Category Archives: Fiction

Book Review: “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

I saw a profile of Sally Rooney in the New Yorker, hailing her as (a) Irish and (b) “the first great millennial novelist”.  Really?

“The Irish writer has been hailed as the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” From [2] quoting  [3]

Rooney is undoubtably Irish, though that doesn’t seem to be a particularly distinctive influence on her novel.  OK, there were lots of unexplained references places and life in the Emerald Isle, but everybody seems to live pretty much the same as other places (except for all the rain).

She is also a “millennial” by age, and this shows up in the ubiquity of digital communications, among other things.  Ten years after every young person started doing it, Rooney’s characters are emailing, phoning, and texting each other like mad.  I certainly appreciate this, after countless novels that take no notice of how people really communicate these days.

So what do these Irish millennials do?  Pretty much the same as everybody else, only with text messages.

Conversations appears to be based on Rooney’s own (young) life, so the characters reflect things she knows. Politics and student life.  Young love. Millennial kids worried about their unpromising future.

Being “millennial”, Rooney is open to rather free-wheeling experiments in and against “identity”. (The sexual and generally leftist politics caught the fancy of the The New Yorker commentators as much as the adultery.)  Also, inexplicably, everyone but the protagonist seems to be independently wealthy, and there is no explanation of how this could be.

The plot is a slice of the life of a young woman, from her point of view. Many of the crucial events are, frankly, pretty unbelievable (at least to a non-millenial, non-Irish, male). Worse, the main driving story involve unbelievably stupid behavior on the part of these supposedly really smart people.

This is as it always was, I suppose.  Kids. Tsk.

But it’s very hard to read, at least for someone who’s been around the block a few times. I kept wanting to scream, “don’t do that, you idiot”, as the protagonist dives in to poor choices, and lets her true friends walk away mad, and so on.

The “millennial” part includes ubiquitous technologically enhanced communications. We see people emailing follow ups to conversations, texting in the middle of the night, phoning at a bad time, and so on.  We also see the protagonist analyze and re-analyze messages, including a really-not-recommended download and exploration of the complete history of all the text messages she ever exchanged with her best friend. (Seriously, Do Not Do This At Home).

One of the interesting aspects of Rooney’s “conversations” is how, even with all this communication, people still don’t know things, still hide things, still misunderstand things. People are still people, blind and deaf, and sometimes so smart they are stupid. The network may connect people, but it doesn’t seem to solve the challenges of how to connect with people.

I have to say that I’m rather worried about Frances, the protagonist.  She seems determined to not only make bad choices (in my book, deceiving people who love you is never a brilliant plan), but persist in these bad courses.  I’m as romantic as the next guy, but really—get a grip, woman. This isn’t going to work out, and you know it. And there is a pretty obvious great thing that will work out if you let it, and you know it.

Is this a “great” novel? I don’t even know that that would mean.  And who cares? It’s engaging, and often troubling. That sound good to me.

  1. Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends, New York, Hogarth, 2017.
  2. Lauren Collins, Post and Riposte: Sally Rooney’s novels of love and late capitalism, in Teh New Yorker. 2019, Conde Nast: New York. p. 24-29.
  3. Alexandra Schwartz, TALK TO ME. New Yorker, 93 (22):74-76, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: Two Classics from K. W. Jeter

There is a certain fanfare for K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, published forty years ago this year.  Jeter is even more famous for coining the term “Steampunk” in 1985, which describes a Victoria clockwork fantasy genre—and a flourishing cosplay and maker culture. Jeter has downplayed the significance of the coinage, though certainly not run away from it.  There are two recent sequels (Fiendish Schemes (2011) and Grim Expectations (2017)).

(Grim Expectations is unaccountably missing from local lending libraries.  So I’ll have to do a bit of work to get a copy.)

Infernal Devices (1979) by K. W. Jeter

I don’t recall if I read Fiendish Schemes at the time.  Reading it today, it is still a really good book. It was an early example of the alternative world that is Steampunk: Victorian clockwork technology taken to different directions.  In the case of Infernal Devices, we encounter many different pre-electronic wonders, including automata, set within Victorian England.

In the case of Jeter, neither the technology nor anything else is taken completely seriously.  The story is preposterous, the characters odd and unbelievable.  It’s a lark, with a lot of slapstick, misunderstandings, and other comedy.

What Jeter does take seriously is the language.  In what I assume is intended to be a faux Victorian style, he winds out the story long hand.  It complicated and circumspect, and frankly, some parts are so veiled as to be unexplained.

It’s all very enjoyable, and strangely compelling.

I’m not a beg reader of Steampunk, but I have to say that if Jeter helped inspire others, infernal Devices certainly isn’t representative of much the followed.  It’s better and unique.

Fiendish Schemes (2011) by K. W. Jeter

Since I read the original this month, I was inspired to pick up the 2011 sequel.  Fiendish Schemes follows the style, characters, and general tone of Infernal Devices, though there are major new technologies in play. Automata have become common, but the big news is the rapid emergence of “Steam”, which is disrupting and overturning English life.  To say that the technology is over the top is hardly an exaggeration.

Whatever the intentions of the first book, the sequel appears to have some pretensions to social commentary.  For one thing, “steam” technology has a lot of parallels to the explosion of the Internet.  He also enjoys lampooning English politics from the 1980s, and the excesses of Internet era capitalism.  It’s all pretty clumsy, if you ask me.

Fortunately, it is easy enough to sit back and enjoy the action-packed slapstick and the elaborate language.

A 2011 reprint of Infernal Devices includes an essay by Jeter which offers a full throated defense of the whole Steampunk thing.  Aside from the “let people have their fun” attitude, he sees Steampunk as a reaction to the ubiquitous beige plastic boxes (and now, touchscreens) of contemporary technology.  He also makes some provocative remarks about the Victorian age being the last time that people were really human.  The former I agree with, that latter I don’t know about.

Be that as it may, these books deserve to be read for themselves, not because of any “movement”.

  1. K. W. Jeter, Fiendish Schemes, New York, Tor, 2012.
  2. K.W. Jeter, Infernal Devices, Nottingham, Angry Robot, 2011 (first published 1979).


Sunday Book Reviews

Blog Roundup 2018: Books Reviewed

A regular feature of this blog is the Sunday Book Reviews, short reviews of books I read this year.  Most of the books were new or recently published.

This year I reviews 58 fiction and 18 non-fiction books. (This doesn’t count the many articles and reports I comment on throughout the year.)

This years reading included lots of favorites including Thomas Perry, Charles Stross, Joe Ide, Donna Leon, A. Lee Martinez.

There are also some new favorites I discovered this year, including Nnedi Okorafor, Edgar Cantero, Theodora Goss, Vivan Shaw.

Some highly recommended* books:

(*This is a highly unsystematic selection—these are all definitely worth your time, though there may be others in my list below that are even better.)

Non fiction

Stamped From The Beginning  (2016)  by Ibram X. Kendi
The Fighters by C. J. Chivers
Ada’s Algorithm (2014) by James Essinger
Crash Test Girl by Kari Byron


The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017) by Theodora Goss
Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw
Circe by Madeline Miller

The Whole List

A list of all the book reviews (in no particular order…)


A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
Bonfire by Krysten Ritter
Celestial Mechanics by William Least Heat-Moon
Circe by Madeline Miller
Constance Verity Saves The World by A. Lee Martinez
Dark State by Charles Stross
Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
Good Guys by Steven Brust
Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? By N. K Jemisin
I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing by A. D. Jameson
I Only Killed Him Once by Adam Christopher
Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
Kismet by Luke Tredget
Koko Uncaged by Kieran Shea
Kudos by Rachel Cusk
Make a Nerdy Living by Alex Langley
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Noir by Christopher Moore
Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne
Open Me by Lisa Locascio
Quillifer by Walter Jon Williams
Red Waters Rising by Laura Ann Gilman
Robots Vs Fairies edited by Dominick Parisien Navah Wolfe
Sophia of Silicon Valley by Anna Yen
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
Street Freaks by Terry Brooks
Tell The Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry
The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor
The Cackle of Cthulhu edited by Alex Shvartsman
The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
The Final Frontier edited by Neil Clarke
The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley
The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross
The Man From The Diogenes Club by Kim Newman
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
The Pope of Palm Beach by Tim Dorsey
The Song of Achilles (2102) by Madeline Miller
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell
The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon
There, There by Tommy Orange
This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us by Edgar Cantero
Versailles by Yannick Hill
Who Fears Death (2011) by Nnedi Okorafor
Wrecked by Joe Ide

Non Fiction

Ada’s Algorithm (2014) by James Essinger
Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
City of Demons by Paul French
Crash Test Girl by Kari Byron
Darwin Comes To Town by Menno Schilthuizen
Failure is an Option by H. Jon Benjamin
How To Plan A Crusade by Christopher Tyerman
Nothing edited by Jeremy Webb
Ours To Hack And To Own edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider
Stamped From The Beginning (2016) by Ibram X. Kendi
The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker
The Earth is Weeping (2016) by Peter Cozzens
The Fighters by C. J. Chivers
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte
The Tangled Tree by David Quammen
The Wordy Shipmates (2018) by Sarah Vowell
Totally Random by Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub
When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?” By N. K Jemisin

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?  By N. K Jemisin

I hadn’t read much of Jemisin, but I simply couldn’t resist the title of this collection. I know you should never buy something based on the cover, but c’mon.  I couldn’t resist a snarky title like hers!  I figured that I wanted to read what she has to say, whether I liked it or not.

I liked it!

In keeping with an un planned trend here, I see a group of non-fiction books—histories of racism, patriarchy, and nerds.

Well, let’s pull all of these together in some imaginative fiction!

Waiter, I’ll have an order of antiracist, feminist, nerdy fiction, please!

Jemisin’s metacomments give us yet another full-throated endorsement of Geek Culture (a la Jameson), as well as Making a Nerdy Living (a la Langley). Jameson says that geek culture wants to create “artworks depicting the world the way it could be.”   Jemisin is certainly writing about reality, and imagining the way it could be.  She also writes about her struggles to Make A Nerdy Living.

But she also shows yet another important possibility for Geek Culture: it’s a way to imagine yourself and your culture, and to describe what we want to value in people and the world:

“How much I’ve had to fight my own internalized racism in addition to that radiating from the fiction and the business. How terrifying it’s been to realize that no one thinks my people have a future.  And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.” (p. x)

Setting aside the “inside baseball” stuff, Jemisin’s fiction stands on its own.

The stories in this collection cover a spectrum from ghost stories through SteamPunk to interstellar settlement.  There are terrible dangers and beautiful visions, love and loss.  And, of course, racism and sexism are not the default setting for these futures an alternative worlds, which makes them interesting.

One of Jamisen’s recurring themes are ordinary people, “foot soldiers”, standing up for their city and planet.  This is a classic theme, of course, and she makes it possible for us to see that this metaphorical struggle is universal, and everyone can (and must) play their part. This was always true, but so much imaginative fiction is deliberately or unconsciously written from the point of view of white-male-etc. authors, leaving out everybody else.

“What good does it do to be valuable, if nobody values you?” (“The City Born Great”. p. 22)

Jemisin gives us some unforgettable people and situations. I, for one will never forget Ghostbuster-style fight for the city, with the unnamed kid mustering all the cities forces to repel the city eater, including dropping some Hoboken on its butt (“Port Authority makes It honorary New York, m***r, you just got Jerseyed.” (P. 30)

And, as he unfogettably puts it:

“…don’t F**g bring your squamish eldritch b***t here.” (“The City Born Great”, p. 30))

Quite.  This is my new motto.  No squamish eldrich BS in my town.

So to wrap up 2018, let’s let Jemisin tie together the sweeping arc of Kendi’s and Cooney’s histories with Langley’s Nerd-onomics, and Jameson’s Geek-ology.

With a clear-eyed view of the past, and a fearless view of the future, lets be inspired to step up and fight for our homes and our humanity–together.

  1. N. K Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, New York, Orbit Books, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Clockmakers’s Daughter” by Kate Morton

The Clockmakers’s Daughter by Kate Morton

“Birchwood was one of those places in which the threads of time slacked and came unstrung.” (p. 393)

This novel plays with themes about ‘threads in time’, in this case, all connected to a lovely farm house in rural England.  Several generations of people are connected to each other via the house, though the connections are mostly not known to them.  (You could call this “fate”, or you could call it and incredibly contrived literary device.)

Oh, and there is a ghost, too.  Not that the ghost part makes the least bit of sense at all.

Over the generations, each of the characters experience love and loss, and the joy and sadness of childhood, adulthood, and death.  The people are mostly pleasant, if very self-centered.  Not much seems to matter beyond the immediate circle of friends and family.

Morton lavishes some attention to loving descriptions of the rural countryside, and the house, as well as Victorian art as made and as passed down.  It is a pretty vision (the Pre-Raphaelites made some of the prettiest visions ever), though far from contemporary life.

In that sense, this is surely escapist fiction.  The highest tech is seen in a musty old archive, and it is barely present at all.  Hardly any mobile phones, most of the conversation in person or handwritten on paper (!).  The real world is a vague shadow off stage. What is the archive about?  Who takes care of the house?  The unseen fiancée is in “banking or something”.  Even the world wars are only experienced in the form of disrupted domestic lives.

The ghost story and related mysteries are told in a complicated set of flashbacks, recollections, and narratives spanning 150 years. Unfortunately, the mysteries are pretty obvious to the reader, if not to the protagonists.  And much of the ‘mystery’ is due to just plain missing  or hidden information.  So, it’s so much a mystery as just plain lost and/or covered up.

Overall, this is a pretty well-crafted story, pleasant to read and not particularly demanding.  There are some pretty images, and some sad stories here, and a not very interesting ghost.

  1. Kate Morton, The Clockmakers’s Daughter, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Hope Never Dies” by Andrew Shaffer

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

This is tagged as “An Obama Biden Mystery”, suggesting it might be a series.  Who knows?

This is definitely a book that the world didn’t really need, so who can say how much we might need more of them.

On the other hand, the bookstores have a bunch of nostalgic Obamiana (not to mention endless reams of Hillary goop and Trump trash)  So a little light-hearted ribbing is far from the worst thing these days.

The story itself is a pretty gentle noir parody.  The never-particularly-dynamic duo, Obama-Biden, are now private citizens and find themselves investigating a mysterious death.  It’s pretty silly and has little connection with the activities of any real former presidents or vice presidents.  And that’s probably a good thing.

This is actually a pretty good-hearted joke.  Fans of Obama-Biden shouldn’t be too offended (though some will be), and detractors shouldn’t hate this story (though many probably will).

I have to say that the noir trope of the ‘old guy out of place today’ actually fits old Amtrak Joe pretty well.  The former veep always did seem to be an earnest throwback to the seventies, out of touch with today, in a harmless way.

Honestly, I was sold by the cover art, with the earnest Hope buddies on the road.  But there really isn’t enough of a joke to sustain the whole novel.  It’s about 250 pages longer than needed.  (And please—no sequels.)

  1. Andrew Shaffer, Hope Never Dies, Philadelphia, Quirk Books, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” by Hank Green

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Hank Green is a fairly prolific digital creator who I know nothing much.  (Sorry, I just don’t have time or interest for podcasts, YouTube, and so on.)  His new novel clearly draws on his experience (“write what you know”), with an interesting level of critical comment.

The story itself involves a weird series of events, apparently but enigmatically a contact from extraterrestrials.  The events are told by April May who “discovered” the remarkable thing, and publicized it via digital and mass media.

Green recounts the trajectory of April’s fame, as well as its effects on her, her loved ones, and everybody on Earth.  He offers both details of how “fame” works, and what it does to people.  And it isn’t pretty.

This is possibly the most important event in human history, contact with another civilization.  But most of the story is about us, people acting out and arguing and generally trying to figure out “what it means for me”.  This rings unfortunately true to life.

Much of the story makes little logical sense.  OK, if they are alien, we probably don’t understand how they think.  But still, much of the “communication” is in the form of mysterious puzzle solving, and the puzzles betray a deep connection to human psychology and culture.

If this process is a test for humanity, it is not clear what the point is, or how well we might have performed.   One is certain, though, we humans don’t seem to be able to learn much about the putative aliens.

But the crux of the story is April’s life, and specifically her philosophy of life and attitude toward the Remarkable Thing.  April makes a bunch of mistakes, damaging her own relationships and getting sucked into the extreme addiction to attention.  On the other hand, she also articulates a positive, collaborative view of humanity.

I kind of like April and her posse, so it is painful to watch her troubles (some of them self-induced).  Things are not really resolved by the end of the novel, and we are left hoping against hope that it will be alright.

The ending is ambiguous enough, though, and there is certainly room for a sequel.

Green is a good writer (OK—he seems to be a multifaceted “creator”), and even though I didn’t particularly identify with these characters or the situations (honestly, most of it isn’t so much “remarkable” as “unbelievable”), but I still was swept along.  From his experience he seems to have interesting insights into how collaboration works, which he portrays nicely without too much preaching.  This isn’t especially profound, but I liked it.

  1. Hank Green, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, New York, Dutton, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews