2022


The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts by Sylvia Ferrara, translated by Todd Portnowitz

Sylvia Ferrara is an Italian scholar/researcher/professor who has devoted much of her life, both in solo work and (more importantly and effectively to her) in collaboration, to learning how writing developed/develops and to deciphering a number of scripts that have stubbornly resisted translation. In The Greatest Invention she offers the fruits of that research in often fascinating, sometimes dizzying, sometimes frustrating, always exuberant fashion.

The dizzying part comes partly from the way Ferrara flies all over the place in space and time, hitting regions such as China, Crete, Easter Island, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Central and South America, and the United States, among others, all of them at various stages of mostly ancient but sometimes recent history. The fascina... Read More

The Extractionist: Enjoyable, left me wanting more

The Extractionist by Kimberly Unger

With The Extractionist, Kimberly Unger presents a pretty typical futuristic-internet-cybersetting-with-a-name background (in this case the cyberverse is called “the Swim”), but enhances the familiar setting with an original spin — a class of workers called Extractionists whose job it is to rescue people who get “stuck” in the Swim by reconnecting their Swim persona and their real-world body.

I loved the idea, and mostly loved its embodiment in Eliza McKay, the book’s protagonist, but felt the story could have been executed better.

McKay’s job is actually a fall-back position she takes on after she was banned from the high-level nanotech research she really wants to do (the reason for her being “burned” is gradually revealed).

Extracting is part engineering / tech know-how and part art, and McKay is good at both aspects, he... Read More

Spear: Go read it. Now.

Spear by Nicola Griffith

Nicola Griffith’s Spear glides effortlessly and confidently into the Arthurian cycle, while giving us a completely new character and an outsider’s perspective of Arthur, his court, Merlin, and the Holy Grail.

Published in 2022, this novella starts with the account of a young girl who lives in a cave in the woods with her mother. Their one item of value is a large cauldron in which the mother cooks their food and heats water. The girl roams the woods, learning the language of the animals, knowing how to read the plants and the seasons. She grows stronger. The girl has two names, depending on her mother’s mood. Sometimes she is a word for “gift.” Sometimes, when her mother is raving in nightmares, the girl’s name is “price.” Always, her mother is filled with fear that someone will come seeking... Read More

Walk the Vanished Earth: A debut with great potential

Walk the Vanished Earth by Erin Swan

Walk the Vanished Earth by Erin Swan is a debut novel with great potential in its underlying premise, structure, and characters, but while the story does at times rise to meet that potential, it does so unevenly and by the end, for me at least, unsatisfactorily.

The story opens at the close of a buffalo hunt in the Kansas prairie in 1873, with a young Irishman named Samson doing the last bit of work amidst the bloody carnage and recalling the harsh life that led them here and making plans for the better one he hopes to forge for himself: “In this New World, he told himself, he would be a new man.”

From there, the narrative leaps forward in time to 2073 and outward in space to Mars and a young girl named Moon who has spent much of her remembered life traversing the Marscape with Uncle One and Uncle Two, a pair of beings that are clear... Read More

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: Planet Earth’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

As just about any child can tell you, roughly 65 million years ago a nearly ten-mile-wide asteroid crashed into the earth in the Yucatan, unleashing planet-wide firestorms, geography-changing tsunamis, and years of acid-rain and dark days. In short, it was not a good day for Planet Earth. Or for the more than 75% of animal species wiped out by the impact, including, of course, its most famous victims, the dinosaurs. In The Last Days of the Dinosaurs (2022), Riley Black gives a wonderfully evocative and vivid accounting not just of those horrible days following the asteroid’s impact, but of life’s slow recovery during the following million years, making the book, in Black’s words, not a “monument to loss [but] an ode to resilience.”

Her particular focus is on the Hell Creek area of the western US as it is one of the most explored site... Read More

Last Exit: Complex, compelling, and intense

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Here is Max Gladstone’s recipe for a Last Exit (2022) cocktail:

One part fervent, confident intensity of young adulthood
One part fever dream (or nightmare) of magic and alternate worlds
Add bitters in the form of mid-life fears, regrets, and resignations born out of both trauma and simple aging
Splash of Mad Max
Zest of Zelazny
Stir with a rusty spoon of entropy
Pour slowly into a clear (eyed) glass filled one-quarter with the crushed ice-dreams of Americana myth and rimmed with sugar for a little bit of innocent sweetness
Serve with a shot of hope (the kind that burns on the wa... Read More

Shelterbelts: An in-depth look into a Mennonite community

Shelterbelts by Jonathan Dyck

With Shelterbelts, Jonathan Dyck joins the ranks of other great Canadian comic book creators such as Seth and Jeff Lemire, who both write and draw their own works. Shelterbelts is a sensitive book about a Mennonite town undergoing changes. We get glimpses of different parts of the community through a series of interrelated stories in which the same people show up in different contexts. For example, we meet the queer daughter of a Mennonite preacher in several stories, and we get to know the father who is wrestling with his church members over being more inclusive. Several of the members of the congregation leave to go to other churches.

One of the best stories is about a forty-year-old man who is a faithful Mennonite, yet he wrestles with his sexuality and attraction to men. We see him with his aging parents as they encourage him to find a woman. We ... Read More

The World According to Color: A Cultural History

The World According to Color: A Cultural History by James Fox

Most people wouldn’t think of a squashed fly as the gateway to a world of beauty and art, but that was exactly the path art historian James Fox took, describing in the opening pages of The World According to Color (2022), how when he “first started seeing color at the age of six,” after his mother swatted a fly and James:
leaned in to examine the carcass … [It] looked like a precious jewel. Its eye blushed with the deep burgundy of ripe cherries, its wigs shimmered like miniature rainbows, and the emerald greens and sapphire blues on its abdomen exploded into copper and gold. I had never seen anything so beautiful.
From the wonderfully vivid opening, and after a relatively brief foray into the physics, biology, and evolution of color perception, Fox takes his readers on a journey through seven colors (black, red, yellow,... Read More

Razzmatazz: Drag kings, crime gangs, corrupt cops, and a dragon

Razzmatazz by Christopher Moore 

Razzmatazz, Christopher Moore’s fantasy/action/comedy follow-up to Noir, came out in 2022. While I recommend Noir, you don’t need to read it first to enjoy this outing.

It’s 1947, in San Francisco, and Sammy “Two-Toes” Tiffin, bartender and sometime detective, and his group of regulars are still just trying to get by, when Sammy’s friend Eddie “Moo Shoes” Shu brings Sammy to a meeting with Eddie’s Uncle Ho. Uncle Ho has a job for Sammy; recover a black dragon statuette currently in the town of Locke, California, and give it to one of the criminal tongs, or they’ll kill Ho.

Sammy has some other things on his mind; namely, where h... Read More

Nettle and Bone: A princess, a dog, and a fairy godmother like you haven’t seen them before

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone (2022) was exactly the book I needed to read when I read it, so I am grateful to it and the writer for that. Kingfisher’s original fairy tale is a satisfying read at any time, with characters who engaged my imagination and find original ways to solve their problems.

Marra is a princess, the third daughter of a small kingdom with a deep-water harbor, nestled between two powerful warlike nations, each of whom covets the harbor. Marra’s mother marries off her eldest daughter, Damia, to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, which is the less vulnerable of the two bellicose kingdoms because it is protected by magic. Shockingly, almost immediately, Damia dies, supposedly in an accident. Marra’s next sister, Kania, marries the prince, and she lives. Kania has a child, and Ma... Read More

Siren Queen: Another five-star read from Vo

Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

2022’s Siren Queen by Nghi Vo is another 5-star read. Set in the same world as The Chosen and the Beautiful, Siren Queen looks at the magic of movies, and the exploitative studio system of the medium’s early days. In Vo’s world, the magic of movies is real magic, and that magic is often hungry.

Our main character is a Chinese American girl in Los Angeles who becomes enthralled with the magic of moving pictures. Soon, a director picks her up as an extra, and he starts using her more and more frequently. Her father disapproves, but her mother sees that the family needs the money. When our protagonist is given a line to speak in a film, she feels the magic envelope her as she speaks, and knows this is what she wants to do with her life. The question is, can she do it on her own terms? The entire system is arrayed against her. Read More

The Circus Infinite: A night at the circus

The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong

I’ll start off with a list of things I liked from 2022’s The Circus Infinite, a science fiction novel by Khan Wong:

Wonderful, occasionally psychedelic visuals
Interesting world building
Unusual non-human characters
“What happens on Persephone-9 stays on Persephone-9”
A brisk start that balances action with exposition
The circus!

The Circus Infinite introduces us to Jes, who is on the lam from an evil Institute when the story opens. Jes lays down a false trail at a spaceport, and leaves the planet of Indra for Persephone-9, a moon orbiting the planet of Persephone. The pleasure moon is the Las Vegas of this star system, and Jes hopes he can keep his head down, that he and his extraordinary ability can avoid detection.

Well, that doesn’t happen.
Read More

Tripping Arcadia: Kit Mayquist is a writer to watch

Tripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist

The cover of 2022’s Tripping Arcadia reads, “A Gothic Novel,” and the book certainly meets that definition. Lena, our brooding first-person narrator, warns us on the first few pages that she’s “confessing,” and her story drips with confusion, secrets, hidden pain, sexual longing, shadows, and death.

This book is filled with things I loved; plants, herbal poisons, interrupted conversations that seethe with secrets, an old, creepy mansion; secret passages, old books, a beautiful young man hellbent on self-destruction, dangerous parties, crushes that reveal themselves in yearning moments of physical descriptions of skin, lips and body heat. Mayquist nails the gothic tone nearly perfectly. The book doesn’t scream “gothic,” it speaks the word in a hoarse whisper from behind a bottle of blood-red wine.

The plot doesn’t satisfy as much as the pr... Read More

The Kaiju Preservation Society: A fun read for most of it before taking a bit of a dip

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

In his Afterword, John Scalzi explains that his newest book, The Kaiju Preservation Society (2022), took the place of another he struggled to finish during these awful times we’ve lived through these past few years. This one, he says, is not “with absolutely no slight intended, a brooding symphony … [but] a pop song … light and catchy … for you to sing along with, and then you’re done, and you go on with your day.” And he’s mostly not wrong, though I might quibble a bit if I continue the metaphor, noting on the good side, for instance, that while it doesn’t brood, it does occasionally bite. And adding on the not-so-good side that one “sings along” because the pop song has lodged in one’s memory, and I’m pretty sure this book won’t do that.

I migh... Read More

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday

I’m going to say something I don’t think I’ve ever said in my reviews of non-fiction works. One of the best things about Thomas Halliday’s science book Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds (2022) is the lack of science in Thomas Halliday’s science book Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds. Let me ‘splain.

What I mean by “lack of science” is a near-absence of the oft-used popular science go-tos, such as: “In fill-in-the-date, researcher X found that …” or, “A recent study published in fill-in-the-date revealed that …” Now, given that this is a popular science book, and Halliday himself is a scientist (a paleontologist), clearly there is science here. And up-to-date science as well, with a slew of citations from 2019 and... Read More

Mestiza Blood: Castro is a brutal, surgical high priestess of horror

Mestiza Blood by V. Castro 

2022’s Mestiza Blood is a horror story collection by V. Castro. As the title tells us, all of the protagonists of these dreamlike, horrifying tales are Latina women, grappling with horrors that are futuristic, mythic or just plain everyday.

A disclaimer: This book is filled with body horror, splatter horror, graphic violence and graphic sex. The women in these stories are filled with rage and fear as they battle appalling horrors with nothing but their strength, their will and their heritage. In some cases, they are the appalling horrors. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Table of Contents lists:
“Night of the Living Dead Chola:” A murdered woman dumped in the Rio Grande returns to exact justice on her killer.

“The Demon in... Read More

This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey Into Reality

This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey Into Reality by Michael Dine 

This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey Into Reality (2022) is Michael Dine’s worthy contribution to the popular physics/cosmology bookshelf, though readers may have to work a little harder at this one than similar books. That extra work is worth it, though, for this up-to-date and engaging exploration of modern science.

Dine moves between the very large and very small, covering particle theory, quantum theory, the Standard Model, dark energy and dark matter, gravity waves, the expansion of the universe, time’s arrow, Einstein’s various theories, the Big Bang, black holes, the Higgs Boson, string theory, and more. It’s about as comprehensive a book as one could want. And for the most part as lucid as one would want, as well. Though, as noted, not quite as eas... Read More

Dead Silence: In space, no one can hear you go mad

Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes

“I have a screw loose. Somewhere.”

S.A. Barnes’s Dead Silence (2022) is a creepy, atmospheric, compelling “haunted house in space” story, told by a character whose self-concept is deeply fractured by PTSD and survivor guilt. Barnes glides through various types of horror, driving up the fear and suspense with every new discovery a salvage team makes on the derelict luxury space liner they find.

Claire Kovalik is the Team Leader of a small crew of in-solar-system communication-web maintenance workers. The system is being upgraded, rendering their jobs obsolete. Everyone on the five-person crew is eager to head back to earth — except Claire, who seriously considers unclipping her tether and dying in space rather than returning planetside. When Lourdes, her comms person, picks up a faint distress call on an outdated frequency, Claire jumps at the... Read More

Goliath: Sets a high bar for 2022

Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi 

Goliath (2022), by Tochi Onyebuchi, is the first 2022 book I've read and already I'm assuming it's going to be on my Best of the Year list next December. That said, while I'm obviously strongly recommending it, thanks to its structure and style, it won't be to everyone's taste (What book is?), though I certainly hope everyone gives it a shot.

The novel is set in a near-future, post-pandemic, post-natural disaster, post-man-made disaster, post-apocalyptic Earth (New Haven in particular) that has been abandoned by those with the economic and racial privilege to take up residency in the Colonies — large orbital habitats free from the environmental devastation below, a planet poisoned by radiation and pollution and wracked by climate change. A planet where some (... Read More

The Amber Crown: Strong main-character work, but weak plot

The Amber Crown by Jacey Bedford

The Amber Crown (2022), by Jacey Bedford, contains several elements that tend to have me leaning away rather than into a book, including rape, implied rape, threatened rape, and some torture/horrid executions. I mention them upfront for the convenience of those who can tell already the book isn’t for them and so will stop reading the review now (I should note they aren’t egregiously gratuitous, mined for trauma [as characterization] rather than titillation; the book is far from torture porn). For those for whom those are not dealbreakers, Bedford delivers a solid work set against an interesting quasi-historical background but with a plot I found far less engaging than the characters. In the end, I can’t say the book’s strengths fully outweighed its weaknesses or my distaste for some of those aforementioned scenes, though one’s mileage will vary on that.

The book seems to ... Read More