Book Review: Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (five stars)

Book Review: Last Train to London: A Novel by Meg Waite Clayton (five stars)

“It’s the problems you fail to anticipate that defeat you.”

Extraordinary historical fiction. Deep personal stories woven into the tapestry of a horrible two years of European history. Intense first-person narrative of the principal actors. The historic people and actions as dramatic as the fiction. Several main characters are historic and reported as they really were, even if immediate actions and words are invented.

“I’m a woman who can’t bear a child in a world that values nothing else from me!” “You are a woman doing important work, in a world that badly needs you.”

What historical fiction should be: takes the reader deep into the lives of people trying to navigate a time of upheaval and horror. Americans are largely ignorant of what happened in Europe—especially eastern Europe—as the shadow of Nazi Germany snuffed out whole countries and peoples.

‘It was an honor, to be listened to closely, to be heard. One could honor someone without agreeing with them.’

Individuals—women in a time when they were ignored if not outright discriminated against—dare to oppose the terror and make a difference.

Foreign Secretary Halifax said that any British response could provoke war.”

Obvious parallels to contemporary history.

“We haven’t begun to see the extent of his man’s capacity for cruelty.”

Quibbles: Got the baby on the train all wrong. A baby small enough to fit in a picnic basket won’t be saying “Mama” to anyone. And won’t stay quiet for 36 hours. And will need to be fed.

The Last Train to London is Truus’s story, and that of the children and their families. I hope it does them all justice, and that it will inspire readers as surely as they all have inspired me.” Meg Waite Clayton

Book Review: Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Four Stars)

Book Review: Penric’s Demon (Penric and Desdemona #1) by Lois McMaster Bujold (Four Stars)

“Pen blinked, starting to wonder if he had fallen not ill, but into some bard’s tale.”

Bujold opens a new series in the world of the five gods with this fish-out-of-water tale of a young noble who gives aid to an older woman in distress and finds his life turned inside out. Good point of view character and a touch of ironic humor. (Think Miles Vorkasigan in a tunic and a functional body.)

“Blessed, if I speak, will the god hear?” The sheep’s-wool eyebrows twitched. “The gods hear you at all times, speaking or silent. You hearing the god . . . that is more rare.”

Bujold demonstrates her master of storytelling outside the genre which brought her fame, if not fortune. Of course, magic easily substitutes for high technology—especially of the science fiction sort.

“It all seemed tolerably accurate and complete, from a certain point of view.” (Emphasis added)

Reviewing this out of order; sorry. Having read but not reviewed this, I’m rectifying my error. You needn’t read them in order, but don’t miss this one. Nice cover art.

“You looked a god in the eyes. And spoke for me. There is nothing in my power that I will ever refuse you, after that.”

Book Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers (Four Stars)


Book Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

(Four Stars)

“It’s difficult to assign value to discovery when you haven’t sorted out the parameters of reality yet.”

Exquisitely good hard science fiction solidifying Becky Chambers as among the best in that genre today. Unfortunately marred by advocacy and technical errors. Despite that, it’s a great story. Maybe 4.5 stars.

“To properly survey a place, you need boots on the ground. You need human intuition. You need eyes that can tell when something that looks like a rock might be more than a rock.”

While I agree that definitive science is best done by a human observer, effective and more efficient observation at long range Continue reading

Book Review: Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (Four Stars)


Book Review: Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

(Four Stars)

“Nature is turning too alien for that. In honesty, I agree that our chances look poor. But I don’t think they are zero, either.”

Excellent hard Science Fiction based on a 1967 short story. Lots of science (some overcome by later science), well told. On the other hand, it is HARD SF: Anderson felt compelled to insert a formula for Tau at one point because he couldn’t explain a concept. (Many readers won’t understand the formula, let alone what it signifies.)

Leonora Christine spent most of a year getting within one percent of light velocity. The time aboard was about the same, because the value of tau only began to drop sharply when she was quite near c. During that initial period, she covered half a light-year of space, approximately five trillion kilometers.”

Modern science fiction writers could take lessons from Anderson. Melded into the gripping, but dry tale of exploration gone wrong are a variety of humans with a variety of reactions. The 1960s culture will seem like fantasy to current readers. (Spoiler: sex (very discrete, off stage) solves almost everything.)

“Your trouble is, you think a combination of acrophobia, sensory deprivation, and nervous strain is a metaphysical crisis. Myself, I don’t despise our lobsterish instinct to survive. I’m glad we have one.”

Anderson ignored black holes and radiation. Either would have killed his crew, if not his story. His “hydromagnetic forces” approximate gravity but allow him to bend it to his will. “Otherwise the Doppler effect might present us with more gamma radiation than our material shielding can handle.” He doesn’t identify that shielding but, where they go, even several meters of lead would not suffice.  And, “We might pass through a star at our current velocity and not be harmed. We can scarcely pass through the primordial nucleon. My personal suggestion is that we cultivate serenity.”

“Did you ever read Moby Dick?” she whispered. “That’s us. We’ve pursued the White Whale. To the end of time. And now … that question.  What is man, that he should outlive his God?”


Book Review: Umbernight by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Three Stars)


Book Review: Umbernight by Carolyn Ives Gilman

(Three Stars)

“We were only different from the bacteria because we are able to ask what the hell this is all about. Not answer, just ask.”

Enormous potential. Raises important questions about the limits of rationality, and the stifling impact of dogma, whatever the source. Unfortunately, logic is abandoned early—both inside the story and in the writing. Read it anyway.

“He was an orthodox rationalist, and considered aesthetics to be a gateway drug to superstition.”

Spoiler: no advanced culture would have wasted mass on a supply mission to a new colony with physical books. Lost a star

“The other option, the wise and cautious one, was to let the capsule land and just leave it sitting at Newton’s Eye until spring. But we are the descendants of people who set out for a new planet without thoroughly checking it out. Wisdom? Caution? Not in our DNA.”

Darwinian forecast: this colony will die.

“None of us asked to be born here, exiled from the rest of humanity, like the scum on the sand left by the highest wave.”

(2019 Finalist: Theodore A. Sturgeon Memorial Award, 2019 Finalist: Locus Award for Best Novella)

Book Review: Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells (Three Stars)


Book Review: Death of the Necromancer (Ile-Rien #2) by Martha Wells

(Three Stars)

“And that’s what he wants us to do, so that is what must be avoided at all cost.” That’s elementary, for God’s sake.”

An Arthur Conan Doyle take on Steampunk fantasy? Thinly disguised caricatures of Doyle’s sleuthing duo appear as supporting cast in this second novel set in the Ile-Rien universe, though a century after the first installation. What if Moriarty and Holmes teamed up against an even bigger threat to peace and goodness? Darker than most of Well’s stories; I didn’t like it as much. Your mileage will vary.

“I’m sure of one thing. That ‘safe’ is not a state of being any of us are going to experience again until all this is over.”

Slow start as Wells builds her characters and setting, but everything then accelerates. Continue reading

Book Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie (Four Stars)


Book Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

(Four Stars)

“A hatchling that thinks only of its our survival makes an untrustworthy adult.”

Leckie hasn’t lost her touch with engaging characters and plot, but she seems to have lost her way in a jungle of obscure personal pronouns (after demonstrating she could navigate that jungle in previous works) and gratuitous, pasted-on romances.

“To know your past is to know who you are.”

Set in the same galaxy as The Ancillary novels, Provenance explores life in minor republics outside the grasp of the Radch. Leckie’s development of vestiges as a cultural artifact is genius. (In another age, it might have Continue reading