watercolor style shadings in a more traditional style. The one with the Stinkbug and his white toupee is effing priceless.

Posted in Book reviews, young adult | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The First Rule by Robert Crais

Read  March 2018
Recommended for fans of mystery-thrillers
★    ★   ★     1/2

I’ve been enjoying Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole mysteries, but apparently Crais felt the need to punch things up by featuring Elvis’ best buddy, Joe Pike as the lead character. The Watchman was the first in the series to experiment with the new POV, and I found myself somewhat ambivalent about the results. The First Rule again follows Joe, with Elvis as a supporting character, with improved results.

In The First Rule, we meet a sweet domestic scene with Frank Meyer and his family, right before they are executed. I tend to dislike such an obvious sympathy-building scenario; I feel an author should use the perspective of the narrative and make us care because the protagonists care. But I persevered and was rewarded. Although the book jacket makes it seem like revenge is the only motivation, there are enough complexities and twists to it that it becomes something more than mere revenge thriller.

We learn a little bit about Joe’s mercenary years–although not enough–when he worked on a team with Frank, as well as another man, Lenny. Jon Stone was one of their contacts for jobs, and he moves beyond a mere voice on the phone in this book to play an active role in the investigation. I kind of like the version of the Bad Merry Men that Crais gets to play with when he uses Pike’s social (ha!) circles, and look forward to seeing more of the completely amoral Jon Stone in the Pike books. The resolution(s), for the most part, aren’t ones that Elvis would have entirely supported, so I can see the appeal of the alternate POV.

On the thriller scale, I’d call it a solid 4.0 for genre. On the carol. scale, a 3.5, because they tend to be more lightweight books that don’t arouse my collector instincts. But I’m more than happy my library has them.

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The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

Read  March 2018
Recommended for fans of new-adult steampunk
★    ★    1/2

Dear Carol:

Someday, someone is going to enthusiastically mention this series to you, and you are going to find yourself making that scrunched-up-nose-face that means either the dog has gas or someone is cooking asparagus again, and you probably won’t remember why. Actually, let’s call it like it will be; you won’t.

But why? you will be asked. It has a librarian as the Strong Heroine .™ There’s a Great Library that helps connect and  stabilize the human worlds. There’s a shapeshifting dragon! A detective! Magic spells!

You know what else there is? The (mercifully) agonizingly slow development of a love triangle, with one side between a teacher and her intern. “If something has happened to Kai, then I wish to investigate. I have a great deal of respect for him.’ And friendly affection, and desire, and irritation for the number of times he’s suggested we go to bed…

A Strong Heroine™ that defies characterization. Literally, I mean. She’s supposed to be a librarian who uses her resources before heading out on an adventure, except she doesn’t here, because she has to rescue her friend, Kai. But instead she rushes off with absolutely no preparation, with her only gear a knife. This is after we are told Kai is in a high-Chaos environment, which is anathema to the Librarians. She goes in with literally no plan, no idea where Kai is held or how, or how to get him out of that particular world. I get that this adds might add to the perception of suspense, but it really just makes Irene look dumb. Particularly when she needs rescuing later.

How logical is she? When she tries to describe the power the Fae have, well, witness: “She took a deep breath. ‘Dangerous enough to shake worlds,’ she said as calmly as she could. Facts would be more use than losing her temper. ‘That’s an extremely good way of putting it. Although I have never encountered any of the truly powerful ones myself. That is because they usually inhabit the ends of reality, where chaos is the deepest. There, the Fae take over whole worlds and bind their power to the very fabric of these worlds. In your world we are in the shallow end… I have never encountered any of the great powers of chaos, and I hope I never do.” Explain to me how that provided facts proving how dangerous the Fae are to Vale.

And, once again, a heroine that defies habit and training to rush into saving a friend: “When Irene reached the Bibliotheque, she created an unobserved passage back to the Library out of sheer instinct, far too busy visualizing threats to Kai to worry about being seen.” Yes, that is the epitome of planning and cool-headed logic, isn’t it? Compromising her entire career? The existence of the Library?

