Revenant

Revenant (Deep Space 9) by Alex White

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a(n): paperback

Length: 308 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Revenant is set during the early 4th season of Deep Space Nine and follows Jadzia Dax to Trill. An old friend of hers comes to ask for her help in tracking down his wayward granddaughter, Nemi, who ran off after being denied twice to be joined with a symbiont. Upon finding the young woman, whom Jadzia views as a younger sister, she realizes there is something very wrong with Nemi. Scans reveal that Nemi has a symbiont and no life signs of her own. Horrified, Dax returns to Trill to unearth a centuries-long conspiracy which involves not only Jadzia, but at least two of Dax’s previous hosts as well.

I loved this story from the plot to the title. A revenant is someone who returns from death, like a zombie. Or Jesus. You know. As one does. I thought the idea of an evil symbiont who takes over a body and reanimates it is so interesting and I’m honestly not sure why since I generally think zombie stories are dumb. But this wasn’t a zombie story, per se. It was a glitch with the Trill and their symbionts and the ones like Nemi weren’t all corpsified and gross like other zombie stories. 

I’ve always thought the Trill are an interesting species and this book reinforces that interest. The idea of hosts and symbionts can make for some terrific discussion on identity and mortality. How does it affect one’s perception of time if you get a really old symbiont? What becomes important? 

Dax’s condemnation of the Symbiosis Commission also raised some good points about the elitism of joined Trill. The Commission always matches symbionts with the best and brightest young Trill, those who excel in their field in some way. I can see their point in doing so – I suppose you wouldn’t want to join a symbiont with the Trill equivalent of a maga hillbilly or something – but there is no reason not to allow a regular person to be joined. Sure, join them with astrophysicists and doctors and diplomats, but maybe also join them with housewives and schoolteachers and mechanics sometimes, too. It takes all kinds. 

The hive mind element was also intriguing. In Star Trek, when you hear hive mind your first thought usually is, “Borg! Run away!” But this was more like a telepathic fungus and made me think a bit of Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I’m not sure if that was intentional on White’s part or not but I thought it was a cool connection regardless. 

I’m super behind in reading the newest Trek novels, so maybe more of them are like this, but I am digging the apparent return to episodic, one book equals one story format. The relaunch books were nice but I never liked how you had to read all of them to know what the fuck was going on. Episodic novels are way better IMNSHO. 

It was also fun to see an early side to the Worf/Jadzia relationship. I never cared one way or another for that ship but I know it was popular and sad so it was fun to see a new story about them from early on. 

At any rate, this was a really fun story. Enthusiastically recommended for any Star Trek fan!

Catch-Up Round: There There and Running with Sherman

There There by Tommy Orange

Genre: contemporary literature/ Indigenous

I read it as a(n): paperback

Length: 294 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This novel highlights the lives of 12 people and how they intersect at the Big Oakland Powwow. There are people whose lives have been ruined by alcohol, drugs, the murder or suicide of loved ones, and somehow they still manage to keep going. There is an underlying discussion about generational trauma, especially among the Native tribes. There is also vast systemic racism, which impacts people in so many ways, sometimes in ways no one even is aware of. 

This was a short but powerful book. It was a fast read as well, but not an easy one. It is hard to read about the suffering of others and to know how very privileged you are by comparison. 

I always love reading about a culture I’m not that familiar with. Even though I live in the Southwest and there are several different Native American tribes in the area, I don’t know anyone personally who is Native. My exposure to actual Native culture is mostly confined to the occasional powwow I go to and reading books written by Native authors. 

Definitely recommended!

Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall

Genre: nonfiction

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Length: 12:13:03

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Christopher McDougall and his wife, Mika, are tired of living in Philly so they buy a place in Amish country and basically now have a hobby farm. One of the neighbors tells McDougall that one of the members of his church needs help and that he’s an animal hoarder. McDougall goes with his friend to the hoarder’s farm and they rescue a little donkey who was severely ill, standing on horrifically overgrown hooves in filthy straw in a tiny stall. McDougall and his friends and family rally to take care of the donkey, who they name Sherman, and eventually he gets better. Then McDougall learns about donkey racing. 

This was not exactly what I thought it would be. I heard about it in an article I read somewhere recently and I thought it was about the Born to Run guy teaching the donkey how to go running with him, like you take your dog running with you. I had visions of a fuzzy donkey trotting alongside McDougall on the road and it is something I would desperately love to see. But no. Apparently there is a whole community of donkey racers who, from what it sounds like, allow their donkeys to drag them up hills and mountains in some kind of hard core trail running crossed with Mountain Man stuff. Much like running a marathon, it doesn’t sound at all fun. 

I thought this book was only OK, partly because I misunderstood the premise of running with Sherman and partly because it kind of dragged in a lot of places. There wasn’t as much about Sherman as I would have liked; instead, there was a lot about the people involved, the training involved, the stories of the people involved, and I just didn’t care that much about them. I stuck through to the end because I did want to see how Sherman did in his big donkey race in Colorado, and parts of it were funny, but overall I thought it was just mediocre.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Genre: nonfiction/science

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Shelly Frasier

Length: 8:00:00 

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Do you ever wonder what happens to the body if its owner has donated it to science? If so, this is the book for you. Author Mary Roach covers the uses of cadavers ranging from medical/surgical practice to body snatching, crash test dummies to a new residence at the Body Farm, and many topics in between. Always respectful but lightening the subject with her typical humor, Roach guides readers through the many relevant roles cadavers have in their post-mortem, well, lives. 

I had read this book years ago for my book club and remember being kind of bored with it. I listened to it this time on audio and I think the problem before was that I skimmed some of the parts that were horrifying to me and I was more focused on that than on the actual topic. This time, I didn’t skim or skip sections and the experience this go round was difficult in places. I am terrified of flying, for example, and so the chapter discussing the ways forensic examiners look at bodies in plane crashes to figure out what happened was really anxiety-making for me. A couple other sections made me lose my appetite. 

This still wasn’t my favorite book by Mary Roach. I haven’t read all of them yet, but of the ones I have read, I think my favorite is Packing for Mars. If a person has never read one of her books, I likely wouldn’t recommend this one as their first. That said, I was a lot more engaged and interested this time. In horror, I laughed out loud a few times. I definitely learned a lot. 

And yes, I still plan to donate my body to science when the time comes.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab

Genre: fantasy

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 444 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

SPOILERS BELOW!!

Adeline “Addie” LaRue, a young woman in 1714 rural France, is being forced to marry. Only she does not want to marry, not this guy and not anyone else for now. In desperation, she begs and makes a deal with one of the Old Gods for more time. It helps to be specific when asking for things from genies or Old Gods because Addie is now immortal. The price of her immortality is that she can leave no mark upon the world. She can’t write, make art, not even say her own name. Everyone instantly forgets her as soon as she leaves their sight. Except one day, about 300 years later, one person doesn’t forget her. 

I think the premise of this novel was awesome. I’m sure everyone, at one point or another, has wondered what it would be like to live forever. Personally, I would hate it unless my daughter was immortal along with me. Kind of like heaven. Why the fuck would anyone want to go there and be stuck for all eternity with people you don’t like, or not to be able to help someone you love if you see them in trouble, or not to see loved ones ever again if they didn’t win a ticket to the cloud house? Pass, thanks.

Anyway, the premise was interesting and I think there are a ton of fascinating ways the novel could have gone. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened. 

Addie would have seen amazing things in her long life, yet she herself was not at all interesting. I thought she was boring AF. I’d forget her instantly, too. She had 300 years and all she did was travel to the same handful of places, learn a few all-Western languages, and bitch and moan about things. She could have visited the entire world, learned languages that weren’t some variation of a romance language, maybe even found a way to be an anonymous yet generous benefactor in some way to kids or a starving artist or something, despite her inability to leave a mark on the world. She could have chosen to remember some major historic events from an eyewitness POV. French Revolution? That was interesting. American Revolution? Yeah, Washington wasn’t as tall as people think. The Civil War and subsequent Jim Crow era, the Japanese surrender in 1945, the launch of the first Sputnik rockets, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the politics of the Belgian Congo, the Rwandan Genocide. SO MANY things she could have seen and discussed. Instead, she wanders around stealing books and thinking incessantly about herself.

Henry was equally forgettable. He was a bland, boring man, though honest kudos to Schwab for trying to have a discussion about depression through his character. We need open and frank talks about mental health and any genuine attempt to do so is worthy of praise. But maybe make him interesting while also talking about depression. He just kind of wandered through the story and had no real purpose except to be the person who remembers Addie. 

Luc, the Old God sort of creature who Addie made her Faustian deal with, was physically sexy. But there the interest ended. We are supposed to believe he is some kind of god but he has a weird fetish with Addie? With making her suffer because he has nothing better to do? He didn’t even torment her to give readers any sort of character development. And then he and Addie end up together? After all that? OMG Stockholm Syndrome much? She wanted more time and not to have to be with anybody forever and then she ends up with Luc? Schwab sets up the plot for a sequel, but I was too bored and irritated by this to ever bother with a sequel. 

I have seen the writing described as beautiful, amazing, vivid, and so on. I wonder if I was reading the same book. Yes, there were some parts that were very nicely detailed and described. But there was also a LOT of repetition. If it was supposed to be vivid or whatever, I feel it missed the mark. If it was to subtly underscore the repetitive and boring nature of eternal life, then well done, mission accomplished. 

TL;DR version: Self-centered forgettable immortal woman thinks constantly about herself while stealing books, traveling to the same handful of places, learning a few Western-only languages, not witnessing many historical events or, apparently, meeting anyone who isn’t white until 2014. Wave off this one if you’re on the fence about reading it. So yeah, unpopular opinion, I guess. But I didn’t think this one was at all worth the hype.

Katherine

Katherine by Anya Seton

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Wanda McCaddon

Length: 23:44:00

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Katherine is the classic novel by Anya Seton that follows the life of Katherine Swynford, most famous as the long-time mistress of John of Gaunt. The novel begins as Katherine is heading to court after having lived for years at a convent. Naturally, she is young and beautiful and so must, therefore, get a husband. Some younger knights and squires turn her head but the intimidating Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, catches her eye more than others. She knows better, and he is married, but likes him anyway. Katherine is horrified, though, when one of Lancaster’s knights, Hugh Swynford, asks to marry her. It is an advantageous marriage and it is quickly arranged. She goes with her new husband to his home at Kettlethorpe and has two babies and that, she thinks, is that. But then Hugh gets sick in France while in service to Lancaster and sends for her, and dies soon after. Woo hoo! Now she and Lancaster can get it on if they want to, since his wife, too, had died. The rest, as they say, is history.

This novel was first written in 1954 and it shows in a lot of ways. Sometimes, the women seemed infantilized in ways that they are not in newer historical fiction. No, there was no such thing as feminism in the Middle Ages, and no, the women tended not to ever act or speak in terms like we would today. But they are not always depicted quite as the meek and submissive women that they often were in Seton’s novel. It felt very much like The Good Housewife’s Guide from, well, the 1950s. LOL gross. 

This was a very well researched book, though. It didn’t feature any battle scenes or gore, which makes sense since it was centered around Katherine. She wouldn’t have had first hand knowledge of anything like that. We got a lot of the day-to-day of women’s lives in this, which was interesting. The historical record doesn’t actually go into much detail about women’s lives since they weren’t the ones in power. There’s a lot about war and men and the church instead. I think the lack of actual record makes for a great way for a skilled author to bring to life aspects of a time that we may not know very much about. 

Though this wasn’t my favorite book I’ve ever read, it was enjoyable enough and the narrator, Wanda McCaddon, did a good job in her performance. Probably I would read or listen to other of Seton’s mediaeval books, though I’m not sure I liked this one well enough to branch out into her works set in later (i.e., less interesting to me) time periods.

The Fall of Hyperion

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a(n): paperback

Length: 517 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Fall of Hyperion picks up right where Hyperion left off. The Shrike pilgrims are entering the Time Tombs, war is brewing, and political machinations are at peak levels. The pilgrims are tasked with carrying on, regardless of what else is happening on the planet Hyperion or in the greater universe. The CEO of the Hegemony, Meina Gladstone, is working furiously to prevent a full-scale war with the Ousters while simultaneously trying to decide what choice to make to save humanity. Either way, she’s pretty screwed. 

The main focus of this book was less on the pilgrims themselves and more on the political climate as a character in itself. War is looming, then erupts, Hyperion is getting a raw deal both in terms of the war, which is taking place in part directly above and on it, as well as the Shrike going completely ape and raining down terror on the inhabitants of the planet. We get to see a lot more scheming and bargaining behind the scenes in this book than we did in Hyperion. Reading about fictional politics can get boring real fast if not done well; Simmons knows how to do it well. The war and the shocking secret CEO Gladstone learns are just a part of the overall story.

The structure of Fall of Hyperion necessarily does not resemble The Canterbury Tales in space as Hyperion did. I really, really loved the way Hyperion was structured, but I also really, really love The Canterbury Tales. So maybe I’m a little biased. But I also loved how much of Fall of Hyperion was crafted through the perspective of Thomas Severn, a cybrid based on the poet John Keats. Actually, it isn’t his POV so much as his dreams that connect the politics of the greater Hegemony with the goings-on of the pilgrims. So that was nifty. 

There were a lot of themes going on, from religion to literature to environmentalism to technology. I particularly enjoyed the themes of becoming overly reliant on technology and the impact on the environment such reliance can have. The farcasters the citizens of the Hegemony use to travel vast distances instantly are awesome, but it’s revealed they don’t really know how they work. It’s like the Pakleds on Star Trek – they take and use technology they have limited understanding of, and it never works out well for them. Learning the hard way is really the only way to truly learn something and the Hegemony is in the “find out” phase of things throughout this novel. Just like we are in real life, I’m afraid. 

Anyway, Simmons has penned a fantastic book. He’s become one of my favorite sci-fi writers. His work is intelligent, fun, and deep all at once. There’s plenty here to make readers think and discuss. Definitely recommended, and I am looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Genre: nonfiction/nature writing/memoir

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 190 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When the author, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, is suddenly struck by a debilitating illness, she finds herself bedridden. One day, a visiting friend brings her a pot of flowers and a snail. At first, she was like “WTF? A snail?” but then discovers that there are many fascinating things about her weird little companion. Over the course of a year, Bailey observes and learns about her snail, even getting to witness some things not even a lot of snail scientists have seen. 

I never would have expected to get attached to a snail. But I did. I worried that the snail would die throughout the whole book, thinking it would get out and wander off and dry out, or die. I didn’t know they can live for years. Or that they have like a zillion teeth! Or that they really fucking love mushrooms. 

The writing style of this book was interesting. It mirrored the snail’s slow but steady speed while simultaneously making you feel a little bit stuck like the author was trapped in her sickbed. It was never boring but it was definitely a slower-paced book. It was also a very beautifully written book that imbued feeling into every passage with a simple observation about a falling leaf, or a hole eaten into a paper, or a snail’s tentacles waving at something new. 

Favorite lines:

  • Every few days I watered the violets from my drinking glass, and the excess water seeped into the dish beneath. This always woke the snail. It would glide to the rim of the pot and look over, slowly waving its tentacles in apparent delight, before making its way down to the dish for a drink (17-18).
  • Despite its small size, the snail was a fearless and tireless explorer (25).
  • A single portobello was about fifty times larger than my snail, and so my caregiver cut a generous slice and placed it in the terrarium. The snail loved the mushroom. It was so happy to have a familiar food, after weeks of nothing but wilted flowers, that for several days it slept right next to the huge piece of portobello… (29-30).

Dissolution

Dissolution by CJ Sansom

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Steven Crossley

Length: 14:33:00

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The first of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, Dissolution, features Master Shardlake being sent off to an abbey where one of the King’s commissioners had been murdered. Shardlake is a lawyer and clerk for Thomas Cromwell and is tasked with bringing the commissioner’s murderer to justice. When he arrives at the abbey, he finds it to be a seething morass of corruption, deceit, and forbidden faith. And of course the body count goes up and up the longer he’s there.

This was a good read overall. The setting was well described and the historical details were nicely researched. Sansom created a scene that easily came alive through his use of descriptive language. I am glad I don’t live in the Renaissance. The smell alone would kill me, if I somehow managed not to get burnt as a witch. 

The plot was complex and twisty without being overly complicated or unbelievable. I figured out the mystery, or one of them anyway, fairly early on but probably that’s just because I read a lot of mysteries. I was entertained throughout and the secondary plot/ mystery was one I didn’t guess before all was revealed. 

Would certainly read more in this series.

All Our Hidden Gifts

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Genre: fantasy

I read it as a(n): paperback

Length: 374 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Maeve is a typical teen – she likes hanging out with friends, doesn’t like school, occasionally has behavioural problems, and mainly just wants to fit in. When she randomly unearths a deck of tarot cards while cleaning out a room in detention, she discovers that she has a strange affinity and skill for reading the tarot. Maeve finds herself suddenly popular, her highly accurate tarot readings wildly in demand among her fellow students. But when a reading goes badly wrong and a girl disappears, Maeve once again finds herself on the edges of society. She finds herself assisted in some surprising ways as she struggles to fix what she broke, find the missing girl, and bring balance again to cosmic forces well beyond her understanding. 

This was a pretty fun read, though at times fairly standard. I liked that it was set in Ireland and had a plot involving some of the tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The way the author worked that into the story was nicely done. It invoked some historical elements that added some extra depth to the plot. I also liked how it seemed she was making a commentary on Christianity and how so often they are nowhere near as loving or whatever as they claim to be. 

The author also explored how being a teen is hard, yes, but it is also when you get new life experiences and the chance to have a lot of personal growth. A lot of the story revolved around this and other normal teen issues like learning how to navigate changing relationships. I think a big takeaway from it was that, even when things turn out fine in the end, that doesn’t mean they stay the same or even that they work out well. Sometimes you have to take life lessons with outcomes you don’t want. That isn’t bad, even if things hurt sometimes. It’s just the way it is. 

I read this because my daughter loved it and wanted me to read it as well. I try to read at least a few of the same books as her throughout the year. Most of the stuff she likes is sort of fluffy fantasy and this wasn’t really an exception. I like that she loves reading so I am always happy to share her books if there’s one she really enjoyed. It is one thing that I hope we will always have in common, a love of reading.

Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 320 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Klara is an AF, or Artificial Friend. When the story opens, she’s in a store with several other AFs, waiting to be purchased so they can be a child’s companion/nanny/caregiver when their parents are busy working. Klara and friends are given turns sitting in the front display window where they are easy to see and can get the full benefit of being in the sunlight. The sun takes on the role of deity to the apparently solar-powered AFs so getting to be in the display window gives them not only a better chance to get charged up but more time to see the sun directly. Eventually, Klara is purchased for a girl called Josie, who has an unspecified disease that is likely to kill her. 

Klara learns the routines of her new household and how to care for Josie. In this particular, Klara is uniquely suited to be Josie’s AF since Klara is keenly observant, a trait not shared by most other AFs. Because of her ability to observe, Josie’s mother approached Klara with a strange request when it becomes clear that Josie isn’t likely to survive much longer. Klara agrees, but she also takes it upon herself to try to strike a deal with the sun to save Josie. 

There are a lot of complex ideas and themes in this book, which I totally expect from Ishiguro. We could discuss what it means to be human, religion, eugenics, or obsolescence. But here’s the thing – I didn’t care enough about any character in this novel to really want to do that. I found Klara to be utterly boring, Josie to be shallow and vapid, and her mother disengaged. The only character who seemed at all relatable was Josie’s friend Rick. He is an “unlifted” kid, whatever that means. It seems to be some kind of genetic enhancement to make them smarter. As a result, unlifted kids tend to be denied entry to schools or other opportunities, but the lifted ones seem to have potentially deadly side effects. It seems very eugenicist. 

The thing I thought was the most interesting was Klara’s anthropomorphization and deification of the sun. It became a living thing to her, capable of making decisions and deciding whether or not to save people from death. The deification was always present in Klara, so maybe all the AFs are programmed with a basic belief in the sun as a god. That’s super interesting since religion is entirely a man-made construct anyway. But it also was painfully ridiculous at times, the way Klara begged the sun to help Josie or to notice her, promising to do good things in return for the sun’s help. I never got a sense that Klara actually felt emotions, so her asking the sun to heal Josie felt flat rather than touching. The whole thing could easily be read that religion is similarly silly and useless as Klara’s devotion to the sun. Ishiguro himself is officially Zen Buddhist but says he and his family were really without religion; they just said Buddhist because it was required at the time for a religion to be on the birth certificate (NPR). This whole part of the novel makes me think that he was commenting on religion as an unnecessary, man-made construct, or that Klara’s programming could be analogous to the human need to find patterns and meaning in everything, the so-called “god gene” on a robotic level. For me, this was the most interesting part of the novel.

I was really disappointed with this book overall. Never Let Me Go it was not. That book was amazing and deep and dense. Klara and the Sun, by contrast, felt shallow. I’m not sure if that’s because Klara was the narrator and I found her to be supernaturally boring or if I just didn’t like it or what. Whatever it was, it made me want to reread NLMG to wash the taste of this one out of my brain. 

Reference:

“Kazuo Ishiguro Draws on His Songwriting Past to Write Novels about the Future.” NPR, NPR, 17 Mar. 2021, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/978138547.