The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Welcome to 2018! I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t feel completely beaten down by having both children home with me for ten thousand hours, traveling, Christmasing, coming home and trying to unbury from traveling and Christmasing with said children grouchily underfoot every single second – nope! I feel completely refreshed, organized, and ready to take on whatever whole food eating/exercise more/completely overhaul home and self resolutions have been set! Really! Ignore the wild eyes, the baskets of laundry in every room, and the vague sense of stickiness on every surface. This year is under control!

34456052842_257517516e_zJust about the only grain of truth in there is that it is, in fact, 2018. And I have made resolutions that I hopefully can keep to turn this year into a more productive one than 2017 turned out to be. I haven’t made any in years, but I decided a little intentionality might go a long way when trying to combat the bad habits I’ve gotten into work-wise. (Unfortunately for those who visit my home, none of them involves becoming a more diligent housekeeper.) The one thing I’ve been able to keep up with has been reading some really great books (having a nursing baby is good for my kindle library). I feel like the last six months have gotten away from me in many ways, but I’ve stumbled on so many wonderful reads, it’s hard to be too upset about it.

This novella, The Dispatcher, was originally released only as an audiobook. I remember reading about it on Scalzi’s site early in the year, but I don’t have much interest in listening to stories, so I didn’t even put it on my mental list. It was only recently, when it was released on kindle, that I decided it had been too long since I’d read one of his books and picked it up. I think I read it in an hour – maybe two – and it left me wishing for more. I know he plans on more books in this universe, and I absolutely cannot wait.

Much like his novel Lock In (which has a sequel due out this year), The Dispatcher is an example of Scalzi’s masterful ability to skirt current events and turn them into compelling and hilarious science fiction. I read his nonfiction posts almost daily, and I’ve enjoyed his style for years, but I don’t read his novels often enough to remember just how much I appreciate his fiction.

Scalzi’s characters lovable and fresh, and his fictitious worlds are just on the edge past reality. Those realities spring from how humans have evolved – rather than how a particular technology has changed us – and that may be why I find his work so compelling. His sci-fi has a heart and humor that brings me back book after book, and if you’re looking for an intro author for this genre (maybe a new year’s resolution to try something new?), he’s a wonderfully approachable place to start.

Lock In, John Scalzi

It’s no secret that I love John Scalzi, and his books. He’s a friendly guy who is both a gifted writer in one of my favorite genres (humorous sci-fi) and an incredibly sharp political mind who has, in the last few years, used his celebrity to compose and share some of the most wonderful insights on issues of gender, race, and harassment that I’ve had the privilege to read. Apparently this makes him something of a pariah in certain circles, but since I try to avoid the trolling corners of the internet (how is it possible that all 17,000 of you are so kind? I’m very lucky), I think of him more as that wacky uncle who likes to sneak off and play videos with the kids after dinner and who probably steals all the best candy out of Halloween bags.

Due to the craziness of October, and now November’s non-stop word count battles, I ended up reading Lock In primarily in bites, ten minutes here and there, until I got about two-thirds of the way through and just plowed to the end. When I finished it, and there wasn’t immediately a sequel, I got annoyed. Then I remembered I don’t have time to read sequels this month, and I immediately felt better…ish.

I say this knowing full well you can undoubtedly appreciate the struggle between wanting (or even having) a sequel and wanting an afternoon (or a week, depending on the length or number of sequels available) when everything else can be blown off for reading. It’s the best feeling. As a child, it was easier to find the time. I would read during lessons I already understood in school, do my homework as quickly as possible, and then curl up with a book until dinner. I could happily pretend I’d already practiced piano (which I loathed and was unbelievably untalented at) if it meant twenty more minutes before bed. Now, in the twenty minutes before bed, I have to clean up the kitchen and make a reminder list for the next day and try not to fall asleep while brushing my teeth. Very little reading gets done. Even when the book is as wonderful as Lock In.

There was something especially fascinating about finding a book about disease as Ebola was entering the US. All of a sudden, the issues Scalzi was addressing seemed eerily prescient. How would we react if the world was hit by an uncontrollable pandemic? How would it change the political, ethical, medical, and social structures we’ve become accustomed to? Scalzi’s novel does an excellent job of balancing the exploration of seemingly infinite repercussions while creating characters I’m desperate to see again and again in future installments.

(Just, you know, not this month…)


For more of Scalzi, head this way.

Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Commonplace Books)

Every once in a while, I come across a story being told in an unconventional way and I inadvertently fall in love with it. A few months ago, it was The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. At the moment, “fresh” off a twelve-hour flight, it’s this podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. And yes, I realize I live in a shuttered world where the concept of storytelling via podcasts is novel to me. I’m guessing everybody else has been listening to them since around 200…6? Maybe? I honestly have no idea when podcasts really took off. Was it related to smart phones? Could I look all this up? Probably! But jet lag! So no. I’m just going to assume I’m a minimum of eight years behind the curve on anything that has to do with the internet.

So, podcasts! Yes! I love them, especially since I can’t read on planes, trains, or in automobiles (motion sickness is the devil), and I have begun to get migraines from trying to watch movies on the little television stuck into the seat in front of me. The angle is just wrong and it causes neck strain because I have an abnormally long torso…but I digress. I get bored listening to music after about three hours, and even factoring in napping and boredom snacking, that still leaves about five or six hours I have to fill when traveling this far.

I’ve recently been coming around to audiobooks to try to fill this need, but they’re expensive to buy and nearly impossible to download from the library onto a Mac. (I don’t know why that is, and maybe I’m doing it wrong, but it sends me into a tailspin of rage whenever I try it, so…) Welcome to Night Vale, on the other hand, is free and downloads easily onto my phone for hours of stress-free listening pleasure.  Those two factors alone sold it to me pretty hard, I have to admit, but fortunately, in addition, the content, designed as twice monthly radio broadcasts from a small desert town with dark roots and frequent paranormal happenings, is also delightful.

Readers who have been following me awhile know that I adore humor – dark, silly, vengeful, romantic – I crave it all on a regular basis. In fact, I can forgive a whole boatload of issues with a story or writer if the content has made me laugh. I can even squint my eyes at a podcast and call it enough of a book to review here if it has entertained me thusly. What can I say? I have literary scruples that are very easily bested by a case of the giggles.

Welcome to Night Vale  was the perfect brain candy for this flight. It kept my spirits up over the incredibly long hours, it split into twenty-minute segments so I could doze and listen as fitfully as a I pleased, and it made me into that person who snort-laughs into complete silence (which, if I’m really being honest, I love to do). Is it a book? No. Is it damn fine story-telling, available free of charge to anyone with access to the internet and a pair of headphones? Yes.

I call that a win.

The Ghost Brigades (part the second, finally), John Scalzi

The crap thing about being sick is that it’s never completely clear whether you’re at the bottom of it (as I thought I was last Tuesday), or if there’s still further to fall (spoiler alert: there was). I thought I was spending my sick day reading the last Sookie Stackhouse novel, but really, I was spending a day when I felt mildly cruddy reading the last Sookie Stackhouse novel. The real sick days were still in store for Thursday and Friday. Lucky me.

I find it difficult to read on days when I feel truly terrible. I seem to be the only person I know who has this particularly nasty springtime cold, and all I really wanted to do was watch BBC exclusive shows on Hulu (apparently, my tablet still thinks we’re in London). I rarely have time to read on the weekends though, I knew I still had about 200 more pages to read in The Ghost Brigades, so I made myself a deal. For every ten percent of the book I read, I could watch one episode of nope I cannot reveal this to the internet the show that shall not be named.

This actually worked for me surprisingly well. I could lay around sluggishly watching some brainless British drama for half an hour, and then I would spend about forty minutes reading and drinking copious amounts of juice, generously supplied by my amazing neighbor. I stayed hydrated, I finished the book, and I got through almost two seasons of wouldn’t you like to know.

When I finished the book, I was completely satisfied, and I could see how perfectly Scalzi had set me up to want to go out and read Zoe’s Tale. Unfortunately, when I took to the internet to make sure it was the next book in the series, it turned out that no, it was actually the fourth book in this collection, and furthermore is a retelling of the third book from a different point of view so I definitely couldn’t skip ahead. I enjoy Scalzi’s novels (enough so that I’m definitely going to see him speak while he’s on tour this month, even though I haven’t yet read the book he’s promoting), but I have so many other books that need to be read! There are still two more Flavia deLuce stories that I’m keeping myself from devouring. I have a spreadsheet full of titles I want to read, and then there’s the much-neglected To-read shelf that I haven’t even glanced at since I returned from my trip.

The thing about Scalzi’s older books is that, while they’re culturally rich, well-peopled, and scientifically intriguing, they aren’t particularly fast-moving. And I’m fine with that. In fact, because it is the number one challenge I face when writing novel-length stories, I find great comfort in seeing Scalzi’s literary progression – it gives me hope (also, I unabashedly like in-between action scenes quite a lot). I often wish my favorite books and shows would spend more time on quiet, human moments, and by the time Scalzi wrote Redshirts, he had nailed the balance between character development and pacing. I couldn’t put it down and happily listened to the audio version on a car trip only a few months later – it was that good. These earlier novels simply require a little more patience. They’ve paid off every time, and I look forward to reading another one, but I can’t quite commit to it right away.

What inevitably brings me back to his books, though, are his characters. He has an uncanny ability to create people I care about, and he doesn’t focus solely on main characters, but fleshes out the supporting cast as well. Personally, I could write hundreds of my own “novel” pages where nothing ever happens outside of a character’s head, but where worlds rise and fall on the thoughts and imagined actions of others. Scalzi manages to make me believe he has written all those pages too, but then has carefully cut around the edges of the character and found him or her a home inside an actual story. It’s a delicate surgery, to be sure, and it’s possible he does nothing of the kind to create his books. It’s not really important whether he does or not though – what’s critical is that he makes me, the reader, believe that he has done it. That is a rare gift, and one I appreciate greatly every time I come back.

The Ghost Brigades (part the first), John Scalzi

I feel like this season should officially be dubbed, “The Spring of Sequels.” I’ve clandestinely been gorging myself on the Flavia De Luce series, which I promised I wouldn’t review again, and I won’t unless one of them blows me out of the water, but they really are delightful fun and can be blamed for my inability to get reading/deadlines/housekeeping done in a timely manner. I try to blame all of that on the fact that I still don’t have a working computer, but in all honesty, the lack of the computer is just a perfect opportunity to read those books instead.

The fact that I even found time to get half-way through The Ghost Brigades is a bit of a miracle actually, not because I’m not enjoying it, but because any reader worth her salt will admit to having a hard time transitioning emotionally between characters. The Ghost Brigades is the quasi sequel (same world, different characters) to Old Man’s War, and if I’d been clever, I would have jumped on it immediately after finishing the first. The problem was, I was gearing up for a six week trip and I didn’t have the brain power for it. My focus was on planning and executing work and travel plans, and it didn’t leave much time for anything else.

Now, though, I’m back, and even though the calendar claims it’s early May, the weather says late July, and it’s too hot to concentrate for more than thirty minutes or so at a time. Don’t get me wrong – I can get some quality reading done in thirty minutes, and I know quite a few people who would go to great lengths for thirty uninterrupted minutes with a good book – but I’m spoiled. I want a rainy, cool afternoon so that I’m not tempted by (in this order): going to get frozen yogurt, booking flights to anywhere my friends live, catching up on television I missed in March and April, and weeding the garden. Incidentally, I like weeding because it doesn’t require me to have a green thumb, so it’s really not an insult to reading to say that I would rather be outside in the sunshine, getting a little satisfaction from clearing our tiny plot of land than inside, using my brain.

The Ghost Brigades is well-suited to this little problem. It’s about soldiers who have been created from human DNA to be far greater (stronger, smarter, telepathically linked to each other) than ordinary humans. Because they’ve been created as “adults” in a lab rather than being born in the more traditional sense, however, some aspects of their personalities – the bickering, the odd sense of humor (or complete lack of one), the less than perfect social skills – resemble those of children. These enhanced men and women have a particular affinity for the child soldiers written about in Ender’s Game because, essentially, that’s what they are.

So what does this have to do with me and my inability to sit still? Are any of you teachers? Parents? Do the rest of you remember what it was like to be in school in May? No matter how much you like learning, or being with your friends, or what your teacher might have to say, when May rolls around, all bets are off. Every hour feels like ten thousand. Every page read goes too slowly, and the information drain directly out of eyes, ears, and mouth without even a stopover at the brain. Opening the windows to allow fresh air to circulate should be qualified as a form of torture for any person who can’t immediately go out to enjoy the day, no matter age. The spring just holds this magic; to me, it feels like the time of year when I want to go out into the world and make stories happen, rather than just reading about adventures, regardless of how exciting or well-written, on the page.

My compromise usually involves taking my book or computer outside in a valiant effort to reconnect to what has to get done. What usually happens then is that I lay down on a bench or in the grass, spend three or four solid minutes concentrating, then roll over and stare at the sky. I watch the clouds, and I feed bread to the baby ducks and geese. I listen to the squeaking bikes cycling past, and I luxuriate in a feeling of relaxation we attribute to childhood, but which rarely exists at any age unless we seek it out. Instead of reading or writing, I think of what a shame it is that to be created with a purpose – as Scalzi’s “ghost brigade” is, for example – means no time to learn what doing nothing well really feels like.

It’s a shame. I believe in doing nothing well. When I give my brain a little nothing to work with, the things it comes up with when I ask for something…well, they’re quite marvelous. Go ahead. Give it a try. I promise all those important, have-to-get-done somethings will be waiting when you return. And let’s be honest, I’ll feel a lot less guilty if I’m not the only one playing hooky today.

For more about John Scalzi, hit up his blog Whatever.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

“I didn’t mind getting old when I was young, either,” I said. “It’s the being old now that’s getting to me.” (p 13)

So, I finally broke down and read Old Man’s War. I honestly have no idea why it took me so long. I love Scalzi; I read his blog daily and I’ve both read his latest novel Redshirts and listened to Wil Wheaton read it (roughly a month apart – it’s so good, it bears repeating). His sense of humor completely resonates with me, and his political posts are some of the best I’ve read.

For some reason though, I had been holding out on entering the universe he created with this novel. I had the idea that it wasn’t for me – that my geek card was missing the stamp necessary to gain entry into his world. As it turns out, and I’m not sure how many times I’m going to have to learn this lesson, books are for anyone who chooses to read them – no application required.

I do suspect, however, that part of what was off-putting to me was the title. It’s a great title, and it’s perfectly suited for the book, but as I am not old (well, except to the high schoolers I work with), a man, nor a soldier, it created something of chasm between me and a wonderful read. Those three words – I looked at them and I imagined a novel my grandfathers would like to read. Both were veterans of WWII, and both were defined, each in his own way, by the experience. They were neither greater nor lesser men than my father or brother, who never enlisted, but they were certainly different. I could never quite touch the stories they shared with me about war. It was an experience that set them apart, and when I spent time with them while I was growing up, their personal histories were further shrouded by the decades between us.

“Lady and gentleman,” Harry said, looking at the both of us, “we may think we have some idea of what we’re getting into, but I don’t think we have the first clue. This beanstalk exists to tell us that much. It’s bigger and stranger than we can imagine – and it’s just the first part of this journey. What comes next is going to be even bigger and stranger. Prepare yourself as best you can.”

“How dramatic,” Jesse said dryly. “I don’t know how to prepare myself after a statement like that.”

“I do,” I said, and scooted over to get out of the booth. “I’m going to go pee. If the universe is bigger and stranger than I can imagine, it’s best to meet it with an empty bladder.”

“Spoken like a true Boy Scout,” Harry said.

“A Boy Scout wouldn’t need to pee as much as I do,” I said.

“Sure he would,” Harry said. “Just give him sixty years.” (pg 29)

After reading this book, the only thing I knew for certain (besides that I loved it and immediately needed to read the sequel) was that I wouldn’t mind living in Scalzi’s universe when I turn 75. I hate the idea of being a soldier now, but it turns out that reading about the human body slowly deteriorating, as it naturally does as we age, invokes in me an unshakable fear of death. It turns out I’m actually inclined to see the wisdom in enlisting in a mythical army with the power to turn me into a young, powerful fighting machine when I have lived nearly eighty years, even if it means doing things that are abhorrent to consider now. I’m not sure what that says about me – probably nothing good – but it’s the truth.

It’s one thing to think you want to be young again; it’s quite another thing to turn your back on everything you’ve ever known, everyone you’ve ever met or loved, and every experience you’ve ever had over the span of seven and a half decades. It’s a hell of a thing to say good-bye to your whole life. (p 11)

I can’t imagine saying goodbye to my whole life right, but that’s because my body (mostly) does what I ask of it. And my family and friends are (mostly) still alive. If I lived long enough to be given the choice offered in this novel – to say goodbye to Earth and give myself over to a science and military I cannot fathom – it might not be so terrible. Or maybe it would. I can’t really know for sure, but a part of me loves the idea that an adventure is waiting as life draws to a close. As much as I love predictability and my routines (and I really do), I’m also drawn to life’s mystery doors, and what this novel suggests is like Narnia for the elderly. Without the magic, of course (unless, like me, you consider science to be magic). And with a lot more death, and sex, and space ships.

Look, you: When you’re twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five or even fifty-five, you can still feel good about your chances to take on the world. When you’re sixty-five and your body is looking down the road at imminent physical ruin, these mysterious “medical, surgical and therapeutic regimens and procedures” begin to sound interesting. Then you’re seventy-five, friends are dead, and you’ve replaced at least one major organ; you have to pee four times a night, and you can’t go up a flight of stairs without being a little winded – and you’re told you’re in pretty good shape for your age.

Trading that in for a decade of fresh life in a combat zone begins to look like a hell of a bargain. (p 9)


Need more Scalzi? Head here.

The Explorer, James Smythe

When I was a kid, I remember reading a lot of straight up science fiction. Our local library was small, and it had one book shelf of YA books, one of those spinnable book displays with paperback fantasy novels, and a few shelves tucked away in a corner near the audio cassettes with hardback science fiction novels. No one ever  disturbed when I sat on the floor and pulled those unfamiliar titles out. My mother would leave me alone for half an hour or more looking for her own books, and I would slowly accumulate a pile of unfamiliar authors beside me.

Even now, years later, the only writers I remember clearly from those days are Heinlein and Brin, although I read just about every novel in the section eventually. Science fiction was, for me, an insight into a more masculine mind. The library made no special effort to purchase female authors in the genre, and I didn’t have the internet to search out a wider variety than what was presented. As a result, I drifted further from science fiction as I got older and craved books that reflected a perspective more similar to my own. It’s a shame, really, because when I read books like Smythe’s The Explorer, I feel as though a part of me that I lost long ago has been returned. It’s stunning to discover it still exists – that the part of me that secretly wanted to go to Space Camp in Florida, that still believes it might be possible to travel into space as a civilian someday soon, that is desperate for a world beyond the ordinary one we know.

Smythe’s narrative voice is just as alien to me as I remember from those authors years ago. I always struggle to explain what I mean when I say that a particular writer is more masculine than another, regardless of gender. It’s an argument I’ve had before when talking about The Lord of the Rings – different genre, but same…feel. Tolkien has a quality I find incredibly difficult to break into, and it can be a problem with sci-fi as well. I have to work harder to open myself to writers who fall into this category.

This is why I found it strange on Friday when I started this book and was immediately drawn to that very quality in Smythe’s writing. It had a sharp, cold edge to it, but given that in his opening pages I found myself in a tiny spaceship filled with corpses floating in the blackness of space, it worked for me. In fact, everything about this book worked for me. After having a frustrating, sad week, The Explorer was exactly what I needed. It was tough, and inevitable, and painfully remote.

I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Testimony, which had twenty-six different narrators, presented almost as talking heads. They were from all over world, telling a very big story about god and lies and terrorism, and it took a lot to write. Post-it notes on the walls, headaches, long walks to clear said headaches before returning to sort out the post-its, all that crazy stuff. When I was done, I decided that I had to write something completely different. Something that was, by necessity, a lot smaller. Self-contained. One narrator. Only a handful of characters, in fact, in the whole thing. And, I thought, lets start the book when they’re all dead, or most of them. Let’s start with my narrator, alone and horrifically lonely, and beginning to lose the plot. He can piece together the story – and himself – from there. (Smythe, writing for John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea”)

This was the only thing that appealed me to when I was looking through my new books this week. I wanted angst without romance, I wanted agony on a personal level, and I wanted it to take place as far from me as possible.

Can’t get much farther than space.


I highly recommend heading over to Harper Voyager’s page and reading the first chapter for free. That was all I needed to convince me I wanted to know more about The Explorer and James Smythe.

Dave and Liz and Chicago Save the World: A Short Story, John Scalzi

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 


I’ve had this story bookmarked for about two months now, in preparation for that week in NaNoWriMo when I want to stab myself in the eye for ever thinking this novel-writing thing was a good idea. I knew this time would come because it always does. Sometimes it’s as early as the second weekend of November, but I’ve had the icy terror of reality (reality being that this novel is terrible, makes no sense and should be dismantled one letter at a time while I cry in a corner) hit me as late as Thanksgiving. This year, I thought I’d celebrate my father’s birthday with my own personal writer’s breakdown.

Fortunately, this story is what I’ve kept behind the “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” sign. I didn’t read it when Scalzi posted it in September; instead I squirreled it away for safekeeping because I have discovered that he is one writer who can make me laugh in the face of giant plot holes. There is something about his style and his storytelling – my roommates in college would have called it, oh so delicately, “balls to the wall” – that makes me feel just that much more invincible wielding this pen as a sword. He seems like the sort of person who wouldn’t be afraid to kick down the door of a terrible story, and that is exactly the kind of attitude I need right now.

I love Redshirts. I love Scalzi’s blog. I especially love that this little story is free, and that you can all read it right now, if you so choose. But mostly I love that he is the kind of writer who inspires me to take no prisoners in my own war against novel-writing. Because I love these silly, lovesick, snarky characters I’ve created who never quite get around to fighting for justice because they’re too busy pining for each other (even when I hate them because theyjustneedtogetoverthemselvesandsaysomethingalready).

I may lose control of this ship, crash and burn before I reach the 30th, but then again, there may be a damn good story waiting to be written from the life boat where I watch it all go under. I’ll let you know in fifteen days…

In the meantime, go read Whatever. Scalzi’s always got something to say about something.

UnWholly, Neal Shusterman

I managed to read one book on my two-week vacation to Australia – one. It might be a record low, but I was so busy petting koalas, trying to figure out if the water in toilets ran in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere, and learning how to drive on the left side of the road without intermittently screaming that I just couldn’t settle into anything I brought along on the Kindle. I found it much easier to write while I was there, actually, and I spent most mornings regretting that the only computer I brought with me was an iPad; although I normally don’t hate the touch screen keyboard, it’s difficult to write thousands of words in the only position I find convenient to type in on that thing (for the record, balancing it on my knees while sitting in bed or on a couch).

When I finally forced myself to choose something – anything – to read, I ended up with the sequel to UnWind, a fantastic science fiction young adult novel I read last year. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of the sequel (the second book of what I think will be a trilogy), but when it finally came out at the end of August, I didn’t have time to sit down and enjoy it the way I planned. I put it off and put it off until I decided I simply wasn’t going to have opportunity to read a book straight through until December…maybe even January, the way my schedule is looking right now, and I would simply have to live with the fact that this was going to be what I call an “interrupted reading experience.”

Before I quit my teaching job to write fulltime, almost all books were read that way, but I’ve become spoiled in the last two years. I don’t always expect a book to compel me to read it cover to cover in one sitting, but when I have expectations, as I did with UnWholly, I found myself annoyed that it would have to be any other way. As I said, spoiled. The funny thing is, once I started reading, I found that I didn’t want or need to read this one straight through (as I had with the first book). I often have this problem with the second book in a series, regardless of how many books are slated to follow. I find that I’ve worked myself into a lather over a book that is either a pale ripoff of the first or a bridge to the third. This one fell into the latter category.

I was about halfway through it and struggling to connect to characters I had loved in the original novel when I got into a discussion with my best friend (currently living in Sydney – hence the visit) about books we’ve recommended to each other and hated (example rec from me: The Fionavar Trilogy, example rec from her: The Vorkosigan Saga). It was a much more heated conversation than I had been expecting, mainly because 1) we rarely fight, 2) it turns out we have a surprisingly narrow overlapping Venn diagram of taste when it comes to books, and 3) we tend to keep our fanning and our friendship somewhat separate because of reasons 1 and 2. Regardless of reasons 2 and 3, I enjoy talking to her about books and about what makes them special since we have always shared a love of reading, even if we don’t always like the same stories. As a bonus, her intense involvement in fanning communities for the last fifteen years, coupled with a Master’s degree essentially on that subject means she has a fascinating perspective.

This discussion led me to share with her my disappointment in this book I had so anticipated reading. She immediately uncovered the root problem. She asked me, “Did the author create a world you love, or does the book instead revolve around a single, interesting topic? Because if it’s the first, chances are you’ll love the whole series – if it’s the second, you may be in trouble.”  She had nailed it. Shusterman absolutely came up with a brilliant, terrifying idea in the first book, and he told his story about that idea with wonderful characters and a compelling plot. My problem with the second was that the story didn’t provide me with much more than the first had. Also, I felt that the stakes had been lowered in the second book, and since the first was a complete adrenaline rush, it was a let down.

That being said, I’m looking forward to the third one. I can’t stop thinking about this whole “world vs idea” concept, and I find myself hoping that in the final novel, he’ll find a way to bring his big idea into a more fully developed time and place. I also think that although UnWholly is not the book UnWind  managed to be, he has set himself up for a powerful conclusion. Having been so thoroughly impressed by the first novel, and knowing that I’m often more critical of the second, I’ve decided to keep the faith. During a time like this, when women’s health has become a major topic of debate, he is telling an especially important story for a young generation of readers, and I look forward to seeing what he decides to do with this terrifying future he has unleashed.


To learn more about Neal Schusterman, head over here.

The Abyss, Orson Scott Card

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

Is it weird that one of my favorite books is actually an adaptation written to flesh out a movie that had already been made? I’d seen the film many times before I even knew the book existed. I loved it – the special effects, the wonderful characters, the awe and terror of being trapped so deep in the ocean, the aliens – it’s still one of the all-time greatest movies I’ve ever seen.

And yet, the book is better. Card was hired by James Cameron to improve upon the movie script, to give the characters more depth and logical reasoning for taking the actions they do, and in just three chapters, he nails it. That is one of his gifts as a writer; he will make a person care about both the worst human beings and the best in the span of a few lines.

It was especially powerful to see what he could with a story that wasn’t his own. In a world created by another talented artist, he took what was already canon and created completely believable, rich backstories. When I read the book the first time, I actually thought that it must be the basis for the film rather than the reverse – he was that good at taking what had already been created and merging what could be into one amazing story.

This is probably the one instance when I’ll ever suggest watching the movie before reading the book. It’s the only time that the relationship between these two very different formats does not ruin either, but rather, makes each more beautiful.

Interested in Orson Scott Card? Go here. For more on James Cameron, I recommend his twitter feed.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Michael Rubens

This book was exactly what I needed to take on this vacation. As my friend Ruby, who recommended it to me, said, “it’s a space opera with the sort of witty, slightly scummy hero you usually only get in hard-boiled detective pulp.” Seriously, how can you go wrong?

I’ll tell you. You can’t.

The book is like a wonderful, extended episode of Firefly, a show I loved (and miss) with the passion of a thousand fan girls (you really don’t want to be on the wrong end of a thousand fan girls either – I’ve seen them in action and just thinking about it makes me retreat into the fetal position). Did you see The Avengers? What’s that? You liked it? This book is for you. Picked up Scalzi’s Redshirts and laughed until you wept with joy? Here’s the next book in your queue.

Are you the kind of person who likes to giggle in public? Say, on a train, plane, or  automobile (preferably one you aren’t driving)? Michael Rubens has your number. Maybe you prefer to read shamelessly hilarious cowboy space romps while at the beach with an ice-cold beer stuck in the sand beside you, or on that Kindle app on your computer (sure, right now it’s hidden behind TPS reports, but we all know it’s there and whole heartedly support you getting through a long day at the office adventuring through the universe with a Sheriff tab open).

A personal favorite method of mine, the “sneak a read while visiting family” technique utilizes the smart phone. God bless whoever invented the technology that allows me to get through a delightful chapter while everyone else is debating what we should do for the day (or making dinner, walking the dog, or taking forever to get ready in the morning). This is how I managed to read seven of twelve Sookie Stackhouse books in just over a week the last time I was in NH (I’m, like, a level nine ninja kindle phone reader after that) and made it possible to easily devour this one in less than a day.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer  is perfect for practicing any of the above techniques. Rubens’ characters are, in turns, sweet and ridiculous, his plot maintains a spritely pace throughout, and his sense of humor and mine have clearly been involved in a mind meld. It’s just the kind of light fare that goes hand-in-hand with a short summer attention span…in other words, ideal for both vacation and break-up-the-office-tedium.

Seriously. Just read it. Or don’t (but then, don’t come crying to me when your days are that much less filled with joy).

Head over here to find out more about Michael Rubens. I’ll race you.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi

I think most of us have realized by this point in the existence of the interwebs that we cannot read or follow every blog we want to or think we should. We all handle this disappointment in different ways. I prefer to follow only as many people as I can reasonably enjoy, while my husband doesn’t mind following so many that he requires fifty hour days to keep caught up – a fundamental difference in our life view being that he loves knowledge for the sake of knowledge while I prefer to know everything within a subset I can control. For me, this means making hard choices about once every six months, when I go through all the blogs I’ve accumulated on Google Reader and weed out those that no longer interest me or have been abandoned by the author.

You might surmise from this, and you would be correct, that I am not a hoarder. In all aspects of my life, I get great pleasure from purging the unnecessary – old yearbooks, pictures of me from junior high, gifts people have given that I no longer need – and yes, I did actually just feel the massive intake of breath from all of you who cannot understand the monster in me I’ve just revealed. I get it. I married into a family of hoarders savers.

The thing is, I don’t have the emotional energy to keep all my old physical possessions because I’m already full up with memories. I don’t need an old beach towel hanging around to remember how much I loved swimming at Walden Pond every summer when I was a kid. I don’t save awards I won for writing in the fifth grade because all I have to do is sit down at a computer to relive the joy they brought me. And I certainly don’t need stacks of photos I cut out of magazines when I was fifteen to remember the crushes I had on Will Riker and Wesley Crusher because nobody (and I mean nobody) forgets being the butt of other Trekkies’ jokes for being in love with those two.

So when John Scalzi, a blogger who always manages to survive my stringent cuts, wrote a book tangentially related to one of my oldest and (until now) most secret loves, I had no choice but to read it. And love it. And weep over it, just a little.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, the term “redshirt” originated with fans of the original Star Trek series to describe a character with little or no back story who dies shortly after being introduced (often before the opening credits); the purpose of such a character was to provide the viewer with a glimpse of what the show’s protagonists were up against. Scalzi takes this premise and turns it into a novel that just about ripped my damn heart out.

Usually with a book this excellent, I have no doubt that the vast majority of my readers could pick it up and experience (at least on some level) the euphoria I have, but for once I’m stumped. I have no idea whether or not this book will resonate with non science-fiction fans (although I would love for those of you who aren’t to read it and report back). When I laughed, many times it was at jokes so ingrained in the person I am, and the person I was when I was thirteen, that I can’t objectively determine whether, say, my father would also laugh if he read the same passage. If I left this book on a train, would the only people tempted to pick it up be those already on the inside?

I don’t know! And it’s killing me! I hate not knowing things! I’m nosy (I consider it to be one of my finer little sister traits, in fact), and I like to be right, so I don’t want to just waltz in here and insist that you read this book if I’m wrong about non-geeks being susceptible to the awesome. (That would be embarrassing, and the only thing worse than being wrong is being embarrassed by how very wrong you are.)

But if you just give it a chance…

I mean, look at me. I’m not into video games or going to any event that ends in the word “con.” I don’t write fanfic (although I think we’ve previously agreed that it’s perfectly acceptable for me to have occasionally dabbled in reading it). I don’t like getting dressed up in costume for any reason whatsoever, and I’ve never made it through Dune (although apparently I have read five of the top ten  most iconic sci-fi books…but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument). I shop at the Gap, for God’s sake! At best, I’m like a junior member geek who’s legitimacy is constantly questioned by how poorly I score on the geek entrance exam.

So if I can love the book this hard, how inaccessible can it really be? I say that if you can name even one character from any of the iterations of Star Trek (and that includes the 2009 movie, which we all know you totally saw, so don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about), you’ll enjoy this book on some level. It may not be to the extent that hardcore fans (or even geeks on the fringe) do, but that’s no reason not to give it a try. It’s funny, I promise. And surprisingly touching. In fact, you’ll probably cry, then have to pretend some sand from the beach just got in your eye, which will get you thinking about how we’re all as insignificant as grains of sand, and the philosophy major in you will just explode with this unexpected opportunity to make an appearance while you’re on vacation, so just do us all a favor and stop fighting it. Your inner hoarder needs this.

(I’msorryIjustcan’tstopmyself) Resistance is futile.

Now go give John Scalzi some love here. His blog has been around for like fourteen years, so it’s like, practically a history credit just clicking that link.

Ender in Exile, Orson Scott Card

I found Ender in Exile a few months ago when I was with my husband on one of our bookstore dates. Those dates always involve me spending way too much on books I mostly read a few pages of and then decide to take a chance on. I didn’t need to read a few pages of this one to know I wanted it.

You see, Ender is an old, dear friend of mine. Reading Ender in Exile is, for me, what I imagine Facebook must be for people who like Facebook. In reading it, I’m picking up again with old acquaintances, characters I’ve known since I was 13 years old. Sure, they’re fictional, but how real are those people from high school who “friend” us – people we never ate lunch with or called on the phone but who recognize our names from the bowels of memory and seek a connection because of what? Nostalgia, maybe. A desire for shared history, more likely. Ender is as real to me as any of those people whose names I have literally erased from memory, just as their lives are as much fiction to me as any of the books in Ender’s universe.

If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, the first of the books in this collection, you should. (Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, you should still check it out.) Maybe it won’t mean as much to you as it did to me as a teenager, but I have since read all the books in the series, and to varying degrees, I have loved them. Orson Scott Card has a talent for writing characters who are easily taken into the heart to love and despise in equal degree, and his gift for storytelling is worthy of the many awards he’s won.

The books in this series are so much more than genre fiction. They remind me in some ways of opera (I know – I’m making them even more appealing to you now, aren’t I?) in that the emotions are soaring yet intimate, the scenarios both implausible and familiar. In one of my favorite moments in Ender in Exile, Ender’s parents, who we see little of in other books, are discussing the enormous difficulties they face in deciding what’s best for all three of their superlatively brilliant children:

   “Teresa, we have to decide: What’s best for Ender? What’s best for Peter and Valentine? What’s best for the future of the world?”
   “Sitting here on our bed, in the middle of the night, the two of us are deciding the fate of the world?” (pg 5)

Maybe I’m alone in having nights that feel like this, but I don’t think so. I don’t even have to have my own children to know that parents feel the pressure of the world bearing down, worrying at them, even when their children aren’t military geniuses. The fact of the matter is, living in a community puts an impetus on each of us to care about something more than ourselves. It puts us in the way of all sorts of decisions, and that’s what these books are about. What happens when you place people – people too young or smart or ordinary or evil – in the path of decisions that affect, not only the world, but the entire unknown universe?

In light of that, there is one other thing I feel I need to add to this discussion, and while it’s not always a conscious consideration when choosing books to read, this discovery has influenced my perception of Orson Scott Card (and burdened my heart in no small part). He has been, for many years, an outspoken advocate against gay rights. People have attributed this to his Mormon faith – and he does identify that his plots around care for children stem from these beliefs – but I personally know many Mormons who are tolerant and open-minded about issues of orientation, so I prefer not to make the assumption that this is where his opinion stems from. I admit I didn’t know this about him when I first started reading his books; I didn’t learn of it until about two years ago, and since then, I have been trying to put together the novelist who has written characters seeking justice and tolerance, his stories, which embrace hugely different cultures and upbringings, and the man, who has such a conservative social view-point.

I’m not sure whether I would have read his books had I known then that he uses his position as a well-loved author to forward ideas I find abhorrent. This is what my favorite English teacher would have called an existential crisis. On the one hand, I love his books. The characters are so dear to me that I can’t imagine my literary life without them. On the other, I was raised to act with compassion toward all people, even those others denigrate, and especially, most difficultly, those who hold ideas I find repugnant.

The benediction at our wedding was from our favorite passage in Micah: “What does God require of you but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” To me, this is the end all and be all of my entire faith. I am not asked to judge others, or despise them for their hatred, or force my opinions on them. Certainly people rarely let go of intolerance because others have hated them into it. Even in Card’s books, the worst villains were never truly beaten by violence or superior strength but by others meeting them with love and patience.

Existential crises are hard. If I knew the answer for sure, I would be much happier. If all the people whose writing I liked could be as liberal as I am, it would be so much easier. But I don’t, and they aren’t. Life is sort of like the best book ever written that way. Nothing is as plainly good or evil as you hope it will be. Villains may redeem themselves or not. Conflict that rips you open from gut to gills can end up changing the world into a much better place than it was when you were nice and put together. There are sacrifices worth the heartache and things done for the greater good that are worthless. It’s a story filled with unfair plot twists and too much death with little enough adventure and romance to balance out the cosmic scales.

So we do little things. We complicate other people’s beliefs by giving them as much information as possible then allowing them the freedom to choose. We bite our lashing-out tongues one moment, then stand up and take the punches meant for another in the next. We fail one day and live to fight another.

I love Card’s books. I can’t help it. I hate that buying his books might in some way support propagating hatred though, so in the future, I’ll check them out of the library instead of purchasing them myself. This is the best answer I have right now, and it’s nowhere near satisfying. In five or ten or fifty years I might come up with a more perfect solution, but for now, this is where I stand. These books may hold undercurrents of his ideals, but they are in no way stories of intolerance or prejudice, and I can’t bring myself to throw them on the pyre because I disagree with the author. Down that road, tempted though we may sometimes be, lies chaos, unearned self-righteousness, and the death of free speech.

If you’d care to read more about Orson Scott Card’s work, he has a comprehensive site here.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

I’m going to start by saying, I’m not very good at being a geek. Sure, I like ST:TNG and the original Star Wars movies. I’ve seen a couple of Monty Python flicks. My brother and I owned a Sega Genesis back in the day (although we only owned the game that came with it – Sonic the Hedgehog – so that should tell you something right there about our commitment level to gaming). I know who Wil Wheaton is, and I know why he is so beloved on the interwebs years after TNG ended. I even know how to handle a number of computery problems by myself (though, again, the fact that I even used the word “computery” gives you an idea of my depth of expertise). I’ve watched most of Ranma 1/2 in the original Japanese, and my first really big celebrity crush was on Jonathan Frakes.

My only strong interests in geekdom currently, however, are in fantasy and sci-fi literature and in the mildly appalling fact that I occasionally get sucked down fan fic wormholes. I’ve never been to a con. I can’t stand reading graphic novels (not because they aren’t cool, but because it hurts my eyes and brain when I try to process information that way). My closet is filled with many non-black tee shirts. I have the attention span of a gnat for any kind of video game, and probably most damning of all, I’m a morning person.

That being said, I married a geek. One of my best friends is a geek. In fact, many of my friends are insanely geeky, awesome, stupefyingly brilliant people, and I’m often jealous of the cozy little world that has evolved alongside the internet, allowing geeks to rise up their proper place in the social order. When my husband and I first started dating, he even gave me a copy of The Geek Handbook, which I read cover to cover that very night (I’m also not a procrastinator, which I’m pretty sure bans me from full geek status on its own). I then went on to let him know exactly how and why I already knew all about the care and handling of geek humans – which might have been the moment he fell for me.

I was raised on the edge of geek culture, and I’ve always enjoyed it – even the parts I didn’t understand (and there are many) – maybe that’s why I fell in love with Ready Player One before I finished the first chapter. It was like reading little bits of history out of the lives of so many people I love. I have no doubt that Cline is a supreme geek, aw=s well as knowledgable in the extreme about 80s culture, and reading his story (because you can’t be even a little bit geek without this sort of being your story too), I was sucked in.

The funniest thing is, it takes place almost entirely inside a virtual reality gaming system, and one of my worst nightmares is that someday the world will be so bad, or so bored, that this is what will happen. The lines between reality and gaming will blur almost to extinction. We’ll all be living in an artificial world because the real one is just not enough. This scares me more than being caught on a suspension bridge during a huge earthquake. Or drowning. Or that scene in Indiana Jones where he falls into a train car full of snakes…and that scares me a lot.

I would never want to live in a world like that, not even if it meant I could control an avatar that was fiercer and more graceful than I am. It might allow me to do all the things I could ever dream of, but at the end of the day, I would know that I hadn’t done anything at all, and I think it would break my heart.

But if it ever did have to come to pass, I would want to see it as Ernest Cline has envisioned it – as a place where children can get an equal education regardless of wealth or situation, where friends can emerge from the most unlikely places, and where noble men and women emerge to protect a system of open source information sharing…

Because honestly, he makes it seem pretty great.

Ernest Cline can be found at Also, I hear the audio version of this book is pretty fabulous (and narrated by Wil Wheaton), so if that’s more your speed, definitely check it out at your local library or on

Unwind, Neal Shusterman

After I released this blog to the public last week, a friend asked me whether I only planned to post positive reviews, or if I would write about books I didn’t like as well. I’ve been thinking about that for the last few months as this project developed, and in the end, I decided to call the blog Books, j’adore…so…it would seem odd to use this as a forum to talk about books I hate.

And really, the last thing I would want to discover as a writer is that a book I’ve poured myself into for months or years is being torn down on the internet by someone I don’t even know. If you want a balanced perspective on anything I read, you’re welcome to search for one elsewhere – the internet is full of opinions more sophisticated, academic, and crueler than mine. I certainly don’t like every element of every book I read, or even every book I end up enjoying, and I will discuss that here, but I’m not much for the bashing. Also, let’s be honest, if I start reading a book and hate it, I’m going to toss it aside before I write a word.

With that public announcement taken care of, let me jump into  this book by Neal Shusterman. Unwind was a recommendation from my mother. She bought it a few years ago while visiting me in LA at this great book store on Pico called Children’s Book World; the woman working there recommended a stack of books to us, and being the YA and picture book addicts we are, we resisted maybe one of them. I came down with a bad cold this weekend, and my mother thought this book, which I had never gotten around to reading, would be a good way to past the time.

I didn’t even read the back before diving in. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Because this novel is difficult to summarize briefly, I’m borrowing the description I found at to set the scene:

In America after the Second Civil War, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies came to an agreement: The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, a parent may choose to retroactively get rid of a child through a process called “unwinding.” Unwinding ensures that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end by transplanting all the organs in the child’s body to various recipients. Now a common and accepted practice in society, troublesome or unwanted teens are able to easily be unwound.

If that paragraph alone doesn’t leave you deeply disturbed, well, then maybe you’re more removed from your teenage years than I am…or maybe you currently have a teenager who’s giving you more than just the grey hairs my brother and I gifted our parents with.

Shusterman has a knack for creating a branch of the future that’s so similar to the world we live in now, it’s hard to completely shrug his story off as science fiction. His three protagonists seem to age five years over the course of a few months, which I might find unbelievable except that the challenges they face after discovering they’re to be unwound are gut wrenching. And his adults are, by and large, the kind of monsters who haunt my dreams – good people who avert their eyes when something awful is happening – although rare moments of compassion underly a very deep darkness with a line of hope.

“Please,” says the boy.

Please what? the teacher thinks. Please break the law? Please put myself and the school at risk? But, no, that’s not it at all. What he’s really saying is: Please be a human being. With a life so full of rules and regiments, it’s so easy to forget that’s what they are. She knows—she sees—how often compassion takes a back seat to expediency. (p 83)

The very first science fiction novel I ever read (I was around ten or eleven, I think, and had, before this, only ventured from mainstream fiction into some fantasy and mystery) was Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Carde. I have since read almost every book in that series (the last, Ender in Exile, is on my shelf), and as much as I cherish all of those books, and appreciate them anew as an adult, I still remember my first immersion into a world both like and unlike my own – written mostly from the perspective of children – that forever altered the way I wanted to impact the world.

Unwind isn’t as smooth a read for me as Ender’s Game, but it has a similar power, an ability to instill a desire to make the world a kinder, more compassionate place so that such things never have to come to past. Some science fiction is so lofty, so idealistic that it never instills this fire in me, and I’m always stunned when I come across a book, like this one, that makes me think hard about the excuses we make as decision-makers to justify terrible things.

To find out more about the author go to  or follow his blog at