All Systems Red by Martha Wells (The Murderbot Diaries #1)

32758901On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Review:

Almost every Tor.com novella I’ve read has been wonderful (see Passing Strange and Every Heart a Doorway), and All Systems Red is no exception.

Before I started I was confused by reviews, which often boil down to, “SQUEEE I love Murderbot!”  Kind of a scary name for a lovable character, no?

All Systems RedAfter reading I get it – Murderbot is one of the most relatable narrators I’ve read in a while.  Part machine and part organic components and referred to with the pronoun “it”, Murderbot is like many of us.  Socially anxious, it would like nothing more than to be left alone with 35,000 hours of video programming, thank you. The people it’s protecting are being targeted by someone who would rather them dead, though, so there’s a job to do.

The story is short at 144 pages but it fits its length perfectly.  Wells manages some great characterization despite the page count, and the plot pulls you all the way through.  This would have been a one sitting read for me if I didn’t have to make dinner. 😛

All in all I’m glad I jumped on the Murderbot train – great for any fan of science fiction.

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Syncopation by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #1)

37648566Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer—insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems—something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band—or his heart. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Review:

I absolutely loved Syncopation and gobbled it up.  There’s so much good here. Speaking of…

The good:

  • A nonbinary author writing about a queer rock band is all.the.yes. Loads of rep including aromantic, gay, and pansexual.
  • This is the first time I’ve read a romance with an aromantic character and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work.  The dynamic that develops between Zavier and Ray is wonderful and let me grok what one version of an aro relationship may look like.  It’s one of those cases where fiction gets something into your brain better than non-fiction ever could.Syncopation copy3
  • Ray doesn’t know that he’s into BDSM kink and Zavier guides him there with support and consent all the way.

    “I don’t want to be manhandling you and pressing you against a wall if that is not your thing.  Consent is sexy.”

  • I love not just the main relationship but the entire band.  Zabo fleshes the characters out and, at the same time, leaves you wanting more.  HEAs for everyone, I say!
  • This book has the best anaphylactic shock scene/rep I’ve seen in fiction.  If you suspect allergic shock Epipen first (while someone else calls an ambulance), ask questions later!  This is how you save lives, people.  All of the hospital stuff was thoughtfully done and this medical interpreter appreciates it.

The not-so-good:

  • The manager had so much more coming to him.  I needed more catharsis after all his crap.

I’ve never read Zabo before and I’m excited to check out more of their writing!  The next book in this series, Counterpoint, is an instant add to my TBR, and they have some backlist, too.  Oo.

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson

36750090Christie Watson spent twenty years as a nurse, and in this intimate, poignant, and remarkably powerful book, she opens the doors of the hospital and shares its secrets. She takes us by her side down hospital corridors to visit the wards and meet her most unforgettable patients.

In the neonatal unit, premature babies fight for their lives, hovering at the very edge of survival, like tiny Emmanuel, wrapped up in a sandwich bag. On the cancer wards, the nurses administer chemotherapy and, long after the medicine stops working, something more important–which Watson learns to recognize when her own father is dying of cancer. In the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the nurses wash the hair of a little girl to remove the smell of smoke from the house fire. And the stories of the geriatric ward–Gladys and older patients like her–show the plight of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Review:

I’m not sure I can be completely fair reviewing this book – a section early on made me mad and ended up tainting it for me.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, let me say that this is a well-written account of being a nurse in England.  Watson is drawn to some of the most emotional parts of the hospital – mental care, emergency, palliative care, neonatal intensive care – so expect heart-wrenching, as well as heart-warming, stories.  We watch Watson grow from a nursing student that’s duped by psych patients to a knowledgeable practitioner of one of the most noble arts.

I learn then that nursing is not so much about tasks, but about how in every detail a nurse can provide comfort to a patient and a family. It is a privilege to witness people at the frailest, most significant and most extreme moments of life, and to have the capacity to love complete strangers.

She talks how hard the work is – not only long hours and lifting heavy patients, but also the emotional toll.  I think most understand nursing isn’t easy, but I’m not sure we all appreciate how punishing it can be.

Compassion fatigue is common when caring for people who have suffered trauma. The nurse repeatedly swallows a fragment of the trauma—like a nurse who is looking after an infectious patient, putting herself at risk of infection. Caring for negative emotions puts her at risk of feeling them, too. And taking in even a small part of tragedy and grief, and loneliness and sadness, on a daily basis over a career is dangerous and it is exhausting.

As you can see the writing is good, and Watson’s stories are interesting and affecting… but I’m having a hard time getting over the fact that she throws my profession under the bus.

Many of you probably know that I’m a medical interpreter who helps non-Japanese speakers communicate with doctors and staff at a Japanese hospital.  It’s an important job because without correct and complete information about symptoms, family history, and so many other things it’s difficult to arrive at a correct diagnosis and provide adequate care.

Strike one – Watson calls interpreters “translators”.  It’s a distinction many don’t know (translators = written word, interpreters = spoken), so I can let that slide.  But then there’s strike two – she continues and says that in the emergency department they forgo calling qualified interpreters because using family members is faster and easier.

There are arguments against [interpretation] from non-experts; a suspicion, on the part of the nurses and doctors, that the words are being softened and not translated precisely, but it’s quicker than finding a[n interpreter].

There aren’t just arguments – it comes down to professional ethics and morals.  It is a health provider’s duty to provide the best care, and asking a daughter or brother to relay important, detailed, technical information under stress can go wrong in so many ways.  Interpreter codes of ethics state that even professionals shouldn’t interpret for friends and family, the conflict is so great.  Watson blithely dismissing the right of limited English speakers to have a qualified interpreter, to have access to critical information about their health in a language they understand, makes me see red. Looking at the importance she places on ethics in other parts of the book it becomes galling. Gah.

I admit it, I pretty much glowered at the chapters after that.  The writing and stories brought me around again so I can still recommend the book to fans of medical non-fiction, but not as wholeheartedly as I would like.

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

36622743America is in the grip of a deadly flu. When Frank gets sick, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him. She agrees to a radical plan—time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded labourer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.

But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured.

Review:

An epidemic dystopia with time travel?  I’m there!  Like much good sci-fi Lim uses the fantastical premise to examine the world we live in and let me tell you, it hits ya right in the chest.

The story is harrowing – Polly goes into the future as an indentured servant to pay for the medicine that will save her boyfriend’s life.  They agree to meet when she pops out 12 years later… but she ends up jumping 17 years instead. Oops.  Is Frank waiting for her?  And what has become of the world?

I don’t want to give away plot, but I will say that this book speaks viscerally about the refugee experience.  Instead of escaping an awful place, as many people are trying to do today, Polly escapes an awful time.  Due to the one-way nature of time travel the can’t be “deported” to where she came from, and this lowest of statuses means she’s treated as horribly as you would expect.

an-ocean-of-minutes.jpgEach injustice can be traced to something happening in the world right now, breaking my heart on the regular.  I would put the book down for a while but I always came back to see how Polly gets through, and what’s waiting on the other side.

There are moments of hope but it’s not a feel good read, so know that things get worse – a lot worse – before they get better. That plot drives the book.  Lim writes some beautiful passages, making language the second biggest slice of the “doorway” chart, and the setting has stuck in my mind.  We rarely follow a character for long, though, and while they feel real in a moment I can’t say they develop, quite.  They’re more likely to turn in an unexpected direction instead.

In sum, An Ocean of Minutes is a heckuva story that examines current issues through the lens of speculative fiction. I’m curious to see if it grows in my memory in the months ahead.

Thanks to Touchstone and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Rapture in Death by J.D. Robb (In Death #4)

268610They died with smiles on their faces. Three apparent suicides: a brilliant engineer, an infamous lawyer, and a controversial politician. Three strangers with nothing in common–and no obvious reasons for killing themselves. Police lieutenant Eve Dallas found the deaths suspicious. And her instincts paid off when autopsies revealed small burns on the brains of the victims. Was it a genetic abnormality or a high-tech method of murder?

Review:

As always I have the jacket copy above but I had to take out part not for space, but for spoilers.  The last couple of lines point directly to something that takes Eve a couple hundred pages to figure out, gah.  It dented my enjoyment of this otherwise fine entry in the In Death series.

Rapture in DeathYou can see in the elements chart that plot is a big part of the appeal but I’m going to leave out a discussion here.  Four books in we have a feel for life and crime in 2058 New York, so if you’re already a fan of the series you’ll be fine. I do want to mention, though, that mind control becomes a kind of thing.  I didn’t think it would squick me out but I had a hard time reading through a couple of scenes because of it.

The best part of this series, I’m finding out, is the character development. Partner Peabody is blossoming into herself, best friend Mavis is nothing but herself, and Eve is figuring out who she is and what past events mean for her future.  Pretty much all of the major characters from past books make an appearance and it doesn’t feel crowded or forced.  Add in some levity…

For the next few days, Eve beat her head against the wall of every dead end. When she needed a change of pace to clear her mind, she beat Peabody’s head against the wall.

…and, despite the mind control squick, I’m excited to read the rest of the series. Yes, all 40+ books of it. 🙂

New Review Feature: Doorways Into Books

In the Dark2 copyI’m excited to announce that I’m adding a new feature to my reviews! It’s designed to help you decide if a particular book will be perfect for you.

Here’s how: Nancy Pearl, a librarian and author, says that there are four doorways that lead a reader into loving a book.  Knowing your favorite doorways is a more reliable way to choose your next read than matching genre or subject alone.

I heard her talk about this several years ago and it has stuck in my head ever since.  Pearl goes in depth in this article, but here’s a quick rundown of the four doorways:

1. Story – aka plot.  “I had to see what happens next,” “I couldn’t put it down.”

2. Character – “The characters felt like real people,” “I was sad to finish – it felt like losing a friend.”

3. Setting – “I felt like I was there,” “I learned so much about that time and place,” “the setting was almost its own character.”

4. Language – “I didn’t follow the plot and that was okay – the writing was so beautiful I kept going,” “I found myself slowing down so I could enjoy the words.”

Personally story is my favorite doorway – nothing will suck me in like a riproaring plot.  After that I like character and setting almost equally, with language coming in a distant fourth.  I appreciate good writing, of course, but language alone won’t make me want to continue on.  Everyone is different, and figuring out your favorites is a fun way to deepen your reading and choose what to enjoy next.

So what does this look like in practice on the blog?

I’ve made pie charts showing the proportion of each element.  It’s subjective, of course, and we can quibble about percentages, but I think most people would agree on which doorways are most prominent.  Let’s look at examples for books I’ve read recently:Rapture in DeathRapture in Death, part of J.D. Robb’s In Death series, is a police procedural set in the future.  The mystery insures it’s heavy with plot, and the recurring cast of characters is a large element, as well.  The setting of 2058 New York adds makes for great worldbuilding.  On the other hand, while the writing is good the language doesn’t set it apart, making it the smallest chunk of the graph.A Line Made By Walking

On the other end of the spectrum, A Line Made by Walking is pure literary fiction.  The language is stunning and the main attraction.  Character and setting are doing their thing but there is very little plot.  Therefore, if you’re a fan of plot like I am this may not be the best fit.

Here’s one more:warday.jpg

Warday is an epistolary novel about life in America after a nuclear war.  Plot and setting drive the narrative as two reporters travel across the country to discover what remains.  The descriptions of bombed out cities and dust storms are vivid, and while the characters are well developed they’re not central to the book’s appeal.

I’ll be adding these graphs to many of my reviews going forward.  We all have different likes and dislikes, so I’m hoping it will help you decide on a book when our tastes don’t quite match up.

So which element – plot, character, setting, or language – draws you into a book the most?  Is there one that you could do without?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

35068432“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind.

Review:

My Serial Killer Summer™ (ha) continues!  There is no way I would skip this book, especially with the alleged killer being found, not to mention the hype!

McNamara deserves that praise for her writing – it’s engaging, chilling and fascinating.  She spent years hunting down the Golden State Killer and details that search while describing many of the murders and rapes he committed.  I’ve seen people on BookTube who had a hard time getting through the creepiest parts – understandably, the crimes are heinous.  While I shivered a few times I never felt compelled to put the book down… not sure what that says about me.

What McNamara does better than so many ~cough male cough~ writers is that she respects and honors the victims.  We hear their stories, how their life was changed – they are their own people and I greatly appreciate having their perspective.

On top of the tragedy of the crimes is the tragedy of the author’s unexpected death in 2016, before she finished the book.  As a result some chapters were cobbled together from her notes and research.  These sections are rough compared to McNamara’s amazing prose, but I’m not sure what else they could have done.  It did make for a jarring experience, though, and lessened my… enjoyment?… of the entire book.

I listened on audiobook and got on well with the narrator, ending up at 1.8x speed.  A pdf with maps and timelines is included with the audio files.  I wasn’t sure I’d use it but it’s handy near the end as the detectives go hunting for patterns in the crimes.

I’m so sad that McNamara wasn’t able to finish her book and see the Golden State Killer brought to justice.  Despite the choppiness it’s a great read and an easy recommendation for any true crime fan.

The Love Song of Sawyer Bell by Avon Gale (Tour Dates #1)

34824809Victoria “Vix” Vincent has only two weeks to find a replacement fiddle player for her band’s summer tour. When classically trained violinist Sawyer Bell shows up for an audition, Vix is thrilled. Their friendship soon blossoms into romance, even though Vix tries to remember that Sawyer’s presence is only temporary.

Sawyer’s parents think she’s spending the summer months touring Europe with a chamber ensemble. But Sawyer is in dire need of a break from the competitiveness of Juilliard, and desperately wants to rediscover her love of music. Going on tour with her secret high school crush is just an added bonus. Especially when Vix kisses her one night after a show, and they discover that the stage isn’t the only place they have chemistry.

But the tour won’t last forever, and as the summer winds down, Sawyer has to make a tough decision about her future—and what it means to follow her heart.

Review:

If you like romance be sure to check out Cats and Paperbacks, where Natasha writes reviews highlighting lgbtqia+ books.  She posted a list of her favorite books with lesbian main characters and I jumped on this one – rock band! Touring! Queer romance meets stardom!

In my ‘must read NAO’ haste, however, I missed that while the book covers a diverse rock band, they are not rock stars.  The group crams into a van, drives all night between gigs, and at times plays to half-empty houses.  There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, it makes for lovely romance – but it pushes the book out of Kazen catnip territory.

Moving on, the book!  Sawyer is a Julliard violinist but she loathes going back to school.  Instead of touring with a prestigious chamber orchestra she tries out with a rock band and gets the part.  Over the course of touring she sparks fly between her and the lead singer Victoria, they fall in love, and things happen.

The Love Song of Sawyer Bell is one of those books that’s very good at what it does while simultaneously not being quite my thing.  If you’re looking for a realistic contemporary f/f romance you won’t go wrong.

Friday Night Bites by Chloe Neill (Chicagoland Vampires #2)

6319978Joe Public isn’t exactly thrilled to be living side-by-side with the undead, but at least they haven’t stormed the castle yet.

But all that will change once they learn about the Raves—mass feeding parties where vampires round up humans like cattle and drink themselves silly. Most civilized vampires frown on this behavior, putting mere mortals at ease with their policy of asking a person’s consent before taking a big gulp of the red stuff.

So now my “master,” the centuries old, yet gorgeously well-preserved Ethan Sullivan, wants me to reconnect with my own upper class family and act as liaison between humans and vampires—and keep the more unsavory aspects of our existence out of the media. But someone doesn’t want people and vamps to play nicey-nice—someone with an ancient grudge.

Review:

A strong followup to Some Girls Bite. For every bit I like, though, something else bothers me.  Shall we?

Yea – the villain is developing over several books, making for a more nuanced Big Bad.
Meh – as a result there’s no huge Big Bad fight.

Yea – good guy relationships are becoming more nuanced and minor characters are getting fleshed out.
Meh – every guy is still hot and drooling over Merit.

Yea – some hanging but forgotten threads are pulled back in and put to use.
Meh – the book ends on a cliffhanger.

All in all I’m glad I’m started the Chicagoland Vampire series and look forward to Merit’s further adventures.

The Seduction Hypothesis by Delphine Dryden (Science of Temptation #2)

17825418Wildlife biologist Lindsey thought attending a fan convention with her new boyfriend Ben was a great idea—until their relationship fizzled. Lindsey still lusts after her ex—but if he wants her, he’s going to have to prove it.

Ben will do anything to win Lindsey back, and when he sees her in her skimpy black vinyl convention get-up, he realizes what she’s been craving all along. And he is inspired to finally give in to his own dark desire to take complete sexual control…

Lindsey is surprised by her reaction to Ben’s kinky new seduction techniques, and suddenly sees him in a different light. After several erotic encounters she’s falling for Ben all over again. And wondering if the intimate connection will last once they head home…

Review:

I didn’t like this one anywhere near as much as the previous but I’m a little conflicted.  First, this tweet was rolling around in my head:

Ben is a baby Dom and has no clue what he’s doing.  He’s super possessive and an alpha-hole to any guy that enters Lindsey’s orbit.  Ivan, the hero from the previous book, is more in line with the tweet – respectful and a normal, nice guy outside of the bedroom.  Another Dom side character sticks up for Lindsey in a gentlemanly way.  I liked these guys better than the hero.

Both characters know very little about the practical side of BDSM and jump in after a dollop of research and a trip to the sex toy store.  This bothered me, not in a ‘you’re doing it wrong’ way but in a ‘eeep someone may get hurt’ way.  After finishing I checked out the reviews on Goodreads and someone* made a good point – a lot of couples get into the lifestyle this way.  They see something they like and jump in with both feet, whether they’re ready for it or not.  By the end of the book Lindsey and Ben are planning to go to a club and get their learning on but it was too late for me.  During the sex scenes I was more worried than anything else. (‘Why are you using rough rope? Do you know what you’re doing?!’)

Not bad, necessarily, but definitely not my thing.  Here’s hoping the third book is better.


*I’m not sure if her reviews are private so I’m going to avoid linking without permission