Category Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

Night of the Living TrekkiesNight of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this book with low expectations. It was on my kindle, I had finished my previous book, and I was out of wifi range on a boat so I was unable to download anything else. I thought, I’ll give it a chance for a few chapters. And after a few chapters I was hooked.

I would probably be best described as a Trekkie alumna. I loved Star Trek in my teens. I read all the novelizations of the original series, had seen all the episodes several times, went to a convention, owned a real tribble, and for a while could probably have done pretty well in a trivia contest. But that was before the post-“Voyage Home” original cast movies, before “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” and “Enterprise,” before “Discovery,” before “!@#$%^&* My Dad Says,” and before the current movie reboot featuring an entirely new set of actors. I am enjoying the reboot well enough, but at this point Star Trek is just another science fictional franchise in a universe crowded with them. I have graduated from that phase of my life, and moved on to the next shiny object.

This book took me back to what I loved about Star Trek. Structured like a good TV episode or one of the better movies, it has all the tropes and character types you have come to expect, and more. It takes place at a hotel called the Botany Bay, and each chapter is named for a different TV episode. I noticed a few clever in-jokes as I read through them, enough to know that there must have been many more embedded in the text that I missed due to having been away for so long. There is little point to summarizing the plot because that would spoil the ride. But I will say that it has one of the best explanations for how zombies are turned and develop that I’ve read in a while. (This may be faint praise, as I’m not a zombie connoisseur.) And Houston, we really have a problem . . .

I will go out on a limb here and speculate that one of the reasons the modern manifestations of the Star Trek franchise seem less special to me now is that they have become darker, grittier, and more morally ambiguous, with visual effects so polished that they have taken on a life and story of their own. The original Star Trek was a rag-tag child of the 1960’s, motivated by the promise that science and technology can be a force for good, and optimism that humankind has the capacity to better itself and transcend its worst impulses. The first movies and the TV series of the 1980s and 1990s were in this mold too. Night of the Living Trekkies draws on this optimistic tradition in a way that is surprisingly touching in the midst of chaos, death and destruction. I don’t know if this book will convert any newbies to Trek fandom who weren’t already here, but it’s great fun for those of us who love the universe and still hope that it has something to teach our cynical age.

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Book Review: Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living GodFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this book 5 stars, and for audacity and imagination, I do. But I also found much of the text slow, repetitive, and curiously unemotional, and it lost a star for those aspects.

The animating idea of this novel is that in a time not too far from our own present day, evolution has begun to go backwards. Creatures are devolving from more complex to less complex forms, the very laws of the universe may be reversing themselves, the expanding universe has reached its apex and is now contracting back into singularity. What would this look like in the slow motion way that biological creatures experience time?

Such a big idea is almost impossible to bring down to our mundane level, but Erdrich almost pulls it off through the eyes and ears of Cedar Songmaker, nee Mary (Potts), a single mother newly converted to Catholicism, pregnant with a baby due on December 25th. Cedar addresses her story to her unborn child, whom she loves abstractly and believes to be normal, unlike the majority of babies born to women in the devolving universe.

Unfortunately for the reader, Cedar is the least interesting character in the novel. For the first third of the book I found her annoyingly passive and uncurious about what was happening to her world. Her trip to find her birth parents that comprises this part is interesting mostly because we get to meet Sweetie, her birth mother; Eddy, Sweetie’s husband; and Little Mary, their daughter. They are Ojibwe who live in northern Minnesota on a reservation, run a Superpumper gas station, and are setting up a shrine to a local Saint. The reader can theoretically understand and empathize with Cedar’s desire to find out more about her own origins as the world collapses around her, but her first reaction is one of muted disappointment about small things. She mopes around in her house, says nice things about her adoptive parents, avoids her baby’s father’s phone calls, reads pregnancy literature, and works on a Catholic newsletter that she is writing. This section of the novel felt like a clumsy and unnecessary expository lump, especially since I have been pregnant myself, and when I was, I read carefully the pamphlets about fetal development from my OB/Gyn’s office, which some of these chapters sounded like.

