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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Book Review: Cave of BonesAnne Hillerman

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, SingJesmyn Ward

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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.

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Book Review: Sing, Unburied, SingJesmyn Ward

Book Review: Head On, John Scalzi

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

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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!

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Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

 

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

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

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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.

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Also see: Booklist: Fun Summer Reads

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

Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians, Kat Howard

Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

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Fantasy: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

What if magic were broken? In Kat Howard’s novel An Unkindness of Magicians, magicians from the major houses in New York are competing, sometimes to the death, to become the leaders of the Unseen. Magic and magicians exist largely unseen and unnoticed by the majority of the population. Very few non-magic people are even aware of the magic that surrounds them. Most who are aware are from magical families, but they themselves were born with little or no magical prowess, able to perform only parlor-trick type skills like lighting a candle. Magicians, though, carry extraordinary power. Periodically the time comes to hold a contest among the leading magical families for ascendancy. When that time coincides with a period when magic randomly does not work, you have the potential for a crisis–and for a very interesting novel.

 

Kat Howard has written numerous award-winning short stories, and her novella End of the Sentence (co-written with Maria Dahvana) was named a Best Book of 2014 by NPR. Her first book, Roses and Rot, was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians is her second book, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR.

 

Howard’s magical world is populated by the magical equivalent of “old money.” The leading families are patriarchal, dominated by white men who are unused to sharing power. Crashing into this world is Laurent, a dark-skinned magician from a non-magical family who has come up through the ranks with talent, intelligence, boldness, and will. He is ready to start and lead his own house, declaring he belongs at the table of power along with the older and established families. To compete, though, he needs a champion, a magician of extraordinary power who can represent his house in the magical duels and, if necessary, die for him. Sydney applies for the job with an extraordinary display of magic in the heart of New York City. She has come to New York from…well, nobody knows. She is a mystery, a mystery with exceptional talent. Laurent hires Sydney, and together they upend the tournament and the establishment.

 

Magic has always been reliable. Predictable. Controllable. But soon after the tournament starts, things begin to change. Even powerful magicians sometimes struggle with basic skills–candles won’t light. Other spells go completely out of control. An early tournament contest ends in a dueler’s death when the spell he cast surges in power and consumes him. For some of the established families, this is an opportunity to lay the blame at Sydney’s feet. She’s a newcomer. She broke the magic. Sydney knows it was not her. She suspects a much deeper and darker force at play, one that has been building in power for decades.

 

An Unkindness of Magicians is full of magic, but like many fantasy books warn, this magic has a price. How much would one pay to do magic? As the book progresses we see what the cost of magic is, and we see who is willing to pay that price. We also see who is willing to force others to pay the price for them. Sydney’s background is revealed, and we see what magic costs in her life and in the lives of others. We also see what the lust for magic does for those who are less willing to absorb that cost themselves.

 

Sydney is a strong protagonist, a magician with extraordinary talent and strength of character. She is also not alone in her quest to confront the challenges facing magic. She collects allies along the way, men and women who have also become concerned about the toll magic requires. I love the way Howard’s characters relate. In her fiction, just like life, strong women and strong men make each other stronger. By the end of the book, Sydney has gone from being a loner to being part of a team. I don’t know whether a sequel is planned for Sydney, but whether her future is written or just imagined, we can anticipate it being supported by her friends.

 

I enjoyed An Unkindness of Magicians, and look forward to future books from Kat Howard. An Unkindness of Magicians is indeed full of unkind magicians! But it also is full of strong characters, an interesting plot, and solid writing. Fantasy lovers (even mature teen readers) will enjoy this book.

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Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

Book Review: The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Book Review: The SelloutPaul Beatty

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Fiction: The SelloutPaul Beatty

The Sellout is not an easy book to read. It is not an easy book for me to review. It is brilliant. It is moving. It is funny. It is uncomfortable. It is painful. Throughout the novel I was reminded of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” an essay which satirically suggests Irish parents sell their children as food for the rich so that those children are not a burden to their parents. The Sellout does not tout the gastronomic and economic benefits of cannibalism, but that may be the one forbidden subject that Beatty leaves untouched.

 

Paul Beatty became the first American to win the Man Booker prize with the publication of The Sellout. The novel also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2015. The book itself is absurdly comic: a black slaveowning farmer in the heart of modern Los Angeles seeks to reinstitute official segregation, and his case goes to the Supreme Court. Yet Beatty himself denies that the book is meant to be funny or even satirical. I tend to agree with him (very generous of me, I know!). The themes of the book are deadly serious, and although the plot is absurd, simply labelling it a comic novel or writing it off as “funny” makes it far too easy to dismiss those themes and fail to appreciate how serious the book is.

 

I should warn: if you are easily triggered by any number of things, stay away. Beatty’s language is rough, vulgar, and direct. Words usually deemed racist are used constantly and casually. There are blunt descriptions of violence and sex. In the context of the story and the characters, the choices made by the author are appropriate, but they do not make it an easy read. Nor should it be.

 

The comic elements of this book are easy to see. Beatty’s descriptions of people are seldom flattering and often obscene, but can be hilarious as well. One character’s birthday party involves taking a bus up the 101 highway with the entire staff of a fast food restaurant, a porn actress, and several friends of the character. The party culminates with the bus parking right on the beach, waves lapping at the door, because LA city buses can handle anything. The protagonist raises watermelon, other fruits, and marijuana on his farm. His products are described as good in ways that I won’t repeat, but the comparisons are not ones typically made. From beginning to end, absurdity and strangeness abound.

 

But make no mistake: this is a serious novel about serious topics. The protagonist “owns” a slave. He does not want to, he did not choose to, and how this happens is described in the book, but the basic reason is that the “slave” wanted to be owned. He believed he was never free in white America, he believed that his blackness deserved to be punished, and the one choice he felt he could make was to be “owned” by his protagonist. Together, he and his “owner” come up with a plan to re-segregate their community. The reason is straightforward: their community is already segregated. Their local school is almost entirely black and Hispanic, their neighborhood is entirely black and brown (a very few Asians provide the diversity), so officially segregating the school was simply putting an imprimatur onto a reality. The law of the land may prohibit

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Book Review: The SelloutPaul Beatty

Book Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

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Fantasy: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

Southwest tribes are known for their traditional weaving skills. I have no idea whether Rebecca Roanhorse can whip out a rug or a blanket on a loom, but when it comes to weaving together Navajo folklore, dystopian sci fi, and kickass adventure, her creation belongs on any fantasy-lover’s shelf. Trail of Lightning has it all: a great story, great characters, a well-constructed and consistent world, and a heroine that can send any monster back home to mommy. If that’s best done by sending them in pieces, so be it.

 

Maggie has issues. Killing is not one of them. She is good at it. When monsters threaten the Dinetah–the land of the Navajo–she is fearless. When it comes to sorting out her relationships, though, the monsters are not quite so easily vanquished. Her mentor, an immortal hero from Navajo legend, abandoned her a year ago. Sorting out her life has taken the better part of that year, but now a child has been taken by a monster, a creature without a name, and Maggie’s services are required.

 

I love books that take risks, that go in unexpected directions, that feature complex characters and especially that feature strong women. Trail of Lightning does all of that. The easy, traditional fantasy approach would take awhile to say, “Maggie battled the monster and won, returning the uninjured child to her grateful mother.” Not here. Maggie feels bloodlust and violently, brutally, viciously kills and decapitates the creature. And not to get too detailed lest I require a trigger warning for my own review, there is no rescue and there is no delivery of an uninjured child to her grateful mother.

 

This begins a journey through the Dinetah where Maggie searches to find the source for this monster and others like it which start to attack Navajo settlements. She is assisted by a young healer who is more than he seems, an old medicine man, and a bartender who lives on the edge of the reservation. During her journey Maggie must face characters from Navajo legend and story including the trickster Coyote, and must face her own demons that often threaten to take hold of her life and twist it out of control.

 

Rebecca Roanhorse is a Native American author and lawyer. A graduate of Yale, she has already in her young career won a Nebula award and been nominated for the Hugo. Trail of Lightning is the first book in a projected series, with a sequel already scheduled for publication next February. In other words, Roanhorse is a terrific writer at the very beginning of a series that promises to get better. The perfect time to jump in!

 

The world envisioned for Trail of Lightning is a difficult and dark one. The United States is essentially gone, devastated by climate change and by the New Madrid fault splitting the nation and allowing the ocean to cover most of the interior. These physical changes also opened doors for ancient beings to resurface, and the old gods and devils, heroes and monsters, are once again participating in the lives of the “five fingered ones,” i.e. humans. Their release, though, has also awakened powers long latent in the Native people, powers which allow humans to compete more evenly with these ancient beings. Roanhorse is in many ways reinterpreting Navajo folklore for a new generation along the lines Rick Riordan has done with Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian folklore–though the high gore and body count in Trail of Lightning should keep it off of the YA shelves at your local library.

 

Not a criticism, but it is fair to warn sensitive readers that if you are triggered by horror blood and gore, this is not the right book for you. If you like your fantasy with a touch of horror, if you enjoy seeing a different culture expressed in literature, if you enjoy a heroine who knows how to use a blade, Trail of Lightning delivers a rich tapestry to anyone who buys it.

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Book Review: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: A Book Without Dragons, Olivia Berrier

Book Review: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

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Science Fiction: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

The year is 2054, and the world is falling apart. All technology has become dependent upon the “Unitime” satellites. Clocks, GPS, cell phones, the Internet, even the thermometers in smart coffee cups rely on the Unitime satellites for their accuracy and coordination. And the Unitime satellites are failing. Clocks no longer are synchronized, GPS is inaccurate. Cell phones and the Internet are down. And the blasted smart coffee cup can’t even tell the temperature of the beverage! Worse, a world dependent on their technology doesn’t know how to react. Business are closing. Looting is rampant. Violence is increasing. Chaos is spreading. And poor Cider, a very good dog, is locked out of his house.

 

But, true to the title, this is A Book Without Dragons. At least none of the scaly, reptilian, fire-breathing sort. So although everything else is going wrong, people (and dogs) do not have to deal with dragons.

 

When I first saw the title of this short (244 pages) novel, I was immediately intrigued. Dragons are cool. Dragons are popular. Dragons are “in.” Being sometimes a contrarian and a curmudgeon, though, I liked the boldness of the title. By the time I got to the end of the book and the story explained the title, I realized just how bold.

 

 

I met Olivia Berrier at the Central PA Book Fest. She is a local author from Carlisle, PA (near Harrisburg), and is just getting started in her writing career. You may not have heard about her. That needs to change! A Book Without Dragons. is creative, engaging, and fresh. Early on, there are some apparent discrepancies in things that make most English teachers twitchy: tense, perspective, shifts in person from “you” to “her” to “I.” As the story develops, Berrier makes it clear that these are intentional. They are features, not bugs. Once that “Aha!” moment comes, the entire story takes on new life.

 

The story shares the perspective of several people and one dog in the small town of Chagrin Heights, ID. (Something about the name of that town makes me chuckle, but that’s not particularly relevant to this review.) When the crisis with Unitime begins, each of these characters is living his or her separate life. The book draws these different characters together. Some of them had a history with each other which comes out through the narrative, but the response to the challenge posed by technology’s failure brings them together in unexpected, sometimes delightful, sometimes disturbing, ways.

 

Berrier’s characters are terrific. Early on she introduces her main characters with titles: The Police Chief with No Stories, The Wife Who Answers Phones, The Waitress Who Failed to Be a Nurse, The Dog Who Is a Good Boy, The Scientist in Charge of Unitime. Other characters are also important: the FBI agent guarding the scientist, the husband/college professor, the angry and vengeful brother of an accident victim. Berrier, though, does not leave her characters stuck in their introductory descriptions. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that the police chief finds he has more stories than he remembers, the wife is much more than a mere receptionist, the waitress is not a failure…but the dog is indeed a good boy. More than just a cute presence in the story, though, Berrier uses Cider as a tool to further the action in a very natural way. Just by the dog being a dog, doing what good dogs do, Cider’s presence in the novel is valuable. The book may not have dragons, but I prefer dogs anyway.

 

I love the way A Book Without Dragons ends without forcing conclusions or final answers upon the reader. It explores interesting questions: what kind of people are we becoming in our tech-dependent world? Could we survive without all the tech? Would we possibly even be better? Does technology bring us together or drive us apart? Berrier does not really answer those questions for us. She poses one set of possibilities…then takes them away and leaves the reader to answer whether anything was ultimately gained or lost in the transaction. Some of the characters are arguably better off in the end. Others are undeniably worse. And some are just in a different place. Whether society is better or worse, though, is something the reader will have to decide.

 

Ultimately, we all live in A Book Without Dragons. We can’t rely on mythical creatures or even creative authors to come in and save us from ourselves. Olivia Berrier’s book reminds us that we are more than just homo technologus. What we do with that reality is whatever we choose.

 

It may go better, though, with the help of a very good dog!

 

One final note: although this is not a YA book, I think younger readers who like SciFi would enjoy it. The writing is accessible, and even young teens would relate to the characters. There is one intense scene near the end, but it is handled well. Again, it is a book about adults and one that adults would enjoy, but not one to be afraid of giving to your younger science fiction fan.

 

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Book Review: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

Book Review: There There, Tommy Orange

Book Review: There ThereTommy Orange

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Fiction: Book Review: There ThereTommy Orange

 

I have never read anything like There There before, and I am not the same person I was before reading it. There There is breathtaking. Shattering. Compelling. Devastating. Tommy Orange rips into American life with a ferocity built through centuries of oppression. I am literally shaking as I write this review; this book ripped me apart and it will take awhile for me to pull myself back together.

 

There There tells multiple, intertwined stories about Native Americans living in Oakland, CA as they prepare for the Big Oakland Powwow. These stories are raw. We meet a woman raising her three great-nephews on a mail-carrier’s salary. Her sister, the boys’ grandmother, who left the family before they were born. One of the kids, a teenager, who learned “Indian dancing” from YouTube videos. We meet gangsters and their hangers-on. We meet drunks and abusers, thieves, an aspiring videographer, a struggling programmer, and person after person whose life is a challenge. None of these characters has made it. Most of them won’t. They survive, they struggle, they fight, they persist. They scream in frustration at a world that seems to hate them. And in a shocking climax, we are left hoping that at least some of them will be able to continue screaming for another day.

 

I am white. Middle class. Decently educated. Male. Privileged. I will never know the pain of racism in the way that people of color experience regularly. Reading There There brings this separation home acutely. Poverty, crime, lack of opportunity, hopelessness, despair, substance abuse, suicide, abandonment: There There looks it all squarely in the face. There are no Ward and June Cleavers in this book. The suburbs might as well be on Mars. From my comfortable home in my semi-rural college town, the Oakland that Tommy Orange describes is as foreign as Mumbai or Kinshasa. Yet the power of Orange’s descriptions lets me close my eyes and see that Oakland. It’s a challenging view–but one I need to see.

 

Tommy Orange grew up in that Oakland. He is part of that Native American community. And he writes with passion and aggression, telling stories of his town and his people with rage and resentment and righteous anger. So you think you know that Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland, “There is no there there”? Orange claims that as the title of his book, and puts the quote in context: “she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.” Orange seizes that quote, then goes on to say “for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

 

What do you do with writing like that? And that passion, that rage, continues in beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing prose page after page, chapter after chapter, turning you inside out and ripping out your heart. Orange quotes Teddy Roosevelt: “I don’t go so far to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” That is not a quote I remember from my history classes. I looked it up: it was from a speech Roosevelt gave before becoming president. It’s not a quote I am now likely to forget.

 

Throughout There There, Orange tells of alienation. Oakland has become a home for Native Peoples from all over America. But as this disparate, displaced diaspora gathered, much was lost. People without tribes, without even knowing what tribes they were from. Families coming together from different tribes, losing identification with anything other than a vague “Indian” understanding. As an outsider attending the occasional powwow, I could never appreciate how a seemingly artificial event could have any meaning. For a person who is struggling to find some power and community in their history, though, those gatherings are a liferaft. I was wrong and shallow before, failing to understand how vital the slenderest threads of belonging are to those who are buried in a culture built on their ancestors’ bodies. I look forward to seeing my next powwow with new eyes.

 

There There is a novel. It does not provide solutions. It tells a story. The only chance we have to know anyone else is to listen to their stories. There There is a story that must be heard.

 

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Book Review: There ThereTommy Orange