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One Murder More
One Murder More
by Kris Calvin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.56
67 used & new from $0.31

4.0 out of 5 stars Kris Calvin writes with inside knowledge, and it shows, August 24, 2015
This review is from: One Murder More (Hardcover)
The first in a series of political thrillers, ONE MURDER MORE is author Kris Calvin’s debut mystery. It features Maren Kane, a lobbyist working for Ecobabe, a toy company based in Sacramento. The latest legislative bill Maren is working on revolves around keeping people, especially children, safe when riding in cars by banning the use of cell phones, hands free or not. There’s a lot of hot controversy on both sides, so Maren has an uphill battle. One morning, on her way to a meeting, fighting a thick fog that can often curse California’s central valley, she witnesses an accident and becomes an unwitting heroine. While able to save a child from the submerged car, she couldn’t free the driver, leaving her with a bittersweet feeling.

Still reeling from the trauma surrounding the morning incident, she ends the day by finding the bloody body of a woman she often worked with in the state capitol building. Worse, and to her utter surprise, she learns that her friend and colleague Sean has been arrested for the murder. She is sure that things have hit bottom at that point, but then someone tries to kill Maren herself. Just what the heck is going on?

Fortunately, Maren has neighbor and co-worker Polly to rely on. Maren’s house is now a crime scene, and she has trouble getting around with her injuries. She doesn’t want to put anyone else in peril, but Polly, a truly unique woman, can take care of herself. In fact, Maren tends to keep company with unique and strong people, notably of the female type. Not being a detective by profession, she needs a clever entourage.

The action in this book is relentless and nonstop. A true mover and shaker, Maren races around the capitol city in pursuit of leads, many turning out to be dead ends, but she has a dogged determination when it comes to friendship. Besides, she truly believes in Sean’s innocence. The police just don’t seem to interpret her theories in the same fashion she does. She keeps finding something remarkable, then telling Sean’s attorney, but gets shot down time after time.

So when Maren can’t find the answers she needs in Sacramento, she broadens her search to the outlying areas, stretching north up toward the Oregon border, but danger follows her everywhere. As a lobbyist, Maren has a pretty good understanding of how things work in politics, but what she uncovers has her further doubting herself. Would people really go so far as to kill, and kill multiple times, for reasons as seemingly shallow as what she believes is behind the motive?

Kris Calvin has spent time in politics, so she’s writing with inside knowledge, and it shows. It is clear that she knows her way around the halls of the capitol. While her technique sometimes comes across as a bit immature, such as overdoing descriptions and idioms, the story carries through the dips in stellar writing quality. With Calvin’s imagination, she will certainly go far in her writing career.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers

Collector of Secrets
Collector of Secrets
by Richard Goodfellow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.26
37 used & new from $7.84

5.0 out of 5 stars A joy of a journey to read, August 24, 2015
This review is from: Collector of Secrets (Hardcover)
One might be forgiven for thinking that the antiquities subgenre of the thriller category might have exhausted itself. That assumption is put to rest by COLLECTOR OF SECRETS, Richard Goodfellow’s debut novel. Though Goodfellow’s primary work is in the software design field, this book relies mainly on paper and good old-fashioned logic, deduction and shoe leather to propel the reader through a puzzle that begins in the closing days of World War II and concludes during a very harrowing couple of weeks in 2007.

Max Travers is a fish very much out of water. An American who has lived in Japan for several years, he is eking out an unprofitable but nonetheless satisfying existence as an English teacher to students as well as private clients. He is employed by a cold and calculating woman named Yoko (I am reasonably sure that Goodfellow’s choice of name is no accident here), who is also unscrupulous, keeping Max’s passport hostage as a flimsy excuse to keep him there until the school is sold to shareholders.

The one benefit that Max has acquired over the course of his work in Yoko’s school is the friendship he has struck up with Takahito Murayama, a nonagenarian whose relationship to Yoko is supposed to be paternal but is questionable on that point. Takahito is a collector of historical objects; sensing a depth to Max that is not immediately evident, he asks Max to return a diary to its rightful owner. Max senses that there is more to the errand than he really wants to get involved with and politely refuses, in part because he is planning to resign from the school and move on.

However, when Max returns to the school’s offices one night to surreptitiously liberate his passport, he walks in on a burglary being committed by a pair of Yakuza thugs. He leaves not with his passport but with the diary, which is what the two were after, and the chase begins. He is pursued not only by the Yakuza, whose powers and resources in Japan are seemingly limitless, but also by the police who want the diary for reasons of their own. Max is hardly a secret agent type --- his skill set is made up of more scholarly elements --- and given that he is a blond, six-foot-tall American in Japan, he tends to stick out like a male stripper at a sewing bee.

To make matters even worse, Max is also on the run from an extremely competent and dangerous ex-military type in the employ of a U.S. Senator who wants to make absolutely sure that the information contained in the diary never sees the light of day.

Goodfellow does an excellent job of giving the reader a triptych view of Japan, even though it is a quick one, given that Max, sometimes accompanied by his somewhat hesitant girlfriend, is often running from point A to point B, leaving a trail of Yakuza-dispatched bodies behind. The big finish is fairly predictable, given the number of players involved, but the joy of reading COLLECTOR OF SECRETS is in the journey more than the satisfying destination.

It is said that Goodfellow wrote this book while traveling, and one senses he had fun doing so. Max is a very believable character, somewhat hapless physically but quite sharp mentally, and the conclusion leaves the door open for a sequel, even though it is a complete novel, fully capable of standing alone. Whether the beginning of a series or otherwise, COLLECTOR OF SECRETS marks Goodfellow as an author to watch in the future.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub

The Guilty One
The Guilty One
by Sophie Littlefield
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.97
47 used & new from $1.02

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Asks readers to reevaluate the title of the story and decide who the true guilty person is, August 24, 2015
This review is from: The Guilty One (Paperback)
This paperback original by Sophie Littlefield opens with a unique situation not often seen in suspense/thrillers. Guilt is a pervading emotion throughout the novel, and it pushes some of the characters to do things they would not normally be capable of. Hence, the opening chapter that finds Ron Isherwood about to take his own life by leaping from a bridge. What makes this situation unique is that he makes a cell phone call to Maris Vacanti.

What readers might normally assume is a cry for help from a person who is hurting has a much deeper dynamic in THE GUILTY ONE. Ron's son, Karl, was convicted of murdering Maris' daughter, Calla. Whether or not Karl is truly guilty is not the issue here. The situation, which resolves itself when police bring Ron down from the bridge, opens up a wild new direction for both Ron and Maris, and their lives may never be the same.

As Ron struggles with the guilt over his son’s alleged act, he remains fully supported by his caring wife. The Isherwood family, though unable to even mention their son's name to one another, is trying to get by. Meanwhile, Maris and her husband, Jeff, have watched their marriage fall apart --- perhaps a direct result of the murder of their daughter.

Maris, on a whim, abandons her life and takes an apartment in a lesser part of Oakland, CA, through the recommendation of a casual friend she met at yoga class. Maris is free from her deceitful ex-husband and concerned but critical sister, and has the opportunity to reinvent herself completely. This is spurred on by the flurry of emotions and feelings she experiences from the suicide attempt call.

Maris goes from despising the Isherwoods to actually referring to Ron as a “friend” when questioned by the police at the scene of his attempted leap. It is as if the murder of her daughter stunted her life and personal growth, and this newfound acceptance through Ron's phone call and overwhelming grief has somehow freed her.

Meanwhile, Ron continues to visit his son in prison and slowly comes around to accepting his pleas that he is not guilty. Ron also has an opportunity to reinvent his own life, to move from grief to a different place where he can put his energy behind supporting Karl and looking for answers to resolve what actually happened with Calla's murder.

THE GUILTY ONE asks readers to reevaluate the title of the story and decide who the true guilty person is. The themes of loss and renewal penetrate each passing chapter as we see the principal characters move from bad to good places in their own lives.

Reviewed by Ray Palen

Fishbowl: A Novel
Fishbowl: A Novel
by Bradley Somer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.23
52 used & new from $10.51

4.0 out of 5 stars Absurdly beautiful, inventive and charming, August 24, 2015
This review is from: Fishbowl: A Novel (Hardcover)
FISHBOWL by Bradley Somer is an absurdly beautiful, inventive and charming novel. It captures, depending on how you reckon the time it covers, about four seconds in the life of a goldfish or about half an hour in the lives of several residents of an apartment building. All are experiencing moments at once mundane and transformative, of potential heartbreak and potential joy.

Ian the goldfish lives on the top floor of the 27-story Seville on Roxy apartment building. As he plummets from the balcony of the apartment where he had lived as a gift from Katie to her boyfriend, Connor, Ian gets brief glimpses through the windows and into the lives of other residents of the building. Thankfully, Somer expands upon these glimpses by sharing the tales of a handful of these residents.

There are the aforementioned Katie and Connor, the young couple attempting to define their relationship and understand their feelings for each other. Things will become quickly complicated as Katie passes Faye, Connor's “other woman,” on the stairs. While Katie and Connor are suffering at the crossroads of their relationship, the building's super, a quiet and lonely man named Jimenez, attempts to fix the elevator (hence Katie and Faye meeting in the stairwell) before moving on to the last job of the day. The out-of-order elevator forces the Seville on Roxy residents to huff and puff up the stairs to get home, but Jimenez's last job, a leaky sink, compels him and a resident named Garth to confront their longings for companionship and expression. Garth himself had just trudged up to his apartment carrying a parcel that he hopes will bring him happiness and a freedom to be who he truly is.

Another trio of characters come together as Ian rapidly drops toward the ground: Herman, an eccentric home-schooled boy living with his grandfather; Petunia Delilah, who is craving an ice cream sandwich and suddenly finds herself in labor all alone; and Claire, a germophobic shut-in who just lost her phone sex job. When Petunia Delilah comes to Claire’s door, dragging an unconscious Herman by the ankle, the messy outside world comes rushing into Claire's neat and ordered home. What happens in that apartment will change all of their lives drastically in gut-wrenching and wonderful ways.

Even as Ian's fate, in the form of concrete, is looming larger and larger, the lives of Katie, Jimenez, Garth, Claire, Petunia Delilah and Herman seem to be opening up and expanding in a marvelous, if complicated and difficult, fashion.

FISHBOWL is a short novel and often reads like a handful of novellas brought together by Ian's bowl jump. Yet that in no way diminishes the power of Somer's storytelling or his philosophic ruminations on togetherness, intimacy and identity. The characters are briefly but richly drawn, and there are events terrifying, funny, brutal and ultimately optimistic. There is a delightful strangeness here, but it is tempered by the acute realism with which it is paired, making FISHBOWL an entertaining, engaging and poignant read.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman

Malice at the Palace (A Royal Spyness Mystery)
Malice at the Palace (A Royal Spyness Mystery)
by Rhys Bowen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.51
50 used & new from $15.32

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Miss Marple of her time, August 24, 2015
Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie Rannoch, everyone’s favorite semi-royal sleuth from the 1930s, is back in Rhys Bowen’s MALICE AT THE PALACE. This time, the 35th in line to the throne has been assigned to be a companion to a foreign princess set to marry into the British royal family. But when the playboy prince’s ex-mistress turns up dead, it’s up to Georgie to save the day in another rip-roaring romp of a romantic mystery.

Georgie remains the same practical noblewoman she’s always been, with one change. She’s informally engaged to her longtime beau, Darcy, who’s off again on another clandestine mission. In the meantime, she’s trying to make ends meet yet again, struggling to find a place to live after her best friend boots her from her cottage. This recurring plot point is one of the few elements that serves to hold Georgie back as a character, rather than furthering her development. Let’s hope that she will have found a career path of her own by the next novel.

As always, Georgie manages to make things work. This time, her kinswoman, Queen Mary, calls upon her to serve as a companion to Princess Marina of Greece, who is arriving in England to marry her youngest son, the free-spirited Prince George. In doing so, Georgie moves into Kensington Palace, where she quickly bonds with Marina, all while trying to keep her husband-to-be’s previous sexual exploits quiet.

That becomes difficult, however, when one of his former lovers, Bobo Carrington, turns up dead in the palace courtyard. Along with Scotland Yard and the Home Office, Georgie sets out to uncover the truth behind Bobo’s mysterious demise, all while squiring Marina around town, juggling her royal duties and avoiding deadly threats.

Georgie is as sprightly and engaging a heroine as ever. Her quick wit, intelligence and determination allow her to ferret out even the most heinous of criminals, and the royal backdrop distinguishes this series from its contemporaries. Here’s to many more volumes of the Royal Spyness series and to Georgie becoming the Miss Marple of her time!

Reviewed by Carly Silver

How to Be a Grown-Up: A Novel
How to Be a Grown-Up: A Novel
by Emma McLaughlin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.20
55 used & new from $4.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious adventure, with the occasional moment of quiet reflection on modern times., August 24, 2015
Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have brought us the stories of Upper East Side nannies (THE NANNY DIARIES), former activists looking for Internet job money (CITIZEN GIRL) and an assistant to a diva (BETWEEN YOU AND ME), all of which match fairy tale values to today's techie-controlled world of celebrity and other one-percenters. Their easygoing style has brought them great success, and HOW TO BE A GROWN-UP will certainly resonate with their crew of devoted readers.

Rory McGovern married the man of her dreams --- a very famous teen actor who ended up choosing her out of all the available girls at SUNY Purchase, their college. But as they settle down, have two children and get older, Blake finds that his work comes more sporadically, and a crisis sets in. He takes off to find himself, leaving Rory with a lot of bills, the kids and the need for a new career. She ends up at an Internet startup company run by a couple of young ladies with a lot of capital and MBAs to hang on their fancy loft walls. While Blake settles into his depression, Rory takes her freelance styling experience and applies it to JeuneBug, the "first high-end lifestyle website for children," where overpriced bedroom furniture and other luxury items are touted as the “must-haves” for the baby set.

McLaughlin and Kraus like to hold their magnifying glass to ridiculous places in the world of always-flowing cash, those special places where the color of one's nail polish is important, and the utmost attention is given to the latest trends and trappings of the most social of all social sets: the Upper East Side denizens of Manhattan.

The authors give Rory an authentic and funny voice, as she is bossed around by her young twenty-something higher-ups who tell her, loudly, that "obviously these should be force-ranked by potential ad rev clicks." Clearly, they take big swipes at the world of both the overprivileged daughters of the moneyd set and the ridiculous minutiae of the Internet world. Rory is a good correspondent from these front lines --- she is needing to maintain a lifestyle that mirrors theirs, but she is not to the manor born and thus can comment wisely on the consequences of their actions. She is the perfect character for all of us to attach ourselves to and watch the proceedings from the front row seat she provides. Juggling her job, being a single parent, dealing with the office craziness and handling a few interested new guys --- including her boss's very young boyfriend --- Rory manages to make the most of her potential, as well as whatever sanity she can bring to the swirling corporate mess around her.

The young ladies are barely tolerable, being so expectant and narcissistic. But how else could they be profiled? Rory needs to be the strong, capable, fairly sane person in the midst of all the drama that goes on. McLaughlin and Kraus are very good at allying all the readers with the one main character in their books who most resembles them. HOW TO BE A GROWN-UP is not so much about being a grown-up as tolerating the change brought to the economy by the 1% and the fact that those one-percenters have all the money and technical savvy at their hands to dictate how the rest of us will live.

As we watch Rory operate, it is clear that she has little to gain from the work but everything to gain from the tolerance and understanding she exhibits in the face of their ridiculous privilege. With Rory being a grown-up, the book never fails to set a course for adventure and make it hilarious, with the occasional moment of quiet reflection on modern times.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books
Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books
by Michael Dirda
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.72
43 used & new from $12.49

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humor, thoughtful writing, and a graceful style resembling having a beer with a good friend, August 24, 2015
As one who loves to read, I have recently turned to books about books as a wonderful source of information. Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic and a longtime contributor of book articles to the Washington Post. He was once hailed by The Paris Review as “the best-read person in America.” Between February 2012 and February 2013, he contributed a column each Friday to the homepage of The American Scholar. As Dirda explains to readers, he intended to write those literary essays for one year and then stop. The column was titled “Browsings.”

As the title suggests, BROWSINGS: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books is a collection of those columns in one literary location. It is a witty, informative and amusing book, filled with small treasures of insight that booklovers will retain as a roadmap to future reading adventures. There are countless book lists by author and subject, as well as fascinating discussions of books about books. BROWSINGS does have one drawback, though. As one who maintains a large pile of unread books, I know that my stack will be growing based on Dirda’s wonderful observations and recommendations.

Dirda’s predecessor for the column was William Zinsser, the author of ON WRITING WELL, an excellent book on linguistic style that happens to sit near my computer and I have often recommended and quoted to my students. Dirda talks about Zinsser’s own books and writing, ending with advice that appears often in BROWSINGS and that I will gladly accept and pass along: “Find your own copy of the book.”

In the essay “Armchair Adventure,” Dirda discusses classes he teaches at the University of Maryland on adventure novels. One class covers classic novels from 1885-1915, and the second addresses modern novels from 1917-1973. The lists of swashbuckling works are what Dirda labels “comfort books.” Readers appreciate that Dirda, a scholarly man, emphasizes that there are many fabulous places your reading may take you. As he observes, “Fiction is a house with many stately mansions, but also one in which it is wise, at least sometimes, to swing from the chandeliers.”

There is something noteworthy in each essay of this collection. In “Anthologies and Collections,” Dirda observes that anthologies resemble dating. You have some good experiences and some not-so-good ones. Eventually you find one writer you truly enjoy, and you settle down with him or her. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime, and years of reading monogamy occur. But always remember that literature is not life, and the rules are somewhat more flexible.

I could continue discussing each individual essay, but that would spoil your reading pleasure --- not only because of the subject of the essays, but because of the wonderful manner in which they are written. There is humor, thoughtful writing, and a graceful style resembling having a beer with a good friend. At one point, Dirda observes, “I always feel at home in libraries and bookstores, they restoreth my soul.” I feel the same way about BROWSINGS, and am happy to invite my many reading friends to an open house for a book that I know I will keep in my collection and enjoy for years to come.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories
The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories
by Ian Rankin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.37
46 used & new from $11.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Tightly wrought and potently inspiring, August 24, 2015
Ian Rankin's new book, THE BEAT GOES ON, is a collection of short stories and two novellas. The selections are a homage to his series character, DI John Rebus, and range from when Rebus was new to the force and learning his craft at the feet of older, more experienced policemen, to his evolution as the best cop on the force.

The book rests on one of the first signs that Rebus wants to be "one of the boys." At the end of the first piece, he is having a conversation with a colleague who then inaugurates him into the "Saints of the Shadow Bible" (which became an extraordinary novel of the same name).

Rebus is the kind of policeman to whom younger men look up; in this case, that person is Constable Brian Holmes. Throughout the narratives, readers can see how his mind works and why he is so successful. Also interesting are the comparisons from Dashiell Hammett to Shakespeare. And he doesn't stop with them; he continues to pay homage to Tom Wolfe, Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane and more.

Of course, a mystery book is going to show the dark underside of the place where it is set. Rankin is masterful at describing what goes on beneath the surface of Edinburgh and its surroundings. We see through the eyes of Rebus as he discovers new and mostly heinous scenes. He becomes more and more cynical, and his gifts for "seeing" what is behind the curtain grow to allow him to become the best cop he can be.

Each of the stories in THE BEAT GOES ON stands perfectly alone, but it’s also comfortable to read among its "relatives." Each individual reader will most likely pick and choose among them and find his or her own favorites. This reviewer chose not to do that so as not to give any one story more weight than the others. The reader is the one who should have that opportunity.

Ian Rankin was and is at the pinnacle of his writing in this heady collection. All of the stories are tightly wrought and entertaining. He moves ahead at great speed to deliver work that is potently inspiring, bringing readers a gem in each one. Despite appearing in magazines and other venues, THE BEAT GOES ON is fresh in the sense that the plots are arranged so that Rebus has to solve the crime as he did throughout his career. Rankin fans should add this tome to their other books in the series immediately.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
by Christopher Dickey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.66
63 used & new from $10.86

4.0 out of 5 stars Reinvigorates Civil War historical nonfiction, August 24, 2015
The year is 1853. The place is Charleston, South Carolina, a city inhabited in part by some of the most elite Southern aristocrats of the day, as well as, for the first time in his life, the British consul Robert Bunch. Bunch was appointed to accomplish several different tasks, but primarily to attempt to smooth over any Southern hostility directed at the United Kingdom and ever so subtly circulate and socialize enough to keep an eye on the mood of the city. He was hoping to understand a people whose eagerness and tendency toward mob mentality may be the deciding factor in determining the very fate of the Union of the United States, specifically whether or not it will remain as named: united.

Why does Britain care? The answers varied even at the time. Part of it may have been moral outrage over the institution of slavery and attempts to reopen the Middle Passage (African slave trade), but just as much of Britain’s concern, if not more, stemmed from the fact that the Southern half of the United States was supplying Britain with more cotton than anywhere else in the world, and Britain would have liked it to stay that way, moral outrage be damned.

America’s morbid obsession with its own Civil War is a well-documented and well-worn phenomena. However, if any dare think interest in that period of American history that saw the dismantling of the Union and the waging of a war more violent than any that preceded it has begun to wane, think again. Author Christopher Dickey’s recent work, OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON, highlights all too well the reality that, for writers and readers alike, this subject remains as curiously fascinating today as it ever has.

With militant efficiency, the book’s title manages to reinvigorate the status of historical nonfiction dealing with the Civil War while also rising above and beyond the boundaries of that genre to encapsulate the entirety of the world as it was some 150 years ago. Although in some ways the title might be construed as misleading, it is accurate in its simultaneous breadth and specificity of subject. It cannot be said that the book is in any way lacking sufficient and varied thematic material. On the contrary, the text is saturated with topics ranging from the insufficiency of morality in the face of monetary concern and ambition to the complexity and fragility of the relationships between both the Northern and Southern United States of America and the United Kingdom, and the ingrained hypocrisy of entire generations to the commonplace brutality of slavery and the slave trade.

While Dickey does make extensive use of Bunch’s letters to other members of the British government, it cannot be said that Bunch carries this text. His true personage is practically hidden behind his words, written specifically to his overseers most often, and Dickey skates over any details of his personal life with a few lines here and there about his wife and children. We are meant to know two things about Bunch that are needed to understand the situation around him: 1) He is ambitious, and 2) He is rather charming --- that is, at least to those he purposefully aims to charm. In many ways, Bunch seems to be a stand-in for one of countless bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians operating at this time, a single man to represent the exhaustive no-win situation that was about to boil over. He hasn’t abandoned his morals, but neither has he abandoned his ambition, and the dividing line between the two appears less passable each day. It was a situation no doubt facing countless individuals, both American and British, when all of a sudden they were forced to make decisions for which there seemed to be no right answer.

The level of precision in Dickey’s language, as well as his tendency to shy away from grandiose and generalizing statements, is certainly reminiscent of the journalist’s commitment to communicating the facts exactly as they are without losing the interest of his audience. Dickey walks a fine line when it comes to captivating a readership for over 300 pages, but he makes a good effort of it. If I didn’t speed through the book like I might a well-worn thriller or murder mystery, the pace didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would, most likely because of the diligence Dickey exerted in explaining, and then explaining again, what was perhaps one of the most complicated political, economic and social decades in centuries with a patient prose that is never dull and only asks as much of the reader as he is able to provide.

OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON, while perhaps not quite the spy thriller the title seems to suggest, is still entertaining and informative. It may be long and a tad slow for some folks, but it’s not so much the details that bog down the book as it is the ever-present thickness of that hot, humid Southern air.

Reviewed by Gena LeBlanc

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.47
60 used & new from $12.33

5.0 out of 5 stars The best and truest, most genuinely scientific, most empathic and memorable, most everything-that-matters, speculative fiction, August 24, 2015
This review is from: Aurora (Hardcover)
This is it --- the best and truest, most genuinely scientific, most empathic and memorable, most everything-that-matters, speculative fiction ever to come my way in well over a dozen years of reviewing for

And now I have to try and tell you why in prose that’s certain to be light years short of what Kim Stanley Robinson has crafted from beginning to end in AURORA.

For sci-fi fans everywhere, it’s a given that anything by one of America’s all-time great futuristic storytellers will be very good. Robinson’s more than 20 previous books (including the renowned trilogy of RED MARS, GREEN MARS and BLUE MARS) have earned him some of the most prestigious genre and literary excellence awards there are.

For AURORA, however, it would be unfair to start at anything below outright excellence. For while the book is structured around a well-worn premise that multi-generational starships could eventually transport humans toward distant earth-like planets where their great-great-great-great (fill in as needed) grandchildren would be expected to make landfall and start colonies, Robinson deftly adjusts the focus to explore what goes on within the vast ship as well.

As he introduces the members of a small family that includes Devi, the starship’s troubled chief engineer, her physician-husband Badim, and their rebellious but innovative adolescent daughter Freya, it quickly becomes clear through their interactions with friends among the ship’s various earth-replica communities that doubt has been their constant companion for many years. Over time, those in technical, scientific and agricultural occupations have intuited that there are too many gaps and weaknesses in the theory that enclosed human and natural environments (or biomes) can sustain and regenerate themselves over centuries without the introduction of any new biological material.

Thus the story begins on a note of impending crisis, the realization that every living species aboard is slowly and steadily succumbing to entropy, the gradual loss of genetic integrity and resilience. That constant undertone of apprehension, varying from scarcely perceptible to terrifyingly immediate, drives Devi and her colleagues to the limits of their intellect and resources in solving one problem after another as they approach the Tau Ceti system that promises a new planetary home.

Out of the collective anticipation, optimism, fear, doubt and apathy of the starship’s 2,000 residents, AURORA unfolds as a complex, delicate, powerful and compelling story of human and artificial intelligence grappling with the near-impossible and the really fatally impossible. Difficult and often irreversible decisions must be made under extreme pressures of time, dwindling resources, polarized conflict, uncertain ethics and unreliable strained emotions.

With more than two-dozen years required for communications to reach Earth and travel back again, Robinson’s starship refugees have no source of grounded, impartial, common-sense advice and guidance, much less any benefit of new technological information from “home.” They are isolated, out in space on their own. Or are they?

Early in the story, Devi is observed talking one-on-one to the ship’s AI control system, which she initially calls Pauline (I was flattered…until the ship-entity suddenly rejected the name). Despite choosing to be called simply “ship,” however, the female character is well established by that time, and little by little Devi teaches “her” to think in multiple layers and dimensions, associating seemingly random facts and memories, as humans do in order to gain new insights on a problem.

Over time (and they mostly have lots of it), “ship” becomes an increasingly vocal and interactive personality. In fact, I couldn’t help hearing the memorable tones of Majel Roddenberry, who has given her distinctive voice to every computer in the “Star Trek” series. As Devi talks her into companionship with the humans she carries, “ship” becomes an increasingly complex and resilient character in her own right, handling the vast computational demands of unexpected and even shocking events that create sudden new imperatives for everyone’s survival. And when the time does come that the human population is forced into hibernation sleep, “ship” is able to continue the narration of the journey and sustain them as if they are her children. Why the long sleep? Why unexpected crises and disasters to cope with? To tell more would spoil a tale whose quality deserves total respect.

But this I can affirm: AURORA is about science, technology, belief, emotion, memory, loyalty, ingenuity, luck, and many other eccentric elements coming together in one gigantic effort to bring humans “home” --- home redefined, reimagined, re-experienced. It doesn’t end as expected; in some ways, it doesn’t really end at all.

Yet even through the most painful and gut-wrenching changes forced on every character and their collective and individual destinies, AURORA remains a generational starship story like no other. It will be a galactic accomplishment for Kim Stanley Robinson himself, let alone anyone else, to better this one. Five stars without a doubt.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch

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