“The Future of Work: Compulsory” by Martha Wells

A very short story, but a satisfying little fix for my need for Murderbot. And actually, this one would make an excellent introduction (and clearly is designed for those unfamiliar with the character, as it economically sums up the needed background in a way that is not at all awkward – no small feat). It’s just a very quick episode, and I think early in SecUnit’s governor-module-free life. It’s still working out how it feels and thinks, because “apparently getting free will after having 93 percent of your behavior controlled for your entire existence will do weird things to your impulse control.” Also, “What’s the hurry? I can always kill the humans after the next series ends.” Which is kind of perfect as an encapsulation: the humor, the darkness, and the entertainment addiction. I love it.

Real quick and easy; think about checking it out here.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (audio)

This audiobook, also part of my cross-country travels, was a birthday gift from my mom. Thanks, Mom!

Valentine is a powerful novel. It’s set in Odessa, Texas in 1976: a central West Texas oil town in a harsh environment filled with hard-edged, struggling people. The setting is definitely part of the appeal, as I know Odessa a little and its region a little better, and Elizabeth Wetmore’s striking writing about place I found very affecting and authentic. Mostly, this place comes across as rough, stark, unbeautiful; but a close read will reveal appreciation for the natural world and the people who find something to love in it. These characters are really well done, too. Chapters shift between the points of view of a number of them, with a firmer focus on three or four. All are women: men are only viewed through their eyes. As a woman, in a world of books historically over-focused on men, I appreciated this, too.

Let me get in a content warning before we go too much further: the event the book opens with, which is also the event that the entire narrative centers around, is a brutal and violent rape. It’s described in what I’d call moderate detail, which is plenty disturbing. Readers for whom this may present a problem should avoid the whole thing.

This rape and its aftermath affects all our characters in various ways. Even those who are initially unsympathetic become three-dimensional and complicated when they get their own chapters, in that way that I love: all people are complex, no one all good or bad, no perfect heroes or villains. I love a complication like nothing else. There is even a brief – failed – attempt to understand the perpetrator of the rape; that impulse and its failure both feel real and right to me.

Gloria, or Glory, Ramirez rightfully opens and closes the book. Fourteen years old, the US-born child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant mother, Glory’s life brings race and racism into the story. Valentine is centrally concerned with women’s lives and violence against women, but this layer is important and (of course) related. Then there is Mary Rose Whitehead, young mother of a young daughter, drawn into Glory’s life by circumstance. She rebels against many of the structures of the world around her, in ways that we applaud, but this is no fairy tale, so she will not necessarily triumph. Next comes Corrine Shepard, an older woman, recently widowed and handling her grief with booze, cigarettes and not giving two sh*ts what you think about any of it, which serves her well, to a point. I think of these three women as the core, although there are probably other interpretations – I haven’t counted chapters. Again, there are others who get less spotlight but make important contributions: I’m thinking of the bartender/babysitter/waitress we get to hear from near the very end.

This book covers so much. Race and racism and immigration, women’s lives and violence against women, economics patterns and the dire straits it puts all kinds of people in; the cultural and ecological milieu of a particular place, in a particular time, including what it looks like for an oil boom to hit a town like Odessa, which my friends who live in the region today tell me about: it sounds like it looks awfully the same after more than 40 years. Valentine‘s contents contain a lot of ugliness, brutality, violence, hate, tragedy: beware. But it’s also a beautifully rendered novel. And I appreciate its glimpses of beauty even in Odessa in 1976. It’s masterful, in other words. I’m very impressed, and I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Thanks again, Mom. Good pick.


Rating: 8 pistols in purses.

In the Field by Rachel Pastan

A Nobel-winning scientist holds the focus of this lovely, contemplative, completely absorbing novel.

“What if Cinderella had asked her mother’s tree to give her a microscope instead of a ballgown?” With In the Field, Rachel Pastan (Alena) offers a compassionate, clear-eyed story of self-determination, love and science. The novel begins in 1982, when Dr. Kate Croft receives a phone call from the Nobel committee, then rewinds to 1923, when Kate is a first-year student at Cornell University, to the disapproval of her family, male professors and classmates.

Kate is entranced by biology, if not obsessed: “The cell was an uncharted country, and she was an explorer newly landed on shore… that was part of the joy of it: the promise of richness that lay ahead. The sense she had of undreamed-of discoveries–unimagined systems and structures–waiting there in the dark to be found.” Socially challenged and estranged from her family, she grows up with a single-minded devotion to her work, despite the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field and her difficulties in love.

An author’s note acknowledges that Kate Croft is based on Barbara McClintock, but Pastan makes clear that this is a heavily fictionalized account of the geneticist’s personal life, while remaining accurate to the science. Kate is a “corn man,” in the parlance of the day, studying maize genes at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. Her colleagues accept and respect her to varying degrees: one reports, “People say either you’re a genius, or else you’re off your rocker.” Kate’s greatest joy is in carefully tending her corn, her slides and her data. Other scientists profit off her discoveries (she is a gifted researcher) and deny her credit; she has difficulty accepting help. Meanwhile, she wrestles with her secret love affair with a woman, and maintains a lifelong friendship with a fellow corn man.

The curiosity that drives Kate’s research fuels her love for humanity, too. “Couldn’t people change their natures? Couldn’t they change, the way her corn had changed in the middle of the growing season, suddenly producing leaves with different frequencies of streaks? Something switched on, something else switched off, deep inside the cells.” These questions of free will are as important as those of heredity or meiosis. In the Field excels in its multifaceted view of a complex woman: scientist, lover, friend, student of life in both biology and philosophy. Readers will be better for time spent with this patient, tender, loving examination of a life devoted to examination of life. Kate will stay with readers for a long time.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chocolate walnut cookies.

Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

Set in the old capital city of Cyprus, this is a beautiful, sad novel about human relationships and hard choices, who is seen and unseen.

With Songbirds, Christy Lefteri (The Beekeeper of Aleppo) shines a light on social issues through the story of one woman’s disappearance. The central character is absent from the beginning and remains a mystery until the novel’s final pages.

“One day, Nisha vanished and turned to gold.” Nisha is a Sri Lankan immigrant to Cyprus, where she works in the capital city of Nicosia as maid to Petra, a widow, and her nine-year-old daughter, Aliki. Petra’s upstairs tenant Yiannis is Nisha’s secret lover (maids are not permitted lovers). This absorbing novel opens after Nisha has gone missing, and is told in chapters that alternate between Petra’s and Yiannis’s points of view as they mourn and search for Nisha.

Nisha is representative of numerous migrant worker women in Cyprus, largely from Vietnam, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Petra observes, “The maids here did everything–they were hired and paid (lower than the minimum wage) to clean the house, but ended up being child-carers, shop assistants, waitresses.” Also: “I had started to see the rhythm of these women with new eyes–how the whole neighborhood pulsed with their activity. They had been invisible to me before Nisha had gone missing.”

Although her neighbors are quick to write off the disappearance as abandonment, with the assumptions of casual racism, Petra knows this is out of character. Nisha is devoted to Aliki, and besides she’s left behind her passport and most precious possessions, relics of her late husband and her own daughter in Sri Lanka. The police won’t help. Petra mounts her own investigation, eventually teaming up with a distraught Yiannis, who is facing challenges of his own. He feels trapped by his involvement in the criminal poaching of songbirds, and especially conflicted because he’d grown up feeling so close to nature.

Lefteri deftly weaves Yiannis’s pain at his illegal work and the loss of his love with Petra’s growing realizations about her own culture and Aliki’s attachment to her missing caretaker. Nisha, “a dark and beautiful shadow, who rattled around in old sandals and with fire in her eyes,” is the center of this story, but an absence; the two speaking characters triangulate the third, and readers don’t hear Nisha’s own voice until the very end. Moving human characters and careful depiction of natural spaces contribute to a contemplative tone. Songbirds is quietly urgent in its treatment of Nicosia’s maids, lyrical in its descriptions, and thoughtful, compassionate and important.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 makeshift oars.

Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling (audio)

On a recent cross-country drive, I lifted this year’s ban on audiobooks, obviously. This one took me two days of driving – a much more favorable pace at which to take in an audiobook, especially one involving suspense. Before the Ruins isn’t lightning-paced – it’s not that kind of thriller – but there was a steady building of tension.

Andy’s feeling pretty safely distant from her own past when she gets a phone call from the mother of her childhood best friend, Peter, saying that he’s gone missing. She hasn’t seen Peter in six months or so. They’ve grown apart. Asked to look for him, though, she finds herself drawn into the events of their youth. Andy and Peter were part of a close-knit foursome, with Em and Andy’s boyfriend Marcus, then joined by an outsider fifth, David, during the fateful summer that they were 18 and 19 years old. The events of that summer were followed by a nasty winter a few years later, in which everything changed. Now Andy finds herself pulled back to the old manor estate where it all went down, back when she was a disadvantaged kid with an alcoholic single mom, quick to fight and slow to trust. Perhaps less has changed than she’s realized.

The novel slips back and forth in time, flashing back to the summer of Andy’s late teens and the winter of her early twenties, and back to the present, when she is nearing 40, finally financially secure but personally unmoored. Searching for Peter means reopening old wounds that never healed, and reconnecting with people she hasn’t missed.

In its actual events, the story often left me just a little disappointed, because the conflicts felt so unremarkable: young people, hormones, sex, hurt feelings. It sometimes felt like a lot of dramatic trappings for fairly humdrum activity. The word for this one is definitely atmospheric – driven not by plot but by feeling, and somewhat less so by character. I was reminded, at its best moments, of Tana French. In the final denouement, there are indeed surprises, but it’s the sense of foreboding, the magic of place (that old manor estate, and certain locations in Italy and France late in the book), and the mystery of character that carry this novel. We only get Andy’s perspective, and because of Andy’s trauma, her self-deceit, her constant bid to reinvent herself, and her caginess, we remain unclear on much of her own internal workings; certainly the other characters are enigmas. The slow reveal of each friend’s motives, what they knew and didn’t know, makes for the most interesting mystery of this thriller.

The audio production by Kristin Atherton is lovely, with voices and accents and reinforcement of that all-important atmosphere. I definitely recommend this format.

Final verdict? Not the most masterful thriller I’ve ever encountered, but absorbing and entertaining, and did surprise me at its end. Worth the time.


Rating: 7 sodden-looking sheep.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

A shared reading list improves the lives of two lonely individuals in this charming novel about the power of a good book.

In Sara Nisha Adams’s sweet, pleasing debut, The Reading List, two lonely characters in contemporary London–and a host of friends and family–learn just how much books, and other people, have to offer.

Mukesh is grieving after his wife’s death: “Now here he was, alone, still without any clue as to what he should do now she was gone, left in a lifeless, soulless, bookless house that had once been their home.” He wishes he were as close to his granddaughter, Priya, as she was to her grandmother, but he does not share their love of reading. Then he finds an unreturned library book his late wife loved and gives it a chance.

Aleisha, 17, works at the library, but begrudgingly. Her older brother is the reader in the family. Both are slowly being crushed by their mother’s oppressive depression; they’ve lost touch with their friends and even each other, leaving Aleisha alone in the world, traveling between work and home until even the boring local library begins to feel like a sanctuary. In a returned book, she finds a handwritten note that begins, “Just in case you need it,” with a list of book titles. Not knowing why, she tucks it away.

Following a prologue introducing the titular reading list, sections of the novel are named for books (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Rebecca and more); most chapters follow either Aleisha or Mukesh. In interstitial chapters labeled “The Reading List,” other characters interact with the same mysterious document in their own ways–a crime thriller fan grieving a break-up; a lonely divorcĂ©; a young woman who collects lists.

Out of guilt and boredom, Aleisha begins reading the books on the found list and recommending them to the elderly Hindu man who has tentatively begun to visit her library. Together, Mukesh and his teenaged librarian share what they read. Both are unpracticed, but each has much to gain from the developing friendship and the fictional worlds that transport them away from their daily struggles. When tragedy strikes, the friendship and the reading list may help them get through: “‘Aleisha,’ Mukesh said softly. ‘Please try to remember that books aren’t always an escape; sometimes books teach us things. They show us the world; they don’t hide it.'”

The Reading List is a tender novel about human connection and community and the healing power of reading, about the support and compassion that all people need at one time or another. This book is a soothing salve.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 cups of chai.

The People We Keep by Allison Larkin

A teenaged singer-songwriter takes to the road, both hoping for and running from an experience of love and acceptance.

It is 1994 in Little River, N.Y., when 16-year-old April steals her neighbor’s car to drive into the next town for an open mic night. She returns the car when she’s done, but the teasing taste of freedom she finds on the road–and the crowd’s positive reaction to her songs–set the standard for the rest of this propulsive novel. Allison Larkin’s The People We Keep is the story of April’s journey away from Little River: escape, both seeking something (home, community) and fleeing from it.

Her mother is long gone and barely remembered; her father alternates between abuse and neglect, but he also gives April her first guitar. It is clear that her music is essentially her only lifeline: “My dad used to say that good folk music is etched with the rhythm of the road. I always listen for it in songs and I find it in the best ones. So when I’m driving, I pay attention to all the noise… and I start my song. It begins like a story in my head….”

April finds her first hope and solace in Ithaca, a town with hippies and colleges and baffling coffee drinks, and where she gets a job and a lover and makes her first true friend. Thanks to her past and trauma, though, she both yearns for and fears attachment; she has to keep moving. The rest of the novel follows April up and down the eastern seaboard, living out of her car, busking and playing bars and coffee shops, finding and losing what she most wants, over and over again.

The People We Keep is intimate, urgent and direct; April’s first-person voice is magnetic, compelling. She is damaged and still so young–years go by and she is still in her teens–but extraordinarily resilient, a “miracle girl who is so full of piss and vinegar that she survived it all.” Just when it begins to feel like she’ll never learn to stop moving, she makes a discovery. “We have people we get to keep, who won’t ever let us go. And that’s the most important part.”

This is a novel of great empathy, about connections and coming of age, built families and self-acceptance. It contains heartbreak and redemption, and a plucky, irresistible protagonist. For any reader who’s ever wished they could go, or wished they could stay.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 picks.

“The Butcher of Anderson Station” by James S. A. Corey

Just a quickie here: this short story establishes the history of Fred Johnson, aka the Butcher of Anderson Station, in The Expanse universe. It only makes me want more from this series, of course. The story handles two timelines. In one, Colonel Fred Johnson is ordered to retake the captured Anderson Station, and he does so, making what appears to be the wisest military decision along the way. Then he gets some new information. In a parallel story that takes place later, the OPA’s Anderson Dawes wants to talk about it with Fred. The story cuts back and forth between the two. By the end of this quick installment (36 pages, I’m told, in print – I’ve got an ebook version), we see the Fred Johnson that we’ll meet in the bulk of The Expanse. Dawes is also a recurring character; the rest (those central to the novels) are absent here, but it’s absolutely the story of Johnson himself, so supporting characters are mostly extraneous.

This story has it all: space jargon, tough decisions and moral quandaries, interesting characters and rich world-building. It whets the appetite nicely and I’ll be looking for more Expanse, as ever.


Rating: 8 seams.

The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell, illustrated by Steven Tabbutt

A council of animals decides the post-Calamity fate of humans in this wise, witty, perfectly compelling tale of adventure and survival.

In the witty and compelling The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell (Twelve), humans are nearly extinct following an unspecified disaster (“The Calamity”) of their own making. The animals, also sorely suffering in a changed world, gather to debate and vote on the next steps: to allow the humans to live, or to kill and eat them all. This council includes a grizzled, arthritic bulldog; a not-so-bright horse; an underfed grizzly bear; a religious crow; an aloof and possibly turncoat cat; and a bully of a baboon. The belated seventh council member is the source of some trepidation and mystery. When the humans (who mostly remain offscreen) appear doomed, a motley alliance must form, swelling the ranks of animal characters to encompass a trio of moles, a giant lizard that thinks it’s a bat, a small but important scorpion and more. To save humanity, these intrepid creatures will travel and adventure together, learning interspecies trust and new animal facts, and finding hilarity and danger along the way.

This story contains both whimsy and life-or-death consequences, charmingly related with humor and sagacity by a narrator, “a humble historian (or animal contextographer),” who conceals their own identity until the very end. The details of this animal-centered world are endlessly entertaining, as reference is made to “the wallaby who taught Elvis how to sing. The lobsters who elevated Salvador DalĂ­’s conceptual practice. The raccoon who, quite disastrously, advised Calvin Coolidge.” Steven Tabbutt’s deceptively simple illustrations reinforce the storybook impression and advance character development, as when the bear classically addresses a human skull during an existential crisis. While frequently playful, this narrative is not all fun and games: the dog might have PTSD, the baboon has disturbingly dictatorial tendencies and the stakes couldn’t be higher. McDonell’s clever, lively prose and snappy pacing propels readers onward.

The Council of Animals has the feel of a fable, both a romp with sweetly goofy animal characters and a serious and clear-eyed story about the real world and its dangers. “It is the duty of the historian to face the hideous facts, and violence is one.” Ultimately, this is a tale about community and cooperation. Humans may have something to learn from the animals about communication and mutual responsibility: “Even bony zompompers at the bottom of the Marianas Trench like to chat with blue whales now and then.” Thought-provoking, captivating, funny, instructive: this is a book for readers who have ever yearned for a little extrahuman wisdom and cheer.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 crustacean colonial novels.

Above the Smoke: A Family Album of Pocahontas County Fire Towers by Leanna Alderman and Eleanor Mahoney

Loaned by a friend who found out I’m into fire towers, this book has a particularly local focus, and I dug it. This project began when LeAnna Alderman, as a VISTA volunteer at Allegheny Mountain Radio, interviewed a retired fire lookout, and was so absorbed that she pursued more such interviews. She left the station before she could finish the collection, which was continued by Eleanor Mahoney (also a VISTA volunteer) until this book was built and eventually published some six years after Alderman’s first interview. It consists of three main sections: background on fire lookouts and fire suppression efforts in the US and in Appalachia, including the Depression and the CCC; information on each of the twelve towers in Pocahontas County; and best and finally, twelve interviews with retired towermen and one towerwoman, and their family members.

I think this slim book would serve as a good introduction to the idea of lookout towers; I didn’t need that introduction, but found it fascinating as a look at one small region’s relationship to the system. In comparison to the Gila out west (an example I know pretty well), this story involves considerably more emphasis on the Depression and the CCC, and tower use ended precipitously and much earlier in these parts. It was interesting to see the lookouts’ opinions of what came after (smoke spotting via aircraft! which was shortlived) – most were not impressed. And it was interesting to see a small community’s impression of the lookout system in general. As part of a larger network of forestry and roads/infrastructure operations, the lookout towers provided critically needed employment and developed a relationship with the forests, and an understanding of fire prevention a la Smokey the Bear. I did find it interesting that Above the Smoke didn’t deal with the idea that fire is both natural and necessary for healthy forests – a relatively recent idea in the officialdom of forestry (etc.), but important to Fire Season, for example.

I loved learning about a forgotten chunk of old growth: “The 140-acre tract of virgin red spruce forest located near the tower was named the Gaudineer Scenic Area. This tract was never logged because of discrepancies between competing land surveys – this tiny slice of old growth forest survived because it wasn’t on any company’s map!” (I like to think that there may have been some intention in this ‘error’.) And mention of the Thorny Mountain tower was noted – “Hopefully, one day, Thorny Mountain will reopen to the public.” Well, it has, although it’s awfully hard to book. I hope to snag a couple of nights there myself next year.

This book is short and modest in its scope. The interviews themselves remain faithfully in the vernacular, which I enjoyed. They provide a glimpse of life in a particular time and place, and I’m super grateful to the folks who collected these memories for us all. Thanks for the loan, DB.


Rating: 7 cans of peaches.
%d bloggers like this: