Summer continues, and so does the science fiction list. Here are authors M-Z who made my roster of favorites.
Alphabetical, by author’s last name:
MARLEY, LOUISE: The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.
RUSSELL, MARY DORIA: The Sparrow, Children of God. This is such an odd sci-fi duology; it’s about first contact with extraterrestrial life, but while the United Nations dithers over whether, whom, and when to send a mission to the planet near Alpha Centauri from which has emerged music denoting civilization, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits of the Catholic Church) quietly puts together a group of eight and sends them off as “missionaries” to the planet Rakhat and its inhabitants.
The story is told from the point of view of Father Emilio Sandoz, who must return from the trip and report back to a tribunal of Jesuits about the fate of the woefully ill-fated group. The book is couched in religious terms, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a religious book; rather, it goes into the complexities of moral behavior and deals with the sometimes devastating knowledge (to the people at the forefront of this contact) that there will be misunderstandings, contradictions, comedy, tragedy, and everything in between if humans go into this interaction expecting “the others” to think and behave as they themselves do.
It’s almost more about anthropology with its concepts of culture and race and behavior. The characters are compelling, the language is mesmerizing, and Russell knows how to create suspense as well as pathos. The story won’t be for everyone—ratings on Goodreads tend to extremes, either five stars or one. But no one can claim it’s not interesting.
SCALZI, JOHN: Various works. John Scalzi has a variety of long series (Old Man’s War, The Human Division, The End of All Things). I have read the entire Old Man’s War series, of which I loved the first few and liked the rest well enough. But my favorites of his are a couple of stand-alones and a trilogy.
The trilogy begins with Lock In, which is a nifty combination of science fiction, murder mystery, and police procedural. A highly contagious virus ravages the world (sound familiar?), and most people experience it as just a mild flu, but for one percent of the population the virus is devastating—it causes “lock in,” wherein the patient is fully awake and aware inside his or her head but unable to respond physically in any way. Technology presents a solution: A method is evolved whereby the locked-in can transfer their consciousness into a robot and thus be mobile and vocal. There is also a less utilized but rather ominous practice whereby the patient can “ride” in another person’s consciousness—the “integrator” is submerged, and the locked-in person dominates the body. You can imagine the implications for solving crime: Who, exactly, was in charge of the person OR the robot when the crime was committed? Rookie FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner, veteran Leslie Vann, are tasked to find out.
The two stand-alones are Red Shirts, whose significance you will instantly comprehend if you are a Star Trek fan (and otherwise don’t bother), and The Android’s Dream. Of the latter, this was my response upon completing the book:
“There are lots of things you can say about books—you can laud the lyrical writing, or compliment the well fleshed-out characters, you can cite the lightning-fast excitement of the pacing—but I would like to pay this book an ultimate compliment: It was one of the most sheerly entertaining books I have ever read. The turn of every page, the beginning of each chapter, led to a more improbable, more hilarious, more ominous, more engaging next one, and it didn’t falter once, beginning to end. It had just enough science in its science fiction to keep things on an intelligent, brain-challenging level; it had just enough philosophy and politics to start you thinking about the what-ifs of human interactions when they are backgrounded by relations with more powerful (and possibly more devious) alien races; it had action, violence, a little romantic intrigue, and a pace that never let up.”
Oh, and I also quite enjoyed his book Fuzzy Nation, which is part of a series but which I read successfully and enjoyably as a stand-alone. I will have to circle back around to his other series some day!
SCHWAB, V. E.: The Villains trilogy. Victoria Schwab is an incredibly prolific 30-something author who has written four or five trilogies and a few stand-alone books, some for Young Adults and some for the rest of us. Most are more classifiable as fantasy, but her book Vicious is a sci-fi masterpiece that consistently stays in my top five. It is so perfect to me that I almost regretted finding out she was writing a sequel, and I just discovered there is to be a third book as well. I am now glad of both of them—I love the way she took the story in #2, Vengeful, and am intrigued by the hints in that book of what will be revealed in #3, Victorious. But whether or not you go on with the trilogy, do consider reading Vicious.
Victor and Eli are college roommates, both of them brilliant above the standard of everyone around them. They decide to collaborate on a research project that involves adrenaline, near-death experiences, and supernatural events, but it evolves into a science experiment, with disastrous results. Victor goes to prison, and 10 years later comes looking for Eli, who has developed his own troubling agenda during Victor’s years away. The characters challenge all your standards for heroes and villains: Victor is the bad guy you love, while Eli is the saint you abhor, and in this book superpowers don’t lead to heroism. The story is elegant, spare, with just the right amount of detail and not an ounce more or less. The fantastic characters come across fully fleshed out in only a few sentences of description. This book is masterful and mesmerizing.
TEPPER, SHERI S. Various works. Sheri Tepper is up there in my list of formidable female science fiction writers, and there is hardly a book of hers that I didn’t appreciate, although I love some much more than others. The ones I will specifically recommend:
The Family Tree: Police officer Dora Henry is investigating three murder victims, all of whom are geneticists. There is a potential civilization-ending catastrophe directly related to these crimes, and Dora is about to find out that her fate is directly entwined with the survival of humankind, with a solution that will reach out to her from a far distant future. Both profound and comical, this is a great book to trigger a rousing discussion of our ecological future.
The Gate to Women’s Country has been dismissed by some as exclusionary second-wave feminism. I prefer to view it as an exciting story with an exaggerated but still valid message. Its subject is the way gender roles have been fixed and cemented for millennia, and where the power should really lie in the battle of the sexes; it portrays a society peculiarly evolved to keep humanity from ever suffering a second wave of nuclear destruction. It is post-apocalyptic, dystopian, and memorable.
The Fresco: Benita Alvarez-Shipton is having a difficult time in her personal life when she is approached in the desert by some aliens asking her to speak on their behalf to the Powers That Be in Washington. She agrees, but then finds herself the sole liaison between the two sentient races, as the Pistach offer the humans a spectacular opportunity for knowledge and enrichment, which the humans typically want to dither and argue about until it’s too late…. This book is both philosophical and hysterical, and I reread it every once in a while just for the fun of it.
The Companions: This is real science fiction—layered, intricate, analytical, examining moral, racial, social, global, galactic issues, all within the context of a story. It deals with humans’ seemingly innate inability to refrain from destroying their own environment, and what happens when other intelligent life decides to stand up for itself. A fascinating read.
JOAN D. VINGE has been a notable contributor to many science fiction anthologies, and has also written some Star Wars novels, but her two original series should be a fan’s focus. The first takes place on the planet Tiamat, beginning with The Snow Queen, which initially reads more like fantasy than science fiction. This is a purposeful choice, however, because the story is told from the perspective of the Summer “primitive,” Moon, a sibyl for her tribe. The bigger story is that Tiamat is a central stargate that has been ruled during its Winter period by a ruthlessly ambitious and fabulously wealthy queen Arienrhod. The planet is not only essential for interstellar travel but is also a secret source of the empire’s wealth and power. But the planet has 150-year cycles, and the galactic stargate to the planet is about to close, isolating Tiamat and putting its rule in the hands of the Summers…. There are three more books, all good, but the first is exceptional.
Vinge’s other fun series is framed as Young Adult, but can be enjoyed by anyone. It features a half-human, half-alien orphan telepath named Cat, an outsider whose only hope is to work for an interstellar government that he fears and mistrusts. There are three books in the series: Psion, Catspaw, and Dreamfall.
I have to mention the formidable JO WALTON, whose books I only discovered a few years back, and whose style and subject matter are as various as they are brilliant. She is not an author that everyone will appreciate, but her audacious creativity is compelling. Her trilogy, Thessaly, begins with The Just City, created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene. The goddess is enamored of the writings of Plato, and decides to create a planned community of 10,000 children, overseen by a few hundred adult teachers plucked from all parts of history (past, present and future); the goal is for the adults to use the teachings of Plato to lead the children to become their best selves. Athene puts the commune on a Mediterranean island in the distant past that will, in its future, be destroyed by a volcano, ensuring the eventual obliteration of her experiment. The god Apollo decides to live a human life, coming to the city as one of its children. Things progress for a few years, and then Athene has the bright (?) idea of pulling Sokrates himself out of time and setting his inquiring mind to work in the City that follows his own pupil’s instruction. The result is intriguing, frustrating, exciting, laughable, and also deadly serious for the fate of the experiment. The story is continued in The Philosopher Kings, and concluded in Necessity.
CONNIE WILLIS: Time travel and other stuff. Connie Willis has written some amazing novels, but my favorites among them are her loosely connected series of time travel books. The first is Doomsday Book, in which the Oxford history department has invented a method of time travel and is sending graduate students, appropriately prepped, accessorized, and clothed, back in time for short periods to study the actual events. Kivrin is sent back to the 1300s to do some research on medieval times, but two things go wrong: The first is that she ends up someplace (well, someTIME) different than she was supposed to, and the second is that there is immediately a flu pandemic in present-day Oxford that prevents anyone from discovering the mistake about where/when she was sent for quite awhile, leaving her to her own inadequate devices.
Willis’s second foray into time travel, although still controlled and initiated by the Oxford history department, takes place quite a few years later, when the perils of time travel are more well known and better appreciated, and To Say Nothing of the Dog is also as silly as The Doomsday Book was serious. Only Connie Willis could combine time travel with a French farce in Victorian England, throw in a couple of mysteries to solve, and pull it off.
I found her other two time travel tomes less satisfying: Blackout and All Clear have a World War II setting as their objective, but someone decided that Willis didn’t need an editor, resulting in one mammoth book of more than 1100 pages being split down the middle into two separate books despite the fact that it’s one connected story, presumably both to make it a more manageable size and also to stimulate extra sales for all those who wanted to read the rest of it! I enjoyed it, but the characters’ circular agonizing over whether they’ve irreparably screwed up the historical timeline becomes tedious, and I wished in vain for someone to come along and judiciously trim about 400 pages from its content to make it a better tale.
Other non-time-travel books of hers I have enjoyed are Passage and Crosstalk.
Last but not least, let me mention a fun and thought-producing book by GABRIELLE ZEVIN, called Elsewhere. It’s intended for teens and I read it with my high school book club, but I think anyone could enjoy the premise and the execution. Liz Hall is a 15-year-old girl who has just died as the result of a hit-and-run accident. She wakes up, quite confused, on a cruise ship that takes her to a place called Elsewhere, which turns out to be the afterlife. In Elsewhere, everyone ages backwards until they become infants who are sent down a flume to Earth and rebirth. But Liz is outraged by this fate: She wants to get her driver’s license, go to prom, and grow boobs, for goodness’ sake, not get younger; and living with a grandmother she never met and doesn’t particularly like is equally unacceptable. Watch as Liz attempts to come to terms with this unexpected outcome.
That’s the end (for now) of my science fiction picks to entertain you for the rest of this long, hot summer. I hope you find something (or things) that fulfills your curiosity about our collective or individual futures!
Sorry for the seeming stretch of inattention to this blog. I usually try to post at least once a week, and preferably two or three times, but there are occasions on which I can’t, for various reasons. One of the most distressing is when I get into a book slump—either the book I read isn’t deserving of a review, or it is, but I found it so offputting that I don’t want to give it the attention. Both of those happened to me during the past 10 days. First I read the sequel to a book I had reviewed here, and it was so much the same as the first and had so insignificant an impact that I decided not to talk about it. Then I picked up a book that had good language and description and all the elements of a gripping suspense story, but the contents were so unrealistic, melodramatic, and deeply disturbing that I chose not to give it the attention of a review, since I couldn’t recommend it but didn’t want to trash it. After that I started reading a book that had come highly recommended, but I couldn’t shake off the effects of the previous read to give it proper attention, so I put it aside and picked up something escapist (a Dick Francis mystery) to cleanse my palate.
Now I’m reading something that I will definitely want to highlight; but since it is the first book in a trilogy, I don’t know if I’ll want to do that after reading just one or wait for the impact of the entire series. So I’m writing this to say: I’m still here, I’m still reading, and I’ll be back in a short while with something to talk about!
A reminder for those who not only enjoy reading but also like talking about it and seeing other people do it: Please visit The Book Adept’s shop, to purchase book- and reading-related images on various products, including prints, cards, and postcards, T-shirts, mugs, and more! While you are there, also check out all the non-reading-related art. The link is: https://www.redbubble.com/people/meligelliott/shop
Here are some of the images on offer:
In addition to being an avid reader and an instructor of readers’ advisory, the Book Adept (that’s me) is also a watercolorist and mixed media artist.
I have just opened an online shop through Redbubble, and included among the collections of artwork I am making available there is a wide array of reading-oriented things—art prints, cards and postcards, and also an occasional fun thing like a T-shirt, a clock, a spiral-bound journal, a coffee mug, even masks to keep you safe from Covid-19! So please, if you like stuff about reading as much as you like to read, go check out my new products!
The shop is here: https://tinyurl.com/yyaoyprg
Of course, you should also feel free to peruse the other collections you find there! Gardening, cooking, tea time, birds, politics…art for everyone!
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
Yes, indeed they are, in California. Unrelentingly hot and humid, not to mention smoky…
So many idioms, positive and negative, in our eclectic language, relating to dogs!
“Going to the dogs.”
“Sick as a dog.”
“Let sleeping dogs lie.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
(and its opposite) “There’s life in the old dog yet.”
“Dog in a manger.”
“A dog-eat-dog world.”
They go on and on. But the one appropriate to this blog post is:
Every dog will have its day.
Why? Because it’s National Dog Day!
In celebration of that, you could read and enjoy a book about a dog! There are many from which to choose, encompassing the preferences of all ages and popping up in all genres. Here are a few suggestions…
Just Life, by Neil Abramson
Here is my review: https://bookadept.com/2020/02/04/empathy/
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
On the eve of his death, Enzo, a terrier/lab mutt, reflects back on his life. A philosophical dog, Enzo believes that he will be reincarnated as a human, so he has spent much of his life closely observing his human, Denny, and the rest of his family, so that he will have a head start in his next life. Charming, sad, insightful.
Suspect, by Robert Crais
In this departure from his Elvis Cole series by this popular mystery author, Crais examines the relationship between two broken cops, one a person, the other a dog. Scott is an LAPD cop with PTSD, trying to recover from a violent assault in which his partner, Stephanie, was murdered. Maggie is a sniffer dog, formerly with the Marines, who lost her handler to an IED and is equally traumatized. Eight months later, the two are paired as Scott tries out for the K9 unit as a way to stay on the job. [mystery]
The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams
This is a tough one to read, heart-wrenching and tragic in parts, but so beautifully written. It’s the story of two dogs who escape from the horrors of a medical testing laboratory, and attempt to learn to live in the wilderness with the help of a fox named Tod, after the lab puts out a public alert that these dogs may be carrying bubonic plague. Find out what happens to Snitter and Rowf.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
A young mute boy and his family happily live and work on their Wisconsin farm that they have turned into a dog-breeding kennel. Then the incursion of an ill-intentioned relative and a personal tragedy send the boy running away into the Wisconsin backwoods with three loyal dogs he helped raise. This seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate…which will you be?
Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo
India Opal Buloni, 10, is sent to the market (the Winn-Dixie, a southern supermarket chain) by her father, the preacher, for two tomatoes, a box of macaroni and cheese, and a bag of white rice. She comes back with a dog. The inadvertent acquisition of Winn-Dixie (the name she gives the dog in a moment of panic when she claims him for her own) helps Opal befriend a quirky group of locals, and also to deal with the loss of her mother, who left when Opal was three. A Newbery Honor Book. [children’s fiction]
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck
In September of 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a road trip in his pickup truck, Rocinante, accompanied by his distinguished French poodle, Charley. It was a quest to reacquaint himself with the flavor of the country’s identity. Given the decade in which this autobiographical work was written and lived, the identity (at least in the southern portion of the trip) was tumultuous. But it’s also a thoughtful firsthand account of the beauty of the country and the character of its varied people.
Travels with Casey, by Benoit Denizet-Lewis
America has the highest rate of dog ownership in the world. Denizet-Lewis, secretly insecure that his dog, Casey, didn’t like him, decided to explore both his personal relationship with his own dog and the relationships of other Americans with theirs by taking a four-month, 32-state, 13,000 mile trip in a rented motor home, interviewing dogs and their owners in every setting and profession. This Steinbeck-lite journey is entertaining and often hilarious.
Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty
A poet celebrates the 16 years he shared with his two beloved dogs, Arden and Beau, during a period of devastating personal and human tragedy. Beautiful and sad.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean
Allegedly found in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel in France during World War I, then brought to Los Angeles by Lee Duncan, the soldier who found and trained him, by 1927 Rin Tin Tin had become a Hollywood star. Orlean researched both the dog and the legend; her book spans 90 years and explores both dogs and Hollywood.
The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare
A scientific study of how dogs think (and their genius at getting along with people). What motivates your dog, and how much has he learned through cohabitation with you? “Dognition” has some surprising aspects!
The Trouble with Poetry, and Other Poems, by Billy Collins
Not all of the poems in this book are about dogs, but the ones that are…are not to be missed.
Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver
“But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also the good attachments of that origin that we keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.”
Please note that this list is not necessarily “the best” (who decides that, anyway?) and by no means complete; it is an eclectic sampling of all sorts of books about dogs, from every viewpoint (including their own), but there are hundreds more. Just Google “best books about dogs” or search for lists on Goodreads and you’ll see what I mean!
If your inclination on National Dog Day is to go beyond the act of reading a book, here are some other ideas:
- Adopt a dog
- If you can’t adopt, volunteer at a dog shelter or rescue organization
- If you can’t volunteer, donate to one
- If you’re broke, you can still give old towels and blankets
- Help out an ill or elderly neighbor by walking his or her dog
- On a lighter note, have a party for your dog, or go for a long walk in a new place
If nothing else, greet the dogs you meet along the way today with a hearty “Happy Dog Day!”
What? You say you’re a cat person? Then here’s a final read…
Dog vs. Cat, by Chris Gall
Bringing closure (not really) to history’s greatest battle…
As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.
But how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.
Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.
As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?
Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.
The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.
So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.
I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!