The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik

Read August 2022
Recommended for people wanting to dip their toes into Watts
★   ★   ★   ★  

This isn’t your childhood Harry Potter.

“I didn’t want to get up and go on in the world, agreeing that it was in any way acceptable for the world to keep going itself.”

This is not a comfortable read. A friend noted that I had shown a lot of enthusiasm for this series, and it’s true, I have. Novik blends intense emotion with unremitting danger, and the combination makes for an intoxicating, immersive read. Book three in the series is no different.

“But they’d loved Orion only in exactly the same way they’d hated me. Neither one of us were ever people to them. He just made himself useful, and I refused to.”

But not always a fun one, and of the trilogy, this one will cut the deepest. Also of the three, this one felt like it had the most filler material. My thoughts on this are subject to change, as I discuss further with my buddies and as I go through a second, more leisurely read.

From here on out, there will be general/thematic spoilers. You have been warned.

****************************
I’ll be honest–big surprise, I know–there’s a lot of filler here. I can’t even tell you what all of it is about, but much is about pocket dimensions. Some of it is how the Scholomance is hidden. Another chunk is El running her personal gerbil wheel of emotions and events relating to Orion. I think the repetitiveness around that is part of what provides the emotional intensity and frustration of the book. El’s always been single-minded–they all have, to survive Scholomance–so although this should probably be no surprise to the reader, it does make for a more jarring experience witnessing her being unable and unwilling to fit into the outside world.

On the positive side, Novik has done something amazing, and woven LeGuin’s Omelas story into her book. I’m still a little stunned at how well it was accomplished.

It’s also–and this is really fascinating–one of the most female centric books I’ve read in a long time, notwithstanding Orion’s role (which still manages to be more thoughtful than the gender-traditional Senlin Ascends). Male characters are quite adjacent. Really quite impressive.
****************************************

Thankfully, this time there’s no cliffhanger ending.

Four and a half golden stars.

thanks to Jennifer, Nataliya, Samuel for the buddy read! And Emily and Emma for all the discussion!

 

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Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty

Finished September 2022
Recommended for fans
★   1/2 

Super-cool premise, super-soft execution.

Good memories of Lafferty’s Six Wakes led me to requesting Station Eternity. Sadly, time seems to have increased ambition without accompanying skill. Six Wakes was a fun, locked-room–of sorts–in-space mystery. I had forgotten that it had multiple viewpoints and multiple shifts in time, but the narrative complexity was contained by the limited number of people and the convention of the locked room. When I stalled out on Station and went back to read my review for Six Wakes, I realized Lafferty has hung on to her multiple viewpoints and multiple time shifts, only this time, there’s nothing to help her organize her story. There’s some interesting stuff here, there really is, but it’s concealed by almost impenetrable storytelling and marred by inattention to detail.

Station Eternity starts on the living space station Eternity. The murder-magnet Mallory is one of three humans aboard, and the one the narrative uses as the center. The first five chapters are hers (that pesky third-person limited omniscient again) and although it goes back and forth in time, it does provide an anchor for building a world with aliens. Chapter six starts including other viewpoints, but it’s not neatly circumscribed by chapter, so it starts to get a little messy. When a shuttle containing the second-ever group of humans is inbound for the space station, Mallory and the other humans start to panic. A murder happens, and given the build-up, I expected the story to be about the murder, but strangely, it became more and more peripheral to events both current and past.

Narrative includes two different alien views, but they are sloppy as all get-out. I’d give one a ‘C’ for actually feeling alien, and the other a solid ‘D’ for developmental teenager. Alien? Nope. The characterization is notable for breaks according to what the story needs, not for species congruency–we’re told they live millennia and move slowly, but they’re always moving quickly, making rapid decisions and operating as hospital staff. “So telling you to hurry is equivalent to telling a human to fuck off,’ Mallory had ventured….That sounds correct, yes,’ Stephanie said.” Then at the end of the chapter, the being Mallory said that to says to another of her species, “‘I suppose you are one, now,’ Stephanie allowed. ‘But we should hurry.'” We’re told people’s emotions but it doesn’t always seem congruent with what we’ve learned about them to that point.

