Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Book three of the Murderbot Diaries keeps us right on track, and they’re so slim and easy to read, it takes willpower not to binge them. Our murderbot takes on a new name for this adventure, and a new self-designed mission; both of these are outside the normal range for murderbots (or SecUnits, for security units). But our SecUnit is special. In some ways, this episode resembles the last, in Artificial Condition: the murderbot hitches a ride, hoping to quietly take in some shows and maybe a little light reading and be left alone until arrival at the next place where it hopes to do a little research, solve a mystery. But it gets 1. recognized by a bot it didn’t anticipate and 2. tangled up in the plans and lives of a group of humans it regrets feeling something for, and therefore 3. roped into protecting them – like in its old life, but on its own terms.

The pattern here continues to develop an important point: bots and SecUnits are rather closer to being “people” than we are originally led to believe, meaning they have loyalties, feelings, and personalities. This allows for some ideas about liberties, responsibilities, and “human” rights (which in this world may need to apply to some beings that are not strictly human). It also makes me look forward to what is to come. Our murderbot (of the several names, now) will carry on, growing into its own. It will continue to meet more characters that will test its understanding of bots (etc.), and eventually I imagine it will have to redefine that understanding, as I am doing as reader. I can’t wait for more adventures. And I love the murderbot’s sense of humor and irony as much as ever.

Another fun twist in this novella was the murderbot – an avid consumer of serial entertainment shows, remember – forming some opinions about what would and wouldn’t make good entertainment feed narrative. I’d love to see it get into the writers’ room!

This was book three and there are only six; I’m already sad. One of these is a full-length novel, though? That will be fun!


Rating: 7 core samples.

“The Christmas Scorpion” by Lee Child

Very short review for a very short story – I love that I can use my local library to catch up on all the little Reacher snippets I may have missed! This one took just a few minutes to read. Reacher heads south for the winter, by habit, because he doesn’t like the cold. But he finds himself outside Barstow, California in a freak blizzard, and then is quickly sucked into a plot involving a foreign dignitary and a mysterious would-be assassin. It’s a fun Reacher-style puzzle, with building tension and a whodunit, but actual violence is minimal.

Despite the title, this is not a Christmas-themed story, although there is snow.

The short format doesn’t leave room for much development of Reacher or the other players, so I think this one reads best for preexisting fans who know the background – not a great entry point for newcomers, because there’s not enough background. (Short stories are hard. This one relies on the rest of Child’s body of work.) But as a quick hit for the fans? I loved it.


Rating: 7 shadows.

Maximum Shelf: We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 12, 2021.


Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans is an utterly riveting debut novel of family ties, secrets and the depths of love. Beware the unintended single-sitting read: this magnetic story has the power to draw its reader from cover to cover in one gulp.

The Brennans are an extremely tight-knit Irish American family living in West Manor, N.Y., just north of Manhattan and “leaning upper middle class.” Mickey Brennan is now widowed, but the memory of his wife, Maura, casts a shadow. They have four children. The eldest, Denny, has a large frame and a large personality. He is half owner of a pub called Brennan’s (or Ó’Braonáin’s, in the Gaelic), begun on a loan from Mickey and Maura and very much the family business. Next in age is Sunday, the only child to have left the neighborhood, much to the family’s chagrin. Jackie is her Irish twin, at just 14 months younger: recently in trouble with the law, he’s moved back home to save money and help out. Shane is the youngest, genial and developmentally disabled, around whom all the Brennans rally. And then there is Kale: Denny’s business partner, a neighbor since childhood, an honorary Brennan–and Sunday’s former fiancé. Aunts and cousins cycle through as well; the charismatic Brennans have a large, comfortable household with a strong center of gravity.

As exceptionally close as they are, the Brennans also specialize in secrets. Denny has not been honest with his wife or Kale about the pub’s poor financial situation. Jackie is the only one who knows why Sunday really left town.

Chapters alternate perspective among these characters, chiefly the four siblings but also the other Brennans and Brennan-adjacents. There is an argument to be made for Sunday as main character; she was the glue that held this clan together, and it is her homecoming that sets the novel’s events in motion. But the book’s title points toward the family unit as central; their inextricability is compelling, unique and apparently infallible. Each chapter ends with a line of dialogue that also opens the next chapter, but from a different point of view, which contributes to the momentum that will keep you up all night to finish this book in one go. The effect is nearly cinematic, as if the camera shifts to show the same scene from another angle. This technique also highlights the impact of a deeply bonded family insisting on keeping secrets.

The Brennans are captivating, even hypnotic, for readers as well as for those who enter their orbit in the world of West Manor. In her debut novel, Lange shows a sure hand with characters both flawed and complex: Jackie loves bartending and is a talented painter, although only Sunday supports his art. Kale’s devotion is complete, even when he’s had to navigate the relationship of his best friend (Denny) and his childhood sweetheart (Sunday). Kale’s wife is challenging, but nuanced. Denny’s daughter Molly is sweet and spirited: she embraces her new Aunt Sunday wholly (after sitting her down for a serious talk about the preexisting plan for her to inherit Sunday’s room when Molly turns five). These damaged, fierce, loyal Brennans and their intricate problems will capture readers’ hearts entirely and not let go. Their story has everything: intrigue, crime, heartbreak, therapeutic awakenings and a romance that feels both impossible and inevitable.


Rating: 9 broken glasses.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Lange.

Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris, illus. by Charles Vess

Fairy tales for grown-ups, allegories, visions and horrors: these gorgeously illustrated linked stories are guaranteed to transport.

With Honeycomb, the prolific Joanne M. Harris (Chocolat; Peaches for Father Francis), who has written fantasy, historical fiction, suspense, cookbooks and more, offers an enchanting collection of darkly delightful, imaginative fairy tales and parables of the modern world. (These stories began as a series on Twitter.) Illustrator Charles Vess (Stardust; Sandman) brings to life Harris’s Silken Folk, “weavers of glamours, spinners of tales… whom some call the Faërie, and some the First, and some the Keepers of Stories,” in richly detailed images.

In the world of Honeycomb, the Sightless Folk (regular humans) unwittingly often share space with the numerous and diverse Silken. “There are many doors between the worlds of the Faërie and the Folk. Some look like doors; or windows; or books. Some are in Dream; others, in Death.” These 100 stories form a whole that is magical, fanciful, enchanting and occasionally nightmarish. Some center on single-appearance characters, and some characters are revisited, but all belong to the same universe. “Dream is a river that runs through Nine Worlds, and Death is only one of them.” In special moments, “all Worlds were linked, like the cells of an intricate honeycomb, making a pattern that stretched beyond even Death; even Dream,” and the stories are likewise linked cells.

Some act as allegories, as in “The Wolves and the Dogs,” in which the Sheep elect a Wolf to protect them because at least he is honest. In “The Traveller,” the titular character passes quickly by many delights in pursuit of his destination, which turns out less impressive than he’d hoped. “Clockwork” is a horrifying tale in which a husband rebuilds his wife piece by piece. “The Bookworm Princess,” on the other hand, ends with deep satisfaction. There is the Clockwork Princess and the watchmaker’s boy; a girl who travels with a clockwork tiger; and a mistrustful puppeteer who manifests what he fears. A recurring farmyard is packed with colorful animal characters–a troublesome piglet, a petulant pullet–and allegory, Orwellian and otherwise. The connecting character is the Lacewing King, whom readers meet at his birth in “The Midwife” and follow for hundreds of years, as the fate of Worlds hangs in the balance. “There are many different ways to reach the River Dream. One is Sleep; one is Desire; but the greatest of all is Story….”

Completely engrossing, exquisitely inventive, brilliantly illustrated and thought-provoking, Honeycomb is a world, or Worlds, to get lost in. “Some of these tales have stings attached. But then, of course, that’s bees for you.”


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 candied cockroaches.

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Looks like I need a new way to talk about novels like this: huge and sweeping in its scope, but in a neat, tidy package, right at 300 pages. The Travelers opens with a Cast of Characters, like a play, which made me a little nervous, and indeed I needed to use it some throughout, although less so in the second half once I got situated. These characters come from a few families over a few generations. Cast of Characters is followed by Time (“from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term”), Settings of Note (Amagansett, Long Island; Buckner County, Georgia; New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Brittany, France; Berlin, Germany; and Vietnam”) and Background, which discusses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which made me still more nervous; what is this book I am entering? But it turned out wonderfully.

Where to begin? Clearly I cannot tell you about all these characters and happenings on several continents over several decades. I’m still not sure how Porter has managed to do it in 300 pages. Among my favorites, though, are definitely Agnes and Eloise, who were lovers as young women in Buckner County, Georgia, but who go on to live long, full, well-traveled lives, while never ceasing to circle each other at least in their minds and at least a little. (“Just because you couldn’t stand someone didn’t mean you no longer loved them.”) The man Agnes marries has an obsession with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that begins when he is serving in the Vietnam War, and remains ties to a trauma from that time period; his odd relationship to an odd play, and its impact on his and Agnes’s two daughters, was a fascinating through-line for me. There are plotlines that are linked to race, as well as gender and sexuality, another expansive dimension to the novel that I appreciate. I think what I’m most marveling at here is the compression: now that I’m trying to tell you about this book, I’m amazed at how much was in it, at how much American history got slipped into a story about regular people.

It’s absorbing. There are some problematic characters that I still felt for, and some downright entrancing characters (like Eloise, who trains as a pilot in homage to her hero, the real-life Bessie Coleman) who I already miss. The overall impression is spellbinding, really. I like that settings recur, and characters appear and reappear in new arrangements with each other – new relationships. These threads form a weave that help this somewhat sprawling plot and cast to cohere. It could have been too much to keep together, but it makes just enough sense, with the recurring connections. Oh, and photographs: chapters are headed by small black-and-white images, and there are a few more within the text. A ‘photo credits’ section is a great bonus. The images come from true history, while the novel is of course fiction, but they add historical authenticity; so this Black soldier in Vietnam is not the one I’m reading about (because the latter is a fiction), but it adds a layer.

I think I’m going to be thinking about this enormous, deceptively slim novel for a long time.


Rating: 8 pieces of pecan pie.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

These Murderbot Diaries are going down way too easily; Martha Wells is not writing quickly enough! Wonderful fun. After book one, All Systems Red, it felt great to see our murderbot again, still addicted to entertainment media and wishing it could just be left alone to take in its favorite shows and not have to communicate with humans. (“I liked humans, I liked watching them on the entertainment feed, where they couldn’t interact with me. Where it was safe. For me and for them.”) There was never such a loveable, socially awkward creature. It’s the genius of this series that this protagonist is not human, but has all the personality and foibles we want in our favorite human characters. “When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.” “I wish being a construct made me less irrational than the average human but you may have noticed this is not the case.”

In this installment, the murderbot has its own agenda for the first time ever, arranging for its own travel (only a little bit under false pretenses) and going looking for answers to a mystery it wants solved for its own sake. It runs into trouble when the research transport ship it hitches a ride with turns out to be a bit smarter and more sentient than our hero had bargained on. This is either going to be the murderbot’s first friend or next enemy. Also, to get onto the moon it’s headed for, it needs an employment pass, and so it needs employment, which (again) it’s never arranged for itself. This is how it ends up with another group of humans to care for, which raises some of the same concerns that it did in book one.

Where it took me a little while to get into All Systems Red, this one had me in its grasp from minute one (maybe because I understood the world I was stepping into). I’m smitten. These stories are short, funny, and moving. I want them all.


Rating: 8 facial expressions.

Nervous System by Lina Meruane, trans. by Megan McDowell

This complex novel moves between outer space and private torments to embrace bonds forged in pain.

Lina Meruane’s Nervous System is a novel both fanciful and visceral, pairing the study of the cosmos with medical mysteries and wounds on earth. It is set dually in “the country of the present” and “the country of the past,” the latter swimming with political violence and trauma, and bearing a resemblance to Meruane’s native Chile. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish establishes an eerie tone, both emotional and detached.

The protagonist is Ella. Her partner is El: Are these names, or the Spanish pronouns She and He? El is also known as “the bone guy,” a forensic scientist combing through mass graves, “more migrant bodies made to disappear piece by piece,” to determine cause of death. Ella’s father is simply the Father, her stepmother the Mother; only gradually the reader becomes aware of the Firstborn and the Twins (Boy Twin and Girl Twin), completing a family filled with holes and secrets. Ella is supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, but she has stalled. “This final attempt would be spent on stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves, forming dense black holes.” Instead, she winds up tracking not solar systems but the systems of her own body, as an undiagnosed condition contributes to her long, slow downfall.

The narrative unfolds in a bit of a fever dream, as Ella’s thought process combines words in lyric but not-quite-literal forms, and chronology moves backward and forward. Chapters are set in “future time,” “restless present,” “between times” and “past imperfect.” “The universe has never known harmony, has never been a perfect mechanism, it’s no good for measuring time precisely.” Ella’s “voice is many voices, her question is nervous nebulous shooting short circuit of stars.”

The novel is narrated in a third-person perspective close to Ella’s own consciousness, and characterized by a dreamy, distant way of describing even horrendous events, “women hacked to pieces and children lost in arid lands.” Eventually readers understand that illness, injury and all sorts of damage manifest in the body and in the memory, and great love and animosity can and frequently do exist side by side. Amid these personal and political traumas, family and history, lies commentary on the modern world, relationships, grief and connection. “Maybe with time everything would be restored, but maybe not, because there in the night the stupid stars still hung and sprinkled calcium over the universe.” Nervous System is filled with anguish and unease, but also starlight, which touches Ella at its close.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 treacherous rats.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s reputation is stellar, and her backlist is healthy: six novels besides this one and a story collection, and she’s just 36. (Wow.) With this, my first of her books, I’m adding my voice to the chorus. Oyeyemi is a prodigious talent.

Gingerbread is under 300 pages, but I’m still a little intimidated by the task of saying what all is in it. There are three generations of women in our story from the start, and they remain our focus. Margot Lee, her daughter Harriet, and Harriet’s daughter Perdita make up a very close family, and the titular gingerbread is a family recipe with magical powers, apparently – but literally, or figuratively speaking? They live in London, but Margot and Harriet come originally from a country called Druhástrana, where Perdita has never visited. [I was immediately intrigued by the name Perdita: this word in Latin means lost; it is the name of a moon of Uranus; and it is the name of the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Which of these undertones is intended or instructive here? Maybe all of them.] “Several prominent thinkers have proposed reclassifying Druhástrana as a purely notional/mythical land”; at any rate, it is unclear how one would get there, or from there to here.

There are magical elements sprinkled throughout, in a book that is mostly realistic; just enough magic, then, to keep me a bit off balance in my reading of this world. Perdita has four dolls that speak (and not just to her); they are like her chorus, in the classical Greek sense. The Lee family gingerbread has powers, certainly. Druhástrana is a land of rather more magic: “She’d seen some plant-vertebrate combinations in the clearings, glassy gazing dormice and owls that earth had risen up around; the ground was growing them, and they looked uncomfortable, as if they’d been stretched and stuffed with straw. There was a leaf that people chewed for relief from pain, and the girl brought this leaf to the plant-vertebrate combinations when she had time; it seemed to make things a bit better for them.” Another girl “had two pupils in each eye; that’s why her eyes looked like bottomless lakes in the torchlight.”

Perdita, being a remarkable 17-year-old, manages a rather extreme act in search of her motherland. As she lays in bed recuperating from this adventure, Harriet sits with her (and her four speaking dolls) and tells the story of her own – Harriet’s – childhood and coming of age. This is the story of growing up in Druhástrana, the legacy of the gingerbread, and Perdita’s heretofore unknown paternity; it’s a story of families and class distinctions, and it takes up the bulk of the novel, right up until the story told at Perdita’s bedside moves into the present, when they get up and go continue to live it.

I love these characters: strong women with strong senses of humor and independence, and wise one-liners. “Everybody around her was living out a different story in which events had different causes and motivations according to how they were perceived.” “Life isn’t ill-natured; it’s just dirt poor, like any other public resource.” Harriet’s anxieties about the intimidating, insular Parental Power Association (what Perdita’s school has in place of a Parent Teacher Association) and its social structure are priceless, hilarious, and relatable.

I’m a sucker for a blend of realism with a few key points of wild unreality, which we find here, and I fell hard for Margot, Harriet, and Perdita. There is a real satisfaction to this novel’s ending, even if it doesn’t tie up all loose ends. I’m definitely in for more from Oyeyemi.


Rating: 8 powders.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Thanks Liz for this fun recommendation, a bit off my usual path, but right in line with The Expanse (remember that series?!). The Murderbot Diaries is a series of sci-fi novellas; book one, All Systems Red, was an easy single-sitting read. I found it took me a little while to engage. The story begins in media res, which has its advantages, but in this case left me a little murky on some of the situational details and I think delayed my reader-brain clicking into gear. Partly this feels like a sci-fi issue (in media res maybe works less well here, where the reader needs to learn the rules of your world?) and partly, as usual, I’m sure it’s a me issue, because I’m not a very experienced sci-fi reader and it’s been a while since I’ve read any.

But once I clicked in I was decidedly engaged. The story is told in first-person (something of the ‘diary’ effect) by a creature who calls itself Murderbot. It’s a SecUnit (security unit) for ‘the company,’ which has been rented out to a survey team doing scientific work on an unsettled planet. (Some features of this world are very similar to that of The Expanse.) It opens quite intriguingly:

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

What is special about Murderbot is this fact, that it has hacked its governor module and therefore has personal agency, which is unusual among its kind. The humans and augmented humans that it works for don’t know this. It has to remember to appear to be following the rules. But the first odd surprise is contained in that first sentence, too: rather than undertake some evil genius scheme, our Murderbot is most interested in vegging out and binging some telenovelas. (It is forever waiting for the humans to take a break so it can watch tv, basically.) This is unexpected, endearing, a little absurd, and very human, despite the Murderbot being not human. It is a ‘construct,’ containing both organic and inorganic parts; perhaps roughly half human and half bot, although it resists that framing. “It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do.” Again, sounds awfully human. “I know I said SecUnits aren’t sentimental about each other, but I wished it wasn’t one of the DeltFall units. It was in there somewhere, trapped in its own head, maybe aware, maybe not. Not that it matters. None of us had a choice.”

In fact, Murderbot’s kind of lazy and a little negligent. “I don’t know… because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.” When its assigned team of humans gets into trouble, it has to admit that it didn’t even read the info packet that came with this contract, and has no idea who its team is. (It deleted that file to free up storage space for entertainment files. I am tickled by our tv-addicted SecUnit.)

There is an adventure with the humans; there is danger and action and intrigue. But this is all backdrop for the human drama, by which I mean the humans on the assigned team and, primarily, Murderbot navigating its relationship to the humans. We get to know the protagonist a little bit, begin to see it reveal personality (very begrudgingly) and loyalties, even perhaps desires. This world has more than a few elements in common with that of The Expanse, but also, that human drama at the heart of things is what appeals to me in both cases. At the end of this very quick read, Murderbot has an opportunity open up; and then cliffhanger. I’m absolutely in for the next one.


Rating: 7 little hoppers.

“These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett

From the January 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine, sent to me by the infallible Liz, a transcendent essay by Ann Patchett. Now, I’m not sure if this is for real or how stable it is, but at least for now this link will let you read it for free, which you definitely should do. And it’s worth whatever they want you to pay for it, in any case.

“These Precious Days” is a lengthy essay, but it is riveting at every point. I had to put it down and walk away just to give my mind and my emotions a break, and to stretch it out – it is that strong and beautiful an experience. And it was hard to figure out where to take that break, because it wants to flow right through from start to finish.

There is a story running through this piece, and it is a story of a friendship, formed and forged during extraordinary times. As Patchett reminds us, she is a novelist, with a real interest in how stories are structured, where they begin and where they end. So it is with purpose that she gives us the story’s chosen beginning: it’s almost bedtime, Patchett has just finished a novel, and she needs something short to read before bed. From the umpteen books that naturally surround Ann Patchett, she chooses a collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. She is surprised to find it “a very good book,” and this sets her off on a journey where she gets to know Tom Hanks a little, interviews him for a television show, meets his assistant, sees him a few more times. This leads to Tom Hanks narrating the audiobook of The Dutch House, among other things. I’m not going to say any more about what happens. Trust me, you won’t be able to walk away from this one (unless you force yourself to do so with great effort, as I did, mostly for the pleasure of returning to it).

One thing I love about this essay is how it performs as a braided essay, barely. Patchett stays in a single narrative for the most part, telling the story of the developing friendship in the extraordinary times. After her introductory story about Tom Hanks (who is not the new friend, but reappears occasionally), she stays in this main thread so much of the time, and tells it so beautifully (and it is such an absorbing story) that I forget about the other thread – that there is a meta-thread in this essay about story, and about the shape and the shaping of this story. Those few and brief moments when she reminds us of the other topic are all the more effective for their scarcity. We are reminded that the narrator’s character is a novelist, and that the need she feels to shape narrative can’t be divorced from the life she’s living, where she has a dear new friend who is in danger. It’s extremely skillful writing, and I loved several facets of it: that weaving of threads (just barely, just a touch of one for seasoning in the main dish), the expertly paced storytelling, the appreciation for so-called coincidence, the delightful characters (of whom the author’s husband is a secondary example, but one I really liked), and the self-aware voice of Patchett herself. I’m left with the impression that Patchett is like Tom Hanks in a way (or my impression of Tom Hanks): despite being famous, they’re both also very decent and nice, more than one might expect. She’s allowed us intimately in here in a way that I think will appeal to many readers as it did to me.

Now’s a good time for me to confess that I’ve read none of Patchett’s fiction. (I think I’ve read a column or two, within the world of her bookstore advocacy.) I know her by reputation as a fine novelist and an important advocate of independent bookstores. I can now see that she is absolutely gifted and I need to read more of her work.

I can’t remember the last time an essay so bewitched and transported me. I insist you seek this one out. Thanks a million times as usual, Liz. (How’d I do?)

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