Happy Place by Emily Henry

The author name at top and book title at center on a magenta background. At the bottom, six cartoon people are floating on and jumping into water.

I occasionally read a romance novel. One of my favorite authors in this genre is Emily Henry. When she recently released her latest novel, I requested it from my library. My turn finally came around earlier this week, and I finished it in three days.

About half way through this book, I wasn’t sure if I was going to end up liking it. The story is told from the point of view of Harriet. She and her long-time boyfriend Wyn broke up five months ago, sending her into a tailspin. They used to attend the annual friends vacation together, but this year is her turn after the split. But when she gets there having just about gotten over him, Wyn is there, too. They end up having to make the most of a bad situation for reasons I won’t spoil.

I wasn’t sure this book was for me because the crux of the plot is a miscommunication between Harriet and Wyn, or at least a lack of communication. They spend much of the book making assumptions about the other’s thoughts and feeling regarding how and why they broke up. I hate this trope! I mean, just talk to each other and clear it up already! But when the author gets around to clearing things up around 70% of the way through, it turns out there are good reasons for not having discussed it. And they feel legitimate and real rather than forced.

As I said, this is a miscommunication, enemies become lovers (again) romance. But it goes surprisingly deeper than that covering such themes as life purpose, individuality, self-care, mental health, and growing into yourself. I am very glad I finished the book. It may be my favorite of hers so far.

My rating: 4/5

(Don’t) Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before by Peter Turchi

Against a creme colored background, two men talk on a two cans a with string "phone". The string forms the word "don't" as part of the title.

Here is another book on writing from my list. It is somewhat unique in my experience. It doesn’t talk generally about the normal aspects of writing, like theme, plot, and characters. It also doesn’t discuss the mechanics of writing or publishing, no schedules or how to find an agent. Instead, it gets into the nitty gritty of how to apply specifics using the general tools of creative writing.

As an example, the first chapter gets into how to write more dynamic scenes. The author shows how this is done with examples from published fiction. Then he breaks down how it works. Similarly, in chapter two, he goes into the classic advice “show don’t tell” and dismantles it a bit. Sometimes you have to tell. And he shows how to do this well, again, using published examples. What I appreciate most about this writing book is that it is a fantastic combination of writing advice and literary critique, showing how using these together can improve your writing.

The most direct advice and how to are in the appendices. These include direction on how to workshop, how to annotate and read like a writer, and a resource list of other books on writing. If you are serious about creative writing, this might be a really good place to start your self-education.

My rating: 4/5

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Background of line drawn images in red and blue against a black backdrop. The images are of plants and letters. Over all this is the title and author.

For Pride Month, my book club decided to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. That’s a lot to recommend it. I have to say I was not disappointed. In fact, I read the entire book in one day this past Sunday, all 288 pages.

The book is an epistolary novel told through letters written by Celie. On page one is the shocking revelation that she was sexually abused by her father at the age of fourteen, having two children by him. She is married off to a man who really wants to marry her sister Nettie. From there it goes on to tell about her relationships with her husband, his children, and a woman that Celie falls in love with. Most of the letters are addressed to God. But as her relationship to and understanding of God changes, so does who she addresses her letters to.

This novel touched me deeply. Not only is it about family and overcoming trauma, it is about growing into real adulthood and a deeper understanding of one’s spirituality. To my sense, this sense of spirituality as based in nature and her laws really rings true. In its approach to the divine, it reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

There is a whole section that describes the experience of missionaries in Africa. They try to help the natives they live amongst even as powers beyond their control slowly encroach on their village, forever changing their way of life. This reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart that I read in college back in the late 80s. Just like then, the truth of that experience was a gut punch.

Overall, the word that comes to mind to describe this book is “authentic”. It feels true to the human experience in its challenges, ugliness, joys, and triumphs. Despite the sometimes bleak situations, the book left be feeling warm and hopeful about how we as humans can grow and improve.

My rating: 5/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 52

Cover of Issue 52 with the title "Uncanny" on top and "May/June 2023." The cover depicts a person in an orange jumpsuit-style spacesuit and bubble helmet on stone steps holding up a tablet to take a picture of a four columned structure. The beige structure matches the color of the ground and has spiral-shelled creatures in bas relief . The columns appear to be made of translucent glowing green material holding, perhaps preserved, several multi-limbed, shelled, multi-tentacled creatures.

The May issue was a bit of a mixed bag for me, I’m afraid. A couple of 5-stars and a couple of 2-stars. There are a bunch smack in the middle at three that you may find more appealing than I did. As usual, here are my brief reviews of each story.

The issue starts with “The Mausoleum’s Children” by Aliette de Bodard, a deeply emotional tale of a young woman who escapes slavery on board derelict space ships only to return in an effort to help those left behind. The woman’s mentor in the free world tries to talk her out of it to no avail. Her determination and dedication take her to those she is trying to save, but their reaction is not what she expects. (My rating: 5/5)

Almost as good is “The Infinite Endings of Elsie Chen” by Kylie Lee Baker. A computer science grad student builds an AI machine to help her figure out why so many of her high school classmates have died so early. Reading the story I caught up in the student’s obsession in unraveling the mystery. In the process you also learn in subtle ways what led her to this obsession. (My rating: 4/5)

In “All These Ghosts Are Playing to Win” by Lindsey Godfrey Eccles, a man finds himself in a casino playing blackjack. The chips represent his memories. He is surrounded by other ghost who are trying to win their way upstairs. Though they don’t know what is up there, they expect it is better than being dumped int eh DARK when their chips run out. Suddenly he finds a ghost accompanied by her living sister. He and the living sister come up with a plan to win that doesn’t go the way they expect. A haunting tale of love and loss. (My rating: 3/5)

An odd young woman is raised by a man dedicated to preserving birds and preventing them from being used to decorate hats in “The Rain Remembers What the Sky Forgets” by Fran Wilde. In adulthood, her father sets her up as a hat maker. When her foster father dies, his widow requests that she make a hat using some of the birds from her father’s aviary. This goes against her principles, but if she refuses she will lose her inheritance. What is a girl to do? (My rating: 3/5)

Désolé” by Ewen Ma is the story of two husbands raising a young daughter. One husband if from H city somewhere in Asia while the other is from France. They meet in school in France but make their home after graduating in H city. All residents of H city must consent to a data chip implanted in them. While his husband is away on a business trip, the husband from H city has a climbing accident and his chip is damaged and replaced with unexpected consequences. (My rating: 3/5)

For a poignant and experimental tale, read “Want Itself Is a Treasure in Heaven” by Theodora Ward. The narrator switches between telling us of the past and describing the present that followed. They and their partner join a study where they get implants that allow them to see and experience all that the other sees and feels. The narrator becomes a little too enamored with seeing through their partners eyes. This is a story about not being comfortable in your own skin. For me it is the best explanation I have read for what it must be like to be transgender. (My rating: 5/5)

The last two stories didn’t really connect with me. “A Lovers’ Tide in Which We Inevitably Break Each Other; Told in Inverse” by K.S. Walker is a creepy tale about two predators who hunt each other as well as being lovers. I didn’t really get the point, and it isn’t my sort of story. (My rating: 2/5)

And wrapping up the issue is “And For My Next Trick, I Have Disappeared” by Chimedum Ohaegbu. I had a hard time following the action in this one. A woman seems to slowly turn into a bus and then back into herself as she thinks of her old girlfriend. Again, I don’t know what this story is trying to do or make me feel. (My rating: 2/5)

Overall, my ratings for the stories in this issue average out to 3.375. The two 5-star stories really helped the average overall. While this was a weak issue for me, I still love and appreciate what the magazine does with the speculative fiction they publish.

The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin

Centered on the cover is a large black-lined circle with a black dot in the center. The title is in small letters in the upper right while the author's name is in small letters in the lower right.

I first heard about this book during an interview with the author on the podcast People I (Mostly) Admire. I knew that Rick Rubin was a famous music producer. Not being a musician myself, I wasn’t all that interested in his book. I figured that it was just another celebrity memoir about all the famous people he worked with. Interesting, but not really my thing. I learned from this interview that I was wrong and decided to read it.

In fact, this book is not a memoir at all, at least not in the traditional sense. It is more a series of short essays on the creative process. In its tone and approach, it reminded my of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. That book focuses on the challenges of Resistance and how to overcome it. This book is broader in scope and shares ideas on how to nurture creativity and get your art into the world.

My favorite aspect of the book is that right up front he acknowledges that some of the suggestions contradict each other. He doesn’t see that as a problem (nor do I), and simply suggests that you take what works for you and leave the rest. The book is suggestive rather than didactic. If you are looking for a step-by-step guide to creativity, this is not it. But if you are looking for tips on how to nurture the messy journey that is the creative life, this book is for you.

My rating: 5/5

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 156

A young magician with glowing blue eyes under a hood hold a ball of blue light in their hands

I have another highly rated issue this month! In the May 2023 issue, Lightspeed Magazine has four five-star stories. Let’s dive right in.

The issue starts out with a story that is just “meh” for me. It’s called “Moons We Can Circumnavigate in One Day, or the Space Probe Love Story” by Natalia Theodoridou. In it, one man-made celestial probe opines about another as it approaches it’s last day before it’s batteries run out. Mildly interesting but nothing to write home about. (My rating: 3/5)

The second story is amazing! “She Blooms and the World is Changed” by Izzy Wasserstein is about a family who arrives on a thriving planet as the only humans there. Their mission is to study it. While there, their second child is born. There is something unusual about how the planet interacts with the new family member. A touching story about human hubris, family, and compassion. (My rating: 5/5)

Have you ever had a moment in your life that you wish you could go back and change? The main character in Sharang Biswas’s “When Shiva Shattered the Time-Stream” does just that. Over and over again. But things never come out the way he expects or wants no matter what he does. So what does he do in the end? Read it and find out! (My rating: 4/5)

Blood for a Stranger” by Timothy Mudie is about artificial intelligence embedded in ships and corporate warfare in the solar system. The ships are so sophisticated, only AI built on former humans will work. But what they know is greatly restricted. What happens when they learn more than their owners want them to know? A wonderful tale of systemic injustice and agency. (My rating: 5/5)

The next tale is a run-of-the-mill wizard story called “One Heart, Lost and Found” by Kat Howard. A magician is hired by a wizard to find the heart he hid and can no longer remember where he put it. While well-written, it is the type of typical fantasy story that I just can’t get excited for. I wish it had more to say. (My rating: 3/5)

The Sword, the Butterfly, and the Pearl” by Deborah L. Davitt verges on the edge of poetic. You find a butterfly that changes your life. You find that it empowers you in different ways as it transforms to fit the need you experience. This is more in the direction that I like fantasy to go. (My rating: 4/5)

A Nigerian tale of storytelling and hard choices, “Saturday’s Song” by Wole Talabi is haunting with multiple layers. On the surface, it is about personified day’s of the week and the titular Saturday directing their storytelling to assist her sister Wednesday. The underlying story tells of a mother and daughter with differing visions of their future. Beautiful, tragic, and uplifting all at the same time. (My rating: 5/5)

The issue wraps up with “The Belfry Keeper” by S.L. Harris. In a future world, an automaton librarian guards and protects the books in its keeping. As the humans in its world lose interest or simply go away, it continues its stewarding. But what happens to those books over the eons? And does anyone ever visit the library again? A poignant tale about knowledge and its importance and preservation. (My rating: 5/5)

The average rating for the fiction in this issue is 4.25. That’s the highest of any issue I’ve read this year! All the stories are free to read online. If you enjoy the magazine, consider subscribing to support the fantastic authors and storytelling.

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 200

An astronaut in an EVA suit collects a sample on a small asteroid, The entire scene is in various shades of purple.

The May 2023 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine is the best I’ve read this year. Only one three-star story. All the rest are fours and fives. Here are my story summaries and ratings.

The first story feels ripped right out of the headlines from three months in the future. In “Better Living Through Algorithms” by Naomi Kritzer, a young woman starts using an app that unexpectedly starts to make her happier. This is a critique of our social media obsession with a gentle suggestion on what to do about it. (My rating: 5/5)

As “Through the Roof of the World” by Harry Turtledove opens, we experience the disorienting point of view of creatures on the verge of being invaded. But the second half of the story gives a very different and enlightening perspective. (My rating: 4/5)

The best story by far is “To Sail Beyond the Botnet” by Suzanne Palmer. It is also the longest story, clocking in at almost 22,000 words. But that length is rewarded with an engaging tale of Bot 9. The bot finds itself in the unenviable position of being cut off from its ship while being relied upon to save that ship and crew. Great fun, entertainingly written. (My rating: 5/5)

When I first read “LOL, Said the Scorpion” by Rich Larson, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. But I started having my doubts as I continued to read. By the end, I thought is was a great story about environmental degradation and the challenges of class, wrapped in a touching story of a couple on vacation. They are concerned about how the air might smell and what they may be exposed to. But what about the people who live there? (My rating: 4/5)

Sensation and Sensibility” by Parker Ragland is a tongue-in-cheek comedy of two androids enjoying tea at a restaurant. Neither can eat, but each has some senses such as touch or smell. They puzzle out what all the fuss is about for humans and eating while also lamenting how out of reach it is for them. (My rating: 4/5)

My lowest rated story is “The Giants Among Us” by Megan Chee. That said, it is still quite good. Just not as good as the other stories. In it, two species share the same planet and the same goal of annihilating the other species from it. Each side sends out representatives to other planets to learn how they do things. They share information across their species while their counterparts at home fight the war. But what will happen when one side finally succeeds in winning the war? (My rating: 3/5)

Originally published in Chinese, “Action at a Distance” by An Hao, translated by Andy Dudak is a fascinating tale of vision and perception. A scientist allows himself to be “infected” by viewing an object from a planetoid. As his vision changes, he begins to see the world around him in a whole new way, literally. An exploration of how we perceive our world and what we miss. (My rating: 4/5)

Wrapping up the fiction in this issue is “The Fall” by Jordan Chase-Young. This story takes place in the far future, on the moon with trees after the eponymous Fall. No humans are left, only their shorter, squatter descendants. But one absent-minded scientist starts to run out of air as she returns from collecting data. As she does, she sees a pre-Fall human. Or does she? (My rating: 4/5)

With two five-star stories and a handful of four-stars, this issue comes in with an average rating of 4.125. That’s the highest of any issue I’ve read this year. Well done, Clarkesworld!

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A man walking away from a lamp post looks back in trepidation. The background is a giant open book with the book title on it.

In the book club that I manage, we read a book in a different genre each month. This month our theme is works in translation, and we read The Shadow of the Wind. It was originally published in Spanish, and the edition we read was translated by Lucia Graves.

The story takes place mostly in Barcelona, Spain from 1933 to 1955. This era covers the Spanish Civil War that took place during the Second World War. This was a very difficult time for Spanish citizens and is a very important part of the story.

The book starts when a ten-year-old boy reads a book also called The Shadow of the Wind. The boy is captivated and stays up all night to finish it. As he begins to look for other books by the author, he finds it a struggle. And so his young life becomes a journey to learn about this mysterious author of what he learns is a rare book.

As the book unfolds, we learn about the life of the author. In many ways the boy’s life becomes a mirror of the author’s. They both fall in love with a girl forbidden to them. And as the story comes to the climax, their lives begin to intersect.

This book is a love story and adventure as well as a bildungsroman and a thriller. But despite the excellent writing and captivating story, at times I found myself wondering why I cared. And at times I found myself confused between the story of the boy and the author. In the end, I also felt that the book was a little longer than it needed to be. Despite these shortcomings, I did enjoy the novel. I wish I could highly recommend it. But if subject matter appeals to you, it might be right up your alley.

My rating: 3.5/5

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister

A Victorian man in a suit on one knee examines a standing woman with her arms crossed. He holding up her dress with his left hand while examining her with his right.

My previous post was a book about the history of sex. This one is too. While both are introductions to this history, this one isn’t quite as cheeky. It is a more straightforward approach with more scholarly references. Dr. Kate Lister, the author, is a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. She won the Sexual Freedom award for publicist of the year in 2017 and is on Twitter as @WhoresofYore and @k8_lister.

The text covers a variety of topics and their intersection with sex and its history. These include:

  • words
  • vulvas
  • penises
  • food
  • machines
  • hygiene
  • reproduction
  • money

The details within these areas include sexually transmitted infections, words for body parts, the selling of sex, and why we considers some body parts “icky”.

The text is easy to read and very informative. While delivering the information, it never feels like a textbook or a lecture. There are photographs and illustrations throughout. While the previous book I reviewed touches on the more controversial aspects of sex history, this book addresses the nitty gritty and quotidian aspects of the subject. They complement each other nicely.

My rating: 4/5

Been There, Done That by Rachel Feltman

A naked woman on top of a naked man in mid-coitus while they are flying through the air. The subtitle obscured the area of actual coitus

I recently came across two books on the history of sex. Interestingly, they were both published in the UK. The first is Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex by Rachel Feltman. While it is written from a British perspective, this rarely shows through. After all, sex is a universal human activity.

The book is a primer on the history of sex . It does not cover everything. For instance, it does not cover asexual people (those who have no interest in sex at all). However, it does hit all the high points: what sex is, how normal heterosexuality is (or isn’t), how many sexes there are, masturbation, reproduction, birth control, and porn. In the early chapters it also covers the topics not just for humans but for the entire biological world.

This book is not strictly a science book, and it sure doesn’t read like one. It is funny throughout and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I would even say it is playful. But it is absolutely grounded in facts. The book has extensive end notes for reference, though most of these are more news stories that are based on science than scientific articles themselves. If you want a tongue-in-cheek introduction to sex as it is understood today, this is a good place to start.

My rating: 4/5