What we really have is a writer that prefers dramatic sentences over consistency. Thus in one conversation, we have Irene’s blood draining from her cheeks, two blushes (including one “crawling over her face”), a couple of head bows, loud breathing, a head shake, “something go cold in her stomach,” blinks, “a stab of apprehension” and “reminded of posture lessons from childhood.” I must be in a particularly spare mood, because it feels like all she is doing is describing a conversation six different ways instead of crafting a spare, tense scene.

A good measure of a book’s deliciousness is the amount of time it takes to finish. You stalled around page one hundred or so, setting it down and taking your own dear sweet time picking it up again. Then, when we are finally beyond the prep work and into the rescue, there’s an extended fantasy/altered reality/trudging-through-the-landscape sequence that is likely just supposed to be a metaphor for a tough journey, but which inevitably annoys you. It’s even more annoying when it starts to shake apart. If it’s annoying when Zelazny does it, it isn’t going to go down any better when a YA writer does it. 

The end was potentially the most interesting thing about the book. (Since I’m writing this to myself, it’s clearly not a spoiler, unless I forget and want to read it again, so don’t read this). The concept of Irene telling the/a story in the ‘high-Chaos’ world to help determine reality is extremely intriguing. I want to know the end of The Ghost and the Rider tale. The face off between the dragon and Cordelia is bizarre and anti-climactic. The ornate writing will annoy during the adventures, and the development of the relationship issues is almost certain to become irritating. 

But I know you, and know that you will likely pick up the third, just to be sure. And just to see what happened for Irene’s punishment (it was a bit of a cliff-hanger there). Just don’t re-read this one, okay?

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The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Read  March 2018
Recommended for Sherlockian sci-fi fans
★    ★    ★    ★

In the age of fantasy books of ridiculous lengths–why, hello, Way of Kings–and series that may never be finished–ah-hem, George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss–I’ve rediscovered my love of novellas. de Bodard has written an intriguing, sure to be award-nominated novella about a mind-ship hired by a brilliant, drug-addicted woman who wants to retrieve a dead body for study. Naturally, it turns out that it was no mere space-accident that caused the untimely death. When the shipmind The Shadow’s Child, takes the job, she finds herself confronting her own past.

“But she’d lived through a war, an uprising and a famine, and she was done with diminishing herself to spare the feelings of others.”

I wasn’t expecting a Sherlock style construction, but the parallels soon became clear. Of course, it might have helped that I have been very slowly working my way through the recent Cumberbatch incarnation of Sherlock. Like the Moffat and Gatiss version, this somehow manages to retain a feeling of whimsy in the midst of fear, suspicion, self-doubt, and a mildly sociopathic lead. When I finished, I thought, “well, that was fun,” but fun is not the right word, not quite. ‘Satisfying’ might be better. It pays tribute to the Sherlock format but does something so very different that it feels very new.

As always, I enjoy de Bodard’s writing style. Complex and descriptive, well-suited to the challenge of the world and the story.

“A middle-aged woman, with loose, mottled skin hanging loose on rib cage and pelvic bone, her shape already compressed into improbably angles by the pressures of unreality around her–she’d had a shadow skin to survive the vacuum of normal space, but of course it wouldn’t have survived the plunge into deep spaces: the long, dark tatters of it streamed from her corpse like hair, or threads tying her to an impossibly distant puppet-master.”

I was very intrigued by the setting, a pan-Asian future world in which people use mind-ships to travel through the deep reaches of space, but the world-building feels just this side of under-done. Though I eventually felt I had a working handle on the mind-ships, it wasn’t early enough to make me feel like I understood all the subtext, or how A Shadow’s Child could be so damaged. I’m motivated to track down some of her other works in this universe and learn more. I know she can be talented at world building; the Obsidian and Blood series (my review for the first), set in the pre-Colombian Aztec Empire, is immersive and fascinating.

On re-reading, I think that characterization could be improved somewhat, to make this an outstanding. The Shadow’s Child ends up sounding a little too neurotic, with an ever-present anxiety. Anxious about money, about going into deep space, about the reliability of Long Chau, she felt barely functional or sympathetic. If you would like a reader to believe a ship can have a personality, it best be a semi-functional one, believable for competently managing existence through unseen depths of space and multiple human generations. In this, there is perhaps the most deviation from the Sherlock structure, with a Watson that is more irritably challenging and less an admiring echo.

The e-reader edition had some minor formatting issues that I would expect would be fixed, and a rare challenge in word choice or punctuation. More importantly, I’m not exactly sure if the science of the space stands up to reality (see streaming ribbons mentioned above), but I’m not one to be finicky about my space details. But I mention it for hard-core readers who might be.

I think this would appeal to sci-fi fans who might enjoy a solid Sherlock homage, or people who enjoy Liz Williams’ Detective Chen series. As a general aside–I don’t often say this; I know better by now, that I shouldn’t judge a book by the cover–but the cover art by Maurizio Manzieri is absolutely gorgeous. I ordered the hardcover edition just to have such book beauty on my shelves. And to re-read the story, of course.


Many thanks to Subterranean Press and NetGalley for an e-reader ARC.

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Sleepless by Charlie Huston. Alas, no.

Read  December 2017, sort of
Recommended for sleepy people
★    ★   

This should have been right up my alley. I really enjoy Huston’s writing and story approach, and I have a fondness for end-of-the-world stories, but this was a resounding ‘meh.’

Usually, Huston is skilled at piquing my interest in characters lacking in likable traits or heroic qualities. I just could not develop any concern for the main character, Parker Hass (Parker. Totally generic name), who seems like a full-on Heroic-But-Loner-Boy-Scout, which you would think would be even more likable than a slacker (Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death) or a nihilistic vampire (the Joe Pitt series). But no. He was blander than white bread toast with margarine.

The narrative is three-fold, switching between the third-person view of our hero, the first-person view of our hero, and the view of a Antihero-Loner-Art-Appreciating-Assassin (a more common trope in movies). Somewhere in here, I might have cared, except I didn’t. I was mostly bored.

And the plague? Again, I love me a good disease, and real diseases are totally scary, so it should be easy to tap into an imaginary one, right? I mean, c’mon, zombie fan here. But the ‘disease’ of sleeplessness was just… sleep-inducing. Maybe Huston is such a great writer that the power of suggestion worked on me. Could be. I do know from my own episodes of sleep-deprivation or poor sleep-quality (man, do I ever dislike night shifts), that sleep-deprivation is an insidious and terrible thing. Except the horror of it rarely develops, really. It relies on Parker’s infant and his sleep-deprived wife to really get at the delusions. It should be worse, it really should; perhaps Parker is so guarded from his own emotions around it, his tightly contained fear, that it’s hard to believe he is scared.

I’m afraid I’m kind of soured on this book for a while, and will throw it into the pile to one day re-read. Meanwhile, it has me thinking about re-reading Huston’s other works to recapture that fond feeling.

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Quiet by Susan Cain

Read  November 2017
Recommended for people who know introverts
★    ★    1/2

Shhh–I’m taking some quiet time.

Kidding! I’ll be honest. I avoided this book the first time I noticed it, when the buzz had it popping up all over. But my introversion has been more than a bit disrespected lately and I was feeling a little need for some affirmation. Alas, I’m not sure I found much helpful here.

Part One is ‘The Extrovert Ideal,’ and looks at how the change from the 18th century ideal of personality to 20th century cult of personality emphasized extroversion as a valuable workplace trait. I liked the concept of the two, as the cultural evolution from one to the other makes a great deal of sense, but I’m not sure how accurate that may be. I feel like Americans–and perhaps everyone–has always been responsive to extroverted, charismatic people. Actually, that highlights an error in Cain’s thinking, that she frequently conflates traits. To give her credit, she admits from the beginning that there is no uniform definition of ‘introversion.’ At page 11, she finally defines her terms, but she unfortunately tends to define them in terms of examples:

“Still, today’s psychologist tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo…. Many psychologists would also agree that introverts and extroverts work differently. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking… Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.”

It’s some slippery stuff, because she ends up conflating a number of characteristics, and that’s where it can get really fuzzy. This lack of specificity also means relying on anecdotes of how introversion is a helpful trait. Later in the book, she does bring in studies about ‘reactivity,’ a genetic-based trait that she prefers to call, ‘sensitivity.’ I’ve seen the term before, in The Highly Sensitive Person, and a lot of it comes from research on reactiveness/responsiveness to stimulation and how that is then interpreted. To be sure, it’s interesting stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to all introverts, as she points out, “about 70% of sensitive people are [introverts]” (page 145). After backtracking to explain the evolutionary basis for selection of sensitivity, she then attempts to tie sensitivity and conscientiousness together. It’s a thin, tenuous line to get from introverted to evolutionary sensitivity to conscientiousness and then imply that that’s the kind of person you want in your company. As singular issues, each of these is well-presented. She usually cites one researcher and gives an example of a famous person who changed the world with this trait (Eleanor Roosevelt represented the introverted, sensitive and conscientious person). But it feels like both sloppy logic and false aggrandizement. As an introvert, I no more want to be ‘special’ for these qualities that presumably go with my genetic and personality tendencies than I want to be disrespected.

For no particularly good reason, except the fact that it described me better than I’ve ever been described before, I’m actually a fan of the Jungian-based personality assessment. I think I particularly responded to the Jungian analysis because rather than the two-axis basis, there’s other traits that also affect how we interact with the world. I actually think there’s quite a continuum between introversion and extroversion, and that these tendencies can be modified by learning, as Cain rightly points out in section two.

So, about Quiet. I don’t think it really added anything to my understanding on introversion and extroversion. In fact, I think it fell into a more extroverted (as she would say) analysis of having to prove the worth of the trait and using famous figures to support her examples only added to that perception.

Quiet didn’t give me the acknowledgement I was looking for, really, just a lot of cheerleading that I’m a good person for being an introvert. Hopefully, for those new to discovering their introversion, this might encourage them to both understand and respect their approach. Just don’t look for many tips.

For a more rigorous analysis, check out Kelly’s review:



Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged | 2 Comments

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Read February 2018
Recommended for fans of slow mysteries, great writing
★    ★   ★    ★  1/2


What is it about Brooklyn? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Joe Pitt in Half the Blood of Brooklyn. Last Exit to Brooklyn. Not to mention a hundred different movies. Something there must spark the imagination, get at the essence of life.

Motherless Brooklyn is one of the most solidly crafted books I’ve read this year. Since it’s the end of February that may not sound like much, so I’ll throw in December and November of 2017 as well. Really, it was just so pleasant to trust in Lethem, with page after page doing fascinating things. I was distrustful at first, I admit; the protagonist has a serious case of Tourette’s Syndrome whiched seemed like an Authorial Big Idea that could go awfully wrong. But it doesn’t. It’s handled with aplomb, with sensitivity, with humor; with an even hand that gives expression to the experience.

“My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone.”

But a man with Tourette’s is not really what this is about, not really. This is a homicide, a mystery which our protagonist, Lionel, feels compelled to solve. Since his teens, Lionel has worked as a small-time muscle for mentor and eventual friend Frank Minna. Lionel and Gerald are supposed to be back-up support for Frank at a meeting. Things go terribly wrong, and the relationships within Minna’s Men become fragile and uncertain.

“Together [the streets] made a crisscrossed game board of Frank Minna’s alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers—like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)—to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East Side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland—or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard.”

Lionel is a likable hero, Tourette’s and all, driven to explain and organize around him. He’s an observant and humorous narrator, and if he is occasionally led around by his id, he’s aware enough to understand it. Communication is, of course, a challenge for Lionel. I was afraid it would always be played for laughs, or worse yet, for pity, but Lethem has a nice balance between the internal thoughts and the external expression that allows for the occasional laughs with him instead of at him.

“My jaw worked, chewing the words back down, keeping silent. Gilbert’s hands gripped the wheel, mine drummed quietly in my lap, tiny hummingbird motions. This is what passed for cool around here.”

I went in expecting a mystery, and Lethem delivers, certainly. But wrapped up in the mystery is a solid, thoughtful portrayal of man who was given the closest thing to family and companionship he ever knew by a low-level mobster. The mobster, in turn, gets much of his own portrayal, at least from Lionel’s viewpoint. It ends up being a bit of a bromance, or a non-jerk example of the ‘dick-fic’ genre (see The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death). At one point, I realized with some surprised that I was reading a solid literary-fiction kind of book, with beautiful writing and human drama, wrapped up in a mystery.

“The ashtray on the counter was full of cigarette butts that had been in Minna’s fingers, the telephone log full of his handwriting from earlier in the day. The sandwich on top of the fridge wore his bite marks. We were all four of us an arrangement around a missing centerpiece, as incoherent as a verbless sentence.”

Unlike mystery-thrillers, it isn’t a particularly teeth-clenching, anxiety-producing kind of book (except, perhaps, on behalf of Lionel) that requires one to stay up late to read ‘one more page.’ Yet there’s something quite solid about it, curious, moving, wry and intriguing that let me immerse myself whenever I picked it up. I feel like there’s also solid re-read potential here. In fact, I think I will. Might even be worth adding to my own library. Reminds me of Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, and that’s high praise indeed. I’ll have to check out The Fortress of Solitude, also by Letham, when I can handle some straight-up lit-fic.

“Assertions are common to me, and they’re also common to detectives…. Ad in detective stories things are always always, the detective casting his exhausted, caustic gaze over the corrupted permanence of everything and thrilling you with his sweetly savage generalizations. This or that runs deep or true to form, is invariable, exemplary. Oh sure. Seen it before, will see it again. Trust me on this one.

Assertions and generalizations are, of course, a version of Tourette’s. A way of touching the world, handling it, covering it with confirming language.”

Four and a half–EatmeBailey–tics, rounding up.

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The Watchman by Robert Crais

Read February 2018
Recommended for fans of thrillers
★    ★    ★

The Watchman is the first book in the Elvis Cole series that switches focus to Elvis’ best friend and agency co-owner, Joe Pike. It’s a solid thriller, though for me, less impressive than other books in the series.

The plot of is classic bodyguard,

subtypes Reluctant-Body, Financial-Mismatch and Sexual-Tension. If you think you’ve seen this before, it’s because you probably have. It’s obvious from the first that there’s an insider leak jeopardizing the client, so Joe decides to play it solo. Except, of course, for a little help from his friends Elvis Cole and forensics analyst John Chen.

Though there are any number of reviews fangirling over Pike (male and female alike; using the word ‘fangirl’ in its non-literal sense), the Strong Silent Type to the exponential degree. I don’t necessarily mind this trope, but I feel Crais often overplays it. The biggest problem in this case is that Pike doesn’t do dialogue, which means the reader is often left with a) a lot of description, or b) witnessing ‘the girl’s’ fruitless attempts to engage him in dialogue. To compensate, Crais has to switch the narrative around, including John Chen, Elvis, and the client, a twenty-something year-old woman with the ridiculous name of Larkin Conner Barkley. Complicating this narrative are some time frame changes, in regards to the current protection gig as well as related to Joe’s past with LAPD.

Once you get past the first narrative hijinks and settle into the actual storyline, the plot grabs on and doesn’t let go. I’ll note that reading this kept me awake during my late afternoon sleepy-time, causing me to miss my old-person nap. I was wise enough to put it down last night after reading the first couple chapters, so I was ready for the thriller pacing today.

Although it was odd, I enjoyed seeing Elvis in the back-up role. Larkin proved to be a perfect foil for Elvis’ humor. It was also interesting seeing him actually detect, while Joe continued to do much of the muscle work.

Overall, an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. It was interesting to have the character focus change, the type of story change (even if it was rather a predictable one) and Crais is a solid writer. He has been one of the most reliable modern/long-series detective/thriller writers for me.

Oh, by the way, both Cole and Pike continuously refer to the person they are guarding as ‘the girl.’ I get that this is meant in an experienced-protective-old-man-way, and not a sexist-ancient-pig-kind-of-way, but it’s still annoying. Just how serious are those implications? Though she’s actively involved in the story, most reviews on GR don’t even mention her name. Half a star off for it.

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The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey

Read February 2018
Recommended for fans of The Girl With All the Gifts
★    ★   1/2

The Girl With All the Gifts  easily became one of my five-star reads of 2014, the year I read it. But I hesitated to pick up this chronological ‘prequel’ because I couldn’t see how Carey could recapture the fabulous combination of innocence, self-discovery, world-building, and disaster that characterized the first book. Sadly, he doesn’t.

In this book, a team of twelve is headed off in the Rosalind to retrieve samples from the Charles Darwin expedition, as well as conduct their own research, in the hopes of finding a cure for the fungus destroying humanity.

There’s a lot of parallels with the first book here: an isolated group of people, an ostracized/under-socialized pre-teen, an older female mentor, the threat of the ‘hungries’ and junkers, the spirit of scientific inquiry. But like one of those black-and-white optical illusion illustrations, it generally serves to highlight the ways in which it can’t compare.

“He actually prefers to see Greaves as a kind of black box–like the hungries. There may or may not be a person in there, but either way it’s not his problem. He only has to deal with the output.”

The writing is usually solid from a technical level. I didn’t outline quite as much as I did in ‘Girl,’ but I generally enjoyed the phrasing and imagery. The trouble is there is a lot of focus on the autistic genius youth, Stephen Greaves, and his preoccupation with the science and his belief in absolution through his contribution, coupled with physical descriptions of what the team is observing.

“He needs to do it because each day has a shape and the waking-up ritual is one of its load-bearing components.”

Though I feel like there wasn’t much action, truly it should have been enough to keep me engaged. But I really wasn’t. Perhaps part of it was because the mystery of both the hungries and the fungus is a forgone conclusion. But I think more likely is that the characters are predictable and rather shallowly constructed. There’s the joint leaders, Colonel Carlisle, the honorable soldier who lost his honor by following orders and won’t be caught doing it again and Dr. Fournier, the head scientist, incompetent and a toady, who displays little to no leadership. Dr. Samrina Khan is our primary female narrator and only emotional connection for Stephen. There’s John, a science dude who kind of thinks he might love Samrina; Penny, a science lady; and Akimwe, another science person. Private Sixsmith, who usually drives. Private Phillips, Private Foss and Lutes are virtually indistinguishable. McQueen is the only soldier who really stood out for me as he had a more complex role and internal life than any of the rest.

“It’s an unfortunate habit to find in a leader, but to be fair nobody thinks of him as one.”

Given those characters, the person(s) that are involved in a (mild) [ military conflict and sabotage-type behavior (hide spoiler)] are entirely unsurprising. The next best thing, then, is to hope for a level of character insight that brings internal or external tension to the story. And it doesn’t. I wasn’t horrified by any of the conflicts because it was pretty clear why/how the screw-ups were going to happen, not the least of which is our isolated and practical-challenged young hero. I was never emotionally invested enough to care when it did happen (see Jurassic Park).

I’m just realizing this, but I’ve read a number of stories lately with an isolated group of people in a supposedly tension-filled situation (thinking of Six Wakes. I don’t always identify with or admire the characters (see Starfish and Into the Drowning Deep), but somehow there’s enough tension to keep me engaged. I should have cared about who survives the mission of the Rosie, and I kind of did, at least enough to skim to the end.

Who should read this? People that really want to know more about the world of The Girl With All the Gifts, and who don’t necessarily need horror, zombie or suspense elements. Despite the bizarre nomination on Goodreads for ‘Best Horror,’ it really isn’t. There is a ‘Epilogue: Twenty Years Later’ that has a nice confluence of the two books, as well as a positive-vibe resolution.


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The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Read February 2018
Recommended for fans of biographies
★    ★   1/2


Recently, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death was been popping up in discussion, and I had been toying with a re-read until fortuitously offered the chance to read Trauma Cleaners. What perfect serendipity. Don’t you wonder, just a bit, about the secret lives of cleaners? Their tricks for getting out blood? The crazy things they encounter?  Sadly, though the blurb makes it sound as if such stories are the focus, the book centers on Sandra, the owner of a trauma cleaning business. As Sandra was born a man and eventually transitioned to a woman, this still had potential for fascinating insight into the process of change, going from dysfunction to disorder. While I think that might have been the theme the author was hoping for, there was too little reflection to make it work.

It begins with an introduction by the author, sharing some of the purpose and challenges in writing this book, but her deep affection for Sandra is clear. It’s followed by a ‘trauma cleaning’ of Kim’s home, an artist and tenant who has let trash, her pet rats and her art get out of control. The story soon transitions to Sandra’s history, beginning in 1950s-60s with Sandra’s parents. They adopted Sandra, born ‘Peter,’ when they were unable to have their own children, although speculation is that Peter may have been the product of an affair. When they had their own biological children, Peter found himself being pushed out the door–literally–to a back shed.

That bank and forth between time frames structures the entire book: a section on a place Sandra is cleaning and the current resident, followed by a chapter in Sandra’s life. The format for Sandra’s history is strictly chronological, beginning with childhood, though the current cleaning project timeline is unclear.

I’ve never been a fan of unreliable narrators, and Sandra is more unreliable than most. It isn’t a personal criticism–with a faulty memory, I’m unreliable in my own way with details–but a storytelling one: how can you tell the story of someone who admits, “Many of the facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced.” The solution, in my mind, would have been relentless fact-checking, research, and interviewing, but instead Krasnostein relies on a combination of often isolated incidents, a couple of interviews, and rather florid storytelling.

“Though the sex work she does and the drugs she takes and her overriding need for constant company frequently mean that she is not in control of herself or her environment, she is excellent at acting otherwise to conceal any vulnerability. So she does not cry in public and, while she might comment in the same tone as one comments on traffic that she is experiencing pain or discomfort, and through, of course, she feels pain deeply, she never actually shows it or make any practical adjustments to accommodate it.”

Krasnostein is prone to making such sweeping statements without any supporting detail or commentary from Sandra showing she believes this.

One of the troubles of this kind of storytelling–like any auto/biography, really–is that in distance, it sometimes becomes easy to judge people. That may be why I prefer autobiographies like An Unquiet Mind, because it is easier for the subject to share their thoughts and perceptions, and thus easier to understand without judgement.

In this case, the writer isn’t able to get very much into Sandra’s head, so much here that would be the meat of the story goes almost unaddressed. Sandra, for instance, fathered children. She currently has no contact with them, and we have very little insight why, although it is clear the writer also wonders. She’s also politically conservative, which seems surprising given her trans background, extensive drug use and history of supporting herself through sex work (all of which were illegal at the time). Again, not really explained. Nor is the simple fact of why she wears ‘pristine white shoes’ and refuses to wear gloves at her cleaning jobs. We’re left with the visual portrait of a presumably complex person: this is how she makes her money, this is how she dresses, these are the things she buys, these are the people she hangs around with. It lacks the larger social context of Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness (with the exception on a chapter that deals with rape), as well as her attention to detail on the transition. (As an aside, I found Sandra’s general dismissal and non-discussion of the process of transitioning to be fascinatingly oblique).

Ultimately, though I eagerly picked it up, it never really paid off for me. The lack of insight into either Sandra or the trauma cleaning case studies/process meant it was unsatisfying on either front. However, it was written engagingly enough that it wasn’t a waste of time or utterly frustrated, just too surface to really engage me emotionally or intellectually. Kind of like watching a segment of ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ or ‘Hoarders’ instead of a thoughtful, in-depth analysis one hopes for from a book.


Many thanks to Will at St. Martin’s Press for an ARC.

Posted in Autobiography, Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments