Book Review: Border Crossings, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

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Poetry Collection: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Border crossings are fraught with tension. Some, like India and Pakistan, or the Koreas, have standing armies. One stray move could start a war. Others are peaceful, but full of reminders that you are going from one country to another. Signs in multiple languages, customs inspectors checking your bags, sounds and smells of the exotic (to you) new stuff waiting once you get there. But the crossing itself has its own heartbeat, its own rhythm, its own combination of appeal and trepidation.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski was raised in central, largely rural, Pennsylvania (Hublersburg, near Bellefonte). He now lives in Manhattan. His parents were Chinese and Polish Americans. His life has been filled with crossing borders: between rural and urban, between brown Americans and white Americans. And his poetry speaks beautifully to that tension between nations that expresses itself on the border, whether those nations are visible on a map or whether they are resident in the heart.

 

Rutkowski toys with language, playing with it, using metaphors and molding words masterfully. He has a fun, though sometimes dark, sense of humor. He invites the reader to play with him. Imagine skipping work and running amok through a restaurant, playing the bongos, and drawing a crowd together. Imagine going to the beach before a hurricane and riding the undertow. Look, as we paddle our canoe, it’s a pig…No, it’s a bear! He takes us on a trip to Hong Kong, choosing a bus, contemplating eating fried scorpions, surprising a vendor with his English. “‘English! I wondered what language,’ / and I wonder, what language was he guessing? / Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, French?” And suddenly, like that, we remember that he, the poet, is always crossing borders, with a face that is both Chinese and Polish and is neither one fully, an accent that is American, and a heritage that brings countries together into one person and yet still seems to feel a bit separated from them all.

 

Border Crossings is a delight. You always cross a border at your own risk, but this is a risk worth taking. Travel broadens you, and traveling with these poems is carrying a passport to a wide new world–or perhaps a passport to see home in a fresh way.

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Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Storm Shelter, J.L. Delozier

Book Review: Storm Shelter, Persephone Smith seriesJ.L. Delozier

Storm Shelter, J. Delozier

Mystery & Thriller: Storm ShelterJ.L. Delozier

Storm Shelter is a prequel novel to J.L. Delozier’s debut thriller, Type and Cross. Protagonist Persephone “Seph” Smith is a psychologist with the V.A. She also gets deployed during emergencies to crisis areas. A pending hurricane sends her from her home in Philadelphia to a shelter in Texas, but she quickly finds that the hurricane is the least of the problems facing the team and the evacuees.

 

Soon after the storm arrives, strange things begin happening. A volunteer with diabetes has a blood sugar crisis, despite wearing his insulin pump. At first this seems like a normal deviation for someone under stress, but the behaviors and emotions of both staff and evacuees seem off, more than can be explained by just the storm. Then, a cook is viciously murdered. As Seph and the other staff look for the murderer, they realize it is only the beginning. Something terrible is happening inside the shelter, and no one is safe.

 

Seph finds that it is difficult to know who to trust and who is affected by the mysterious problems. The team leader is a doctor with a hair-trigger temper. The head of security is a Bronx native without a lot of experience. The priest is a little too fascinated with women’s feet. With these allies, confronting the challenges posed by the evacuees is hard enough. The evacuees include two half-brother gangsters with Aryan leanings, a vietnam veteran with mental issues, a pedophile cowboy, and a hooker with a fondness for yellow. As you can tell by the descriptions, Delozier brings in a wonderful collection of secondary characters to add flavor to the story.

 

Storm Shelter is Delozier’s (and Seph Smith’s) second book, but it’s easy to see why the author recommends reading this one first. It takes place about a decade before the events in Type and Cross. Smith is younger, in a different place in her career, and in a different place in her life. She is less sure of herself, less experienced in trusting her gut, and less able to lead others to follow her. In Storm Shelter, though, she begins to find the toughness we see more fully developed in Type and Cross. Throughout the book we see her grow, become willing to step up when she is needed, and by the end take charge and become the leader her team needs.

 

Delozier’s own experience as a doctor helping in emergency situations shows in her writing. Storm Shelter  is full of small details that make the situation more real. The team suffers from exhaustion as the week progresses. The coffee is awful, the food is bad, and they can’t get clean. Their appearance suffers as their tiredness increases. People make poor decisions, tempers are frayed, and the characters reveal more about themselves in their exhaustion than they do when they are more in control of themselves. I suspect that this is reflective of reality in those situations–though hopefully without a similar body count!

 

Storm Shelter is not a long book, but it is a tight thriller with a dramatic conclusion. Seph Smith is a heroine worth following. I hope that Dr. Delozier has many more sequels–or prequels–to come.

 

Also see:

Book Review: Type and Cross, Persephone Smith series, J.L. Delozier

 

Storm Shelter, J. Delozier

 

Book Review: Storm ShelterJ.L. Delozier

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam Trilogy: Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the FloodMaddAddam

 

What can be said about Margaret Atwood that has not already been said? Winner of the Booker Prize, perennial finalist for the Nobel Prize for Literature, author of poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest living writers in the world today. With current television series inspired by her works The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace airing on Hulu and Netflix, she may be more well-known and well-loved than at any previous point in her amazing career.

 

Her MaddAddam Trilogy takes place in a future dystopian world that is vividly drawn and frighteningly believable. Many of the characters are in all three books, but the books are not set sequentially and the stories stand very well on their own. Oryx and Crake tells the story of Snowman. Known as “Jimmy” before the plague that destroyed most of humanity, Snowman thinks he may be the last human left alive. He has been put in charge of watching over the “Crakers,” a group of genetically modified humans who were designed by his friend, Crake. The Crakers are a simple people. They know they were created by Crake. They remember their first teacher, Oryx. They know that Snowman is their friend, sent by Crake to tell them stories. But Crake designed them with limited intelligence, believing that high intelligence was one of the problems of humanity. The story unfolds in two ways, with Snowman telling the Crakers a version of history that they can grasp, and with Jimmy remembering his life and his relationships with his best friend Glenn–later known as Crake–and the woman they both loved who took the name of Oryx. Crake and Oryx is unsparing. Jimmy does not look at his life heroically. He is an indifferent student, his family stinks, and he is emotionally distant and cruel toward women. Glenn/Crake is brilliant but cold, dismissive toward most people and disgusted with humanity as a species. The story of how Jimmy became involved with Crake’s experiments is revealed gradually, as Jimmy reflects on his own childhood and adolescence, as he tells fanciful tales to the Crakers, and as he prepares to leave the Crakers in search of food and supplies that he needs to stay alive. Through most of the book we are uncertain whether Jimmy/Snowman is the last remaining human. The book ends, though, with Jimmy learning that a small group of other survivors passed through the Crakers’ village while he was away. He follows their trail, uncertain whether these fellow survivors may be a threat to the Crakers.

 

The Year of the Flood is set in the same world, but is a very different book. Told from two perspectives, it jumps back and forth between characters and time, each section introduced by a sermon and a hymn from the “God’s Gardeners” religious sect that flourished shortly before the plague began. Ren is a dancer and prostitute in a men’s club. She spent part of her childhood with the God’s Gardeners sect, where she became friends with Amanda. At different times both she and Amanda dated Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake. Toby did not completely buy into the doctrines of God’s Gardeners, but she appreciated their help rescuing her from a dangerous situation and became one of their leaders. Ren and Toby’s stories intertwine, and also connect them with Snowman/Jimmy, Crake/Glenn, and the events introduced in Oryx and Crake. Their perspective, though, is different. Pre-plague society stratified into wealthy compounds inhabited by employees of high-tech companies and the “pleeblands,” inhabited by ordinary people. The pleeblands were poor, gang-riddled, and dangerous. Jimmy and Glenn grew up in the wealthy, high-tech compounds. God’s Gardeners were in the pleeblands, as were Toby and Ren through most of the story. There were some limited opportunities to move between the two strata, and Toby and Ren do spend time in both, but the perspective of this book is clearly a view from the bottom. When the plague strikes, both are fortunate to be isolated and avoid infection. Eventually they find each other and go after Amanda, who has been captured by some ex-cons who also survived the plague. They find her with her captors at the same time as Jimmy shows up. We learn then that this was the group Jimmy was pursuing also, and realize that they are indeed a threat to the Crakers and to any other survivors they might prey upon.

