A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Author name and book title on a white background

This may be the best history book I have ever read. It most certainly is different than any other. Most tell history from the top down, from the perspective of the leaders and businessmen. This book attempts to look at history from the bottom up, from the point of view of the working man. The author was a self-described democratic socialist, and this comes through clearly throughout the text.

Coming of age in during the Cold War, I was raised and educated to view all things communist and socialist as bad and wrong. And if I had read this book back then, I would probably not have read very far. I am glad that I have a much more open mind now that I am older. Much of what I learned in this book I already knew. For instance, how the United States government violated and broke every treaty we ever made with Native Americans. But there were many details that I was not aware of. For example, not only was the Army segregated during the fight against Hitler’s racism, but so was the blood bank.

In the end, this is not a perfect history book. It definitely gives a fresh and needed perspective. Neither of the political/economic extremes (capitalism and socialism/communism) works particularly well. I would like a political system that better balances the rights and freedoms of individuals with a responsibility to the community at the same time. In order to get there we need multiple viewpoints of American history. And this book is a great step in the direction of balancing the hagiography that passes for most US history.

My rating: 5/5

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

A painting of the hills of the titular island of Monte Cristo

About thirty years ago, I read The Three Musketeers and loved it. Recently, my book club decided to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I was very much looking forward to reading it. It is the story of Edmonde Dantes. He has everything going for him until it all falls apart in one night. In prison for a crime he has not committed, he gives up on life until a fellow prisoner tunnels into his cell. The two form a friendship that motivates him to survive and find a way out of the prison to rejoin those he loves and punish those who put him there.

This book was written as a serial in the newspaper from 1844 to 1846. It shows. There is a lot of story within a story. It feels a bit like a very entertaining soap opera. However, I was not as put off by it as I was by the interminable descriptions of Dickens or the tedious histrionics of Hugo. Edmonde (the titular Count of Monte Cristo) is a very likeable person for the first half of the book. I found him and his behavior much less likeable as the story progressed.

In the end, this book was much too long. It is literally the length of three books! If not for wanting to find out how it ends and the fact that I was reading it for my book club, I am not sure I would have finished it. One thing is for sure. In the future, I have no plans to read classics originally written as serials. Even so, the story is interesting. I can definitely see why it held newspaper readers’ attention for two years. But I can’t understand why people still love it so much today.

My rating: 3/5

Those We Thought We Knew by David Joy

Translucent snake coils up the front cover over a green background

On September 8, I attended the final event in David Joy’s book tour for his novel Those We Thought We Knew. As he opened that discussion, he invited all of us to sit in our discomfort as we engaged in civil discourse about a difficult subject—race and its legacy in our country. While not the subject of his novel, it is the context and a large part of the conflict within it. Because the novel takes place within thirty minutes of where I live, this book and the conversation that evening really hit home.

The story is about a woman in college at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, NC. Her grandmother lives in Sylva where her mother was raised. However, she grew up mostly in Atlanta and came to school at WCU to confront the racism she had felt her whole life, just simmering below the surface. The personification of that is a confederate statue in a place of prominence in downtown Sylva. This statue is not made up for the story. It actually still exists. She decides to bring attention to it in a way that kicks up a hornet’s nest and sets the story going.

While the novel is primarily a mystery, it deals with the differing experience of white and black in the mountains of western North Carolina. This is seen at its most challenging in the relationship between the sheriff (white) and the young woman’s grandmother (black). They grew up together, and the sheriff and her late husband went fishing and hunting together regularly as adults. At one point, they have an uncomfortable discussion. The sheriff is confused about why everything is getting stirred up. It was never like that before. Maybe other places, but not there. The grandmother eventually feels the need to point out to him that it was always there, but because he is white he has never had to deal with it.

The mystery is gripping and the storytelling is marvelous. The author really understands how to bring out the beauty in his descriptions of the mountains. But this is not a comfortable story. It’s not meant to be. At the book talk, the author made the point that the work that needs doing on race is work for white folks. And we need to stop asking for black folks to do that work. White supremacy and racism are problems created by white people that can only be addressed by white people. The author’s hope is that this book can help bring people together to have uncomfortable conversations in safe places like around kitchen tables similar to that where the sheriff and the grandmother talked, knowing that they are safe in their love for each other.

