Highly Irregular by Akira Okrent

A highly stylized presentation of the the book title and author

Language fascinates me, and not just English. I have studied in school French, Russian, and German. And I have learned some of at least a half dozen other languages using Duolingo. I am particularly interested in the history and oddities of language, English in particular, in books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The latest book I’ve read along these lines is Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme–And Other Oddities of the English Language by Akira Okrent.

In short little essays, this book answers questions like “How can an exception prove a rule?” and “Why do noses run and feet smell?” or even “Why is there an ‘r’ in Mrs.?” Some answers are more clear cut than others. Most have their roots in the Norman conquest, the roots of English as a Germanic language, or the evolution of natural language use. But all are presented in an entertaining style that had me laughing out loud at times.

This book isn’t for the linguist in anyone. It’s for those of us who get frustrated by the weirdness that is the English language and are curious about how it got the way it is. It isn’t a dry and dusty history but a fun jaunt through the crazy walkabout that is the history of the English language.

My rating: 4/5

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 198

Images of a farm are reflected in the visor of an astronaut as s/he floats above the earth, head upside down relative to the cover with the earth below

The March issue of Clarkesworld Magazine was a mixed bag for me. There were two stories that I simply loved, one I didn’t like much at all, and two that were just meh. Here are my brief individual reviews for each story.

The opening story “Love in the Season of New Dance” by Bo Balder is a poignant tale of a researcher on an alien planet studying a cicada-like species. This researcher is touched by the predicament of a single creature as it breaks through to the surface long before its fellows, dooming it to die before the rest arise. A touching relationship grows through their short time together. (My rating: 4/5)

In “Pinocchio Photography” by Angela Liu, the main character is a photographer in an eerie future where the dead can be animated post mortem and their pictures taken with loved ones with a special type of film. This photographer starts the job as a side hustle that her mother disapproves of and her dying father sees her enjoying. They all come together in a bittersweet and emotional conclusion. (My rating: 5/5)

The Spoil Heap” by Fiona Moore takes place across two times—the story’s present and past as the main character Morag remembers it. The back and forth between the two time periods gives the tale a slowly unfolding suspense as it reveals what is actually happening in the present. And that present is a post apocalyptic world that fell into a form of feudalism before Morag took action to create the world of the present. (My rating: 5/5)

Bek of “Bek, Ascendant” by Shari Paul has left her home planet just prior to its destruction and become part of a team of aliens who help to resettle species that have lost their home planets. She had thought that she was the last human alive but finds that many from her planet were rescued by the alien confederacy that she is now a part of. And her childhood friend the Emperor is still alive. And now her team is being sent to manage their resettlement. How will she handle this unforeseen turn of events? (My rating: 3/5)

In a future where clones are created regularly by corporations, the clones are only given rights and recognized as “human” (rather than property) once they pass a test to “convert”. If a clone fails to convert, it is automatically destroyed at a certain age via an implant. But some unconverted clones don’t want to recognize such a system by participating in the testing process. One clone who works for a cloning company is challenged by this choice in “Failure to Convert” by Shih-Li Kow. This story is a touching exploration of what it means to be human and the choices that make us more or less so. (My rating: 4/5)

What it means to be human is also explored in “Zeta-Epsilon” by Isabel J. Kim. It is an emotional story of a brother and sister raised together and treated as property by the company that created their relationship. The brother is human and the sister is a sentient AI that was planted in his brain. They were raised together to become a ship (the sister) and its pilot (the brother). But they both want more than that from life. They want freedom and agency. This is the story of how they seek that together. (My rating: 4/5)

It wasn’t clear to me at first what was going on it “AI Aboard the Golden Parrot” by Louise Hughes. It is one of those stories that kind of dumps you into the tale and leaves you to figure out what it means as you go. That can work well sometimes, but that isn’t the case here. At least not for me. The story is about an old pirate carnival ride that is now roaming the ocean as it cautiously approaches a city that seems not to want it to. (My rating: 3/5)

The final story of the issue, “Love is a Process of Unbecoming” by Jonathan Kincaid, was a complete disappointment for me. It felt experimental, and the experiment failed. It seems to be about an infection and what is does to its host. But it felt like a jumble, and I never really understood what was going on. But, maybe that’s just me. It might be just what someone else is looking for. (My rating: 2/5)

The wonderful in this issue is weighed down a bit by the meh and jumbled stories to yield an overall rating of the fiction of 3.75. Definitely worth a read for the high rated stories.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife book cover

The premise of this book really drew me in. It fits with other dystopias like Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It also has a feminist twist that amped my eagerness to read it. The story is that of a woman who is an obstetric nurse at a hospital in San Francisco when an airborne plague breaks out that kills nearly everyone who gets it. The thing is, women and children are ten times more likely to die from it, leaving a world of almost no women or children. Everyone is left to fend for themselves. What does a lone woman do in a world like this? That is the premise. Unfortunately for me, it did not live up the the promise I saw in it, despite it having won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award.

The thing that really spoiled this book for me was the editing. This book really needed better editing. Many times, especially in the beginning, I found myself struggling to understand the action happening in the story. It was unclear and seemed to subtly but not clearly contradict earlier action. For example, in one paragraph the characters might be facing each other; in the next, one turns around to face the other. Huh? When and how did they end up facing away from each other? But I also found a complete, glaring error.

This mistake occurs in chapter eight where the author describes the scientists seeking a vaccine for the plague. They develop one and then look for those who are already infected to test it on. “They developed a vaccine, and a FEMA crew flew it into St. Louis to find infected persons on whom to test it.” Except that is not how vaccines are tested or used. They don’t treat disease, they prevent it. Vaccines are tested on those who are not infected. In challenge trials, those who receive the vaccine are deliberately exposed to the disease-causing agent to see how effective the vaccine is. That is how the editor and author could have handled that part of the book.

Despite this very distracting mistake and the at times poorly written action, I found the story itself fascinating and engrossing. The main character struggles realistically with what she faces. The expressions of emotions feel real as do the people and their responses. And the responses are not all the same. Some people act to help others. Most are more selfish. It is a dark world but an interesting exploration of a plague-ravished world written before the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite the interesting story line, though, the poor editing really pulled me from the action and frustrated me.

My rating: 3/5

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Stolen Focus book cover

I am fascinated by technology and how it changes us and our societies. One of the biggest concerns these days is how fragmented out attention has become due to smartphones and social media. These days it seems like no one can pay attention long enough for the person talking to them to finish their sentence. Sometimes I am talking to someone and they pull out their phone while I am still talking. Even worse, sometimes I am the one pulling out my phone while someone else is talking to me! What in the world in going on here?

This book presents research and discusses the reasons why we have such a hard time focusing, and not all of them are technological. There are two ways to address these challenges–individually and society. The first says that it is your fault. You need to get better control over your attention and what is distracting you. The author largely does not focus in this direction though encouraging the reader to do what she can. He encourages personal change to address the issues but feels they are not enough. He focuses instead on how our world has changed that makes it hard for us to pay attention. He compares it to trying to lose weight when everything around you is shouting at you to eat bad food and sit on the couch. Sure you can do something about it, but it is harder that it needs to be or should be.

My favorite aspect of this book is that the author has included all the interview audio on his website for the book. He is also very clear about where the research he shares is relatively settled or still highly in dispute. He makes a strong case for his perspective and solutions, but he doesn’t pretend that there aren’t others with differing opinions. Refreshing. A good place to start is the interview with Nir Eyal from chapter eight. Eyal favors focusing on what we can do for ourselves because collective action takes a long time. Both Eyal and Hari see the need for individual and collective change, but they differ on which we should start with.

My rating: 5/5

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy book cover

I am reading a lot of short stories for my “Year of Short Fiction”. But short fiction also includes novellas. There are many different definitions for the length of a novella, but The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association defines word counts for different length formats like this:

  • Short Story: less than 7,500 words
  • Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words
  • Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words or more

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers is therefore a novella and is the latest of my short fiction reads. It is the sequel to her previous novella A Psalm for the Wild Built. Both take place on a moon and follow a monk and a sentient robot. In the second of these novellas, the monk acts as the travel coordinator for the robot as it re-introduces its kind to humans for the first time in generations. When robots gained sentience, they left the humans and their factories and moved to the wild to live on their own. For more details, read the first novella. It’s really good.

While the theme of the first book was more individual, this second takes on relationships. How will people relate to a sentient robot after generations of separation? How will the relationship between the monk and the robot change during the tour? Once again the writing is colorful, bringing to life the world around the characters and the characters themselves. The conversation feels realistic to the situations. And the interaction of the characters shows the changing relationships through the story rather than exposition. Overall, a worthy sequel, but not quite as good as the first book for me.

My rating: 4/5

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue book cover

Wow! I simply loved this book! It was one that I had been putting off reading for some time. I’m not sure why. The premise just didn’t grab me, I guess. But it was considered one of the best books of the year when it came out (2020). The story revolves around the title character who ends up living forever but no one remembers her. As soon as she is out of their site, they forget they ever met her. Pretty straightforward fantasy stuff, but what the author does with it is nothing short of amazing.

This is a novel about emotions and relationships. How does it feel to be alone in the world? What if your worst enemy was the only one who remembered you and said your name? What kind of relationship would that be? How do satisfy your need for human connection when no one will remember you when they wake up next to you in the morning? What if your parents suddenly didn’t know who you were? Or your best friend? You follow Addie as she moves through the world finding answers to these questions.

The prose is immersive and evocative. I had such a feeling for the characters and what was happening to them. Some books when I read them I deeply admire the writing and how turns of phrase are used to paint mental pictures. This book went beyond that. I simply forgot about the words and watched the movie as it played in my mind. And those invisible words connected with the emotional experiences of my life in a way that, as I said before, I could just feel. Not everyone will fall in love with this book, but I sure did.

My rating: 5/5

Portable Magic by Emma Smith

Portable Magic book cover

I learned of this book through one the many book-focused email lists I subscribed to. It interested me as a history of the book and another in my category of “books about books”. It wasn’t quite what I expected. It turned out to be more a collection of essays than a coherent, sequential history of the book. In any case, I mostly liked it.

The essays cover such topics as Gutenberg and the beginning of books, books as Christmas gifts, book trafficking, book burning, censorship, and choose your own adventure books. None of these essays is very strong for me. They could be introductions to books that go deeper into such topics. Thus the book is sort of an incoherent primer on the history of books as objects rather than the actual contents of books.

That said, I enjoyed it for what it is. The author is British and the book was originally published in the UK, so that is the perspective for history and publishing. I am not all that familiar with the history of the British monarchy (nor am I particularly interested in it), so that complicated the context for me is some places. But as a quick read on different perspectives on the history of the codex, this might be an enjoyable intro.

My rating: 3/5

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 153

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 153 cover

Let’s dive right in. Issue 153 of Lightspeed Magazine is for the month of February 2023. It is edited by John Joseph Adams, and all the stories are original.

First up is “Learning Letters” by Carrie Vaughn, a story of the far future after “the Fall”. An isolated and primitive but successful community is visited by a stranger in an airplane. Where did they get the fuel for it? Where have they come from? And what do they want? This world just drew me in and made me want more. (My rating: 5/5)

After a nuclear war forces people to live underground, people have the desperate choice between staying underground and slowly going crazy from the lack of sunlight or venturing to the surface and dying from radiation poisoning. “In(con)solation” by Octavia Cade is the story of a couple living together facing this impossible choice. The story is told in an interesting combination of first and second person voices. (My rating: 3/5)

In “The Day the Earthman Didn’t Show, Adam-Troy Castro tells the tale of a collectivist alien society that knows the future and works together to plan for it. For millennia. Only what if something happens and the prophecy doesn’t come true? Read this delightful story and find out. (My rating: 4/5)

Have you ever written to your congressperson or senator? If so, I bet it was nothing like the letter in “Subject: More Monsters Will Not Make Us Safer” by Paul Crenshaw. The problem this author is concerned with is using monsters to make children safer in schools. An interesting look at a current hot button issue. (My rating: 4/5)

All houses change as you live in them, even if you never renovate them. But the changes in “The House of Linear Change” by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe are way beyond that! The son of the homeowner finds himself in a bit of spot. This one was a bit trippy for me, but may be just your thing. (My rating: 3/5)

The title “Real Magic” by Sharang Biswas at first doesn’t quite seem to fit. People nervously approach the local witch to seek her help with a problem. One by one she sets them each on a quest that gets them what they want but with no real magic. She saves the real magic for the really important things. (My rating: 4/5)

I was surprised to learn that the title library in “Guidelines for Using the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library” by Marie Brennan actually exists. The author created a fantastic version of guidelines for using it based on her own time there. A fun read. (My rating: 4/5)

As a child did you ever need to stay with family or friends when something unexpected came up with your family? The boy in “His Guns Could Not Protect Him” by Sam J. Miller experiences this when something happens to his father. No one will tell him as he tries to protect his little brother from learning the danger their dad is in. This one really brings that childhood feeling to life. (My rating: 4/5)

That’s it for this month’s Lightspeed fiction! My ratings come out to 3.875 on average so another successful issue. Happy reading!


Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility book cover

I read and loved Station Eleven, but when this book came out I wasn’t sure I was going to read it. As last year came to an end, many people had it on their lists of best books of the year. So it got on my “to read” list. And last week I finished reading it. It was much shorter than I expected and also much better than I expected.

The story takes place in different time periods from 1912 to the far future. That’s part of what turned me off to the book. Sounded like it was all over the place. It’s not. Well, it is in terms of time but not in terms of the story. It all connects. And in a most satisfying way.

The characters, like her previous book, are fully formed and relatable even when I don’t like them. The writing flows drawing me into the story and keeping me reading long after I had planned to stop for the evening. And surprisingly it shows a lot of compassion and humanity through a few core characters. I’m glad that I decided to read this one.

My rating: 4/5

Babel by R. F. Kuang

Babel book cover

This book was one of the biggest published in 2022. I kept hearing people rave about it online and in podcasts. I knew it was about language and colonialism and was a fantasy that takes place in an alternative past. Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect when I finally picked it up a few weeks ago. While I did enjoy it, I’m not sure I would rate it quite so highly as so many others.

The main thrust of the world is that England is a world power due to silver, and not just because of its value as a precious metal. When similar words from different languages are engraved on bars of silver, the subtle differences between the words are brought out by the bar. Babel is the name of the tower and school of translation at Oxford. A cohort of an Indian, a Haitian, a Chinese, and an Englishwoman bond over their experience at the school. But as they start to learn the consequences of their school and its work, danger and revolution ensue.

In many ways this book reminded me of Kindred. Like that book, Babel really helps the reader feel what the characters are struggling with, in this case colonialism. And the characters come alive, whether you love them or hate them. Being a bit of a linguist, I also really loved how translation is a central part of the story. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of explication, more telling than showing in some places. That said, I am not sure how else the writer could have shared such a complex topic. But for me the explanations never really interfered with my enjoyment of the story. I was carried along nonetheless. In the end the book was a bit long but still worth the read.

My rating: 3.5/5