Category Archives: Reviews

Meg Elison’s Road to Nowhere series

You know how when you finish reading a really really good book, you want to read another book right away?  So you pick up a new book but put it back down after a few paragraphs, and you open another book but close it quickly, too.  And you realize that your head is still full of the really really good book, and you’ll have to wait for it to clear.

Reading Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife followed by its companion novel The Book of Etta did that to me.

The two books, which constitute the first two parts in The Road to Nowhere series, are satisfying on many levels.

The books explore gender both overtly and subtly, as it affects the characters and societies and plot.  In the fragmented groups that the main character in each book encounters, we get to see a variety of responses to the scarcity of women caused by the worldwide plague.  Those responses seem natural because Elison handles them deftly; they unfold as organic elements, supported by solid worldbuilding and thorough character development.  And each of them shows us something different than the others, something complex, about gender, personhood, difference, and agency in our societies today.  Many of the responses pose questions.  Some questions are answered, and some are perhaps unanswerable.

The books have heart.  The characters are round and full of life; their emotions feel real, sometimes surprising but always true, even when the characters are hiding or struggling with truth.

The books’ prose balances detail and restraint; meaningful detail is sometimes purposefully underplayed, which rewards close reading and offers the attentive reader the pleasure of fitting puzzle pieces into place.

This review may sound stuffy and academic and clumsy, but I promise you, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife and The Book of Etta are deeply personal and mesmerizing.

Review: Romancing the Inventor

carriger-cover.jpgGail Carriger’s Romancing the Inventor takes place in the same supernatural steampunk setting as her Parasol Protectorate novels, and several primary characters from those novels appear in this novella as secondary characters. Romancing the Inventor focuses on Madame Lefoux, the crossdressing inventor whose previous history is somewhat checkered (her giant mechanical octopus machine destroys swathes of London in an earlier book) and Imogene Hale, a woman from the country who enters service in the vampire household to which Lefoux has been sentenced (because, giant mechanical octopus machine).

The romance between Imogene and Lefoux is delightful. Both of them are well matched: strong, lovable, intelligent women–and the longing the two have for one another grows believably. Events are told from Imogene’s point of view, which is infused with Carriger’s light humor (something I always enjoy in Carriger’s writing), and readers who know Lefoux from other novels will have fun interpreting Lefoux’s feelings from her body language, muttered asides to herself, and occasional ambiguous remark to Imogene.

Unlike other novels in the series, this novella doesn’t focus on national or political threats.  The romance is definitely the focus of the plot, and it is thoroughly satisfying.

Review: The Gathering Edge

51LqK3wUyIL.jpgI’ve long been a fan of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden novels, and their latest, The Gathering Edge, doesn’t disappoint.

It’s a pleasure to watch Theo grow into her role as captain, fully bonded to her AI ship, Bechimo. I’ve no doubt she’ll continue to grow in interesting ways as the edge continues to gather. Certainly she has the makings of a delm. And Hevelin–that noble norbear makes me smile and cheer … and be a bit afraid. And Joyita, it’s so very cool to see that AI develop as an individual so distinct from Bechimo.

One of the many things I enjoy about this novel is that, while tying together threads in many of the more recent books, it focuses almost entirely on Theo and her immediate company. That singular focus supports strong character development and underscores the ways in which Theo’s crew (really, they are more like a family — or clan) come together and interlock, supporting one another.

If none of the above makes sense to you, then this book isn’t the place to start exploring the Liaden Universe. But explore that universe, yes, indeed, you should.

Review: A Shifter, a Vampire, and a Fae Walk into a Bar

Book_Final_lr_6x9-200x300.jpgThe light-hearted tone and good-hearted characters in Thianna D.’s A Shifter, a Vampire, and a Fae Walk into a Bar make this romantic fantasy novel a delightful read, especially if you’re in a bad mood and just want to get away from it all. The heroine is a human, the hero is a shapeshifter who can take wolf form (“not a werewolf”, he insists), and the secondary characters include vampires, fae, demons, warlocks, and other supernatural beings, which makes an entertaining mix. This is the first book in a series, and much of the plot centers on the main characters coming together and becoming closer, creating their own little family of friends and eventually a home for themselves beyond space and time. Because the characters are so likable, it’s easy to root for them to succeed, and it’s easy to see why they are drawn to one another.

This isn’t a novel full of frustrating drama or deep angst or deadly danger, and the romance isn’t stuffed with endless longing or heated sex scenes. Instead, the book is soothingly humorous, and the sex is mostly off-screen and sweet. This is one of those novels that makes the world a little brighter.

Recommendations for Women Who Haven’t Read Any Science Fiction


A librarian asked me to recommend a few science fiction novels for women who haven’t read any science fiction.  I replied:

First and foremost, if possible, you want the main protagonist to be female. And unless the reader happens to love science, you don’t want hard science fiction, you want soft: anthropology, sociology, psychology, ecology, and so on.

The first choice, that fits all the criteria above:

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass.

If the woman reader has interests in certain areas, you might want to build on those interests.

For a woman who is interested in history, or who cares about slavery in general or U.S. African American slave history in particular:

Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

For a woman who enjoys a romance intertwined with politics:

Catharine Asaro’s Primary Inversion.

I’d recommend one of those three, with Tepper being my main choice.


If you want a few more suggestions, I’ll break the female-main-protagonist rule.

If the woman is strongly interested in psychology, particularly in autism:

Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark.

If the woman loves a challenge and has strong literary leanings (loves prose that sings and layers of allusion), can tolerate ambiguity and initial reader confusion, has a taste for the strange, and is interested in gender issues:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

(But be careful if you recommend Le Guin! Novice science fiction readers have to work before they feel comfortable with the book.)

Returning to the female-main-protagonist rule, if the woman is interested in gender issues but doesn’t love a challenge as much as I’ve described above, then intead of Le Guin:

Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean.


Other possibilities:

Kage Baker. Sky Coyote.

Lois McMaster Bujold. The Warrior’s Apprentice.

Daniel Keyes. Flowers for Algernon. (the 1966 full novel, not the 1959 short novelette)

Harlan Ellison

Yesterday I watched Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a film that covers much of Ellison’s life and work. The man is undeniably and extremely talented, and the film is entertaining, spanning a wide range of topics–much as Ellison’s writing and activism have spanned a range reminiscent of the Rockies.

DVD cover for Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth

Among the topics: fandom, childhood, civil rights, TV’s harmful effects, social conformity versus individuality, what it takes to be a writer, religion versus atheism, one’s right to an opinion, anti-intellectualism, life as conflict, the pro-corporate climate at colleges today compared to colleges in the sixties, Hollywood’s mistreatment of writers, getting paid for what you do, cranky old Judaism, love, and lots and lots of anger.

I’m toying with the idea of focusing a section of College Writing R1A on Ellison. Certainly his writing models persuasion as well as masterful prose, so there’s plenty to chew on both analytically and argumentatively.

We could follow Harlan’s advice: “You must never be afraid to go there.”

If you are interested in the film, you can find it on Amazon. The listing includes a video clip you can watch before buying the film.

The Guild

The Guild absolutely slays me.

Speak geek or gaming? Check out The Guild on YouTube.

(Bonus points: the witty gamine, Felicia Day.)

The Guild character as depicted on the serial's title screen

Star Trek

Star Trek Movie posterI saw J.J. Abrams’s new Star Trek movie this morning.

It’s hard for me to explain what seeing this movie means to me. When I was a kid, the original TV series was in its first run, and I watched each episode religiously.

“Religiously” is not a metaphor here: I worshipped the show. All throughout each episode, I sat in one spot on the floor in a rigid position, double-jointed knees bent so that my legs were arranged in a V pressed flat on either side of me. Somehow that uncomfortable position made me worthy, made me part of the action.

I clipped the episode descriptions out of the guide in the daily newspaper and taped them into a log book. I arched my left eyebrow and murmured “fascinating” at every opportunity. I bought Leonard Nimoy’s records and played them over and over. I made up Mary Sue fanfic stories to tell myself as I fell asleep at night.

My younger brother called me Spock.

Brian thought of himself as Captain Kirk. Several times before he died of ALS last year, we watched Star Trek Generations together–the movie in which Captain Kirk dies. Brian made me promise to tell the readers of his blog that his last words to them were the same as Kirk’s last words in the movie: “It was fun.”

Anyone who knows anything about ALS knows that Brian wasn’t referring to the disease.

My dearest, deepest wish is that my brother could have seen the new movie. Seen fearless Kirk, fists flying in the face of death, more than forty years after his first incarnation.

Maybe (*spoiler alert*), in some alternative universe like the one in the movie, Brian lives and is watching Kirk and Spock and our beloved crew resurrected on screen.

Maybe when Brian’s young son, Joey, watches the young, fatherless Kirk drive hellbent for that yawning crevasse in the plains of Iowa, he’ll think of his dad. And know what Brian meant.


Buffy season 8

Finally! Dark Horse Comics is publishing what could have been the eighth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer if the show hadn’t been canceled. Zing goes my heart!

Joss Whedon is writing the scripts. What more could I ask for? Cleverly laid-out panels and gorgeously inked pencils? Got that. Xander coming into his own? Got that, too. Geeky goodness galore? Yeup, and yeup again.

Davy by Edgar Pangborn

At the urging of several people whose taste I respect, I recently read Edgar Pangborn’s 1964 postapocalyptic novel, Davy. I’m not sorry that I did, but I can’t say that I truly enjoyed the book.

Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth—entirely subjective, I admit.

The reviews of Davy on Amazon raised my expectations too high, perhaps. The Amazon reviewers claim that the book is as good as Huckleberry Finn or Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and although the book is good and admirable, it is not on par with those two great works.

Certainly, Davy is an ambitious, praiseworthy novel. I appreciate the book’s structure, which interweaves two chronological narratives—one describing events that took place in the past, when the narrator was entering adolescence, and one that describes more recent events taking place as the middle-aged narrator writes of his adolescence, complete with footnotes from his current middle-aged companions. I admire the narrator’s changing voices; he sounds believably like a postapocalyptic adolescent and, later, like a middle-aged introspective man. There’s clever wordmangling that helps set the tone and reinforce the postapocalyptic worldbuilding, such as the remnants of current New England geographical terms in the postapocalyptic names Katskil, Vairmant, and Conicut, or the riff on “demoralized” on pages 216-217, which Davy renders as “demarbleized,” then “demarvelized,” and finally “demongrelized.” And the characters that Davy meets on his journey are, for the most part, round and descriptively detailed.

But the world that’s built in this book feels more like one that belongs in a magic-less fantasy than in postapocalyptic science fiction—like an early America ruled by a dominant and technophobic Church, with no special insight into what that means for the inhabitants. The book’s intended indictment of that technophobic Church isn’t unique: children die, ignorance abounds, and mudgrubbing is the order of the day.

The plot is episodic and doesn’t build toward anything in particular until the last fifty pages or so, when the two lines of narrative coalesce. Yes, the boy learns lessons that that his grownup self comments on explicitly, but those comments—like the indictment of the Church—aren’t particularly insightful.

Maybe my complaints about lack of insight—and, hence, my disappointment in the book—is that I’m a fifty-year-old woman? The people I know who recommended the book to me are all older men who read it when they were young; I can see how Davy would be most meaningful and titillating and memorable to a young man who’s sorting out who he is and how best to rebel against authority.

Or maybe it’s that the book feels somewhat old-fashioned: its attack on the Church and politics is relatively gentle, restrained, moderate—rather simple, as if merely complaining about the Church and politics is extraordinary and shocking and, thus, sufficiently observant. And the sex is tame by current standards—“bawdy” reviewers call it, an appropriately old-fashioned word.

I wouldn’t complain (much) about the foregoing if I had been caught up in Davy’s emotions. But I wasn’t caught, not as I am caught by Huck Finn’s life and emotions. I sat back and engaged dutifully with Pangborn’s intellectual exercise, but the book didn’t carry me away.

And even the intellectual exercise was somewhat disappointing (again, perhaps because of the expectations created by the reviews). The book lacks the deeply complex layering of myth and Church that exists in A Canticle for Leibowitz. And it lacks the “what happened” piecing together of clues embedded in deteriorated language that I enjoy in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker—a book I’d compare it to before I compared it to Miller’s Canticle.

So, in sum, I am glad that I read Davy, because now I can check it off my list of Significant Books That It’s Good to Know About. But reading it felt like duty, not like joy.