Book Review: Reykjavík Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason

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I am a huge fan of Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series. There’s something compelling about his writing style and the characters in the series. Not just Erlendur, but the the people who surround him. In fact, Indriðason has written two books who are tangentially about Erlendur, but are in truth about the two detectives he works with. In Reykjavík Nights we are treated not to a story about Erlendur the inspector but instead Erlendur the 20something (I think he’s 26) traffic cop.

Note: Don’t read this book unless you’ve the rest of the series. If you want to read Erlendur’s series, start with Jar City, the earliest book in the series to have been translated into English.

Reykjavík Nights follows the beginning of Erlendur’s path toward the detective we’re familiar with. This Erlendur is has no true experience solving crimes, he’s young and without a family of his own. While he has no wife or daughter, the baggage he does carry is the same that haunts him throughout the whole series.

Spoilers: The disappearance and probable death of Erlendur’s brother in a snowstorm, when they were both young, follows him, haunting him in at age 26. We learn that this loss has truly shaped him as a detective, in fact, the main case of Reykjavík Nights is only solved because of Erlendur’s obsession with missing people. End Spoilers

The novel is differs from the usual style of Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series. Instead of following Erlendur and his team as they try to solve a murder of some kind, we’re treated to two stories without. Reykjavík Nights has two halves: a procedural Law & Order type story line and an overarching crime that Erlendur must solve. The title of the novel itself is really only half the story, but this is not a bad thing

As a big fan of Law & Order, this novel read a bit like the Reykjavik version of that show — except that the characters (and Erlendur especially) were very well developed. We are treated to Erlendur’s experiences as a traffic/beat cop on the streets of Reykjavik. He works the night shift, hence the title, and Indriðason fills chapters with the exploits of Erlendur and his two partners. That sounds boring, but instead it’s the opposite. As much as I wanted to know what was happening in the other half of the story, these tales of the night shift serve a larger purpose, showing how ordinary people can sometimes become entangled in larger stories without even realizing it.

674a867a74ae92cb4f94dd57ee606451As always, I enjoyed the way Indriðason ties everything together. The larger crime is twofold — the death of a homeless man Erlendur met on the night shift and a woman who went missing around the same time the homeless man died. These two seemingly independent stories draw Erlendur in and we watch as he slowly begins to unravel them and eventually figure out what happened and how they’re connected. While the night shift stories are good, it is this second plot where the novel truly shines. We are treated to Erlendur, the budding inspector. But unlike the later series, this Erlendur doesn’t know what he’s doing, he messes things up, and he has to work alone. And yet, just as we expect, he does solve the mysteries he’s stumbled upon.

Reykjavík Nights is a treat for Erlendur fans and I am so happy it’s been translated into English. If you’ve read the rest of the series, definitely pick up Reykjavík Nights. While it’d still be a good read if you’re not familiar with the series, I would still recommend starting with Jar City. Regardless, I truly enjoyed this book and I cannot wait to read Into Oblivion, the follow up book to Reykjavík Nights.

Book Review: Boy Nobody (I Am The Weapon) by Allen Zadoff

069c352b1ffb84910a68043c82a1d84dIf you know me, you know that I love thrillers. And, if you know me really well, you might know that I love The Winter Soldier (aka Bucky Barnes). I like assassins who turn out to have a heart, who end up questioning their orders. These stories are intense and fun, but they’re not usually something that you find in teen books. Or at least, not to the level that you find in Boy Nobody/I Am The Weapon.

Boy Nobody is the story about an unnamed (until near the end of the novel) teenage boy who is also an assassin. When he was twelve, his family was killed and he was basically kidnapped and turned into an assassin who can get places adults cannot. He has been doing this for a long time and he’s very good at his job.

We follow our unnamed teenage assassin as he finishes one assignment and is then given a second — this time he must kill a mayor. Of course, the mission isn’t as easy as our assassin expects it to be — his timeline is a week and then there’s a girl involved. But unlike so many other novels, Boy Nobody does something very different with it’s anti-hero.

Very explicit spoilers for Boy Nobody ahead.

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Book Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

best01While looking up similar books to Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road (LibraryThing), I stumbled across Karen Lord’s novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. The summary sounded promising: “Now Lord returns with a second novel that exceeds the promise of her first. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a stunning science fiction epic that is also a beautifully wrought, deeply moving love story.” Thus I picked I up (one of the libraries I work at happens to own a copy, which was even better). That review was, in fact, correct (in spite of my not having read her first novel). The Best of All Possible Worlds is fantastic for many, many reasons.

There are lots of books about space and aliens and the future of the human race. There are lots of books that combine these elements together, some good, some not so much. But The Best of All Possible Worlds does something different, something better. Karen Lord’s novel is centered around a woman, Grace — while she is not our only character to have a voice, she is in mabest02ny ways the main character of the novel. She lives on a planet that is home to refugees from all across the galaxy, most (if not all) of them are some form of human, but they are also very different, very alien. But what Lord does is find a way to tie them all together, to make them find their similarities, instead of their differences.

Grace is works for the government and can speak many languages, which is how she ends up befriending Dllenahkh, who is Sadiri and from a planet that no longer exists. Grace is tasked with helping Dllenahkh and his fellow Sadiris find genetic matches to keep their people from extinction (think of it as similar to when Vulcan is destroyed in the new Star Trek reboot and how the elder Spock, at the end of movie, has decided to devote to helping the popular rebuild). In a way, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a very long road trip, as Dllenahkh, Grace and the rest of their assigned crew travel across Grace’s planet.

In way, Lord combines some of the more interesting aspects of Stragate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis into her novel. Grace and Dllenahkh’s travels remind me, in a way, of the Stargate teams traveling to different planets and learning about the people (and discovering that, in many cases, that are not that differbest03ent from themselves). Not only do Grace, Dllenahkh, and their crew find compatible people, they also find out more about the different cultures of the planet and, more significantly, about each other.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a story about people more than anything else. It is about Grace’s relationship with her coworkers, with the people of her planet, and with her family. Grace learns things about herself, about the people in her life, and about the history of her people and all peoples in her galaxy. In many ways The Best of All Possible Worlds is akin to a space opera, but I’ve never read one quite as beautifully written as Lord’s novel.

There is a love story within the novel as well. Grace and Dllenahkh find in each other something they didn’t even know they were looking for. The love story is subtle, it’s gentle, and it’s also really, really satisfying. Which sums up the novel as a whole, actually.

I really loved The Best of All Possible Worlds and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

9780385680141_0This book caused me quite a bit of trouble, ironically (I discovered upon reading it) because I kept misremembering and misreading the title as world exchange instead of word. I finally figured it out (actually, I went through the process of trying to remember the title a couple of times, two of them involving other librarians) and set about reading it.

The Word Exchange is a novel about the future, it’s a dystopia set in a world not far off from our own. In that world, devices reminiscent of today’s smartphones basically run people’s lives (predominately Americans, but other countries as well). These devices, called Memes, do everything smartphones do for us today — and then some. They can basically figure out what it is we need at any given moment, from directions to music to clothing. But, at the same time, they’re slowly replacing that which makes us who we are — our brains.

Of course, the majority of the characters in Graedon’s novel don’t realize this. How can they? They’re so attached (addicted) to their Memes that they don’t realize something’s gone wrong until it’s too late. The Word Exchange takes place right before the word flu strikes and society (at least temporarily) collapses.

The novel is told in the format of a transcript, complete with letters. Anana is writing her recollections of the events surrounding the word flu pandemic. Her chapters are separated by journal entries from a friend of her and her father, Bart. There’s some romance, Anana’s ex-boyfriend Max is partially responsible for the word flu’s spread, if not it’s creation. Bart himself is tangled up in the mess of the word flu and Max (they were friends, of a sort).

the_word_exchange_1024x1024Each chapter is a letter and below the letter is a word beginning with that’s letter, followed by a definition. Anana, her father Doug, and Bart all work for something called The Dictionary. This is something similar to the OED, but in North America. Anana’s father is in charge of the rewrites for the 3rd edition. One day, not long after Max leaves Anana, she and her father are set to have dinner when he fails to show up. This sets in motion events that will change Anana’s life, at that of her family, friends and the whole of the globe.

Of course, Anana, like the readers, is unaware of what’s happening. But, of course, because the story we’re reading is Anana’s recollections, we also get the benefit of her hindsight. She  intersperses her story with insight (explaining things that she won’t know until later, among other things) that moves the story along in a very interesting way.

Both Bart and Anana catch the word flu, though the severity of their diseases vary. It’s through the disease, the word flu, that Graedon’s story is most effective. Anana recalls a moment on the train with her father when he uses what she calls an ‘obscure’ word and she pulls out her Meme (discretely, as her father doesn’t like them) which supplies her with the definition. And thus begins what I find to be quite terrifying.

You see, one of the ways the Memes worm their ways into the lives of the characters is by remembering things, remembering words, for us. You’ve been there. You’re staring at something (in the novel, it’s a fork, in real life it’s an armchair, a pen, a notebook, a lamp, anything ordinary) and suddenly you can’t remember the word for it. You know what it is, but you can’t come up with it. It’s happened to all of us. I blame our reliance on technology, the same way that Doug (Anana’s father) does with the Meme.

resizeIt’s through these devices, the Memes and others, that the virus spreads. The details of the virus, the impact it has on people and the delivery mechanisms, those are all  for you to discover when you read the book. There are, of course, bigger things at plan that just addiction to Memes and the fears of Doug and eventually Anana, too. But, really, at the heart of the novel is the importance of communication — what happens when we’re cut off? — and the written word — how do we communicate when you cannot speak?

Books, magazines, reading and writing, conversation and debate, all of these are important to the characters in the novel. But, really, I think that Graedon is trying to get across the idea that these are also important to us, today. Others may disagree, but I never really felt like she was trying to hit us over the head with the idea that these “ancient” technologies are any less important today than they were when, say, printing was invented. Perhaps some thing she’s being heavy handed, but I felt that wasn’t the case. If anything, it made me want to put down my phone and read more books.

So, if you’re looking for something that’s not quite science fiction, but not quite fiction, either. This straddles that boundary in an excellent fashion. It might slow to start, but it’s well worth the effort. And while the conclusion is rather open ended (I could see a sequel), I rather liked it’s conclusions (or lackthereof).

Rereading Terry Pratchett: Mort

Mort-Terry-PratchettFor such a short book, it certainly took me a long time to listen to this. I think it’s not so much the book (though that’s part of it) but the fact that I’ve been listening to a lot more music recently. But, I finally finished Mort and while I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I liked it.

The story starts with Mort and his father at, well, a job fair. Of course no one picks Mort to be their apprentice, he’s a gangly, not-much-to-look-at boy. Eventually, after everyone’s left, it’s just Mort and his father, waiting around. And then, of course, Death shows up. Unlike in real life, most Pratchett fans are big fans of Death. He’s a truly great character and I’m looking forward to the other books where he’s a main character. Unfortunately, Mort is not one of the better Death offerings. That’s not to say that Death’s not great, there are just other things going against it.

As with all Discworld novels, there’s magic and magicians involved. But also some rather overt sexism, which is disappointing but not surprising. But more on that later. Where were we? Oh, yes. Death wants to take a holiday and decides to train an apprentice — Mort. Unfortunately for Mort, not only does no one remember his name (they all call him boy, much to his dismay), he has no idea what he’s getting into. Being Death is a whole lot of work.

The novel follows Mort’s (all too brief) training and then he’s set out on his own to gather the souls of three people who are set to die. Death, on the other hand, has embarked on his vacation (this, too, will not end well). I will give Mort credit, he gets the first two right. And then there’s the princess. On one of the training missions (I don’t know what else to call them), Mort and Death arrive at a castle to take the soul of a monarch. Mort makes a (one-sided) connection with the Princess and when he shows up again to collect her soul, well, you can imagine it doesn’t go well.

The idea is actually pretty interesting. What happens in the Discworld when someone who is supposed to die, doesn’t? Chaos, basically. The world tries to correct things and Mort tries to get in the way. In the end, of course, things work out and Death realizes he doesn’t really need an apprentice after all (and Mort finds that reaping his not his calling, either).

While Mort is wrecking havoc in space and time, Death is wrecking his own havoc. He’s eating and drinking, getting drunk and then, toward the end of the novel, he actually gets a job — as a cook! But as things are wont to do, they go awry and Death must swoop in to fix things, and he does, sort of.

But then there’s the sexism. The way Mort treats the princess, the way the wizard (who is kind of in love with the princess) treats the princess. And then you have Ysabell, Death’s adopted daughter. She’s described in rather annoying terms (and described as being rather annoying), but she turns out to be the best character in the novel. I like her because she’s got her head on right and she understands how the world works, while the men in her life (Mort, Death, and Albert, Death’s manservant and a former wizard) are basically bonkers.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. And while I did enjoy how Mort and Ysabell ended up together and it felt mostly natural, I was annoyed at how she’d been portrayed in the earlier portions of the novel. It’s been so long since I’ve read these books that I’m hopeful that the sexism decreases and my enjoyment increases. Though so far, all four of the Discworld novels are sexist, but I do acknowledge that and try not to let it color my view of the novels too much (Mort aside).

Book Review: Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Not every book I read comes easily to me. I don’t mean that it was hard to get a copy of this book, it wasn’t, but I mean that in order to read it, I really had to work at it. Sometimes when you have to work at a book, it’s not necessarily a good one. But, of course, this isn’t always the case and it certainly isn’t the case with the first book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (according to Wikipedia and some googling I’ve done, it’s u2333sually referred to as the Three Body trilogy).

Three-Body Problem was translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (an excellent author in his own right). It’s a science fiction novel about aliens, but you don’t really meet the aliens until you get closer to the end of the novel. It’s really the story of two character from two different time periods in China. The beginning of the novel is set during the Cultural Revolution and gives us our first main character, Ye Wenjie. She watches the horrors that befall her father and his fate and black class status follows her throughout her young life. But, because this is a novel, after all, Ye’s scientific background ends up balancing out her father’s black marks on their past. She ends up entangled and then deeply entrenched in looking for alien life.

Our second thread follows that of Wang Miao and is set 40 years in the future (basically, present day China). Wang, like Ye, is a scientist, though they study different sciences. Wang is contacted by a strange group of people and ends up befriending Ye, though he doesn’t know how their stories truly intersect until later. Wang must infiltrate an organization that is bent on world destruction and when he does, what he discovers blows his mind (but that would be spoiling things for me to tell you, so I won’t).

The novel is full of Chinese history (Liu helpfully includes footnotes of his own, in addition to Cixin’s, to make sure Western authors understand what they’re reading and the historical context of the novel), science and computer games — among other things. You do not need to understand physics or Chinese history to enjoy this novel.

We follow Ye and Wang as their lives are intertwined, bringing us to the climax and conclusion of the novel. We discover what really happened to Ye once she started working on a mountain (what saved her from her black status) and we participate (though not directly) with Wang as he explorThreebodyes a computer game that proves to be very important to the story. And, toward the end, we also get to go inside the heads of the aliens.

Cixin Liu’s writing is excellent and I trust Ken Liu’s translation. I didn’t feel like I was reading a translated work. And now I want to return to something I mentioned at the start of this review — this novel was a lot of work to read. Not because it was hard, but because Cixin Liu packed it full. It’s a dense, enthralling read, but it also took me a long time to read it. In many ways, it reminds me of many of Kim Stanely Robinson’s works. Hard reads, but worth the effort — which is exactly how I feel about Three-Body Problem.

If you like science in your science fiction, plus a murder mystery, and mixing of time/story lines, you should read Three-Body Problem. It sets up it’s sequel very nicely, leaving me wanting more, but ends in such a way that I’m not angry there are three books in the series. Instead, I’m just ready for more of this universe that Cixin Liu’s created.

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road

I’ve been a fan of Seanan McGuire since before I knew that her pen name was Mira Grant. It was my sister who hooked me up with McGuire’s series under her own name (October Daye, for those who’re curious — highly recommended) and it’s her copy of Sparrow Hill Road that I read.

Let me start by saying that I like ghost stories. I’m not a big fan of movies about ghosts or the stories you tell around camp fires, but I do like ghost stories in novels, especially ones that are more X-Files than traditional. And while there aren’t any FBI agents running around in Sparrow Hill Road, that doesn’t make the story any less X-Files-ish or amazing. Of course, even if you’ve never watched The X-Files, this book is still pretty great.

Sparrow Hill Road is about a road, of course, but it’s really about a network of roads … and even then, it’s about a girl (she’s known as the phantom prom date, among other names) named Rose. Of course, Rose is dead. She is the ghost of our story (full of many ghosts).

When Rose was sixteen, she was waiting for Gary to pick her up and take her to prom. When Gary didn’t show, Rose went after him and was then subsequently run off the road and thus she died, in her prom dress, at age six. That was in 1952.

McGuire’s writing in Sparrow Hill Road is some of her best. Rose’s story is always entertaining, always engrossing and thoroughly engaging. We follow Rose across the years, from 1952 (and even a bit earlier) to 2014. Rose crosses the country and we go with her. In some ways, Sparrow Hill Road is a young adult novel, much of Rose is still sixteen — but the truth is that she’s not. She’d be almost 80 if she’d been alive, but ghosts don’t age.

Sparrow Hill Road is a love story. It’s a sad story. It’s beautiful and thoughtful. It’s about both kinds of family — those by blood and those made. It’s also about Michigan, as Rose is from Buckley Township (there is a Buckley Michigan, though I don’t know if these are one and the same). If you live in the state, you’ll definitely recognize some of the city names.

Rose died on the road and thus her ghost lives on the road. She’s what’s called a hitchiker. She travels the ghost roads, looking for rides, among other things. But really, Rose is chasing the man that killed her, all those years ago. Unlike many suspense-filled novels, there’s only a sense of urgency when Rose feels it. I didn’t want the book to end, I wasn’t ready to stop reading about Rose. But as the the stories that make up the novel converged into the present day, Rose was ready find some sort of closure.

Do we get it? In a manner of speaking. Is it satisfying? You better believe it.

Sparrow Hill Road is also about cars and drivers, about staying alive and what happens to the dead in this world of Rose’s. It’s also a bit of a philosophical read, which was a pleasant surprise (perhaps intentional, perhaps not, that’s not important). If you’ve never read anything by Seanan McGuire, Sparrow Hill Road‘s not a bad place to start. In a way, it’s like the best of both Mira Grant (her pen name for when she writes horror/zombies/etc) and Seanan McGuire (the urban fantasy author). So, go pick it up. You’ll enjoy the ghost story, I promise.