Concrete Rose

Concrete RoseConcrete Rose by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: YA

Setting: Garden Heights

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Dion Graham

Source: my own collection

Length: 8:17:00

Published by: Harper Audio (12 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Concrete Rose is the sequel story to Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This tells the story of Maverick Carter when he was a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Maverick always expected that he would grow up to be in a gang like his dad. His future as a gang member seemed cemented when he learns that the baby of one of his classmates is also his. Selling drugs seems to him to be the only way to make enough money to make ends meet, support his son, and help his mother with their bills. When his girlfriend Lisa also becomes pregnant, Maverick understandably freaks out. He assumes he will never amount to anything and so why NOT join a gang and sell drugs? His part time job working for Mr Wyatt’s store has shown him that “honest work” doesn’t pay anything. When Maverick suffers a catastrophic loss, he finds that life takes you in directions you never expected and that the help we might need is right there with us if we can open our eyes enough to see it.

So, I loved this book. I have loved all of Angie Thomas’s books so far, which is a record not even Neil Gaiman holds with me. This is a sequel to THUG but you don’t have to have read that one to get this one. I love how she weaves in bits of her other novels throughout the narrative. For example, when Lisa’s mom kicks her out of the house, she goes to stay with Miss Rosalie and takes her friend Brenda’s bedroom. When Brenda comes to visit with her new baby, they all get a kick out of meeting baby Khalil. That hit me right in the feels when I realized it is Khalil from THUG. Little tidbits like that really bring the story to life and serve as sort of an insider’s view for those of us who have read the other books, but it isn’t necessary to get the story. It is fully standalone. 

The power of names is a strong theme throughout the story as well. Maverick names his son Seven because it is the number of perfection, and to him, his son is perfect. Maverick says his father named him so because he wanted him to be a freethinker and independent. The course of the narrative leads Maverick all over but he does eventually live up to his name, though not at all in the way he expects. 

I how Mr Wyatt was a father figure to Maverick, teaching him some transferable skills and encouraging him with tough love. Mr Wyatt talks a lot about his garden, especially his roses, which are stronger than they seem and can grow anywhere, even through concrete. I assume the title, and the theme of hidden strength, is inspired by the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. Maverick has that strength and his life could easily have been ceaseless heartbreak and danger. But he chooses to do what he thinks is best for his family, and his losses to date have shown him what he DOESN’T want for them or for himself. He is brave enough to try something that is out of his realm of experience, and like the rose, he learns that he can bloom. “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.” 

I could really go on about this book all day but I will just stop before I actually do so. If you haven’t read any of Angie Thomas’s books, you are really missing out. This would be a good place to start, but honestly I think you should read THUG first. This one will have more of an emotional impact if you know Starr’s story already. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The apple don’t fall far from the tree, but it can roll away from it. It simply need a little push.
  • We left the roses untouched. I expected them to be dead by now, but they got blooms as big as my palm. … “What I tell you? Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.”

The Silent Patient

The Silent PatientThe Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides 

Genre: mystery

Setting: modern London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 325 pp

Published by: Celadon (5 Feb 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Alicia Berenson and her husband Gabriel are, by all accounts, deeply in love with each other. Both have successful careers, her as a painter and him as a fashion photographer. All seems peachy keen until the day when Alicia shoots Gabriel in the face five times and then never speaks again.

OK, so I can completely get it. Alicia had a mood and acted on it. But as with their marriage, things were not all as they appeared. Alicia is moved to a mental health facility, having been found criminally insane or mentally incompetent, whichever is the right term in the British justice system. She refuses to speak. She has violent outbursts. She gets a new shrink, Theo Faber, who is a criminal psychotherapist convinced he can get her to talk. His own motives need some analyzing as well, though.

I don’t get the hype of this book. Yes, it was a really fast read so it didn’t completely suck. But the suspension of disbelief required of readers is too much, at least for me. For one thing, and this is big for me, I’m thoroughly sick of authors – male authors especially – using women as both a stereotype and a plot point. Alicia was depicted as broken, abused, fragile, and so, naturally, crazy. The various ways she was abused served as plot points. It gets really old. 

Also, she refused to speak and was caught literally with the smoking gun just moments after she shot her husband, but we’re supposed to believe she managed to hide her secret diary and keep it hidden all these years, through various transfers to prison and psych wards? Yeah, right. 

And the Big Reveal? The reason she didn’t speak for years? She simply had nothing to say??!! Just no. That is something that would work if one has had a boring day, not when one shoots a spouse in the face and goes to the boobyhatch for years as a result. Come on. I was done at that point.

I do have to say that I liked the way the two story lines crossed and merged, and how it wasn’t clear until the end that one was actually in flashback. I did think that was kind of neat. Just the execution of the story itself was not. 

When We Were Vikings

When We Were VikingsWhen We Were Vikings by Andrew David Macdonald (Website)

Genre: contemporary literature

Setting: unspecified town/city in the US

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 326 pp

Published by: Scout Press (28 Jan 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

When We Were Vikings is the story of Zelda, a young woman on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum. She lives with her older brother, Gert, but attends classes and group activities at the local community center. She is a Viking enthusiast and views most things in life through the lens of Viking culture, literature, and their honor code. She discovers that her brother is dealing drugs and dropped out of college and so she decides she needs to help contribute to the family’s treasure hoard to help Gert make ends meet. Throughout all her experiences, Zelda encounters people ranging from the very best to some of the worst imaginable. She uses the things she has learned about Vikings and one’s own tribe to help her navigate the challenges life throws at her with courage and honor.

This was a super fast read and an engaging one, although I felt there were hardly any likeable characters. Zelda was certainly likeable but Gert was pretty much a loser even though he honestly was trying. He’s one of those people who can fuck up a free lunch. Gert’s friends were the worst in just about every way possible. Anna, Gert’s on-again/off-again girlfriend who Zelda calls AK47, is a good person and tries to look after Zelda, but she seems conflicted about what is best for HER and it was frustrating to see. So in general, I didn’t care for the characters here except for Zelda, who I genuinely enjoyed. 

There was a lot of good discussion around word use throughout the book. The word “retarded” was used a lot, negatively by Gert’s loser friends and some others we encountered. Zelda, though, would sometimes use it about herself as a way to take back the power from people who would use it to hurt her feelings. She said that owning it and using it herself makes it less powerful when someone else tries to use it against her. I can see that argument, but it still sucks that she even has to. 

There was also a big plot point centered around sexuality and cognitive disability. Zelda is on the FAS spectrum but is very independent, is able to hold down a job, and have her own apartment. However, her friend Marxy, who is initially her boyfriend, has Down syndrome and is far less able than Zelda. It is not likely he will ever have the ability to live on his own, for example. His mother and AK47 agree to work out a time and place where Zelda and Marxy can have sex because they are adults and want to give it a try. I know people with cognitive disabilities can and do have perfectly healthy sex lives, but I confess that part of the story was a little uncomfortable for me. It seems like some kind of abuse, even though intellectually I know that isn’t necessarily the case. This article on cognitive disability and sexuality helped me have a better understanding. 

On balance, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a lot of things to think about. I think it would make a terrific read for a book club. I didn’t like a lot of the actual plot or characters but the parts I did like were sufficient to outweigh any real dislike I had of other elements. 

Favorite lines:

  • In my dreams sometimes I think that Mom died and became a Valkyrie, that one day, when I am in a battle, she will take me with her to Valhalla (14). 
  • My favorite Viking saga is a legendary one called the Hrølfs saga Gautrekssonar, since it has a powerful king who is also a woman, named Đornbjörg. She kicks many asses and is so strong in battle that people don’t care that she is a woman (40).
  • The box wasn’t very big. That didn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful gift, since small things can be strong… (48).
  • I practiced each of [the sword fighting moves] in the basketball court outside of the apartment until it got dark, pretending that Grendel, who is the most monstrous villain in the Viking story Beowulf, was in front of me. One of the things I’ve learned is that Grendels can hide inside people, pretending to be human beings until they decide to attack (61). 
  • The library is a very heroic place to work because librarians help people get stronger brains. They also help people who are homeless by giving them food in cans that other people put into the cardboard box by the door. … I knew that [Carol] had to be a fuck-dick in the interview because you have to prove yourself worthy of being a librarian. You cannot just be a librarian without overcoming obstacles (151-152).

The Midnight Library

The Midnight LibraryThe Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary lit

Setting: modern England/ something like the bardo

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Carey Mulligan

Source: my own collection 

Length: 8:50:00

Published by: Penguin Audio (29 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

When Nora Seed decides to die, she winds up in the midnight library. There, she has a Big Book of Regrets and an infinite number of books, each containing different lives she could have lived if she had made various different choices. The rules are that she can try on as many lives as she wants but can never go back to a life once she’s left it, she can choose one to stay in, she can go back to her original life, or she can die. 

I think everyone can appreciate the idea of living a different life, making different decisions. It’s the ultimate “What If?” It would be fun to try a new life just to see, but I wish Nora was a more likeable character so following along in her journey would be more interesting. I found her to be quite weak and needy and as a result, I really didn’t care what life she chose for herself, or whether she chose a life at all.

I didn’t hate this book at all. I also found little in it that I truly liked. The sheer volume of 5 star reviews confuses me because it struck me as solidly mediocre and really not at all memorable. I think sucking readers in with the idea of a library between life and death is kind of gimmicky. Of course readers will be interested in the magic library. We already know the life changing, transformative power of books. So I think a story needs to have more to it than a magic library to carry it. 

I do think it is good that depression and anxiety are addressed here. It’s a real problem that millions of people are suffering. Showing that people who have depression aren’t abnormal or victims of abuse or whatever reason people think causes depression is an important discussion to have. Doing so in a book via a character with chronic depression can help people learn to empathize with others who have these conditions. It’s no more a person’s fault that they are depressed or anxious than it is if someone has cancer. So in that regard, this book did well. Sometimes people are just depressed or anxious and there doesn’t have to be some deep, dark trauma in the past to explain it.

I mostly felt that this book was like a Groundhog’s Day life buffet for a person who has completely failed to launch. Didn’t suck but wasn’t that good, either. I’m indifferent to it.

Star Trek TNG: Collateral Damage

ST TNG Collateral DamageStar Trek TNG: Collateral Damage by David Mack (Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaace! And Starfleet HQ in San Francisco

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 368 pp

Published by: Gallery Books (8 Oct 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In this installment of the continuing adventures of the Enterprise crew, we find Jean-Luc Picard facing something like a military grand jury to decide whether or not to court martial him for his actions in coercing the Federation’s president to resign. So he and Crusher are on Earth, dealing with lawyers. Yaaay. Meanwhile, Worf is in command of the ship and they take off to answer a distress call from a research base. The base had been attacked by Nausicaans and the dome over the base is melting because of the extreme heat of the sun. Geordi and his engineers have to figure out how to keep the dome intact until the sun goes down, which happens every 6 days by Earth-standard. Throw in some Nausicaans with a planet-killing weapon and a major desire for vengeance, and a man from Enterprise’s past who seems to throw a wrench in every plan and you have yourselves a story.

So Picard is facing the music at SFHQ for his role in the events leading up to President Zife’s forced resignation and subsequent murder. Whoops! That wasn’t very friendly. Of course, Picard mostly gets acquitted, and his lawyer did a good job proving how Picard was not at fault for the actions of his superior officers. However, I had a weird experience while reading this that I never thought I would feel towards Picard. One of the charges against him is sedition. Even though this book was published in 2019, I just now got around to reading it. The sedition element made it more visceral for me, considering the insurrection of January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol. If Picard acted in a manner even remotely similar to the inbred, mouth-breathing, Trump supporting insurrectionists, then he deserves to have the book thrown at him and spend the rest of his life in prison. I cannot recall the events that initially led to him being charged, though I remember being somewhat bored by that particular book. Also, in a way, Picard is like the Trump of Starfleet – he often breaks the rules and sometimes an admiral will yell at him for it, but mostly he gets away with everything. I didn’t like realizing that similarity at all because Picard always acts in the best interest of others, and the orange guy never does. It is still an uncomfortable realization. However, Picard’s lawyer did a good job rehashing things to give a thorough background. It became clear that he was truly unaware of the actions and results of his superiors, that he had been used as a scapegoat, and was subsequently off the hook. But still, I am conflicted about the entire thing. It’s fucked up.

