Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

This is book six, the final to date, in the Murderbot Diaries series. I am very relieved to learn that there are three more books to come, because I am not done with this fascinating character.

Fugitive Telemetry takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect, and I was not prepared for this and really missed getting the next installment in the story as developed in the latter, but there’s still a lot to love here. Murderbot is living uneasily on Preservation Station, and there has been (gasp) a murder, which never happens here, and therefore the regular security forces aren’t really equipped for an investigation. Our favorite bot construct gets drafted (that is, asked nicely by Dr. Mensah) to help out, but (predictably) it doesn’t love working with the security forces, and the feeling is mutual. Murderbot has also been asked to not hack any systems, a promise I’m a little surprised it keeps; this hamstrings its investigative efforts somewhat, and takes us into the realm of more classic detective work. That’s the premise of an excellent review by NPR of this book, and indeed they’ve done so well with it that I’m linking you there in lieu of my own longer review. Check it out: “Murderbot meets Miss Marple in Fugitive Telementry.”

I love everything that happens here, but I remain anxious for a sequel to Network Effect. I want more Amena and more ART and more Murderbot in general. I’m just glad it’s happening.


Rating: 7 limbs.

Born Into This by Adam Thompson

These cunning, clever, piercing stories of marginalized indigenous Australians are both compelling and illuminating.


Adam Thompson’s Born into This is a striking collection of hard-edged, penetrating stories set primarily in the Australian state of Tasmania and wrestling with issues of race, colonialism and individual agency. Every story features Aboriginal characters, generally in the central role; the various experiences and complexities of this identity (which the author shares) form the heart of the stories’ combined impact. The collection is loosely linked by recurring characters and settings: an act of angry protest at the center of one story reappears as a minor annoyance in another. An island on the Bass Strait is home to a family over generations.

The collection opens with “The Old Tin Mine,” a story about a bitter, aging guide at a “survival camp” for city youth, who may be nearing the end of his career. “Honey” offers a cold, brutal, satisfying justice in the face of hate. In “Aboriginal Alcatraz,” a man wrestles with a life-changing decision in the midst of a storm, building to an ironic conclusion. Some stories lead with forceful blows, others sneak in to nag at the back of the reader’s mind: an alcoholic recalls the worst thing he’s ever done; a young man views a current love affair with cynicism. In the title story, a young woman fights an inherited losing battle involving eucalyptus plants. Working in the woods “was like looking into a mirror.” In “The Blackfellas from Here,” a young activist proposes an extreme and perhaps unrealistic, but also perfectly reasonable, resolution to a controversy. These punchy tales question family ties, infidelity, superstition and who has the right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

Thompson’s characters are stoic, taciturn, often blue-collar. They struggle with racism, exploitative economic systems, class tensions and the disappearing natural world that a culture once depended on. Their reactions to these challenges range from rage to lethargy; their stark stories are frequently, quietly, brutal. The lives and attitudes of these characters vary, offering a revealing set of perspectives on the contemporary landscape. It is not all bleak: Born into This contains as well dark humor and even slim strands of hope. Thompson’s prose style appears blunt at first glance but shows nuance. His 16 stories are unyielding in terms of their values, yet somehow deft, even delicate in their storytelling and various voices. The overall effect is understated: simple, unglamorous lives and events crescendo toward a thought-provoking and memorable whole. Even (or especially) in its quietest moments, this is a haunting debut collection by a skilled writer.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 eucalypts.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

This strangely delightful debut novel, with its charming, anxious, bumbling hero, crackles with warmth.

Emily Austin’s spellbinding and unforgettable first novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, stars an unusual hero: Gilda is so profoundly socially awkward, anxious and depressed as to be practically nonfunctioning as an adult. She is perhaps too kind for her own good.

The story begins with a car wreck, when Gilda, who narrates, is struck from behind by a beige van. When she arrives at the emergency room (having driven herself, with a broken arm, because “I do not like to be a spectacle”), she is told, “You are a lot calmer than you usually are when you come in here.” Readers begin to understand that Gilda is a little odd.

