Strange Dogs by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. Then there was The Vital Abyss, an extra novella, like this one. Strange Dogs falls between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising.

The day after the stick moons appeared, Cara killed a bird.

And a strange one it is. Like The Vital Abyss, this installation stars different characters and takes place in a different setting than the main thread of The Expanse, but in the same general world (in the sense of worldbuilding, universe, galaxy, although none of these are accurate terms in the “world” of The Expanse). These extra novellas are digressions from the central storyline, but in the same way that each novel also enters new subplots and introduces new characters; the difference there is that the novel then returns to Holden et al, where these novellas live and die in the otherworld.

Here we are on Laconia, one of the “new worlds” opened by the ring gates, and we center on a young girl named Cara. I believe she is eight year old. She was born on Earth but taken by her parents to Laconia as an infant; it’s the only world she’s ever known. While this novella forgoes the first person perspective taken by The Vital Abyss, its close third person means that we see Laconia through her eyes, which I think is a useful way to learn about both the planet and the girl, and the blind spots and confusions natural to her experience: her misunderstandings of Earth and the two worlds’ differences, for example.

In a nutshell, this is a retelling of Pet Sematary. While spending a day down at the pond like she likes to, Cara encounters some (yes) strange dogs she’s never seen before; but when she tells them to leave, they do so. She offers bread to a sunbird (something like a duck), because she saw a woman do just this in a book, from Earth. (Please note: bread is bad for ducks on Earth, too!) This kills the bird. Cara is distressed. Against her mother’s wishes, she then steals the family drone to try and save the ducklings she has orphaned. Cara accidentally breaks the drone as well: Mama Bird and drone, both broken. But lo, the strange dogs return and bring Mama Bird back to life, and they fix the drone as well. When Cara’s little brother is hit by a car and killed, guess what she thinks to do with him.

I find it a little odd how closely this book rips off Stephen King, but I’m not upset about it; there’s nothing new under the sun. Picasso said “good artists copy; great artists steal.” And if you’re going to steal, by all means King is a great source. There’s only so much mystery, for me, involved in the outcome of bringing little brother back to life; but the events that follow do leave some questions, and the novella ends with these questions unresolved. I’m curious; I hope we’ll learn more in future books, and it sounds like we will. (I spent a little time reading reviews on Goodreads, and reactions vary widely, of course. In fact, a better discussion lives here.)

If this book is an obvious rip-off of Pet Sematary, that doesn’t mean it’s not a creative retelling, well constructed and imaginative. Recall the adage, again, that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. (Other versions have a few more stories in the world, but the point is their finite number.) If there are only a few stories, it’s about how we tell and retell them, right? Corey engaged me with this one. Cara’s difficulty parsing the two worlds – the one she knows, and the one her parents come from – is an intriguing problem. The foreign flora and fauna of Laconia are at the heart of this book’s conflict, and raise concerns that later books (I’m sure) will continue to deal with. We are reminded of the “new world” problems of Cibola Burn. And the ending, which some reviewers have taken issue with, I found thought-provoking and appropriately teasing.

Ready for more, always!


Rating: 8 complexly jointed legs.

The Vital Abyss by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. This novella falls between Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn.

Just a quickie, this novella takes places entirely within a prison of sorts, a single large room accommodating about three dozen of the research scientists from Thoth Station – the ones who helped orchestrate the massacre at Eros starring the Protomolecule. It’s told in the first-person perspective of a Dr. Cortazar, a nanoinformatics researcher who agreed to undergo a ‘procedure’ which, let’s say, burned away his compassion and empathy and allowed him to undertake this genocidal work. In the present-tense of the novella, we’re between Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn, as I’ve said; but Cortazar’s flashbacks take us through the development and the events at Eros themselves, too, from a perspective we haven’t seen before.

It’s a hell of an interesting ambition, this little book, in several ways. For one thing, the protagonist is not going to be a sympathetic character; he’s part of a massive mass murder, and feels not the least guilt. For another, the present of the story mostly takes place in this single large room, with the petty dramas and extreme boredom of the captives. It’s a story in which not much happens, in the present at least – more happens in flashbacks, but even the Eros events are rather offscreen. Cortazar’s background previous to these events is the more interesting episode, in my opinion.

This novella will engage the series fan, not least with the familiar voice of Jefferson Mays. I think its greatest contribution to the larger body of work is in the curious sociopathy of Cortazar and his fellow researchers (this is the note on which it ends, which is not giving away much). I enjoyed seeing the worldbuilding minds of Corey applied to a new storyline: that of Cortazar as a youngster, his mother’s illness and his own academic studies, and so on. It’s more of the same good stuff. It’s a minor offshoot of the series as a whole, with I think minimal impact on the whole, but it was entertaining and absorbing. And who knows? Maybe Cortazar will return as a player and I’ll be wrong about the minimal impact here.

Well worth the time.


Rating: 7 pills.

reread: Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

My father was right to recommend this reread (re-listen) after finishing The Plover. I didn’t even necessarily remember Declan, hero of the latter novel, from Mink River. And while he was definitely present here, and a colorful character, and recognizable from his later role, I was struck by the knowledge that there were many such colorful characters, whose lives might have been pursued in a sequel. And I was struck with grief all over again that we have lost the brilliant, generous, loving, exuberant voice of Brian Doyle too soon from this world. I wanted him to write so many more books.

He was still living when I read (listened to) this book the first time. This time, I felt saddened at many turns, ironically, in appreciating the delightful high spirits and joy and wisdom in his every line. Gosh, but I’m devastated at this loss, all over again and over and over.

But the book itself: still a wonder and a joy to experience. I fell in again with the inhabitants of Neawanaka, particularly the families of Worried Man and Maplehead and Cedar, No Horses and Owen and Daniel; Declan and Grace, of course; and others: Nicholas, Michael and Sarah, and the budding romance (as I see it) between Stella and the doctor. I ached for Moses the crow and the nun, his rescuer and dear friend. I remember listening to this novel for the first time, working out at the YMCA in Bellingham, Washington. It’s funny how memory can transport us into the past. People talk about smell being such a powerful mnemonic, but for me it’s never been as strong as songs and stories, the listened-to. Hearing Worried Man and Cedar share a beer at lunch again took me back to the abductor and adductor machines and sweat, just like that.

As for writing about the book itself, I think I did a pretty good job the first time around, and will let that stand. I will say, about the audio version, it was outstanding a second time; but I wish I had the words in front of me to consult and quote from. So I’ll be finding myself a print copy as well. Consider that the highest of praise.

We miss you, Brian.


Rating: still those 8 bottles.

The Asylum by John Harwood (audio)

This is a Victorian gothic mystery/psych thriller, and how it ended up in my iPod is another mystery which I cannot explain. I hit ‘play’ on it on a whim, and listened to the tracks from disc 1 and then there were no more. I was involved enough that I then went and paid for the audiobook (which I never do), and now I’m left unsatisfied with my purchase.

Georgina Ferrars wakes up in an asylum (a madhouse, she surmises, although the doctor in charge demurs at the term), with no memory of the past several weeks. She’s told she checked in under the name Lucy Ashton; her L.A.-monogrammed valise supports that claim. When Dr. Straker telegrams her uncle, the reply comes immediately: Georgina Ferrars is here at home. Your patient is an imposter.

It’s an engaging enough opening, and what unfolds from here continues to intrigue. It seems Miss Ferrars has a double, a new friend (or long-lost something-or-other?) named Lucia Ardent (note the initials), and the two look just alike. The question now is which is whom? Miss Ferrars is missing her two prized possessions: a dragonfly brooch that was a gift from her father to her mother; and a writing case, with her journal inside. If that journal could only be found, we might learn what happened in the missing weeks…

Solid plot so far, then. I found it a little bit exasperating to listen to the distraught young lady who (how Victorian) is wont to become faint at every shock, but okay, it’s part of the period setting. When the diary is located, we start learning more about the Ferrars/Ardent/Ashton history; here connections and plot lines get increasingly twisted, and I’m afraid Harwood got his threads a little entangled. There is a major reveal that just did not follow for me – I didn’t see how we made the logical leap – and, because I was listening to the audiobook while driving, I wonder if it was my fault, if I just missed a crucial moment. But I did go back and re-listen to some parts. And, too, a number of other readers on Goodreads were left confused as well. I’m inclined to think that if a larger portion of your readership missed something, maybe it’s on the writer and not the readers. (I have experienced this as a writer – I put the fact in, but everybody missed it – and even though I put the fact in, if they all missed it, I didn’t do my job properly.)

At any rate, the final third or so of the book – the protracted denouement – was far less compelling, and less believable, than what came before. Our heroine is alternately the fainting Victorian weakly woman, and a surprisingly scrappy, clever one; these quick shifts back and forth and back again did not ring true. The quickly complicating plot threads got too incredible for me. The final action scene, followed by the final proposal and answer, topped out the ridiculousness; it was a major letdown. Oh, and – spoilers in white text here; highlight to read – there’s a lesbian incest thread, for good measure.

Full credit for that first disc’s worth of tracks pulling me in; and more than half the book kept me engaged. After that, I was just hanging on out of increasingly incredulous curiosity about how this silliness would wrap up. Not particularly recommended. As I learned on Goodreads, Harwood has his fans, and some of them loved this book; some would recommend others of his over this one. I won’t be trying him again, but you’re welcome to.


Rating: 6 windows.

Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, and now book six, Babylon’s Ashes.

I realize I keep going light on plot summary with these books, and I’m going to continue that trend here – you can get synopses elsewhere (as usual, Tor.com does a good job), and I feel pretty strongly that that’s not the point for me, with this series in particular. I’m here for the people. And they are delightfully developed in each episode. This book is delicious in its continuing development of everyone in turn. I feel that we’re consolidating our cast of characters, swelling the ranks of the Rocinante‘s crew to include Bobbie and Clarissa, and keeping up with Fred Johnson, Avasarala, Marco and Filip, and even (in prologue and epilogue) checking in with Anna Volovodov. Michio Pa is back with a still larger role to play; and Praxidike Meng, like Anna, plays a smallish role, but the presence of each of these returning characters would seem to indicate that they’ll have more to contribute in future books.

As the title indicates (and I have to say this is the first time I’ve found the title even glancingly related to the book’s contents!), the world is changing irrevocably; the question now is simply whether humanity will survive the coming years. Naturally, it is only thanks to the Rocinante‘s crew – well, with some help – that they have a chance at all.

I’m a little surprised it took me this long to notice a habit: all the characters in The Expanse consistently push their food away before they’ve finished it. All the foods, it seems, coagulate or degrade quickly into something pasty. (Almost all of these foods are made from a finite list of ingredients, things like mushrooms and yeast, and they tend to get gummy.) Sometimes it’s because something sad or bad happens and the character is suddenly no longer hungry. But whatever the reason, I’m not sure I’ve seen a character finish a meal yet – I typed, before getting to the epilogue, where Anna’s daughter Nami remarkably does so. Still, there’s a pattern. They’re always pushing the bowl away or putting it in the recycler. Funny what we notice. Funny the habits of a writer (or in this case, writers): the Corey team seems unable to let our folks eat to satiation.

Also, whoever it was that said that all science fiction is really set in the present (my buddy CT thinks it was Ursula Le Guin) was not wrong. This series’s new world is different in many of its details – including some pretty basic building blocks of life, like food, and travel, and the air we breathe – but all that is just so much window dressing, when it comes down to it. The essential problems in this world are the same old ones: how humans get along with each other. Power grabbing, greed, the needs of the disenfranchised to eat and breathe up against the “needs” of some selfish jerk or another to control everything. Racism now follows what part of the solar system a person comes from; ethnicity seems to be a non-issue, but really the discrimination has just shifted its focus. I deeply appreciate this new lens on an old problem: when I say that this is just the same story set in a different world, or that its details are window dressing, I don’t mean to be dismissive. I think it’s extraordinary. And sometimes we need new backdrops to recognize old problems in a fresh new way. If certain problem presidents were in a book club, maybe they could read this series; I don’t know.

Deep, complex characters, entertaining dialog (Corey is back on their stride after some hiccups), a racing plot, and the big questions about capital-H Humanity: I love this stuff as much as ever. You can expect more reviews to follow. Hooray!


Rating: 8 rocks.

The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons (audio)

Directly after Mrs. Hemingway, I began this one, only subconsciously recalling that its subject matter was similar: a novel about Hemingway’s life. Such is the level of my Hemingway obsession that I keep these things lying around and forget I have them at all…

The Crook Factory gave me rather more trouble than the last one, though. This is a spy thriller about Hemingway’s life during the early years of American involvement in WWII, when he lived in Cuba and took his boat, the Pilar, out hunting for German submarines in the Gulf. He was basically playing at spy, and my impression from various biographies is that his activities were a little silly. In his afterword, though, Dan Simmons informs his reader that much of the story he tells here is based in historical fact. He says that the documentation of Hemingway’s activities in the early 40s are still classified to this day, which I confess is suspicious: to my mind, why classified, if there were nothing serious going on? So that’s interesting. Maybe we are all guilty of not taking Hemingway seriously enough.

FBI Agent Joe Lucas narrates this novel, looking back after decades – after Hemingway’s 1961 suicide – to recall his brief acquaintance with “the writer” (often referred to as such) in 1942-43. This flashback is told in present tense. Lucas has been sent down to Havana by Director J. Edgar Hoover to keep an eye on Hemingway as he plays spy on his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat, hunting German subs and trying to intercept radio transmissions. Hem has put together a ragtag group he calls the “Crook Factory,” of amateurs including little boys, local bartenders and Spanish exiles – and Lucas, who figures he’s been put out to pasture on this ridiculous mission. Lucas is derisive in his dismissal of Hemingway’s silly games; but serious things keep happening, and he keeps wondering why these seem like important events when of course they could not be… and this incredulity lasts long enough to strain my own faith in Lucas’s character, as he’s supposed to be this great agent and simultaneously awfully slow to figure out that the Gulf action is real deal, man.

This book has a few things going for it: an incredibly unlikely, wild, action-filled story; Hemingway’s undeniable charisma; name-dropping Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Ian Fleming, John F. Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, and more. Putting Hemingway in one’s own fiction is tricky, though. The man was so nearly a caricature of himself that it’s too easy to write him as one; but the man in real life forced people to take him seriously, too, so he walked a fine line between ridiculous and deadly serious, that many writers find difficult to properly evoke. I’ve read maybe a dozen fictionalizations of him, and I’d say half or so get it right. Simmons’s Hemingway does not ring true for me. The reader drives me a little crazy; he strikes the right note for the hard-boiled spy-thriller, I suppose, but I don’t think he does Hemingway well. The man comes out sounding kind of high and nasal-y, which doesn’t feel right at all. (There aren’t many recordings of Hem’s voice, but they do exist.) Part of this is the reader, but part of it too is Simmons’s writing of the man. It feels like he couldn’t decide whether he was satirizing Hem or taking him seriously. And Gellhorn here is a nagging shrew – this, more the author’s fault, although again I’m not crazy about the way she’s performed – which I don’t think is remotely fair. She was a strong woman – the most independent of his wives – and they certainly fought, but this screeching nag felt wrong.

I was frequently frustrated as well by the silliness of the plot, but again, with Simmons’s afterword I feel a little chastened – I don’t feel qualified to quibble with the line between fact and fiction here. I’ve read several Hemingway biographies, but it’s been years, and none of them focused especially on these years. Simmons certainly offers a wilder version of this episode than I’d read before. It felt like fiction, but fact is stranger than.

While on that topic, though, I want to note the dialog between the Hemingway character and that of the narrator Joe Lucas, an FBI man with no patience for fiction. Hem defends his novels and the truer-than-true nature of fiction, saying “that’s why I write fiction rather than fact.” Wait, what?? Is Simmons unaware of the nine full-length works of nonfiction published by Hemingway, including the canonical A Moveable Feast and Death in the Afternoon?! The man decidedly wrote both fact and fiction. For goodness sake, he got his start in journalism. Simmons lost a lot of credibility in that line.

The plot is strong, if a bit incredible. Characters are shaky; Lucas himself felt a bit overdrawn, as well as my concerns about Hem. And Simmons may be a bit too invested in detail: FBI dossiers, the finer points of codes and code-breaking… I think the story could have been exciting, and more engaging, at two-thirds this length, or less. I found myself involved enough to stick it out, which is no small thing with this audiobook of twenty-one hours. I repeatedly thought about quitting, but I stuck around, because I wanted to see what happened. So I guess that’s an endorsement of sorts. Certainly, my interest is piqued about the events in question.

Pretty mixed review on this one. For a Hemingway completist like myself, it’s worth a try. Simmons has many fans; maybe you’ll love him, too.


Rating: 6 five-letter sequences.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood (audio)

A randomly selected audio treat recently returned me to the world of Ernest Hemingway, whom I have not read for years now, but who I feel as strongly about as ever.

This is a novel about the Missuses Hemingway: Hadley, Pauline, Martha, and Mary. Therefore it begins in Antibes, France (with flashbacks to Paris and Chicago, where Hadley and Hemingway met), and follows the strangely morphing family to Key West, Cuba, Spain, London, and Idaho. Chapters are told from the point of view of each Mrs. Hemingway in turn. These are third-person perspectives, but very close.

How to sum up this story I feel I know so well? Hadley Richardson is the first wife. Older than Hemingway, she had resigned herself to spinsterhood and is called ‘homely.’ Their marriage was most innocent, since another hadn’t ended to allow for it. They had a baby, Bumby; they lived together in Paris, dirt poor and very happy – these years are later mythologized by Hemingway in such terms. Next comes Pauline Pfeiffer, or Fife, a wealthy socialite who inserted herself into the Hemingway marriage, as a close friend to Hadley as well as to Hem; she made a concerted effort to win him, which she did. This breaking point opens the novel: Hadley gives Hem a tearful ultimatum, and then issues her conditions for divorce. She wants him and Fife to spend 100 days apart to decide if they’re really serious. Then she lifts the requirement, out of sympathy for the lovers’ plight.

Fife was Hem’s longest-lasting wife. They had two sons, Patrick and Gregory, and settled in Key West. Fife’s section also opens near its end: Hemingway returns from Spain, where he’s been covering the Spanish Civil War, and alternates between treating Fife better than ever, and sort of teasing her with his new mistress, Marty. Fife is the only one of his divorces to really fight to keep him, beg him to stay. She loses, and the two are never on excellent terms again. Cue Marty, or Martha Gellhorn, herself an accomplished war correspondent: Hemingway’s problem with her is her independence, her own writerly accomplishments, her refusal to wait at home for him. They have been apart for some time when she shows up in Madrid to find him and break it off, only to learn he’s taken a lover, Mary. This upsets Marty briefly, but then the two women meet and team up in taking care of him. His drinking and self-sabotage are worsening, and Marty is relieved to pass him on to the next wife.

Mary Welsh was there at the end, when he shot himself with both barrels of a shotgun in their home in Ketchum, Idaho, and much of her section of the book takes place after his death, as she tries to sort through papers and her own grief. Here Mary receives a final visit from a most interesting secondary character, one whom Naomi Wood invented: Harry Cuzzemano, a collector/dealer of books and literary ephemera, who has harassed all four wives for papers and especially, the famous briefcase Hadley lost at the Gare de Lyon. (If you don’t know, go look up this most fascinating mystery in the Hemingway legend.) The final meeting with Harry is part of the final wrapping-up, which is a little odd (he has been peripheral throughout) and a little appropriate (he has been a through-line, and in making his own final peace, he helps Mary find hers). The last moments involve Mary’s coming to terms with the fact that Hemingway was not the fatal victim of a gun accident, as she’s been claiming. I can only imagine how difficult this must be. There was plenty of evidence in support of a suicide – his mental health in the last years of his life, several suicide attempts, forensic evidence – but how hard it still must be.

Mrs. Hemingway was an enjoyable read (listen) for me. Each of these four women is evoked in her own fashion. I loved feeling steeped in Hemingway again, after too long. These stories were familiar, although the particulars were often new. Kate Reading (great name), who narrates the audiobook, did a good job: I did not think of her a bit, which is the ideal, meaning that her role as reader kind of disappeared for me and I felt I was receiving the book unadulterated. I see that Naomi Wood spent time with letters and papers written by each of these women, and I feel good about her fictionalized but faithful representations.

As a gentle criticism, I guess I would say that this still felt like a book about the man, more than about the women. Maybe that’s the only way to go, with such a massively larger-than-life male lead; at least three of the wives were most famous for being just that, and it seems Hemingway had this effect on women (and men, too), that everything becomes about him. They all four loved him in their own ways. They all kept in touch in their own ways, or didn’t: Hadley and Hem remained chums; Pauline was an antagonist, but a co-parent, so some contact was necessary; Marty and he never spoke after their divorce. I appreciated how they kept in touch with each other, too (or didn’t), including the friendship between Mary and Hadley, the first and last wives, whose relationship was largely a collaboration on how to best care for the man they’d all shared. There’s something deeply creepy about this polygamous-feeling string of women. But it’s true to life, as far as I can tell. (As an aside, I’ve always wondered what my relationship with Hem would have been, if we’d been alive at the same time. Would I have been able to resist his prodigious charms, and see what a cad he was?)

This is a book of high emotions, love and devotion and anger and betrayal and rejection. Looking over that last paragraph, I don’t think I mean to criticize, after all. I think the Hemingway focus is accurate. He’s what these women have in common. If it’s a little less than feminist and empowering to be so mad for this flawed man, so be it: it’s what happened. I am glad that Wood gave each woman her own time and her own personality. I’m glad to be with the flawed man again, myself. I’m very glad I read this book. It was sweet and harrowing, and engulfing. Recommended.


Rating: 7 shallow white bowls.
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