Newcomer by Keigo Higashino

Read July 2019
Recommended for fans of Miss Marple
★   ★   ★   1/2

In each Higashino Sgt. Kaga mystery I’ve read, he’s done something quite unique, and in Newcomer, he surprised me again with his unusual approach to the mystery of a strangled woman.  One of the conceits of the story is that Sgt. Kaga is new to the Nihonbashi district, which apparently resembles “old” Tokyo; as he goes into different shops and houses, the reader gets the feel for a distinct place and time. Much like Miss Marple going to visit Dottie Bantry for tea and stopping to talk with Bert the gardener on the way, this is as much a slice-of-life as it is mystery.

The book is broken up into a series of nine chapters, eight of them focused on a cluster of interviewees related by household or shop, such as ‘The Girl at the Rice Cracker Shop,’ ‘The Apprentice at the Japanese Restaurant,’ and ‘The Daughter-in-Law of the China Shop.” The stores are quiet businesses, family-run, often with the family living in back or upstairs of the shops.

There’s a cast of dramatic personae at the beginning, which was much appreciated by the end. There’s a wide group of people involved, and it is interesting to see their reactions to the police investigation, wondering what is going on, and how their information will be used. It’s also interesting as a reader to be playing detective and wondering where people are being inaccurate or fudging the truth. However, after the third chapter or so, it’s clear that the author has something other than just slight-of-hand in mind. I won’t spoil the approach he took, except to say that I especially appreciated it in context of a particularly brutal and anti-heroic time in literature.

If you are looking for something outside the normal noir or humorous mystery, perhaps something along the lines of a Japanese Miss Marple in modern-retro Japan, Lt. Kaga is the way to go.

 

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Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

Read July 2019
Recommended for those who want hope at the end of the world
★   ★   ★   1/2

Vaughn has a easy-to-read style, and it didn’t take me long to finish Bannerless, despite persistent déjà vu.  I read the second book in ‘The Bannerless Saga,’ The Wild Ones, last year, and a short story set earlier in this world, but I at times I was so disconcerted that I ended up checking Goodreads to see if I had read this book before.

As in The Wild Ones, Bannerless involves Investigators called to a seemingly idyllic small town to investigate a dead body. In both cases, the circumstances are vague enough that it could potentially be ruled an accidental death, but is just suspicious enough to deserve investigation. In Bannerless, Enid is with her professional mentor, Thomas, and in the second book, she leads her own mentee. Narrative in both is interspersed with Enid’s own memories.

The world-building is very intriguing. With a combination of decimation of population and a return to agricultural-based, mostly-subsistence lifestyle, at times the story is literally pastoral. Bannerless sets it up almost believably, with the explanation that the world slid into chaos gradually, with one disaster after another, until rebuilding became financially impossible.

The mood is thoughtful, and introspective. Because the narrative flips back and forth between Enid’s adolescence and the investigation, it feels as if the stories progress well, even as there is rather incremental and non-dramatic action. The earlier narrative is a coming-of-age story that gives an intriguing opportunity to explore the world. The set-up of the investigation is interesting, because Investigators are not precisely police and have to also rely on political presence over force. I wouldn’t go into it looking for an edgy or fast-paced crime; more a slice-of-life challenge.

But the rest of it feels similar.Part of the first chapter was included in an apocalypse anthology some time ago, edited by John Joseph Adams. There was also a short story prequel to this world as well, so part of the sense of familiarity was justified. At any rate, ‘familiar’ in this case did not mean ‘bad.’ Overall, I recommend it, particularly if you enjoyed Station Eleven, or want to take a look at post-fall in a more hopeful, potentially real fashion (no zombies, asteroids or supernatural events).

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Coyote Wind: A Gabriel Du Pre Mystery by Peter Bowen

Read July 2019
Recommended for fans of 
★   ★   ★   

An interesting, slice-of-Montana-life story that was mildly marred by the last three pages.

The story is ostensibly a mystery, but the hero is a cattle-inspector, and only part-time deputy, and is the sort of half-hearted deputy that thinks most things will solve themselves without an official hand. It doesn’t help that the Sheriff is a committed drunk (as in wholly committed to being drunk).

“How come you didn’t put this in an evidence bag?’
‘Didn’t have any,’ said Du Pré. ‘Remember, I inspect brands. They don’t make evidence bags big enough put a cow in.’
The Sheriff looked at him hard, fuzzed up, trying to come back but too much Canadian hooch on his tongue, just sitting there.
‘What about that cowboy found this?’
‘Oh, no,’ said Du Pré. ‘That dummy, he wasn’t even born this happened. No.'”

The narrative is told in a fragmented, almost poetic style, with a sort of refrain coming up again and again. It adds to the mood, but does not add to the sense of resolution or to the story for those who like a more clear-cut narrative (as the mom-reader said, “this is weird.”)

‘Their work made the FAA inspectors direct.
‘You Indian?’ one said. Not ‘Native American.’
‘Some,’ said Du Pre. ‘A lot, really. But Frenchy enough so the anthropologists don’t bother us.’
‘A blessing,’ said the FAA man. ‘My sister was married to an anthropologist for a while.’
The FAA men had come in by plane and a helicopter had been chartered from a local cropduster. Du Pre hated helicopters. The fucking things could not possibly fly, or anyway not long enough. Whack whack whack. I ask you.
Du Pre sat by the pilot to point out the way.”

There’s solid themes here–that I feel might have been ruined by the ending–and an interesting intersection of Native-rancher-rural life. When it interacts with big-city, big-money, it becomes a bit predictable, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World

Read June 2019
Recommended for everyone, particularly young people, Floridians, coasties and Trumpsters
★   ★   ★   ★   

For too long the national climate debate has centered on “is it real?” and “is it man-made?” How this occurred is likely the subject of another book, but what Goodell has done here is expose how thousands of powerful people are currently working to mitigate the effects of climate change while simultaneously reassuring the public there is absolutely no need to panic or change.

The book is a curious blend of science and politics, and seeing where they may or may not inform each other. Chapters include:
‘The Oldest Story Ever Told’–archaeological-era flooding and how primitive societies coped
‘Living with Noah’–early Miami-Dade Florida developers literally selling swampland
‘New Climate Land’–changes in the ice sheets and problems with various models
‘Air Force One’–meeting with President Obama in Alaska; consensus politics
‘Real Estate Roulette’–the economy of Miami is real estate.  How it’s reacting.
‘The Ferrari on the Seafloor’–Venice’s challenge, the MOSE barrier
‘Walled Cities’–NYC Mayor de Blasio and the ‘Big U,’ the billion-dollar wall around lower Manhattan
‘Island States’–the Paris climate accords, the Marshall Islands
‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’–Norfolk, VA, the largest naval base in the U.S. is especially vulnerable, and the larges air force base in the Florida panhandle
‘Climate Apartheid’–Lagos, Nigeria and a new island city, Eko Atlantic, a gated community
‘Miami is Drowning’–Miami’s current interventions to manage sea water rise
‘The Long Goodbye’–financial challenges, climate refuges, legal challenges to the government refusal to maintain unsafe properties and roads.

The book is full of examples in double-think, with regional variations. There’s the Prepare-and-Acknowledge-But-Keep-the-Party-Going approach used in Miami; We’re-Building-A-Wall-and-Everything’s-Fine approach used in Venice and various seaports; Prepare-But-Publicly-Deny-Climate-Change strategy currently used by the largest U.S. military installation in Norfolk, VA, as well as small-town mayors along the mid-Atlantic Coast; the Prepare-and-We-Will-Thrive-Because-We’re-NYC variation; the We-Are-Probably-Screwed approach of the Marshall Islanders (sadly, the most realistic of the bunch) contrasted with the We-Will-Throw-A-Shit-Ton-of-Money-At-It approach of a nearby island U.S. Naval installation.

In my ignorance, I had equated the concept of rising seas with the popular but incorrect ‘bathtub’ model: you add water and it rises all around the edges. But due to all sorts of fun things (mostly geophysics, I gather, including land composition, topography, and the Great currents), all locations will not see equal water rise. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, honestly, but it does mean that places will be unequally affected, which is always a problem. Goodell concentrates on the U.S., and for a couple of reasons, Miami and New York City are going to be particularly affected by sea rise.

I had also thought climate change would be relatively straightforward inasmuch as rising seas, increasing temperatures, and increasing ferocity of ‘weather events,’ can be, but it turns out, there’s a lot of sub-problems there. I’m an inlander, so I never knew about all the variations in tides with years/moons/weather patterns, but it does mean that those things will become more intrusive on a monthly or yearly cycle (much like an ‘el Nino’ winter weather pattern) for low-lying areas. 

Then there’s the fresh-water issue. Oceans are, obviously, saline. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of food grown along deltas where freshwater eventually runs into the ocean (the Nile Delta, deltas in Vietnam, and Bangladesh). These food sources might easily be lost, resulting in large populations of hungry people. The microcosm of the Marshall Islands already shows how rising water infiltrates the water table beneath the island, turning previously freshwater sources more brackish, and leading breadfruit trees to die of salt poisoning.

Flooding also brings a host of bacteria problems: most sewer systems end up over-burdened, as they were never meant to cope with that much water. Even ones that were may fail as the water table rises. Then there is the non-sewer system waste systems–many, many parts of America (and 30% of Miami-Dade County) rely on septic systems, which aren’t flood proof. So a flood releases bacteria into the environment. Sampling of the water during a recent Miami-area flood showed E.coli bacteria at 300 times recommended ‘safe’ levels (p.247). And that shit–literally–don’t disappear with the water, my friends.

In the chapter on Norfolk, VA, and the U.N. Climate Agreement, Goodell makes a decent case for how this is potentially a national security issue, because these world-wide changes will undoubtedly result in more refugees.

It wasn’t as depressing as I thought, mainly because I did learn a lot, and there are people that are attempting to mitigate change.  I gave it four stars because at times it felt like a collection of magazine articles (which is how Goodell started) and a little less cohesive than I would like. I also felt, for what was essentially a reporter piece, that he interjected his opinion more than he should. I appreciated his honesty, particularly when he was interviewing influencers such as President Obama, but I think his questions veered into being more about his own ego and getting a ‘gotcha’ moment. For the most part, though, I thought he was sensitive to the challenges his interviewees faced. 

I do recommend it, for no other reason than to cut through the hype and to understand the grand scale of both the problems we are all facing and the solutions they will require.

 

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A Song of Shadows by John Connolly

Read June 2019
Recommended for fans of the series
★   ★   ★   ★   ★ 

Easily the best Charlie Parker book since The Lovers (#8). It was, for me, a perfectly balanced Parker book: mystery, the supernatural, vengeance, visceral horror, intellectual horror, and, surprisingly, a nice amount of dry humor. There’s a bit where the Falci Brothers pick Parker up that had me giggling. But most of it was witty asides (seriously; who makes jokes about the Reformation?):

“Pastor’s here,” she said. “And Father Knowles.” Bloom turned to see the two men waiting at a polite distance. She could see only one car, though. They must have decided to travel together. Martin Luther would have had an embolism.”

I can’t honestly say Connolly’s writing surpasses expectations, because by now, my expectations for what he is able to do are quite high. In this book, Parker is recooperating in a house by the seashore, and we get to experience the salty air and cold sand of a late spring beach. It’s a small town–not a village, mind you–so we experience the bookstore, the cafe, the police station (naturally), pieces of the public life.

The plot is one that could have been loaded with triggers, but is handled, in my estimation, with sophistication and nuance. The levitity I mentioned is needed, because the plot ends up involving issues surrounding Nazis. I was–appropriately–exposed to just some of the horrors of Nazism in school, and I find the way that it has been used as a construct of evil to be offensive in it’s simplification and omnipresence. Part of the discussion is the value of prosecuting war crimes, as well sharing one of the lesser-known war-time Nazi crimes.

“Baulman took an instant dislike to Ross. He had the eyes of one who was never disappointed because his expectations of humanity were too low to allow for it.”

Interestingly, narrative is rarely from Parker’s point of view, but that works out just fine. Walsh makes an appearance for a bit; as does Sam, Parker’s daughter; a neighbor girl, Amanda; the local Realtor; a couple of people whom we know from the start are villains; the local police chief; and so on. Somehow, though this technique usually drives me to distraction, the story managed to retain front and center.

Just an excellent installment in the series, but as always I’d say this is not the place to begin (you could start at The Lovers, which does have Parker’s parents’ backstory). This series is really built on Parker’s development and to pick it up at a random point misses a lot of the nuance that makes it so meaningful. 

“Rachael kissed him on the cheek, and the affection of the gesture filled him with a tender sadness. The night before was lost to them now: It had been a small consecration, a minor epiphany, and no more than that, but sometimes such moments are all that we are given, and they are enough to fuel us, and give us hope that, somewhere down the line, another might be gifted.”

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The Size of the Truth by Andrew Smith

Read June 2019
Recommended for fans of quirky kids
★   ★  ★   ★   1/2

I (excuse me) hated sixth grade. So I was hesitant to read a book about Sam, who, “during the first week of sixth grade at Dick Dowling Middle School, they brought me in for tests, and then they brought me in for tests again, and again after that, until I found myself in eighth grade, surrounded by giants and talking monsters with acne.

I (excuse me) can’t think of anything worse, unless it’s One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes.

But my friend Emily wrote an irresistible little review (here), so I just had to give it a try. And that cover! You stand a good chance of being able to judge YA books by their cover.

Sam is definitely one quirky kid, but I was rooting for him all the way. Plus, I completely understood his journey to create a perfect mac-n-cheese (orecchiete with Gorgonzola, pears, and prosciutto). I couldn’t help wish he’d stand up for himself once in awhile–my own terminal case of sass was well-developed by middle-school–but it made his approach all the more curious. Hoo-boy, was his approach interesting. What a goofball.

The main peripheral characters were his dad–and it quickly becomes apparent that Quirky is genetically linked–an armadillo that may or may not be imaginary; and the indirect cause of his fall in the well, James Jenkins. I laughed out loud when he described the would-be murderer:

“It starts when you’re afraid of things but can’t really explain why.

James Jenkins walks like a murderer. He combs his hair like a murderer. James Jenkins chews Goldfish crackers for a really long time, which is something only a murderer would do.”

Emily was right; it’s a sweet, bizarre little book, and I think I’d easily gift it to the right kid. It had me checking out Andrew Smith’s other works, but it sounds like this one may be the exception in balance. A delightful read that was a pleasant intermission from darker books.

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Magistrates of Hell by Barbara Hambly

Read June 2019
Recommended for fans of historical vampires
★   ★   1/2

I have a complicated relationship with Hambly’s writing: I find that I enjoy her structure and style a great deal, but am often ambivalent about plot and narrative choices. Though I  really enjoyed Those Who Hunt the Night, the first in the James Asher series about a British spy and his uneasy alliance with a centuries-old Spanish vampire, mixed reviews for subsequent books, and limited interest in time-period fiction, meant I moved on until the latest book in the series crossed my feed. Unfortunately, this one was a miss.

The plot begins at an engagement party. Asher is in Peking with his mentor, Karlebach, to discover more about the mindless Others, a type of creature even vampires fear. Asher is talking to the vampire Ysidro at the party when the betrothed young woman is found dead outside, her drunken suitor passed out next to her. The father of the fiance, a British diplomat, recognizes Asher from his previous service and threatens to blow his cover unless Asher clears his son’s name.

It seems straight-forward, but Asher and Hambly have trouble tying the plots together, so the stories progress in spurts. A short investigation into the death (viewing the body, talking to his friends) leads to local politics. Before long, Asher is back to seeking the Others. These portions are inevitably accompanied by Karlebach haranguing Asher for trusting a vampire and Asher musing on how Ysidro is fundamentally an evil creature because he must kill others to stay alive (though Asher admits to himself he’s done the same thing as a spy).  Asher’s lack of ethical conviction in the face of Ysidro’s consistent friendship is dismaying. For those looking for the supernatural angle, it doesn’t feel like it is integrated until very late in the story; if one is looking for a ‘vampire’ book, it might prove unsatisfying.

Viewpoint is primarily that of Asher, although it does tap into his wife, Julia’s perspective a few times. She’s our nominally plucky heroine, although somewhat hampered by a vanity that insists she remove her spectacles every time someone might see her wearing them. This is a major characteristic that is noted many times by both Julia and Asher, that became quite tiresome in a writer of Hambly’s caliber.

Setting is undoubtedly realistic, with the obvious exception of the mysterious Others. I mean, not that I would be able to validate, but there was lots of institutionalized sexism, political and personal racism, political graft, marginalization of the servant/Chinese class, and so forth, so I can only assume it was real. For a short time, I wondered if I would be able to continue, as a section was particularly filled with vitriol against the Chinese. This is coupled with a sub-plot about abuse of prostitutes. Hambly might have done her research here, but I can’t say that I needed it repeatedly emphasized. The section I most  enjoyed was a description of an enclave where a number of low-status people were living and interacting, and managed to care for one of the characters though they were ‘invisible’ status.

The ending was two-fold, and one part a definite surprise. I didn’t feel we had any build-up to it, but I did like the concept a great deal. The other ending was gratuitously thriller-esque, and I don’t know how we slipped from 1915 to a Die Hard movie.

In some ways, this reminds me stylistically of Well’s Death of the Necromancer, only Wells was more sensible and left her (fantasy) ‘period’ building to the physical world and economics over racial groups, and integrated more humor. I think next time, I’ll remind myself to re-read that over another stab at this series.

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Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

Read June 2019
Recommended for fans of UF
★   ★  ★   ★

Fast-moving, moving from a straight-forward confrontation to a search and rescue. There are a lot of similarities with the Kate Daniels series: a heroine with a predilection for violence over other kinds of problem-solving, a young woman with a case of heroine-worship, said heroine with an absence of family connections, a post-apocalyptic world that lacks centralized authority, a world where inhuman and godly walk among the humans.

Setting again plays an important role, beginning in the mountains of the Diné to the barrier of the Wall, to the first glimpse of the world outside the Wall. I won’t say much more at the risk of being too spoilery, but suffice to say that like Kate, one action ends up leading to another and to another, until it ends somewhere very different from what Maggie expected when she accepted her initial job with the Thirsty Boys.

For me, shortcomings revolve around focus on a person who doesn’t approach problems through reflection and logic as well as my own distance from both that time period in my life. Overall, it’s a fun little tale if you are in in the mood for an urban fantasy, and the Dinétah setting is a treat.

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Beholder’s Eye by Julie E. Czerneda

Read May 2019
Recommended for fans of aliens, space operas
★   ★  ★   ★

I remember reading The Big Idea for Czerneda’s latest book on Scalzi’s blog (ok, it was 2018) and was intrigued by her idea of an extremely long-lived being. I didn’t realize that Czerneda was a biologist, and had grounded her ideas in theories about trade-offs between reproduction and longevity. It turned out the blog was promoting the latest book in the story of Esen, which sent me back to this first book, Beholder’s Eye. Esen is described as a shapeshifter, but in actuality, is a more crystaline-type being whose small group consider themselves a sort of archivists for sapiens. Esen’s adventures proved unexpectedly entertaining.

“I’d licked the problem of holding form. And six hundred days later, I’d accomplished the first half of my task: deciphering the molecular structure of the Kraosians. I’d scrounged hair and nail clippings from several hundred different individuals simply by hanging around the rear of barbershops for a couple of months. That information was safely chewed, swallowed, and incorporated into my biochemical memory. I was a success.

I spat out a flea.”

Czerneda states she wrote this, her second book, for herself, and with two goals: to show a meaningful friendship and to have fun with the possibility of Esen’s abilities.

Mission accomplished.

That it turned into an intriguing mystery and side exploration of some of the creatures of the Fringe of space doesn’t hurt either. There were parts where I laughed, parts where I was tense, and there may have even been a moment of sadness, but I’m not telling.

The shapeshifting was used well, and I appreciated the way that Esen ‘became’ the creature she shifted into, accounting for genetic and biological instincts, such as the herding instinct of the Gunthor. Esen is relatively young, for her species–a mere five-hundred standard–and I thought the narrative voice captured that well. This would work at a new-adult novel, in many ways; it about her first assignment away from her Web, and decisions she must make on her own.

Interestingly, I have to say that it reminded me a great deal of A Memory Called Empire.  Completely different technological focus, but very similar thematically. I’ll be going on to the next.

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Wild Country by Anne Bishop

Read May 2019
Recommended for fans of The Others
★   ★  ★   

The short version: Wild Country is All The Books in The Others series thrown in a food processor then tossed together in a fruit salad. In other words, there’s nothing that’s new, but presentation is everything; it feels a bit fresher, more streamlined, and better paced. I’ve been trying to figure out if I could recommend people just read this book and skip the rest. Maybe. 

Given that this contains All The Details from prior books,* I’ll note that it fixes many of the shortcomings, particularly those in plot. Since I adored mail-delivering ponies, I didn’t mind the endless details about such in Book One (Written in Red), but I don’t blame people who do. All of that is shortened here. The villain scenario–believe me, I am spoiling nothing here–is essentially the same as in Book One to Five (I can’t speak to Six, since I skipped it). Bishop doesn’t believe in shades of grey, and inevitably her antagonists are greedy, abusive, misogynist, human-first people who kick kittens and puppies for fun. Non-people are never villains.

Narrative viewpoint wanders. It’s limited third person, skipping from head to head so that Bishop can pretend to build some tension between the forces of Nature and those who wish to challenge/exploit it. I, being the impatient, shallow person that I am–get to some people-punishing, please–skipped the viewpoint of the Bad People. Plus, gross.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to the series is the idea of active, animate environmental reclamation. I read a LOT of apocalypse stories, ranging from disease, zombie, nuclear, environmental, but only Anne Bishop connects monsters with environment repair and envisions a nature that actively reclaims civilization. Of course, that’s as far as her world-building goes. It’s actually one of the most poorly thought-out worlds I’ve ever read that has made it past the self-published stage.

Bishop actually cracked me up because in the prologue, she thanked a number of people for their help with animal information. I’m not sure what ‘information’ they gave her that couldn’t have been found in a first-grade primer. I mean, there was a canary that ate bird seed, some fighting dogs that went feral, some horses in a corral and some cattle that were killed. And two puppies. The rest of the time she explicitly states (almost word-for-word) that the terra indigene, while modeling themselves after a species of animal, are not actually that species, and thus have needs that species does not share. So I’m not sure what help her friends gave. That new puppies should have a crate? Get the runs if they eat raw antelope?

I wish people ‘helping’ her would have said, ‘Anne, hey. How can you have localized computer networks with email and fax machines after the terra indigene wiped out 75% of humanity? How come you still have DVD players with new movies made by the terra indigene? Where are all the damn peeps mining your cobalt and platinum, and whose assembling your circuit boards in a sterile environment? But since you tell me you are limiting gas and there aren’t very many people, and food resources are a little limited, where does the electricity to run the computers come from? And don’t try to sell me an electric dam, because that still brings us back to a manufactured metals problem. And why are your Inuit people giving a damn about who the property heirs are for Bennett? Weren’t the residents killed because they killed a bunch of terra indigene?  Why are the Inuit worrying about possessions for the next-of-kin after a world-wide disaster? Don’t you have a food shortage? Isn’t 75% of the population wiped out? And where did all the people come from so fast to settle Bennett when 75% of the pop was wiped out… but apparently none of the Blackstone Clan, that their numbers rival the terra indigene?”

Zombies are easier, really.

Ignoring all that, there’s a sorta problematic thing with a person who likely has Down, who the wolves call a ‘skippy’ (‘Skippy,’ was a mentally challenged terra in an earlier book), and it’s bizarre, given Bishop’s other series, that there’s an aside with a woman who likes “non-vanilla sex” (this is explicitly said) ends up… well. Not with a happy ending. And of course, there’s the general thing that gender roles are pretty much 1950s, except gay men are cool. 

So, flip the little switch in your brain that has to do with logic–just like you do in a zombie movie–and go along with it. Try to ignore the fact that Bishop’s world logic isn’t consistent. Just go with it. It’s kind of a fun tale, lots of ups and downs, a weird sort of frontier theme happening, and sort of happy ever-afters, although I gotta say, I do think Bishop wasn’t very kind to Virgil. I might buy the e-book version–if it’s on sale. 

 

 

*Seriously. A non-exhaustive list includes–and do you really think these are spoilers?–and all of these are brief–Air on a pony, “speak prophet and I will listen,” review of what happens to male Cassandra sangres, stocking grocery stores, review of how email works, watching movies, reading books, color-changing hair, pizza delivery (because post-apocalypse, natch), train-riding, howling, encountering Elders, jokes about eating people, eating people, Inuit spidey-senses

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