Want Not, by Jonathan Miles

Want NotWant Not by Jonathan Miles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonathan Miles wants you to think about what you waste. He does so by introducing you to Talmadge, who is scoring some day old muffins from a garbage bag. And that’s the beginning of a tender story that weaves together many lives that are coming and going in many different directions. Regardless of their efforts, all of them and, by extension, all of us, are wasted, wasteful, wasting away, and in such desperate want all at the same time.

Want Not, as mentioned, is a novel full of interlocking narratives. Talmadge and Micah live off the grid and outside the system, squatting a New York City apartment, far from their respective homes in Mississippi and East Tennessee. They live without money or power, surviving only with what they can scavenge. Dr. Elwin Cross, Jr. is a linguist who studies dead languages– a scope of waste in and of itself. And while not working, he is trying to salvage all the wasted part of of life, including his marriage, his body, a deer he just hit with his jeep, and a father who is wasting away of Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, Sara is hunting for a roasting pan leftover from her first marriage, which ended on 9/11. She has since remarried and is now wasting time, wasting attention, wasting effort, wasting money on luxury roasting pans and neglecting all her relationships while wanting for them to serve her better.

All that said, it’s a great book– heartfelt and precisely drawn and, when you least expect it, laugh out loud funny. Miles writes real people– even Micah, who could have been a caricature of any number of feminine stereotypes. The characters, wanting and wasting, are any of us and all of us, with just as much and just as little self-awareness. Their perspectives (and literary points of view) are fixed and focused and while the story is rich, none of it reads as unnecessary.

The book starts with long, loving character sketches and a great deal of commitment to the scenery, and to history. The middle of the book is a collections of set up so subtle. And the end, the last third or so of the book, hammers everything into place, with joy and sorrow and terror and utter confusion and peace. As pieces of fiction go, I am glad to have read it, and grateful.

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Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

Red Rising (Red Rising, #1)Red Rising by Pierce Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I won a mass-market paperback copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

Hey y’all. Did you like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Starship Troopers, Clash of the Titans, Ender’s Game, or Battlestar Galactica?* Would you like to read a book about all of them together?! Pierce Brown got you covered. It’s a sorting hat story, and Darrow is a special snowflake. He’s Red. But they’ll make him Gold. And… insert some thumping drums and frail, agonized Irish flute here… make… horses, explosions, floating castles… them… huge fleets of planet-destroyers, grav-boots, crazy purple-eyed weirdos in night clubs with holograms… pay. Pyrotechnics! Sequel!!!

* I reserve the right to add more references as they occur to me.

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Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just up front: I selected this book because I liked the cover– that bubble looks pregnant and ominous. Then I read the first chapter and got very hell yeah because who does not want to read a story about a vengeful swordfish using alien technology to become a giant avenging monster?! But that’s not really what the story is about. It’s just one of the few chapters Okorafor sprinkles through the story that give it body and heft and make what might be a standard sort of sci-fi adventure so much richer.

Lagoon is the story of aliens, who make contact in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. It’s a city built on islands in the sea, hence imbued with extra energy, something different and special. The ocean calls out to Adaora, Anthony, and Agu who all walk toward, and accept even with reservation, that they will be the vanguard of a new human fate. Snatched by a fist of the ocean, complete with sonic boom, they return to the surface with the ambassador of the aliens, named by Adaora, “Ayodele.” She is a shapeshifter and that’s just the start.

The story is well-paced and, though full of what you might think of as “alien invasion” tropes, not exactly predictable. Okorafor’s three main characters work together and split up several times, roping in and casting off secondary and tertiary characters whose plots enhance the main story, for the most part, although sometimes gum up the pace. She writes in English and a couple different English pidgins, which is exciting and goes a long way to helping the reader to keep track of the different threads and narrators.

There was an abrupt shift about three-quarters of the way through the book where Okorafor changed from direct character narration to a meta narration by the spirit Udide, the spider/weaver to tells all tales. After this point, the main narrative was interspersed with one-off short stories that pulled in the West African folktale pantheon, including Anansi, Legba, MamiWata, and others. It was jarring, but only because each seemed worth more than a few pages. I can only hope Okorafor develops this further in other novels. Or maybe she already has– this was my first encounter with her.

So a spoiler-free recommendation for a non-traditional sci-fi adventure, with overtones of fiction-of-science, magical realism, and large-scale mythologizing.

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All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg

All Over but the Shoutin'All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t need to like this book. Nobody needs to like this book. Rick Bragg loves himself enough for any three or four civilizations full of readers, writing page after page of bloated, purple prose about his family’s dire origins and his own, brilliant genius. I read long past when I really thought to give up to see if there was anything redeeming, anything to rate the five stars that most people seem to give this memoir cum poverty pornography. I never found it. So let me know. Why, when all I see is page after page of contemptuous irony– Bragg going on and on about his successes and his differences from his origins. He’s a brilliant star who some how made it out of the hollers and hicks and dumbfucks of Calhoun County, Alabama! Here’s another chapter on how his other brother just don’t know what he’s missin’, with his manual labor and yard full of chickens, bless him, Bragg’ll come home every few years to report on it. Please.

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The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Lady Astronaut of MarsThe Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A clever short story that takes the Oz mythos and replaces tornadoes with gantries, rockets and spaceships. The heart of the story is about the choices we make and their resulting agonies, both ecstatic and not. I would have very much liked for this to have been longer, so I’ll just hope Kowal retains enough rights to someday get Elma through the tesseract.

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Independent Now and Forever, by Chris Mitchell

Independent Now and ForeverIndependent Now and Forever by Chris Mitchell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Okay, so here’s the deal. I once had drinks with Chris Mitchell. And by “drinks” I mean he showed up three-quarters of the way through a night so debauched that the hangover didn’t hit for two days. I consider myself friendly acquaintances with his wife. And we all sorta ran in the same group back in the days when blogging wasn’t something you did for money. So, while I do not wish to give this a bad review, I’m gonna say, y’all, it’s not great.

Independent Now and Forever posits that there is a second civil war going on. Beginning in Alabama, everything north of Montgomery is evacuated, leading to something like a long, forced march to Mobile, where civilization still exists somewhat– there are vehicles, electricity and some food production but no internet. Stewart Jackson, the main character, was a programmer in Birmingham when he set out south along I-65. Now he’s a part-time mechanic and history teacher. As a teacher, he’s sick of sticking to the government’s propaganda– that the North came to force the South to have abortions and stop praying. Also, there was a thing called slavery and it was horrible, but that was the first civil war, not this civil war.

Under the pretense that he’ll be executed for treason (the North didn’t really want to force everyone to have abortions?), he’s summoned to Montogomery, where he pisses off some Foghorn Leghorn type dude and is left for dead in Prattville. He makes his way to Wetumpka, where he meets the Yellowhammers, the rogue fighters and revolutionaries who exist outside the government structure. He learns that the war was instigated and continues via drone/robot, which I imagined as a sort of lame cylon. Programmer that he is, he figures out that the SD chips that control and robots reveal their point of origin and he eventually convinces the Governor to allow him, one government agent, and one Yellowhammer to journey to Detroit, where GM was apparently converted into a “defense factory.”

Having written that precis, it seems like a good story. It was, so far as it went, a good story. But none of the motivations of the characters make much sense before about the halfway point and Mitchell seems to be wanting to make a dramatic political point, yet seems to be sticking to the current narrative about stupid southern idiots clinging to their guns and religion. Because apparently that’s enough for the federal government to plot genocide via GM? And start the whole fiasco in Huntsville? Good a place as any, I suppose.

That said, the book needed a lot of editing. I stopped noticing punctuation errors, misused words and repeated statements. I think that, with a good editor who pulled no punches, this could be a great story. As it stands, it’s a shiny nugget of something that needs a lot of refining.

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Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Dragon takes girls. He doesn’t eat them. I’m condensing, obviously, and you’ll see because you’re going to read the book. Because it’s great! But it starts out very strangely, what with the girls getting taken, but not eaten, and returned 10 years later, all wealthy and sophisticated. And the village knows that, this year, he will take Kasia. He must, for she is the most special girl. And yet, he takes Agnieszka. The Dragon is a wizard and Nieshka, is, to her utter flabbergastation, a witch.

Novik sets the scene so well, and draws the characters so thoroughly and sympathetically that each turn of the plot is new and unexpected. It’s a delightful sensation, tempered by the violence and death. The story is, generally, a fantasy on Eastern European fairy tales, with enough twist and flourish to capture the imagination while still being grounded. Novik’s world is well drawn and the story telling is subtle, so that you can fill in quite a bit of the story as you like.

Nieshka is just the right sort of heroine: she does bad things for good reasons, which generate events that overwhelm, but which she doggedly pursues, doing even more bad things for better reasons. Kasia is just as great a heroine, although Novik never quite elevates her to primary character status. And, just for the sake of saying it, The Dragon was the character that actually drew me into the story. Tall, dark, and sarcastic, he comes across like the Severus Snape of fanfiction, all brains and potions and cutting words and smoldering, unresolved sex appeal. I, ahem, maybe would have liked Novik to give me a little more there.

TL;DR: Enjoy this! It’s got wizards and evil queens and woods and werecows and magic rivers. Woo!

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Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, by Beth Hoffman

Saving CeeCee HoneycuttSaving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

CeeCee Honeycutt is in need of a good saving. But bless, she doesn’t know it. She only knows life with her crazy, manic-depressive mother in Willoughby, Ohio, in 1967, or so. Her father is a traveling salesman and her mother is a southern belle gone bananas, the Vidalia Onion Queen of 1951, now given to wandering around town, muttering to herself, wearing beat up prom dresses from the Goodwill. CeeCee’s never had a friend and if she didn’t have her books, she’d have nothing. And then her mother dies. In swoops Great Aunt Tallulah from Savannah to save the day.

Perhaps I should have put a spoiler warning there, but I promise you, every point of the book is telegraphed from the beginning and almost nothing is a surprise. I listened to this* while commuting and found myself dreaming up twists to keep it interesting. Hoffman writes like the Valedictorian of Creative Writing 303. Her language is lovely enough, but it varies not at all among the characters, so her 12 year old protagonist and her 70 year old Aunt Tootie often think and speak the exact same way– hardly something that would ring true, especially in 1967, especially for a pre-teen experiencing serious culture shock. Hoffman also goes to great lengths to write in a highly stylized way that I think is supposed to come across as genteel and thoughtful. “Down the hall she led me,” for instance. What it really sounds like is that everyone in socially elite Savannah may as well be from Dagobah.

Most of the novel is descriptive and seems to act as a vehicle for Hoffman to discuss all the things she personally loves, like historic architecture, gardening, and southern culture. It’s all sweet tea and tuberroses, sleeping porches and eccentric middle-aged women who, in the parlance of our times, do not give a shit. It’s Steel Magnolias with a 12 year old and heaps of Oprah-inspired anachronisms about “empowerment.”

Not the worst way I ever spent a week of commuting, but I won’t recommend this any time soon.

* Many props to Jenna Lamia for her many, varied, and totally non-nuanced southern accents.

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Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish

Sibling Without RivalrySibling Without Rivalry by Adele Faber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my circles, this book is pretty well gospel for those with more than one kid. Written as a piece of narrative, instructive non-fiction, Siblings Without Rivalry discusses how to deal with your kids when they fight. The goal is to be aware of their motivations, your actions and reactions, and how to set up a house where, even if everyone is not at peace with one another, then at least everyone is respectful of each other.

Faber and Mazlish preface their work with a note that this book is an outgrowth of a larger work on general parenting topics. They also take their person experiences in parenting and parent coaching and mash them into the rough story of one person with two children, leading a parenting group. The narrative style works to keep the pace up and enliven what might otherwise be a dry and impersonal instruction manual. And each chapter and topic has a section devoted to personal story telling. That is, the fictionalized members of the parenting group all tell their own stories so that you can find someone or something to identify with.

I had a few problems with the text overall. One is that it’s written according to a big reveal. That is, Faber and Mazlish use the technique whereby they tell a story, usually dramatic and heartening, and allow you to draw your own conclusions. Then they turn it on its head and act it out they way they think would best solve the problem. Then they reveal the concept behind their technique and assume that, by that time, you are so emotionally invested in the outcome that you accept it regardless of whether or not you agree with it.

And speaking of agreement, I did not come out entirely on board. I understand the purpose of describing behaviors of conflict. But there were some clashes described where I would not have been able to simply describe. Some things are right and are wrong and children must be told this. Their feelings should be honored certainly, but “my sister is stupid and I hate her” should get something a bit more authoritarian than a sympathetic nod.

Were I unfamiliar with the techniques I likely would have rated it higher. It was, however, somewhat repetitious and, as above, dramatized.

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