From this misfortune, she follows an ad for free counseling and is dismayed to find that it is being offered at a Catholic church (Gilda is an atheist). She is too polite to disappoint the priest who thinks she’s there for a job interview, and finds herself working as the church’s new receptionist–therefore living a double life, posing as a Catholic and sort-of-dating a parishioner’s abhorrent brother-in-law (Gilda is a lesbian). While keeping up this increasingly complicated act she also finds time to worry about her brother (drinking too much) and a missing neighborhood cat, among countless other stressors; topping that list may be the fate of the church’s previous receptionist, Grace, who died under suspicious circumstances. Gilda is obsessed with death, her mind on an endless loop: hit by a bus, choke on a piece of bread, clogged arteries, cancer, apartment fire, malaria, carbon monoxide, lightning strike. Almost without meaning to, Gilda begins investigating Grace’s death, and because she doesn’t have the heart to break bad news, posing as Grace in e-mails to the woman’s old friend. What could go wrong?

Gilda’s anxiety and social ineptitude could hardly be overstated, and she bumbles through life with such painful clumsiness that her story should be hard to read. But somehow, Austin’s remarkable narrative is engaging and snappily paced even when its first-person narrator is lying in a dry, empty bathtub without the will to move. Gilda’s voice is frequently extremely funny, with gut-laugh punchlines made more effective because they are so surprising.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is disarmingly sweet even in its grimness. Gilda is a singularly memorable character. She ponders big questions–“I feel simultaneously intensely insignificant and hyperaware of how important everyone is”–and remains open to all possibilities, sometimes even the good ones.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pots of macaroni.

Network Effect by Martha Wells

I love the promo copy from Tor’s publishing page enough to let it kick off this review:

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

Here it is! This, the fifth in the Murderbot series, is a full-length novel, some 350 pages instead of 150-175. Wells delivers: this is everything that’s good about books one through four, but bigger and more of it. No, that’s not to be taken for granted. Sometimes the novelist can’t wrangle the short story or vice versa. But Murderbot is every bit as compelling for a novel as it was in novella form, and this scale offers more room for the plot (in both senses!) to grow in some excellent ways.

Murderbot is back on Preservation Station with its new …family? of humans. (It would never use that word, but I will.) It’s still working out its feelings about humans, and its own humans in particular, and trying to figure out where it fits into the world and the human society it’s presently allied with. It still doesn’t know what it wants out of life, which is one of the drawbacks of self-determination. And the human society, and the (real) human family, are still working out how Murderbot (or SecUnit, as they call it) fits in, too. Dr. Mensah, from book one, is Murderbot’s closest human friend, and also its patron (legally, in fact, its owner), and the two of them have a pretty good understanding, but not all of Dr. Mensah’s family has accepted the bot construct’s role. There are some tensions. Dr. Mensah has a teenaged daughter, Amena, who offers another set of challenges: Murderbot’s own eye-rolling attitude up against that of a teenaged human makes for some pleasing gentle conflict; and they share as well an earnest sweetness that they like to hide behind rough edges.

Murderbot and some of Dr. Mensah’s family and friends find themselves on a ship that gets kidnapped, basically, and taken through a wormhole… the space-science stuff can get a little away from me, but it’s okay. There’s a mystery; there are unknowns. There are bad guys – the corporates, as usual, but again unknowns as well, including possibly alien remnants. Murderbot is as usual (in its exasperated tone) having to try to save the day and keep everyone safe, even those who are dismissive of its abilities or foolhardy or otherwise frustrating. What’s gradually changing, though, is Murderbot’s relationships with these humans. It really cares; they care about it. Some of them even trust it.

Spoiler-free: the stakes rise when we begin to suspect that another character from a past novella is behind the kidnapping. Also! Near the end, a new character enters the scene who I am very excited about.

The character Murderbot remains the best part of these books, which is a fine strength to have, since these are the Murderbot Diaries and its first-person POV is the voice of the series. Our hero is sarcastic, bitter, both immature and ultra-competent; soft-hearted but outwardly prickly; it is simultaneously scornful of humans and (in the entertainment media series it so loves) sort of adores them. Its voice is often hilarious, self-deprecating and petty. “I wanted to pick it up and have an emotion over it like a stupid human.” “Target Two whispered something, which FacilitySys rendered as ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a Shut Up or Get Your Head Smashed.'” It’s interesting what it does and doesn’t know; it finds some words baffling, like foolproof (why isn’t it smartproof?), and gets anagram and acronym confused. When it has emotions, it sometimes has to go face a wall for a little while.

Murderbot still has trust issues, and who can blame it? Many of its humans are just now learning how bad things can be for a SecUnit. “(If there’d been a SecUnit in the colony, there probably would have been a compelling reason why it had to stay behind on the dying planet.) (I don’t actually believe that.) (Sometimes I believe that.)” It learns that “the organic parts of my brain were doing a lot more heavy lifting than I gave them credit for.” And it’s learning some significant lessons about trust and friendship (which will give it emotions).

Some reviewers see Murderbot as being possibly edging toward a romantic entanglement. I do not read it that way. But book six will take us where it will.

This was a really good installment in the series; I was very pleased to spend more time with our grumbly construct, and equally pleased to see Wells’s competence with the longer form. Psyched for book six; just sorry that that one is, to date, the last of the series.


Rating: 8 lines of code.

The Woman from Uruguay by Pedro Mairal, trans. by Jennifer Croft

Part picaresque, part tragedy, this critical day in the life of a hapless Argentine writer and would-be lover is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay follows a contemporary Argentine writer named Lucas for a single fateful Tuesday, as he travels from Buenos Aires to Montevideo and back again. Lucas narrates these events, with flashes forward and back in time, in a lengthy direct address to his wife, Catalina. “You told me I talked in my sleep. That’s the first thing I remember.” He is stumbling, if not entirely failing, as a writer, in debt to nearly everyone he knows, and fairly sure that Catalina is cheating on him. The purpose of the day trip to Uruguay is ostensibly to collect a significant sum of money in cash (advances on two books), which Lucas expects will change his fortunes. His hidden, secondary purpose is to visit the titular woman with whom Lucas has been captivated since they met at a writers’ festival months earlier. He calls her Guerra–war–and is obsessed by their so-far-unconsummated affair.

Lucas is not an entirely likable narrator. He is self-pitying, a bit sleazy in his adulterous aspirations and at best a mediocre husband and father. He resents his wife for her ability to support him financially, and his young son for disrupting his work (“How am I supposed to write with my kid dangling from my balls?”). But readers will be drawn in by the mysterious Guerra and the pathetic and darkly comic narrative of Lucas’s unlucky day. He can be woefully misguided by desire (for Guerra, for escape from responsibility), artful in his telling (Lucas is a writer, after all), wry, clever and even wise. In buying a ukulele for his son: “I realized I’d rather play the ukulele well than keep playing the guitar poorly, and that was like a new personal philosophy. If you can’t handle life, try a lifelet.” The translation from Spanish to English by Jennifer Croft (Homesick) handles such moods and idiosyncrasies perfectly. Lucas’s child is a “tiny little elderly man, that haiku of a person,” “a drunken dwarf.” Readers may not be precisely rooting for Lucas to get what he wants (which is a bit unclear even to Lucas), but they will certainly be eager to find out what happens next.

In just 17 hours, this luckless protagonist experiences great hopes and severe losses, navigating both a marital crisis and an existential one with limited grace but great ardor and intensity. Challenged in love, marriage, parenthood, finances and fantasy, he makes a mess but comes away with a story to tell and, for a writer, there are worse endings. “May death be to know all,” he muses in hindsight. “For now, I can only imagine.”


This review originally ran in the June 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hopes.

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline

A family struggles to honor the loss of one of their own and a remarkable boy works to solve the puzzle of the meaning of life in this poignant, loving debut novel.

Harriet Kline’s This Shining Life opens with a brief prologue: a happy family, a joyful party at sunset. Then the tone shifts. “My dad died. He gave everyone a present before he died. He gave me a pair of binoculars. They smell of books that haven’t been read for a very long time.” This is the voice of Ollie, a boy with certain gifts (sudoku, puzzles, literal meanings) and challenges (socks, hugs, turns of phrase). As the novel considers the death of Ollie’s dad from various points of view and at different points in time, Ollie’s chapters will always begin the same way. “My dad died.”

Ollie’s dad, Rich, was spontaneous, fun-loving, kind and a great lover of cheese. He was a devoted husband to Ollie’s mom, Ruth. Ruth’s sister, Nessa, originally set them up; she and Rich had been best friends since college. Ruth suffers from depression, like their abrasive, troubled mother, Angran; Nessa believes in charging in and grasping life in a firm grip, consequences be damned. Rich’s parents, Gerald and Marjorie, are starched and proper where Angran is bohemian (Gerald says it as if it’s a dirty word) and brusque. They are a motley crew, but all devoted to Rich. In this engrossing story of grief, love and mix-ups, Ollie fixates on the puzzle he believes his father has left him, in the presents he left behind. Because of something Rich said, Ollie believes these gifts hold the secret to what it means to be alive. “I want to do that puzzle now. I want to feel happy like he did. All I have to do is get the answers right.” Time jumps around, so that Rich is dead and alive again, as Ollie attempts to track the gifts Rich has sent to his loved ones and discern their hidden meaning.

In a novel about grief and love and continuing on, these characters are heartbreakingly flawed: Nessa’s pushiness, Angran’s rudeness, Gerald’s blustering into dementia. Shifting perspectives do the essential good of enforcing empathy even in the face of quite bad behaviors. As Ollie single-mindedly pursues the solution to his father’s puzzle, the adults around him seem too caught up in their own struggles to aid him; will they rally in time?

This Shining Life is attuned to the importance of setting, including natural spaces like the waterfalls that dominate this family’s neighborhood, and the deep potential significance of objects, like those fraught gifts that Rich gives. It is a sad story, of course, but also joyful, in the style of Rich delightedly offering cheese at his final party. It proposes that grief and love are inextricable, and that there may be light even in pain.


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


Rating: 8 threads.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Book four of the Murderbot Diaries is proceeding pretty much as I’d hoped. We’ve got some returning serial characters, and further development of the idea that bots are people, too. Check out that blurb from the front cover: “One of the most humane portraits of a nonhuman I’ve ever read” (from Annalee Newitz). I wholly agree, and think that that’s one of the great victories of this series. Murderbot is drily funny, self-deprecating, sarcastic, deeply feeling and resistant to the truths of its own emotional self, and who among us hasn’t wished we were a little more stoic, a time or two?

[Side note: something new has just occurred to me. I think Murderbot and Reacher have a few things in common. Both try to mind their own business, but both are helpless to resist helping dumb humans in need, even as they feel exasperation about it. Both have superhuman abilities, not only in physical fighting but in quick calculations on the fly and strategic thinking. (Only Murderbot has a good explanation for these qualities.) Both have a tendency to be delightfully deadpan. Both try to slip out into the night when things get wrapped up. They’re both sort of knights-errant, preferring not to hurt innocent bystanders but reasonably quick to upgrade (downgrade?) a person’s status to hostile as situations develop. These are qualities I appreciate, and I think there’s a definite parallel here that helps explain my love for both rogue elements.]

“Ship’s drones gathered to watch me, confused as to why I was going out the wrong door and beeping sadly about it.” Even the drones are given emotions: confused, sad. The idea of humanizing the nonhuman feels like a helpful step in rehumanizing each other, too. These books star a murderbot who is not human though it has ‘organic parts,’ and who is not legally recognized as a person in most of the worlds it travels in, but it has human friends from a world where bots and human/bot constructs are legally recognized. Can it even see itself living in this new way? In the midst of a fight to the death, our protagonist offers a deadly CombatBot the option to be free from outside control. “…dodging projectiles, it was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will. I’m not sure it would have worked on me, before my mass murder incident. I didn’t know what I wanted (I still didn’t know what I wanted) and when you’re told what to do every second of your existence, change is terrifying.” These are weighty questions, and Murderbot is an excellent guide to them: snarky, hard-shelled, but soft and melty on the inside.

I continue to love the thread in which Murderbot is an entertainment media addict, too. Aside from being unexpected and hilarious, as it was from the outset, it also offers opportunities to think about its future career options (recall I just recently noted its wisdom in critiquing narratives), as well as how stories and characters speak to us, and what they can stand in for. Here, a human friend asks Murderbot what the media does for it, why it loves its favorite show so much (that’s The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, which I sincerely hope will appear as a spinoff someday). This allows it to think about its own possible personhood, and empathy. There is a lot going on in this series of slim scifi novellas, a lot of reach. I am increasingly excited about the progress to come. (I am also feeling pleased with some of my own predictions.)

I hope Martha Wells is off somewhere writing more Murderbot right now. I expect to get through the last two books soon.


Rating: 8 hard currency cards.

Cleaning the Gold by Karin Slaughter and Lee Child

Another quickie from Reacher, somewhere in the short story/novella range, this time from Lee Child working with Karin Slaughter, who I’ve never read but obviously I know the name. An introductory Authors’ Note tells us that the authors have been friends for decades, and that their contributions to this story are merged “so you won’t necessarily know who wrote what.” Cleaning the Gold involves the head-to-head meeting of the authors’ respective serial stars: Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Jack Reacher, retired Army MP. The former is new to me, but I like him.

In a nutshell, and with a mild spoiler, both these men are sent undercover to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, for different reasons. Reacher’s there to catch somebody on the inside, in a crime I won’t name here. Trent is there to catch Reacher. They both have to do some figuring-out, and they have to figure each other out, too.

Like “The Christmas Scorpion,” this is a satisfying enough short story, but not a perfect one – neither Child nor the Slaughter/Child team is on par with Hemingway or du Maupassant in terms of the deft, poetic turn of masterful short fiction. It’s fine. Both leads get cute and pithy lines and the scenes that convey their characters; there is a fight scene or two. In close third person, chapters alternate their points of view, and it’s fun to see each man from his counterpoint’s perspective. There are a few layers of mystery, which is always neat, but it might be a hair ambitious for a story of this length (listed at 144 pages, but only about 100 of that is Cleaning the Gold; the rest is a preview of a then-forthcoming novel by Slaughter). It ends with an loose thread that is not entirely typical of Child’s work; he’ll leave an opening for the next installment, but not an actual loose end. I wasn’t crazy about that in the finish; I think we could have used a bit more closure, which might have helped with the neatness of the short-story-as-genre. And I do think the story would have tolerated losing that last layer of mystery.

I faltered on the very first page, too, with two details that felt very atypical of Child/Reacher. (Despite the authors’ assurances, I did feel that I could tell who was who, at least here.) I cannot imagine Reacher ever noting that “the temperature outside had already passed the boiling point” unless it were literally true, which (Google tells me) has never been recorded on earth. He’s pretty pedantic like that. Then, Will “watched a bead of perspiration drop from his nose and roll across the floor.” Something about the bead of sweat, itself, as a bead, rolling across the floor bothers me, in terms of physics. (Reading Reacher makes me extra pedantic, too?) On the other hand, a judicious number of jokes (two) about the place being “guarded like Fort Knox” went over well with this reader. And a single reference to Tom Cruise and the most unbelievable scenes in action movies, which I am reading as a joke about his (problematic) role as Reacher in two films to date, went over very well.

Maybe not my favorite thing ever by Child, but a perfectly nice way to spend a little time on my front steps with a beer and a little dog.

Also, the teaser of Slaughter’s next Will Trent novel, The Last Widow, is good.


Rating: 7 gold bars, obviously.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

This novel of strong bonds, secrets and small-town Irish life is both sweet and horrifying, and completely absorbing.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Holding; A Keeper) wends its way from small town to big city, from Ireland to England and the U.S., and back again, tracking family and community. This aching saga begins in 1987, in a small village in Cork, when six young people are in a car wreck on the way home from the beach. Three are killed, one lies comatose and two walk away unscathed–physically, at least. But their lives, and those of everyone in the village of Mullinmore, are changed forever.

The novel follows these characters over the ensuing decades, most centrally Connor Hayes, the social outcast who was inexplicably driving the car when it overturned, and his younger sister, Ellen. Turned out of town by shame, blame and guilt after the tragedy, Connor lives and works in Liverpool, London and New York City, wrestling with his past and self-loathing. “The task of untangling the mess of secrets that he had created seemed so impossible.” Ellen stays in Mullinmore. A chance encounter in a Manhattan gay bar will eventually reconnect Connor to his distant past and see the next generation get another shot at correcting certain mistakes.

Norton rotates the novel’s point of view so that readers see the impact of the car wreck from many angles. The Hayes family suffers Connor’s survival alongside the grief of the families of the dead, two of whom were on the eve of their wedding. But it is that tangled mess of secrets that will most haunt these characters, and readers, as Norton doles them out teasingly into the final pages.

Home Stretch is by turns charming and harrowing as it accesses some of humanity’s darkest moments and impulses, as well as some of the best. That expert balance of comfort and pain is perhaps the most memorable feature of a novel with complex plotting, twists and turns and characters who do not fit easily into likable and unlikable categories. This is a story of the many kinds of love and betrayal that can hold and haunt people, of filial and community ties and the meaning of home. “This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.” Home Stretch is a riveting narrative, a character study, a love letter to a place and a culture, and a moving coming-of-age story.


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


Rating: 8 pints.

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.
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