Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: “The City of Lost Fortunes” by Bryan Camp

The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp

Camp’s novel is a love song to his city, which is still recovering from the devastating trauma of Katrina, which ripped the city apart and, as the title suggests, flooded it with losses of all kinds.

If there was ever a city that has a personality, New Orleans is surely it.  And Camp brings us a supernatural personification of the city, its strength, its luck, its will, its voice, and the many magical creatures and interesting people who live there.

We’ve all learned to expect New Orleans to be filled with vampires, tarot, voodoo, zombies, and, not least, jazz.  Camp’s story has them all, and then some.

The plot involves one Jude, a finder of lost things.  Jude was wiped out by Katrina, overwhelmed by the massive and continuous flood of losses.  He’s been hiding since, unable or unwilling to use his gift.

But now Jude is pulled into some kind of complicated plot that appears to be part of a dangerous tussle for control of the city by major magical powers.  Magic is powerful, but the goals of the powers are unknown and some are definitely not benign.

Unraveling the mystery—and finding himself—Jude meets a great assortment of New Orleans characters, visits many iconic locations, and generally lets us see New Orleans as it ought to be, even wounded as she is.

I loved the characters and scenery, and, of course, Camp makes clear the many things he loves in his city.  If nothing else, this story is an answer to “why did you go back?”

I do believe in the magic of sex and drugs and rock and roll, which also abounds in the Crescent City.  But personally, I don’t care much for new agey mystical stuff.  Tarot.  Legbas.  Magical herbs. Yawn. But Camp makes a smooth and delicious story out of it.

Just for instance: zombies are a really stupid concept.  But an ancient jazz man, unhappily preserved after death, still playing that busted up horn, making magical music that touches people, and, in the end gives voice to the city.  That’s a beautiful, beautiful image, and it’s so right.

Much of this story is dark and gritty, with violence and loss at every turn.  But there are good people here, good deeds, and the possibility of life.  It’s wonderful, hopeful, and it’s so New Orleans.


  1. Bryan Camp, The City of Lost Fortunes, New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

 

Book Review: “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Yes, it’s a twisted update to that silly show that we all remember so well. In this take, those meddling kids are older and the world isn’t so innocent anymore.

Thirteen years after their last case, the gang is scattered and badly damaged.  They are pulled back to the scene of their finale, haunted by the fact that they caught the wrong man, and that something was and still is badly wrong.  They need to fix it, and, along the way, to fix themselves and others damaged by their earlier mistake.

Unwinding the mystery leads to all sorts of Lovecraftian horror, which is not to be trifled with as I have said before. The kids are a bit more grown up now and a bit smarter. This time they try hard not to split up, eschewing the time-honored plot device. They also carry firearms and other weapons, and aren’t really expecting a silly man in a costume.  The danger is real and overwhelming.

The return to the scene of youthful happiness is a poignant theme, even without the supernatural horror and soul sucking danger.  Who doesn’t sigh at the memory of the last days of innocent youth?  Who doesn’t regret the choices not made, the bonds allowed to fade?

The writing is pretty good, much more up-beat beatnik than dreadful pompous Howard. The characters are interesting, and much of the dialog witty.  I liked these kids, especially the twenty somethings they have grown to be.

The plot is dumb, but that’s kind of what is expected from those meddling kids, no?

The action in the TV show was childishly innocent, with lots of unrealistic running around, slapstick, and face gags (and a really annoying laugh track). Unfortunately, this story is post-video game generation, so the action includes slews of gratuitous, unrealistic, violence.  I don’t enjoy this kind of video game, and the written version is not interesting to read, not particularly funny, and generally not appealing.  (And, by the way, much of it could have been omitted without damaging the story.)

Overall, I liked it, even if I skipped as fast as I could through the pointless slaughter.


  1. Edgar Cantero, Meddling Kids, New York, Penguin, 2017.

 

Sunday Book Review

Book Review: “There, There” by Tommy Orange

There, There by Tommy Orange

This is a brutally realistic and deeply sad story from the lives of Urban Indians of Oakland, California. We can be sure that Orange is writing what he knows. In the great tradition, everyone tells their stories.

The lives of a dozen people young and old, parents, grandparents, and children, intersect at the “Big Oakland Powwow”.  (There are lot’s of powwows, but I’m pretty sure this one is fictional.)  Much of the story is about the lives of these Urban Indians, and their struggles with what “being an Indian” means.

This is a wonderful social psychological tour of the many ways these identity questions play out. Some have little knowledge of their heritage (or even their parents in some cases).  Others recount the bitter, covered-up history of the North American genocide, and their own family stories. Others deny or abandon their heritage, at least for a time.  And some are just lost, sunk in violence, drugs, and alcohol.

It is notable that most, if not all, the characters have “mixed” heritage, both “blood” heritage and culturally.  Whatever cultural heritage might mean or do for them, it’s hard to know what that means for someone with Native and non-Native ancestors, and family ties from multiple tribes.

It is also true that these folks live in the real twenty first century.  They all have smart phones, listen to rap music, watch YouTube, play video games, and one of them has a 3D printer and a drone with VR goggles.  Whatever “being an  Indian” might mean, it plays out here and now, not in some romantic past.

This, of course, is one of the forces that drives contemporary powwows, which are embedded in contemporary America (the Big Oakland Powwow is at the Coliseum), massively multi-tribal, and only loosely grounded in any specific historical precedent.  In the story, we see the attraction of the event from many perspectives.

The brutal and sad part in this book is the troubled and impoverished life many of these characters endure. We know that these hardships are not unique to Indians (urban or otherwise), and the poor everywhere are disenfranchised.  But there is special pain in the feelings of loss and helplessness of a people who have truly been robbed.

The title echoes a lyric by Radiohead, and, of course, the Stein quote about Oakland, (“There is no there, there.”)  It is also a play on the phrase “they’re there”.

The Indians have been pushed out, nearly wiped out, and almost erased from history.  Nevertheless, they persist.  They’re there, whether you like it or not, and whether you know it or not.

This is not an easy book to read, but it’s good, real good.


  1. Tommy Orange, There, There, New York, Alfred A. Knopft, 2018.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Housekeeping: Q2 Roundup and Books Reviewed

The Book Is Launched!!!

Based on several years of blogging, the long-awaited book “What is Coworking?” was (finally) released this quarter!  Info here.

Get it!  Read it!

There was an official “book launch” on June 1.

There will be more events in coming months.

Antarctica, Dinosaurs, and Bees; Oh my!

Besides Coworking and The New Way of Work, various topics recur including Dinosaurs, the Anthropocene, and Pollinators.

And, of course, most weeks, Robot Wednesday and Cryptocurrency Thursday.

Books Reviewed This Quarter

 

Fiction

Adjustment Day  by Chuck Palahniuk
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
Circe by Madeline Miller
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Koko Uncaged by Kieran Shea
Noir by Christopher Moore
Robots Vs Fairies  edited by Dominick Parisien Navah Wolfe
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon
Versailles by Yannick Hill

Non-Fiction

Crash Test Girl by Kari Byron
Darwin Comes To Town by Menno Schilthuizen
Failure is an Option by H. Jon Benjamin
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

Great Names For Bands

The Fungi Under The Woods
“Force Jacket” (or maybe FORCE JACKET)
Frog Fungus Catastrophe

Book Review: “Koko Uncaged “by Kieran Shea

Koko Uncaged by Kieran Shea

The long anticipated continuation of Koko Martstellar takes up where Koko The Mighty (2015) ended.

These stories are kind of video gamish, filled with imagery and violence, and not much in the way of deep characters or complex plotting.

Some of the blubs on the cover describe this as “Cyberpunk”, but that’s really inaccurate, IMO. The technology isn’t especially advanced (except for the weapons), there Is no clever hacking, and it isn’t noir-ish at all.  This is video game grade shoot-em-up, not Cyberpunk techno-subversion.  (Grumble, grumble, kids today know nothing about real Cyberpunk.)

Anyway. I digress.

Frankly, the plot of Uncaged is idiotically silly.  But it’s action packed, which is the goal, I’m sure.

Koko survives a disastrous landing on Earth, and wakes up in the hands of a super-rich industrialist who has “saved” her, but also makes her an offer she can’t refuse.  Koko takes up the role of bodyguard, and is sucked into what must be the stupidest corporate “shoot out” I have ever heard of.  Sigh.

Meanwhile, Koko’s past is closing in, and her ex (who Koko thinks is dead) is captive and being tortured by the bounty hunter, Wire.  (Did we need so many gory details?)

The climax is a high-tech scooter race with an unbelievably obnoxious Latin dictator.  And his unbelievably dumb bodyguard. On a 26th century Devils Island. Etc.

The Koko stories are kind of fun (though I could do without so much violence and gore).  One thing they are not is memorable literature.

As I started to read this sequel, I found that I couldn’t remember anything about the previous installment Koko The Mighty (2015).  It’s a good thing there were reminders of what happened earlier, because I surely couldn’t tell you.

There is one thing I did remember, though: Koko.  She is a remarkable and interesting character.


  1. Kieran Shea, Koko Uncaged, London, Titan Books, 2018.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Armistice” by Lara Elena Donnelly

Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly

The sequel to Amberlough continues the complex plot (and “plot” is the right word), following the successful coup in the first story.  (I’m not sure exactly how much of an “armistice” is actually happening)

The main characters have fled the city of Amberlough, but resistance and espionage continues in other locations. The politics is complicated, and gets ever more complex as we discover regional factions, double and triple agents, and subterfuge of many kinds.

It’s all hard to keep track off. Spy versus spy versus spy etc.

In this book, we learn a lot more about many of the characters, and meet a bunch of new folks.

Donnelly gives us yet more complicated gender relations and related politics thereof. It’s head-spinningly confusing.  It’s not so much the relations (which are no more or less predictable than the human heart), it’s the variety of social meanings, positive and negative.  There are taboos and rules and laws and family reactions, and it all so clearly arbitrary. I assume is part of the point.

Of course, however you slice it, there is love and family, and people will go to great lengths to protect and help the ones they love—no matter how that love is defined, and no matter who does or doesn’t like it.  There is politics, and then there is taking care of your family, friends, and partner(s).  That’s definitely the important point, no?

As in book 1, there is lavish attention to the “scenery”, fantastic settings, architecture, exotic fashion, and complex cultural situations.  Donnelly obviously had fun creating this world, and she is really good at it.  (Honestly, though, I haven’t a clue about the clothing. Donnelly’s lovingly detailed descriptions are lost on me.)

The world of Amberlough has technology sort of late twenties in Europe. Much of the action takes place at a film studio, where they are making new-fangled cinematic spectaculars.  Apparently, wireless and airplanes have also appeared at least for the elite (these were noticeably not visible in book 1.)

The political situation is careening toward a messy, multi-sided civil war, and our protagonists are deeply involved in.

By the end of book 2, nothing is settled yet, so there will surely be a Book 3.


  1. Lara Elena Donnelly, Armistice, New York, TOR, 2018.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

This book has been widely acclaimed, and I can see why.  It’s a timely topic, but most important, it’s a beautiful book.

This story follows the life of two young people in a contemporary Muslim city (and there are too many cities that it could be).  Jihadist war comes to the city, and they are trapped. They eventually flee and become one of millions of refugees.

Hamid is quite restrained, but still our hearts and souls ache for Nadia and Saeed and for all the innocents caught in the war, and for all the refugees.  The creeping loss of normal life, of a home, of loved ones, of a future, and of hope is beautifully and painfully told.  We also feel the deep uncertainty of the shaky safety of a refugee camp may be destroyed at any time by governments or mobs or starvation.

Of course, people remain people, and good people help each other.  Refugee life is terrifying, disorienting, and often psychologically crushing.  But there is still life and love and hope remains alive.


But this book isn’t journalism or propaganda.  This is fantasy.

The fantasy is that even when millions are trapped by war and disaster, teleporting “doors” open.  Through a door people can instantly to another place on Earth, though the connections seem rather random.

Anyone can travel anywhere, and the result is vast flows of migrants and refugees. No one can stop the flow, though many will try to do so though violence. A horrible backlash is predictable.

This is an obvious parable for our times, which are seeing huge migrations and resistance to receiving migrants.

The migrants themselves are from all over, and travel to many destinations.  The migrant camps are full of people who have nothing in common except they are refugees from their original home, and face the same nativist forces.  It’s a difficult situation, made worse by poverty and violence.

In this fantasy, Hamid sees humanity prevail.  After knee jerk military and nativist mob reactions, peace breaks out.  Perhaps out of common decency, perhaps facing the fact that the flows cannot be stopped, the hosts turn away from massacre and instead work to build new cities for and with the new migrants.

After several transits, Nadia and Saeed end up in a huge new settlement on the Marin highlands in California. The hard but relatively safe and decent life there are such a relief, we feel a deep joy. The two not-quite-lovers part there, each to a new love and a new, better life.  There is still loss and a profound sense of separation from home and the past.  But loss is part of everyone’s life. ”We are all migrants through time.”

Oh, that today’s refugees and unwanted can reach such safe harbor!  Such a beautiful fantasy!


  1. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, New York, Riverhead Press, 2017.

 

Sunday Book Reviews