Things really get going, though, when Cedar is captured by the pregnancy police and put in a “hospital,” ostensibly for her and her baby’s protection in the New World Order, in which most pregnant women and their babies don’t survive. Again, she is surrounded by characters more interesting than she is: her fellow pregnant prisoners Agnes and Tia, the nurses who either torture them or bravely risk everything to help them escape, and her adoptive mother Sera who is highly placed in a resistance movement and actually manages to spearhead a successful escape for both Cedar and Tia.

This part makes the whole book worth reading. Events pull the reader along in suspense, and then the action almost stops for a painfully true conversation between Cedar and Sera, encapsulating mother/daughter tensions and bonds. Then Erdrich shows how effortlessly beautiful her prose can be, with a harrowing and horrifying account of Tia’s labor and stillbirth closely followed by Cedar’s wild joy and confidence in her own body’s wondrous abilities to bring forth life.

As the book barreled towards its conclusion and then petered out, I wondered if the author just couldn’t figure out how to end it properly. A dramatic climax comes about when Cedar discovers something surprising and dismaying about her own parentage, but this revelation neither propels the main plot nor illuminates the themes of devolution and collapse. And then when Cedar was captured again just before giving birth, I felt mostly tired and numb. Unlike most pregnant women in this book, she and her baby survive the birth process. Then Cedar’s voice, never particularly strong, fades into near nothingness and the book ends without our finding out what happens to her baby.

Does he become the “Living God” of the title, the messiah that his father hoped for? Has the very idea of a messiah become turned on its head, another exercise in futility? What does that mean for the future of faith?

This book promises a great deal and occasionally delivers. But because of the slow start and this truncated ending it was ultimately not as satisfying as it could have been.

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Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will start by thanking PJ Lazos at Green Life Blue Water, who introduced me to this book, The Hate U Give, a debut novel by Angie Thomas. I might not have read it without her excellent review; I was initially turned off by the word “hate” in the title and by the prospect of YA fiction preachiness. Those concerns were completely unfounded. This novel is a great read: sad, funny, forgiving, and wise. And Starr, the viewpoint character, is a strong and relatable voice.

The novel’s plot comes straight from tragic headlines. Starr is the only eyewitness to her black friend Khalil’s shooting at the hands of a white police officer. She tells the story to the media and eventually testifies before a grand jury. The officer who killed Khalil is not indicted. But those are only the bare bones. The meat of the story is about Starr’s conflicts due to straddling two worlds: the inner city ‘hood where she grew up and still lives, and the wealthy, mostly white, suburb where she goes to private school.

I am not qualified to speak to its authenticity regarding African-American culture, but because of Thomas’ skill at writing vivid characters and dialog, I found most of the book very easy to understand and relate to. I especially appreciated the way the author was able to walk the reader through Starr’s thought processes as she moves from being a terrified, silent teenager to a more mature activist, ready to speak her mind and shine a light on injustice. At first I was a little impatient with her reticence; it seemed self-defeating to me and I wondered where it came from in such an otherwise bold and self-aware character. But then even Starr herself shared the same impatience, and she was a self-aware enough narrator to figure out and explain the effects that fear, conditioning, and loyalty had on her. These insights are not something one can understand merely from reading headlines on the news.

After I finished the book I realized that it contained characters that touched on almost every point of view, and that those choices must have been deliberate. There was a heroin-addicted parent, a clueless and mean white girl, an abusive drug kingpin, an activist female attorney, a set of fiercely protective parents, an upper middle class black family jokingly referred to as the Huxtables, a well-meaning white boyfriend, an Asian friend and ally, and a strict family matriarch. In fact, if you watch the TV show “Black-ish,” you may recognize the broad outlines of many of these characters, or at least their quirks. But at the same time each character had his or her own unique voice that made the novel fresh and original. The author has a wonderful ear for dialogue that never sounds forced or confusing, in spite of the liberal use of slang. Reading this book is like being a part of Starr’s extended family.

I was also initially a bit wary of this book because I was afraid it would be a downer, something to feed despair and hopelessness about the brokenness of our world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Young people like the author and the real communities represented by Starr and her friends can point the way forward and give us all hope for the future.

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Book Review: Druid’s Portal by Cindy Tomamichel

Druid's Portal: The First Journey (Druid's Portal, #1)Druid’s Portal: The First Journey by Cindy Tomamichel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually read time travel romance but I have heard that it is a full-fledged genre. I think the main reason it doesn’t generally appeal to me is the thought of having to live, as a woman, in a pre-feminist era. I don’t think any love story would be worth that. But perhaps the better examples of the genre manage to find a way around or through this problem. Druid’s Portal does.

The protagonist, Janet, is a history professor who knows a great deal about Celtic lore and the druids. I found this aspect of the book to be quite interesting and extensively researched. I had tended to think of druids as benign priests of nature, but the author here shows that their legends and lore have a dark side. She also invokes a deity, Bridgette, who takes the souls of humans who use the time-travel portal more than 3 times and for their own gain. Bridgette makes a powerful villain, but I have not been able to find anything about her in a cursory internet search. The closest that I have come is to reading about the Goddess Brigid, who, according to wikipedia is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and smithcraft. This Brigid too seems like she could be a good, rather than destructive presence.

As the book opens, Janet is grieving the loss of her fiancee, Damon, who was abusive while they were together and who abruptly ended their engagement. She knows she is better off without him, but misses him nonetheless. After a break-in in the museum where she works, Janet finds an artifact that serves as a portal back to Roman times. She doesn’t realize at first that that is what it is, and suffers from what she believes are hallucinations of a Roman soldier in battle. This soldier turns out to be Trajan, eventually her love and partner.

The obstacles to Janet and Trajan getting together are mostly external and circumstantial. First Janet has to believe that he is real and that she can travel back in time. Then she has to actually do so, and find a way to survive in Roman Britain. This is made exponentially easier for her when the soldiers she encounters, Trajan included, think she is a goddess when she appears. Being seen as a goddess exempts Janet from a lot of the indignities that a regular Roman or Celtic woman would have had to endure. No one takes advantage of her while she and Trajan are on the run, and she soon finds a job working in a bath house where the men are friendly and flirtatious, but they still don’t take advantage of her.

She then comes up with a wild plan to help Trajan with his intelligence gathering for the Roman army, and they pose as minstrels visiting nearby towns. This expedition too, like working in the bath house, seems like a fun romp at first, and Janet and Trajan engage in hot, gracefully written, physical relations while they are out being minstrels. Their idyll comes to an abrupt end when they are found out by the enemy, and when Janet’s ex-fiancee Damon starts stalking them.

Trajan is an appealing, if somewhat unrealistic, character. The author sets him up as a simple but honorable man in contrast to Damon’s scheming and conniving persona. Janet and Trajan are able to communicate easily because Janet is fluent in Latin, and she tells Trajan stories about the future, stories that he is surprisingly accepting of. Some of the most poignant moments in the novel come when Janet is thinking about the parallels between her life and Trajan’s, and also about what makes them different. He is in his early-to-mid 30’s, presumably like she is, and she thinks at one point that he only has about 10 good years left if he stays in his own time. He had a wife and baby son years ago when he was young, but they were killed. Janet also tells him about how she and her museum colleagues study skeletons and remains of people from his time. This creeps him out and she feels bad about it. The decision to bring him back with her to her own time is easily made and accepted by both of them.

This is where Damon and Bridgette come in–to keep the lovers apart. Damon’s will to power is reasonably well drawn and believable, but we could have used a bit more backstory. It seems somewhat crazy that he would sacrifice his soul to Bridgette’s “dark creatures” when the payoff is so murky. He hopes to change history, but it is not completely clear what he would change it to and especially why. Janet simply wants a happy life with Trajan in her own time. Her journey could be viewed metaphorically as a wounded woman’s healing from the scars of an abusive relationship, and I especially enjoyed reading the novel from that perspective. (However, the reader should not take this novel as saying that you have to go back to ancient Rome to find a decent man!)

This is the first book in a series and I would gladly read the next ones. But I’m a sucker for happy endings, history, and pretty much anything having to do with pre-Christian England. If time-travel romance is something that appeals to you, through the Druid’s Portal is a good place to go.
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Book Review: Outside the Limelight by Terez Mertes Rose

Outside the Limelight (Ballet Theatre Chronicles. #2)Outside the Limelight by Terez Mertes Rose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first book in this series very much and eagerly looked forward to the second. In most ways it did not disappoint. The author’s love of ballet and her extensive knowledge of the subject informed the story at every turn. I also appreciated the complexity of the relationships she delineated in this book. I have grown weary of stories that always hew to a formulaic hero’s journey or romance, and so I appreciated that Outside the Limelight dealt with other kinds of human relationships: siblings, parents, divorce, failed mentorship, work colleagues and teams, professors and students, and friends.

That said, I think the author may have taken on too much in this volume, and it ended up losing focus. The medical details of Dena’s tumor, operation, and recovery went on too long, as did the development of her relationship with Misha. The parallels between Dena and her sister and Misha and his brother did not need to be spelled out and dramatized in this much detail, especially because much of this quiet and somewhat dull post-tumor part of Dena’s story came at the expense of dramatizing the arc of Rebecca’s relationship with Ben. The denouement to that part of the novel was dramatic but confusing. I was glad all the characters got their happy endings but while I could see Dena/Misha coming a mile away, Rebecca/Ben came totally out of the blue for me. There had been so little sexual tension or chemistry between Rebecca and Ben throughout most of the story that I had assumed Ben was gay.

Rebecca’s on-again, off-again relationship with Anders formed the tight core of this novel for me. It takes place in 2010-11, just on the precipice of the current re-imagining of mentor relationships between powerful men and young ambitious women in the arts (and many other fields). One wonders if Anders Gunst’s career would survive the #MeToo movement. And even if so, how his life and those of the dancers under his tutelage would be forever changed.

This book strikes me as transitional in other ways too. It shows the beginnings of a new path by which dancers can open up the closed, insular ballet world and take charge of their own careers and lives via social media. What can happen in this brave new world is the story I really want–really need–to read now.

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Book Review: Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

Stormwielder  (The Sword of Light #1)Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a promising debut novel. The construction and characterization are not seamless, but it held my attention until the end. I have read another of the author’s books, set in modern times, and overall I liked this one better.

Where I think the author’s writing especially shines is in coming up with plot developments that make sense and move the action forward. The story is fast paced and never gets bogged down. The battle and action scenes are well written and enjoyable but also skimmable if you get tired of that sort of thing after a while, the way I do.

A character whose magic is too strong for him to control so that he unwittingly commits terrible deeds is an intriguing premise. This would have been a good setup for the development of a dark wizard. That Eric doesn’t go that way, but is actually led towards redemption, could be a very powerful character arc. That potential is largely unrealized in this novel. Eric learns to control his magic pretty easily and quickly once he meets up with Alastair, and never looks back.

In general the relationships between Eric and Alastair and Eric and Inken are pleasant to read but I think they could have used more development. If a story is going to start with magic so strong out of control that it burns down an entire village, murdering dozens if not hundreds of people, it is going to have to take more than a week or two and a few lessons for the magicker to learn to control that magic. A more drawn-out and suspenseful learning curve would have also given us more opportunity to learn about the history of the world and the magical system.

This book almost seemed like 2 stories, stuck uncomfortably together. The first deals with Eric, his magic, and the fallout from his destroying Gabriel’s village. It is basically an origin story for Eric. The second is when the real quest begins, to save the world from Archon. I liked both stories but found them a little thin in this format. I hope that in future installments Eric’s past comes back to haunt him and provide some further conflict.
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Book Review: The Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

The Silver OptionThe Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

Vampire novels are not my usual genre, but I did read Twilight years ago along with my then-tweenage daughter. The Silver Option is much smarter, but less creepy-romantic. There is also no need here to wade through pages of bloated purple prose to get to the good parts.

Lasky’s writing is snappy and witty. She gives her characters fresh voices and manages to make the existence of vampires believable in fin-de-siècle Cincinnati without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Her explanation of vampire biology was very smooth. I don’t know if she writes science fiction, but I think she would be good at it.

The first half of this book is excellently paced, and I enjoyed Jeff’s initial attempts to hide his vampire nature from Roxanne. The scenes told from his point of view created a believable alien/vampire mindset. Jeff’s behavior was a good simile for the self-conscious stage play that is modern dating. I also didn’t mind knowing before the characters did why Roxanne turned. The description of her turning was both eerie and matter-of-fact. It was a delicious irony that Roxanne handled vampire-hood so much better than Jeff.

The death of Tiffany tripped me up. The situation in which Roxanne uses her vampire nature to seek revenge on rapey douchebags has a lot of potential, but that potential was underutilized. Tiffany’s character deserved better, and the fact that Roxanne played a role in her death, however unintentional, undermined the argument that Roxanne had a good handle on this whole vampire thing. I won’t spoil the ending but I found it a little abrupt. It was almost a relief to get back inside Jeff’s head again.

That is a minor quibble, however. The Silver Option is a fun read, even for readers who may not think they like vampires.

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Book Review: 2022 (Percipience #1) by Ken Kroes

2022 (Percipience, #1)2022 by Ken Kroes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a thought-provoking, if flawed, book. I like near-future ecofiction and I like playing around in fiction with utopias, dystopias, and planned communities. Kroes’ ideas about these concepts are worth pursuing. How can you set up sustainable communities? Who pays for it? Who gets to (or has to) live there? How can you plan for these communities to last through what you expect will be a grim future? I wish more of the book had been devoted to questions like this.

I found the character development a little underwhelming. I didn’t believe Olivia would have been chosen for a top-secret microbiology project. Mikhail came across as a dork rather than an evil genius. It was almost comical that Diane and Olivia didn’t recognize the misnamed Hope before she burned down their trailer. And Spencer was completely mysterious to me–he seemed to just fit into whatever box the author needed at the moment: spy, dupe, model, love interest, puppy . . . None of the characters had a particularly unique voice, except for Sue, sometimes, which made the story periodically confusing, especially with all the head-hopping.

But simply viewing the characters as blank slates brings the reader up against the inconvenient truths the novel wants to examine: we humans are vulnerable and our behavior usually makes the problem worse. The institutions we expect to protect us, even the good guys, have their limits. And stress and danger make people do stupid, craven things. This book will stay with me longer than it deserves to based on the writing alone. It depicts is a future we want to avoid, made more frightening because it is populated by people who are so ordinary and banal.

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Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved.  Continue reading Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

Book Review: 2047, Short Stories from Our Common Future, edited by Tanja Bisgaard

2047 Short stories from Our Common Future2047 Short stories from Our Common Future by Tanja Rohini Bisgaard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is only the second collection of short stories that I am reviewing on this blog (here’s the first), and again I am finding the process unexpectedly challenging. All the short stories I try to write myself turn into novels, and I prefer to read novels. So maybe short story collections just aren’t my thing.

With that warning, I’d still highly recommend this book. I found it in a Facebook group for Cli-Fi authors, where the book’s editor, author Tanja Rohini Bisgaard, posts. And I’m surprised there aren’t more story collections like this competing for reviewer eyes and space. The variety of stories is broad, and the opening story, Still Waters by Kimberly Christensen, about the beaching suicide of a pod of whales in Puget Sound, which mirrors the disintegration of the protagonists’ relationship and their very lives, packs a huge emotional punch. I was worn out after reading it and I wasn’t sure that any of the other stories in the collection could match it. I was right; none of them did.

Puget Sound, 2017
Puget Sound, 2017

The rest are of more uneven quality, and all the choices are slanted towards North America and Europe (Bisgaard currently lives in Denmark), but the stories cover a wide range of protagonist ages, genders, professions, and voices, and an even wider range of consequences in the worlds imagined. Bisgaard’s own story, The Outcast Gem, is a moving tale of two sisters, one consigned to a shadow life as the consequence of a European one-child policy. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in Oakridge Train by Alison Haldermaand, a story about a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time, but it didn’t. The people in that story actually seemed happy, and their world on the mend.

Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Other stories that I particularly enjoyed included Driftplastic by John A Frochio, about an artist who works with plastic trash as his medium, and Dear Henry by David Zetland, told entirely as a series of letters from one Henry H Sisson to the next, starting back in 1880. The last story, Willoy’s Launch by LX Nishimoto, about the CEO of a company that created intelligent, potentially world-saving, service robots, was kind of confusing to me. I didn’t always understand what was happening during the action sequences, or how Willoy was saving the world by holding down a button at the end. It’s good to end the book on a positive note, though, and I could totally see it as a movie.

That was perhaps my favorite aspect of this collection, and why it worked so well despite its flaws: it wasn’t all grim dystopia, there was little-to-no gratuitous violence, and a significant number of the protagonists were women. This collection is a creative mix that invites the reader to step into the minds and worlds of the characters, not merely watch and be entertained.

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