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Monday, March 15, 2021

Desolation Road by Ian McDonald - A Review

I just finished reading Ian McDonald's 1988 science fiction novel DESOLATION ROAD and I am very impressed. I won't claim that this is an easy read, there are far more characters than I was able to keep track of and the scope of the book is huge, but this is storytelling on a grand scale and it is done well. Set on a future terraformed Mars, the book tells the story, no make that stories, of the founding, growth, delights, and sorrows of the town of Desolation Road. This is a world of atomic trains, robotic religions, traveling carnivals, dystopian corporate control, revolution, redemption, destruction, and deliverance. There are magical machines and mechanical magics. It is the old west of the far future. It is a time when time itself is the ultimate weapon and perhaps the only thing that can save us.

DESOLATION ROAD takes the poetic vision of Ray Bradbury, the paranoia of Philip K. Dick, the adventurous spirit of Zane Grey, and the imagination of H. G. Wells, mixes them all together in a blender in the back of a 1940s jazz club and then blasts the whole thing out through Spinal Tap's amplifiers turned up to eleven. The result is strange and wonderful.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Fireman by Joe Hill

I'm a big fan of Joe Hill's work and he's one of the few author's whose books I tend to buy as soon as they hit print, but I hesitated when I first heard the plot of his latest, The Fireman. A global pandemic, survivors in a ruined wasteland, blah, blah, hasn't this been done to death already? I wasn't up for another trip down this particular road. But then I heard Joe on NPR and he convinced me that he had a tale worth my time. He was right.

The Dragonscale spore in The Fireman doesn't just kill people, it first gives them a tatoo-like rash. Later, most of the infected burst into flames and die. Most, but some are saying not all. Some people, perhaps can live with Dragonscale, maybe even control it. And the real plague isn't the spore, it's panic.

The Fireman is a big book, 700+ pages but it's human-sized. The main character, despite the title, is not the Fireman, but Harper a pregnant nurse with an annoying fondness for Mary Poppins. There are bad people and good people in this book along with good people who do some very bad things and bad people who do some very good things. The people seem like people, real, flawed, genuine people in a hell of a jam. There is a lot of bad language, many bad jokes and a few good ones, good intentions gone awry, and a whole hell of a lot of things burning.

At its core The Fireman is about how tough conditions bring out the best and worst in us. It's a dark tale that burns bright. At one point Harper says to the Fireman,

"I'm glad someone is having fun with the end of the world."

"What makes you think the world is ending?" He sounded genuinely surprised.

 Joe Hill has a lot of fun with this book. It's the ultimate campfire tale, something bright to get you through the long dark night.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders

The best books are like magic spells or time machines, they transform you, take you wonderful places, and show you amazing things. You forget that you are seeing words and pages, you hear and see and feel and know instead. You make friends that you worry and wonder about, you flee enemies who make your heart race, you  live in a world momentarily more real than our own. And if you are lucky and the author is wise and skilled, when the book is done it is not finished because something stays with you. Something more precious than words, a sense that you know something more of this world and your place in it because of where this book has taken you.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY is such a book. It's a tale of magic and science, of a girl who talks to birds and a boy who dreams of rocket ships and time machines. The girl becomes a witch and the boy becomes a scientist who makes fearsome and fascinating machines. The two of them are destined to collide or fall in love, destroy the world or save it or perhaps some of each.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY contains multitudes -- an assassin who loves ice cream, birds that talk, trees that know, gadgets that crack wise. It is funny and frightening and fantastic and true, true in the way that great fiction can be -- beautiful and horrible, filled with loneliness and friendship, mistakes and forgiveness, humor and heartbreak.

This is a book I love too much to tell you too much about, the joy of discovery is diminished if the map is too clear. So open the pages and open a door. You are going on a wonderful journey with people and a few creatures you will never forget.

Monday, June 1, 2015


Death and the Penguin is an odd tale, told well. Viktor, like everyone else in post-Soviet Kiev, is doing what he can and must to keep going on. Viktor owns little more than a typewriter, but when the local zoo, low on funds, has to get rid of animals, Viktor and Misha become roommates. Misha is a penguin.

Misha is not an overly cute or anthropomorphized penguin. He doesn't solve crimes or engage in witty dialog. In Antarctica he'd be perfectly normal, he's odd only because he is living in an apartment in Kiev. Responsible for Misha's well-being, Viktor turned from failed novel writing to something shorter that the local paper might publish, something that might make a bit of money, at least enough to buy fish for Misha.

Viktor's writing gambit is successful when it leads to some steady work, he's given the job of writing obelisks, obituaries of people of varying degrees of prominence. These people aren't dead yet, Viktor's work is for the files, for use at a later date. But when those people start dying shortly with a disturbing frequency, Viktor begins to wonder if he's writing obelisks or death warrants. More questions arise when a local mobster, also named Misha, decides that a penguin is an ideal guest for a funeral.

Andrey Kurkov tells his tale quickly, with short chapters and spare, almost poetic prose. The mystery is far more than a simple who-done-it, this is a world where Viktor's editor explains "your interest lies in not asking questions." He adds "The full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required."

Like Viktor, the reader spends most of Death and the Penguin wondering what the hell is going on. Like life itself, the big question of "why?" must be asked.

I try in my reviews not to tell too much, the telling is the job of the book and my job is to tell you if the book is worthwhile. I will say only this, the ending of Death and the Penguin is pretty much perfect and the book is a complete little gem.

There is a sequel, Penquin Lost, and it's just as good as the first. Where Death and the Penguin takes place entirely in Kiev, Penquin Lost occupies a larger stage and the big question is not so much "why?" as "how?" In Death and the Penguin, we want Viktor to know. In Penquin Lost, we want him to win.

Kurkov's Penguin books provide a fascinating look at what remains when much is taken away. They are absurd but so is life and at the core they are true and good. When the zoo goes broke, you take the penguin home. Because you can, because you must. In the end, saving the penguin saves the man.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac: A Novel by Sharma Shields

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac opens in 1943 when nine-year-old Eli Robuck is abandoned by his mother who willing walks out of his life and into the woods with "Mr. Krantz",  a giant, hairy stranger who may or may not be Sasquatch. From this haunting scene the novel builds in a series of scenes, like faded snapshots in an old album, to tell the story of Eli's lifelong obsession.

Sharma Shields paces her story perfectly, each chapter could easily stand on its own as a short story, but each also adds to a greater understanding not only of Eli but the lives of those around him. Eli, his family, and their various monsters are all fascinating. Shields writes so strongly we can not doubt the conviction of her characters, but she writes of things so strange we find ourselves doubting our own understanding of a world we thought we knew.

There are more monsters than a single hairy beast contained in these pages and a merging of the familiar and the strange that is reminiscent of the best writing of Ray Bradbury. Shields can, in a single sentence, widen the world and invite the reader in. Near the end of the novel, she opens a chapter focused on one of Eli's daughters:

"On the way to one of her three weekly therapy appointments, Ginger hit a unicorn with her car."

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac is a dark story made of stories, of monsters sighted in dim light and never forgotten. It is a walk in the dark woods that does not promise a safe return but perhaps something better and more valuable, an understanding of our own, often beastly nature.

Monday, April 27, 2015


We are all completely beside ourselves is a novel of profound empathy. The story is told by Rosemary Cooke, a woman who begins her story in the middle. Any reader who has glanced at the book jacket or browsed a review on Amazon will know that this is a story of a chimp and a human raised as siblings but Rosemary spends 76 delightful pages dancing around the simian identity of her sister. This is not an annoying literary stunt, it's a completely honest way to tell the tale. If you were to meet Rosemary in real life the first thing out of her mouth would not be the words "my sister is a chimpanzee."

Rosemary begins her story when she's in college in California. She's tried and somewhat succeeded in leaving her family and many of her memories back in Indiana when she meets Harlow Fielding, a young woman who literally crashes into the story swearing and smashing dishes. She has her reasons. Forty minutes later Rosemary and Harlow are tucked into the back of a Yolo County police car, headed for jail. Harlow introduces herself, "So glad you decided to come with. I'm Harlow Fielding. Drama department." Indeed.

Rosemary's voice is a compelling one and her story, which grows to reveal her father, mother, brother and yes, her sister who is a chimpanzee, is as fascinating and true as life itself. Which is to say that it is funny and sad and foolish and wise, often at the same time.

Karen Joy Fowler writes with great empathy. Minor characters prove to be less minor than they appeared at first glance. Fowler's characters, be they human, simian, family, friend or foe, are complex. Rosemary remembers, but doubts her memories.

This is a story of a loving family and ways that love can go awry and ways that broken things may in time be mended. It's a story of how a quest for knowledge can lead us to places we don't expect and how our past choices make us what we are today. It is the story of what we think we have to lock away and what we ultimately have to free.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

ANTHILL: A Novel by E. O. Wilson

ANTHILL is a remarkable novel. Harvard professor E. O. Wilson has spent his life in science, devoting much of his work to the study of ants, but being a good scientist doesn't necessarily make a person a good novelist or storyteller. But in ANTHILL Wilson tells a warm, detailed, compelling story, proving conclusively that a scientist's eye and a poet's voice can coexist in a single body. Wilson's scientific attention to detail informs this story, giving it unexpected depth and wisdom but it is character and conflict that keep the reader eagerly turning pages.

The story is that of a boy, Raff Cody, who grows to be a man. Raff's parents are from two slightly different worlds, his mother comes from an old-money, rich-historied southern family, while Raff's dad is a good old southern boy whose dreams are satisfied with a good truck and beer money for Friday nights. Raff finds a refuge from the tensions in his small town Alabama home in the woods of Nokobee County a place he grows to love.

ANTHILL is broad in scope. Time brings changes to the Nokobee woods. Raff grows from an inquisitive kid, to a student of nature, to a mature defender of nature. Raff's struggles and growth are fascinating to follow and contemplate, particularly how his ultimate approach to conflict is informed by his studies of the ants.

And make no mistake, Wilson packs a wealth of nature knowledge into this novel. The reader can't help but learn and be charmed by small details of small creatures but it's the larger echoes, the way all lives, big and small, intersect that makes Raff Cody's story come to life.

E. O. Wilson's novel uses the lives of ants and men to help us make sense of the rich and fragile world we both inhabit. He reveals a world worth fighting for and creatures, both human and insect, whose lives are in the balance. I learned a lot about ants from this book, but more importantly, I learned about people, conflict and myself. And I got to read a terrific story along the way.