Book Review: Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith


Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Poetry: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is the Poet Laureate of the United States. Her 2018 collection of poems Wade in the Water  is her first collection since earning that distinction. The title poem of Wade in the Water tells a story:

One of the women greeted me.

I love you, she said. She didn’t

Know me, but I believed her


I love you in the water

Where they pretended to wade,

Singing that old blood-deep song

That dragged us to those banks

And cast us in.


This may be a reference to the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which repeats the chorus,

Wade in the water, wade in the water, children,

Wade in the water.

God’s gonna trouble the water.


Like the spiritual, the poems of Wade in the Water speak to the longing and pain of a people familiar with oppression. Smith’s mother was a devoutly Christian woman, very religious in her practice. Smith’s father worked on Hubble space telescope. With one foot in the sciences, one foot in faith, and firmly rooted in the African-American experience, Smith’s poems expose a world of hurt and longing, a world of hope tempered by experience with regret. The woman who greeted her with “I love you” appeared to mean it. The speaker believed it. Yet it goes on to say that this greeting’s result was “a terrible new ache/Rolled over in my chest…she continued/Down the hall past other strangers,/Each feeling pierced suddenly/By pillars of heavy light.” Love, real love, unconditional, freely given love, warmly and openly gifted, yet opening a wound in the recipient who knows that the vulnerability love requires exposes a lifetime of hurt.


Wade in the Water is separated into four sections. The first set (which include the titular poem) have a strong spiritual and cosmological bent to them. Poems titled “Garden of Eden,” “The Angels,” “Realm of Shades” hint at the deeper perspective. These poems talk about God, about “the holy,” about angels, not in a sense necessarily recognized (or likely approved) by any specific denomination, but more about the acknowledgment of a world beyond the visible. These are not church-lady poems, intended to celebrate faith or reinforce commitment. These poems acknowledge ugliness in this world and see God more as a curious but ultimately disinterested observer of the earth and the human condition, mildly appalled and disgusted sometimes but not involved or willing to participate in the squalor he sees.


The second set are historically based “erasure poems.” These poems take historical American documents, including the Declaration of Independence and several letters from black Civil War soldiers and veterans, and “erase” parts of them to put them into poetic form. In some ways, these poems seemed to be the most personal. Highlighting phrases from Jefferson’s declaration gives them new visibility and power, and in this context reminds us that although those words speak eloquently to the plight of all oppressed peoples, they were written by a man who owned slaves and sold his own children borne by the slave he repeatedly raped.


The third set is more contemporary and overtly political, giving voice to ongoing pain experienced by people today. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” opens with the powerful lines, “Our bodies run with ink dark blood./ Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.” “Watershed” looks like it may be a hybrid poem including erasures from DuPont Chemical memos and legal briefs, telling the effects of corporate indifference to the poisoning of people and animals by their products. I suspect the lawyers and corporate officials who wrote those messages did not realize how poetic or how prophetic their words would become.


The final set seems more personal, including a beautiful tribute called “4 ½” to a child who reminds me of many other 4 ½ year olds I’ve met. Delightful, exasperating, whimsical and serious, this child clearly brings delight and mirth simply by being. These poems do not avoid broader themes, but they bring those themes home to the experience of the individual.


Smith’s poems are beautiful. They reflect a world that is not always beautiful, that is often ugly and cruel and capricious and evil. The reflect a failure of institutions, of governments, of corporations, and of the supernatural to protect the defenseless. Indeed, far too often they oppress the very people they claim to serve. But in revealing these scars on our history and on our society, Smith gives voice and meaning to those who’ve endured them. Her topics may not be beautiful, but her poetry is. Wade in the Water troubles the waters, revealing depths in both the subject matter and the poet.

See this video to hear Tracy K. Smith read her poem.


Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

2018 Hugo Awards, Dave Marvin

2018 Hugo Awards 

Dave Marvin

2018 Hugo Awards, Dave Marvin

Starting a book blog has been an unexpected journey in many regards. As readers, as fans, we have long admired authors. Some people go for rockstars, some go for movie stars, but for us, authors are the people who capture our imaginations and inspire our dreams. What we did not know, having met very few authors, is how warm and accessible they are. The thought that authors would retweet our tweets never occurred to us, let alone reach out to us to thank us for reviewing their works. I must admit, I had very mixed emotions when one author notified me with a correction for my review: I was embarrassed by my mistake, but I was also thrilled to realize that, “OHMYGODSHEREADTHEACTUALREVIEW!!!!!!”


I’ve never been to the Hugo Awards (or any other awards show), but this year I really wanted to watch them. I won’t pretend I have any real relationship with any of the authors. We have never met. But some of them have retweeted Scintilla, some have sent a “thank you,” and several have blessed us with their stories and novels. This year, watching the Hugos was not just another awards ceremony. It was a chance to see people I had glimpsed through their writing, people whose art I believe in, people who have become more special to me than I ever thought possible.


So I watched not as a disinterested observer, but as a cheerleader. I loved the books by nominees for the John W. Campbell award for new authors: Rivers Solomon, Sarah Kuhn, and the winner, Rebecca Roanhorse (she also won for best short story, an AMAZING work called “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”). I look forward to reading those by other nominees. Nnedi Okorafor was up for two awards and won for Akata Witch, a YA novel that is beautiful and compelling. Nnedi Okorafor is actually one of the reasons I wanted to write about what I was reading: her Binti series and her young adult books moved me and I wanted to shout and dance and let the world know how amazing and special they were and I didn’t have an outlet until my brilliant wife said, “Hey, let’s create” and now I get to shout and dance all over the keyboard.


If you have read Scintilla at all, you have figured out that I am a big fan of John Scalzi. His book, The Collapsing Empire was up for best novel. It didn’t win, but I am not disappointed. The winner, for the third year in a row, was the incomparable N.K. Jemison. Someday I will review her books, because she is incredible. As gifted a writer as she is, though, her acceptance speech was powerful and passionate and gut-wrenching because of its raw honesty. Her first novel was rejected because “only black people” would want to read a novel by a black writer. That sickened me. I hate to think that we are that shallow, that we can only enjoy writers who are “like” us.


I am white, straight, cis male, middle-aged, and its fair to say I have my pick of writers who are “like” me. And some of them I like. Some of them. But what I love are writers who show me new perspectives, who invite me into their worlds and allow me to look through their eyes. My heart is affected by writers who are willing to say, “walk with me and talk with me and see things with me and listen to my stories” and when I shut up and listen and walk and look I can recognize that this is a big beautiful world full of stories, some sad and some ugly and some tragic and some appalling but all of them full of beautiful lovely people.


Some of those people were at the Hugos. Some of them won. But because they are telling their stories, all of us willing to listen and to read and to care are better.

For more information see

2018 Hugo Awards, Dave Marvin

Book Review: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America, William H. Frey

Book Review: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking AmericaWilliam H. Frey


Nonfiction: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking AmericaWilliam H. Frey

Diversity Explosion was written in 2014, and in just four years it is fascinating to see both how prescient the book is and how premature some of its optimism appears.  Much of the book is fairly straightforward demographic analysis. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in noting that immigration and birth patterns show growth in minority populations and decline in white populations. Indeed, June 2018 headlines noted that a majority of states now have more white deaths than births. That this trend now reflects a majority of states was news, but only in the sense of “it’s here.” Anyone paying attention to demographics and statistics knew it was coming a long time ago.


What does stand out in the book is its optimistic tone. Frey believes that the growing diversity of America is a positive trend for the future of our country. He sees trends in many places showing less segregation, more intermarriage, better economic prospects for minority and immigrant populations, and extrapolates that this could mean less racial tension, more integration, and overall improvement in race relations in America.


William H. Frey is an expert in this field. A fellow of the Brookings Institution, Frey has long taught demographics at the University of Michigan. His Ph.D. is from Brown University. His academic and professional credentials do not keep him from writing with an engaging and approachable style that makes this book easy to read despite its obvious depth of research (and there are lots of colored charts and pictures, so it’s pretty, too.)


I want to believe him. I really, really do. I agree with much of what he says. Having lived in New York City, Denver, and Los Angeles, I am familiar with communities that are very diverse, even “majority-minority” populations. I love it. The best Thai food I’ve ever had was a few miles from the Buddhist temple in Sun Valley, CA (part of LA). I was asked to sing with a Filipino choir that practiced in Orange County, CA (thanks to my own interracial marriage to a New Yorker with Filipino parents). The first marriage I performed as a pastor was between a Nicaraguan immigrant (Hispanic) and an African-American. Our country is enriched by immigrants. My own DNA is (by family tradition, not by testing) a mixed bag of European countries, possibly with a seasoning of Native American.


I want to think that my multiracial children will live in a country where they are judged by the “content of the character” and not by their skin tones or their facial features. I want to believe that my grandchildren will be proud that their grandparents defied convention of their time and married “out.” I want to believe that my friends who are black and brown and white live in a country that honors their contributions, celebrates their heritage, and appreciates their status.


The current political situation, though, gives me great pause. I thought I would never be prouder of my country than I was in 2008 when we elected Barack Obama: a mixed-race man who was raised for awhile in Asia! I was wrong–I was prouder still when he was reelected in 2012. I allowed myself to believe that the immigrant-friendly, racially-open country Frey foresees in this book was actually the country I lived in.


Then came 2016.


After their loss in 2008, Republicans did an intensive self-reflective study that concluded their rhetoric and their policies turned off people of color, particularly immigrants. The study urged their politicians to chart a new course, evaluate areas of commonality between Republican positions and values espoused by different ethnicities, compromise or even change positions in areas that were not core Republican tenets to reach out and broaden their base. Their conclusion was that if Republicans failed to become a more inclusive party, they would be left behind by the demographic changes that were transforming America.


It remains to be seen whether the anti-immigrant, racially divisive governance of the current administration is a brief anomaly or marks the beginning of a much darker time in US politics. Diversity Explosion shows us what America is becoming. Closing the borders may delay the inevitable, but demography will win. Our country is changing, like it or not. Diversity Explosion takes a very hopeful point of view, that these changes will empower our country and her citizens, and that we will all be richer for participating in this transformation. I fully agree with this view. I only hope that those who disagree will read this book and reflect on its perspective.


Book Review: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking AmericaWilliam H. Frey

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost WorldSteve Brusatte


Nonfiction: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

Most little kids love dinosaurs. I know I did. I read about them. I had dinosaur toys. I had posters in my bedroom, one showing a timeline of the Mesozoic: Triassic to Jurassic to Cretaceous and the dinosaurs that lived during each era. (I might have been a nerd.) Now, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte has rekindled that childhood amazement with these creatures of long ago. Brusatte’s book reads almost like a novel, with exciting characters (both human and saurian) and plot twists galore. Although the ending is predictable–spoiler: the dinosaurs do still die in the fallout from an asteroid collision–the journey is fun and fascinating. Well written, exciting, and interesting, this is a book for any dinosaur fan from precocious tween to those of us who risk being called “dinosaurs” ourselves.


Brusatte has collected fossils, stories, and friends from all over the world. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs starts in China, where he was invited by a friend to examine a newly discovered fossil of a dinosaur with a feature long suspected but difficult to find. He writes about trying to find his way through Beijing, finding the right train despite not reading Chinese, traveling with his Chinese friend/colleague through the country to Jinzhou, and arriving at the site where the fossil awaited their inspection. And before we have met a single dinosaur, before we have been introduced to any exotic terminology, we realize we are on an adventure with someone who loves what he does! I’m just going to say it: this guy digs fossils.


(Rim shot.)


Dad jokes aside, Brusatte and his fellow paleontologists are a huge part of this story. From the Bone Wars of the 1800s, where not-so-high-minded ivy-league professors hired people to dig up fossils in the western US (and mess with the digs and fossils of their rivals), to current scholars who get cool nicknames like “the rat pack” and who have sometimes colorful back stories. I am not sure how learning to “deseminate” and inseminate pigs prepared someone for a career in paleontology, but it probably makes for some rather earthy stories around campfires! Brusatte writes with affection and respect for these people whose love for dinosaurs sends them digging in far off and difficult areas, sometimes at personal risk. Crossing a river on a broken foot to get to an exposed fossil sounds incredibly painful, but it’s just one of the many things these women and men do to advance the science of these ancient creatures.


And the science is advancing. The fossil in the opening chapter, the one Brusatte traveled to Jinzhou, China, to see? It was a dinosaur preserved with clear impressions in the stone of feathers! Several more fossils have been discovered showing feathered dinosaurs, showing that dinosaurs are still among us. They no longer dwarf school buses, they no longer have teeth the size of a man’s arm (or actually have teeth at all), but birds are the living legacy of T-Rex and triceratops and all the other residents of the real Jurassic world. Science also shows that many of the attributes we see in modern birds began with their ancient forebears. Rapid growth, the kind many birds still experience, explains how a brontosaurus could go from an egg to a 40-ton behemoth in the span of a single lifetime. Light but strong bones explain how those giants could move, and air pockets within the bones explain how heat could be dispelled by creatures of that size. These are traits common in birds today and seen within the bones of fossilized dinosaurs.


Other research is exploring what colors dinosaurs were, based on microscopic analysis of their fossils! Apparently, individual cells can not only be fossilized, but pigment cells come in different shapes, and those shapes can reveal secrets about color. Computer analysis today is showing how dinosaurs moved, how fast they ran, even modeling behaviors such as likelihood of pack hunting. If T-Rex was not terrifying before, consider that the newest research indicates that it hunted in packs! And, yes, it had depth perception, so the Jurassic Park movie trick of standing very still might have made you a less interesting snack, but would not have protected you.


The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a beautifully written, excitingly told book about an endlessly fascinating subject. It does not make me want to live in a world with dinosaurs–they would eat me, quickly and painfully. But it does make me want to visit a museum again and marvel at the clues they left behind of their lives. If you enjoy science writing at its best, if you are or know a fan of dinosaurs, or if you want to encourage someone to see how exciting research (and researchers) can be, this book makes a great addition to your library or a great gift to someone else.


Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost WorldSteve Brusatte

Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth,  Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans


Nonfiction Science: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

The premise of Evolving Ourselves is simple. Human evolution has not stopped. It has accelerated. We are making unprecedented changes to our world, our lifestyle, our behavior, our environment, and those changes are making unprecedented changes in us. Evolving Ourselves boldly asserts that we are redefining homo sapiens in unknown ways, most of them probably good, and the potential to make further changes to our species is at hand.


Virtually all of human history has been intimately tied to nature. People grew up in small villages, rural communities, family farms, surrounded by forests and plains and animals and jungles and dirt. Life was dirty. Even a century ago, fewer than 2 in 10 people lived in cities–and cities were largely dirtier and less sanitary than rural areas. Modern cities would be unrecognizable marvels to our great-great grandparents. Clean, sanitary, with waste disposal and running water and hospitals and health departments. The percentages have flipped, with 80% of Americans living in urban centers and 54% of the world living in cities. Life expectancies have shot up as well, from an average life span in the 40s to one in the 70s through much of the world–in the 80s in some countries. Child mortality is down, overall health has improved, and clearly life is better for many, many people.


There are some consequences to these changes as well, though. Allergies are rare among children who grow up on farms, but they are quite common among the more urbane. The cleaner the environment a child grows up in, the more likely she is to have a severe allergy problem. The root causes of autism are unknown (though vaccines have been ruled out), but modernity has brought an epidemic of autism-spectrum disorders with it. Antibiotics and vaccines have conquered many of the killers of previous generations, but they are leading to the evolution of “superbugs” that are resistant to every drug we currently have available. Our divorce from nature has given us longer and healthier lives, but sometimes those lives are also prone to mental disorders that are less common among those who spend more time outdoors. Breastfed babies usually require vitamin D supplements, now, because their mothers do not get enough sunlight.


Evolving Ourselves by no means rejects natural selection as the primary driver for evolution. But it accepts the newer understanding that not all changes require multiple generations to manifest. One pivotal study has been done of families in Europe following World War II. When the Germans began losing the war, they subjected some areas to great deprivation. Women who were pregnant during this period of famine gave birth to smaller babies than average. Surprisingly, women who were not pregnant during the famine but still experienced the suffering also gave birth to smaller babies. Decades later, the daughters born to those mothers ALSO gave birth to smaller than average babies. These children were also more prone to other health issues than similar populations without the history of famine.


Genetic studies have concluded that the famine changed the way a specific gene operated. This gene and its altered operational instructions both passed to children of those mothers–and despite decades of plenty, the gene and instructions passed again to a third generation. Studies showing that children have been getting larger and populations becoming more obese may be a reflection of similar genetic changes that are occurring.


The last part of Evolving Ourselves considers potential futures where humans deliberately rewrite our own genetic code to guide evolution of our species. This is obviously quite controversial, and the authors try to wade carefully through these waters. Some work is already being done to address severe genetic abnormalities that impact lives and longevity. Few would argue with genetic manipulations that would cure diseases in adults and children. More controversial are genetic edits that might “enhance” our bodies or our minds. Do we want designer children, with genetics that give them better athletic or academic ability? Can, or should, we stop this from happening? If/when our species expands to other planets, will we need to genetically engineer those explorers and colonists to endure space, withstand alien environments, and live long enough to succeed? The authors take a very optimistic view toward these things. I am not fully persuaded that we have the wisdom, trust, or fairness to see these changes done well…but I am becoming less confident that we have the ability to prevent it from happening. Gene modification is too appealing, and becoming too easy, and I suspect the genie has already escaped the lamp or will very soon.


Evolving Ourselves is written for a general audience with a scientific interest. I found it easy to read, sometimes quite funny, and always very approachable. It is informative and understandable and very, very interesting. I think anyone interested in science, evolution, genetics, and the future of humanity will find it a fascinating addition to their bookshelf.


Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

Book Review: Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman

Book Review: Cave of BonesAnne Hillerman


Mystery: Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman

Cave of Bones is the fourth novel by Anne Hillerman set in the Dinetah, the homeland of the Navajo people. Continuing with characters established by her late father, Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman succeeds in making this series her own. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are still active characters in her books, but Jim Chee’s wife, Bernadette Manuelito, has become the main protagonist in the books. Cave of Bones may be her best work yet in this series.


Officer Manuelito owes a fellow officer a favor. Therefore, despite her distaste for the task, she is driving to a remote campsite to talk to a group of troubled girls. Upon arriving, though, she is informed that one of the girls and one of the leaders have disappeared. The girl turns up at camp soon after Manuelito, but the counselor cannot be found. The search for this counselor involves much of the book, involving the missing man’s boyfriend and sister, an unpleasant state police officer, and questions about the looting of Native burial sites. Questions also arise about funds for the group that sponsored the trip, questions asked mainly by the mother of the girl who had been missing. Manuelito finds herself in the midst of these mysteries, aided as always by the wisdom and warmth of now retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.


Meanwhile, her husband, Jim Chee, is in training in Santa Fe, where he is charged with checking in on Bernadette’s sometimes wayward sister, Darlene. Chee is also asked to look into a possible missing Navajo man. Soon, he finds himself mixing police work with family responsibilities, and finding both to be challenging.


The result is a complex, interwoven plot that successfully keeps several narratives going simultaneously, then brings them together in a very satisfying ending. Hillerman books, whether written by father Tony or daughter Anne, follow a familiar motif. This is not a criticism–this is part of their attraction to me. They show a deep respect and appreciation for the Navajo people and culture. They celebrate the beauty of New Mexico. They follow the police procedural mystery textbook (if that exists). And they catch the bad guys. There are reasons why shows like Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, etc., are among the most popular shows on TV. Cave of Bones and the other books in this series follow a very similar format and nail it.


If you are a fan of this series, Cave of Bones is a welcome continuation. Using established characters and the eternal Dinetah setting, Anne Hillerman has given us her best work to date. If you are unfamiliar with the series, Cave of Bones stands on its own. It would work well to introduce you to a series that for almost five decades and with two writers has given us a glimpse into the world of the Navajo and the land they love.


Book Review: Cave of BonesAnne Hillerman

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, SingJesmyn Ward


Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Fiction: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a deep, complex, layered book that follows a family through Mississippi and through some terrible events. Jojo is just a boy. He lives with his grandparents, Pop and Mam, and his little sister, Kayla. His mother, Leonie, lives in the house but is not particularly maternal. Jojo actually calls her by her first name rather than “Mom” or anything like that. Jojo’s father, Michael, is in jail. Michael is white, Leonie is black, and the family is poor, living in a small Mississippi town near the coast.


As the story unfolds, we learn that Pop and Mam had a son, Given, who was murdered in a racially motivated killing several years before Jojo was born. We also learn that Pop had been sent to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison many decades earlier for the “crime” of being near his brother, who was wanted. Throughout the book we see the tragic and direct ways racism impacts this family. Pop was jailed primarily for being black. Given was killed for the same reason. Jojo is held at gunpoint and handcuffed by a white policeman, while an adult white woman is allowed to stand apart. Michael’s parents reject his family because of Leonie’s color, refusing any relationship with their grandchildren Jojo and Kayla. These realities of everyday life are just part of the fabric of the family’s life.


The bulk of the story is the trip to and from Parchman to pick up Michael. Michael has served his time and is eager to come back to his family. The trip is challenging. Jojo barely knows his father and Kayla does not know him at all. Mam has cancer and is dying, so Jojo does not want to leave her to come. Leonie insists that the children go with her. As the miles pass we learn more of her story, and in Jojo’s memories we learn more of Pop’s story. When they get to Parchman Prison they pick up two passengers. Michael is ready to go. Richie is also there. He is a ghost, a former inmate who Pop had tried to protect and take care of during his own prison stay. Richie sees Jojo and recognizes him as Pop’s grandson. Wanting to see his former guardian–and wanting to learn the story of how he died–Richie attaches himself to the family and travels home with them.


Jesmyn Ward won her second National Book Award with Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her first was for 2011’s Salvage the Bones. Sing, Unburied, Sing beautifully tells several stories. We read about Pop’s time in prison, a man who didn’t belong there in the first place. Given’s short life is remembered. Leonie’s love for Michael, a breathless need for each other that does not necessarily bring out the best in either partner. Her descent into addiction. Richie, a little boy about Jojo’s age who was sent to prison and who did not survive. And Jojo, old before his time, faced with a dying grandmother, an addicted mother, an absentee father, and left with being the primary caregiver for his toddler sister. All of these stories are told with warmth and sympathy, but also with unflinching honesty. After decisions are made, whether they are wise or foolish, the time for apologies is done. People do what they must do, and in the face of poverty, racism, drug addiction, sometimes what must be done is difficult and painful.


Jesmyn Ward pulls you in, weaves her threads around you, and leaves you with a deep tapestry. Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautiful and haunting, a book that is hopeful and painful. I was deeply moved by it. You will be, too.


See our — Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward


Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward


Book Review: Sing, Unburied, SingJesmyn Ward

Book Review: Head On, John Scalzi

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi


Science Fiction/Mystery: Head On, John Scalzi

Fans of John Scalzi’s previous novel Lock In will be delighted with this 2017 sequel. Head On features the return of FBI agent Chris Shane, his partner Leslie Vann, and the world of the “Hadens,” people who have survived a usually fatal illness only to be completely frozen in bodies that cannot move. They are awake and aware, but permanently immobile. In this world, Hadens are able to physically interact by using “Integrators,” people who have had a neural implant inserted to allow their bodies to be remotely controlled, and by using “Threeps,” androids also designed to be remotely controlled by Hadens.


Agents Vann and Shane specialize in crimes involving Hadens. In Head On, an athlete is killed during a game of Hilketa. Hilketa is a sport where specially designed Threeps physically assault each other, with the goal being the literal decapitation of a specified opponent Threep and sending that removed head into a goal. Since Threeps are not alive, what could go wrong? Apparently quite a lot, as Agents Vann and Shane explore the world of professional sports, where sex and money lead to a trail of bodies that hits too close to Shane’s home.


Scalzi specializes in these genre-bending novels and stories. Head On is fully science fiction. A world reshaped by a global plague which led to specific new technologies and adaptations? Check. But Head On is also a mystery and FBI procedural. Two agents pursuing clues that lead to a surprising conclusion? Check. The beauty of Scalzi is that neither genre suffers from the combination, and both are essential to the story. This is not a story that could be written into any other world than the Lock In universe. Agents Shane and Vann know Hadens. He is “locked in,” and spends most of his time in a threep–often one that will soon be destroyed. She was an integrator. Their relationship is often familiar to the mystery/procedural fan: good cop/bad cop, grizzled veteran/young rookie. But it is their experience with Hadens that gives them the extra insight needed to solve these challenging crimes.


Some series do not require their books to be read in order. This is not one of those series. If you have not read Lock In, stop. Go buy it or check it out, and read it first. Trust me, you will thank me. Scalzi is a funny writer, and one of the most humorous passages of Head On is in chapter 1. If you have not read Lock In, you won’t get it, and that would just be a shame. It is funny enough that I had to read it aloud to my family, but then I had to explain the background before I could read the passage, and that just took some of the joy out of the joke. Read Lock In, then read Head On, and laugh out loud. In this case, the sequence matters.


John Scalzi is one of the top writers in science fiction today, and with Head On he proves that he can be equally effective when writing mysteries. He is a busy man, with four active series currently in development (in 2018). Fortunately, the quality of his writing, his plots, and his characters, are all excellent. Head On is a winner!


Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi


Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy

Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English, Lynne Murphy


Nonfiction: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American EnglishLynne Murphy

The Prodigal Tongue is one of the funniest books I have read in a long, long time!  Lynne Murphy writes with her own (prodigal?) tongue planted firmly in cheek, or does she write with a cheeky style? Regardless, NOT irregardless!, read this book prepared to laugh. I recommend you not read it while lying next to your loved one in bed, as you will disturb her sleep by laughing aloud or immediately reading aloud a paragraph. Or more. You might read more than just a paragraph. Trust me, and learn from my errors.


Lynne Murphy is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex in England. She also writes the blog, “Separated by a Common Language,” which provide her observations on the differences between British and American English. She is quite well-positioned to opine on these matters. She is an American who teaches English to the English in England! Armed with her expertise, her experience, her sharp wit (Hey! There’s part of a chapter devoted to the word “sharp.”), and her boldness, Murphy has stormed the shores of our linguistic motherland ready to uphold the integrity and validity of American English. As our two-year-old granddaughter says in another context, “she’s feisty.”


Murphy stands firm in her defense of American English as being a legitimate heir to the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare. This is not to rate American English as better than “English English,” but neither is it worse. Despite the naysayers and pooh-poohers who scoff at the sundry sins and crimes committed (they say) by Americans every time we open our mouths, Murphy refuses to back down. England is welcome to her “colours” and her “labours” and her “-ise” endings on words that sound like “-ize” and “-ice.” American colors are just as crisp and our labors are just as strong and our language is not inferior to that spoken on the airwaves of the BBC. So have some apple pie and watch some baseball and call your mum. I mean, your mom. Lynne Murphy has got our linguistic backs.


Don’t let the fun and the funny in the book or this review fool you, though. The Prodigal Tongue is deeply researched and very well argued. Etymology and logic guide the rhetoric. Murphy’s task is made much harder by the misinformation about the two expressions of English, misinformation fed by an often gullible press. Many UK commentators express worry about the “Americanisms” that are invading “their” language. Many of their concerns are poppycock. Often, the words they use as examples of this are words that actually originated in the UK (or, less often, in Australia or another of the many countries speaking English today). The “American” penchant for removing “u” from “-our” words (colo/u/r, labo/u/r, etc.) actually began in England and migrated across the pond. American dictionaries adopted the practice, while their British counterparts reversed course.


There are certainly differences in idiom, spelling, and usage between the US and the UK. Just as profound, if not more so, are the differences within each country. Texas and Maine are further apart geographically than Scotland and Wales, but linguistically the differences are just as striking. This is more noticeable in spoken language than in written, which is true for both countries. Differences and distinctions are not errors, nor do they indicate less intelligence, education, character, or any other lack of virtue by others. Murphy calls us to celebrate the richness of a language that can accept, adapt, adopt, and become indeed a lingua franca–a phrase unironically used on both sides of the ocean to now describe English.


Murphy’s prime mission is to remind all of us blessed with this rich linguistic heritage that it is, still, a common language. We may not all carry a bumbershoot onto the lift, but we can all fix a flat. Of course, “bumbershoot” is actually an American word, and whether the flat is your car tire (tyre?) or your apartment will affect whether you need a lift or an elevator, but those are small matters.


Whether you are a Brit trying to understand your American friend, or you are an American prepping for a holiday-er, vacation-in London, The Prodigal Tongue is an enjoyable trip through the delights of our uncommon language. And stand tall, Americans! Your English is real English, no better and no worse than any other English. (Even if English accents do sound really, really cool! There’s a chapter about that.)

Note: I have corrected Dr. Murphy’s employer in this review. An earlier posted version of this review had her at the wrong university. She is at the University of Sussex. My thanks to Lynne Murphy for correcting my mistake.


Also see: Booklist: Fun Summer Reads

Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American EnglishLynne Murphy