Review: The People of Sand and Slag, by Paolo Bacigalupi

25910975[1]NOTE: There’s a spoiler at the end of this review, so if you don’t want to know how it ends, do NOT read it.

I half wish I’d never read this.  The visceral reason is because I love dogs, and hate to see them in peril.  The intellectual reason is that in Bacigalupi’s dystopian vision, the future is bleak because human beings are, by nature, monsters.

I might be forgiven for guessing, at first, that I was reading about artificial people.  Their seeming indifference to pain, their ability to regrow amputated limbs, their diet of sand and rock, and their immortality all suggested that the characters in this story couldn’t possibly be human.  And then I realized that they were a step in human evolution, people living in a symbiotic relationship with creatures called “weevils” that give them the ability to recover from any injury, and to live, presumably, forever.

And in the end, though they’ve become like gods, they still have all the faults of humans but magnified now that there are no consequences.  As a result they’re casually cruel and thoughtless. They seem to have lost the ability to care about anything, to value traits like love and loyalty.   They wonder, at one point, why the last mortal poet (nice play on the idea of an “immortal” poet) refused immortality.  They love his work, but don’t get what it is he’s telling them.

I wish I’d never met them, and yet the power of this story is undeniable.



*SPOILER* They kill the dog.


Review: The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

23209924[1]Paolo Bacigalupi is rapidly becoming one of my favorite dystopian authors. I find his bleak visions of the future all too plausible.  For me they’re right on the thin edge of horror fic, with scenarios wrought from human greed and lack of foresight.  Humans scare me, monsters don’t.

The Water Knife tells the story of the American west in a not-so-distant future when water has become increasingly scarce and water rights are worth billions of dollars in the private market. Angel is the water knife of the title, a man who goes to communities to cut off their water when it no longer belongs to them, turning them into ghost towns, creating waves of refugees which other states turn away at gunpoint. Or kill.

Angel gets involved in a scheme to sell senior water rights to the highest bidder, a scheme that gets him shot saving a journalist from a pair of sadistic thugs who want the rights for themselves.  And in the end, we’re left wondering if anyone is going to win this game.

It took me a while to become immersed in the story, but I suspect that had something to do with an unexpected reading slump.  However, I did have some trouble with the narrator, whose work was serviceable, but who changed her pronunciation of a word I’d never heard before — cholobi — back and forth from cho-LO-bee, to CHOLO-bee.  Yes, it seems like a minor thing, but where it would be simply annoying with a word I was familiar with, in this case it threw me out of the story over and over because I kept thinking “Wait, what?” and “Is there a reason for this?”  I even tried looking it up but didn’t get very far.  By the end I’d stopped paying attention.

Oh and the sex scenes?  So completely uncomfortable that I ended up fast-forwarding through them. One lasted almost an entire chapter, so I’m laying the blame for how they made my skin crawl on the author, not the narrator.

But in the end, the book pulled me in and I finished by racing through chapter after chapter.  I had no idea how it would end, and when it did, I felt like it was one of those endings where the author had to do something to break the stalemate, so he did the most expedient thing. It didn’t feel like any sort of ending at all to me.

I sound as if I didn’t like it, but that wouldn’t be true.  I just wasn’t entirely satisfied with it.  Flawed but interesting.

Reading Challenge Challenges: What to do about 2018?

This year my reading challenge was to get back to reading the way I used to, voraciously, widely, deeply.  I’ve got the numbers, 132 of 150 so far over on Goodreads, which is great, and I have read more widely this year than in recent memory.  I hope I’ve read more deeply.  I believe I have.  I think much of what I’ve been reading has been informing my own writing, and the process of having to review each book forces me to think about them on a deeper level.  Mostly.  Some of what I’ve read doesn’t really warrant that, but heck everyone gets a tip of the hat at worst.

Moonheart, the British hardcover edition. Glinda, Karen, and I special ordered them when all we could get was the American paperback edition.
So I’ve been fretting over how to challenge myself in 2018.  This year I had an informal theme to my reading, books about books.  And I’ve read a number of them, though just lately I’ve veered off into other directions.  But I wanted to do something more formal for next year.  I’ve made lists of ideas, some of which look pretty silly a day or two later, some which are good ideas but doomed to failure, (Read books I never wanted to read.  Why???)

But last night it occurred to me that there were two things I really want to accomplish in terms of my library.  First, to not add more books until I’ve read a substantial number of the ones I already own or share with Glinda.  This is not only good sense in terms of doing what I have intended to do all along, but it should save me money, which I very much need to do.  This was the year of take-my-money-and-give-me-books.  2018 should be the year of clearing up the TBR pile.

The second thing, and this is in part a result of some interesting conversations I’ve had with my friend, Karen, who is an inveterate re-reader, I want to re-read one book a month.  I’m not going to make a lot of rules about what I can or can’t reread.  I have every intention of revisiting at least two of the books I read this year, Lincoln in the Bardo, and A Gentleman in Moscow because I want to. (I will be reading them in different formats than I originally did, and I find that switching formats lets me read more deeply.)  But there are books on my shelf, like Moonheart, which I haven’t opened in decades, and since I’m currently on a Charles de Lint binge, having spent nearly the entire check from the Apple class action suit on his work, it may be time to revisit an old favorite.

I also want to reread books that I’ve had on my shelf for yonks, certain that I love them and want to keep them forever, but never really thinking about them unless I catch sight of them while looking for something else.  I need to know why I’m keeping them, and if I should not bother.  I’d like to revisit some classics I enjoyed umpty-gazillion years ago, like Moby Dick, and Vanity Fair. Will I still enjoy them now, or will my attitudes and interests have changed so dramatically that I’ll end up yelling, “OH SHUT UP!” and ultimately bailing?

Like  this year I’ll start my numbers out at 75 books, since I’d rather keep to a plan than simply rack up numbers.  We’ll see what happens.

Review: Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

30308970[1].jpgHere’s another book about which I feel conflicted.  While I like Smith’s style — her writing is smooth and beautiful — there is simply too much to take in about the world as she’s showing it to us through the eyes of her narrator.

On the surface it’s the story of two brown girls who long to become dancers.  One does, one does not, yet neither of them lives the life she imagined.  The narrator, so far from being a character who engages our emotions, is unnamed, always defined by her relationship to someone else, and even those relationships aren’t what she expected them to be.  She is less a character than a camera, recording the world as she sees it, never entirely connecting, never quite seeming to fit anywhere.

Smith gives us a far-ranging exploration of blackness in Europe, America, and Africa, of social and economic inequities, of unrequited love, romantic, familial, and between friends.  And it really is too much to assimilate, even in a book this long.  I found myself reacting to certain passages, places where I knew how I felt about the situation. But in other places, long stretches,  I simply felt that I was wandering aimlessly, looking for any landmark that might help orient me.

I would like to read more of Smith’s work, but much as I enjoyed some of Swing Time, I don’t feel that I can be more enthusiastic than to say I found it sometimes entertaining, sometimes informative, sometimes perplexing, and sometimes quite dull.

Review: The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer

29431307[1].jpgI admit defeat on this one, though it’s at least in part because my library loan was up and I had to return the book before I could finish it.  My reading has slowed a bit in the last couple of weeks for various personal reasons, and this book took the hit.  Why?  Well it wasn’t what I thought it would be for one thing.  In spite of the title, this story is more about Al Qaeda’s occupation of Mali, and its determination to erase any history or culture not acceptable to Shariah.

Yes it did tell the story about the efforts to protect precious Islamic manuscripts from those thugs, but that was a minor part of the book, and seemed to grow less important as the story progressed.  Alas, that’s the part of the story I wanted, not the history of the jihadis in that part of the world.

So after slogging through increasingly uninteresting (to me) chapters, I finally put it down to read Swing Time, and listen to The Water Knife.  Both are slow going right now, but they’re holding my attention.

So I’m admitting defeat, and listing this as a more-than-half-finished bail.  I wish I could say otherwise, but there it is.

A Gentleman in Moscow still on the bestseller lists.

moscow[1]I ran across this article — What’s Kept “A Gentleman in Moscow” on the Bestseller Lists? — in Omnivoracious and wanted to share it because as much as I’ve loved many of the other books I’ve read this year, this remains my favorite of 2017, one that I want to revisit, but am holding off on rereading because there’s so much else to read.

After 56 weeks on the best seller lists, it’s still selling well which both is and is not a surprise to me.  Yes, I love it, but I never actually expect  to be in step with a popular taste. It’s not that my tastes are so rarified and elite, but rather that they’re often what people call “weird.”  This touches a lot of comfortable notes for me, and I guess I’m not as alone in them as I thought I was.

In any event, I wanted to take the opportunity to plug my favorite book of 2017 (So far. You never know, right?) Here’s a link to’s product page for A Gentleman in Moscow, where you can find hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook versions.  Here’s a link to the page at Thrift Books, another favorite seller.  And from Powell’s books, where it’s a staff pick, the link to their used hardcover version.


Review: Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, by Carlo Rovelli

25734172[1]Theoretical Physicist, Carlo Rovelli takes us on a quick tour of his discipline, covering seven different aspects of Physics. And as with all books about this subject I understood only a small portion of what was being said.  Mostly it was words, words, words, then something that made me go “Oh yeah, I get that.  How cool!”  Then words, words, words.  Possibly others will find it more accessible than I did, or possibly I was attempting to create visual images of what Rovelli was describing, something without which I find it hard to hang on to a concept.

What I did get out of it was how very beautiful, vast, and magical Physics is, and how much Rovelli loves his subject.  Indeed, his love for the universe and all the things that come together within it shines out from every word of this book.  It became almost a gorgeous fairytale filled with more magic than I can grasp.

This is a book I’d attempt again, but next time as an ebook or hard copy.  The audiobook, usually the best way for me to comprehend difficult scientific concepts, failed me this time.  Or maybe it really didn’t.  I’m reminded of listening to the late, great David Bohm talking about quantum theory, and stopping in mid lecture to say, “You realize that none of us understand this either?”  His audience laughed.  I laughed on the commuter train carrying me home, and we all appreciated his honesty.  I got what I could, and that’s more than I had before I began.

Review: Sourdough, by Robin Sloan

33916024[1]Robin Sloan won my heart with his Penumbra stories, a pair of gently humorous fantasies about books, and readers, and mysterious doings.  When Sourdough popped up in my Book of the Month Club queue I really didn’t know what to think or expect, but I trusted him enough to take the chance, and he didn’t let me down.  I was hooked by the end of the first chapter.

Sourdough explores the idea of food as a spiritual and intellectual pursuit.  Food rescues Lois from the hellish sterility of her high tech job, soothing her rebellious stomach, and providing warmth and a touch of humanity to her day.  But when the restaurant which arguably saved her sanity, has to close, Lois is given a precious crock of sourdough culture to care for.

We watch as she moves from caretaker to active user of the starter, and from there to professional baker, all the while coming to know the starter as a mysterious, moody partner in this process.  She learns who she is and begins to understand her niche in the world.  Along the way we meet the Lois club of San Francisco (and Sloan assures us that there are Lois clubs all over the world) filled with wise Loises who enjoy our Lois’ bread, and give her good advice.  And for a brief, wondrous stretch of the novel, Sloan gives us a deliciously funny horror story about out-of-control bread, and heroic goats.

Yes, it’s kind of crazy, but in the same delightful way Penumbra was.  And I found myself looking at food differently after reading it.  Today I went shopping and spent a lot of time just staring at the produce, thinking about how remarkable it all was.  My concentration apparently provoked a gentleman to come up to me as I stared at a mountain of fat, shining, deeply green jalapenos, and say, “Yes, this is the good stuff.”

It made me want to cook.  It made me want to start baking bread again.  It made me happy that bread and cheese exist, that crickets sing and goats love to eat, that Robin Sloan is a nerd (Lembas bread!) and microbes work tirelessly to give our world flavor and scent. There’s a love story, too.  You won’t catch it immediately, but it’s there, hidden beneath talk of cooking, spicy soup, and the history of a completely mythical people called the Mazg who sing to their sourdough culture.

Sourdough is the sort of book that should make your heart happy. This one goes on my Keep Forever shelf.

Review: Sheriff Poole and the Mech Gang, by Charles de Lint

19400886[1]I’m only now starting to become familiar with de Lint’s southwestern stories.  Oddly, I’m finding them darker than the Newford tales, though no less enjoyable.  This story of robot gunslingers, aliens, and something which is never really named, leaves me with more questions than answers, and I’m hoping de Lint will expand on the theme and characters in the future.

Dan Cutler has animatronics in his blood and bone.  For generations his family has worked carnival machines, and his father created The Mech Gang, a group of mechanical outlaws that staged shoot-outs with Sheriff Poole, a far more sophisticated clockwork man, whose secrets Dan’s father was never able to figure out. When he died in a mysterious explosion, Dan continued his father’s work, which included driving off alien attackers at regular intervals. When the why of those attacks becomes clear to all of them, Dan’s life changes dramatically.

As I said, this story left me with more questions than answers.  But the tight narrative doesn’t allow for much speculation as you read.  It’s only afterward, while thinking about that last image of the Sheriff telling Dan and his wife about life in the old west, that so many questions come pouring out.

This story is full of wonder in many senses of the word.

Review: Hannah’s Dress, by Pascale Hughes

35059190[1].jpgI’ve learned over the years to tell a story in the small details. The bouquet of plucked dandelions scattered around the place where a child was kidnapped, is a lot more affecting than the screaming and crying and screech of tires. That’s what Hughes is doing in this book, she’s telling her story in the details, in vignettes about the lives of the people who essentially created the culture of the street she lives on, both while they lived there and afterward. And in doing this, she tells the story of the Holocaust and how it touched Berliners. She does tell more contemporary history, but the stories of the Jewish families who were among the first to make their homes in this particular street takes up most of her narrative.

So I don’t really understand why this book didn’t touch me. It’s well written, the subject matter is one of my most enduring interests, and yet, I felt removed from it as a reader. Possibly it’s Hughes’ writing style that never quite meshes with the way I think. Or possibly I sense that there was a point for which she was reaching, but which she never quite grasps. It never felt pulled together for me. And that’s a shame because it’s clearly a labor of love for Hughes.

Nevertheless I give her points for her scholarship, her pursuit of the details of people’s lives. I wish I’d found it more engaging.