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.

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 Heartbreak Bakery

by A. R. Capetta
First sentence: “The splintered crack of my egg of the counter sounds like an ending.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is talk of sex, and a couple of f-bombs with some mild swearing It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This book hits all my buttons: it’s a book about food and baking — Syd our main character, loves to bake as self-expression; it’s a book about Austin (which I really do love to visit); it’s a book about friendships and finding love; it’s a book that truly embraces the entire rainbow of LGBTQIAP+ life and culture.

The plot is simple: Syd goes through a bad breakup, and bakes heartbreak into brownies, which get sold at the bakery, and which cause everyone who eats them to break up. Syd, feeling guilty and miserable — the owners of the Proud Muffin bakery where Syd works are one of the couples — sets about with Harley, the delivery person at the bakery, setting things right. There are lessons Learned and Love along the way, along with a smattering of magical baked goods.

Syd doesn’t have pronouns, and identifies as agender, which to be honest, has made writing this really difficult. One doesn’t consider how much pronouns are a part of life until one tries to write a review not using them.

But the book is still cute and light and frothy, following the paces of a foody romance, with an LGBT+ spin. I did like that this one felt Queer in incredibly inclusive ways (I think the only cis/het characters were Syd’s parents); I felt like (as an outsider) that the whole rainbow was represented. As a baker, I love the idea of magical baking, and some of the recipes Capetta includes sound amazing.

I don’t think tis is going to be my favorite book this year, but I am so happy that a book like this exists in the world.

Cinderella is Dead

by Kalynn Bayron
First sentence: “Cinderella has been dead for two hundred years.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are illusions to domestic abuse. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

In the kingdom of Lille, the story of Cinderella is not just a fairy tale, it’s fact. It’s the book by which every young woman is to live their life. Serve their family. Prepare for the ball, which happens every fall, where they are to be Chosen by one of the eligible men in the kingdom, and then live out their lives happily ever after. There are problems with this, of course: there are rules — curfews, limits on autonomy — that work to keep women and girls in line. Our main character, Sophia, isn’t interested in being chosen — she’s in love with another girl, which is strictly forbidden — and doesn’t want any part of the ball. Unfortunately, that’s not allowed. But, at the ball, she can’t take any more, so she runs off — which is a crime. She hides out in the woods, finds Cinderella’s mausoleum, and meets one of Cinderella’s only living descendants, and discovers the story that everyone in Lille is told is actually built upon a lie.

On the one hand, I’m always down for a new telling of a fairy tale. I adore retellings, and this one does have a unique spin. I liked that Sophia, in the end, was able to begin to fix the country — with help of course — and find her own version of happiness. What didn’t sit right with me was the way she got there. I didn’t like that all the men (except for the gay one) were complete assholes on one level or another. I get that you’re drilling down the misogynistic rules, but “not all men”? It sounds bad saying that, but that’s what I felt reading it. I also felt like Bayron felt she needed to have Sophia be gay because to have her in a hetero relationship would be Bad for the Message. (I just didn’t feel like this book was Queer in the way books written by LGBTQ+ authors are.) It’s not a bad book, but in the end, I didn’t love it.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

by Nahoko Uehashi
translated by Cathy Hirano
First sentence: “At the moment the royal procession reached the Yamakage Bridge, Balsa’s destiny took an unexpected turn.”
Sadly, it’s out of print.
Content: There’s some fighting and the main character is 30. It’s in the teen section of the library.

Balsa is a warrior woman, who is a bodyguard for hire. She saved the life of the Second Crown Prince — he had fallen into a river — which lead her to her most recent job: guarding his life because the prince — Chagun — is carrying the water demon egg inside of him. His life is in danger, partly because his father, the Mikado, is supposed to have descended from the gods, and having a son with a demon egg inside of him isn’t the best thing for public morale. And there’s also the Rarunga — the egg eater — who will do everything it can to stop the egg from hatching.

Okay, that sounds really weird, doesn’t it?

Honestly, though, it worked. It’s a good little fantasy, ripe with adventure and fighting, mysticism, a bit of friendship-turned-romance (but just a small bit), and a crazy old lady. It was kind of like reading a novelization of a manga; not terribly linear with the storytelling, but entertaining nonetheless. Not sure I would have ever picked this up without the class I’m taking (and because this was one of a very few on the reading list; not many works in translation for kids are in my local library) but I’m not sorry that I read it. It was fun, in the end.

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.

White Smoke

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Ah. There you are.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs and some teenage marijuana usage. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Marigold is looking for a fresh start. Or, at least that’s what she tells herself. She, her brother, her mother, and her stepdad and step-sister are headed away from California, away from Mari’s mistakes and moving to Cedarville for a fresh start. It doesn’t hurt that her mom got a residency there, with free housing. Except: Cedarville isn’t that great of a place. There’s something… off about it. Mari’s hearing sounds in the house. There are smells, and things go missing. Not to mention that every. single. other. house in the neighborhood is boarded up and decrepit looking. It’s all… very, very weird.

I think the mileage on this one depends on how horror-savvy you are. I’m not, so I found it spooky and intimidating and atmospheric. And I had to put it down often just to drop my anxiety levels. But, I suppose if you are the sort of person who likes horror and reads/watches it often, this one might not have the same effect. I did like that Jackson was exploring the idea of gentrification ad the impact it has on the (mostly black and poor) community. I also liked that she talked about unfair incarceration because of drug laws, and how those laws fall differently for black and white people. This horror story has some meat to it.

And then there’s the ending. Without spoilers, I’ll just say it’s kind of abrupt and weird. I wonder if there’s a sequel, because so much is unresolved. Or if Jackson meant it to be that way. At any rate, I found it a fun enough ride.