Saturday, January 30, 2021


 Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy, Flatiron Books, 2020, 256 pp

This is the best novel I have read so far in 2021. The big idea behind the story is climate change. Set in the future, Earth's oceans are fished out, wild animals have all but disappeared, insects and birds are dwindling rapidly.

The culprits in all this demise are humans. Unless we can change our ways we will ourselves follow since we have decimated the very elements needed to survive. Thus it must be humans who populate the story.

Charlotte McConaghy had already published three sci fi/fantasy series in Australia prior to this international debut. She knows how to create awesome female characters so it is no surprise that Franny Stone, damaged and nearly broken, is also the heroine who drives this epic tale.

Able to love but unable to stay, her search for a way to heal the earth takes her on a journey to track the last Arctic Terns on their migration from Greenland to Antarctica. She finagles her way onto a fishing boat and then convinces its equally damaged and broken captain to take that journey. The opening chapter where Franny meets the captain and his crew is so gripping, I wondered where the author could go after that.

The answer is everywhere, from Ireland to Australia, on the high seas and into the human heart. All the while the mystery of Franny is gradually revealed. When a person has nothing more to lose, when she must engineer her own redemption, there are no limits to her daring.

The writing is at once cinematic and intensely personal. Never does the pace falter. On every page, I wanted desperately to know how the book would end. When it did, I wanted it to go on. I wanted to stay with Franny forever.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021


 Red Pill, Hari Kunzru, Alfred A Knopf, 2020, 304 pp

This is an important novel about today's world, about intrusion into our privacy, about a sort of epic battle between left and right in politics, about the ways in which such conundrums wear us out and down.

The title refers back to the 1999 film, The Matrix. It is about a choice: the red pill reveals life-changing truth, the blue allows a state of blissful ignorance. (I did not remember this trope from the film so I plan to watch it again.)

The novel opens with a middle-aged writer, happily married, father of a three year old daughter, but stuck as a writer.

"It is when you first understand," he says of middle age, "that your not absolutely mutable, that what has already happened will, to a great extent, determine the rest of the story."

In an effort to break through his writer's block, he travels from Brooklyn to Germany on a fellowship. He expects to have weeks of uninterrupted quiet and to work on his next book. 

Instead, he finds a regimented scene where he is expected to write at a desk in a large communal room surrounded by the other writers. He immediately becomes uncomfortable and gains a reputation as odd man out and troublemaker for resisting the rules.

He hides out in his room, binge-watching a violent cop show, and not writing. He takes walks around the town of Wannsee, historically the location where the Nazis planned the final solution. In the dining area he meets Anton, the writer of the cop show and perceives the man to be his nemesis. Eventually an obsession forms that Anton is living in the writer's mind. His actions become increasingly erratic.

I am drawn to descent into madness tales, perhaps because I have been on that brink a couple times myself. Kunzru has cleverly written one these tales but creates a parallel one; society and an individual making similar descents.

This creepy beginning ramps up into a type of psychological thriller. After a stint in a psych ward and finally being rescued by his left-wing lawyer wife, the book ends on the night of the 2016 election as he and his wife throw a party to watch the election results come in. Yes, that night!

I found the end of the book possibly a bit soft and improbable. As I thought about it over several days, I realized that it is so very Hari Kunzru that the nature of his story should be set against an improbable ending. After all, at this point in history we have little idea of where we are headed. 

Not a feel good novel but certainly an illuminating one.

Saturday, January 23, 2021


When January 1, 2021 finally rolled around I was in a state of despair with nothing to look forward to but January 6 (which brought only more anxiety) and January 20. Finally the longest wait ever was over. Meanwhile I decided to sink into the most distracting reading I could find. For me that is mysteries and thrillers where the pages fly by, justice gets done and the bad people get what is coming to them. It was a good decision! Here are some short reviews of those, for me, sanity saving books.

 The Searcher, Tana French, Viking, 2020, 446 pp

I would categorize this one as a literary crime novel. Tana French has always embedded her excellent plots in a literary style. I have read all of her previous seven books and appreciate how she has branched out in each one.

A former Chicago cop, after a divorce and deep disillusionment with law enforcement, has moved to Ireland. While fixing up his cottage and getting to know the local people and customs in his remote village, he gets pulled into a missing person can by a curious child who shows up on his property.

Though the story takes a while to get going, Tana French builds tension on every page until all the clues come together. The book is a study in culture clash, small town secrets and sad truths. I loved it.

The English Girl, Daniel Silva, HarperCollins, 2013, 473 pp

The 13th book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series is a political thriller. Allon is an art restorer in his public life but also works as an assassin and spy for Israeli intelligence. He is a master at all three roles.

Over the course of the series, Allon has forged relationships with both British and American intelligence. In The English Girl, he is called in via MI6 to find the missing mistress of the (fictional) current Prime Minister of Britain. The criminals behind the kidnapping of Madeline Hart figure the British governing party will pay a huge ransom to protect their guy at 10 Downing Street from scandal.

When Allon penetrates the operation, he finds himself once more at the potential mercy of some ruthless enemies he has made over the years, Russian enemies that is.

Even after 12 books this author managed to raise my heart rate while he began to set up a possible new future for his hero. Also intriguing was how deeply the story penetrated into Putin's true intentions for his country and the rest of the world, intentions that nearly destroyed our democracy over the past four years, intentions he has had since he became Russia's leader in 2012.

Mona Lisa Over Drive, William Gibson, Bantam Books, 1988, 308 pp

The final book in Gibson's Sprawl trilogy is a cyberpunk thriller. He gives us more of his groundbreaking unleashing of cyberspace onto the world of fiction. He exhibits some new fiction chops including deeper characters and an even more nuanced look at the machinations of the powerful Japanese underground, the uses of celebrities, and the mysterious beings behind artificial intelligence. 

His story brings back some characters from the first two books (Neuromancer and Count Zero) while adding Mona with her murky past, a new sort of console jockey, and an endearing but mentally challenged dude named Slick Henry who broke my heart.

After over 300 pages of non-stop action comes the intriguing ending meant to explain the history of these stories, the "why" of When It All Changed. It did not explain as much as it cliff-hangered me.

Will the next trilogy, The Bridge Trilogy, give more answers? Probably the plot will only thicken.

Hard Truth, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 2005, 324 pp

I ended my spree with the 13th book in Nevada Barr's mystery/crime series, all set in National Parks. I started reading this series five years ago and only have six more to go. I am getting there!

Park Ranger Anna Pigeon arrives at Rocky Mountain National Park for a temporary assignment as District Ranger in the midst of a search for three missing girls. On her first day two of the girls emerge from the woods, dressed only in ragged filthy underwear, traumatized and close to starvation. One girl is still missing. The two are rescued by campers but claim to remember nothing.

In a series where the plots are always complex and twisted, Nevada Barr has kicked it up yet another notch. Included in her tale are a wheel-chair bound paraplegic woman, a fringe Mormon community, mistaken identities, and a serial killer who specializes in harming children. 

Evil spreads through the breathtaking beauty of the park. Danger, even to animals, lurks in every valley, over the next peak, and even in the rangers's cabins. This is almost a horror novel.

I must admit that the physical and psychological damage done to the female children was hard to take. Be warned. Anna Pigeon's canny investigating and fearless strength provide much needed balance.

Have you read any of these thrillers? Who are your favorite thriller writers?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021


 Wild Seed, Octavia Butler, Doubleday Books, 1980, 253 pp

This is the last book I read in 2020, for The Tinies reading group. We have not yet met to discuss it because one of us is ill (not COVID thank goodness) so I can't report on what they thought. I found it a tricky book to review because it contains multitudes but here goes.

Wild Seed is one in a series called Seed To Harvest. This book in that series is a somewhat alternate history beginning in Africa in 1690. Slavers are industriously capturing natives and shipping them off to America. Anyanwu is a healer, a shapeshifter, and is 300 years old. She does her best to protect her village from the slavers.

Doro comes upon that village. He had been inspecting what he calls his seed villages. What is a seed village? It is the crux of the whole story. Doro is over 1000 years old. When a body he inhabits becomes old or less useful, he jumps into another one after killing the previous owner. Just to give you some idea of the character. 

Doro has been engaged in a centuries long project to breed people of his race, developing individuals with superior powers and traits. He has brought many of these people to the New World, not as slaves but as almost mystical beings who can fight the powers of oppression.

Upon meeting Anyanwu, he recognizes her special powers and wants to use her to breed more people with such powers and add them to his groups. He also is aware that she is what he calls a wild seed and will need careful handling. So begins a power struggle between the two. Doro may be ruthless but Anyanwu is in some ways the stronger of the two because she has certain characteristics that he is lacking.

To America they go. Two hundred years go by bringing the story to 1840, before the Civil War but during the beginnings of Abolition. Doro and Anyanwu remain locked in their struggle. He demands complete obedience, she refuses to submit fully. She bears many children and suffers many tragic losses but fills a role that Doro cannot: healer, mother and a bit of a check on Doro's power.

The extremes of fantasy and the levels of violence in this tale of visionaries and psychics ride on a knife-edge of madness. It could be too much for some readers. I was fascinated and could not look away. Anyanwu is a heroine of mythic proportions and I had to know if she would survive under Doro or if she would escape.

A word about this series: I read Wild Seed in a 4 book collection, Seed To Harvest. The books in the collection are not arranged in order of publication. I searched for the reason. This collection was published just a year after Butler's death. Some sources say that she wanted the series released in the chronological order of the story, even though she wrote that chronology out of order. Originally the series was called the Patternist Series after the first published book, called Patternmaster. That novel is the last in Seed To Harvest.

From what I could find, readers are divided on the issue of whether to read the 4 books in publication order or chronological. Since I have seen this kind of thing happen with other science fiction series, I decided to go with the chronological option as presented in the collection. I will keep you posted as I read the other three books.

It looks like the four novels get into even wilder scenarios including a far future cosmic invasion! Can't wait!!

Friday, January 15, 2021


 I am a bit late posting this but since none of my groups have met yet this month, here goes. Only three meetings. One is on Martin Luther King Day, another is on Inauguration Day and the last is after all the excitement and distraught horrible stuff is hopefully in the past. What a January we are having.

One Book At A Time:

I read this last year but it is a great book to discuss on Martin Luther King Day.

Carol's Group:

I am reading this now and I can tell you that is is astounding. 

Bookie Babes:

I have not read any of the books in this series and it is #9, but I look forward to a wintry read featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope because I have heard good things about the series.

We are all still meeting on Zoom. Are any of your reading groups meeting this month? If so, what will you be discussing? Have you read any of these books?

Here is hoping February will see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021



Water, Wasted, Alex Branson, Rare Bird Books, 2020, 283 pp

The final Nervous Breakdown Book Club selection of 2020 is possibly the weirdest novel I have ever read, but there was a lot I liked about it. As in Lord The One You Love Is Sick, it is set in a small town, this time in Missouri, right on the Missouri River.

The author grew up in Missouri, he likes to work for nonprofits that actually help people, and he runs an unusual podcast where every episode is the first episode without any sequels, or something like that. 

Central to the story are a middle-aged divorced couple, Barrett and Amelia, who lost their only child, a daughter named Edi. That loss destroyed their marriage leaving them each to become rather isolated eccentrics. The violent death of a teenage boy touches both of them in different ways but prompts them to reconnect and reflect on Edi's passing. 

Several other odd characters of the town turn out to have their own connections to Barrett, including an involved story concerning lots of dogs, a talking goat, a Bigfoot-like entity that ravages the countryside, and a G-man (supposedly a government agent who acts more like an alien.)

The story circles around, back into the past, and through many instances of the Missouri River flooding. During her short life, Edi wrote several fantasy books in which the goat, Bigfoot and the G-man figured. When these entities show up in town, Barrett and Amelia read Edi's books for the first time, trying to make sense of it all. What did she know and was it connected with her death?

I only recommend the novel to those who truly love the weird. It is like China Mieville decided to write a story set in small town America. I can't quite explain why I liked it, but I did. It made me think of some of the people and ideas that seem to have taken over our country in recent years and wonder if they didn't come out of a speculative genre or some parallel universe.

Thanks once again to another Los Angeles based indie publisher, Rare Bird Books, and to The Nervous Breakdown for sending the book out. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021


 Lord The One You Love Is Sick, Kasey Thornton, Ig Publishing, 2020, 229 pp

In the November, 2020, selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club, from indie publisher Ig, a slice of life plays out in a small North Carolina town. It is an enlightening read in terms of the supposed conflict between Red states and Blue states. I say supposed because it is my belief that Red vs Blue is a political construct that smothers the actual complexity of American lives.

Kasey Thornton grew up in a town similar to the one she writes about. She still lives in that community. She put this debut novel together by collecting the stories she had written about life in her town. The book reads like a novel, at least it did for me.

After the fatal heroine overdose of his best friend, Dale's life becomes almost impossible. He feels guilty for abandoning his friend, he is training to be a cop, and his marriage is on shaky ground. As all of this plays out, other residents of the town come into the story.

The drugs, the poverty, the vanishing economy, and all the secrets held combine into an explosive mix. The adults are facing down cancer, diabetes, mental illness; the kids are living with instability or abuse; the women are trying, and often failing, to stand by their men.

Yet there are strong religious beliefs and codes of behavior that include not facing reality. I have found this conundrum in much of Southern fiction: Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Jesmyn Ward, Carson McCullers and more.

These issues and conflicts are probably present in any community. The title here comes from the Gospel of John in the story of Lazurus. When he falls ill, his sisters Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus: "Lord, the one you love is sick." If you were raised on the Gospels you know the rest.

Even Jesus had a secret plan.

Friday, January 08, 2021


 Remember December? It ended only 8 days ago. Sorry I have been missing for a few days but we all have our reasons. So, anticlimactic as it is, but for the record, here are the books I read in that far away month.

Stats: 10 books read. 10 fiction. 5 written by women. 1 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 speculative.

Places I went: Mexico, United States, Spain, Great Britain, Africa.

Authors new to me: Joseph Di Prisco, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kevin Barry, Nick Flynn, Amy Shearn, Alex Branson.

Favorites: Night Boat To Tangier, Unseen City, Wild Seed.

I am a bit more caught up on reviews than usual. All but the last four of these have been posted.

Have you read any of these books? What are you reading now that is getting you through?

Saturday, January 02, 2021


 I had a year of great reading. I had set a lower goal than usual to give myself time to read some LONG books and I did do that. 
I read 122 books with an average length of 366 pages.
I read 44674 pages with an average of 122 pages a day. I think this is my most satisfying statistic since I always hope to read 100 pages a day. It looks like I nailed that one!

This year I decided to determine my top favorites by listing out all the books I noted as 5 star books on Goodreads. I got 46! It would seem either I am getting better at choosing books or books are getting better overall. Win-win, I would say.

I narrowed it down to 25 but added a few more at the bottom. For once I managed to get all of these reviewed on the blog and that is perhaps my best achievement. After all my wingeing last January, I figured out how to keep the blog going plus work on my writing. Of course, I was stuck at home for 9 months of the year so I should not brag.

In alphabetical order by title here are my favorites:

August Is A Wicked Month, Edna O'Brien
Barn 8, Deb Olin Unferth
Bellefleur, Joyce Carol Oates
Cantoras, Carolina De Robertis
The Glass Hotel, Emily St John Mandel
Hamnet, Maggie O'Farrell
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee
In the Country of Women, Susan Straight
The Keepers of the House, Shirley Anne Grau
Lilith's Brood Trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago), Octavia E Butler
A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende
Night Boat to Tangier, Kevin Barry
Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars, Joyce Carol Oates
The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich
Piranesi, Susannah Clarke
The Reckless Oath We Made, Bryn Greenwood
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
The Sweetest Fruits, Monique Truong
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
Unseen City, Amy Shearn
Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Women of Copper Country, Mary Doria Russell
Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha

One of my goals for the year was to get caught up on all Neal Stephenson books I had not yet read. I still have one to go but I loved the ones I read 5 stars worth.
Quicksilver, The Confusion, System of the World, Anathem, and Reamde.

I cannot leave out The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Sadly we lost him this year so I add this one in his honor.

I have enjoyed reading all the year end lists from the bloggers I follow. We are mighty readers!

A huge thank you to all who follow me here with extra thanks for all who comment. Due to my reading groups on Zoom and all of you, I never felt too lonely this year. 

Happy New Year! Happy Reading! Happy Blogging Days Ahead!