Friday, April 29, 2022

Very Short Book Reviews: Murderbot, A Turtledove Collection, and More

The Best of Harry Turtledove
, by Harry Turtledove (Subterranean)

This is a huge book, a rich feast of imagination and consummate story-telling. The stories feature a wide range of characters and situations, including the nine-foot-tall Sasquatch who serves as governor of the fictional state of Jefferson; the descendants of dinosaurs that never got wiped out by the asteroid, digging up their own ancestors’ bones in a Wild West Dinosaur Craze and re-visiting Moby Dick as a mosasaur; heart-breaking tales of Jewish survival of the Holocaust; a fictional confrontation between Galileo and a leader of the Holy Inquisition; Cthulhu as a university lecturer in genetics; and a thriller set in 1940s New Orleans in which defeated Southerners plot to distract the Loyal States from entering World War II. It’s an understatement to say there is something here for every taste, but the scope and effortlessness of Turtledove’s storytelling never falls short.

Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells (Tordotcom)

A murder mystery set on a space station—Murderbot’s summoned to the investigation! Do I need to say anything more? If you don't know Murderbot, the SecurityUnit cyborg who has, by dint of tremendous determination and not a little crankiness, become autonomous, you're in for a treat! Run out and get the previous novellas and novel right away! And clear your calendar, because Murderbot is addictive.

The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi (Subterranean)

Part noir detective story, part thriller, part inventive science fiction that examines a world in which death is not permanent (well, certain kinds of death and mostly), this is newest adventure in John Scalzi’s “The Dispatcher” series. I hadn’t read the first one but quickly found that didn’t matter. Scalzi skillfully weaves in all the necessary backstory with nary a plot hiccough.

In Scalzi’s world, a few years ago almost all folks who were murdered don’t die, they reappear in a place they feel safe, like a childhood home. Natural deaths are something else: you die, you stay dead. A new profession has arisen, that of “dispatcher,” a not-murderer for hire. If you’re about to die naturally, you hire them and get another chance at life. Most of the time. But business has been drying up, and Tony Valdez has been taking on cases that blur the shady line of what’s strictly legal. Like killing a Chinese executive so he can re-appear thousands of miles away in time for an important business meeting. At this point, Scalzi propels Valdez firmly into thriller territory, with plenty of dramatic tension, noir mystery, and danger. In Scalzi’s superlatively competent hands, it all comes together seamlessly for a can’t-put-it-down ride.

Monday, April 25, 2022

In Times of War: Taking a Break

These days I’m very aware of the need to click off social media, put down the newspaper, or turn off the radio. All too often the war news becomes overwhelming. The increased bombardment, the discovery of more atrocities, threats and counterthreats, nightmares and triggers. Every day the reports are the same or worse, or so it seems. I go out in my garden or take a walk in the redwoods or call a friend.

I’m acutely aware that being able to step away is a privilege. Ukrainians can’t take a break in the same way I, living in my nice safe neighborhood in a country not at war, can. They may have times when life goes on as usual, depending on where they live, but somewhere else in their country, cities are being pulverized and ordinary people—perhaps their friends or loved ones—are the targets of unspeakably brutal attacks. I don’t see how they can pretend that isn’t happening. Perhaps they find islands of mental refuge in the small joys of family and friends, human and furred. I hope so.

That bears repeating: When I see the smiles of my loved ones or feel the tiny leap of joy when one of my cats comes running to me, clearly delighted to see me, or a moment of awe in music or dance, or breathless wonder beneath the stars, I wish the same for people living in the war zone.

I fear for them, for their lives and mental health. At the same time, I am reminded how adaptable human beings are. I remember, in the midst of thrashing through my own PTSD recovery, my therapist remarking on the amazing ability we all have to overcome what has happened to us. That we are more than those events. I find stories of people who have survived war and torture, the Holocaust and similar devastating experiences, who are nonetheless compassionate, loving people capable of great joy. With shadows on their hearts, to be sure. I can never go back to the person I was before my own trauma. There is no magic to erase the memories in the very fibers of our selves. But we can and do heal into a new pattern. I so much wish that for the people whose lives are currently being torn apart.

Sooner or later, the war will end. The cost, already horrendous, will be even greater. I hold on to the hope that every moment of kindness and every shred of our collective experience recovering from violence will help to mend this broken world. Taking a break is not turning away or shutting down. It’s recharging our spiritual batteries for the work yet to come. My hope for Ukraine helps to keep me engaged in ways that will not leave me exhausted when the time for healing comes.

That time will come.

Meanwhile, take it easy.

On a parting note, Ukrainians are not the only ones suffering in today’s world. I’ll write about that in an upcoming post.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Book Reviews: A Brilliant Fantasy with an Intersex Hero

 The Desert Prince, by Peter V. Brett (Del Rey)

The Desert Prince was my introduction to the world of Peter V. Brett’s “Demon Cycle.” I’d read The Warded Man years ago, enjoyed it, but didn’t make the connection until sitting down to write this review. It’s a tremendous challenge for multi-volume series to make each book satisfying to the new reader without overwhelming with the backstory and boring continuing readers. Brett has accomplished this so deftly that I never missed what had come before, although now I want to go back and gobble up all the previous books. So if this is your entry point (aka “gateway drug”), dive right in!

In Brett’s world, demons arise from the core of the Earth, wreaking havoc and violence on human settlements. Fifteen years before the present, a small band of women and men created magical wards to beat back the hordes of demons and keep their lands and people safe. Now the teenaged children of those heroes have come of age, burdened by the weight of their legacies. Olive, the daughter of a duchess, has lived a life of luxury and confinement in a city, while Darrin, her childhood friend, who has a variety of magical talents, including the ability to change the density of his body, but who prefers to remain in obscurity while he creates musical magic with his pipes. Their parents tend to be both bossy and overprotective, which makes sense in light of their previous saving-the-world adventures. Naturally, neither teen is excited about living a safe, boring life of parental expectations, especially Olive.

Olive has a secret. When pregnant with Olive and her twin brother, her duchess mother engaged in a ferocious magical battle, resulting in the fusion of the two into a single, intersex person. “Which do you want to be? A boy or a girl,” the Duchess asks. Olive picks being a girl, although sooner or later, she knows, the game will be up, certainly on her wedding night. When she’s captured by a rival nation, who think to use her in a marriage alliance, her secret comes out. Princess Olive must then learn to survive as Prince Olive before the demons mass for another, devastating war. Olive is a wonderfully complex character, a joy to watch as they struggle against almost insurmountable odds, gains fighting skills, experiences love and loss, and brings their own perspective to the escalating conflicts, both between humans and between humans and the monstrous demon king, capable of controlling minds. A heroic, sympathetic intersex protagonist forced by circumstance to embrace both masculine and feminine aspects arises naturally from the world-building. The Desert Prince is written and marketed for a general fantasy audience, but readers with particular interest in LGBTQI characters will find the careful examination of gender issues especially rewarding.

Although The Desert Prince is clearly only the beginning of Olive’s and Darrin’s stories, it works well as a stand-alone. As I mentioned above, the backstory is woven into the action so skillfully that I never had the sense of not knowing what was going on or why. Instead, the story swept me up with a generosity that made every plot turn or character nuance a delight. The prose is smooth, the pacing brilliant, and the fight scenes some of the best I’ve ever read.

As I was writing this review, I came across an interview with Peter V. Brett. Check it out! 



Monday, April 18, 2022

In Times of War: Gifts

This week’s offering is short due to the conjunction of my 75th birthday and the spring holidays. The war and its personal repercussions are never far from our thoughts. My family celebrates Passover, and the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine came up many times in our conversation. We all saw Putin as a would-be latter-day Pharoah, certainly a tyrant. There’s a part in the ritual where we call out the names of the plagues visited upon Egypt when Pharoah refused to let Moses and the Israelites free. Our Haggadah includes calling out the names of contemporary plagues. We all looked at one another and said, “Putin!”

And yet, the holiday reminds us to have compassion, even for our enemies. There’s a part in our version where angels start singing when the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the Red Sea. HaShem admonishes them by saying, “The work of my hands is dying and you want to sing hymns?”

I’m not suggesting anyone should pray for Putin. I very much suspect that if he were to keel over from a massive heart attack tomorrow, there would be dancing in the streets in more than one nation. As much as we hold him responsible and abhor his actions, what do we want from him? Certainly, to stop waging war on Ukraine. To pay reparations to make ameliorate the grievous wrongs he is solely or primarily responsible for?

If we say we want Putin to be punished and to suffer for what he has done, the question remains, in what way? How is it possible to quantify the amount of human suffering—not to mention financial loss, environmental degradation, the ruin of cities? How can there be amends for such heinous crimes?

As a corollary: If we focus all our righteous outrage and even hatred on one man, what are we then ignoring? Even if Putin were to be tried in an international court of law and found guilty, even if he were to be deposed or assassinated by his own people, that cannot bring back the slaughtered Ukrainians or restore their once-beautiful cities. For all our focus on the unfolding military conflict and economic sanctions, consider what it does to us to turn away from what we can do, if only in small measure, for those in desperate need of help.

I love how generous Americans and our allies can be when we see the need. This is why I asked friends and family to donate to Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières) instead of birthday gifts. While the $1500 is a small drop in the bucket of need, I know it is part of the effort to save lives and alleviate suffering. I chose this charity because it’s one of my long-standing causes and I believe in the work they do.

I have also found that taking action, no matter how small, helps me to feel less powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil in the world. We’re in a position to make small donations of money. I don’t think that’s necessary. Small actions of lovingkindness can be even more powerful.


If this post is meaningful to you, please link to it. And check out my previous posts, most Mondays right here and on the Treehouse Writers collective blog.

Monday, April 11, 2022

In Times of War: How Will This End?

At best, uncertainty is a difficult emotional state. We live in a world of routines, reliable cause-and-effect, and pattern recognition. We don’t need to test gravity every time we take a step, which is a good thing. We make assumptions about how people we know well (or people in general) are going to behave, based on their past actions. (Erratic behavior, whether due to mental illness, substance abuse, or misreading body language, can be traumatic, especially for children.) We anticipate many things, from the functioning of traffic lights to our own digestion to the reaction of a deer suddenly come upon in a meadow, based on our understanding of “how things work.” We use these strategies all the time without thinking about it. Having a reasonable sense of how events will unfold frees up mental (and physical) energy and gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Unexpected things happen, of course. Most of the time they’re ordinary bumps and bruises like burned dinner, a sprained ankle, a higher-than-normal electricity bill, or a traffic ticket.  They can be terrible: 9-11, a hurricane, the wildfires that swept through my part of the country a couple of years ago and resulted in my family evacuating for a month. A death in the family. Often we have little or no advance warning: it’s over, leaving us stunned or horrified or grief-stricken. We don’t get to vote on what happened, we only get to pick up the pieces afterwards. At other times, we have advance notice, like the wildfires or other weather events (but not earthquakes, lived through a couple of big ones, too) or Covid-19. We grab the kids and the pets and get out of town; we wear masks and stay home, and so forth. Even if there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves, we often have a pretty good idea how things are going to go. Not always, of course. I remember staying glued to local news while camped out in our hotel room, anxiety eating away at me as the fires got closer to our house; I’d go to sleep certain that in the morning, our place would be ashes (but it survived with only a little storm damage).

I think war is fundamentally different. On a day-to-day basis, for those in the fighting zones, it must be like a monstrous union between the Chicxulub impact, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the Black Death. Adrenaline fight-or-flight panic overload survival time, one blast at a time. But for those of us watching the catastrophe unfold from afar, anxiety takes over as the dominant emotion. Watching one horrific event after another taxes our ability to pay attention to the present moment, and that is normal. It’s in our DNA to anticipate what will happen next. In our minds, we flee to the future.

Where will Russia strike next? What weapons will they use? What can we do to shield Ukrainian civilians? Will anything come of the peace talks? What will China—or India—do?

Enter the pundits and op-ed writers, predicting everything from the economic collapse of Russia and Putin being deposed, to Russia bludgeoning Ukraine into surrender to plots, to assassinate Zelenskyy to even wilder speculations. They speculate about increasingly grim futures: Is this a prelude to nuclear war? The collapse of Russia and a worldwide recession? We gobble up the columns, even though they often leave us feeling even more anxious and wretched than before.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I think the answer lies in how predictability lowers anxiety, and the greater the stakes, the stronger the allure of a promised outcome. Not-knowing is a hellish limbo, and all too often it’s more intolerable than believing an authoritative voice with a fixed answer, no matter how grim.

I’ve started avoiding those opinion pieces. I see headlines while I’m scrolling through news, but I’m getting better at not clicking on them. Instead, I remind myself that masking anxiety with visions of doom is not likely to help anyone, beginning with myself. The truth is that I don’t have a crystal ball—and for sure the pundits don’t, either.

Working myself into a lather harms impairs my ability to think clearly. It cannot affect the outcome of the war.

Powerlessness is hard, and in evolutionary terms it’s dangerous. But when it is our true condition, the best way to manage it is by seeing it for what it is, and then finding ways to make a big difference in our own lives through good self-care and a small difference in the world.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Book Reviews: In Pandemic Times

Wish You Were Here
, by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine)

Although I write science fiction and fantasy, I’m a diehard Jodi Picoult fan. She has the almost magical ability to take a current issue and spin it into a compelling, human story that transcends the news of the day.

Wish You Were Here opens with art auction specialist Diana and her fiancé, Finn, regretfully cancelling their dream vacation to the Galápagos Islands. It’s March, 2020, and Finn is a resident in surgery in a New York City hospital…and it’s all hands on deck in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Immediately I was hooked, not just from the drama of the unfolding crisis we all lived through, but because my younger daughter was then in her final year of residency in Family Medicine. Instead of the usual rotation of specialties (such as surgery or pediatrics) she spent that last year caring for desperately ill Covid patients. Watching them die alone. Coming home to her wife exhausted, shift after brutal shift, when she got to come home at all.

I knew what was coming for Finn, even if he and Diana didn’t.

At Finn’s insistence, Diana goes off to the Galápagos by herself. First she loses her luggage, then, just after she arrives, the islands are locked down. Her hotel is closed and there’s no wi-fi. By gradual steps she’s drawn into the beauty of the islands and their animals, and the lives of the people there. Although she and Finn can’t talk directly, she writes him postcards about her adventures, and he sends her emails.

Without divulging any spoilers, Diana’s carefully planned life quickly unravels as she embraces the beauty and serenity of the islands and its people.

I found Diana’s stories about her time on the islands rather placid or perhaps idyllic, given the benign climate, isolation, and low threat of violence. The tension revolves primarily around Diana’s relationships, marred only by her frustration at not being able to contact Finn. But Finn’s emails, so strongly resonant of my daughter’s experiences with death, exhaustion, and burnout, hit home, and hit me hard. As the book unfolded, I realized that, in Picoult’s skillful hands, the contrast is not only deliberate but significant. Such intense, tragic experiences change us forever.

Monday, April 4, 2022

In Times of War: A Flood of Horrific News

After the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote a series of blog posts, “In Troubled Times.” In them I explored my evolving feelings of disbelief, shock, horror, despair, fury, and rising determination. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became our mantra. I hoped that my words provided solace and inspiration to others, and the process of putting them down did for me.

Now we face new, often overwhelming challenges to sanity. I find myself reacting to the news of the war in Ukraine, and yet being unable to look away. Then my friend, Jaym Gates, wrote this on her Facebook page, posted here with her permission. 

Be really careful on social media for the next few days, friends. A lot of footage of Russian Federation war crimes, torture, rape, and murder just came out from Mariupol and other occupied cities. It is *horrific.* While it needs to be seen, shared, and remembered, it is going to be extremely traumatic to engage with.

If you're a survivor of abuse or trauma, in particular, please be especially careful.

And send support to Ukraine if you can. What's happening there is awful beyond words.

 My daughter, a psychology student, spotted this article by Heather Kelly in the Washington Post: How to stay up-to-date on terrible news without burning out.

It can be hard to look away from your phone and live your life while terrible events are unfolding, Kelly writes. There’s an unrelenting flow of images, videos and graphic updates out of Ukraine, filling social media, messaging apps and news sites.

It’s important to stay informed, engaged and even outraged. But it’s also important to pay attention to our own limits and mental health by taking breaks, looking for signs of burnout and consuming news in the smartest way possible.

That means setting some ground rules for the main portal connecting us to nonstop tragedy: our phones [or computers]. Here are some suggestions:

1.       Give yourself permission to take a break

It is okay to hit pause on the doom and go live your life, whether that means going outside with the kids or just losing yourself on the silly side of TikTok. It’s necessary for everyone’s mental health.

2.      Take time for self-care

A break is not a few minutes away from Twitter. Start with real breaks of at least 30 minutes to an hour so that your brain has time to come down from what you were last watching or reading. Ideally, you’ll put your phone down and take a technology break … or do some activities known to help with stress reduction, including exercise, mindfulness and meditation, journaling, engaging in hobbies and other activities you enjoy, spending time with family and friends, and doing faith-based activities if you practice.

3.      Change your news habits

Disinformation like propaganda is designed to capture your attention and elicit strong emotions, which can contribute to any anxiety you’re already feeling. Instead, stick with reputable sources. If you can wait, opt for deeply reported stories at the end of the day over constant smaller updates. Avoid using social media for news, but if you do, follow sources and people that contribute to your understanding of an issue rather than those that just generate more outrage.

4.      View your phone in black and white

In your smartphone’s accessibility settings there is an option to make the screen black and white instead of color. Some studies have indicated that turning this on leads to less screen time.

5.      Know when to ask for help

Look for signs that you are burned out or experiencing serious anxiety. First, consider whether you’re predisposed to reacting strongly to a particular issue. Anyone who has personally dealt with similar trauma or war in the past might find constant vivid social media posts about Ukraine to be triggering. [Italics mine.]


In conclusion: be kind to yourself, friends. Practice healthy boundaries and filters, and good self-care. Ask for help, whether it’s a friend or family member screening news for triggers, or a companion on a hike through the redwoods. Find safe people to reach out to. I'll be writing more about our journey together.


Friday, April 1, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Return of the Sigil Scribe, With Chimeras

Paper & Blood
(Book Two of the Ink & Sigil series, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey)

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Hearne to begin with, and his “Ink and Sigil” series is a delight. As a former student of calligraphy, I love the idea that the written word is magical. In this series, set in the world of the Iron Druid, scribes create magical spells using not only words, but painstakingly prepared pens, inks, and paper. The spells include the Sigils of Unchained Destruction, Restorative Care, Agile Grace, Muscular Brawn, and Quick Compliance and are used to protect the world against malevolent gods and monsters.

Our everyman-hero, Al MacBharrais, is under a couple of nasty spells himself. If he speaks to someone more than a few times, they loathe him (this happened to his own son), and his apprentices die violently after a year of service. This isn’t good news for his hobgoblin apprentice, Buck Foi. While Al is searching for a way to lift his misfortunes, his fellow sigil agents go missing in the wilds of Australia. Al and Buck are off to the rescue, joined by one of the missing agent’s apprentices, his receptionist Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite, a few sundry allies, and the Iron Druid himself. The search leads them to a forested preserve, where chimeric monsters lie in wait. These critters are sometimes more effective and lethal than others, but always inventive: a turtle-dragon-spider, an eagle bull, a scorpion with a rat’s head (ugh), pygmy goats with fanged snake heads, a gorilla elephant, a yak badger, and my favorite, a zebra possum.

All in all, this is a quick, fun read filled with plot twists and delightful characters but also depth, the best combination.

“Abandoned cheese is a sure sign that something’s gone wrong.”