Paul’s Book Reviews

“If there were aliens, they certainly wouldn’t come to Nigeria. Or maybe they would.”
— Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

lagoon Lagoon
by Nnedi Okorafor

My introduction to Nigerian science fiction was Tade Thompson’s “Rosewater”; as with Thompson’s, Okorafor’s science fiction is “about people, with incidental science,” and in “Lagoon,” not just about people but the soul of a city: Lagos.

One of Nnedi Okorafor’s motivations in writing “Lagoon,” she explains in an afterword, was her antipathy toward the South African movie “District 9.” Although she doesn’t say so directly, I assume she was angered by the movie’s depiction of Nigerians as low-life criminal thugs. In “Lagoon,” she builds a strong picture of the spirit and importance of a major world city, Lagos, and to a lesser degree the lives of its inhabitants, but she doesn’t flinch from describing the low-life thuggery, criminality, and pervasive corruption Lagos and Nigeria is famous for. Most interesting!

The story itself is fascinating, as Okorafor peels back the histories of the three unrelated people who in the opening pages are drawn to Bar Beach; the watery aliens, fantastic as they are, are supporting players to Adaora, Agu, and Anthony. Despite the grittiness of Okorafor’s teeming city, with its area boys, looting, poverty, and corruption, “Lagoon” is an optimistic story about humanity’s potential. I read it happily and will certainly read more.

“I penetrated the outer cell membrane with a nanosyringe.”
“You poked it with a stick?”
“No!” I said. “Well. Yes. But it was a scientific poke with a very scientific stick.”
— Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary

project hail maryProject Hail Mary
by Andy Weir

This English major was able to wade through the physics, and even understand some of it. Andy Weir has a gift for breaking the incomprehensible down into digestible bits people like me can tolerate, and the novel gets four stars for that.

The way Weir does it is, of course, highly contrived: the protagonist wakes up from a coma in a strange room, his memory of how he got there gone. Strangely, though, he can recall every bit of math, science, and physics he ever knew (which, suspiciously, is always exactly what he needs to know to overcome the problems Weir throws at him), and realizes he’s in a spacecraft of some kind. In alternating segments and chapters, he remembers relevant bits of his past as he reconstructs why he’s on the spacecraft and what he’s supposed to accomplish there, which turns out to be saving life on Earth.

The really fun part of the story is his encounter with an alien in orbit around Tau Ceti, there for the same purpose he is. I love first contact stories! This one turns out to be a bit too “nice” for adult science fiction … I was honestly hoping, once Ryland Grace and Rocky had started their separate journeys home, that the taumoeba crisis aboard Grace’s ship would turn out to be a devious trick played on humanity by an alien race, and that Rocky wasn’t the nice guy he seemed after all … I like my science fiction dark, thank you.

Throughout the novel, Weir throws crisis after crisis at Grace and Rocky, each promising misson failure and the death of their home planets, each easily overcome with Rocky’s engineering know-how and Grace’s god-like knowledge of whatever bit of science the crisis calls for.

Minus the alien, there’s not a lot of difference between this novel and Weir’s earlier hit, “The Martian.” But hey, it’s great fun.

“The agents drove another hour north and crossed the border into Wyoming. Instantly, the car was buffeted by gusts of wind. “Where are the trees?” Baker asked. “They blew away,” Singewald said.”
— C.J. Box, Breaking Point

breaking point Breaking Point (Joe Pickett #13)
by C.J. Box

I’m reading C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, which are set in a mountainous, sparsely-populated corner of Wyoming and feature a fish & game warden who finds himself and his family threatened by bad men intent on raping the West. They’re great reads, engrossing and impossible to put down, and I’m devouring the series.

It can be a struggle to write insightful, fresh reviews of individual novels in a series. I’ll start by repeating what I said about “Open Season,” the first Joe Pickett novel:

“As much as I enjoy reading Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher stories, Jack is a superhero, a figure of fantasy. When Jack Reacher gets even, people die … but not before a righteous ass-kicking. While C.J. Box brings on Reacheresque tension and villainy, when it comes to his human and relatable hero Joe Pickett, it’s more a matter of luck. Joe prevails, a believable form of getting even. But don’t worry. Asses do get kicked, in satisfying ways. I really like this Pickett guy. He makes mistakes, and plenty of them. He worries about money. He trusts people he shouldn’t. He’s a regular Joe. I really like the depictions of Wyoming, a state I lived in as a teenager and remember fondly. Joe, at least in this first novel, has an almost-too-perfect family, but there are tensions, and I sense troubled teenage years ahead for his daughter Sheridan. Granted that everything in this novel is fiction, it feels real and true.”

“Breaking Point,” the 13th novel in the Joe Pickett series, is the most gripping installment I’ve read to date. C.J. Box’s description of the forest fire and the narrow escape down Savage Run Canyon was as taut and tense as anything I’ve read recently, literally unputdownable. The previous novel, “Force of Nature,” was Nate’s. This one is Joe’s.

The afterword, which explained that the EPA’s persecution of the Sackett family in Idaho was an actual event, will go a long way toward making Nate Romanowski a sympathetic character in my mind, even though Nate appears only briefly at the end of the novel. Joe Pickett is justifiably coming around to Nate’s point of view on government overreach, and this novel more than illustrates it.

“I know all women are supposed to be strong enough now to strangle presidents and patriarchies between their powerful thighs, but it doesn’t work that way. Many of us were actually affected, by male systems and male anger, in ways we cannot always articulate or overcome. Sometimes, when the ceiling seems especially low and the past especially close, I think to myself, I did not make it out. I am still there in that place of diminishment, where that voice an octave deeper than mine is telling me what I am.”
— Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy

priestdaddy Priestdaddy
by Patricia Lockwood

I was unable to finish Lockwood’s “No One Is Talking About This,” and was pleasantly surprised to find her memoir “Priestdaddy” not only readable but engaging (in a fucked up lapsed Catholic way).

Religion, and being raised in a more-than-normally religious household (then, to add insult to psychic injury) having to return to it as an adult, would take its toll on anyone. Patricia Lockwood seems to have survived her upbringing with her values and sense of humor intact.

You can see the poet at work in many of her short chapters, but the lyrical way she describes aspects of her childhood did little to dispel my outrage and revulsion toward priestdaddy himself. The very first chapter, where he pulled the rug from under his daughter’s college plans to fund his own selfish wants, obviated any possible sympathy I might have felt for the man. I was already poisoned against his religion and politics, and no amount of poetic refraction could change the monster I saw through Lockwood’s eyes.

Which, I guess, shows how emotionally involved I became with Lockwood’s memoir. That’s good writing.

“Noemí, just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted. Nor that you shouldn’t fear the haunting.”
— Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

mexican gothic Mexican Gothic
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Since my birthday is Hallowe’en, I traditionally host our October book club meeting. As in previous Octobers, we chose a horror book to read and discuss: “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. You’d think I’d really be into horror, but I’m not. After reading “Mexican Gothic,” though, I can see where so many love the genre. This is an impressive novel, even if it is not my thing.

The Mexican setting, for one. Americans have so many wrong ideas about Mexico, its people, and its society. Mexico is no less a land of immigrants than the United States. Its culture, particularly in and around the capital, Mexico City, is strongly European. It’s interesting how Silvia Moreno-Garcia gives form to some of the prejudices outsiders feel toward the Mexican people; namely the incestuous inbreeding of the Doyle clan and the repellent eugenic nonsense spouted by its patriarchs, Howard and Virgil. I was taken with the way Noemí dismisses their nonsense, at one point asking Virgil if he intends to measure her skull with a caliper, and the pride she takes in her indigenous heritage.

Other reviewers point out similarities with the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but horror not being my thing I can’t speak to that. I can say this: since our book club read Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” last October, I felt right at home in High Place. I found the reason High Place enters the dreams and eventually the reality of Noemí’s life, once revealed, at least as plausible as anything that happens in horror novels (and most science fiction, if I’m honest).

Noemí kept me turning pages while Howard and Virgil made me want to skip ahead, particularly toward the end when Virgil (who by then must have been part Howard) keeps turning up like the unstoppable villain in every horror novel and movie and Jesus won’t someone wipe that smirk off his face? Never fear, someone does.

Yes, I thought the climax melodramatic and overwrought, but how else can a story like this end? Gothic, and then some! As I said at the start of my review, it’s no wonder so many love this stuff.

“And there’s nothing wrong with being a lizard either. Unless you were born to be a hawk.”
— Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone

shadow and bone Shadow and Bone (The Shadow and Bone Trilogy #1)
by Leigh Bardugo

I read “Shadow and Bone” because I wanted to expand my knowledge of YA. I read a lot of YA a few years back, discovering some great authors — Paolo Bacigalupi, John Green, Judy Blume, M.T. Anderson — authors I’ll come back to again and again, whether they’re writing YA or adult fiction. This round, I hoped to add new YA authors to my favorites list, picking three new YA novels by E. Lockhart (“We Were Liars”), Adam Silvera (“They Both Die at the End”), and Leigh Bardugo (the author of this novel).

I’m not a fan of fantasy (he said, pretending he hasn’t read every book and devoured every televised episode of the Game of Thrones series), but Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy started out strong, and I had high hopes for it. I liked Alina, the protagonist and narrator, a matter-of-fact young woman with a level head, and Bardugo’s world building contained a lot of promise: it had the potential to become a series that grows and becomes more complex over time, as GOT did. But the last third of the novel turned into a teen romance, and my interest quickly waned … there really isn’t anything new or different in this novel, as I had thought at first, and my disappointment grew to the point where I was flipping through the mushy stuff to get to the action. The book went from a four-star to a three-star read.

There’s a Netflix series based on this and another novel in the S&B trilogy. I’ve seen the first episode. I may watch more, but as far as the book series, I’m done.

“Too late, Enda realized that perhaps she shouldn’t have throat-punched the messenger.”
— Corey J. White, Repo Virtual

repo virtual Repo Virtual
by Corey J. White

No rating: did not finish.

I post book reviews on my blog Paul’s Thing, on Goodreads, and on the Readers and Book Lovers group page of the community website Daily Kos. The moderator of the DKos book group sent me her unread copy of “Repo Virtual,” suggesting I might like it, seeing as how we’re both fans of William Gibson’s cyberpunk science fiction.

Reader, I really wanted to like it. It’s cyberpunk, all right, but lacks the humanity, relatability, and character depth Gibson brings to his novels. It might make for a television or movie script, though, and if I have to guess, that’s what the author had in mind.

I took good care of my copy and passed it on to potential readers in my northeast Tucson neighborhood via the lending library box on the corner near my house.

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