Audiobook Review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (The Themis Files, #3)



In her childhood, Rose Franklin accidentally discovered a giant metal hand buried beneath the ground outside Deadwood, South Dakota. As an adult, Dr. Rose Franklin led the team that uncovered the rest of the body parts which together form Themis: a powerful robot of mysterious alien origin. She, along with linguist Vincent, pilot Kara, and the unnamed Interviewer, protected the Earth from geopolitical conflict and alien invasion alike. Now, after nearly ten years on another world, Rose returns to find her old alliances forfeit and the planet in shambles. And she must pick up the pieces of the Earth Defense Corps as her own friends turn against each other.

I have loved The Themis Files books since day one, so it’s probably no surprise that I really and truly loved this concluding volume as well. In the first two Themis Files books, we see the discovery of a giant robot, which is in truth an alien artifact, leading to an alien invasion that threatens the survival of all humankind. Here, in Only Human, we find out how it all works out.

The previous book, Waking Gods, ends on a cliffhanger. With the immediate threat removed, Vincent, Rose, and Eva are celebrating their victory, when they suddenly realize they’re not on Earth any longer. As Only Human opens, we learn that our Earthlings have been transported to the alien home planet, which finally gets a name – Esat Ekt. And there they stay, learning the Ekt language, culture, and sense of morality, with no means of going home.

The Ekt’s principal code of morality is non-interference. They will not allow themselves to alter the course of any other species’ progress, development, or evolution. If a species is meant to go extinct, the Ekt will not interfere. And if a species, such as the human race, develops in a way that they should not have because of Ekt interference in the past, then all signs of that interference must be eliminated. Of course, the Ekt didn’t mean to commit mass murder, as they did in book #2, and here in book #3, the people of Esat Ekt are deeply embroiled in a reexamination of their non-interference policy after realizing their responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions on Earth.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, in the years following the great battle which concluded in the previous book, human interactions have changed dramatically. One of the giant robots ended up left behind, then seized as property of the United States, which then used it to rewrite the geopolitical lines of the planet. When Rose, Vincent, and Eva return almost a decade later aboard Themis, the Russians want the robot — badly — and will do just about anything to get it and its pilots under their control, in an effort to reshape the world’s balance of power.

As with the earlier books, Only Human is told via interview transcripts and journal entries, with the entries from the humans on Esat Ekt interwoven with the entries from Earth upon the gang’s arrival back on their home planet all those years later. Through these entries, we learn about life on Esat Ekt — the politics, the participatory democracy, the casual bigotry, and the way a free society can have hidden biases and injustices. Meanwhile, we see the ongoing complicated dynamics between the main characters. The highlight is the relationship between Vincent and his daughter Eva. Only 10  years old when they were whisked off to an alien planet, by the start of the action in this book Eva is a 19-year-old young woman who is strong-willed and ready to jump into action to pursue justice, never mind her own safety. Naturally, she and Vincent are on a collision course, and when their conflict finally comes to a head, it’s spectucular.

There are so many memorable characters in these books. An old favorite, Mr. Burns, returns in Only Human, and I also was really fascinated by the American-raised Russian agent Katherine, whose Americanisms and snark hide a truly terrifying ruthless streak.

The audiobook version is amazing, performed by a full cast. In fact, while I had the e-book ARC for some time before the official release date, I chose to wait until the Audible edition became available because I really wanted to experience the story in that way, as I did with the first two books. The voice actors are terrific. I love Vincent, with his French-Canadian accent and excitable nature; Rose’s calm demeanor, Mr. Burns’s humor, and — big treat here — the Ekt characters as well, speaking both a mangled sort of English as well as their own native language. My only complaint is that Eva’s accent has completely changed from the previous book, and it was weird and distracting at first. Oh well. I got over it. As a whole, the audiobook experience is a delight.

Let’s pause here to admire author Sylvain Neuvel’s fantastic use of his linguistics background to create a language for the Ekt that’s weird and alien and sounds just awesome to listen to. I loved the words and phrases, and very much enjoyed learning a yokits swear word in Ekt.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the Themis Files series. If you enjoy audiobooks, absolutely listen to these! The production is top-notch and really added to my enjoyment. But even without the audio, it’s an incredible story, so well written, full of sci-fi adventure and surprises — but even more so, full of human emotion and heart, which are what truly makes this story work.

I really do hope that the author will choose to write more in the Themis-verse… but if not, I’ll still want to read whatever he writes next.


The details:

Title: Only Human (The Themis Files, #3)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Narrator: Full cast production
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audiobook): 8 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible





Murderbot! Books 1 & 2 of Martha Wells’s amazing sci-fi adventure series.

For sci-fi lovers looking for something fresh, new, and quick, the Murderbot Diaries novellas are sure to rock your world!

Thank you, Tor Books, for the review copy of Artificial Condition!

Book #1 – All Systems Red
(144 pages, published May 17, 2017 by Tor)

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

My thoughts:

This novella is fast, fun, and engaging, with plenty of action and lots of humor to go with it. First of all, what makes this a great read is the first-person narration by Murderbot itself (or SecUnit, as the rest of the team refer to it). Murderbot, having hacked the module that forces it to blindly follow orders, really just wants to be left to its own devices — mainly so it can focus on watching all the serialized entertainment feeds that it’s downloaded.

As Murderbot and the crew of the expedition find themselves in unexpected danger from an unknown enemy, Murderbot — uncomfortably and unwillingly — ends up caring much more than it intends to about its group of humans. Its attempts to protect the humans earns it their trust and friendship, and that’s almost too weird for it to be able to deal with.

I really love the Murderbot character and the many funny moments focused on its reactions to social settings and interactions. While some of the action is a bit hard to follow, it doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s a good, well-drawn, fast-paced adventure, with ups and downs and high drama. The ending makes clear that there’s much more to come and much more to know about Murderbot, which leads us to…

Book #2 – Artificial Condition
(159 pages, published May 8, 2018 by Tor)

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”.

But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

My thoughts:

Artificial Condition picks up where All Systems Red leaves off, and it’s just as awesome this time around to accompany Murderbot on its quest for the truth about its own past. Murderbot’s partnership with ART starts off with annoyance, but before long they’re watching the serials together on their feeds and doing some truly masterful hacking of pretty much every security system they find.

Murderbot gets the answers it’s looking for, and meanwhile gets involved with yet another group of vulnerable humans who desperately need its protection. Of course, it can’t help feeling responsible for them, and takes care of them and resolves their crisis in the most Murderbot-ish way possible.

I absolutely adore being in Murderbot’s head. I will never get tired of how it thinks, especially how it thinks about humans.

Part of my job as a SecUnit was to give clients advice when they asked for it, as I was theoretically the one with all the information on security. Not that a lot of them had asked for it, or had listened to me. Not that I’m bitter about that, or anything.

I felt this would be the point where a human would sigh, so I sighed.

“Tlacey bought us passage on a public shuttle,” Rami told me. “That could be a good sign, right?”

“Sure,” I said. It was a terrible sign.

A self-aware, self-determining robot with a sense of humor and an unquenchable thirst for watching TV will never get old for me. The Murderbot books are a blast. Can’t wait for #3, coming in August.








Book Review: Head On by John Scalzi


John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.


I loved Lock In (review), John Scalzi’s novel that introduced us to the world of Hadens and threeps as experienced through the eyes of new FBI agent Chris Shane. And when I heard that there would be another story set in the same world… well, excited isn’t even the word for it.

Here’s a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with the premise. Some 25 years in the past, a new strain of flu ravaged the globe, killing millions, and leaving a percentage of survivors “locked in” — fully aware, yet unable to carry out any voluntary bodily functions. Those in this locked-in state became known as Hadens, in honor of the syndrome’s most famous early patient, the wife of then-President Haden. As Haden’s Syndrome ravaged populations world-wide, enormous funds and resources were devoted to treatment, and the most significant innovations were the development of neural nets — basically, networking implanted in the brains of Hadens — and threeps — personal transport devices into which Hadens transport their consciousness, allowing them to move, interact, have jobs, and live in the world, all while their actual bodies are safely at home supported by life-support systems and caregivers.

Agent Shane is a Haden, who at one point was incredibly famous by virtue of his basketball star father’s enormous influence, popularity, and wealth. Now, Shane just wants a life of his own, out of the spotlight, pursuing a meaningful career and being a contributing member of society.

Okay, those are the basics of this sci-fi world.

As for Head On, I can safely say that this book lives up to the thrill-level of Lock In, presenting a whole new facet of Haden existence one year after the events of that book. In Head On, the narrative kicks off with a death on a sports field. But this isn’t football — this is the brave new world of professional Hilketa leagues, played by Hadens in threeps in a game that feels like a mash-up of rugby and gladiator combat. And just think about the weirdness of it all: While the players are superstar athletes with multi-million dollar endorsements, they’re also physically in their immobilized bodies at the same time they’re experiencing glory on the field. Hilketa players feel pain (league rules require them to keep their pain settings at a minimal level), but the physical damage — like having limbs or even heads ripped off — happens only to the threep itself.

The description of the game is both ridiculous and captivating — kind of like reading about Quidditch for the first time!

When a player dies after sustaining damage on the field, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on then just an unfortunate sports-related death. The FBI is responsible for investigating Haden-related crimes, so it’s Agents Shane and Vann on the job once again. The agents’ chemistry is just as entertaining as in the first book, full of quips and banter, as well as an astonishingly effective good cop, bad copy routine that never gets old.

The mystery of the death and the implied scandal and corruption within the Hilketa league are intriguing. The clues and schemes are pretty mind-boggling, and I’ll admit that by the time the story starts unraveling financial misconduct and corporate fraud, I did get a bit lost in some of the details. No matter. The important connections are built up piece by piece, so that by the end, it all fits together in a way that makes sense and gives us the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Despite the murders and mayhem, there’s plenty of fun along the way, especially when it comes to seeing Shane with his Hadens roommates and all their goofy dynamics. Oh, and did I mention the cat? There’s a cat. And the cat becomes a crucial bit of evidence in a way that’s cute and clever and made me laugh.

A word about gender:

You may have noticed that I refer to Agent Shane as “he”… and that’s just not entirely accurate. Both Lock In and Head On are written in the first person, with Chris Shane as narrator.

And, I’m ashamed to say, it absolutely never occurred to me that the author never actually specifies Chris’s gender. I suppose I assumed that Chris was short for Christopher, back when I first started Lock In, and I pictured Chris as a male throughout my read of the first book. It wasn’t until I encountered this article prior to the publication of Head On that I even realized that I’d jumped to conclusions.

Again, John Scalzi NEVER SAYS whether Chris is male or female. Both are possible. And what’s really cool is that two versions of the audiobook are available, one narrated by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson. I downloaded the Wil Wheaton version back when I got Lock In, and wasn’t aware that there was any other version.

So now, as I was reading Head On, I couldn’t help hearing Wheaton’s voice in my head and consequently continued picturing of Chris as a male — but at least now, I stopped to think and reconsider certain scenes. Would the dynamic of Shane and Vann’s banter come across differently if it was between two females agents, rather than male and female? Is there an element of sexual politics implicit in the male/female working partnership that would have struck me differently if the gender differential was removed?

I can only imagine that the tone of certain parts of the story would feel very different to me if I’d been picturing a female lead character all along. So I’ve decided to put it to the test. Not right now, but sometime soon, I plan to revisit Head On by listening to the audiobook, and this time around, I’ll choose the Amber Benson version. Should be fascinating! And if I find that it’s a really different experience of the same story, I’ll be sure to report back.

Enough of my rambles…

Back to the review: I can definitely recommend Head On for anyone who enjoys science fiction with a touch of humor. While Head On doesn’t feel quite as revelatory as Lock In, in which the author had to build a whole new reality, it’s still quite an enjoyable, attention-grabbing read. John Scalzi is an amazing writer, and I hope he’ll continue to explore this world in future books.


The details:

Title: Head On
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 17, 2018
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased








Take A Peek Book Review: Future Home of the Living God

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.



(via Goodreads)

The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Thirty-two-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.

Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.

There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe.

A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.

My Thoughts:

While often disturbing, this book doesn’t flesh out its dystopian vision well enough to make a true impact. The concept of evolution running backwards isn’t really explored or explained. True, the story is told through the eyes of its main character, Cedar, and she can only tell what she herself knows — but that narrow viewpoint limits the reader’s ability to grasp the outside events and understand how the world could change so dramatically in so short a time. Within mere months, pregnant women are hunted, tracked, and imprisoned, forced into reproductive centers with no choice but to bear and then lose children.

Meanwhile, Cedar’s exploration of family, roots, and faith meander and lack coherence. The book is at its best during its most harrowing sections, when Cedar is on the run or in the midst of an elaborate escape plot. Her inner monologues and writings on religion take away from the building tension.

It’s a shame, because the big-picture concept could be intriguing if we had more information on why it’s happening, or really, a better view of what actually is happening. Instead, it’s a little bit Handmaid’s Tale but without the urgency or connection of that classic. Overall, I walked away disappointed by a book I’d been so eager to read.


The details:

Title: Future Home of the Living God
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: November 14, 2017
Length: 267 pages
Genre: Speculative/science fiction
Source: Purchased








Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.


I suppose I should acknowledge up front that it was practically impossible that Andy Weir’s second novel would measure up to his hugely successful first novel, The Martian. I mean, The Martian was amazing, plain and simple. It was fresh, it was new, it was smart, and it was highly entertaining.

So how does an author follow up such a tremendous hit?

Well, in this case, with a book that’s fun and light, but feels a little too familiar to really leave much of a mark.

In Artemis, Jazz (short for Jasmine) is a criminal-lite — she smuggles contraband while working as a porter, plans to become a wealthy EVA (extravehicular activity) tour guide, and meanwhile works odd jobs that are not quite legit in order to pay for her coffin-like bed chamber. (Calling it an apartment would be way overselling it.) Jazz seems to be well-connected, and while avoiding getting on the bad side of what passes for the law in Artemis, she drinks, avoids her observant Muslim father, and is something of a wise-ass.

When a mega-rich tycoon offers her a million slugs (moon currency) to carry out a dangerous, shady bit of sabotage, she sees a way to finally pay off some long-standing debts and improve her standard of living, but of course, nothing goes as planned. And when that escapade turns into a fiasco, she’s pulled into a worsening situation that involves murder, organized crime, and even more dangerous missions. If Jazz is caught, she’ll face deportation back to Earth, which would absolutely suck for her, since she’s lived on the moon since age six and wouldn’t be able to handle Earth’s gravity.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Jazz is a survivor, and she manages to get on people’s bad sides constantly, and yet charms them into helping her anyway. She comes up with some clever plans, but naturally what ever can go wrong, does go wrong.

The book reads like a moon-based heist caper, like Ocean’s Eleven in a space bubble. We’ve got a scrappy gang applying their various skills to pull off one big job, making millions, disrupting a bunch of bad guys, and making sure that their little world ends up better than it started. Sure, there’s science and space involved — instead of robbing a casino, for example, here they’re trying to blow up a smelting plant, but it’s the same basic idea.

It all feels familiar somehow. As a science fiction reader, I’ve read other books about life on other planets with humans living in biospheres. I’ve seen plenty of caper flicks. So yes, putting those elements together is fun, and Artemis is definitely entertaining, but it doesn’t have that outrageous spark that powered The Martian.

Jazz herself is a bit problematic, verging on tokenism. Kudos for putting a Muslim woman in the main character role, and certainly her relationship with her father and the conflict between his beliefs and her approach to life are interesting — but she seems very cookie cutter to me. I didn’t get a feel for who she is beneath the surface facts — independent, mid-twenties, rebellious, daring… but when, for example, she ends up kissing one of the male characters toward the end of the book, it was completely out of the blue. I had no idea she had any interest in him, but it’s just that kind of story where you know the main character has to have a love interest, and the only question is which of the available characters will be it.

I enjoyed the time spent reading Artemis, but at the same time, it’s not a book that will stick with me now that I’m done. Still, I like Andy Weir’s writing and use of science to tell a story, and look forward to seeing what he does next.


The details:

Title: Artemis
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley








Take A Peek Book Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.



(via Goodreads)

It’s up to a famous rapper, a biologist, and a rogue soldier to handle humanity’s first contact with an alien ambassador—and prevent mass extinction—in this novel that blends magical realism with high-stakes action.

After word gets out on the Internet that aliens have landed in the waters outside of the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Soon the military, religious leaders, thieves, and crackpots are trying to control the message on YouTube and on the streets. Meanwhile, the earth’s political superpowers are considering a preemptive nuclear launch to eradicate the intruders. All that stands between 17 million anarchic residents and death is an alien ambassador, a biologist, a rapper, a soldier, and a myth that may be the size of a giant spider, or a god revealed.

My Thoughts:

The synopsis above doesn’t quite give the full picture, although it does hint at the craziness and unpredictability of Lagoon. In Lagoon, aliens land in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria. We see the ensuing action unfold through the viewpoints of the main characters, as well as bystanders, lost children, preachers, prostitutes, and even spiders, bats, and a swordfish. The author’s descriptive, vibrant writing evokes the sounds, sights, and smells of Lagos, and immediately pulls the readers into the vibe of this chaotic city.

At the same time, the plot gets more and more complicated as the story moves forward, which is both an immersive experience and something of a headache. The powers of the aliens and the native gods come into play as they both make indelible changes to the lives of the humans in Lagos — but the interwoven plot points, the unusual magical and alien elements, and the strange experiences of the characters often are a real challenge when it comes to making sense of what’s happening.

Still, I really enjoyed getting to know the characters, seeing the social dynamics at play in Lagos both before and after the alien arrival, and experiencing the extreme oddness of certain scenes. Let’s put it this way — we have characters turning into sea creatures, and that’s not the weirdest thing that happens.

I’ve been wanting to read more of Nnedi Okarafor’s fiction ever since reading Binti earlier this year. She’s a remarkably gifted writer, and I think it’s pretty eye-opening for American readers to see contemporary science fiction set in Africa — quite unusual, and definitely a hugely positive addition to the genre!


The details:

Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: April 10, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: LibrarySave



Book Review: How To Stop Time

I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret.

He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he’d never witnessed them first-hand. He can try and tame the past that is fast catching up with him.

The only thing Tom mustn’t do is fall in love.

How to Stop Time is a wild and bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself, about the certainty of change and about the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live.

This feels like another one of those books where I want the entire review to consist of the following:

Amazing book. Read it.

Really, what more is there to say?

I have been in love with Matt Haig’s writing for a while now, ever since reading The Radleys, The Dead Fathers Club, and even more so since reading the spectacular The Humans. In How To Stop Time, the author shows once again the complexity of the human experience and the universality of a search for meaning.

In How To Stop Time, we meet main character Tom, who appears to be about 40-ish but is in actuality closer to 500. He’s one of a small group of people with a rare condition that slows the aging process — dramatically. They’re not immortal; they age normally up until puberty, and they will die of old age eventually. They can also die of injury just like anyone else, but meanwhile, Tom appears to age about one year for every 15 that he lives. A secret society of similarly afflicted people refers to themselves as albas, short for albatrosses (as the bird is supposedly long-lived) — and, unflatteringly, regular humans are simply mayflies, with lives so short by comparison that they’re barely worth paying attention to.

According to Hendrich, the organizer and enforcer of the albas, eight years is about the maximum someone like Tom can remain in any given identity and location before starting fresh. Otherwise, people start to notice, and gossip and odd looks can lead to severe consequences. Or at least, that’s been the governing truth for centuries. And there’s a certain logic to it. Tom was born in the late 1500s, and saw his own mother tried as a witch when neighbors realized that her teen-aged son remained unnaturally youthful while everyone around him aged normally.

Early on, Tom has his one and only experience with love as well. After leaving his childhood home after his mother’s cruel fate, he eventually falls in love with a lovely young woman named Rose. They eventually marry and have a child — but Tom is forced to leave after some years when once again, his eternal youth raises suspicion and threatens to bring disaster down upon his family.

Since then, Tom wanders the world, assuming fresh identities and homes every 8 – 10 years, but never truly allowing himself to connect or become a part of anything permanent. And while eternal (or long-lasting) youth might sound amazing to anyone dealing with grey hair and wrinkles, the fact is that for Tom, it’s an incredibly lonely life that seems to lack any sort of meaning.

Of course, on the plus side, he’s had  lot of years to learn, grow, and try new things. From being a simple lute player way back when, Tom has become a gifted musician skilled in many instruments, and his ability to impart history as a living, breathing concept is what makes him a fantastic high school teacher. He’s also rubbed elbows with a who’s who of famous folks over the centuries, from Shakespeare to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and can pull up those memories at a moment’s notice.

When Tom begins to connect with another teacher at the school, he has to confront the lonely existence he’s had and to make some decisions. Does he let this woman into his life? Can he be honest with her? What will Hendrich do if he finds out? How far will Hendrich go to make sure that the secrets of the albas remain secret?

How To Stop Time is truly fascinating. I loved the dilemmas presented by being a man out of time, someone who has lived everywhere yet fits in nowhere. Tom is a thoughtful and sympathetic character who keeps going for only one reason, which I won’t reveal here. He suffers physically and emotionally from the constant bombardment of memories from his centuries of life. You can’t help wanting him to be happy, even while acknowledging the huge barriers to that happiness.

The premise is so interesting and absorbing, and I couldn’t put the book down. At the same time, it’s Matt Haig’s extraordinary writing and use of language that makes this book truly soar. I was so caught up in reading that I didn’t stop to mark pages and passages of interest, which makes it hard right now to highlight quotes and give examples of why I loved this book so much.

I do have just one that I managed to find after the fact, and I’ll use it to wrap up this review. From a passage showing Tom’s inner thoughts — completely applicable to regular people with regular lifespans too:

And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

Like I said:

Amazing book. Read it.


The details:

Title: How To Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication date: July 6, 2017
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

Bannerless is a unique and interesting approach to the dystopian genre. In fact, if you took away the references to “the Fall”, you might almost think you were reading a story of agrarian life in the Middle Ages. Let me explain…

In Bannerless, we follow main character Enid, a resident of the town of Haven whose occupation is investigator. Investigators are both detectives and enforcers, sent from settlement to settlement to look into complaints, solve problems, and if needed, impose sentences. Investigators tend to be feared — when these outsiders show up wearing their official brown tunics, it’s likely to end in repercussions either for individuals, households, or possibly the entire town.

Enid’s village lies among the geographic area known as the Coast Road, sets of smaller and larger settlements who interact for trading, messages, and resources. All follow the same general governing principles. The towns are primarily agrarian, and all members of a community have roles to play. Towns may only produce up to their quotas, so that resources are preserved for for the future. People form households to work together to show productivity, and if they prove that they can support more, they are awarded banners, which give them the right to have a child.

All in all, it sounds like a rather peaceful and healthy way to go about life. Community is all-important. People offer one another help when needed, and when help is provided, there’s a commitment made to repay expended resources when the recipient is able.

As I mentioned, if you didn’t know the setting, you might think this story takes place a few centuries ago. It has that old-fashioned, idyllic feel to it. But we do know that there was a Fall — and while the author doesn’t go into tremendous detail, it becomes clear that civilization fell over the course of years in which the world was devasted by epidemics, followed by substantial climate change that brought life-threatening changes in weather patterns. Enid’s adult life takes place about a century after the Fall, and she still remembers her Aunt Kath, who was the oldest member of Haven and the only one to remember the time before. From Kath, Enid learns about how life used to be, from silly details (like a yearning for plastic wrap) to issues around birth control and reproduction.

In terms of the plot of Bannerless, we follow two timelines in alternating chapters. We see Enid and her investigator partner Tomas, a member of her birth household, as they investigate a suspicious death in the nearby town of Pasadan. This in itself is shocking — while their investigations mainly focus on banner or quota violations, murder is pretty much unheard of. Meanwhile, in every other chapter, we follow the story of Enid from about 10 years earlier, when she followed her lover on his journeys from town to town, and along the way, learns much more about the communities, the ruins of cities, and her own calling.

What’s unusual about Bannerless, and what makes me hesitate to call it “dystopian”, is that the societal structure seems to work. There are no castes or debasing rules or the other types of harsh governance that seem to be the hallmark of the genre. Yes, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, but the people seem to have worked out a system that makes sense for them. The rules about banners and birth control don’t strike me as autocratic or despotic; they go hand in hand with the focus on resources and quotas. The communities bear an awareness of the disasters that led to civilization’s downfall, and they’re determined to avoid the excesses that result in barren lands and starving children.

And while Enid and others occasionally yearn for the resources they’ve heard about through stories about life before the Fall (medical equipment and reliable lab tests, for example), they’ve found a way to manage and preserve what they have, to share and take communal responsibility for one another, and to sustain future generations by conserving current resources.

Yes, the breaking up of households who flout the rules may sound harsh, but there’s a lot of reasonableness too. Of all the various fictional scenarios of life post-disaster, the world of Bannerless sounds pretty okay to me.

The book itself is a quick, engaging read. Don’t expect explosions or intense battles or action scenes. The drama is all about the people, their interactions, and their motives — although this book does a great job of demonstrating how scary it can be to be caught out in the open when a storm is on the way.

According to the author’s page on Goodreads, she’s working on a sequel, and Bannerless is listed as the first in a series. I had no idea while I was reading the book that this would be an ongoing story, and Bannerless works perfectly well as a stand-alone. (I’m glad I didn’t know ahead of time; I tend to avoid starting new series, and I’d hate to think that I might have missed out on a good book because of my series-aversion!)

I’ve enjoyed other books and stories by Carrie Vaughn (although I haven’t read her Kitty Norville series, which seems to be her best-known work), and I will definitely read the 2nd book whenever it comes out.

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of other books:
After the Golden Age
Martians Abroad
“Raisa Stepanova” (Dangerous Women anthology)


The details:

Title: Bannerless
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Mariner
Publication date: July 11, 2017
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Thursday Quotables: Abaddon’s Gate


Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse, #3) by James S. A. Corey
(released 2013)

There’s nothing like a great sci-fi adventure to make the reading hours fly by! While much of this book is action, action, and more action, the characters are also very well-developed, and their thoughts can be quite entertaining:

Holden was starting to feel like they were all monkeys playing with a microwave. Push a button, a light comes on inside, so it’s a light. Push a different button and stick your hand inside, it burns you, so it’s a weapon. Learn to open and close the door, it’s a place to hide things. Never grasping what it actually did, and maybe not even having the framework necessary to figure it out. No monkey ever reheated a frozen burrito.

Three books into the series, the crew is a family, and their banter is always a pleasure.

“We don’t want to get in a gunfight,” Holden warned Amos as they began moving again.

“Yeah,” Amos said. “But if we’re in one anyway, it’ll be nice to have guns.”

A note on Thursday Quotables: I more or less took the summer off from keeping up my weekly memes, and I’m not entirely back yet. Sorry for the unpredictability! I aim to do Thursday Quotables when I can this month, and then settle back into routine in September.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!







Book Review: Abaddon’s Gate

For generations, the solar system — Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt — was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has appeared in Uranus’s orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

Holy moly, I love this series.

Abaddon’s Gate is the 3rd book in The Expanse series, which is the basis for the pretty awesome TV series on Syfy (season 3 expected in 2018). (Check out an earlier post of mine about the series, here.)

In book 3, a brand new set of circumstances has opened up for the people of our solar system — Earthers, Martians, and Belters — and what to do about these new circumstances plunges the crew of the Rocinante right back into insane levels of danger.

(I realize this review will likely be gobbledygook for anyone not familiar with the earlier books in the series. Sorry about that.)

Our fearless leader, James Holden, and his ragtag crew have been through all sorts of hell so far, and just when they’ve settled into a rather profitable business as a cargo ship, along comes trouble. The structures built by the protomolecule have opened up a portal of some sort beyond Uranus’s orbit (no jokes please — we’re all adults, right?), and the fleets of the three main powers have all assembled nearby the portal — called the Ring — to make sure no one gets an advantage over the others.

And of course, it’s Holden and the Rocinante who ends up hurtling through the Ring into what they call the Slow Zone — a space between, a still zone lined with thousands of gates to other worlds, some open, some closed. And here’s where the trouble really begins. Because none of the ships or their nations trust one another, they all end up going after Holden… and things go very, very badly.

Abaddon’s Gate is another big, huge book in a series composed of big, huge books. I’ll admit that the first third or so at times felt like a bit of a slog. Other than Holden and his crew, there are almost no familiar characters from the previous books, which means that the reader has a whole new set of complicated relationships, motivations, and power struggles to sort through. It feels overwhelming at first.

Trust me, it’s worth it. Once I got a bit further in, I was hooked. Some of the new characters blend in with others we’ve known — more soldiers, technicians, etc — but there are certainly some stellar, memorable new characters, among them the priest Anna and the heroic Belter officer Bull. The action is unrelenting, and it’s fascinating to see the unimagined dangers facing all the ships and humans as they enter a zone where the rules of physics as they know them no longer apply.

I highly recommend this series — books and TV — to anyone who loves a good space opera. It’s got outstanding characters, complex plotting, and mind-blowing world-building. What more could you want?

I can’t wait to start the 4th book, Cibola Burn.


The details:

Title: Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse, #3)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: June 4, 2013
Length: 539 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased