Earthrise By M.C.A. Hogarth

Earthrise by MCA Hogarth

Read March 2020
Recommended for fans of light sci-fi
 ★     ★    ★

Taken for what it is, Earthrise is perfectly enjoyable. The captain of a ragtag ship with a mysterious benefactor has a favor called in–a rescue of one of the mysterious Eldritch who is about to be sold off to slavers. Serious trouble ensues.

It’s a big universe, but most of the beings in it are human or human-adjacent, either purposefully or environmentally modified, and Hogarth has fun with it. The crew has a pair of cat-like beings, a centaur-like being, a taciturn bird-like Phoenix, and a creature that sounds suspiciously like a Tribble with empath skills. And is there ever diversity. Our captain is female. Our cat-like people are apparently half-siblings and mates, and will become part of a cat-like harem. No one knows much about the Phoenix.

It feels a bit like Firefly, Alien-Edition. Deadly serious adventure, interlude with personal experiences followed by another serious adventure. Intermixed are moments of real emotion, a few one-liners, new experiences for everyone, and unexpected discoveries about each other. Though there is supposed to be a romantic angle, this book is the first in a trilogy with the leads Reese and Hirianthial, and one could say that they do not make significant progress, at least according to romance conventions. 

I enjoyed it, although Reese was a problematic character for me. Despite having the loyalty of her crew, she was almost universally prickly, obstinate and contrarian. Decisions were often emotional ones, not ones made out of thoughtfulness or judgement. It’s not inconceivable that people like that exist, but it is less conceivable that they find others willing to be loyal to that kind of behavior, particularly for poor pay. It’s even less likely that I’m going to enjoy reading about such people. Nonetheless, once Hirianthial is rescued, narrative frequently switches to his viewpoint, which proves interesting.

Overall, fun, and above average in its ability to integrate serious issues into its story. I’m doubtful I’ll go on to the next, however, as it seems to be taking Reese and Hirianthial back to his homeworld, which implies more personal and romantic growth, and less Adventures in Space. Your mileage may vary.

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The Last Human by Zack Jordan

The Last Human by Zack Jordan

Read March 2020
Recommended for fans of mindbending sci-fi
 ★     ★    ★  

The Last Human is an intriguing sci-fi debut that has a serious case of over-reach. When I began it, I knew nothing except the blurb and that it knocked my friend Geoff’s mind sideways, and I looked forward to the experience. I would agree in that the first third was riveting, the second third interesting, although completely different, and the remaining section a bit too esoteric for my tastes.

One of the initial catchy concepts is the interplay of adopted culture between Shenya the Widow, “a void-cold killer,” and Sarya, the Daughter. The opening scene of Sarya essentially throwing a temper tantrum before a tour is perfection, conveying the species differences, introducing the reader to the pervasive Network, and anchoring it in very familiar emotion.

“Her daughter glares at the floor without answering. Shenya the Widow narrowly restrains a click of approval. On the one blade, this is a Widow rage–a towering and explosive wrath–and it is beautiful. One spends so much energy attempting to install traditional values in a young and coalescing mind, and it is always rewarding to see effort yield results. But on another blade, well… insolence is insolence, is it not?”

As the book progresses, Sarya becomes obsessed with finding the last members of Humanity, and takes a number of twists in that journey. I would say philosophically, it remains the journey of a young/new adult person; a quest that is understood only in terms that are limited by learning and experience.

The book is divided into five ‘tiers,’ each following a different development in her journey.  However, the idea of the tier designation paralleling her personal growth doesn’t fit well, and it feels contrived to forcing a philosophical plot. To elaborate without spoilers, tiers are supposed to be tied to intelligence, though there isn’t always great consensus on what ‘intelligence’ is. For the story purpose, “just remember that each tier multiplies the previous by twelve. For example, a two is approximately twelve times as intelligent as a one, a three is one hundred-forty-times as a one, and so on.” Tiers are divided into 1 to 6, tier one being baseline ‘pre-culture sentient beings’ that are above wildlife but not citizens, and sixth tier being a semi-theoretical possibility. So Sarya’s growth/challenges in each section sort of follow the tier rankings, but only awkwardly, and at the expense of coherence in plot.

The first three tiers were amazing: I was astounded at the world-building, at the dark culture clash between Human and Widow, and at the ragtag crew escaping the Watchtower station. However, as the story segued into Tier Four, it veered out of control and felt like a different story altogether, one I was much less interested in. Side characters were abandoned. Concrete plot became about metaphysical debates. I found Sarya’s entrance into the great debate of freedom somewhat simplistic, especially when she reached ‘Tier 5,’ and realized she may have been a pawn of the Network all along. </spoiler> I appreciate that Jordan was trying to raise meta issues on agency and cooperation, but it was all so <i>forced</i> and simplistic. Truly, at the level of a young person.

It’s an amazing debut, but might be too inconsistent a story to find a fan niche. On the other hand, the big sci-fi greats do it all the time, so why shouldn’t Jordan? It might very well appeal to fans of Stephenson and Reynolds. Five stars for the beginning, two for the last third; we’ll average it out to three stars.

 

My thanks to Netgalley and Random House-Ballantine for an advance reader copy.

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Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews

Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews

Read February 2020
Recommended for Andrews fans
 ★     ★   

Meh.

A lack-luster entry into the Kate Daniels universe. I essentially bought it because it was cheap, and because I needed an airplane read. Thanks to Covid, my trip was canceled, but I still needed a quick distraction. Did this work? Kind of.

Hugh, for those not in the know, is a Major Villain in the Kate Daniels series, and I was curious to see if he could gain a redemption angle. We have his brief history as a foundling child, then a depressed man trying to drink himself to death after Roland separates Hugh from him. Anything in-between was rare, either in flashbacks or in explanation to his new employer. Mostly, Hugh reflected on the enormous void in his life, frequently. Had it been me, I think I would have spent more time in his early years, building that dysfunctional relationship between Hugh and Roland so that the reader can appreciate how positive traits can be twisted, and explain how we were supposed to admire/like this person who kidnapped people and starved them to death. Routinely. As it is, the emotional plot is of a man bereft of his leader (in the many senses of the word) and who is only given meaning by his few remaining soldiers, the Iron Dogs. Since they find meaning through employment (not really a band of moral mercenaries here), it feels far less worthwhile than it could.

The job, of course, is guarding a town, which for some reason means an arranged marriage with Elara, the leader of the group. Set romance level to ‘adversarial,’ and cue the insults. “Harpy.” “Bastard” ad nauseum, resulting in a (view spoiler)

There’s a few moments of trademark Andrews world-building that seem potentially interesting, but most never are filled out. Hugh ends up with a horse that occasionally glows. Although Elara’s powers are hinted at, they aren’t well elaborated on.

The plot is a little scattershot: bring the Iron Dogs together. Find a job. Make the job work. There seems to be people missing from a nearby settlement and Elara is convinced her people will be blamed. Who/what are these strange soldiers in the woods? Are there gods involved again? Yet somehow, it lacked the interest of any of the Daniels’ wars and I’m a bit at a loss to say why. Perhaps because of low emotional investment in the characters.

Did I waste time reading this? Probably, but I would have just been wasting it somewhere. I wasn’t like I was going to do anything useful or educational. I just wish it could have been a more satisfying diversion.

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Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Read February 2020
Recommended for fans hope
 ★     ★   1/2

Surprisingly, for all my years in sci-fi, I’ve never read Nancy Kress. I think it has often been a subject/person (me) mismatch, so when Tachyon Publications had a review copy up of Sea Change, a novella that focused on current issues in the environment, I jumped at the chance to give her a try. Expecting sci-fi, this has a strong speculative fiction feel looking at genetically modified foods.

The blurb promises “a smart, mesmerizing bio-thriller, with a hard, nuanced look at the perils and promise of technology,” a advertisement it only partially delivers. Lengthy sections of text read like a piece for Sierra Club’s magazine, significantly derailing any tension that the spy pretension develops. I wouldn’t argue with the ‘nuanced,’ description, although I’d say it’s a pretty one-sided presentation of the advantages. If I remember correctly, the GMOs are in reference to plans, for instance, not animals that might escape enclosures and bread with wild populations (salmon are a hot point issue on this). Lacking such finesse, I’m not sure I would call it particularly ‘nuanced,’ as much as a ‘thought-experiment on what happens with a reactive public and equally reactive politicians.’

Regardless, what I hoped to read was a bio-thriller. Did it deliver? Sort of. The main character, Caroline Denton, is a middle-aged divorced woman who has become an operative in the Org. The Org is an underground group researching and applying genetic modifications and operates along the lines of splinter-cells. Caroline has been a life-long activist, but the Org has been her most serious work since a tragedy. The story moves back and forth between Caroline’s earlier life and her current work in the Org as her cell is under attack. I found ignoring most of her internal GMO diatribe kept up the ‘thriller’ pace. 

Prose was clean and focused, which I enjoyed. Caroline, also known in the Org as Renata, and her ex-husband definitely achieved the feeling of real, complicated people to me. In fact, at the end, I had to wonder if the true focus was the GMOs, or if it was more of a character study of Caroline. 

Oh, and by the way, the moving house makes for a fabulous beginning, but it’s a McGuffin. A taxi would have served just as well.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for an advance reader copy. All opinions are, as always, my own, inasmuch as the assorted collection of partially remembered data and experiences processed through organic matter can be.

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Semiosis by Sue Burke. Or, Don’t Believe the Hype

Read February 2020
Recommended for ?
 ★     ★    

I need a good solid hate read in my life, or at least I need to find a book that doesn’t leave me with this much ambivalence. A buddy read with Cillian, she found this one far more displeasing than I, (spoiler: though with reviewing, I edged further into the negative). I, in typical carol. endurance fashion, persevered, and found it to be a very uneven experience.

The premise is straightforward: a group of colonists has landed on Pax, fleeing Earth’s environmental catastrophes and endless wars. They are looking for peace, but to no reader’s surprise, end up on a planet that seemed hospitable. Only, in the tradition of first colonization stories everywhere, stuff happens. In the first few pages we learn three people have gone missing and are presumed dead. Of that of the fifty people who had left Earth “We had hoped to create a new society in full harmony with nature, but nineteen people had died of accidents and illnesses since we arrived.” (spoiler: without genetic engineering, our humans are going to face a serious bottleneck).

Narrative is broken into seven sections, narrated by seven different people. The first three sections occur almost thirty years apart, encompassing different generations of colony evolution. Unsurprisingly, they read like separate novellas. The first feels like a first landing story, about the hardships of colonization and the history of the group on Earth. The fourth has a strong mystery-thriller plot. The last four sections all take place within two years, beginning 106 years after the colonists landed, and generally are more congruous. The events of the fourth end up shifting the colony’s direction significantly.

The good news about this is that with a variety of human viewpoints, there are some who should be more successful with the reader. Personally, I disliked the happy-go-lucky mentality of Lucille, but it probably ended up being a fitting choice for the events in that section. Characterization was fine but something just feels somewhat uninspired. Perhaps because the characters themselves are ambivalent about what they are facing in their sections. They all have very mixed feelings about what they are facing; few are absolutely convinced their way is right, with the exception of Sylvia, in Section Two.

Burke did plant research, and some of the most awkward moments of the book come from when she’s determined to show it. Not like Peter Watts’ Blindsight, who’s nearly every moment is full of neuron-stretching moments, or Adrian Tchaikovsky’ Children of Time where insect biology and evolutionary theory is seamlessly inserted into Portia’s narrative. No, this is terrible:

“I have flowers near Violet’s house. The petals ordinarily produce geraniol, a fragrant alcohol; quickly I switch the output, remove a water molecule and rearrange the chemical bonds, and send out beta-pinene. The stamen usually produces nerol, a citrus scent, and the chemistry is a bit trickier, but I subtract three carbon atoms and four hydrogen atoms, in the process removing and replacing the oxygen atom and it is 2-heptanone. The chemicals are lightweight; even on a cool night like this one, they boil away as fast as I can make them.”

Oh dear. Germane? No. Congruent? No. Does Stevland talk like this, in chemicals, the rest of the story? No. (Although that would have been an interesting angle to take). It’s just so much text, a journalist’s showy, “look at my research, Teacher,” without thinking about the overall purpose, and the effect, which is to seriously break up the pace and tension of a fraught scene. It is dumb. I’ll note that the first section, with the advanced technology of future space-faring Earth feels the most science-light. I think she reserved the research for the plants.

I spent no little time thinking about this book and my reaction to it, wondering what exactly Burke was hoping to achieve. Personally, I was hoping for a story about sentient plants. But Burke glossed over that science and seemed happy making the plant just a sort-of-human (Stevland decides to grow a “humor root”? wth?).  I think the core of the books is supposed to be about civilization and what it means to create a society, but that falls short as well. Honestly, the whole Pax concept seems like junior-high level discussion of the founding principles of a society. 

I certainly wouldn’t warn anyone off this book, but I would enter into it with very low expectations for people who enjoy in-depth exploration with colonization, botany, or political philosophy. It’s an alright story that attempts to get a little deeper than your average book, but in an inexpert manner.  I did best reading one section at a time, treating each as a little novella unto itself. I wonder what would have happened had Burke given it Wells’ Murderbot treatment,  and released a series of tight little novellas. Although honestly, it wouldn’t have done as well without major reworking, because it lacks one identifiable character, besides Stevland.

 

Table of Contents
Octavo: Year 1–Generation 1
Sylvia: Year 34–Generation 2
Higgins and The Bamboo: Year 63–Generation 3
Tatiana: Year 106–Generation 4
Nye: Year 106–Generation 6
Lucille and Stevland: Year 107–Generation 7
Bartholomew: Year 107–Generation 5

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Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Read January 2020
Recommended for genre mash-up
 ★     ★     ★    1/2

A difficult book to rate.  A difficult book to rate.  Following a young person desperate to get off her residential planet, it has the distinctive voice of a new adult/young adult book, full of snark and fire. In the right mood, it’s amusing. In the wrong mood, it will likely become tiresome. Gideon the Ninth most reminds me of a high-stakes island mystery as written by Suzanne Collins, set in the world of Chronicles of Riddick.

“Gideon woke to an unfamiliar ceiling, a fuzzy taste on her tongue, and the exciting smell of mould. The light blazed in red slashes even through her eyelids, and it made her come to all at once. For long moments she just lay back in her nest of old bedding and looked around.”

There is seriously interesting stuff going on with the world-building. The star system is populated by a necromatic society, which each of the worlds specializes in a different type of necromancy. That’s about all we get for the depth, though. Apparently, the society been has been under the Undying King for ten thousand years. Gideon is part of the Ninth world, a foundling on an isolated rock of a planet, populated by a rigid sect of necromancers whose specialty seems to be control over bones. After eighty-seven attempts at escaping the Ninth, she’s forced to become the right-hand swordsman cavalier to the necromancer Reverend Daughter Harrowhawk, her arch-enemy since childhood. The Undying King is seeking eight people to ascend to his court and become Lyctors, and Harrowhawk fully intends to be one of them.

The problems is that despite interesting ideas about what different necromancer cultures might look like, some aspects aren’t integrated at all. Dialogue frequently includes phrases like ‘Oh whoops, my bad,’ said Gideon. ‘For a moment I thought you weren’t a huge bitch.” 

or like this:

“‘Slow down, numbnuts,’ she hissed, when she thought they were out of earshot of anyone. ‘Where’s the fire?’
‘Nowhere–yet.’ Harrow sounded breathless.
‘I’ve eaten my own body weight. Don’t make me hurl.’
‘As mentioned before, you’re a hog. Hurry up. We don’t have much time.’

Parse that out a minute, why don’t you? Really, stop and think. You could have overheard that in the back seat of your car, if you’re a mom of pre-teens, or in my swim lane if I’m being particularly rude to one of my guy friends (yes, I don’t talk like that to the female ones). There’s many little anachronisms like that that perhaps would be explained by being the remnants of another culture (there are intriguing hints of such), but I don’t buy it in lexicon. This is Hollywood version, so if you are the sort of fantasy or sci-fi reader that prefers a less contemporary feel to your culture, proceed thoughtfully. 

I love the idea of specializing in different aspects of death and soul, and there’s a lot to be explored here. I’m not sure that the death culture we saw gelled well with the idea of the Undying King living ten thousand years, however. I have questions.  

The story is divided in to five acts. The first act is on the Ninth, the remainder on the First World. The pacing was curious. I thought from the first act that it was a new adult style story about Gideon finding her independence/destiny, but when we reach the second act, the feel of the story changes significantly, and it is more of a ‘look how fun this is’ exercising in setting and character. Third Act raises the stakes, and the Fifth Act is bonkers. So while I’d agree with other reviewers who found the final part of the story inconsistent or off with pacing, I’d have to say the book as a whole has some challenges along those lines. It almost seems like it’s because Muir can’t quite handle all the stories she wants to tell. 

There is a fair amount of humor, some situational, some descriptive, and some from the snark. There’s a couple of shy younger people that talk in lowercase voices, and who are generally mortified whenever the adult they are with approaches Gideon.

Characterization is decent, especially considering that there are at least two representatives from each of the worlds. Muir does help the reader along with code words like “oh, the Fourth and their ghosts…” or some such, but again, it’s a large cast.

Oh, and about the lesbian relationship? Uh, very complicated, and very young adult. I’m not sure what other readers were reading, but I’d never call this a ‘romance,’ as much as a complicated, fucked-up relationship with an unsatisfying conclusion. And perhaps un-pc one.

It mostly worked for me, but I timed myself so that I was open to sarcasm and snark, and tried to let go of any expectations of storytelling. Eventually, however, it felt a little long. There is some emotional growth at the end, although while it felt somewhat rewarding, it also felt a bit of a cheat, because I’m not sure I believed it, mostly because the more Muir through out in world-building, the less I felt the underpinnings of the story held together. Still, interesting, which is somewhat hard to find; good, if young, characters. Recommended with all the above warnings. Taking my own advice, I’m not entirely sure I’ll go on to the next. 

 

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Satan’s Gate by Walt Browning

Read January 2020
Recommended for military dudes
 ★     1/2

Well, I was greedy and I have only myself to blame. The first book, Lost Valley, was a rather solid entry in the zombie survival genre, so I immediately went on to the next book. This, this was something else, something troubled by uneven structuring, outright bizarre characterization, and even more bizarre developments in zombie capabilities.

Oh, I hear you; ‘it’s a zombie book–what did you expect?’ Honestly, the same thing that I expect from books with A.I.s, aliens, sentient bugs, and vampires. Internally consistent worlds, decent and ideally interesting characterization, and a whole lot of ideas on what survival might look like without our normal forces of Law & Order. In the course of, I don’t know, a month, these zombies turn into… idk, smart, hungry ants? Hunting, food caching and apparently having sex? Just… no (and try and scrub that one out of your visual cortex). It annoyed me even more to read the description about the ‘real’ science. I guess, if you mean ‘science’ as conceived by Republican lawmakers from Oklahoma.

The first 30%, interestingly, is a detailed military mission of a small group entering a zombie-infested area and then attempting extraction. It’s well written and conceived. Cuts to Lost Valley find that things are progressing there. Specifically, John Eric Carver has fallen in LUV with–bear with me now–Hope. Yes. Hope. So now when we check in with his narrative, we have to hear about how ‘real’ this is, and how totally not a symptom of the duress this experience is. Hope is a Mother. And a dope who insists they try and rescue someone in a zombie infested area, so they do.

Meanwhile, the Mean Coyote that John Eric Carver and his dog Shrek unsuccessfully hunted in Lost Valley has it in for Shrek. Oh yes. If you are going to have a dog narrator, you must have a dog antagonist, apparently, but it’s not going to be heartworms. In even more insane developments, a zombie has become BFFs with the Mean Zombie Coyote and they’ve paired up to hunt the Meat. It’s super-dumb, and not even fun at this point.

Back at the last hopes of humanity, Jen, the camp leader, is hanging out in the camps protected by the military. When it becomes clear that the camps are in danger, Jen starts obsessing on how to find the right size tampons. Because that’s always the biggest worry in a zombie apocalypse.I know you think I’m exaggerating, and I admit, there are times when I do. But for real.

People, I can’t even tell you how many more kinds of awful this is. There’s a soldier who has a leg wound from the extraction and gets taken to a destroyer to be treated. There’s a couple of scenes involving helicopters. There’s a completely-out-of-character scene with Jen, who has her own opinion for about two minutes, which makes virtually no sense. I think the author included it to show that women are ‘strong’ when they put a knife to someone’s throat. I have another suggestion for that knife.

Nothing about this story makes sense. The first 1/3 military mission is the only reason it’s not a zero stars, and my own book OCD is the only reason it isn’t a dnf. Read the first book if you like survivalist stories, and consider it a stand-alone.

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Lost Valley by Walt Browning

Read January 2020
Recommended for zombie fans
 ★     ★    ★  

Every so often–say, after I’ve read about the latest Climate Summit–I get an urge to read about the end of the world. Zombies are a particularly solid way to end it, something like a visual disease state and an antagonistic threat all rolled up into one happy disaster. Lost Valley is apparently based on a ‘shared world,’ and the hook, at least according to Browning, is that the zombies are ‘science-based.’  Well, no, unless you also consider claims of crystals preventing influenza to be science-based. But I’m not really expecting that in a zombie book. Just don’t claim it, okay? 

The set-up is a retired SEAL and his war-dog, Shrek,  and one of the things that truly does set this book apart is the occasional chapter from his dog. Much like the cougar in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series, the dog perspective is fairly limited, and tries to stick fairly close to what an animal range of perception and thought might be. Perhaps. 

Anyway, John Carver and his dog Shrek have a remote ranch in California. They occasionally visit the nearby Boy Scout camp, helping out the retired Marine who works there. Browning does a nice job of building a sense of normalcy, of giving the reader the feel of the remote California environment, the kind of life John and his dog are living, and the easy camaraderie with the camp staff. A (cute) single mom and her teenage son live nearby, and the son’s been helping John on his ranch. The director of the camp is a woman, Jen, and is off for the weekend visiting her long-time and serious boyfriend, on shore leave from the Navy.

Perspective is mostly from John’s viewpoint, although it does hop around a bit so that the reader can get the feel of looming disaster. As the story advances, it jumps to a pilot on a runway in Chicago, a father who is stranded at a Chicago baseball game, and a man doing a delivery run to a country club. As the epidemic spreads, we witness various characters become victims in the plague.

The virus spreads shockingly fast and within a week or two of discovery, it’s sweeping the nation. Those bitten or killed (when not eaten, I suppose) transform into equally hungry mindless beings, so it’s an exponential growth pattern. All is standard horror fare, until the dead start becoming a bit extra-special, including being able to crawl along ceiling and being capable of actively hunting their prey.

If one can ignore this extra-ordinary zombie-on-steroids aspect, I’d say it’s a solidly written book. The military detail feels real; clearly the author either knows or interviewed a variety of military personnel to get the diverse cross-section of armed forces personnel we meet in the course of the story. The California scrub-mountain foothills also feels quite real. There’s a few details that seems a bit unbelievable for the set-up–besides zombies, duh–(when it becomes obvious that the zombies can use brute force at the country club to break through doors and into cars, why is John allowing people to stay in tents? and why are they letting the twins stay together even after one is bit?) 

Action is fast-paced and there’s a nice variety. The actual word choice and story-telling is decent. I’d say it was surprisingly well done for the genre. I was initially lured by the ‘sciencey’ angle, but that’s a total bust. There’s nothing ‘science’ about this set-up, and in this scenario, I fail to even understand how it could be science-based. Browning is telling a survival story, with military overtones in the type of people and their approach to problem-solving. That said, it’s well done and more appealing than I would have expected. Three female characters come to mind, but one is largely girl-friend role, one mother role, and one a young, sassy woman who takes a fair amount of initiative. A friend and co-worker of the mother seems to be acting with stereotypical gay behaviors. I could be wrong. I’m not even sure why it mattered. Ah, diversity. To be inclusive, or not, amIright? Especially when almost all the characters are stereotypes, except John. 

So would I buy? I probably would have, if I hadn’t gotten this during my Kindle Unlimited membership, and I wouldn’t have regretted it. Just go in with normal genre expectations, and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. Just, for heaven’s sake, do NOT go on to the next book. Leave it alone. 

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Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

Read January 2020
Recommended for Christie fans
 ★     ★    1/2

A collection that shows its age, culturally speaking.

Dead Man’s Mirror
3 stars
“The flat was a modern one. The furnishings of the room were modern, too. The armchairs were squarely built, the upright chairs were angular. A modern writing-table was set squarely in front of the window and at it sat a small, elderly man. His head was practically the only thing in the room that was not square. It was egg-shaped.”

Clearly written in the days when entrance and exit wounds were not a known Thing by all readers/viewers. Nonetheless, I liked the characterizations. The classic locked-room mystery that seems to be a suicide.

***********************************

The Incredible Theft
2.5 stars
“As the butler handed round the souffle Lord Mayfield leaned confidentially towards his neighbor on the right, Lady Julia Carrington. Known as a perfect host, Lord Mayfield took trouble to live up to his reputation. Although unmarried, he was always charming to women.”

I never really grooved much on Christie’s attempts at spy stories. It’s a strange bygone age, where people apparently take home Top Secret Plans and have Top Secret Meetings at their country estates. Still, Poirot, and it is intriguing as a period piece.

*****************************
Murder in the Mews
2.5 stars
“‘Penny for the guy, sir?’ A small boy with a grimy face grinned ingratiatingly. ‘Certainly not!’ said Chief Inspector Japp. ‘And, look here, my lad–‘ A short homily followed. The dismayed urchin beat a precipitate retreat, remarking briefly and succinctly to his youthful friends: ‘Blimy if it ain’t a cop all togged up!'”
Christie does a nice twist. Inspector Japp and Poirot investigate an apparent suicide, discovered by the woman’s roommate. More dialogue, with more feel of polish.

*****************
Triangle at Rhodes
2 stars
Don’t read this if you are going to read Evil Under the Sun.

Hercule Poirot sat on the white sand and looked out across the sparkling blue water. He was carefully dressed in a dandified fashion in white flannels and a large panama hat protected his head. He belonged to the old-fashioned generation which believed in covering itself carefully from the sun. Miss Pamela Lyall, who sat beside him and talked ceaselessly, represented the modern school of thought in that she was wearing the barest minimum of clothing on her sun-browned person.”

Christie must have been working out her plot for one of her better known, full-length mysteries. This is quite truncated at a mere 25 pages and loses much of the atmosphere that makes the book so powerful.

Two-and-a-half stars, rounding up, because, Christie. If I rate them lower, it’s probably because I’m comparing them to my memories of her at her best.

Edition note: this is the right ISBN number, wrong cover. It’s a 1984 reprint by Berkeley Books and features a sihlouette of Poirot on the front.

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Ocean Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the World Under the Sea by Julia Rothman

Read January 2020
Recommended for people who like oceans
 ★     ★     ★    ★    ★   

Almost perfect*

This is a solid overview of the ocean environment that should appeal to both visual and book learners. Done in a very friendly format mix of text and colorful doodlesque-pictures, one could read a little or a lot at a time. It’s also a book that does a nice job of transcending an age target. I’d comfortably give this to a nine-year-old who was interested in the ocean, but equally, I plan to buy and re-read it myself as an ocean primer. As a swimmer and a snorkeler, much of my information on the ocean has been picked up in a hodge-podge of areas, so I think a solid overview is worth the investment.

The sections include:
1. The ocean: why is it salty, the speed of sound, trade winds, the ocean floor, tides, currents, waves
2. Fish: food chain, bioluminescence, fish anatomy, schools, shark anatomy, jellyfish anatomy, deep sea creatures
3. Whales: anatomy, size comparison, bubble-net feeding, dolphins, echolocation, species, manatees
4. Beaches: sand, tide pools ecosystem, shell anatomy, seaweed, shore birds, ocean birds, crab anatomy, snails and scallops
5. The depths: ocean floor, sea cucumbers, fishes, hunting, octopus, squids, lobster, starfish, anemones, turtles, migrations
6. Reefs: zones, polyps, coral, fish support, the Great Barrier Reef, sea horses, sponges, grasses, nudibranches
7. The arctic: ice, glaciers, icebergs, sea lions and seals, narwhals, penguins, polar bears)
8. Humans and the sea: low and high impact fishing, lighthouses, studying the ocean, studying the sea, sea commerce, climate change, good news.
It also includes a bibliography and recommended reading.

Some of the material is strictly fact presentation (with pictures) that might appeal to readers who like numbers, or who do not already have an appreciation of scale. For instance, the two pages on ‘Oceans’ describe the maximum depth of each ocean and a fun fact or two.
“Atlantic Ocean: covers 20 percent of the Earth’s surface
*slowly growing outward…
*average depth 11,000 feet.”

However, it isn’t just a litany of numbers. There’s description as well, such as how sand can be made of coral, volcanic rock, quartz or seashells, with drawings that illustrate how the textures and sizes differ. Charts are interesting, such as the one that compares types of seashells, or types/sizes of whales and types of dolphins.

Rothman clearly understands that part of the draw of the ocean is its animals, and significant space is devoted to the classic favorites (whales, dolphins, penguins, sea horses) as well as some more unusual and fun creatures (sea cucumbers, nudibranches).

The pictures enable potential intimidating sciencey-stuff (tides, world current flow) seem accessible. The text and mix of information types makes the pictures, and what could be just an encyclopedia of creatures, be more contextual and less overwhelming. Overall, an extremely well done book that I’ll look forward to seeing in print.

*my one caveat is that the text–probably in an effort to be fun and add variety–is occasionally in cursive. it’s the least readable of the variety of the fonts in this book, not only because it’s cursive, but it’s a couple grades above physician-level-cursive. I also had to laugh when I saw it, because the State of WI government just had a dust-up over whether or not to mandate schools include cursive writing in their curriculum.

**I’ll come back and add pictures after I buy and after publication date

My thanks to NetGalley for the ARC, and to Fran for reviewing and bringing it to my attention.

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