 

MaddAddam moves the story forward in time. Toby is the main character, but we also learn the story of her companion, Zeb, and the story of the beginnings of God’s Gardeners. Zeb was also one of the leaders of God’s Gardeners, and through his story we learn more about the group and its founder, Adam. MaddAddam revisits much of the same time period as the previous books, this time through Zeb’s story, but it also moves forward as a band of humans and the Crakers come together to create a new type of community. Toby also takes over for the injured Snowman/Jimmy as the narrator of stories for the Crakers. This book has a great deal more humor in it than the other two books, as Toby finds her way through telling stories to people who like to interrupt with questions, songs, and other challenges.

 

Margaret Atwood describes her work as “speculative fiction,” differentiating it from “science fiction.” Her distinction is controversial, but very important to her. Science fiction (to her) involves stories about things that can’t happen yet. Interstellar travel, time travel, or aliens may or may not ever be possible, but they are not possible yet. Speculative fiction, by comparison, involves stories of things that actually could happen. Climate change is happening. Pollution is happening. Plagues have happened, and genetically engineered plagues (and animals and people) are real possibilities based on current technology.

 

I am not convinced there is a bright red line distinguishing “science fiction” from “speculative fiction,” but if she is writing about a world that might happen, it is chilling. The world of MaddAddam is terrible before the plague. Much of the world has been altered through global warming, with major coastal cities flooded and large swaths of agricultural land desertified. Pollution has made air in many cities almost toxic. Greed and corruption have sharply separated the haves and have nots. The plague does indeed clear pollution from the air rather quickly, but survivors struggle to find food. Not every human who survived the plague is willing to work together–those who were criminals before do not change their character after. This is a dark and dangerous world, and the trilogy does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.”

 

Not everyone will enjoy this trilogy, but it is well worth the time to read it. Margaret Atwood has an extraordinary gift with language. Her prose is often beautiful but can also be spare and blunt when it needs to be, utterly hilarious in one chapter and wrenchingly painful in the next. Each of the three books is different enough that they could be mistaken for works from three authors, yet they are also seamlessly woven together into one inseparable story. The story itself is frighteningly realistic. Atwood may not write about aliens, but her monsters are all the more real because they are the monsters we rightfully fear the most: those that dwell in the hearts of humans.

 

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

Book Review: The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

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SciFi Mystery: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

 

Part fantasy, part science fiction, part mystery, and all Scalzi. The Dispatcher is set in a near future when the rules of death have changed. People no longer die violently. For reasons no one understands, with no warning or preparation, violent death just stopped.

 

Tony Valdez is a “dispatcher” in Chicago. If someone is nearing death from natural causes, it is his job to kill them. Quickly, violently, and legally. When someone is killed like this, 999 out of 1000 times their body disappears from the site and they immediately wake up naked in their own bed. Death is still possible from natural causes and from suicide, but murder is next to impossible. Shoot or stab someone and their body resets to the state it was in roughly twelve hours before–and they find themselves at home, memories intact, in need of new clothes.

 

Dispatchers legally work in hospitals and limited other venues. If an operation goes wrong, the patient is killed by the dispatcher and wakes up at home. However, there is a demand for their services as well in less legal settings. Fight clubs now feature deadly weapons; dispatchers make sure that the severely injured are reset to fight another day. Young rich men have started dueling again, using swords to maim each other for real and perceived slights. Rather than face lifelong crippling injuries, the dispatcher makes sure that the healthy walk home, and the wounded…wake up at home. No one knows how this works. No one knows why this works. But it works almost every time.

 

Valdez is called in to help the police solve a mystery. A fellow dispatcher has disappeared. Clearly he has not been murdered, as his body has not reappeared at home. But equally clearly, something has happened to him. Police found signs of a struggle at his home, along with some blood. The only lead they have is his occasional involvement in services on the grayer side of the law. Valdez may have been the last person to speak with him before he was taken, and his knowledge of the ins and outs of dispatching on both sides of the law makes him valuable to the police detective working the case.

 

In this short (130 pages) novella, Scalzi raises a number of interesting questions about life and death. How does police work change when murder is no longer easy? How does crime change? If violence does not result in death, is killing someone who is about to die from natural causes giving them a second chance? At what point should we let someone go? And if you cannot murder someone in the old fashioned way, how can you successfully murder someone? These questions challenge us in these days when violence easily leads to death, but the questions and the answers both change when death is no longer a natural consequence of violence.

 

Another reason to read Scalzi: characters representing different populations. Tony Valdez is an urban Chicago hispanic, not a group typically chosen for the protagonist of a science fiction story. Detective Nona Langdon is an African American woman. Although their personal characteristics are not central to the story, it is refreshing to see characters in books that reflect the reality of our multi-ethnic society. The easy choice for an author is to write characters that look and sound like her or him. John Scalzi often chooses to take the more difficult and rewarding choice of populating his fictional worlds with the same type of people we see in the real world. This adds a layer of realism to a book with a very fantastical premise.

 

The Dispatcher is a quick read. Although it is short, it is packed tightly with plot, characters, dialog, and intriguing ideas. I easily read it in one afternoon, but I suspect story will come back to my thoughts again and again like a dispatched character from the story. 

 

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Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Agent in Place, Mark Greaney

Book Review: Agent in PlaceMark Greaney

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Thriller: Agent in PlaceMark Greaney

The Gray Man is back. Courtland Gentry is an assassin. After years running from the CIA, he has made his peace with them and even worked for them in Asia. But not all went well with that op, and he fears he may have lost some of his edge when he developed feelings for a Russian agent he met. So Gentry takes a job capturing the mistress of the Syrian president. Although she is guarded by elite Syrian forces, this is the Gray Man. What could go wrong? Plenty!

 

Agent in Place takes us from Paris to Damascus in a thriller that grips you from the first page and refuses to let go until the last. In this seventh installment of his Gray Man series, Mark Greaney shows us the hardened mercenary we have come to know already. But this version of the Gray Man has found some softness. Gentry has always fought for what he deemed to be “right.” He killed people who deserved to be killed, he spared the innocent and the bystanders, and he refused jobs that did not meet his standards. So, when he is offered a job by Syrian opposition forces in exile to strike a blow against the mass murderer in charge of the country by capturing his mistress, he accepts. The plan is to free her from his clutches so she can testify to his double-crossing the Russians, thus removing his support from his primary backers. But there is a small complication: her four-month old son is still in Damascus. She will not speak out until he is safe, and only the Gray Man has the tools and the courage to rescue the child.

 

Mark Greaney is an expert in weaving a complicated plot that still manages to stay tied together. Agent in Place also shows us some new sides to a familiar character. Gentry does not know anything about children, especially babies. Facing Syrian intelligence agents and special forces, he is completely flummoxed by the formula needs of the infant. It does not occur to him that traveling with a baby means packing diapers. It also shows glimpses of wit. Deep in the Syrian desert, surrounded by fighters from many sides, he complains that his travel agent had told him he was heading to a “clothing optional” resort. Still, for those who go into the book looking for action, there is plenty to satisfy.

 

I was surprised by one major plot twist which seemed to rely completely on luck, or perhaps deus ex machina. Greaney is a good enough writer to make it work, but I have to admit that seeing Gentry get bailed out of a hopeless situation by getting unexpectedly captured by good guys felt a bit contrived. I suppose that occasionally even the Gray Man deserves a little bit of good luck–he certainly has more than his share of bad luck–but when a character known for using his wits, his skills, and more than a little violence to get out of trouble is accidentally captured by actual allies in the midst of the Syrian civil war, it was a bit disconcerting.

 

Mark Greaney puts a lot into his novels. He has degrees in political science and international relations, both of which play major roles in all of his books. In preparation for his novels, Greaney has traveled to dozens of countries, interviewed leaders at the Pentagon, and taken training in weapons and combat from actual military trainers. The preparation shows, as his locations feel authentic, the descriptions of combat are intense and heart pounding, and the politics and international intrigue feels pulled from the headlines.

 

All in all, it was a typically satisfying Greaney novel. The good guy won, taking out a bunch of bad guys, and the Agent in Place was indeed in the right place and at the right time. Not a bad beach read.

 

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Book Review: Agent in PlaceMark Greaney