Artificial Condition

by Martha Wells
First sentence: “SecUnits don’t care about the news.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: All Systems Red
Content: There is some violence, and a small handful of swear words, including a couple of well-placed f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Picking right off where All Systems Red left off, Murderbot is determined to figure out what happened in its past that made it kill 57 people. Was it because it hacked its governor module? Was it because it was following orders? It figures it needs to go back to the scene of the crime, that there will be answers there. So it hitches a ride on a research transport ship, that happens to have a super-intelligent, curious bot on it, which Murderbot nicknames ART (for a-hole research transport because the bot just won’t shut up). Between the two of them, they manage to get Murderbot a job as a security consultant for some humans with what Murderbot calls a “death wish”, and start to figure things out.

I adore this series. I adore Murderbot as a narrator; it is sardonic and blunt and so very funny. They are tight thrillers, with some good twists and turns. I adore that they’re less than 100 pages; there are no extra words in here, just some tight, fantastic storytelling.

I can’t wait to read the next one.

All Systems Red

by Martha Wells
First sentence: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channel carried on the company satellites.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a small handful of swear words, including two f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In this future, everything is run by a nameless company. Everything costs, and is for hire, including Murderbot, a security robot (AI with human bits?). Except Murderbot (which is what it calls itself) has gone rogue: it has hacked the module that is supposed to make it obey commands. It’s good at faking it, and so the people on its current job — protecting those who are surveying an unknown planet — dosn’t know. That is until they realize that something has happened to the other sureying crew on the planet. Then it becomes a matter of life and death, and Murderbot is the key.

This is one I’ve heard about and have had on my TBR list for a long time. I probalby owuldn’t have picked it up, except I wanted a short book to finish out the year, and this fit the bill. (That, and Wells just won the Hugo award wo I was reminded about it.) Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was short, tight intesne, and lots of fun. I have a coworker who says she’s never identified more with a character than Murderbot, and I get it. It was a compelling narrator, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying being its presence (which would probaby mortify it).

An yeah, I’m probably going to keep reading about Murderbot’s adventures.

The Near Witch

by V. E. Schwab
First sentence: “It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is talk of violence, but it’d be appropriate for teenagers if they were interested. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

There has never been a stranger in the town of near. At least not in Lexi’s memory. And so, when one shows up, the town — especially the council — takes notice. And, when children start disappearing the night after the stranger arrives, the town is out for blood. Lexi doesn’t believe that the stranger has anything to do with the disappearances so she decides to set off on her own – against the wishes of her uncle and the town council – to solve the problem and get the children back.

Perhaps the thing I like best about Schwab is that she never writes the same book twice. Every single one of her books is vastly different. This is a bit of a coming-of-age story, about a girl learning to stand up for herself, and about a girl trying to find her own voice in a man’s world. It’s lyrical and delighful, and very very much a captivating story. Schwab is an excellent storyteller, and this, her first book, is a solid, captivating story.

I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

Small Things Like These

by Claire Keegan
First sentence: “In October there were yellow trees.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are two f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Bill Furlong is a simple man. He’s the father of five daughters, and he delivers coal in his small Irish town. He doesn’t think terribly deep thoughts, but he is aware of his roots. His mother got pregnant when she was 16, and it was only the kindness of her employer, Mrs. Wilson, that allowed her to keep Bill and raise him. So, when Bill finds a girl at the convent locked in the coal shed, unable to feed her baby — the nuns had separated the two — Bill takes pity on her, even though he knows his wife, Elieen, won’t like it.

This is a slim novella, a slice of Irish life in the mid-1980s, and one that makes you think.It’s deeply Christian without being preachy: Furlong doesn’t seek to draw attention to himself, and he’s very kind and caring not just to his family but to the community as a whole.

It’s not life-shattering, but it is deeply moving. A good addition to our Christmas books, I think.

The Matzah Ball

by Jean Meltzer
First sentence: “She just needed one more.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing. It’s in the romance setion of the bookstore.

Rachel is the daughter of a well-regarded rabbi, but she has a secret: she is a famous author (under a pseudonym, of course) of Christmas romance books. Jacob is trying to find his way back to Judaism after his mother’s death and is throwing the biggest party of the Season (on the eighth night of Hanukkah, no less). They knew each other, one summer at Jewish day camp, and had a brief fling (they were 12), but never kept in touch. But when they are thrown into each other’s orbit — Rachel’s publisher is demanding Hanukkah romance, and Jacob invites her parents to the Matzah Ball (yes, that is what the party is called). Sparks fly, of course.

On the one hand: I picked up this book because the title made me laugh. It hit all the right “Hallmark movie” moments; no one reads romances expecting them to be anything but predictable. There was even the added bonus of a disabled main character; she has chronic fatigue, which defies much of her life.

But. I didn’t buy that Rachel and Jacob had been holing on to 1) first love at age 12 and 2) a grudge because they had a misunderstanding at age 12. That’s silly and pushed the edge of suspension of disbelief. Also, there’s a throw-away line that’s anti-Palestinian, which I have to confess I didn’t realize was there until I read reviews after I finished. People were also concerned that the author used language around coming out as LGBT when describing Rachel’s “shameful” obsession with Christmas. I have to admit that I found her obsession with keeping it secret weird, but then again: I’m not Jewish.

IN the end, it was fun and cute, but nothing earth-shattering.

Audiobook: A Spindle Splintered

by Alix Harrow
Read by Amy Landon
Support your local independent booktore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some mild drug use (marijuana) and a few f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Zinnia Gray is dying. She has known her whole life that she won’t live long past her 21st birthday, so as it arrives, she figures she is doomed. Her best friend, Charm, throws a Sleeping Beauty-themed party in a tower for Zinnia’s birthday. But a rip in the continuum opens up and Zinnia finds herself in the actual Sleeping Beauty story. Or at least one version of it. The princess’s name is Primrose, and Zinnia has disrupted the curse. Together they need to figure out how to break the curse and get Zinnia back to her world.

It sounds like a pretty basic fairy tale retelling, but I did appreciate Harrow slightly subverting it. Primrose is gay, which is why she doesn’t want to marry the boorish prince. The Wicked fairy is.. .not. The tale and everyone’s impending death/sleep can’t be changed. And yet, Harrow keeps the reader pulled in and intrigued in the story. It helps that Landon is a fabulous narrator, keeping me intrigued. It also helps that it’s a short read: only 4 hours– so I didn’t feel like Harrow padded the book with anything but the bare necessities.

All this to say that it was a delightful diversion, and an enjoyable listen.

Under the Whispering Door

by T. J. Klune
First sentence: “Patricia was crying.”
Support your local independent bookstore: Buy it there!
Content: There is some mild swearing and talk of death. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Wallace is a partner in his own law firm, successful, powerful, demanding. He is not well-liked, but that doesn’t bother him. He is determined to milk the most out of his employees and works twice as hard as he demands they do. And yet, one weekend, he finds himself strangely outside his body. That’s odd, but what is even odder is when he finds himself at his own funeral, and the only person who can see him is a woman who calls herself his Reaper. That sets Wallace on a very interesting path as he lands at Charon’s Crossing Tea and Pastries with Mei, the Reapers, and Hugo, the ferryman. Wallace sets about trying to figure out his (after)life, and learning how to live and love better than he did when he was alive.

Oh, my heart. I picked this one up when it came out in October and I have been just waiting to have a chance to sit and savor it. And it was just as wonderful — heartfelt, funny, poignant, bittersweet — as I was hoping it would be. Seriously: if you haven’t given Klune’s books a try, do. His storytelling is incredibly affirming, and you can’t help but be happier having read them. I loved his vision of the Afterlife, of what it means to come to grips with your life and death, and just the overall love and care he put into this story.

I will most definitely be reading everything he writes from here on out.

The City We Became

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “I sing the city”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence, including sexual assault, and many f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In this universe, cities are alive, not just in the metaphorical sense but literally. There is a “birth” that results in the city being embodied in a person. Sometimes this doesn’t work — New Orleans was a stillbirth, for example — but mostly it does. Except: in the case of New York City, something has gone awry. It’s not a stillbirth, but it’s not alive, yet.

So the city adapts: five other people wake up, one for each borough. Their purpose is to get together, work together, and wake up New York as a whole. But, they meet unexpected problems in the form of an alien entity that is trying to stop this city from ever becoming alive.

Oh, my word this was so good. I think I liked it better than her Broken Earth trilogy. It’s clever, it’s fun, it’s got a Neil Gaiman feel to it. And I adored the characters as well as the way Jemisin played with race and New York stereotypes in the book. It as a joy to read, one that I plowed through incredibly quickly. And while it stands well on its own, I am fascinated to see where Jemisin takes it with the sequels.

Audiobook: Velvet Was the Night

by Sylvia Moreno Garcia
Read by Gisela Chipe
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s very sweary, including multiple f-bombs, very violent, and has on-screen sex. It’s in the adult section of the bookstore.

Maite, 30 years old and still unmarried, works as a secretary in a law firm in Mexico City in 1971. She’s bored with her life, lonely, and has only one thing to live for: the next issue of Secret Romance, a comic romance she follows. She reluctantly agrees to take care of her neighbor, Leonora’s, cat when she leaves the the weekend. The problem only begins when Leonora doesn’t come back. Determined to get her pay, Maite falls headfirst into a world od activist student, Russian spies, double-crossing government agents. She’s not the only one looking for Leonora, either: Elvis, who works or a shadowy government figure, is trying to track her down as well. Told in alternating narratives, Moreno-Garcia paints a picture of an underground Mexico City in the 1970s that was dangerous as it was alluring.

I’m not quite sure what to think of this one. I don’t usually go for thrillers, and so I don’t know who it stacks up in the genre. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, though they grew on me as the book went on. Maite is so incredibly pathetic, it was hard not to feel sorry for her, but she got some pluck and drive as the book went on. Elvis seemed like a one-note character, but became more complex. At the very least, it kept me reading, which does say something. Though that may have more to do with the narrator, who was fabulous, than with the story I really enjoyed Chipe’s narration; she definitely knew how to pull the listener in, and keep them entertained

I’ve been saying at work that Moreno-Garcia doesn’t write the same book twice. If you like noir, you might like this one. It is a fascinating picture of a time in history, and she’s a good writer. I just don’t know if this is a great book.

Life’s Too Short

by Abby Jimenez
First sentence: “Wailing.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content:There is lots of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also on-screen sex and talk of penis size. It’s in the romance section of the bookstore.

Vanessa Price is a pretty famous travel blogger, and so when she landed in St. Paul to help her sister give birth (its an unplanned an unwanted pregnancy), the last thing she expected was to end up taking care of the baby full time. But, here she is, without content, not having showered for ages. Coming to the rescue is Adrian Copeland, defense attorney, eligible bachelor, and surprising baby whisperer. As the weeks go on, Vanessa and Adrian grow closer together, figuring out life and babies and family and ultimately how to live your life to the fullest.

I absolutely devoured this one. It’s fluffy and fun, but it’s also got depth as Vanessa is dealing with a family history of ALS as well as a parent who is a hoarder and a half-sister (the baby’s mom) who is a drug addict. Mostly, though, it’s a lot of flirting and will they/won’t they and a lot of spending huge amounts of money on wine and home furnishings (Jimnez knows that a man cleaning is sexy!) and ultimately a very satisfying romance. I read it in a weekend afternoon, and then found out it was part of a “series”, so I picked up the first one.

I can’t wait to devour that one, too.