Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is lovely, painful, and important. It opens with three epigraphs, and the first, by Harriet Tubman, provides Ward’s title.

We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

This memoir focuses on the deaths of five young men, close friends and relatives of the author, including her brother. One suicide, one murder, two car wrecks, and one death by drugs. Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald, Joshua. Ward profiles each, tracks a life and a death and the consequences for those who loved him. In shining her light on these five individuals, she also examines race and racism, gender, poverty, and the historical patterns that contribute to deaths like these. Most centrally, racism. (See footnote re: caste.)

Ward introduces her topic and the five young men, briefly, then handles them one by one in reverse death order, from Ronald back to her brother Joshua. In between, sections titled “We Are Born,” “We Are Wounded, “We Are Watching,” etc., track the experiences of Ward and her family, growing up the eldest of her mother’s four children, in chronological order. In this way, two threads of her story meet when the backwards-moving and forwards-moving chronologies intersect with Joshua’s death, hit by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run for which the driver – a white man – would receive a sentence of just five years.

Men We Reaped is a personal memoir of Ward’s own life, as well as a profile of five individuals and their social and family circles. It is also an examination and social critique of race, gender, and class, within the United States and within the historic Deep South. Ward was raised in and around DeLisle, Mississippi, near Gulfport-Biloxi. It’s a particular place, of the old Confederacy, divided by race even as its inhabitants recognize that this is a false division; poverty-stricken, it provides few opportunities for its young people, especially young black men. Ward offers her reader the history of this place as well as of her own family, hearkening to the town’s former name: “I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.” That this range of subjects is so neatly woven into Ward’s intriguing narrative structure – those forward- and backward-moving chronologies that meet in the middle – results in an extraordinary piece of literary work. Ward’s points about social structures and prejudice are intelligently made, her personal stories are deeply moving, and her craft is admirable. Her writing is lovely and expressive. I am deeply impressed.

This audio narration by Cherise Boothe felt right to me; I appreciated the pacing and weight and pronunciations of place names. (There are so many ways to say “New Orleans.”) As I’ve struggled to write this review – often more difficult the more I appreciate a book – I’ve missed having access to a text copy for reference, but the experience of the audiobook was excellent, so that format is recommended but having the print copy alongside would be ideal.

Everyone should read this book.


Rating: 8 holes in the ground.

I listened to this book while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s forthcoming Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, also a stellar and deeply important book. As Wilkerson illustrates, these forces are the work of caste and casteism. I chose to stay with the term of racism for this review, as it’s the one Ward uses and I think it’s an accurate term, but please see also Wilkerson’s arguments.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart (audio)

When I heard, some years ago, that the author of The Drunken Botanist had written a women-centered detective story, you can bet I couldn’t wait to get to it. Because it’s a touch longer than I usually have time for, it took me some four years to get to it, but I finally did, in a very nice audio format performed by Christina Moore.

Constance Kopp lives with her two younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, on the family farm in the New Jersey countryside, even though their brother keeps insisting they sell it and move into town, because three “girls” shouldn’t be out there on their own. In the summer of 1914, their buggy is struck by an automobile driven by silk merchant Henry Kaufman. Constance insists that Kaufman should pay for damages, but Kaufman is a jerk and sort of a gangster type, and he refuses. The rest of 1914 and well into ’15 are absorbed with the Kopp-Kaufman conflict: Kaufman and his unsavory friends harass and stalk the Kopp sisters, eventually attempting to burn down their house and shooting at them, and sending letters threatening to kidnap young Fleurette and demanding money. At every point the “girls” (Fleurette is a teenager, but Constance is closer to 40 than 30) are encouraged to just let this thing drop, but Constance will not be deterred. She sues Kaufman for the damages and then pursues charges against him for the rest of the violence and threats; a friendly local sheriff’s assistance is critical to her persistence. Constance will prove a better detective than many real detectives, and this novel ends with her being offered just such a job. (The series of “Kopp Sisters” novels follows that thread.)

These events are closely based on the true Kopp sisters, and if you want to avoid spoilers for the novel, you’ll avoid reading the history just yet, too.

I had mixed feelings for this one. It’s got a solid plot, but one that dragged on far longer than it needed to; well-portrayed characters with complexity and flaws and quirks, but a bit more likeability would have helped me enjoy them far more. (I don’t require that I absolutely love all, or even any, characters in a book. But there has to be enough that I invest in them in some way. And while I appreciated Constance quite a bit, and Sheriff Heath, almost everyone else grated. You don’t want your reader to spend most of your book exasperated.) I dig the feminist pluck, the setting in time, and the period-appropriate details. The sisterly interactions were cute at first, but started to irritate me. I was often impatient. Nearly 500 pages? This novel could have been done in half that, I think, and would have been a snappy ripping little novel at that length. I would definitely be signing up for book 2 in the series in that case; as it is, I’m not sure I won’t look into it, which is of course a vote of some confidence. But I’m not sure I will, either, because it bogged down for so long. Why was this book as long as it was? We spent entirely too much time watching the same things happen over and over again.

The reading of this audio format was above average. I enjoyed the voices for the different characters and the contribution to Constance’s character.

Some high points for sure, but I can’t give a strong recommendation. Many readers have loved this book, so feel free to seek other opinions. To each her own.


Rating: 6 blue bands.

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly (audio)

I am considering a few possibilities about this book. 1) Michael Connelly has fallen down a little bit recently. 2) I saw a version of this story on the TV show Bosch, and the book coming second hurt its reception somewhat. 3) I think it might be #1 actually.

There are two storylines to this novel that run side-by-side. One is the pharmacy shooting in which a father-and-son pair of pharmacists are murdered in an apparent professional hit. Bosch and his colleagues at the San Fernando PD quickly link this to a possible ring of pill runners, and Bosch will end up going undercover as an opioid addict and getting into all kinds of mess. In the other thread, a decades-old case resurfaces when it looks like a convicted killer Bosch busted as just a baby detective will be released from Death Row. Bosch knows in his heart that the investigation was righteous and the guy is guilty, but worse still, it’s alleged that he planted evidence in the original case, so now his reputation is on the line.

The actual plotlines, both of them, are compelling. But many things about this book rubbed me wrong.

First, the reading of the audiobook by Titus Welliver – who plays Bosch on the TV show – sounded like a good idea. I think he’s an excellent Bosch onscreen. But it turns out that to read the audiobook, he has to play not only Bosch but all the other characters as well, and this may be beyond his range. Early on, a less-experienced detective has to go talk to the widow/mother of the murdered pharmacists, she expresses concern over the emotional challenge of this job – and Welliver delivers this in a monotone. Oh, no, I thought.

Did Connelly always over-explain like this? I am no kind of expert on the criminal justice system, except to the extent that I am an avid reader of murder mystery/crime procedurals and watcher of the same genre of television shows… It doesn’t seem like I should feel this impatient with the explanations of acronyms and procedures and why Harry might think or do a certain thing. Likewise, I’ve begun to pick up on a dialog tic that gets under my skin: police detective partners, say, explaining their actions or thought processes to each other out loud in a way that I just don’t believe they’d do in real life, for the benefit of the reader. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I can’t recall Connelly doing it before. Also, Harry Bosch is a pretty laconic guy. I think of him as being not big on explaining, let alone over-explaining. I don’t buy that Haller and Bosch’s banter would involve so much explanation. They move in the same circles, they speak most of the same lingo, and they’re pretty close. I think they’d operate with a lot more shorthand than we’ve got here. The ease with which a certain opioid addict is convinced, by a stranger, to take a cold-turkey cure felt unrealistic. There were just a lot of details that felt inauthentic.

But the worst thing came right at the end – and I said this just the other day. The ending of a book leaves the lingering impression! At the end of the book, Bosch is handed a solve on an old case. A woman long missing and considered dead – most likely murdered by her husband – turns up under a new identity and tells Bosch she had to flee her abusive marriage. “You have to stop looking for me,” she says. Bosch is angry with her for wasting the department’s resources in the search; his boss wants to have her charged with fraud. They are also offended that she left her baby behind with the abuser, who later gave said baby up for adoption. She doesn’t show remorse. The anger that Bosch and boss feel toward this woman pissed me off, you guys. We live in a culture that privileges male abusers over their victims. A woman like this likely couldn’t get out any other way – don’t make me laugh by saying she should have called the cops. She got out in the way she could. And if she caused department resources to be misspent? If she fucked up her kid’s life? That makes her a less-than-perfect victim, and gosh knows we only like our victims perfect. What’s funny, though, is that Bosch is the man of “everybody counts or nobody counts.” This was just the scenario for him to demonstrate that a victim of intimate partner violence, even though she made some choices we’d like to judge her for, deserved to take her own freedom where she could find it. It would make a lot more sense to get mad at the system that offered her no other out – and Bosch has plenty of experience getting mad at the system. He’s progressive enough to care about the rights of sex workers, but apparently not to extend his compassion to a survivor of domestic violence. This ending felt hypocritical, not to say misogynistic, and left a terrible taste in my mouth.

I’m sorry to feel so disenchanted here with one of my long-time favorite authors. And I can’t quite explain this: has Connelly changed so much? Have I? With beers or bicycles it’s hard to say, because you can’t go back in time. But in this case I have the classics, the early works – The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Poet – to go back to. Hmm…

The plot, the mystery itself, is still solid. I can feel the old Harry Bosch underneath it all. But this edition did not work for me at all. Maybe I’ll hunt down one of those classics and double-check things. And I think I’ll still tune in to the recently-released season six of the show Bosch – assuming I can put this book behind me. Hope it’s a fluke.


Rating: call it 6 sealed envelopes just for old time’s sake.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (audio)

Hello, yes, it’s Wednesday! With school just about done, I’m returning to book reviews as a more-or-less full-time venture, and social distancing is still in full effect, so it seems I’ll be producing plenty of blog content for the summer and we’re going back to a three-day-a-week schedule. Thanks for tuning in.


I have loved Susan Vreeland’s ekphrastic fiction for years now. In spirit of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring or Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, this 2007 novel fictionalizes the story of the real-life painting Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

It opens with Renoir riding his three-wheeled steam-cycle to a village on the Seine outside of Paris to paint. We immediately meet several of the characters who will become models for his ground-breaking painting; and it does revolve around characters. While this is in part the story of the painting itself coming into being, issues of composition and light and technique, it is most about people. Renoir chases women; he is obsessed with beauty and must “love” (read: make love to) all his female models. He is also committed to “the impressionists” as a group and a movement. After reading Émile Zola’s indictment of the impressionists, that they “are inferior to what they undertake. The man of genius has not yet arisen,” Renoir knows he must get ambitious. He plans an enormous painting that will be landscape, figure painting, study of light and personality all in one. This novel follows him from discontent and conception through to the end of the painting, plus a years-later epilogue-style reflection.

But again: people. Renoir selects his models carefully, and then navigates their comings and goings; several bow out and new ones must join; he agonizes over the problem of having 13 around a dinner table (an unacceptable reference to the Last Supper), and must make a number of replacements. (Vreeland’s Author’s Note explains that all the models in her novel are the true and established models of Renoir’s painting, with the exception of the 14th, a brief glimpse of a man whose identity is unknown.) These changes in lineup, as well as the luncheons where the modeling and painting actually takes place, are the drama and plot of the novel. Over eight Sundays (the limited span of painting opportunity, because of seasonally changing light), the party meets to flirt and drink and joke and laugh and love. They take boating trips, of course, and several boat races close out the season. Part of the overall feel of the novel is this laughter, love, and conviviality. Partly too it is stressful and sad, but Renoir is always chasing joy.

Most of the story is told from a limited-third-person perspective that follows Renoir, but a handful of chapters track a few of the models. I think these might have been my favorites, actually: Renoir is engaging, and it makes sense that he forms the heart of this story in some sense, but he can be a bit exasperating (especially in his womanizing), and I loved getting to know some of his models a little better. The chapter that followed Angèle might have been my favorite departure from Renoir’s self-absorption. He is an engaging character in his own right, but not always very likeable.

The general feeling is indeed one of the appreciation of beauty, joy, and living in the moment, which (at least as portrayed here) are pillars of Renoir’s own worldview. I enjoyed being immersed in such appreciations, and in the love of lines, colors, light, and brushwork. I genuinely liked almost every character we met, and it felt like escaping into something lovely to rejoin this audiobook. (As I’m saying about everything I read and take in these days, I can’t separate the experience of this book from the pandemic. This one took me longer than usual because I usually listen to audiobooks in the gym and while driving, and midway through this book I lost access to the gym and had nowhere to go. It was a delicious escape, though, when I did get into it.) There was also an elegiac tone to things, especially late, and especially in the character of Alphonsine, who closes things out for us. She’s a somewhat tragic figure who I would happily spend more time with. In fact, I loved the women of this story most of all. I think Vreeland does women beautifully, especially in my favorites of hers, The Forest Lover and Clara and Mr. Tiffany.

Karen White’s reading of the audiobook feels right to me, and I greatly appreciate having all that French spoken aloud for me; it is a language I find confounding, and I can’t imagine how I would have heard all the names and vocabulary in my head if I’d read it off the page myself. I’m so glad I found this book in this format. I learned some things about art, about impressionism, and about period France; in the author’s note, Vreeland notes where she stuck to the historical record and where she diverged, and I feel pretty good about historical accuracy here. (Divergences were minor enough, and my retention vague enough, that I don’t think I’m leaving with any meaningful misinformation.) I’m still a fan of this author, who, incidentally, I just learned died in 2017. Luckily there are still a number of her novels that I haven’t yet read; I will look forward to those.

Lovers of historical fiction, art and ekphrasis, human dramas, and beauty for its own sake should take note.


Rating: 8 canotiers.

The Hero by Lee Child (audio)

Not a Jack Reacher novella, but an essay. Lee Child (as himself, for the first time in my reading experience) explores the concept of “the hero,” as archetype and as cultural tradition, in this hour-and-change. It opens with the history of opium, or rather of humans’ relationship to opium, in its various forms, as revealed by the archaeological record. This brings us to the book’s subject via that coined name for an opium derivative: heroin, as relates to hero. Etymology as guiding principle! I love it! Some of the reviews on Goodreads are laughably harsh, but that’s an issue of people not appreciating etymology or failing to grasp the concept of “essay” (and to be fair, some of these poor souls thought they were getting a Reacher novella. Which actually I did as well, but I transition between Reacher and the essayistic form more easily than some).

From opium and heroin we move through archaeology and the history and development of human societies (comparison of homo sapiens to homo neanderthalensis), including the move from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, always with a focus on the developing importance of storytelling. Storytelling, Child writes, is a survival mechanism, part of evolution. “Encouraging, empowering, emboldening stories… somehow made it more likely the listener would still be alive in the morning.” Stories are instructive, he explains, and developed from the first use of language which was strictly nonfiction. There was no evolutionary advantage to claiming that there was a predator over the next rise, or prey or berries to be had around the next bend of the river, if it wasn’t true. The move to fiction was a big jump, and had to serve other purposes. Encouraging, empowering, emboldening, and instructing. The girl who met a tiger and ran fast and got away; later, the girl who met a tiger but she carried an axe and successfully fought it off.

Which brings me to a feature of this essay that I appreciate: that it centers women. Child tracks his own link to early homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens through the female line. As his own mother had no female child, he considers that line to have died out. Women tend to be the storytellers, and the early protagonists, in the histories he tells. It’s refreshing, when history is so often male-centered.

Another central feature is the importance of language, etymologies, and the joys and rigors of linguistics. (Child’s daughter Ruth is a linguist.) Words matter; and they tell stories. Rivals were originally in competition for rivers or for riverfront real estate. Heroin is named for the concept of the hero.

Reacher’s usual confidence in making logical connections and claiming theories is recognizable here as Child’s own. I’m not an academic in the field of human evolution as told through the archaeological record, nor am I a linguist; I have the sense that he sets forth some theories that are perhaps less than orthodox, but he does so with great assurance. It’s a style of writing that works well for me. This is Reacher as an academic. Jeff Harding’s narration feels spot-on.

A contemplation of language, story, and the archetypal (and ever-evolving) hero in human history: if this stuff sounds like your cuppa, and especially if you like Reacher too, do yourself a favor and check out this novella-length essay. It’s engrossing. (Also, there’s a nice, representative sample available here. Or another here.) Or if you just want a laugh, go check out those Goodreads reviews. Not every book for every reader…


Circe by Madeline Miller (audio)

Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles, follows with another retelling from Homer’s great works with Circe. Remember, Circe was the witch-goddess who turned Odysseus’s men to swine on her enchanted island, then slept with him, and successfully tempted him to stay with her there for a year before he was able to tear himself away and continue on his ill-fated journey home (eventually successful in that he gets there, but not in too many other senses). Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and a nymph named Perse.

I had no idea that Circe had such an extended backstory – I knew her only from the Odyssey. Her story is further enlarged upon in Miller’s lovely telling here: her birth and childhood in the halls of the gods, ignored and unliked by her immortal parents, teased and picked on by the nymphs. Her love of the fisherman Glaucus, and his transformation; his love for the nymph Scylla, and Circe’s spell that transforms her in turn to the monster Scylla we know (again, from the Odyssey and other sources). Her minor role in the punishment of Prometheus, another god with a sympathy for mortals, and her eventual banishment to the island Aeaea (pronounced in this audiobook as ai-aye-uh). Then, her centuries (recall, Circe is immortal) on the island, developing her skills of witchcraft and enjoying a few sexual liaisons: first, with Hermes; later, with Daedalus; and eventually with her most famous guest, Odysseus.

Spoilers follow below (in white text – highlight to read). These are features of Circe’s history that come from myth; but they were stories I’d never encountered before, for all my love of Odysseus’s story, so they may be new for some of you, as well.

We get a lushly detailed version of Circe’s turning men to swine episodes, from her point of view and more justified than in Homeric tellings. We meet Odysseus, well into the length of Circe; and while it’s all been lovely, I have of course been leaning toward this event. Well, Odysseus through Circe’s eyes is rather a different beast (no pun intended), although recognizable. They have a relationship; his men get restless; he prepares to leave, but not before Circe (following a message from Hermes) passes on the prophecy regarding his visit to the underworld. She advises him; he pours the blood and waits for Tiresias, etc. (Pardon my glossing; this is where I know the story well.) And then… After his departure, and without his knowledge, Circe gives birth to Odysseus’s son, Telegonus. His name is a play on that of Telemachus, Odysseus’s older son with Penelope; it also means ‘born afar,’ which for Circe means born far from his father’s land of Ithaca, yes, but also far from her own family – far from the whole world, you might say. Telegonus is a difficult baby but a fine young man.

From his birth, the grey-eyed goddess Athena tries to kill him, but she won’t say why. Because of this threat, Circe worries. She spins massive spells that bear down on her; she works herself weary to protect her child; and she shelters him beyond even the average protective mother. But of course, she can’t keep him away from the world forever. It is Hermes, in fact, who secretly helps him build a boat with which to leave sheltering Aeaea. Telegonus is determined to go find his father. In one of her acts of astonishing strength, Circe wins the poison tail of the older-than-old sea god Trigon, with which she poison-tips a spear for Telegonus – to keep him safe, she thinks. But as is so often the case in Greek myth, this poison spear instead becomes the instrument of fulfilling another prophecy. In an accident, born of the miscommunication of their first meeting, Telegonus’s spear grazes Odysseus, and the yearned-for father dies. I had never known how Odysseus died! Telegonus ends up bringing Penelope and Telemachus back home to Aeaea with him, which Circe does not initially appreciate; but more unforeseen events will arise from here, not all bad. (I have to leave something untold, don’t I.)

Whew.

I was exhilarated by the retelling of Odysseus’s time spent with Circe, and its fallout, following him beyond the end of the Odyssey. All of Circe was compelling and well-told, with style; but I was always waiting for this, the headline act. I was intrigued by a different version of Odysseus than the one I’ve known before. Miller’s is a testier, more temper-prone, less admirable man. And while I don’t like having my heroes messed with, this worked out well for me. Miller’s Odysseus fits within Homer’s; they are not at odds. He was always a little apt to cruelty, and certainly self-serving, the cunning one. And Circe’s perspective necessitated the changes, I think.

A feminist retelling? I suppose, in the spirit of Atwood’s Penelopiad or Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, the women’s version might always read that way. I feel like that’s a simplification, though. It might be better classified as a correction of “history told by victors.” The victors tend to be men, but it’s not just that; it’s their power and ruthlessness and erasure of others. This is at least as much about correcting erasure (generally) as it is about the woman’s POV. Although, those men to swine, man. Well done, Miller.

I do love this Circe, who is (especially when younger) mercurial and passionate, stronger than she realizes (in her witchcraft, yes, but in other ways as well), and eventually a crafty and wise woman. She is loyal and devoted but also clever and practical. She is, in fact, Odysseus’s match. For fans of the mythology, I feel there is much to love here.

And for those less familiar, still: the storytelling is nuanced and full and rich. It might perhaps drag a bit, especially as we wait for Odysseus to appear (or is that just those of us who do know the original stories, and feel he’s the headline?); it’s a longish book. But episodes along the way intrigue and compel, too. I loved the Daedalus/Minotaur subplot.

This audio version, read by Perdita Weeks, is luscious, with a rich accent I’d call vaguely British (I am not good with accents). (Weeks is Welsh.) It feels… sumptuous. This lends a certain effect to the novel that may not suit every reader; it’s a bit grand; but it felt right for the story and for Circe’s larger-than-life (indeed, immortal) story. I’d spend another 12 hours this way, easy. I can’t wait for what’s next from Madeline Miller.

Circe is absolutely recommended for fans of the Greek myths, and for anyone who likes a good, involved, winding yarn about men and women and gods and power struggles and grudges and fantastic magic, and more.


Rating: 8 ground-up leaves.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Tiamat’s Wrath is a terrific addition to the trilogy of trilogies that comprise The Expanse which, though never less than entertaining, have waxed and waned in their proximity to greatness since the publication of Leviathan’s Wake. (from Tor.com)

I concur: Tiamat’s Wrath is one of the better installments in an uneven but generally scintillating series. (Also, bonus at Tor.com: I learned a new word in the author bio. “Niall Alexander is the manager of an extra-curricular education centre, and also, increasingly occasionally, a reader and a writer. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.” I love learning new words.)

Several decades after the end of Persepolis Rising, James Holden remains a prisoner of High Consul Winston Duarte, emperor of all the known worlds. Chrisjen Avasarala has recently died. Naomi lives in isolation in a shipping container, surrounded by tech, where she plays an important advisory role in the Resistance but rarely sees another human. Bobbie captains the captured ship Storm (also Resistance), with Alex as her pilot. Clarissa is no more (see previous book); Amos went on a high-stakes mission years ago, deep in enemy territory, and has never been heard from again. It’s a very somber opening.

Our beloved central characters are getting gray, but those living are still fighting, in their various ways, dispersed across galaxies. Aside from the core, we see Elvi Ocoye return (from Cibola Burn), performing on Duarte’s scientific team but having already, by the time this book begins, figured out she’s on the wrong team. And a new addition to the perspectives that tell this story is Teresa Duarte, the High Consul’s only child, at fourteen his protégé and, well, a teenager pushed to rebel.

A little hint here: it helps to have read The Churn before this book.

The science seems to matter a little more here than usual, or maybe it’s just that it makes more sense? At any rate, I was able (and motivated) to follow it more than I’ve been in a couple of books, and I found that rewarding. One relevant detail is that Duarte has been made immortal by protomolecule technology and with the help of sociopath Dr. Cortázar. But one thing about poorly understood technologies is that you don’t always know what you’ve signed up for.

My engagement with the science part of the science fiction helped me enjoy this book even a bit more than usual. But even more so, I think the plot and the action were at their best. And still more, separating our characters out into their own mini-stories (something that doesn’t always reengage fans, ahem, The Walking Dead) – with only Alex and Bobbie remaining a team – was a great choice here, in my opinion. We got to see each protagonist take on their own challenges, make their own choices, redefine their own values and belief systems. Naomi, in particular, had to expand her self-conception in the best of ways. I love love loved seeing everybody operate on their own, against a bare background if you will.

Our team – the Rocinante‘s crew, even if she’s in long-term storage – experiences surprising losses and surprising gains in this book. We are heading into the final novel of the series from here. I already feel a sense of loss that it will be over (although there are still several novellas and short stories for me to track down). But I also feel like the massive scale, physical, narrative, and moral, that have been undertaken by this series is being honored here in the penultimate installment, and that feels good. Boy, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Fan til the end here, me.


Rating: 8 whining dogs.

Gods of Risk by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Another novella in The Expanse series, this one only glancingly including one of our main characters. David Draper is sixteen years old, a gifted chemistry student working long hours in the lab waiting to find out what career/study path he’ll be placed on next. He’s also gotten himself involved with some less savory types, manufacturing illicit drugs in his spare lab time, for spending money but even more for the connections and sense of belonging. One connection he makes will end up getting him into a boatload of trouble, of course. And when things really get serious, surely you can guess who will be there: his Aunt Bobbie, who’s mostly been present in his life as an annoyance, hanging out in his house watching the news feed and lifting weights. (This novella falls between the timelines of Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate.)

Gods of Risk is not one of Corey’s greatest works, but it’s an absorbing short tale, and it was amusing to see Bobbie through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know how to value her. I listened to the whole thing (read by Erik Davies, but less annoyingly than usual) on the way to and from a bike ride, in a single day, and it held my attention; it’s not much of a contribution to the larger world of The Expanse, but that’s okay. David is a convincing teenager, making poor choices and underestimating certain adults, worshiping the wrong gods, if you will; but his heart is essentially in the right place, as a (slightly over-sappy) final talk with Aunt Bobbie points out. This novella also gives us a bit more background into one of the Martian worlds. Worth the time? Of course! if you’re a completist series fan like me. I’m glad for every bit of this world that I can get, as I head into the eighth novel (for now, the last full-length edition in the series).


Rating: 7 issues with mass transit.

The Churn by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Holy smokes, this is the one I’ve been looking for through all these episodes in the world of The Expanse: Amos’s backstory! I’m super excited.

This audiobook was read not by Jefferson Mays but by that other guy, Erik Davies, whom you recall I did not appreciate in Cibola Burn. He did the same plodding job here, but it’s to the credit of The Churn that I didn’t even care. (Also, he got Amos’s voice right so that it was recognizable, even under – slight spoiler – a different name.)

We are back in Baltimore, and Amos (under a different name) is just “a boy,” although quite a big, strong one – a young man, I’d say, although if his age is ever given, I missed it. He’s got a new job in a criminal organization; he’s just feeling his way, although it’s clear from the start that his calm comfort with violence is already a feature. Also that amiable, puzzling smile. This is the origin story I’ve been wanting all along, although I still have some questions about his sex life.

“The Churn” refers to a cycle of violence where the security forces crack down on the criminal element; things get crazy for a while, but they’ll cycle back to the status quo. This “churn” is only different in that it offers Amos a vital choice that will propel him (pretty literally) into space, and start that other career that eventually leads him to the Rocinante. It also introduces Lydia, whose memory we see again in Nemesis Games. It reveals much, but never quite enough, because I love Amos.

I don’t want to give any more away here. If you are remotely a fan, make The Churn a top priority. Don’t wait.


Rating: 9 bites of ginger beef.

Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Book seven in The Expanse!

Jim and Naomi and the crew of the Rocinante – Amos, Alex, Bobbie, and Clarissa – are aging. With the expansion of the known world(s), Earth and Mars are no longer the superpowers that they once were. The Transport Union, composed of those who were once known as Belters, are more or less in control of the 1,300 new worlds in the Ring System. Much has changed. But much has not changed: like human nature, the will to rule. And James Holden hasn’t changed much, in his drive to get involved in sticky situations, his need to do the right thing at all costs, and his tendency to dive blindly in. On the other hand, maybe he’s changed more than we think: early in this novel, Naomi is able to talk him into retirement, which quite catches me off guard. (The Roci‘s crew less so. They’ve been seeing him age all these years, when I just took a short break since book six.) Retirement doesn’t mean that Jim and Naomi will be any less involved in the next major historical event, however.

In this episode, a military superpower invades Medina Station, and the Roci‘s crew ends up working with former OPA factions as part of a small resistance band. Amos is asked to practice diplomacy; we can imagine how well that goes over. Perhaps I’ll leave my plot summary there.

Alex and Bobbie have become fast friends over the years, closer than ever, and the same goes for Amos and Clarissa. Neither of these alliances is romantic, but both are almost mystically deep, and one will rupture before this story is over. Naomi and Jim have a heartwarmingly constant romance, but old problems still plague, and certain practicalities are left up in the air. In other words, like all the others before it, Persepolis Rising is about people above all else. I admire Corey’s gifts: not only mind-expanding (ha) world-building, but the ability to follow this world through over many decades (not to mention the past centuries that brought us here). This volume broadens my sense of what is possible for this series, while also limiting it: if our core characters die, is there any Expanse left?

In this book perhaps more than some others, I zoned out on the technical details. I really don’t care, and am happy to just trust that people can be in places when the story says they can be, etc. Was there more of that stuff than usual, or was it just the effect of a very long drive (West Virginia to Texas) that let me drift off? No matter; I enjoyed the overall effect – that human story – as much as ever, and I’m quite looking forward to finding out what happens in the end. I’m also worried. I think book eight is recognized as the last one. There are just a few more novellas to track down; and then what? (Things don’t look good for Holden, in this light.)

I’m rambling now. These books thrill me, and I am entirely converted to the concept of sci fi, if done this way: people first.


Rating: 7 bombs.