Picture a future Earth in which technology has nearly disappeared, on which plants and animals have mutated into terrifying forms, and upon which human tribes struggle in fraught adversarial pockets. M. R. Carey’s brilliantly conceived world unfolds in the trials of young Koli, an untutored but smart and resourceful young man with unquenchable spirit. The second book of the Rampart trilogy, “The Trials of Koli“,” is as spellbinding and emotionally rich as the first book (review), and is thoroughly recommended. Heading towards a mythical London with two very different humans and a mutating artificial intelligence, Koli battles humans and animals and, eventually, horrific plants. Carey artfully employs a slightly illiterate voice to capture the unforgettable voice of Koli. Unfolding as both an epic and a technical riddle, this trilogy is destined to be a classic sci-fi series, and The Trials of Koli is a surefire resident of my “best of 2021” list.
“House of Correction” is my first Nicci French psychological thriller and after I’d gobbled it down, my first thought was, why had I foregone the previous 23? The husband-and-wife team write smooth, dialogue-rich, never-waste-a-word prose that is like melted butter to an avid reader, and House of Correction is wonderfully conceived and plotted. Tabitha, a semi-depressed misfit with oodles of vim, finds herself in prison, accused of murdering a man in her house, in what looks like an open-and-shut case. Tabitha can barely recall the day in question, possesses no niceties, and has few obvious endearments other than what emerges as an obsessive mind and great determination. The authors have gleefully set up the book as a combination of a locked-room mystery (my favorite sub-genre of crime fiction) and a courtroom drama, the latter enlivened by Tabitha’s conducting her own borderline inept defense. It’s all a swirling, complex plot, the type that’s a treat for a crime fan, and I was captivated. Strongly recommended for anyone who recalls classic mysteries but likes them plonked into a modern setting.
British novelist Chris Whitaker’s third thriller/mystery, “We Begin at the End,” is an evocative melange of noir, small-town cop mystery, and generational saga. Chief “Walk” Walker is the cop of New Haven, a prototypical small town in California. Three decades earlier, his best friend was jailed for killing a girl and now is being released, embroiling Walk in mystery and trauma. Plunged into tragedy and protecting family, Duchess, the daughter of the dead girl’s sister, is the author’s other protagonist, a feisty, conflicted one. Whitaker’s style is pared down yet lyrical, with a palpable air of loss and yearning. The Californian setting and also a second-half Montana locale are conveyed pithily and solidly. A Dickensian roster of characters all occupy their own space. We Begin at the End offers multiple mysteries, and the plot twists are complex and never-ending in the way that good mysteries achieve, but I do have the feeling that some readers will feel the story mechanics thrive too much on surprise. All in all, this is a graceful, propulsive read.
I’ve read more space opera in 2020 than in any year since my Asimov teen years. “A Memory Called Empire,” this year’s Hugo Prize winner, is another splendid example of that sub-genre. It stars a wonderful character, diplomat Mahit Dzmare, plucky, individualistic, and quick on her toes, who is sent from her outpost colony to act as ambassador in the center of the rapacious, refined empire of Teixcalaan. What happened to her predecessor? Negotiating the complex shoals of politics, while keeping hold of a technological secret, Mahit enlists allies and advances towards understanding, and perhaps resolution. The author’s writing is assured and evocative, the plot rattles along, and the overall space empire ambience, established with the help of extracts from documents and messages, is stunning. Highly recommended.
As a chump, non-athletic exerciser, who has nonetheless jogged for a half century, I am in the market for books on the subject. I can safely say that “Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health” is the freshest and most useful book I’ve ever come across on this vexatious issue. The book’s distinguishing trait is that its author, Daniel Lieberman, is an evolutionary biologist. His analysis of any fitness/health issue considers not only the usual experimental and medical data but also how our evolutionary forebears behaved (which can be gleaned, partly, from the small remaining populations of true hunter-gatherers). Using this professional lens, the author scythes down myth after myth. We’re told to relax and exercise less as we age; nonsense, indeed the reverse is crystal clear. One topic close to my heart (and my dodgy left knee) is exercise’s possibly deleterious effect on people; the situation is complex but with the exception of extreme levels of activity, we can safely obsess. You can lose weight by walking, it just takes longer than dieting; moreover exercising is a marvelous complement to dieting. Cavemen are not our role model. “Just do it” won’t cut it; motivation to exercise is complex and varied. And so on and so on. He is especially harsh, and rightfully so, on fads and commercialized catechisms. The book is superbly organized and referenced, yet Lieberman’s style is elegant and laced with graceful humor. I’m not sure Exercised will make much sense to someone first broaching regular physical activity, but as long as you get out reasonably regularly and have thought a bit about it, this is an entertaining marvel of a book.
Andrew Lowe’s compelling English mystery series, featuring Detective Inspector Jake Sawyer, has been one of the features of my reading over the past two years (reviews of The Dying Light and of Pray for Rain). In “Chase the Devil,” his fifth outing, Sawyer finds himself suspended from his beloved police force, battling with wrenching psychological ghosts, and dealing with decisions of the past. When a woman asks him to investigate an old case of her son’s disappearance, Sawyer employs his uncommon skills to help, only to find that the past and present come to a head. The author is a punchy stylist adept at maintaining pace, his dialogue snaps and delights, and the cast of regular characters from the series is vibrant. Rest assured, any book in this series is destined to be a one-night read. A wonderful mystery and a wonderful novel.
“A Burning,” the debut novel of New York resident Megha Majumdar, is an atmospheric, of-the-moment look at the perils of living as a Muslim in Kolkata’s hellish slums. When young Jivan posts online about a terrorist attack she observed after the event, she finds herself in prison. And the two individuals who can save her, a wannabe acting star and a dissatisfied teach, have their own life trajectories that evolve tragically for Jivan. Majumdar’s created world fizzes with vibrancy and there is much to like about the tale, but for me, A Burning lacked narrative cogency. The plot is utterly without surprise or relief, and the three character voices, each in that present tense form that seems prevalent at the moment, are clumsy and inauthentic. To be blunt, I enjoyed aspects of the read, chiefly the Kolkata ambience, but failed to fall under the book’s spell.
One of the most renegade novels I’ve read over the last couple of years, and one of the most stellar, “The Ministry for the Future” offers a weighty, panoramic, yet entertaining climate change tale of the near future. Kim Stanley Robinson is rightly lauded as a hard science fiction author and here he extrapolates one possible future for our planet in the Anthropocene Era. Robinson takes a polymath approach to his futurism, covering all aspects of the climate emergency – heat, wildfires, flooding, storms, food shortages, mass migrations – plus economic theory, climate justice, bitcoins, global geopolitics, and much more. His writing is playful, almost disconcertingly so at the outset, often diverging into idiosyncratic scenes from the viewpoint of an unusual object, once even a photon. Inevitably, facts need to be dumped again and again, as the world progresses through the decades of the 2100s, and as a reader, you’ll either be engrossed by the data or intrigued by Robinson’s take on it. Geoengineering is brilliantly tackled in a very hard sci-fi manner, but evocatively. All of this sounds ponderous but the novel bounces along primarily in the viewpoint of Mary Murphy, head of a new UN body called the Ministry for the Future, charged with evangelizing for future and present citizens within the unfolding climate catastrophe. She is a wonderful feisty, smart, Irish character, just the vehicle for the overall arc of the narrative, but the author also offers brilliant minor scenes from the perspective of refugees, peasants, scientists, and other participants. If you’re not yet convinced that The Ministry of the Future is both a major hard science fiction odyssey (I was reminded of John Brunner’s classic Stand on Zanzibar) and a storytelling feat par excellence, just sample the opening bravura scene set in drought stricken India.
“How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor” sounds so specialized that I imagine most nonfiction readers will shy away from it. They would be missing out, for yes, nuclear expert Colin Tucker’s primer on control management of a modern nuclear power plant is technical, but it’s technical in a way that shines. Succinctly and clearly, the author walks the reader through the basics of how reactors work and how a reactor operator, sitting in her control room, can start up a reactor, smoothly keep it going, and take corrective action if something goes wrong. In the telling, the reader obtains a potted introduction to nuclear fission, reactor theory, reactor safety, and the varieties of reactors around the world. I must confess some of the intricacies of control overwhelmed me but I was able to retain a clear overview of the basics. Believe it or not, How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor is a fun read (defining fun as knowledge enhancing in a pleasant vein) and is worth checking out.
Vaclav Smil is the super nerd of energy and technology, writer of highly analytical but comprehensible tomes on the real numbers behind our world. “Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World” distils a column he ran for general readers and it is a cornucopia of analytical assertions on topics grand and small. Population, tech progress, vaccination, megacities, happiness, Brexit, electric motors, data, gas turbines, batteries, inflatable tires, ammonia, Anthropocene, windows … you get the picture, or rather, it’s difficult to sum his vast interest set. Despite the book’s title, Smil can be opinionated to the point of attracting controversy, but at least his facts are numbers-based and reference-based. He is a vibrant storyteller, in his own way, and rewards rereading. Numbers Don’t Lie is a perfect book for 2020, this year of swirling misinformation.