Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Those who love speculative fiction and are looking for something new and well-written, should run to get a copy of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. In her debut novel, most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of climate apocalypse, and Dinétah (the Navajo Nation) has arisen. A magical wall has been built to keep the Diné safe from the outside madness but it can’t keep them safe from the monsters and witches who have awakened. Maggie Hoskie survives in this harsh world using her skills as a supernaturally gifted killer, nicknamed monsterslayer. When Maggie is called to find a girl taken by a monster, she finds she has taken on more than she bargained for. Reluctantly partnering with Kai Aviso, who has powers of his own, they travel the rez in search of clues, battling monsters and more.

Roanhorse creates a wonderful magical world, one obviously based on Native American mythology. I, being completely ignorant of that mythology, found it enthralling and I found myself constantly looking things up on Wikipedia. Her sharp writing and dynamic characters kept me glued to the book until I was done. There’s definitely strength in the book and it’s great to see Native American representation in the fantasy world. Roanhorse is the first Native American to win a Nebula! Unfortunately now, dear Reader, I have to wait until next April for the next book, Storm of Locusts. Argh!

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

A fantastic debut, that strides the line between adult and YA fiction, Rabbit Cake tells the story of 12-year-old Elvis Babbit, whose mother recently drowned while sleepwalking. Elvis loves facts and studies phenomena almost obsessively, yet when her school counselor convinces her she needs 18 months to properly grieve, she finds out all kinds of things she doesn’t know yet. How to keep her older sister who also sleepwalks from poisoning herself while sleep-eating or why her father has started wearing her mother’s silk robe around the house? And how did her mother, always a strong swimmer, manage to drown?

Hartnett manages to effortlessly capture Elvis’s voice, her bewilderment and her love for her family and friends in Freedom, Alabama. There’s something special about Elvis that makes the reader want to throw your arm over her shoulder and tell her everything’s going to be okay.

Mr. Bookdwarf Reviews: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library had me at “interdimensional secret agent librarian” but it turns out to also be a charmingly-written novel with a wry awareness of literary tropes and their permutations. Published last year in the UK, this is a book The Guardian noted as some of its favorite science fiction, saying “it’s a breath of fresh air to discover a fantastical world that defies easy provenance and brings something new to the genre.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and was gratified to see that two sequels are already written, and due out in the US in September and December, respectively.

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

Before you pick it up, Scott Hawkins’ debut novel, The Library at Mount Char, looks like your average f sci-fi fantasy genre novel. It’s a few hundred pages long and it includes mystical power, is what I’m saying.

And if that’s what you’re looking for, well, you’ll find it. But it’s so much more.

Carolyn is one of twelve adopted disciples of Father, an incredibly powerful sort of magician (but don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing as magic). Only Father has gone missing, and there’s some sort of mystical barrier (it’s not magic, be reasonable) keeping all the disciples out of his library, which is where they most want to look for clues about Father’s disappearance.

Father has many enemies. Including his disciples. Possibly.

Hawkins brings in hints of Borges with the near-infinite fractal possibilities of his universe, but the scope of the novel is profoundly human in its search for love and humanity. It’s also leavened with humor, including one chapter titled “Buddhism for Assholes.” That doesn’t stop it from being  a total mindfuck, but in a really soulful way.

The Library at Mount Char comes out in paperback this March.

Gold, Fame, Citrus

Everyone has already talked about Fates and Furies so I’ll skip writing about how it’s the most amazing portrait of misunderstandings and differing perceptions in a relationship I’ve ever seen.

Instead, let’s talk about Gold, Fame, Citrus,  by Claire Vaye Watkins. HOLY CRAP THIS NOVEL IS AMAZING.

They don’t seem to be much alike, at first, these novels. Groff runs long; Watkins is terse. Where Groff’s masterpiece takes place in an identifiable mid-1990s New York, Watkins goes with post-global-warming SoCal. And where Groff’s characters are subtly flawed, Watkins populates her post-evacuation hangers-on with PTSD-blasted refugees and deserters from futuristic wars, people whose psychic injuries are still seriously raw and visible.  There’s also a desert cult. And a secret prison. And a kidnapped baby.

They sound like totally different pieces of work, yet there’s a similarity here. In both novels, the protagonists struggle to reconcile ambition and caring, selflessness and sense of self. The settings couldn’t be more different, but I’m really glad I read them back to back.

Short Review: Third Rail by Rory Flynn

I love a good noir mystery and couldn’t resist one set in my hometown of Boston. Rory Flynn’s Third Rail follows disgraced cop Eddy Harkness who now empties the parking meters in his hometown of Nagog, MA after an encounter with drunken Red Sox fan–caught on video– goes badly. He self medicates with drugs and alcohol and in one hazy night, he loses his gun. Meanwhile he’s discovered a new, deadly drug on the streets, the Third Rail of the book’s title. Flynn, the pen name for Concord based novelist Stona Fitch, writes with economy and fills in Harkness’s backstory as the mysteries move along. There’s lots of action, much corruption, and dirty streets everywhere. I can’t wait to see more of gritty Boston in the next Harkness novel.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I’m a huge fan of Novik’s alternate history Temeraire series. She proved that not only is she hugely imaginative, but she can really write. Novik takes everything to the next level with her new book Uprooted. It’s almost as if she went out and got a degree in Mythology and Folklore.  Here she drops you into a fairy tale reminiscent of Grimm yet entirely fresh. Agnieszka quite village in the valley surrounded by the Wood. The dragon, a reclusive wizard, protects her neighbors and village and every 10 years he chooses a woman to come to his tower. When the dragon picks Agnieszka, her world gets turned upside down as she emerges into an unusual heroine. Uprooted manages to be imaginative and fresh, fantasy at its best. I  loved this book and can imagine returning to it again and again, like the modern classic it is.

Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano

After writing Gomorrah, about the Neapolitan mob, Saviano had to go into hiding. He’s been living under police protection ever since, but continued to write about crime and justice and corruption. His new book, Zero Zero Zero,  covers the global cocaine trafficking economy and its corrosive effects on the normal functioning of everything it touches.

He writes stirringly about Mexican cartel battles, about the daily struggle to survive as a noncombatant in Juarez and Sinaloa, about the rise and fall of smuggling empires. Tiny details come into focus with amazing clarity – I was bowled over by the fact that at the height of its powers, one cartel was spending thousands of dollars a month on rubber bands just to bundle all its cash.

But the writing tends to be overly poetical and polemical, and the editing and translation seem not to have done any favors to Saviano’s style. What was urgent and fierce in Gomorrah has faded to bombast. It reminds me of the mid-20th-century Latin American political/literary criticism, things like How to Read Donald Duck, which bring a distracting and counterproductive emotional freight to every word.

I mean, there’s some brilliant reporting here, but there’s also a poem about the many names of cocaine. A long poem. It isn’t very good, even by the standards of poetry about drug slang.

Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan

I don’t think of myself as being especially sympathetic to selfish or clueless young men, even though I certainly was one myself not very long ago. But when both Heather and I read William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, I realized I might be more susceptible than I thought.

Finnegan is clearly an excellent prose stylist, and his stories of growing up in Hawai’i and Southern California, learning to surf, and coming of age in the sixties are fascinating. He doesn’t shy away from describing his numerous mistakes, or try to polish away the fact that he seems to have been an exceptionally self-centered, directionless surf bro well into his mid-thirties.

But while I found it charming that he didn’t pull those punches, Heather found him incredibly irritating. She still loved it because she’s a SoCal surfer herself and because Finnegan has clearly lived an interesting life. But she found his almost comically Freudian view of what Surfing Ought to Be (hint: obsessively dedicated men risking their lives unnecessarily) to be elitist and pretentious.

The back of the ARC notes that the marketing campaign will include special outreach to surf shops, which makes perfect sense. Surfers, even if they don’t agree with all of Finnegan’s views on surfing, will love this book. Nonsurfers (I’m one) will like the honest descriptions of a young man trying to manage the literal and figurative waves of the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone who’s ever seen a favorite thing become a trend will recognize Finnegan’s reluctance to admit that the sport he took up as an outsider is now thoroughly co-opted by The Man.

But reading this book mostly makes me wish I’d read his other books first – the prize-winning nonfiction about South Africa, Mozambique, and depressed pockets of the US. I’ve got a hunch that I’ll wind up recommending those over his memoir.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Plenty of grownups like to read youth-oriented fantasy and sci-fi. Plenty of grownups like to read, ahem, <i>adult</i> fantasy and sci-fi. But The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, is a different sort of beast. It’s a novel about a young man who’s a fan of a children’s fantasy book. He’s always suspected there’s something special and different about him.

And of course, there is, and magic is real, etc. etc.

So, the first thing he does is throw over all his old non-magical-world friends, go off to special magic college, hang out with a really pretentious clique, and try to impress chicks with magic.

Grossman brings a metafictional flair and a wry humor to the treatment of how actual people would handle magic if it were real, and how the worlds we imagine to be fictional would behave if they weren’t novels, but actual worlds. Oh, you think you’re a hero? Everyone wants to be the hero in their own story. You might not be. Oh, you’ve found your one true love? You’re still an idiot twentysomething and you’re going to wreck that relationship by hooking up with a girl who’s just toying with you out of boredom.

There’s a reason George R. R. Martin blurbs this book – like Game of Thrones, it subverts the conventions of the genre, and creates something entirely different. It’s not as violent or explicit as Martin’s work, but it’s very much a novel for adults who were raised on children’s fantasies and want a grownup, more nuanced tale with deeper themes than “heroism = awesome.”