Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Visiting Lilly, by Toni Allen

Booktrope, ISBN 9781620153994, October 2014

Detective Inspector Jake Talbot has been having a bad year. He's spent most of it investigating a truly horrendous crime. It's finally resolved, but during it, his significant other, Claire, got tired of it and him and moved out, taking not just all her own things, but gifts she'd given him. It's now nearly Christmas, always a bad time of year for him because of a past family tragedy--but worse than ever this year, because of the Lassiter case and Claire's departure.

Not wanting to take his boss's advice and take time off, Jake focuses instead on what seems to be a minor case, easily resolved: A young man unrelated to the family has been attempting to visit Lillian Charteris in her care home, over the objections of her grandchildren, Peter and Melanie Charteris.

Yet the young man, Frankie Hayward, seems quite harmless, and Peter's reaction, in particular, seems out of all proportion and entirely too personal.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Death at Chinatown (Emily Cabot Mysteries #5), by Frances McNamara

Allium Press of Chicago, ISBN 9780989053556, August 2014

It's the summer of 1896 in Chicago, and Emily Cabot is now Emily Chapman. She is married to Stephen Chapman and the mother of two young children. Her sleuthing days and her days in academia alike are over. With the amazing and heavy responsibilities of two young lives, how can she neglect them for even a moment?

Then Stephen insists that she attend a demonstration of the new, still experimental, x-ray machine at the university. He introduces her to Mary Stone and Ida Kahn, two young Chinese women who came to America to study medicine. Their medical degrees in hand, at the end of the summer they will be returning to China to open a women's hospital. Emily is unhappy when Stephen corners her into inviting them to tea, but it's only one afternoon, right?

When her old friend, Detective Whitbread, arrives to arrest Mary for the murder of an herbalist in Chinatown, the reader knows her sleuthing days are not behind her, although Emily resists the knowledge for a while longer.

This is a fascinating look at a transitional period in American society, as well as a good mystery. Mary Stone and Ida Kahn are real historical figures, though neither was accused of murder. Other figures, such as the journalist and Chinese civil rights activist Wong Chin Foo, and the Moy family and their extensive business activities, including translation services and manufacturing of documents for Chinese wanting to immigrate to the US, are also quite real, though these events are fictional.

Emily is part of a largely forgotten generation of American women. They could get excellent advanced education if their families supported it. They could even have academic careers--but were expected to withdraw from them if they married, and certainly if they became mothers. Emily is among the first generation of women to seriously challenge that expectation. Her husband Stephen is a keeper, supporting both her academic studies in sociology and criminal anthropology, and the amateur sleuthing that grew out of it.

This was a lot of fun to read. Recommended.

I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, by Chris Stringer

Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, ISBN 9780805088915, 2012 (original publication 2011)

Where does our species come from? Who were our ancestors?

These are enduring human questions, and we are piecing the answers together out of bits of bone and stone tools and recovered DNA. Chris Stringer is one of the world's leading paleoanthropologists, and one of the leading proponents of the "Out of Africa" theory, proposing a recent African origin for Homo sapiens in eastern or southern Africa, who then expanded out of Africa, replacing the archaic humans, including Neanderthals, in the rest of  Eurasia.

Lone Survivors is an examination of the major breakthroughs of the last thirty years, with new evidence and new kinds of evidence, including the advances in recovering and analyzing DNA from ancient fossils. That evidence has, in fascinating ways, both reinforced the basic "recent African origin" hypothesis, and raised serious challenges to the idea that this origin happened in one, highly localized place.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lock In, by John Scalzi (author), Wil Wheaton (narrator)

Audible Studios, August 2014

Just a few years in the future, a new disease that initially looks like a really bad bird flu variant sweeps through the world in a pandemic that puts the 1918 Spanish flu to shame. It soon reveals itself as something very new, that causes a small percentage of its survivors to experience complete loss of voluntary muscle control, while mental faculties remain unimpaired. This horrifying condition becomes known as "lock in," and the disease that causes it is called Haden's syndrome.

Twenty-five years later, Haden's patients have neural networks implanted in their brains, and can control robot "personal transports," popularly called "threeps." (For C3PO.) Alternatively, they can hire an Integrator, someone who also had Haden's but didn't progress all the way to lock in, and emerged with an altered brain structure that lets them, with the help of a neural network of their own, act as living bodies for paying Haden's clients.

Chris Shane, having spent childhood being the Haden's poster child, one of the first to use a threep, is now a rookie FBI agent, teamed with experienced agent Leslie Vann. On Chris's first real day on the job, they are called to the scene of a murder with some very unusual features. The apparent killer, found over the body, is an Integrator, Nicholas Bell. Bell says he doesn't think he did it. And if he was carrying a client at the time, maybe he didn't--but he won't say.

The problem is that the victim is also apparently an Integrator, except he has no records of any kind, which is impossible.

Shane and Vann have a very tangled mystery on their hands, and they quickly find it has potentially major political implications, as well. And that's before the attempt to kill Vann and Shane.

Scalzi has created both an excellent mystery and a convincingly complex and textured near future world. The technology has advanced, impressively in some ways, but not implausibly given where we are now and the driving force of hundreds of thousands of locked-in Haden's patients spread throughout the population. The mix of virtue and corruption in both politics and business feels real, with neither field caricatured. I do think an especially nice touch is the plausible extrapolation of changing relations between the USA and the Native American nations within our borders.

It should come as no surprise to John Scalzi's fans that he both assumes and reflects gender equality within the world of his novel. An extra reflection of this is that Chris Shane's gender is never stated--and the audiobook is available in two versions, one narrated by Wil Wheaton and the other by Amber Benson. This makes a subtle difference in the listener experience, but requires no word changes at all. Personally, I chose the Wil Wheaton version because I happen to like Wil Wheaton as a narrator, but I was really tickled by the fact that the choice exists.

Another feature of the audio edition (either one) is a bonus novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome.

And finally, because this is a John Scalzi book, and he attracts talented people and unlikely ideas, there is a Lock In theme song, though it is not included in the audio editions.

Highly recommended.

The Lock In theme song!

I bought this book.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Unexpected Stories, by Octavia E. Butler

Open Road Media, ISBN 9781497601376, June 2014

Octavia Butler was one of the leading lights of American science fiction until her early death in 2006, and one of the best-known African-American science fiction writers. The two stories in this book are early works, from the 1970s, and were previously unpublished.

One, 'Childfinder', was originally sold to Harlan Ellison for his much-anticipated, never-published anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions. It's very short, just a few pages, but reflects some of the themes Butler explored through much of her work: psi talents and the complexities of race relations. An organization of telepaths, mostly white, has formed for self-protection. Telepathy has not, unfortunately, led to universal love and happiness. On the contrary, they understand each other's resentments and hostilities all too well. Barbara, one of the few black women in the group, has broken with them, to recruit and train young black children whose talents are just beginning to manifest.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Spiral Path (Night Calls #3), by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

Book View Cafe, September 2014

Alfreda and her cousin and teacher, Marta, visit Alfreda's home for the birth of Alfreda's new sister--and during this visit, Alfreda has an alarming and exhilarating encounter with a unicorn. As exciting and rewarding as this is, Marta is furious with the unicorn; it will make Alfreda far more visible to malignant forces. She needs more protection than she can currently provide for herself, and needs to fill the gap in her education where a knowledge of ritual magic should be.

Marta arranges for her to become a student at the Windward School, in faraway New York. The head of the school, Professor Livingston, is another of Alfreda's cousins, and she, Marta, and her mother will all trade services to the school to cover the cost of her tuition. Alfreda's share of this will be teaching the beginning herbal magic class.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Neverwhere: BBC Dramatization, by Neil Gaiman (creator), Dirk Maggs (writer)

BBC Radio 4, March 2013

This is the BBC dramatization of Neil Gaiman's wonderful 1996 novel, Neverwhere.

Richard Mayhew is a rising young businessman in London, with a beautiful fiancée, Jessica, who is rising in her own field. In connection with that, Jessica needs Richard to come to dinner with her boss after work, and they're on their way, when they stumble across an injured young woman.

Richard insists on helping the young woman. Jessica is outraged that he'd ditch her dinner with the boss for no real reason. The young woman does not want to go to the hospital, so Richard takes her to his flat, while Jessica goes off to her dinner, declaring that their engagement is over.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nest, by Esther Ehrlich

Random House Children's/Wendy Lamb Books, ISBN 9780385386074, September 2014

Naomi Orenstein, a.k.a. Chirp, is eleven years old and growing up in a small town on Cape Cod in the early seventies. Her nickname comes from her love of birds; she's a devoted birdwatcher. Chirp is safe in the warm nest provided by her father and mother for her and her thirteen-year-old sister, Rachel.

And then things start to change.

Chirp's mother, Hannah, is a dancer, still dancing professionally with a small troupe on the Cape, but lately she's having trouble with one leg. When there's no improvement, a series of tests brings a shocking diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey (author), Debra Monk (narrator)

Recorded Books, ISBN 9781461839064, 2012 (original publication January 2011)

In 1920s Alaska, Jack and Mabel, in their early fifties, are homesteading, building a new life away from the reminders of grief in their native Pennsylvania. It's a tough life. Jack is making slow progress clearing fields for spring planting. Mabel is bringing in extra money by baking for the hotel in town.

But it's November. They've this summer raised barely enough food to get through the winter, if Mabel can keep selling her pies. They're both feeling the strain, and the effects of the short, dim days.

And then the first real snowfall comes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Sweetness, by Sande Boritz Berger

She Writes Press, ISBN 9781631529078, September 2014

In the years after World War One, the older Kaninsky brothers leave their home in Riga, Latvia, and emigrate to New York. Charlie and Louie, now Kane, eventually go back and persuade their sisters, Rena and Jeannette, to join them in America. Their youngest brother, Mordecai, does not. Instead, he moves his small family, and their parents, to Vilna, Lithuania. It's a fateful decision.

When the Second World War starts, the choices made are irrevocable. We follow Mira Kane, Charlie's 18-year-old daughter, and Rosha, Mordecai's eight-year-old daughter. Mira is the daughter of prosperous businessman Charlie, owner of a knitwear business, safe, secure, and dreaming of a career as a fashion designer.

Rosha is the daughter of a Jewish family in German-occupied Lithuania.