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

Book Review: Storm Shelter, J.L. Delozier

Book Review: Storm Shelter, J.L. Delozier

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Mystery & Thriller: Storm Shelter, J.L. Delozier

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Book Review: Storm ShelterJ.L. Delozier

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Book Review: Type and Cross, J.L. Delozier

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam Trilogy: Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the FloodMaddAddam

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

Book Review: Agent in Place, Mark Greaney

Book Review: Agent in PlaceMark Greaney

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Thriller: Agent in PlaceMark Greaney

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Book Review: Agent in PlaceMark Greaney

Book Review: Less,  Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: Less,  Andrew Sean Greer

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Fiction: Less,  Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is about to turn 50, and his life is a mess. His longtime boyfriend Freddy is getting married to Tom and his publisher has turned down his latest novel. So, to avoid going to the wedding and to ignore his 50th birthday, Arthur plans a trip around the world. This is the premise for Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less.

 

Less is a funny, bizarre, quirky novel about a trip that does not quite go as planned. Arthur is a so-so novelist with books that have barely made a ripple in the world’s awareness. He is most noted for being the former lover of a famous poet, though his own work has gathered a bit of a following in translation (which, he admits, is likely more due to the gifts of the translator than due to his own writing). However, he does get the occasional odd invitation: a poetry symposium in Mexico, a prize ceremony in Italy, a teaching assignment in Berlin, a writing assignment in Japan. When you don’t want to turn 50 alone in your home in San Francisco, and you CERTAINLY don’t want to go to your ex-lover’s wedding in Tahiti, you can string several of these together and voila! You have a most-expenses paid trip around the world.

 

I found myself with an interesting set of mixed emotions reading Less. In many ways, the protagonist and I are very different. He is gay, promiscuous, and friends with famous literary figures. I am straight, married, and my friends have not yet attained the level of fame they deserve. He is traveling around the world, and my last trip out of the US was almost 40 years ago. Yet throughout the book I found myself nodding in recognition at our shared journey. I am 52, so very recently went through the same numeric passage facing Less during his trip. The physical changes wrought by middle age are all too familiar, as are the emotions as you realize that your first 50 years did not go according to the script you thought you were writing–and you likely don’t have another 50 years to rewrite the story. Less may be “about” a gay man’s trip around the world, but it is so much more. It is about every man’s (every person’s?) trip through life, as embodied by a strange, sometimes clueless, protagonist.

 

Throughout the book, Less muses on his life. His relationships with the two men he spent years with. His frenemies who seem to both understand him better than he understands himself, and who do not know him at all. His work as a writer. His family, including a father who tried desperately to raise a “straight” son by taking him camping and other outdoorsy pastimes. The nature of love. Aging. And travel itself. His musings are often funny, often poignant, sometimes filled with self-awareness and self-discovery, and sometimes completely clueless.

 

In his trip, Less is given some interesting advice. One person encourages him to get fat. She also advises him to give up on love. Another person informs him that he is a “bad gay.” Less finds lovers in Paris and Berlin, though it’s fair to say he does not find love. He buys a tailored suit in one country, loses a (different) tailored suit in another country, and finally loses all of his luggage, returning home with only the suit he purchased. All of these incidents and so many more are told with whimsy, compassion, and amusement by a narrator who clearly adores Less, quirks and peculiarities and all. When the identity of the narrator is revealed at the end of the novel, it is not entirely a surprise. It is, though, a delight.

 

By the end of the novel, Arthur Less has changed. He knows himself better. He has found his writing voice again. He is ready for the next stage in his life. The journey to finding himself may have taken him around the world. But the journey within was much longer. Less is a novel that definitely gives the reader more. I highly recommend it.

 

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Book Review: Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: Music of the Ghosts, Vaddey Ratner

Book Review: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

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Fiction: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

 

Vaddey Ratner calls her second novel, Music of the Ghosts, “a story of survivors.” It is a deep, thoughtful, heartfelt story of two people whose journey to escape the killing fields of Cambodia is still fraught with danger and tragedy, even decades after the regime was overthrown.

 

Teera is a young woman who escaped Cambodia as a child with her aunt. They were the only two of a large extended family to survive. Teera’s aunt raised her and guided her through high school in Minnesota, college at Cornell, and then back again to Minnesota. Many years later, though, her aunt contracted cancer and died soon after the diagnosis. Among her dying wishes was for part of her ashes to be returned to Cambodia, to the temple in Phnom Penh she had helped raise money to rebuild. The building was dedicated to the memory of Teera’s father, a musician in pre-war Cambodia. More than a little lost after the death of this central person in her world, Teera returns to Cambodia to honor her aunt’s wishes…and to meet an old musician who has sent her a mysterious letter.

 

Tun remained in Cambodia after the war. He lost everyone and everything. One of the few who survived his imprisonment, he had been held with Teera’s father near the end of the war. Tun had also been a musician, and the two men were familiar with each other before the war. While they were imprisoned together, Teera’s father entrusted Tun with the location of three musical instruments he had made by hand. Although they were not of any particular value, they were literally the only things he had left, and he asked Tun to find his daughter and give them to her. Tun had returned to Phnom Penh many years after the war looking for any signs of his friend’s family–and found the temple. There, the broken and crippled man was given a home and the opportunity to play his music. Eventually, he managed to write Teera, telling her of the instruments and of his friendship with her father.

 

Shifting back and forth between these two characters, author Vaddey Ratner brings us into a Cambodia that still struggles with its past. Everyone who survived the Khmer Rouge period was a victim–but many of the victims were also victimizers. Tun started the war as a soldier for the Khmer Rouge. During one of the purges, though, his loyalty was questioned. His daughter was raped and murdered, and he was thrown into prison. Under torture he gave up names of people he knew. Some of those people were subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Whether this was because he gave up their names or not is unknowable–the “Organization” was arresting and killing people under any pretext, so it’s quite possible the names he gave were given up by other people as well, or that they would have been captured for other reasons. But the guilt he feels is real.

 

This is a reality for the actual Cambodia as well. What do you do with people who fought in the war? Most of the soldiers who fought against the Khmer Rouge were killed. But many of those who fought for the Khmer Rouge were killed or imprisoned and tortured by the regime itself. Should those people be held accountable for bringing Pol Pot to power? Or was their own experience at his hands enough punishment? Tun is physically and mentally shattered after the war. His family is dead, his body is broken, and his mind is haunted by his crimes. Yet he feels that he should be held more accountable. Ratner ultimately leaves that to the reader to judge.

 

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Book Review: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner