Monday, January 17, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Black Rain Falling (DC Digger, #2) by Jacob Ross

Black Rain Falling is the sequel to The Bone Readers, the first two in what is apparently designed to be four novels collectively called the Camaho Quartet. These books were written by Jacob Ross, a Grenadian-born, award-winning author and poet who lives in Britain. They are police procedural novels, crime thrillers set on an island called Camaho (which is clearly a thinly disguised version of Grenada) featuring two psychologically wounded and ethically complicated detective protagonists in Detective Constables Michael "Digger" Digson and Kathleen Stanislaus and a host of colorful supporting characters and criminals.

The Bone Readers was memorable for its immersive depiction of island life while unspooling a captivating, suspenseful story and introducing the reader to DC Digger and DC Stanislaus (who is invariably referred to as "Miss Stanislaus" in the text). In Black Rain Falling, the stakes are higher for our main characters as Miss Stanislaus fatally shoots in self defense a known criminal (who was also responsible for her traumatic sexual assault when she was a teenager) and Digger’s frenemy/boss/rival Malan Greaves uses this incident to make his move to advance his career while crippling Digger’s and Stanislaus’ by dissolving the special criminal justice investigative unit that all three of them worked at by having them all transferred to a new police station where he gets a promotion and Digger's enemies get easier access to him.

However, the central mystery in Black Rain Falling is about how the international drug trade is bringing increased crime that is beginning to impact life on Camaho and neighboring islands. For example, there is a shockingly violent killing, an abundance of “hush money” and an incredibly powerful speedboat that can be used to ferry drugs between multiple islands. Digger and Stanislaus are trying to puzzle out the connections between these pieces before the corrupt powers that be strip them of their ability to do anything about it. 

By the end of the book both Digger and Stanislaus, who have complicated and ambivalent relationships with their fathers will need to rely on familial connections in order to persevere and ultimately succeed.

As with the first book, the reader can come for the compelling characters and thrilling plot but what really sets these mysteries apart from others in the genre is 1) Digger and Stanislaus’ chemistry and teamwork; 2) the verisimilitude of the depiction of the island setting of Camaho (Grenada) and 3) Ross' lyrical writing; the author is an award-winning poet and it shows in the quality of the prose.

Overall, Black Rain Falling is another excellent police procedural written by Jacob Ross, set in the Caribbean with two compelling characters in DC Digger and Miss Stanislaus whom I hope to spend a lot more time with in future installments of the Camaho Quarter.

Title: Black Rain Falling.
Jacob Ross.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 432 pages.
Publisher: Mullholland Books.
Date Published: March 5, 2020.
Date Read: December 30, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Friday, January 07, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Filthy Animals is a collection of short stories by Brandon Taylor, the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Real LifeReal Life is about a Black, gay graduate student in a STEM discipline navigating his personal and professional life in a predominantly white, midwestern University town. Taylor drew upon his own experience as a graduate student in biochemistry at University of Wisconsin at Madison to provide a disturbingly real depiction of what it looks like to be “the only one” in multiple different settings that revolve around academia. As someone who has been in similar situations for nearly 35 years (gulp!) to say I resonated with multiple aspects of the novel is to put it much too mildly.

Filthy Animals is both a very similar and a very different book than Real Life. Firstly, it is a collection of loosely connected short stories instead of a novel. Also, both works are centered around the experiences of outsiders in familiar (at least to me, as a professor and dean) academic settings. However, in Filthy Animals the characters in each story change. The short collection (278 pages) consists of 11 stories; five of which (“Potluck,” “Flesh,” “Proctoring.” “Apartment,” and “Meat”) feature three recurring characters I would gladly read an entire book about. They are Charles, a white, muscular, apparently bisexual, twenty-something dancer; Lionel, a Black, gay, mathematics graduate student who struggles with mental health and self-harm ideations; and Sophie, a ethnically ambiguous, highly talented dancer who is in an open relationship with Charles. The stories where Sophie, Charles and Lionel appear are the most compelling in the collection as their foibles get revealed while they interact with each other in surprising ways.

