Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (five stars)


Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

(five stars)

“The authorities still have nothing to say about your girl? Here the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Emergency Situations have been looking for these Russian sisters tirelessly.” “It wasn’t that way with us.”

War and Peace meets Murder She Wrote. Unsolved crimes; parental anguish; ineffectual police; racial, familial, economic, and immigrant issues weave into this complex but tight tale of near-contemporary Russian Kamchatka, which is as close as the modern world gets to terra incognita. Not quite five stars, but close enough.

“You haven’t noticed by now that you can’t trust them? They don’t care about us the same way they care about themselves.”

Readers are propelled deep into not one but two disappearances in places and cultures totally foreign to American readers. No Jessica Fletcher. Despite that, whether intentionally or accidentally, the plot and people feel familiar.

“She spent her youth in the brief reckless period between the Communists’ rigidity and Putin’s strength, and though she had grown into a boundary enforcer … within herself there remained a post-Soviet child. Some part of her did crave the wild.”

The culprit’s identity is apparent halfway through, but not how Phillips will close the story. She does in a very satisfying denouement manner. That issues remain is merely real.

“This is how it went: the closer you were to someone, the more you lied. Telling the truth was a thrill not found with her mother, who needed Olya to take merry care of their household, or with Diana, who made Olya measure herself out by request.”

Readers unfamiliar with Russian naming conventions may be confused, despite Phillips’ helpful list of principal characters. Many characters have three or four names, depending on who is talking. However, it also helps convey the complexity of relationships.

“It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.”


Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Four Stars)


Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

(Four Stars)

“Like any Manhattanite of means, she had identified a need and paid to have it serviced. In its own perverse way, her purchase of a young man’s favors was perfectly in keeping with the unapologetic self-possession that made her so impressive.”

New York City in 1938 as seen through the eyes of an idle rich wannabee. Based on the concept that NYC was (and is) the center of the universe, and that life should be lived as if there’s no yesterday or tomorrow. The protagonist is from the working poor but strives to become one of the idle rich by getting as close to them as possible. There’s a price.

“In moments of high emotion—whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment—if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Loosely referential to George Washington’s “Rules of Civility” with other high-concept literature. Lots of philosophic reflection; not that it interferes with the hedonistic lifestyle. Not a bad story, but the sum is somehow less than the total of the parts.

“I think we all have some parcel of the past which is falling into disrepair or being sold off piece by piece. It’s just that for most of us, it isn’t an orchard; it’s the way we’ve thought about something, or someone.”

Towles draws the reader right into the imagined world. Idiosyncratic punctuation; easily mastered. Quotation marks are generally abandoned in favor of dashes at the beginning of dialogue.

“Old times, as my father used to say: If you’re not careful, they’ll gut you like a fish.”



Book Review: A Thousand Words for Stranger by Julia E. Czerneda (Four Stars)


Book Review: A Thousand Words for Stranger (Trade Pact Universe #1) by Julia E. Czerneda

(Four Stars)

“What’s been done to you wasn’t to help you. And what was blocked is much worse than losing your past. If you were once so powerful, so gifted— Sira, they’ve blinded and crippled you.” “I don’t feel blind or crippled. I feel sick. And I’m scared.”

Excellent science fiction. A non-Star Wars take on a Force-like power, those who can connect and the muggles. Most told from the point of view of a sort-of human character whose memory and abilities have been blocked. Through the story she must discover not only who she can trust but who she is.

“You have touched the M’hir. Part of our unconscious selves is always there, mingling Continue reading

Book Review: Rocket’s Red Glare by Cy Stein (Two Stars)


Book Review: Rocket’s Red Glare (A WWII Era Alternative History Novel) by Cy Stein

(Two Stars)

“Sid’s brain ached. As a physicist, it was easy to view daily life as a series of math problems to be solved; everything was potentially doable, wasn’t it? But sometimes, the data had holes. Big holes. Dark holes.”

I don’t normally post reviews for books that rate this poorly. I’m making an exception because I was given an advanced reader copy and asked to review it. Also because there’s the embryo of a really good alternative history story amid the wreckage that is currently Rocket’s Red Glare.

“The thrill of meeting Einstein, coupled with the wonderful half-day spent with Julia, still clung to him like the fragrance of newly blossoming flowers.”

Excellent concept: what if FDR died in the late 1930s and Charles Lindbergh Continue reading

Book Review: The Good Knight by Sarah Woodbury (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Good Knight (Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mysteries, #1) by Sarah Woodbury

(Four Stars)

“I can accept that we can’t always live the life we imagined.” “I’ve paid for my choices, Gwen,” Gareth said. “I’d prefer not to have to keep paying.”

Excellent historical fiction. Felt like fine linen, rather than a fully realized tapestry. Got the facts straight, though it lacks the richness of Ellis Peters or Bernard Cornwell. Felt too modern both vocabulary and in character development.

“Speculation is how mysteries are solved. We ask good questions, and we see if Continue reading

Book Review: The Emperor’s Finest by Melissa Cuevas (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Emperor’s Finest by Melissa Cuevas

(Three Stars)

“How was he supposed to make a name for himself when his name kept getting in the way?”

Adequate space opera. Enough contrary to stereotypes to keep it interesting. Skipped basic training; hooray! Most everything predictable.

‘Such cynicism for a young officer.’ ‘Voice of experience. Youth is irrelevant.’

Lost a star for unrealistic space combat. Most operations were drawn from World War Two prototypes, which made next-to-no sense in a futuristic, nigh-tech environment. The needs of the story, rather than military considerations, seemed to drive the battles. The attack on the space platform was especially Continue reading

Book Review: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard (Three Stars)


Book Review: Truthwitch (The Witchlands #1) by Susan Dennard

(Three Stars)

“It is powerful,” she acknowledged. “But it’s not as powerful as people think—and lately, I’m learning that it’s not as powerful as I think. I’m easily confused by strong faith. If people believe what they say, then my magic can’t tell the difference.”

Entertaining excursion into a land where everyone seems to have some sort of magic. Cast is large and complex, since Dennard seems aiming for a long run.

“Safi had her title to protect her, and Iseult had her heritage to damn her.”

Female buddy story. The usual twits who shouldn’t be trusted out of the nursery without Continue reading

Book Review: The Warrior’s Path by Catherine M. Wilson (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Warrior’s Path (When Women Were Warriors #1) by Catherine M. Wilson

(Three Stars)

“There’s no putting spilled blood back.”

More like 3.5 stars. A well-conceived and well-realized epic-style fantasy about a time and place were all (well, most) of the warriors were women. This story follows a young woman on her quest to become a warrior. On the way, she finds value, belonging and love. Not a bad start.

“Tell me later,” she said. “Sit down. Let’s just be quiet for a while.” “I need to tell you — ” “Hush,” she said. “You won’t find the truth in so much talk.” When I stopped talking, my trapped thoughts flew around like dry leaves in a whirlwind.

An iron age culture where all the warriors were women fits modern sensitivities but not historical trends–the Amazons notwithstanding. Not because men are better warriors–though they do tend to have greater upper body strength–but because Continue reading

Book Review: Allegiance by Kermit Roosevelt III (Five Stars)


Book Review: Allegiance by Kermit Roosevelt III

(Five Stars)

“This is just my government at work. Who is loyal, who is not? Who is a friend and who an enemy? Whoever they say. And the government does not make mistakes.”

Roosevelt shines light on a pivotal time in American history. Not all the World War II drama was on the battlefields; not all the atrocities happened at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; not all the good-old-boy rings were rednecks; not all the heroes wore uniforms.

“You know what I’m saying is right.” “That’s the problem, Eleanor. Everyone knows they’re right. We have law to protect us from our best instincts as well as our worst.” “What rubbish. … You listen to their stories and tell me again that everyone’s right.” “I know the stories. I just came from Tule Lake.”

The best type of historical fiction: hews close to what actually happened, introducing fictional characters and events sparingly to draw it all into one understandable—and dramatic—whole. Events eighty years past might well be medieval for today’s readers.

“What Hoover asks is a betrayal of that trust, of course, but there is a greater one, and I seek to cure it.”

All the major characters willingly break the law to uphold it. Each is self-justified for every action taken. Unfortunately, the protagonist is enough of a society snob (bespoke suits, ready cash, a Packard with tires and gas despite rationing) that many readers won’t identify with him.

“Nobody makes money, my boy. Wealth is not created ex nihilo. The Crash taught us that, if nothing else.”

Most characters accept as axiomatic Keynesian/Marxist dogma that no value is created; it is taken from someone else. The same seems true for other values.

“Law and history are lies we tell ourselves to explain why things should be the way they are.”

Quibbles: Logistics is too easy. Not critical to enjoying the story, but “a procession of black government cars …” or “a long line of Army trucks that assembles …” appear on short notice in the middle of nowhere. Travel is always direct and slowed only for narration. Cash never falls short for resources, even if merely appropriate tennis clothes.

“The story of America is a story of trying to live up to our ideals, of falling short, and of trying again. Thinking about the past is one way we may hope to do better next time.”


Book Review: The Three Kings of Cologne by Kate Sedley (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Three Kings of Cologne (Roger the Chapman #16) by Kate Sedley

(Four Stars)

“Having everything you want’s no good,” she said, “if you’ve got to give your soul in return.”

Excellent medieval mystery, along the lines of the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael. Excellent sense of time and place. Our protagonist is a humble peddler who solves crimes on the side. Leavened with self-depreciating humor.

“Women, I reflected, not for the first time, were the losers in the game of life; the thankless drudges who smoothed the paths of their men.”

Don’t start a series in the middle. Having said that, this sixteenth in the series tells the reader enough to without overloading with backstory. I could be wrong but Continue reading