The storylines with Worf and Geordi were classic Trek and a great deal of fun. It shows how much Worf has grown as a person because there were several times when he wanted to rip someone’s lungs out through their spine but he refrained. He even put on his diplomat hat and got two separate peoples to agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement, even though they were bitterly opposed to both the agreement and each other initially. 

Geordi is always a fun character to focus on, and his subplot was no less fun. He gets to save 66,000 people by preventing them from melting! That alone is worth a read. No melting people! 

Throughout both Worf’s and Geordi’s storylines, we get reunited with Thadiun Okona, who made his debut in the TNG episode “The Outrageous Okona” in season two. He’s had an…interesting…couple decades between the events of that episode and the events of this book. Life takes you in some weird directions sometimes. Ask Okona about that. He can tell you. 

It’s been a long time since I read a Star Trek novel, so maybe I’m just out of practice. But this one felt almost like an old fashioned numbered MMP that they used to make for the literary Trekverse. I miss those days bad; each book was a standalone story similar to an episode, not one part of a giant story arc where you’re completely lost if you miss reading a book. I get really tired of that kind of story, to the point where I am thinking maybe I won’t bother buying new Trek books unless they really are standalones. I also think the books should be canon. When we’ve gone years and years without any new Trek series and all we had were the books, it is kind of jarring when the new shows don’t align with the stories we’ve been given in prior years via the novels. The authors are all extremely well-versed in Trek lore, they’re not just making up random crap, so it just seems like the novels ought to be considered canon.

Anyway, this was a pretty fun book and it was good to see some other characters who’ve made appearances in the Trekverse at one time or another. 

Chariot of the Soul

Chariot of the SoulChariot of the Soul by Linda Proud (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: ancient Rome and Britain

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 498 pp

Published by: Godstow Press (23 Oct 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Togidubnos (AKA Delfos or Delphinius) is the youngest son of the Briton king Verica, sent to Rome as a royal hostage as part of a trade agreement between Verica and Rome. Educated in that great city for 10 years by Seneca himself, Togidubnos is then sent back to Britain to help convince his people that their wisest course of action is to fall in line and submit to the might of the Roman Empire. When he arrives, he finds his two worlds – Roman and Stoic, Briton and Druid – at odds, both in the politics of the world and within himself.

Chariot of the Soul focuses on the eventual takeover of Britain by the Roman Empire under Claudius. The author sets the stage nicely. It is obvious that she did some **excellent** research and she shows it with thorough but not pedantic history given as current events in Togidubnos’s young life. The Britons are still rather tribal, and alliances between the various tribes are often unpredictable and ever-changing. Caligula sent an invasion force during his short, disastrous reign, but it failed, the biggest impact being that some British tribes continued trading with Roman territories afterwards. Claudius was smarter about it, using Togidubnos’s knowledge of his home country to try to win the Britons over through more peaceable means. To some extent, this worked as the regions in southern Britain were generally more peaceful under Roman rule than other regions. By the end of the novel, readers have a good understanding of the shifting politics of the period. We are also introduced to Boudicca, that spectacular woman who united the tribes and very nearly kicked the Romans out on their collective asses. Presumably, that part will come in the sequel, as Chariot of the Soul is only the first of a series. 

The characters in Proud’s novel were all deep and well-crafted. Seeing the ways in which Togidubnos grew and changed over time was…not really fun since a lot of bad things happened to him. But satisfying, I suppose, to see how he grew in Stoicism, learned how best to use his knowledge of both Rome and Britain to help as many people as he could, and how he reconnected with the people of his birthplace. His mission was really an impossible one – go back to Britain and convince these very different and almost neurotically independent tribes to submit peacefully to Rome. It is no wonder that he became conflicted in a variety of ways. Togidubnos was a real king, by the way, of the Atrebates tribe. There’s not a lot known about him, but it was enough to give Proud a few good ideas! His British slave, Mandred, was probably my favorite character. I have a soft spot for sarcastic folk anyway, and he was probably the one person who truly kept Togidubnos on a proper path. 

I think my favorite element of character development focused on Claudius himself. He did not have a very large role in this novel, nor was it necessary since the story isn’t about him. But I loved how Proud made him seem a fool prior to becoming emperor, but he always had flashes of the real man underneath, hidden and waiting to be released. She really highlighted the ways in which other people underestimated him. I never really subscribed to the view that Claudius was mentally challenged because I just don’t see how he could have reigned for nearly 14 years if that were the case. I suppose he could have been a puppet but it seems easier and more in line with so much of Roman succession if his handler were just to kill him and take over. I recently read that possible reasons for Claudius’s tremor, slurred speech, and other physical ailments could have been polio, cerebral palsy, or even Tourette’s syndrome. Whatever the reason, I think he was a more successful emperor than many who came before him, and certainly more so than some who came after. 

Another excellent element of this novel was the focus on horses. Yes, I was a horse-crazy little girl. I am probably still a horse-crazy middle-aged woman. But no, that isn’t why I love this part. In a lot of other novels I’ve read set in pre-Roman or Roman Britain, horses were present but treated mainly as tools. Here, they were priceless, with herds going back through generations of painstaking breeding. The warriors loved their horses and when bad things happened to them, they were as grief-stricken as they were when a beloved comrade died. I liked seeing this side of ancient British culture explored more. The author actually has a nice little segment about this on her website.

Proud also did a good job with her handling of the druids. I loved the mystical feel to many of these characters, but it wasn’t so mystical as to be unbelievable. I do wish there had been more here, more detail or rituals. But Proud did very well with the extremely limited sources there are about the druids. 

Honestly, I think the only thing I didn’t care for was the title of the book, and that may not even have been up to the author. It does come from a discussion Togidubnos has with a druid, but we don’t get that until near the end of the book. Initially, the title made me think of some melodramatic bodice ripper with a very buxomy lass spilling out of her dress all over a half-naked Fabio. LOL. It has nothing to do with any of that, thank god, and is a complex and very well researched novel.

Overall, this was an excellent read and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

Ready Player Two

Ready Player TwoReady Player Two by Ernest Cline (Website)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: mid-21st century Columbus/ the OASIS virtual reality

I read it as a(n): I switched back and forth between audiobook and hardback

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection / Xmas gift (hardcover)

Length: 370 pp/ 13:46:00 hours

Published by: Ballantine Books (24 Nov 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ready Player Two is the continuation of Cline’s earlier novel, Ready Player One. It picks up just a couple years after the end of RP1 and shows how Wade Watts (Parzival); his best friend, Helen Harris (Aech); Samantha Cook (Art3mis); and Akihide Karatsu (Shoto) have come along since Wade won the hunt for Halliday’s Easter Egg in RP1. The four are now the governing board of the company that created and runs the OASIS, the virtual reality software that basically everyone on Earth uses to get away from the shitty existence of reality. Added in to the mix now is a new technology hidden in Halliday’s inventory that makes it so there is no distinction between the OASIS and the real world. This time, however, flaws in the system have the potential to become fatal. Wade et al. are now on another quest to find another sort of Easter Egg that which will either bring everything back to normal or result in the deaths of millions of OASIS users. 

RP2, though not as good as RP1, was a fun read. I liked the way the four friends had grown and evolved since they won Halliday’s fortune. Not all was peachy between them. Wade and Samantha had fallen in love but then broke up prior to the beginning of this book. She felt he was going in a wrong direction and stuck to her guns and in the end, it wasn’t a relationship they could sustain. Wade was well on his way to becoming another Halliday – addicted to the OASIS, in VR far more than the real world, growing further away from his humanity. Aech and Shoto were still close with Wade but even among them, things were tense. 

In RP1, there was a theme of the benefits of technology. It could help people escape from otherwise unbearable lives, children could attend free virtual school in a safe environment, and it allowed the economy and trade to flourish. In RP2, we saw the other side of the coin. Yes, technology can be shiny. It can also ruin lives, friendships, and result in global catastrophe if it all goes sideways. I like that this aspect was explored in more depth. Our current plugged-in society could stand to pump the brakes a bit.

There was a fair amount of character growth, mostly for Wade. Of all the group, I think he was the one who was the most in need of some self-reflection and change. As I said, he was like a mini-Halliday – socially backward, hooked on tech, and possibly allowing his new wealth to change him in ways he never expected. It was good to see him get over himself. 

Samantha, too, grew as a person, learning how to go with the flow a little better and compromising when it was necessary. Before, she was more of a control freak and didn’t have a good ability to compromise, which made her character sometimes come across as shrill and demanding. She was right, though. 

There were still plenty of ‘80s references in RP2 to make people of my generation happy. Overall, it was a fun, fast read and I recommend it to other sci-fi fans and children of the ‘80s who are, like me, bitter that we’re not living on the moon by now.

Spiteful Bones (Crispin Guest #14)

Spiteful BonesSpiteful Bones by Jeri Westerson (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fiction/ medieval noir

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 178 pp

Published by: Severn House (1 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this 14th instalment of Westerson’s Crispin Guest medieval noir series, some fun characters from the past feature in this story. Nigellus Cobmartin has inherited his father’s house upon the death of his older brother. He and his lover, the delightful John Rykener (under the guise of Eleanor) are in the process of restoring it, the house having fallen into disrepair. The workers discover a gruesome scene – a skeletonized body tied up within the walls of the manor house. It is determined that the body belonged to a former servant who the Cobmartin household thought stole a relic and then took off with the wife of another servant. At the same time, Nigellus and John are victims of extortion, under threat of their lifestyle being exposed if they fail to pay the unknown villain. But nothing is as it appears at first glance, and so Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, find themselves on the hunt for an extortionist who may also be a murderer. 

The character development over the course of this series has been excellent. Crispin is now in his forties and is beginning to feel the effects of a hard and active life, though he rails against it. Jack is taking on more of the lead role in the sleuthing duo and is the image of a young and vital man. There were a few times that he saved Crispin’s neck, literally and figuratively, and while it was lovely to see, I also miss little boy Jack even as I revel in the upstanding man he has become.

Crispin himself has long since accepted that he is no longer nobility and has made a family for himself with Jack, Jack’s wife Isabel, and their growing brood of children. He seems content enough with his lot and takes pleasure in the simple joys in life in ways he was unable to do before. One of his greatest joys is in his son, Christopher, who he is unable to acknowledge. His friends, too, are his joy, and he throws himself into investigating who would murder a friend’s servant, driven to protect those he loves. 

As always, Westerson creates vivid scenery in her settings. It is easy to picture the sights (and, unfortunately, the smells!) of the Shambles and other places in medieval London. The strength of her descriptive writing is exceptional and that, along with complex character development, have made Westerson one of my favorite authors. She creates characters readers genuinely care about and then develops them into rich and multidimensional people, even secondary characters. Take, for example, Nigellus Cobmartin and John Rykener. Nigellus is a fictional character, but Rykener was a real man who dressed as a woman and was a whore and a skilled embroideress. Their relationship, while it may seem implausible to us given the time period they were from, could well have happened. Rykener was listed as having a husband in one of the documents Westerson referenced, though the man was not named. Why not let the husband be Nigellus? There have always been LGBT people, even if they had been vilified, shunned, or even killed at various points in history. A lack of understanding does not mean they didn’t exist, and there is plenty of documentation to prove it. I think it is really important to discuss social issues in all their many elements, but literature is an ideal medium in which to do so. Readers get to know both Rykener and Nigellus over the course of a few books, and can see them as people rather than ideas, mere figures on a page, or solely by their sexual identity. Having other characters like Crispin sometimes struggle with how they see Rykener helps create depth but also gives a nuanced examination of our own society. A long-winded way to say that I love their relationship, the characters themselves, and how Westerson approached it.

I was sad while I was reading this story because I had thought it was the final entry in the Crispin Guest series. But I was wrong! There is one final adventure to share with Crispin, Jack, and friends, The Deadliest Sin, which Westerson’s website says will be released in 2022. 

In the meantime, I highly recommend this book, as well as the rest of the series, to anyone who loves a good, complex, brooding protagonist and a delightful cast of secondary characters.

Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope

The Last Best Hope (Star Trek: Picard #1)

Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 322 pp

Published by: Gallery Books (11 Feb 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Last Best Hope is the story of the mission Jean-Luc Picard led to evacuate Romulans from their home world and nearby planets when their sun went supernova. It is the prequel that forms the foundations of the Star Trek: Picard series. On its surface, it is the story of how one of the most beloved figures in all of science fiction ended his career. Digging deeper, it examines some of the darker aspects of humanity that we all carry.

I confess that I didn’t like the first season of STP very much. I only watched the season once and didn’t care at all for, well, most of it. Not because it wasn’t just TNG rebooted. I neither wanted nor expected that. I think it’s mostly that I didn’t recognize the characters in it. They were too changed, too damaged. I went into this book hoping it would help me like the show better, especially since McCormack is one of my favorite Trek authors.

I suppose it did that. I can understand how it would completely fuck with you to be put in command of THE biggest humanitarian mission in history, only for it to fail. And to fail largely because of politics? Adding insult to injury. Star Trek has always been political. It’s one of the many things I love about it. The Picard series, and this book, are no exceptions. The difference this time is that the politicians here are truly awful, with not the remotest veneer of idealism that they portray in the series. The political leaders of the Federation in this book are concerned with optics, with PR, with the cost to themselves. Councilor Quest is repugnant. She represents, to me, the worst of certain American political parties. I won’t say which but it starts with an R and ends with -epublican. Nationalism and only looking after one’s own interests is such bullshit and yet it’s on the rise. This book takes a look at the potential impact of nationalism, distanced through the lens of sci-fi. There were lots of oblique references to the Trump administration, trumpism, and nationalism. I’m so fucking glad he’s out of office and fuck anyone who gave this book a lower review just because it rightly was critical of those kinds of politics. We should take care of everyone, not just those in our immediate circle.

Picard, in TNG, is an idealist and a compassionate man. But he’s tempered with logic and pragmatism as well. Picard here gets so involved in the mission to save the Romulans that he becomes pretty myopic in his determination to fulfill the mission. If millions and millions of lives were in my hands, I probably would be myopic about my job, too (Actually, no, you could just put me in a padded room and have done with it if that task fell to me). I know some readers felt this Picard was a bit too starry-eyed, almost naive especially with regards to political machinations, but I felt that he was throwing himself headlong into the ideals of what Starfleet stood for. His doing so is the only way I can see to really explain his utter disenchantment with the fleet when the Romulan star blows and he fails in his mission. If he hadn’t been so involved, maybe more of his pragmatism would have prevailed and he would have been able to remain in the service. He still would have been horrified and grief-stricken at the loss of life, but he could have taken that extra distance to realize it was a futile effort from the start and to celebrate the lives they WERE able to save. But he wasn’t, and didn’t, and so railroaded his career, thus setting up the premise for the TV series. 

I do wish there had been more detail from the planets. We got some, but it would have made the story more visceral if we had seen more scenes from Romulus, the effect the supernova had on the citizens. What scenes we do get felt rushed a bit, more told than shown. Not that I want vivid descriptions of dying and suffering people. But it would have been just that much more depth to the story. 

And, maybe not super relevant to the story, but I thought Maddox/Jurati was gross. I can’t remember how her character was in the show so maybe McCormack picked up on something from that and ran with it. But Jurati in this novel was like everything I wouldn’t want to be as a woman. Yes, it’s rad she has a doctorate in robotics and is whip smart. I love that part about her. But she acts like a submissive, insecure little mouse who is desperate for Maddox’s approval, which makes her come off as pathetic. It’s such a big dichotomy, and unlike most of the other women in Star Trek that McCormack has written, and I haven’t figured out why it exists. 

Rereading what I just wrote, it sounds like a negative review. It absolutely is not. I loved this book, but I hated a lot of the people in it. I think that’s a sign of good writing, to make me hate a thing about a figure I’ve loved for the majority of my life, or to hate elements of the society I grew up watching and hoping to achieve in reality. I unreservedly recommend this book, especially if you haven’t yet seen the Picard series. It fills in a lot of gaps in the Picard series. I think it will be a good book to help build the Picard series canon. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • He turned to the helm. 

“Lieutenant Miller…”

“Go on,” Raffi whispered. “They’re dying for you to say it.”

And why not?

“Engage!” (p 55)

  • The admiral shrugged. He had never seemed so French. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, Raffi.”

“I’ll look forward to using that on you one day,” she said.

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.” (p 115)

  • “Who knows. An encounter with Beethoven might be the making of the man.”

“It might do something to him. Jeez, though, this might backfire. He might make us listen to Romulan indeterminate polyphony.” (p 130)

  • Mistakes are, after all, how we learn. (p 143)
  • “Warrior nuns. Romulan warrior nuns. You know, Raffi, I am grateful.”

“Grateful?”

“That the universe can still delight me.” (p 154)

  • “Story?”

“A fiction. A tale. Something made up.”

“A lie?” The boy looked puzzled.

“No,” said Picard gently. “A human way of telling certain truths.” (p 158)

  • “Tell a lie often enough, someone will believe it.”

“It’s worse than that, Kirsten. Tell a lie often enough, and it stands a good chance of becoming the truth.” (p 214)

  • Just a general comment that I thoroughly approve of Star Trek finally embracing the word fuck, as well as many others. To quote Tilly, this is so fucking cool.

The Shadows

The ShadowsThe Shadows by Alex North (Twitter)

Genre: mystery

Setting: Gritten, UK (fictional village)

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: BOTM Club

Length: 323 pp

Published by: Celadon Press (7 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Paul Adams is returning to his home town of Gritten after a 25 year absence. The only reason he is returning now is because his mother is dying in hospice. When he was a teen, one of Paul’s classmates was brutally murdered by two other classmates, Charlie and Bobby, and the town has never been the same since. When he returns, though, Paul seems to be haunted, literally, by the ghosts of the past. Is there a copycat murderer playing mind games with him as one of the suspects of the original murder? Is it really a ghost? Or did the teen who really committed the murder escape and carry on with his grisly crimes?

Splitting between Paul’s first-person POV and the 3rd person POV of Detective Amanda Beck, the story unfolds with a good sense of atmosphere. I really liked the way North wrote because I was never sure if this was a regular old murder or if it was actually a paranormal horror story. 

I did not, however, care much for the ending or the multitude of loose strings that I felt were left. One big twist that happened about 80% of the way through the book had no foreshadowing, so it felt like just a twist for the sake of it rather than any real part of the plot. Which is unfortunate because it did turn out to be a major plot point. It could have been really cool but I thought it was just awkwardly done. 

And this could just be me rolling my eyes because sometimes I’m too logical for my own good. But I just couldn’t get behind the whole lucid dreaming thing. Yes, I know one can dream lucidly and direct the course of one’s dreams. I have managed to do it once myself. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to buy into the shared lucid dreaming stuff that Charlie was into and trying to teach to Bobby, Paul, and Paul’s best friend, James. It was just too silly to believe. If this had been a paranormal story, then sure, sign me up for shared lucid dreaming. But it wasn’t paranormal and so it just fell short for me. 

After I finished reading it, I looked at some other readers’ reviews. It seems that this book is a lot less popular than North’s first book, The Whisper Man. I think I’m glad I read this one first because now I can read the other and be far more entertained, I hope. Just to be clear, though, I didn’t hate this book, or even dislike it. I just wasn’t all that impressed by it. I still read it in just a couple days, which I wouldn’t have done if I hated it.