The one-off stories have their own appeal as well. Taylor is almost always presenting characters who demonstrate the different ways one can be isolated or marginalized in society. In several of the stories the protagonist is damaged, injured or sick in some way. (They are often, but not always, gay.) For example, the titular story “Filthy Animals” is a rather disturbing tale about a somewhat feral group of teenage boys who apparently have nothing better to do than accost each other, using sex, violence and sexual violence as a means to relate to one another.

Overall, I think I was less engaged with Filthy Animals than with Real Life so I hope that Taylor returns to novel writing soon. This is not to say that one of the books is objectively “better” than the other. That said, I am glad to see someone with experiences and identities so similar to mine producing such well-received writing. I look forward to reading more of it.

Title: Filthy Animals.
Brandon Taylor.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 288 pages.
Publisher: Riverhead Books.
Date Published: June 22, 2021.
Date Read: December 27, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, December 23, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

Far From The Light of Heaven is my first Tade Thompson book. Thompson is a Nigerian-British author best known for the Wormwood Trilogy featuring the books Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, and The Rosewater Redemption. He won the Arthur C. Clarke award for Rosewater in 2019. This series is set in Nigeria in 2066 and is often referred to as part of the Afrofuturism movement.  I have only read a few Afrofuturism books (Lagoon by Nnedi Okrafor comes to mind) but so far I haven’t been that impressed (although I am a big fan of N.K. Jemisin's award-winning Broken Earth trilogy). The description of Rosewater as genre mashup of “Africanfuturism, cyberpunk, biopunk, Afropunk, zombie-shocker, [and] love story” is not appealing to me so I haven’t read it yet, although I do typically like genre mash-ups (like the apocalyptic police procedural The Last Policeman by Ben Winters). However, Far From The Light of Heaven piqued my interest when I saw the official summary for the book:

The colony ship Ragtime docks in the Lagos system, having traveled light-years to bring one thousand sleeping souls to a new home among the stars. But when first mate Michelle Campion rouses, she discovers some of the sleepers will never wake.

Answering Campion’s distress call, investigator Rasheed Fin is tasked with finding out who is responsible for these deaths. Soon a sinister mystery unfolds aboard the gigantic vessel, one that will have repercussions for the entire system—from the scheming politicians of Lagos station, to the colony planet Bloodroot, to other far-flung systems, and indeed to Earth itself.

From this we can tell that there are two primary protagonists in the story, Rasheed and Michelle (Shell). We are introduced to Shell first, meeting her on Earth even before she boards the Ragtime as first mate. Surprisingly, even though we meet Rasheed last, I identified with him more than her.

Their motivations for why they act the way they do in response to the extraordinary series of events that befall them on Ragtime are very different from each other. Shell is responsible for the welfare of the one thousand passengers in suspended animation and is shattered that 31 of them have been dismembered on her watch (even though it happened while she was sleeping for 10 years like all the other humans on the spaceship). But (somewhat bizarrely, I think) she insists on maintaining her exercise and sleep schedule while the ship (especially the A.I. which is the actual captain of Ragtime) becomes more and more erratic. In the end, I didn’t really connect with Shell or empathize with her. Rasheed on the other hand we are introduced to with the context that he has a problematic incident in his past that involves an on-duty killing of an alien. He's the assigned investigator to the incident on the ship and he’s single mindedly focused on discovering who committed the murders (even when paying more attention to surviving his time on Ragtime becomes more and more urgent). I was more interested in what happens to him (and his partner Salvo, a humanoid android or Artificial). 

There are other important characters in the book but I don’t want to mention them because to do so would reveal spoilers. However, I will say one strength of the book is the diversity of its characters. As a mystery-science fiction genre mashup, Far From The Light of Heaven works much better as science fiction than as mystery. We do find out who committed the crime(s) but there’s really no way we could have figured it out from the information provided to the reader.

Overall, I am glad that I read Far From The Light of Heaven although I don’t think it’s outstanding or very memorable. That’s fine, not everything has to be a barn burner or award-winning. An entertaining genre novel with a diverse cast and a vision of the far future that is centered around the existence of black people (or people of African descent) is a net good in of itself, in my view.

Title: Far From The Light of Heaven.
Tade Thompson.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 385 pages.
Publisher: Orbit.
Date Published: October 26, 2021.
Date Read: December 19, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Thursday, December 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Back Road (DCI Tom Douglas, #2) by Rachel Abbott

The Back Road is the second book by Rachel Abbott that I have read, after Only The Innocent. These are the first two books in the long-running series of police procedural, psychological thrillers starring DCI Tom Douglas. The series is up to 10 books so far and generally each entry has an average rating above 4.0 on Goodreads with 10,000+ ratings, which is quite rare (and impressive) territory for a series of genre books.

In The Back Road Tom Douglas has left his position at the Met in London and is living in a small suburb called Little Melham when word comes of a young girl who was knocked over by a car and left for dead in the middle of the night. The entire village is shocked when more information comes out that Abbie  had been abducted via online messaging prior to the automobile incident on the back road, which is a short cut that basically only locals know about. Is the culprit someone they know?

The book is primarily told from the perspective of Ellie Saunders, a married mother of two young children who had been driving on the back road to see her lover the night in question and who happens to be Tom Douglas' neighbor. Her husband is a school teacher who knew Abbie and her sister, who was visiting at the time knows something is going on with her sister's marriage but it distracted by her increasing attraction to Tom. Ellie works as a nurse and is involved in Abbie's care and tries to comfort Abbie's concerned (adoptive)  parents.

I don't know if two data points makes a trend but in the two books I have read featuring DCI Tom Douglas female characters have been at the center of the mystery, often prime suspects or at the very least persons of interest with either motive, opportunity or means to commit the crime(s) in question. Also, the mental and emotional states of the women in the books have been complex and mostly hidden from Tom but presented in first person to the reader. In Only The Innocent, more time was spent on the investigation procedures because Tom was on the job then while in The Back Road we see the  investigation proceeding from the eyes of Ellie, the suspect. (Something similar had happened in the first book as well.)

For this reason, I would definitely call both DCI Tom Douglas books I have read so far to be psychological thrillers, because a significant aspect of the text is about learning about the psychology of the main characters and how the crime affects their emotions and thoughts. We also get access to Tom's thoughts and feelings about the crimes, the investigation and the suspects s well as developments in his personal life. This is pretty typical with police procedural, investigator-driven mysteries but what I think is new/different here is the focus on the internal psychological conflict(s) of others besides the primary protagonists. And, I'm not sure that I'm a fan of this particular twist on the genre. It takes attention away from the narrative tension of the mystery itself (who did it, how will "we" figure out who did it and what will the consequences be) which usually dominates works in the mystery genre. That, and the fact that there's not very much diversity in the supporting characters in the books is definitely making me reassess my commitment to continuing this series. If I'm going to read murder-mysteries with non-genre elements I'd prefer to spend my time with stories that have female protagonists (like Jane Casey's Maeve Kerrigan, Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway, Robert Bryndza's Erika Foster and Robert Dugoni's Tracy Crosswhite) or diverse casts (like Peter James DCI Roy Grace and Sarah Hilary's Marnie Rome). That being said, I do also enjoy books with just a plain old white guy as the protagonist (like C.J. Box's Joe Pickett and William Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor).

Overall, The Back Road is an entertaining mystery novel with substantial suspense and psychological content. For those looking for a more traditional police procedural crime thriller I would suggest look elsewhere but clearly there are many people who appreciate Rachel Abbott's approach to the genre and I can see why.

Title: The Back Road.
Rachel Abbott.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 472 pages.
Publisher: Black Dot Publishing .
Date Published: March 8, 2013.
Date Read: November 19, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/A- (3.5/4.0).


Thursday, November 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Winter’s Orbit is an unusual read for me. It’s a debut novel with a story that straddles two genres: fantasy and gay male (m/m) romance. The story apparently started life with the title “The Course of Honour” on a website better known for fan fiction (Archive Of Our Own) in the original works section. Eventually Tor Books agreed to publish Everina Maxwell’s story reworked as a space opera with a queer romance (instead of the original which is apparently primarily a queer romance with some SFnal elements). I’m generally not a huge fan of romance, but I am gay, and gay male romance is something I very rarely choose (mostly because I think it will be cheesy). That said, I was completely devastated by the m/m romantic themes in Madeline Miller’s A Song for Achilles when I read it earlier this year. Plus it’s also rare for a book in one genre to overlap with another, so a m/m romantic space opera is very rare, like finding a Black, gay mathematician (oh, wait…).

Winter’s Orbit has received significant acclaim for its insightful writing and emotional resonance. The central plot revolves around the tried-and-true romance trope of the “fake-dating scenario.” This is when the two protagonists have to demonstrate for external stakeholders that they are a romantic couple when in reality they are complete strangers to each other. Of course, the two strangers get to know each other better as they spend copious amounts of time together in order to bolster the verisimilitude of their fake relationship and (inevitably) romantic sparks fly in reality. It’s another iteration of “Love Conquers All.”

In Winter’s Orbit the main characters are Kiem and Jainan. Kiem is a grandson of the Emperor and has the title of Prince. Jainan was married to Kiem’s cousin Taam, another Prince. The Jainan-Taam marriage also served the diplomatic purpose of uniting the two worlds of Iskaat and Thea, respectively. However, when Prince Taam is killed (which may or may not have been an accident) the Emperor asks (read: commands) Kiem to marry Jainan in order to maintain the appearance of good positive relations between Iskaat and Thea. This is important because the decennial review of the treaty that Iskaat has with a galactic superpower called The Resolution that provides interstellar communication, trade and travel is upcoming and political stability and domestic tranquility are factors the Resolution will consider during the treaty review process.

The emotional resonance of Winter's Orbit is primarily provided by the clash of personalities of the two main characters. Kiem is a fun-loving, n'e'r-do-well who was one of the more scandal-prone members of the extended royal family. Jainan is a very studious (he has an Engineering doctorate) foreigner to Iskat from Thea who takes duty and fidelity very seriously. They are both hunky but don't think the other will find them attractive. (Kiem because he thinks Jainan is too smart and serious, and Jainan because he knows from the celebrity  rags that Kiem has had LOTS of prior short-term relationships with others guys). Seeing the two reconcile with their arranged marriage and working through the misconceptions they have with each other and learning from (and getting over) their pasts is one of the central plots of the book.

Structurally, the author provides access to the inner thoughts of both primary characters (Kiem and Jainan), which primarily allows the reader to see what the two think about each other. That’s how we the reader knows that each of them is misinterpreting the words and (in)actions of the other. Because both Jainan and Kiem are essentially public figures, their marriage is first and foremost a diplomatic act, and is made available for public consumption. But of course this makes any private moments more fraught between the two.

In addition to the romantic plot, another key feature of the book is the political intrigue storyline. Both Kiem and Jainan represent their individual nations in their diplomatic and marital union, and they are pressured by representatives from their countrymen to demonstrate their loyalty in different ways. These political concerns play a role in what and how decisions are made, especially by the Emperor and the partisans from Thea and Iskaat.

One aspect of Winter’s Orbit that I really appreciated was the complete absence of homophobia. There’s never any stigma or questions about the fact that the royal marriage is between two men. This is extremely refreshing; it’s lovely to read a book where one’s existence and/or worldview as a gay man is not up for debate.

Overall, although I liked Winter’s Orbit and I enjoyed the same-sex romance storyline, as a space opera I was underwhelmed. In my opinion, the science fiction element of the book was under-developed. The good news is that even though the story in Winter’s Orbit is very self-contained, there are enough loose ends that a sequel would be reasonable. I would be interested in reading a sequel, which in some sense means that even though my overall reaction to Winter’s Orbit is muted, the book was a success since in the end I am open to reading more.

Title: Winter's Orbit.
Everina Maxwell.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published:  February  2, 2021.
Date Read: October 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, November 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

I have been hearing about China Mountain Zhang on Goodreads for so long that I finally decided to break down and read it. China Mountain Zhang is famous for being the debut novel of Maureen McHugh that was nominated for many of the most prestigious awards in speculative fiction: the 1992 Hugo Award, the 1993 Nebula award, the Locus Award for Best First Novel (1993), the James Tiptree, Jr. Award(1993), and the Lambda Literary Award (1993) and winning several of them (Tiptree, Locus and Lambda).

China Mountain Zhang is also well-known for its unusual structure: it is a mosaic novel, i.e. a collection of intertwined stories, all set in a 22nd century United States (and world) dominated by China, and featuring a character named Zhang Zhong Shan, which contains two of the most famous names in the Chinese language, akin to being called George Washington Jones. It so happens that Zhang, the title character, is a guy with multiple secrets. He’s a closeted gay man in a culture rife with state-sanctioned deadly homophobia. Even though he appears to be ABC (American-Born Chinese), in actuality he has a Latino father, his mother named him Rafael and (illegally) provided him with spliced genes that give him his Asian appearance that aligns with his public identity as Zhang.

The reader learns about the world of the twenty-second century through cleverly curated details provided in the stories. For example, we know that the United States is no longer a capitalist democracy because Zhang has to go to a special government office to obtain a new job when he loses (or leaves) the first job we see him have in an early chapter. (This indicates that even in New York City there appears to be a planned economy.) Socially and culturally, China appears to be the zenith of society in the book, and going to China is what most people we meet in the stories aspire to do.

Eventually Zhang goes to spend a difficult 18 months near the North Pole in order to get credit that he can use to finance an education in China that will provide him with engineering and architectural credentials that will allow him much more job flexibility and earning potential in the future. (There are multiple references to communism and Mao Zedong but individual ownership of property does not seem to be outlawed in the United States, although collectives appear to be popular and socially favored.) In my opinion, Zhang is the most important (and frequently appearing) character in the book and his stories are the best passages; it makes sense that he’s the title character.

Overall, although I’m glad that I have finally read China Mountain Zhang, I was not really that impressed with it. Having an openly gay character in 1992 (was and) is definitely ahead of its time, but being unable to realize that societal homophobia (even in a world dominated by Chinese culture) might have abated was not a possible future the author envisioned. So my overall takeaway from the book is that it produces a vision of a downbeat, if not dystopian, future. Of course, not all books need to be upbeat but my hope is that in most books I read the story will be engrossing or engaging to the reader in multiple ways, either in wanting to know how the story ends (here since the book is a mosaic there is no “plot” per se, so this is not a factor) or depicting characters or the setting in a way that cause a visceral connection with the reader (neither really worked for me here although I was curious about how exactly China came to dominate the United States but that story is not fully given). So in the end I view China Mountain Zhang as a creative but not compelling read; it’s suitable for sci-fi completists but probably not for casual aficionados of the genre.

Title: China Mountain Zhang.
Maureen McHugh.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 321 pages.
Publisher: Orb Books.
Date Published:  April 15, 1997 (March 1992).
Date Read: October 17, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Thursday, November 04, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is a classic work of science fiction written by Daniel Keyes published originally as a short story in 1958 and a novel in 1966 that was adapted into the award-winning 1968 movie Charly starring Cliff Robertson. Both the book and the movie are known as tearjerkers because of the sympathetic nature of the depiction of the main character, Charlie Gordon, who is a mentally challenged 32-year-old man (with an IQ of 68) who participates in a radical experiment that results in a large and rapid, but temporary, increase in Charlie’s intelligence. The titular character of Algernon is a laboratory rat who undergoes the experimental treatment first and who Charlie closely identifies with, especially since he eventually realizes that the trajectory of his intellectual life is going to follow Algernon’s.

The story in Flowers for Algernon is told as a series of vignettes, described as progress reports written by Charlie. Keyes cleverly uses the text of the reports (grammar, word choice, spelling) to demonstrate to the reader how Charlie’s intelligence changes as the book progresses. In the early parts of the book, the reports are riddled with errors and have a very simplistic voice, reflecting Charlie’s diffident and oblivious personality. After the procedure, as Charlie’s IQ soars by over 100 points, the writing in the progress reports becomes more sophisticated and the voice is more confident as Charlie begins to understand the world around him.

Although many things change as Charlie’s status changes from dunce to genius, some things remain the same. In the beginning, Charlie clearly has difficulty determining the motives of people and is easily tricked. In some sense, ignorance is bliss; he thinks his coworkers at the bakery he does deliveries for are his friends, when really they play cruel tricks on him that he doesn’t even understand are happening. After the experiment, Charlie still misinterprets (or imposes his own interpretation for) the reasons Dr. Jason Strauss and Professor Harold Neymar are pursuing this research. Charlie has feelings for Alice Kinnian, his teacher at the Beekman Center for Retarded Adults, before and after the procedure. In both phases he doesn’t know how to articulate or express his views to her. When he becomes “smart” he doesn’t realize that his intelligence is intimidating Alice and he’s unaware of how self-centered his behavior around her is. Despite this, she still agrees to a romantic relationship with him but he’s unable to go through with it.

One of the more interesting aspects of Flowers for Algernon is it’s setting in New York in the early 1960s. The reader gets to see a slice of how New Yorkers lived at the time. Keyes also depicts the conservative social mores of the time in Charlie’s social interactions between many of the important people in his life, such as his employer, Mr. Donner (the bakery owner); Alice Kinnian, his teacher and love interest; Fay Lillman, his neighbor, friend and eventual lover.

Overall, Flowers for Algernon is a tragedy and a cautionary tale whose moral is “be careful what you wish for.” In the beginning, Charlie most heartfelt wish is “to become smart” because he think it would repair the relationship between himself and his mother, who abandoned him to the Beekman Center once his younger sister grows old enough to be jealous of (and shamed by) a big brother who is older in age but younger in intellectual development. He also has absorbed the societal value that “smarter is better” and thus wants to be smarter and better. But as Charlie’s intellectual prowess grows he becomes more and more obnoxious to be around and his interpersonal relationships all suffer. His conceptual capacity grows enormously (he can read and speak multiple languages and he understands at expert levels many different unrelated subjects) his emotional capacity seems to diminish. He’s contemptuous of college professors (and students) for their interest in (and inability to focus on more than) one intellectual discipline at a time. Eventually he breaks with the people who conducted the experiment, annoyed by their treatment of him as a source of study instead of as a contributing partner. The tragedy is that it’s Charlie himself who figures out that the extraordinary increase in intelligence is actually temporary and that he will eventually lose all the gains and be back where he started from. That he knows it’s going to happen and that it does is absolutely devastating for the reader to watch. All of the milestones he achieved as a result of the experiment: writing fluent and correct prose in the progress reports, leaving his menial job at the bakery and living independently all get reversed as the story continues. And Flowers for Algernon ends with Charlie not really remembering who Algernon was, but that he was a good friend of his who he wants to honor, so he asks his friends to remember to put flowers on Algernon’s grave after Charlie is committed to a state home for the mentally incapacitated.

Title: Flowers for Algernon.
Daniel Keyes.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 219 pages.
Publisher: Mariner Books.
Date Published:  December 1, 2007 (April 1959).
Date Read: October 1, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).



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