Unfortunately, dialogue can’t save it. There’s a lot of, “as you know, John, the aliens only…” type of dialogue that sounds super-contrived. Some of it is just plain odd: “And then Xan replied, saying the phrase that he would regret for the rest of his life: ‘Yeah, thanks.'” Spoiler: he doesn’t.

What did I like? Hmm. I like the attempt at something more sophisticated–the fractal viewpoints, the past timelines with events leading to the present–but Lafferty just doesn’t have the writing chops to pull it off. It was honestly a chore to read, and that’s with me being generally well-disposed to space-murder-shenanigans-aliens.

 

Many thanks to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group for the advanced reader copy. Clearly, all opinions are my own.

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Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich

Read August 2022
Recommended for people in the 2000s
unratable

Back in the day–ie, as they were released–I read all of the Stephanie Plum books. No matter how ridiculous, I could say that they gave me at least one laugh-out-loud moment. So I stuck with the series, at least up until book 20 or so, when I finally tired of the recycled plots and larger-than-life characters. Lately, however, I’ve been needing some low-demand reading, and with a kindle sale on this book, I thought I’d give it a reboot. This one centers on Lulu, Stephanie’s friend and occasional bounty-hunting sidekick, after she witnesses a homicide. Steph is currently in the off-phase of dating Morelli and is back working at Rangeman with his band of merry men.

“I’m feeling grouchy,” I said to Tank.
“Do you want to see a picture of my cat?” Tank asked. “That always makes me happy.”

What can I say? It still makes me laugh. Occasionally Evanovitch is quite clever, such as when Stephanie describes one of her bond skips:

“Myron was seventy-eight years old, and for reasons not given in my file, Myron had robbed his dentist at gunpoint. At first glance, this would seem like an easy apprehension, but my experience with old people is that they don’t go gently into the night.”

And there is a lot of positive female interactions that aren’t just about Stephanie choosing between Joe Morelli or Ranger. Lulu has no problem playing the friend card when she’s under duress:

“He’s a fine man, but he’s the cop representative here, and I need someone from my posse, you see what I’m saying. I need a BFF.”

But there’s also something that had come to bother me about the series, and this book rather epitomizes it. While I get that the characters are all supposed to be gross stereotypes (some literally more gross than others), Lulu in particular is hard done by. I think perhaps because she’s the recurring person of color in the early series, she shoulders some of the most stereotypical stereotypes. Whore with a heart of gold, strong black woman, confident body-positive fat black woman stereotypes. Oh, and talking sort-of-street. When we learn more about Lulu, we learn she’s living in the poorest, roughest part of town. Go ahead, argue with me, but no other group–racial, ethnic, gender–gets the same treatment (although eventually you could make the case that Evanovitch does that to gay people as well). Grandma embodies some similar crazy old stereotypes, but there’s other old people now and then to temper her. Connie may be full-on Italian ‘broad’, but her range of behavior is actually pretty normal. I get that Evanovitch tries very hard to show Lulu in a positive way, but when the range of what we know about Lulu never falls outside those stereotypes, how positive is that, really?

“’I got pictures of him from when he was a customer.’
‘You’d blackmail him?’
‘I like to think of it as reminders of happy times,’ Lula said. ‘No need to negatize it. What happens is, he looks at the picture of himself and thinks bein’ with me was better than a fork in the eye. And then he thinks it’s special if that shit stay between him and me and for instance don’t be seen on YouTube. And then he takes my contest application and gives it the stamp of approval.'”

It kind of reminds me of way-back-when my girl group thought it was ‘funny’ to call each other ‘heifers’ ‘hos’ and ‘bitches.’ Yeah, we did that back then. I think we thought by calling ourselves those names, it takes away the sting. Does it? Or does it teach us casual callousness, thoughtless use of our words, and risk reinforcing labels, however jokingly we use them?

So I don’t know where that leaves me, especially since a lot of this story was about Lulu. Being a thoughtful human is tough, isn’t it?

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A Book of Bones by John Connolly. Or Book of Digression

Not finished August 2022
Recommended for serious Connolly fans
★   ★   

Dear John,

I wanted to read a book about Charlie. His buddies, Louis and Angel. His ghost-kid. Maybe something sort of supernatural. But this felt like an EXTRA!!! version of a Connolly book, the ridiculous kind, like a taco shell wrapped around another taco. (Have you been reading Anthony Horowitz? I would advise not doing that before you write your own book).

I was with you for the supernatural viewpoint when we left Charlie and friends and went back to England, and I tried to hang in there for our dual killer viewpoints, one (view spoiler). And I gritted my teeth and hung in there when we went back in time to the 17-somethings (I think?) and did the viewpoint of the poor wretch that got involved with the Atlas wayback when. It actually became kind of pertinent and I sort of (note the ambivalence) looked forward to seeing how you would loop that back into the plot. But when you then transformed it a police procedural on the English moors and I was still hanging around at 35% or so by my kindle’s estimation–I gave up. Literally. The library sent an email saying, ‘hey, we want our book back,’ and I said, ‘sure, no problem, here you go’ without any regrets. No trying to lock it away in a trunk, hide it away in my basement, nothing. Just an immediate ‘adios.’

And no nightmares resulted at all.

I’m told this one is pretty important and sort of brings together a lot of the wandering threads that were left around earlier editions, but I gotta say: not worth it to me. Sorry, friend.

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Sea Storm by Andrew Mayne

Read August 2022
Recommended for people fans of water, thrillers, procedurals
★   ★   ★   ★ 

It was probably four chapters before I really stopped to take a breath. It’s been awhile since I had a read like that viscerally engaging, so kudos to Mayne. From that gut-clench beginning, it slows down a bit into a Hollywood version of a police procedural–I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say following leads often ends in surprises that aren’t just DNA related. I enjoyed it a great deal. I feel like he didn’t quite stick the landing, although on the surface, I’m not sure why. I was satisfied emotionally, and it makes since plot-wise. It just didn’t quite taste right.

What sets this series apart from the average airport thriller? I prefer mine with the type of story that doesn’t drag me down into the deepest swamps of human thought and behavior (aka skip the serial-killer perspective). I love it even more when it manages to avoid being full of -ist characters–I get enough of that in real life, thank you very much, so I don’t mind my fiction being a little bit sanitized with some idealism–so bonus points for a female lead. Because the unit is part of an underwater investigation team, there’s ample opportunities for water-related shenanigans, which resonates with my own interest areas. Honestly, couldn’t be happier. I’m glad I can go back to read book 1 while I wait for Mayne to come out with book 4, Sea Castle, in February.

 

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The Freeze Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Read August 2022
Recommended for people wanting to dip their toes into Watts
★   ★   ★   ★  1/2

I really, really like Watts’ writing, perhaps to an extent not represented by my reviews of individual books. On the surface, that might not make sense, but it comes down to is that sweet spot where ideas, writing, and science meet and Watts’ generally ability to arrive near the zone. Freeze Frame is his most accessible book I’ve read to date (apparently, word count belies his claim of novella). While I’d highly recommend it to Watts fans as well as people who want to dip their toes into some hard sci-fi, for me it lands solidly third place behind Blindsight and Starfish. (To be clear, it’s technically better than Starfish. I just like the underwater setting in that book).

Watts does not hand-hold, but I felt like there were more clues than I normally find to his writing. The characters are aboard an asteroid converted into a gate-building ship, on a long-term mission to build humanity gates around the Milky Way. We all know that AI is probably better than humans when it comes to accuracy and following orders, but humanity has a certain gift for problem-solving and lateral thinking that means that humans stored in cyrogenic stasis became part of the mission, to be awakened at long intervals or in case of unusual problems. But humans are prone to disobeying orders, so these were indoctrinated from a young age, and face a number of strategic depersonalization and strategies when awakened that keep them from forming strong human relationships.

“Built to revel in solitude, all those Pleistocene social circuits tamed and trimmed and winnowed down to nubs: born of the tribe, but built to leave it behind without so much as a backward glance.”

Clever, clever, clever, and bound to do a number on the psyche. Surprisingly, Watts doesn’t go too far into that aspect and concentrates more on the idea of the effects of short awakening, consciousness-raising, and revolution. He also rather sidesteps the why. Yes, it’s a long novella. But if I was his editor–and clearly, I’m not–I might have shaved off some of the exposition–sorry non-sci-fi readers–and brought more dialogue into it. But that’s never been Watts’ strong suit. Neither is characterization. Granted, there’s usually good reason for that, and as mentioned, these characters only get to be alive one day every five thousand years or so, so they don’t get a whole lot of time for hobbies or personal growth. But if you are a character reader, this isn’t going to be one of those Expanse-type ensemble casts where you grow to appreciate every member of the crew in different ways.

“Why’d you think I signed on in the first place… I want to see how it turns out.”
“It.”
“Everything. The universe. This–reality. This hologram, this model, whatever we’re in. It had a start, it’s got an endpoint, and the closer we get to it the clearer that becomes. If we just hang in there long enough we’ll at least get to see the outlines.”
“You want to know the purpose of existence.”
“I want to know the destination of existence.”

There’s some very cool and scary ideas here, some underexplored. If it were me, I would have spent more on the psychology of purpose. Once they’ve established there is no more humanity as they recognize is, the psychological struggle would seem to be more about purpose, otherwise the humans truly are nothing more than ‘meat.’ 

Also note–thankfully, for me–there are no real chimpanzees in this story. ‘Chimp’ is what the crew calls the AI. Whew. I loathe anthropomorphized apes.

“Seriously. How do we know when the mission’s over?”
“Why would you want it to be over?” Vik wondered.
“When we receive the callback sequence,” Chimp said. Which had made perfect sense back when we were young and freshly minted and shiny new.”

 

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

There’s a trio of short stories that accompany it, all available for free on his website.

Note, the paperwhite kindle obviously doesn’t have the red letters that spell out the message that takes you to this updated postscript short story, of a sorts: https://rifters.com/Eriophora-Root-Archive-Log-Ahzmundin–frag/derelict.htm

Buddy read with Nataliya, Phil, David, and Vivian.

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The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly

Read August 2022
Recommended for 
★   ★   ★   ★

If Among Others was Jo Walton’s love letter to sci-fi and fantasy, this is John Connolly’s love letter to classical literature and libraries. Think Thursday Next without the bananas escapades. But even if one isn’t a fan of the classics (cough, cough), one can still appreciate Connolly’s gentle affection for both readers and libraries.

“Most of the remainder went on books. Mr. Berger led a life of the imagination, fed by stories.”

There’s also delicious bon môts on unfulfilling workplaces, writers, policemen and small towns:

“There appeared to be only two types of business in the town: everybody’s business, and business that was not yet everybody’s but soon would be once the local gossips had got to work on it.”

You know, as a book lover, I never loved that distinctive smell of old books. I find myself prone to reconsidering, however, after considering Connolly’s phrasing:

“that peculiar musty smell distinctive to rooms in which books are aging like fine wines.”

It’s a quick little novella, and like everything Connolly writes, nicely written. Unlike everything else Connolly writes, there is no horror, so if you love mysterious libraries, give it a try.

“It’s a natural consequence of the capacity of a bookstore or library to contain entire worlds, whole universes, and all contained between the covers of books. In that sense, every library or bookstore is practically infinite.”

 

Thank you to Nataliya for the buddy read!

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Black Coral by Andrew Mayne

Read August 2022
Recommended for thriller fans
★   ★   ★   ★ 

Thrillers fill a particular ecological niche in my life. For me, they are literary fast food, perfect for when I need a tasty jolt to power me through a slump. But just like fast food, the majority follow a predictable formula, sometimes with adequate results and sometimes substandard ones. The challenge, then, is to find the one with the secret sauce author that fits the reader’s preference (and causes the least amount of damage while doing so?) Mayne has definitely made it onto my list of preferred thrillers.

Black Coral is a police procedural thriller told from the perspective of Sloan McPherson, an investigator with Florida’s Underwater Investigation Unit. She’s also finishing her PhD in archeology, specializing in underwater, naturally. Growing up in a family of somewhat bonkers treasure-hunters means she’s learned some of these skills from the time she could walk, so it’s an interesting perspective. I don’t always enjoy first person voices, but I did well with her normally calm and matter-of-fact tone, notable even when she’s diving into an alligator hole:

“I don’t feel like a brave knight as I swim into the burrow. I don’t know if it’s fear or anxiety. The two kind of blend for me. I usually define fear as the thing I feel when the unexpected happens. Anxiety is when I’m doing something that I already know is stupid.”

I generally liked her voice, which is both courageous and intuitive, but I did have a few moments where I paused. I never quite parsed out if it was character incongruity or if it was that same feeling I get when reading a female character by a man that doesn’t quite nail it. However, the pace was fast enough that I never got hung up for too long.

Which reminds me of the other angle that works so well for me: the underwater investigation. Not that I’d ever do that, mind you. And the body recovery would ruin lake swimming for me forever. Anyway, it’s not just diving, for those of you who are wondering if they’d be a little lost with talk about regulators and tanks and air mixes. There’s quite a bit about alligators in this one, along with the Everglades, and even yacht culture. Nothing requires suspension of disbelief, except perhaps Sloan’s risk-taking with alligators. Honestly, it’s a relief for the thriller genre.

Mayne weaves some nice backstory into his characters as it progresses. Family scenes help take a break from the emotional build in the investigation and with interagency politics, but sometimes the transition felt a little awkward.

The writing is straightforward. Not quite the eighth-grade feeling I got from late Spencer/Robert Parker books, but not up to Robert Crais either. It’s solid. There’s occasional wry commentary that made me smile, but thankfully, I don’t recall the outright quips that the genre is prone to:

“I need to find out what exactly he did in the Navy. I’d know if he was a SEAL, because he would have told me in the first two minutes.”

It turns out that this is book two in a series, but honestly, it stands alone just fine. I suppose I might have indirectly ‘spoiled’ one or two events in book one, if it contains some of the events Sloan references in this one, but I’m not too worried because I’m 100% positive I already forgot them. As a matter of fact, I had actually peeked at the ending of this one because it was getting late and I was far too involved. And I still went back and finished it. Clearly, a 4 star in the thriller world.

Many thanks to Ola who recommended it!

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Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

Read July 2022
Recommended for fans of space flight
★   ★   ★   ★

Hey, guess what? It turns out I can still read overly long books and enjoy them! I mean, it’s not that amazing–I did read Doors of Eden, right? But that was about a year ago, so it was actually a relief to realize this this ridiculously long space adventure was entertaining me every time I picked it up.

Artifact Space is an old-fashioned, Mary-Sue orphan-makes-good, updated for modern times. And you know what? I’m totally on board with that. How updated? Updated enough that a line like this made sense:

“It was very old-fashioned and bi-gendered, but in a romantic way, not a gender bias way – or perhaps its very antiquity caused her to forgive it.”

Anyway, we first meet said orphan, Marca Nbaro, as she is masquerading as a new recruit on one of the few Greatships, a giant ship capable of traveling between stars that functions as a highly-protected trading ship. It is a great way to introduce a potential Mary Sue, giving them a bit of rule-bending grit to contrast the ethical sweetness.

“Most people can live without booze,’ Marca said. ‘But no one can go an hour without a rationalisation.”

The story follows Marca and her adventures on the Greatship Athens. Cameron deftly begins with small, personal-level conflicts and gradually weaves in more ominous threads from deep state conspiracies to alien negotiations to the challenges of delayed communications in space. The Greatships are part AI and it’s interesting to see how Cameron integrates both the potential benefits and weaknesses in warfare. This one has a penchant for appearing as a human petting a cat, and I honestly could not stop thinking of a Bond villain:

“A light went on over the co-pilot’s couch, and there, stretched full length, was a tall, skinny man with long, curly dark hair and a scarlet flightsuit. His nose was his most obvious feature, and if his appearance wasn’t enough to cause her to flinch, he had a cat on his chest. Nbaro could almost see through him, and gradually came to realise he was a holographic projection.”

I suspect a little joking on Cameron’s part; much of the story feels serious, but like the AI’s hologram, there will be fun nods to tropes, humorous asides, or even reoccurring quests like obtaining cake from the officers’ mess for friends.

Smith nodded. ‘Thanks.’ He tried on a smile, didn’t like it, and traded it for a more believable facial expression.

My recommendation comes with three caveats: one, you have to be okay with a seriously heroic protagonist. I know; it’s the age of flawed heroism (which could be precisely why it works).

“Gunny says you saved everyone’s ass … or maybe you’re too wet behind the ears to know what you’re doing.’ Akunje’s grin was huge and infectious.
‘Yep,’ Marca said. ‘At least one of those things is definitely true.”

Two, there’s a definite military flavor throughout the book. It is, after all, a navy, and there are legitimate space battles. There’s also detailed bits about flight paths and trajectories that I largely ignored. One of my friends noted Cameron had a tendency to go on about armor in one of his other books. So you probably have to either have a tolerance for armor and battle specifics, or the ability to read past. Guess which I did?

Third, and this would sometimes be a dealbreaker, but because of the sheer length and adventureness of the book as a whole, totally wasn’t. Anyway, there’s a Grand Canyon-level cliffhanger ending. Who knows when the next one is coming out? Not me.

I thought it was all completely worth it, because it’s hard to find enjoyable, semi-realistic, fun sci-fi these days with cool women protagonists (hint: if the author describes the hero’s violet eyes, it’s probably not about the sci-fi). And, it gives me a reason to read it again before the next installment comes out.

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Read August 2022
Recommended for Pollyannas of all genders
★   ★   ★   ★

I want to live in Becky Chamber’s world. I’m not dragging on them, really, I’m not. But the world in Psalm is genial, and comforting and almost–may the six or seven gods forgive me–like a cup of tea.

Oh, yes, I said it. Tea. What is it with our modern sci-fi writers and tea? Do they not drink anything else? Has the nitro-infused craze escaped them? Are they unaware of the pleasant way melting ice shifts the composition of a drink? I appreciate, perhaps, that they wish to steer us away from both inhalants and alcohol (so responsible!), but have they considered the health benefits of kombucha? Are they immune to the smooth flavors of cold brew coffee? Or the variety of shrubs that are concocted?

But I digress. A Psalm for the Wild-Built (which my brain consistantly read as ‘well-built,’ a rather different take) is a warm mug of herbal tea (definitely not caffienated) served with some organic honey. It is Star Trek Next Generation. It is a cognitive therapy session with the best possible therapist. It’s a hike and camping adventure in the best possible world, where mosquitos are merely annoying and don’t carry malaria or Zika or dengue or Chikungunya viruses.

Man, I am such a downer. You know who isn’t? Becky Chambers. I want to hang with her more. But only when I’m in the mood for some fantasy sci-fi. Or need some therapy.

“You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.”

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