Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Semiosis, Sue Burke

Science Fiction: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Semiosis is a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful book tracking several generations of humans colonizing a new planet. Sue Burke has created a richly imagined world full of intriguing characters trying to figure out how to live together with each other and with the dominant sentient species native to the planet. I truly loved this novel!

 

Burke’s story follows the Pax settlement for more than 100 years, from the early days of Earth-humans scrabbling for purchase on a planet they were not evolved to inhabit to their descendants coming to terms with the other two sentient species there. One of those species is native to the planet. It is a plant, capable of intentionally manipulating animals to meet its needs. The humans do not immediately recognize the intelligence of the plant, and when they do, they fear it. After all, a plant that can choose to give nourishing food in exchange for water and fertilizer could also choose to withhold that food to manipulate or control. Were that to happen, would humans be any better than a domesticated animal? And if the choices were dying from starvation and an inability to survive the rigors of the planet or acquiescing to the demands of a self-interested and sometimes manipulative plant, which would be the better and more ethical choice?

 

Fundamentally, humans would always be at the mercy of the plant once they started. It’s root network effectively meant that the plant was immortal. Memories could be preserved in special areas, protected from harm. Fruit could be modified to medicate the humans, rewarding positive behavior and punishing or modifying negative behavior. Shoots and leaves could sprout overnight in new locations, seeing and hearing anything the humans were doing. The plant might choose to act ethically, to embrace mutualism and equality with the humans. Or the plant might choose to act only in its own interests, treating the humans as animals that were “pests” or propagators. If the plant did act solely for itself, humans would be essentially helpless to resist once they became dependant on the fruit it provided for food, medicine, etc.

 

I love the way Burke develops the burgeoning relationship between the humans and the plant. Each has things they can learn from the other. Each has things they disapprove of in the other. Each has things they can provide to the other. Obviously we cannot know (yet) how a sentient plant might think, but Burke presents some very thoughtful ideas of how it might process information, how it might differ from the way animals (humans) process that information, and what strengths and weaknesses each might possess. When they, humans and plant, are presented with a crisis that challenges both, those strengths and weaknesses come to bear as they work together (and sometimes work at cross purposes) to meet that challenge. Misunderstandings abound. Cooperation is tested. Is the relationship parasitic or symbiotic? And how would adding a third species to the equation change things?

 

Burke has been playing with these ideas for a long time. The original concept for the story was published as a short story by her almost 20 years before Semiosis came out (in 2018). This novel feels like it was slow-cooked, in a very positive, delicious, amazing aroma filling the house kind of way. Each chapter has elements in them that make you think, “Ooh, that’s different.” Clearly the author has not only done her research, she has allowed the images and the possibilities and the thoughts to mature within her mind and heart. The result is a thoughtful, well-paced, deep novel. I highly recommend it.

Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Book Review: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Thriller: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Jack Reacher is 6’5” and looks nothing like Tom Cruise. That has not stopped Cruise from playing the character in two movies, and I really can’t blame author Lee Child. Honestly, if I wrote a book and Tom Cruise wanted to make a movie from it, I am sure I would say yes. Assuming I could say much of anything at all. Then again, Lee Child has written more than twenty Jack Reacher novels, with 13 of them becoming #1 bestsellers, so he probably handled the situation with much more aplomb than many of us could have. His latest, Past Tense, takes Reacher on an unexpected side trip to Laconia, New Hampshire, the childhood home of his father.

 

Reacher being Reacher, this does not become just another stop along the road. Parallel to his own visit to Laconia, a young couple stops at a hotel deep in the woods near the town. They begin to realize that although their arrival was random and unpredictable, the owners of the hotel have been looking for a couple just like them for their own purposes. It might be New Hampshire, but the checkout procedure came from The Eagles rock group song, “Hotel California.” Checking out is not an option.

 

Meanwhile, Reacher is discovering some things himself. First, finding information on his late father is much harder than it should be. And second, rescuing a young woman being assaulted in the street is one of those good deeds that does not go unpunished. Before long, Reacher is being asked to leave town by the police, is being chased by gangsters from Boston, and is being attacked by local hoodlums for their own reasons.

 

And don’t forget the hotel.

 

I recently listened to an interview with Lee Child. One thing that struck me was how committed he feels toward his fans. Apparently he is often asked why he does not write other non Jack Reacher books. Does he never tire of writing the same character? Child’s response was humble and compelling. People love the character of Jack Reacher, and their support has given Child a life he could never have imagined. He feels indebted to those fans, and works hard to keep them happy. (He even almost apologized for Tom Cruise playing the role. Can you really say no to Tom Cruise, though?) I have never felt like an author “owed” me anything. Lee Child disagrees, and works hard to pay back those fans who have been faithful to him. The result here is a book that is fun to read and lives up to expectations. We learn a bit more about the character’s family. Reacher discovers a shadowy past his father never revealed. But we don’t learn much more about Jack Reacher himself. The character and the principles he lives by became evident in the first book of the series, and this book is no different. If there is a wrong being done, he will seek to right it. If there is a mystery to be solved, he will seek to uncover it. And if you mess with him, you will regret it.

 

At the end, you have another satisfying entry into the Jack Reacher canon, one which should leave fans of Lee Child quite content that he has once again successfully met their expectations.

Book Review: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Story Collection: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People is a powerful collection of short stories exploring concepts of identity, class, race, body-image, and love among African Americans. Sometimes funny, sometimes gut-wrenching, always provocative, Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses powerful and piercing language to look frankly at issues that most authors would hesitate to address.

 

Thompson-Spires introduces us to characters who are very different than the typical characters we meet in books and stories. All of them are black, but their “blackness” is uniquely their own. Two characters who appear in multiple stories are the only African American girls in their high school. We first meet their mothers, engaged in a very pointed exchange of letters that is equally amusing and cringe-worthy. The girls themselves wrestle with their own identities: should they be friends because they are both black in a white world? Are they rivals? Are they enemies? One of the girls is large, the other is thin, and their body image also factors into their relationship.

 

Other characters wrestle with interracial relationships, with being disabled (or with stalking the disabled), with anger and lust and religion, with participating in atypical pursuits like cosplay. Most of the stories are set in southern California, which seems to add its own unique dimension to the characters’ identities. One of the characters specifically contrasts California racial identity to that experienced by people in the south, calling out his friend for his attitude toward those from the south.

 

All of these stories are fascinating and reflect a world very different from my own. What stands out to me is how different the worlds of the characters are from each other as well. Although there are certainly commonalities that transcend various differences, to say there is one “black experience” is unfair and dismissive. Some of the characters in this book have a lot superficially in common–and they don’t relate to each other at all. Two black girls in the same majority white private school can still have very different experiences based on their own physical size, their own experiences dating, their relationships with the larger African-American community, their own personalities and their attitudes toward each other and toward others. A young man who enjoys cosplaying as Japanese anime characters can feel alienated from others of his own race and not feel fully embraced by those of other races even when they share that common passion. A young woman can objectify someone based on disability just as much as another might objectify that same person based on race.

 

All of the characters have an uneasy and tortured relationship with the world around them. They struggle with their families. They struggle with their communities. They inflict wounds on themselves and on others. Not all of them survive their own stories. Thompson-Spires gives us troubled characters who are unique and individual, struggling to find out who they are. Are they identified by their skin color? Are they identified by their physical body type? Are they identified by their social or economic class? Are they identified by their choices? Are they identified by their families? The answers are always yes and no and somewhat and I don’t know…which is probably the dilemma most of us feel trying to find our way through life.

 

I do not want to pretend that I can fully relate to any of these characters. In America, my skin color comes with privileges that Thompson-Spires’ characters do not share. But although her stories are about black people, they are profoundly and deeply about people, people with loves and hurts and desires and needs and struggles, lusts and longings and confusion and mental disorder. And in many of their hopes and dreams and fears, I could see myself as well. Heads of Colored People is a powerful collection of stories, one that challenges and delights and provokes.

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Fantasy: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

 

“My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people.”

 

That may be one of the best lines I’ll ever read introducing a character. Sunny is many things. An American girl growing up in Nigeria, the daughter of two Igbo parents. An albino. And as she discovers early in the book, a Leopard Person–also known as a witch. Akata Witch is Sunny’s story, how she learned she had magical abilities, how she was embraced by a world she never knew existed, and how she found her place in that world with the help of some friends.

 

I am reminded of the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” when the Doctor tries to explain that they have entered a place that is not in their universe but it is like a soap bubble on the edge of a larger bubble except it is nothing like that but if it helps you to think of it like that then it is exactly like that.

 

My fear in writing my introduction is that it may sound like Akata Witch is similar to another series of books about a young magic worker who did not know about his abilities and was embraced by a world he never knew about and how he found his place in that world with the help of some friends. I suppose if HP were an albino American-Igbo girl who continued to attend school with ordinary students then it would be exactly like that…which is to say that it is extremely unfair to compare the two and I really don’t want to do that. Nnedi Okorafor has made some magic with Akata Witch, and it stands on its own quite well. She has won the Locus, Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards for her fiction, and the sequel to this novel won this year’s award for Best Young Adult Book which was presented at the Hugo ceremony.

 

Akata Witch could not have been written by someone unfamiliar with Nigeria. Whether the descriptions are of the feel of the air on skin, the sound of insects, the taste of the food, the smell of dust and smoke, Okorafor engages all of the reader’s senses in her book. Sunny’s albino skin is described by her school bullies as being the color of sour milk. The book simply delights on multiple levels.

 

Okorafor is one of the leading voices of Africanfuturism, a growing genre of stories that features African voices telling African stories set in the future. This genre is long overdue. Africa gave birth to us all, and now is giving birth to some exciting literature that demands attention. Okorafor has a voice that is both African and American, born in Cincinnati and teaching in Chicago, but spending a lot of time in Nigeria as well. The blend of cultures, mixed with her intelligence and experience and scholarship, helps her create unique books which put extraordinary characters into extravagantly described worlds.

 

Akata Witch features a young woman finding herself. African and American, “black” and albino, magical but living in an ordinary home and attending an ordinary school, Sunny Nwazue is a special protagonist. I loved this book, and I am excited to read the sequel.

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Fantasy: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Zelie’s mother was killed because she had magic. Many people were killed during The Raid, when magic disappeared from the world and those who once had used it were targeted by the king. Since that fateful night all those years ago, the magic was gone. Zelie had the white hair that indicated magical potential, but no magic could be found in the world. Then, a princess touches her with a mysterious scroll, and Zelie begins to find the power in herself that her mother once employed. The magic may be gone from Zelie’s world, but that is only because Tomi Adeyemi has put it into her amazing novel Children of Blood and Bone and has thus brought it into ours.

 

It’s easy sometimes to reduce stories to tropes. Hero’s journey? Check. Love story? Check. Misunderstood princess? Check. Young and untrained people discovering how to use magic? Check. And, sure, fine, those familiar themes are present in this novel. What sets a novel apart, though, is when it makes familiar ground new and exciting and different.

 

Here again, the easy and cheap thing to do is grab the obvious differences: Africa, not Europe or America. But this book is not different only because it is set in a part of the world that is underrepresented in published fantasy literature. This book is different because it is really, really good. The world building is amazing. The characters are real and flawed and heroic and common and everything you want in a character. Some of the scenes take your breath away. There is magic in this book, and it is not from the spells or the mystical powers or the artifacts. The magic is in the writing and the creativity and the depth of the story. The bookChildren of Blood and Bone may hide on the YA shelves of your local library, but it is a very mature story that should appeal to all ages. I could not put it down.

 

Two of the three main characters are female, but this is not a “girl’s” book (or a “boy’s” book–if there are such things). This is a good book. Will girls and women be thrilled to see the heroics come from a “her”? I hope so, but boys (and men) will also love to see the strength of these characters. As a reader, I also loved watching the growth and change in the characters through the course of the book. None of the three main characters is perfect, all are flawed, and all of them are different by the end than they were in the beginning. And although the next novel is perfectly set up, I have no idea what direction the characters will take in the next part of the story. I just know I am very eager to find out.

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Book Review: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Historical Fiction: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Some characters deserve to walk out of their books and live in your heart. Washington Black transcends the pages of his own novel. Esi Edugyan made the shortlist for the Man Booker prize (and several others) with this story of a young man who was born in slavery but finally comes to own his own story. If this novel doesn’t touch your heart, you are already dead.

 

Washington Black is a young man born into the brutal slavery of a Caribbean sugar plantation. Raised by a slave woman, Big Kit, he is owned by a violent master who kills slaves often. One night he is summoned to help serve dinner by the master, who is accompanied by a guest. We discover that the guest, known as “Titch,” is the master’s brother. Titch decides that Washington is the right size for his scientific experiments, and “borrows” him to help. Titch is building a lighter-than-air craft, and he needs an assistant. So, because he is the right size, Washington is chosen.

 

Soon, though, Titch learns that Washington is not just the right size physically. He may have been born into slavery, but Washington has a keen mind and an amazing artistic talent. Titch quickly begins to rely more and more upon him, looking on him more as an apprentice than as just a laborer. When calamity strikes the family and Washington’s life is in danger, Titch does not hesitate to take him and set off in his aircraft to escape.

 

What follows is a perilous trip, first to Virginia and then to Canada, fearing that bounty hunters were barely a step behind. As the years pass (and the two men separate), Washington lives on his own in Canada, then moves on to England. Yet questions abound in Washington’s mind. Why did Titch choose him? Why did Titch leave him behind? Why was he freed when Big Kit and the other slaves were not? Fundamentally, Washington wants to know who he really is, why he really is here–and also wants to deal with a large helping of survivor’s guilt. And to do this, he chases the shadows left by Titch in England and Amsterdam until finally confronting his rescuer in Morocco. And we, as readers, follow Titch in this quest, caught up with him in the maelstrom of life and emotions that make this book so compelling.

 

Edugyan reminds us that slavery in the Caribbean was brutal and violent. Slaves are routinely beaten and killed. Washington is branded, along with the other slaves on the plantation. His first crush, Emilie, becomes pregnant at age 11, most likely from being raped by their master. When she disappears, he doesn’t bother asking about her. When people leave the plantation, they are just gone. They are never seen again, and there is no point asking. Washington does not know who his mother or father are; Big Kit raises him, but never tells him who his parents are (we learn a little more later in the book, but I won’t spoil it for you). Her love is a tough love–at one point she hits him so hard that she breaks his ribs. But her fear is that he will cross a line that will get him killed–or worse–by the master or his thugs. If he attracts the wrong sort of attention, broken ribs would be the least of his problems.

 

Washington Black deserves a place in your heart and on your shelf. It is a beautiful, compelling story with one of the most powerful characters you will encounter on the page. I am glad I read it.

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Book Review: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Science Fiction: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Morris Disease was named after the first victim, little Lisa Morris, age 8. A variant of measles, Morris Disease is highly contagious, often fatal, and has the additional terrible feature of resetting the body’s immune system. Anyone who catches Morris Disease, even if they survive the initial infection, no longer has immunity against any previous disease they have caught or been immunized against. Humanity faces perhaps its worst pandemic: a disease that either kills you or opens the door for something else to do the job.

 

Dr. Isabella Gauley, pediatrician and aunt to Lisa Morris, is devastated by her loss. She wants to change the world, provide a place where children will never again be cursed by virulent diseases. In the novella, Kingdom of Needle and Bone, we read of her efforts to create an island sanctuary, one where children can grow up safely, without fear of Morris Disease, or measles or whooping cough or any of the other illnesses that have been humanity’s constant companions throughout history.

 

Sometimes the greatest monsters are the smallest. Viruses and bacteria may not hide behind doors and jump out at the unwary, but when people intentionally fail to vaccinate their children these monsters are far more deadly than those with fangs and claws. Mira Grant (a pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire) often writes of a post-pandemic earth. Notably in her Newsflesh series, Grant examines the potential effects on the world of an illness that crashes the population and continues to wreak havoc for years after. (That illness resulted in zombies, so this is not quite the same scenario as we saw there.)

 

Mira Grant books tend to walk on the horror side of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I will confess, I spent much of the time during my reading of this novella waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do not want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that this is not just a nice little story about survivors of a pandemic creating a new world for themselves. Kingdom of Needle and Bone is a Mira Grant book, and monsters are waiting for the unwary reader.

 

This is a short book and an easy read, but be forewarned: the effects of the illness on a child are described in detail. This may not be the best choice for a bedtime story for your little ones, unless they are hoping to grow up and become virologists. It is a well crafted story, though, in both plot and characters. It is also one that provokes thought. Kingdom of Needle and Bone may only have a little over 100 pages, but it probes deeply into questions of medical ethics, wealth and privilege, and how decisions about the future of the species should be made.

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Book Review: The Fated Sky, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky

Science Fiction: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

In this sequel to The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal continues the story of Elma York, the “Lady Astronaut.” The Fated Sky tells how York came to be assigned to the first mission to Mars. As she did in the first book, Kowal gives us a moving and beautiful story that is full of humanity, grace, and rock solid science. It’s a geekfest with a heart. Anyone who reads these stories and is not blown away by the scientific detail or is not moved by the heart and soul of the characters really needs to check their pulse to make sure it’s still there.

 

Elma York has become the face of the space program. Perhaps the time is right, though, for her and Nathaniel to start a family. It is the 1960s, though, Having a baby would mean the loss of her job, would mean she would be confined to Earth and no longer able to live on the moon for several months every year. She would have to give up space.

 

When her flight home from the moon misses its landing site and instead lands several states away, the passengers are held hostage by a group of “Earth Firsters,” people who deny that the climate is changing and want the money spent on colonizing space to instead be used to help those still affected by the meteorite impact. Elma uses her fame and name recognition to help save her fellow passengers. This in turn prompts the space agency to name her to the first Mars mission.

 

The Mars mission will take three years. That timetable likely means she will never be a mother. Also, the Mars team has already been preparing for over a year. Putting her on the team means bumping someone else off the team, in this case, her friend Helen. Helen was one of the few non-white members of the team, and the only Asian member. The political realities of the early 1960s, though, meant that for funding to continue the program needed its most famous participant as the face of the team–and Asians were specifically NOT needed to be the face of the team. In fact, another one of the team members was specifically selected in part for reasons of funding–a South African supporter of the apartheid regime. This becomes problematic several times during the mission, as his distaste for the other non-white members of the team creates tension among the crew.

 

Apart from the racial tensions that challenge the crew, other interpersonal tensions arise. Kowal nicely weaves those tensions into the story, showing how they would be an expected and even natural part of a multi-year mission when the only other people you encountered were those on board your ship. Multiple external challenges also confront the mission. Two of the fourteen crew members died during the trip. Illness sweeps through one of the ships. One of the two ships was damaged, forcing the entire team to spend two weeks crammed onto the same ship while the other was repaired. Nathaniel York is hospitalized on earth, and another crewman’s wife dies while they are in transit. A terrorist attack hits far too close to home. These conflicts and perils, both in space and on Earth, make the journey feel real.

 

Space travel is the stuff of adventures and romance. It is also deadly serious and is done by people who love and fight and screw up and somehow keep on going in the face of every danger and crisis. We are fools to think putting flesh into tin cans strapped to the top of bombs is going to magically work without a cost in lives and loves. Kowal brings these human costs front and center, showing us both how hard and how important the journey will be.

 

Again, Kowal treats all of her characters with love and sensitivity. Elma York is not perfect. But she is good. In these days of fallen heroes, finding a heroine who is good in the midst of an excellent story is a treasure.

The Fated Sky

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Calculating Stars, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars

Science Fiction: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Shortly after reading this novel, I tweeted, “I am in love with the main character and the author. Luckily my wife is the understanding type.” The Calculating Stars is an achingly beautiful story, one that sometimes moved me to tears, sometimes made me laugh out loud, and one that constantly reminded me why I fell in love with science fiction so many years ago. Mary Robinette Kowal has created a character, Elma York, who is smart, courageous, human, flawed, noble, and relatable. The only reason I was willing to put The Calculating Stars down when it ended is that I already had the sequel in my hands.

 

Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a few days in the Poconos in 1952, enjoying the beauty of nature and the fresh air and…OK, let’s be grownups here. They are a young married couple, and they are having lots of sex. And that is more or less the tone that Kowal sets throughout the novel. It is told in the first person. This is Elma’s story. And she is as enjoyable a character as you will find in any novel. She is fresh, funny, sexy (but never crude or vulgar), sometimes foolish but never intentionally cruel, and brilliant. While they are there, the unthinkable happens. A meteorite hits, wiping out much of the US east coast–including their home in Washington, D.C. Elma’s parents also lived in Washington. They are forced to flee the effects of the meteorite in a frantic journey that sends them to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, OH, where what is left of the US government and military tries to come back together.

 

Elma is a physics and math genius, but it is 1952 and she is also a woman. Nathaniel had worked for the nascent space program, but the men who led the government were not looking for advice from a female. Fortunately, Nathaniel had no such qualms. Giving Elma the raw data available from the meteor, she calculates the planetary effects of the strike. For a few years, the Earth would cool down. Ash and dust ejected into the atmosphere would block sunlight and lower global temperatures significantly.

 

That was the good news.

 

The bad news was that the meteorite landed in water. After the ash and dust settled, the water vapor would trap heat and raise the surface temperature of the planet. Catastrophically. After enduring less than a decade of frigid temperatures the planet would return to normal. Then it would keep heating up. Within a century it would become essentially uninhabitable.

 

Using Elma’s numbers, the decision is made to jumpstart the space program with a goal of colonizing the moon and Mars. Astronauts are selected, training begins, and the goal of colonizing the solar system moves forward. Except…none of the astronauts are women. Or people of color. Women are involved behind the scenes. “Computers,” in the sense of calculating machines that crunch numbers, guide ships, and perform all the duties we take for granted today, did not exist in the 1950s. However, mathematically gifted women did exist, and just as they played a role in the real space program that developed during the 1960s, Kowal has them acting as the “computers” for her fictionalized space program of the alternate history 1950s. Elma takes a job as a computer, and from there launches an ambitious program of her own: becoming a lady astronaut.

 

I simply cannot emphasize enough how good The Calculating Stars is. With a deft touch, Kowal lays bare the racism and sexism that was the norm for the era. Although Elma quite naturally reacts to her accomplishments and abilities being dismissed because she is a woman, she can sometimes be completely oblivious to those same biases affecting her African American friends. When she becomes aware of the racist barriers to them, she occasionally shifts into “white savior” mode, failing to appreciate that her own interventions can be almost as belittling in their own way. She always means well, and her motives do matter, but her actions sometimes undermine her own ideals.

 

Elma also struggles with anxiety and is prescribed medication for it. Even today, mental illness is stigmatized and dismissed. Having some experience myself with anxiety and the absolute terror I felt before being officially diagnosed and taking medicine for it, I read those passages with a powerful sense of identification. Having a protagonist who shares some of the challenges I have faced is an amazing feeling. Seeing her wrestle with it in the highly judgmental 1950s made me appreciate both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

 

The Jewishness of Elma York is also wonderfully handled. Some time after they arrive in Dayton, Elma recognizes her need to deal with the loss of her family. She visits a synagogue to speak with a rabbi. When Nathaniel comes home, she is sitting shiva. Elma has torn a ribbon and is wearing it as an outward sign of the broken heart within.

 

That was the first scene in The Calculating Stars where I cried. It was not the last.

 

The Calculating Stars is a triumphant book. It is moving and heartfelt and wonderful. I cannot recommend it enough. It is a terrific scifi/alternate history novel. More than that, Kowal gives us a powerful story of an extraordinary woman. Books just don’t get much better than this.

The Calculating Stars

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Sparrow Hill RoadBook 1 Ghost Roads Series, Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Fantasy Short Story Collection: Sparrow Hill RoadBook 1 Ghost Roads Series, Seanan McGuire

Rose Marshall wants to avoid being killed. Again. She was killed once already, in 1952, run off of Sparrow Hill Road in Michigan, and since has wandered the roads as a “hitcher,” a ghost who hitchhikes along the roads trying to save people. But the man who killed her, Bobby Cross, wants her soul, and he is still chasing her. Dying once stunk, but being killed again would really ruin her day.

 

Rose is known by many names. The “girl in the diner.” “The girl in the green dress.” “The phantom prom date.” And there are many legends surrounding her. It is said that she saves drivers by leading them to avoid accidents. It is said that she kills drivers by leading them to accidents. Rescuer? Harbinger of doom? Killer? Give a ghost a break!

 

The rules of the road for hitchers are important. If a hitcher is given a coat, jacket, or some other outerwear, she can regain corporeal form until midnight that day. If food or drink is given to the hitcher, she can enjoy it. Rose is particularly fond of cheeseburgers and malted milkshakes. However, if the road compels her to go somewhere to try to help someone, she must obey. Sometimes she is able to save them–help them avoid an accident, send them along a different route, distract them until the danger has passed. Sometimes she is able to save their spirits, guiding them to their final destination, helping them avoid Bobby Cross and other dangers in the spirit world. The rumors of her harming people are untrue, but she does have the habit of being there at the end for a lot of people. That’s one way rumors can start.

 

Seanan McGuire books are very personal to me. She, along with a few other authors, wrote some wonderful books that meant a lot to me in a very difficult time. Although Sparrow Hill Road is from 2014, it is new to me…and yet in many ways it is not new. It is vintage McGuire. Humor and horror mixed together. Wry, ironic, dry, yet with compassion and tenderness. McGuire loves her characters, even when she kills them. She even loves the dead ones. McGuire can make you laugh while you still have tears in your eyes from the previous paragraph. Her writing is fun and funny. And sometimes furious. And sometimes shocking. And always, always, delightful.

 

Sparrow Hill Road is more a series of connected short stories than a novel with a single overarching plot. It jumps back and forth in time, telling stories of Rose’s dealings with humans in the daylight and with spirits in the twilight. We read of Rose’s last days alive, how she meets friends Tommy and Emma, various battles with Bobby Cross, and the fates of her niece and her boyfriend (the boy who was supposed to take her to prom on the night she died). These stories are not in chronological order; ghosts don’t quite do linear time the way the living do.

 

Sparrow Hill Road is set along the American highway system, which may make it exotic to readers from other countries–and makes it a quintessentially American ghost story to those of us who grew up taking our family vacations and conducting business by way of these routes connecting the continent. Although we seldom see hitchhikers on those highways today, it is fun to think that some of them may be looking for a ride, a jacket, and a burger. That is NOT a recommendation to pick one up, though. Unless she is wearing a green prom dress from the 1950s, it is not worth taking that chance.

Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire