Book Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal (four stars)

Book Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal (four stars)

“Everyone has a secret, and everyone lies.”

The Thin Man does And Then There were None in space. Not science fiction so much as a murder mystery set in on a space cruise liner. Complete with Asta and “copious drinking and flirtatious banter.”

‘On a ship like this, stairs were the unholy love child of Dalí and Escher.’

Some writer finally gets the Coriolis Effect right! Most science fiction ignores it altogether. (extra star)

‘Tesla gave a smile as frozen as the far side of an asteroid.’

Kowal’s least sympathetic protagonist to date. Poor little rich girl. Anyone that rich and that injured would be accompanied by her lawyer, doctor, and personal security. Cocktail recipe chapter openings underscore Tesla as an alcoholic.

‘Her back seized as if each separate screw in her spine had sprouted spikes into the surrounding muscles.’ 

Quibble: Seven years after major accident she should be healed or in traction. Twentieth century medicine. Gratuitous profanity. (lost a star)

“I’m going to smile and nod because I recognize all of those words.” 

Book Review: The Unveiling of Polly Forrest by Charlotte Whitney (four stars)

Book Review: The Unveiling of Polly Forrest: A Mystery by Charlotte Whitney (four stars)

‘I thought a small town was bad. Well, living on a farm was a hundred times worse. Everyone made the excuse they were looking out for one another, but really they were meddling types, Sarah being among the worst.’ 

Excellent, enjoyable historical fiction. Deeply rendered picture of rural Michigan life during the Great Depression. Deeply flawed but wholesome trio of protagonists—often each other’s primary antagonist—creates realism and tension. Three unreliable narrators, one who knows it.

‘Farm life was tediously uncreative, and ending up with such a cruel monster was antithetical to anything I’d ever desired.’ 

Complex, realistic characters. Ordained minister who views the Bible as only a guideline; self-righteous control freak; and the princess of her own fantasy. All seven deadly sins woven into a mélange of mistrust, pain, and eventual growth. Each grows; one changes.

‘Once again, Polly was in the spotlight, but I was the one suffering. This went way back.’ 

Modern vocabulary (logistics, militias, context, dominant, and toxic), often by a woman barely out of high school, disrupts the reader’s willing suspension of unbelief.

‘Why would God bring me to this place of utter euphoria and then dump me to wallow in my sins?’

Turn of events at the climax was well foreshadowed. On-the-nose narrative occasionally explains too much, connecting the dots for the reader and diminishing the fun.

“So that’s it? Is there more to tell me?” “Isn’t that enough? I’ve lied to my mother, sister, and brother-in-law. I’ve lied to you and [redacted]. I may have been harboring [redacted].”

Full disclosure: Whitney’s literary agent provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Angel’s Game by Carloa Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Angel’s Game (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #2) by Carloa Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves (Four Stars)

“Never underestimate a writer’s vanity, especially that of a mediocre writer,” I would reply.
“I don’t like to hear you talking like that about Pedro.” “I’m sorry. Neither do I.”

Follows protagonist David Martin on a journey of discovery which, once began, he both impelled and repelled from completing. The reader will identify.

Even the worst news is a relief when all it does is confirm what you already knew without wanting to know.

Zafón deftly create character and scene by meticulous description, pulling the reader deeper into the horror Martin experiences. That things are not as they seem is a given, but David’s attempts to find meaning in  his own life is heart-breaking.

“We think we understand a song’s lyrics, but what makes us believe in them, or not, is the music.”

Folks should read, but probably not review books of genre they dislike. I dislike thrillers. This is a thriller. This is a very good thriller.  Still, I feel the need of a bath.

So many people in these streets have blood on their souls that they no longer dare to remember, and when they do they lie to themselves because they cannot look at their own reflection in the mirror.

Book Review: Fugitive Telemetry by Marsha Wells (Four Stars)

Book Review: Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries #6) by Marsha Wells (Four Stars)

I told her, They don’t want me. (Hey, I don’t want me, either, but I’m stuck with me.)

Murderbot strikes again. Our favorite human-machine-construct security unit must investigate a murder. He doesn’t want to; the cops don’t want him to. What could go wrong? This story beats most contemporary science fiction because readers can identify with the protagonist alienated from self as well as others.

“This is the part that’s my job.”

Wells returns to the successful novella format of her first Murderbot Diaries. Internal clues suggest this story follows Rogue Protocol (Diary #4) rather than the longer Network Effect. Fans should read Wells’ Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory (The Murderbot Diaries #4.5) before this story.

It tried to alert its onboard SecSystem, but as the old saying (which I just made up) goes, if you can ping the SecUnit, it’s way too late.

Disappointed that SecUnit doesn’t get to armor up as implied by the cover art. Nice representation of Murderbot next to Port Authority bot Balin.

“You know, swearing during operations doesn’t meet the professional conduct standards of Station Security.” “Because Senior Indah has never told anybody to [expletive deleted] off.” “You have me there.”

It’s five-star writing, but I rated it four because of gratuitous profanity. Yes, profanity establishes character, but Wells pours it on. Dozens of instances of the f-word. It knocks the reader out of the spell of the story.

“And I assume you’re open to another contract the next time something weird happens.” “Only if it’s really weird.” “Understood.”

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

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

“You’re feeling guilty about lying to a fox?” Des asked, amused. “Only you, Pen”

Despite the confusing numbering system, this is Bujold’s third novella in the Penric thread. Part of a greater corpus but stands well by itself. The right balance of backstory and plot momentum.

“There is no question people can get theology wrong, too.” “People can get almost anything wrong,” sighed Oswyl. “Theology cannot be an exception.”

Fuller development of characters and the usual spate of ethical issues. Bujold uses fantasy as adeptly as science fiction to challenge her readers to think.

“‘Joyfully he learned/joyously taught.’ Went about in rags, poor man, which I thought quite unfair.”
“Probably had spent all his money on copyists. One must make choices, after all.”

Book Review: Hazardous Duty by Christy Barritt (Three Stars)


Book Review: Hazardous Duty (Squeaky Clean Mysteries #1) by Christy Barritt

(Three Stars)

“Look, Nancy Drew. This isn’t your case.”

Great concept: agnostic crime scene investigator wantabee who dropped out of school because of family necessity starts crime scene cleanup firm. Unfortunately, both the writing and the plot fail to deliver. Needed another editing, especially of her philosophic musings. Good sense of place and time. Nice, relevant cover art.

“I didn’t want to be a know-it-all. I really didn’t. My best friend in college had been one, which drove me crazy, especially considering I knew more than she did.”

Gabby is an unsympathetic protagonist, perhaps not intentionally. She is stubborn and stupid. By rights she should have been dead several times.

“So far you’re the only sane one I’ve met.” “And I’m covered in ash, smell like smoke, and clean up after murders.” “My standards of sane are really low.”

The supporting cast is good, if they tend toward clichés. The action is questionable. For example, the story opens with Gabby pulling skull fragments from a wall. What CSI team would have left that behind? Not to mention oddly-placed droplets of blood.

“Who needed details when you had an imagination like mine?’

Quibbles: “Bottle-cap glasses”? Her heart throb of the moment flees to his fiancé’s home state? Gabby jumps to so many conclusions she should have been in the Olympics.

“Don’t leave the state or do anything stupid.” “Understood.” “Which part? The leaving or the stupid, because I don’t think you have a lot of control over the latter.”

The inevitable come-to-Jesus climax feels contrived. Whose plea for divine intervention as she’s being murdered meanders into theology and qualification? Not “Please Lord, help me. If you really are up there, like my friends say you are, I want to know you.”

Book Review: The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters. (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Virgin in the Ice (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #6) by Ellis Peters.

(Four Stars)

“Never go looking for disaster. Expect the best, and walk so discreetly as to invite it, and then leave all to God.”

Among the most popular of the Cadfael chronicles, this tale heralds the first appearance of Oliver de Bretagne. (Read the book to discover his significance.)

“In a land at war with itself, you may take it as certain that order breaks down and savagery breaks out.”

By this sixth volume, Peters has reached her stride. Firmly set in the history and geography of twelfth-century England, these tales dig into the always-current dirt of humanity and find both gold and dross. Often it’s our favorite monk doing Continue reading

Book Review: Saint Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters (Four Stars)


Book Review: Saint Peter’s Fair (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #4) by Ellis Peters

(Four Stars)

“The manifold gifts of God are those to be delighted in, to fall short of joy would be ingratitude.”

Better with each reading. I discovered Cadfael twenty years ago. I have read each book at least twice since as well as watched all thirteen Mystery! episodes. Though they have some merit, many of the latter turned the originals inside out.

“It’s no blame to men if they try to put into their own artifacts all the colors and shapes God put into his.”

Saint Peter’s Fair is a murder mystery, but it is also an immersion in medieval culture and history, a reflection on the world and man’s place in it, and a romance. Peters weaves all her threads into a fascinating tapestry simultaneously fun and informative. Each book has a background story about medieval history or culture. This one focuses on trade fairs.

“Penitence is in the heart, not in the word spoken.”

Earlier readings left me with the impression that Cadfael was a twentieth century man in monk’s robes, but he is thoroughly a reflection of his time, though he rises above the stereotypes.

“What you see is only a broken part of a perfect whole.”

A good story well told. Mystery Theater (PBS) got this one pretty close to right, which they didn’t always.

Book Review: A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters (Four Stars)


Book Review: A Morbid Taste for Bones (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #1) by Ellis Peters

(Four Stars)

“The uncomfortable feeling that God, nevertheless, required a little help form men, and what he mostly got was hinderance.”

Opening historical fiction set during England’s twelfth century. Peters combines medieval history and a modern who-done-it, starring a crusader turned Benedictine monk.

“Brother Cadfael himself found nothing strange in his wide-ranging career, and had forgotten nothing and regretted nothing. He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude.”

Not at all Christian in either intent or style, the story nevertheless accepts that Cadfael and those around them are not beset by the doubts and conflicts over faith which be devils moderns.

“When you have done everything else, perfecting a conventual herb-garden is a fine and satisfying things to do.”

The church and clergy are not spared Peters’ critical pen. On the other hand, wrongly accused innocents and young lovers (often one and the same) get special dispensation. A pattern that will persist through the series.

“He had been scouring the borderlands for a spare saint now for a tear or more, looking hopefully towards Wales, where it was well known that holy men and women had been common as mushrooms in autumn in the past, and as little regarded.”

“God resolves all given time.”

Book Review: “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker (Two Stars)


Book Review: “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

(Two Stars)

(This review contains numerous spoilers.)

“Who discovers how to access infinite realities and then uses that discovery to invite her alternate selves to a convention?”

Great concept. How do you investigate a murder when the victim and all the suspects are the same person? Wanted to like it better. The point of view is one of the more pedestrian iterations of Sarah (yes, the author uses herself as the main character/almost-entire cast), but fails to grip the reader with the inner turmoil she describes as happening. Too focused on philosophizing and preaching.

“Divergence points were the key to everything.”

Figured out who-dun-it half way through, but find the explanation unsatisfying, though Pinsker provided several twists trying to make it suspenseful.

“We all built the future with our choices every day, never knowing which ones mattered.”

(2018 Hugo Award novella finalist.)