I highly encourage you to read this book and watch the video of the book talk.

My rating: 5/5

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Green background of a block print of the roofs of houses with snow falling on them

I loved Claire Keegan’s short novel Foster that I read earlier this year. So over my recent vacation, I read her Christmas novelette Small Things Like These. In it a man in Ireland lives his life at Christmas time wondering about his own past as he decides what to do about his future.

Keegan’s prose is immersive. You can feel the cold and damp as well as all the emotions. The protagonist helps those in his community of struggling families. It being Ireland, he also helps the local convent where he unexpectedly comes across a young girl who may not be being treated properly. Whether to do something about it is a serious struggle for him. It could mean hardship for him in a profound way. I’ll leave the resolution for you to discover.

This is wonderful work by Keegan. I am now officially a fan and will be alert to anything new she writes. I have to say that it wasn’t quite as good for me as Foster was. Still, fantastic storytelling about real people that are relatable.

My rating: 4/5

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 159

Three moons rising over a desert-like planetscape

I continue to catch up on my reviews from my vacation reading. Here is my review of the fiction in the August issue of Lightspeed Magazine.

The unusual “The Things You Can Maintain Yourself” by Benjamin C. Kinney kicks things off. A woman is forced to recycle the plant-based car she has owned and maintained for decades. It evokes a strong feeling and shows the support of communities that will be needed in such a future. (My rating: 4/5)

My favorite story is “The Letters They Left Behind” by Scott Edelman. A mother going off on a deep-space mission with aliens lasting many years, leaves behind letters for her daughter, marking milestones. But when she gets back, she finds that things turned out differently than she expected. The struggle of how to best be a parent centers this story as does the relationship. (My rating: 5/5)

In our current world of surveillance capitalism, “Monopticon” by Dani Atkinson is a wonderful story of subverting such a panopticon. Someone who has planted a file in the surveillance software system explains how the system itself came about. It is a very clever thought experiment and great exploration of individuality and privacy in a surveillance society.

In the Nest Beneath the Mountain-Tree, Your Sisters Dance” by Lowry Poletti tells of a scientist studying alien wasp symbiotes. This scientist will die when his symbiote dies. His is dying, and he is desperately searching for a way to live. It is a fascinating premise and world. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite come together for me as much as I would have liked. (My rating: 3/5)

I really appreciated the perspective and what Sloane Leong was attempting in “The Blade and the Bloodwright“. But, I didn’t care for it. In it a violent army uses the uncontrollable magic of a witch as a weapon to punish their island chief enemies. It was too bloody and dark and abstract. (My rating: 2/5)

I’m not sure what Russell Hemmell was doing with “All the Colours of the Death Knell“. It is a straightforward tale of a witch waiting to be burned at the stake as she ponders her thoughts and feelings. Good as far as it goes, but I felt something was missing. (My rating: 3/5)

Isabel J. Kim is one of my favorite short story writers. Everything she writes is good. “You Will Not Live to See M/M Horrors Beyond Your Comprehension” is a play in which Achilles seeks his future from the Oracle while a chorus of phone obsessed future people look on and interfere. It is an amazing piece of connecting a classic tale with contemporary experiences. (My rating: 4/5)

My overall rating for the fiction in this issue comes out to 3.63 out of five stars. I hope you are enjoying whatever you are reading!

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

A twelve-year-old girl leans over to scratch her ankle.

Growing up, I was familiar with Judy Blume. One of my teachers read to our class Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. On my own, I read her story of a young boy navigating puberty called Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. The writing in them was accessible and really connected with my young self. However, I never got around to reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. That is, not until my recent vacation.

The story is told in the voice of Margaret, a girl turning twelve. And she deals with all the normal things that young girls are challenged by. Among these are buying her first bra, figuring out the place of God in her life, navigating her changing relationship to boys and her female friends, and (eventually) getting her period. And these all feel genuine. They are told in a matter-of-fact way that is frank without being salacious.

Some may find that much of what modern girls deal with is missing. After all, this book was published in the early 1970s. But I would argue that is its charm. Because the things she deals with are universal, they are also timeless. Girls in any decade in the past or future will find something to relate to here and realize that they aren’t alone in their experience. Perhaps that’s why it has touched so many women over the last fifty years.

My rating: 3/5

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 203

A tree person sits on a cloud in the sky

The August issue of Clarkesworld Magazine is another that I read over my vacation. Once again, my brief reviews of the fiction in the issue.

It opens with a technological retelling of Adam, Eve, and the garden of Eden in “Every Seed is a Prayer (And Your World is a Seed)” by Stephen Case. Ava joins Odem at a station in the midst of a forest managed by AI El. Their job is to fix the drones, but they drift further and further apart regarding doing what they are told. An interesting future perspective on an old myth. (My rating: 4/5)

Window Boy” by Thomas Ha starts out as a simple enough story. A boy sits staring out a window while waiting to go to boarding school and occasionally talks to the “window boy”. But after the window boy asks him for something, he starts to realize that things aren’t what they seem. An interesting take on haves and have-nots in the future. (My rating: 3/5)

I didn’t really get “Light Speed Is Not a Speed” by Andy Dudak. For me it was a confusing mish-mash of a history of a storyteller on a world seeded by humans. (My rating: 2/5)

Clarkesworld often has Chinese science fiction in its pages. In “Who Can Have the Moon” by Congyun ‘Muming’ Gu, translated by Tian Huang, a poor Chinese woman with nothing grows up to become a famous artist of 3D dream boxes. It’s about the transition from 2D to 3D and digital art. Well told, and it is always good to get a different culture’s view of science fiction. (My rating: 4/5)

A history lecturer at an English university deals with discrimination and becomes an unwitting accomplice in a plan that eliminates her job in “Empathetic Ear” by M. J. Pettit. An interesting perspective and exploration of discrimination and the politics surrounding it. (My rating: 4/5)

Gel Pen Notes from Generation Ship Y” by Marisca Pichette is a unique twist on the story of a ship that will take generations to reach its destination. The ship leaves earth for Proxima Centauri with a crew of people sterile and unable to age. How does one handle generations of time without aging? What does endless life aboard a ship do to those on board? (My rating: 3/5)

In the future, everyone has nanobots installed in their body. These regulate and heal the body. Everybody has them implanted in their youth. But what happens if your body rejects them? That is the premise of “Resistant” by Koji A. Dae. For me it felt a bit like an allegory for an abortion clinic(?). (My rating: 3/5)

This issue tried some unique story lines. Some worked for me. Others not so much. Over all for me the issue is 3.29 out of five starts.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 53

A centaur holding a bow with a nocked arrow kisses his femail rider who is also holding a bow with a nocked arrow

I finished reading the July/August issue while on my recent vacation and am only now getting around to posting my reviews of the fiction in it.

The issue starts off with the excellent “SuperMAX” by Daniel H. Wilson. It is the story of a father who created an AI-controlled prison whose object it is to rehabilitate the prisoners so that they can be released safely. This father used his son as the basis of the AI with predictably unpleasant effects form the research process for the son. The father shows up at the prison unannounced in an effort to make amends. Things do not go as he expects in this heartbreaking and poignant tale. (My rating: 5/5)

This is followed by another superior effort entitled “Tantie Merle and the Farmhand 4200” by R.S.A. Garcia. An elderly woman living alone in Trinidad is given a robot by her daughter to help around the house. It becomes more than just a robot to both her and others with the same model. The story is told in dialect and is a little challenging to get used to. But this is important to the atmosphere and intimacy of the story. (My rating: 5/5)

The Big Heavy” by Steph Kwiatkowski is about a generation ship, about the despair of being on a seemingly never-ending journey in the black void of space. The author does a good job of sharing the feelings of the community, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. I found it depressing and pointless. (My rating: 2/5)

What follows is an explicit gay romance with a love triangle at the center in “Anything with a Void at the Center” by Lee Mandelo. A young man working in a porn shop works out his feelings for his roommates. Aspects of the action in the porn shop were a little too much for me, but the care the young men show for each other is touching as is the working out of individual quirks. (My rating: 3/5)

In “Love at the Event Horizon” by Natalia Theodoridou a filmmaker avoiding making his latest film is saved by a ghost ship and falls in love with it’s captain. It is a story of facing your fears through the care of another. (My rating: 3/5)

The Ghasts” by Lavie Tidhar explores childhood fear. A woman who seems to have overcome hers helps children overcome theirs. Only in this case, the fears are justified. And perhaps she hasn’t overcome her own as much as she thinks. A wonderful exploration of fear and helping others and ourselves. (My rating: 5/5)

A friend has to make a hard decision in “Theses on the Scientific Management of Goetic Labour” by Vajra Chandrasekera. He finds that his fellow student is working on a thesis that will end catastrophically, forcing him to confront what he values more, his friendship or his future. (My rating: 3/5)

The titular creatures in “The Music of the Siphorophenes” by C.L. Polk are giant space creatures somewhat like cosmic worms that live in deep space. A young pilot takes a galactic superstar singer to see them and hear their music. But what they find there is more than they expected, and not in a good way. This is a lovely story of overcoming secrets and pain through sharing them. (My rating: 5/5)

With four fantastic stories, I rated this issue at 3.88 overall. Even if you don’t read all the stories, be sure to catch those fab four.

Beach Read by Emily Henry

A woman and man lay on separate towels on the beach reading.

Appropriately enough, I read most of this book while lying on the beach during my recent vacation in Greece. I added it to my ereader before I left in case I wanted a novel as a break from all my short fiction magazines. I’m glad I did.

The protagonist is struggling to write her next book. A contributing factor is the recent death of her father with whom she was very close. At the funeral she learns that the father that she idolized her whole life had an affair. To make matters worse, her mother knew about it and refuses to discuss it. And the icing on the cake is that her father left her the summer home in Michigan that he bought during that affair.

She decides to go to the house for the summer with the plan to bang out the text of her book while clearing out the house and selling it. This turns out to be more emotional than she bargained for. And her neighbor doesn’t make it any easier. He turns out to be a “friend” from college that she had a crush on while they were both studying creative writing.

The bulk of the story is about how these two interact with each other, and (this is a romance) fall in love. Much of what I don’t like about many romance novels is that they often depend on people behaving badly or making ridiculous assumptions that could easily be overcome if those involved simply communicated. I like that this author doesn’t do that. Yes, there are misunderstanding and assumptions, but they make sense and last an appropriate length of time.

In the end, this book is about two people learning that in order to love another, it is necessary to learn about and love yourself, warts and all, and to extend that same courtesy to those in your life that you love. The result is a romance that feels rather more mature than others I have read. It was definitely an enjoyable beach read.

My rating: 4/5

Apex Magazine Issue 139

A bust of a platinum-haired woman emerging from a translucent human heart with a white moth in the foreground.

The next magazine up for review is the July issue of Apex Magazine, which I tend to think of as speculative horror.

The first story in this issue is by A.V. Green and is entitled “The Monster Fucker Club“. And just like it sounds, it is about a group of teenage girls dealing with the challenges they face by having sex with monsters. The story explores these different challenges, including the crazy reality of having to be concerned about active shooters in school. It is an interesting idea explored well, but I felt it could have gone deeper. (My rating: 3/5)

A young woman with an invisible creature around her neck is visited by a stranger in “Dolly Girl” by Christopher Rowe. It explores the theme of self-harm in a supernatural context. It seemed to be going someplace with something to say and then just ended. (My rating: 3/5)

Island Circus” by Amal Singh is another entry in the growing number of stories in the second person. In it, you long to run away to join the circus. What you are running away from is a boat community that is struggling to survive after climate change has caused the oceans to rise. A story about the conflict between duty and desire. (My rating: 3/5)

Relationships are hard. Abusive ones much more so. What to do when you miss your abusive partner after you part? How do you learn and grow to avoid such relationships in the future? That is what the protagonist in “But I Love You” by Sachiko Ragosta attempts to find out by buying a Just Right android made in the mold of her former lover. Fascinating but creepy exploration of troubled relationships. (My rating: 3/5)

In “The Discarded Ones“, Linda Niehoff tells the tale of ghosts who need adopting like stray dogs. These ghosts need someone to look after them until they are ready to move on. A woman sees a late night advertisement that tugs at her heartstrings. She herself is hurting and goes to the shelter to adopt. An interesting way to explore how caring for others can help us heal ourselves. (My rating: 4/5)

The Magazine of Horror” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is an exchange of letters where the author is attempting to get a lucrative return on publishing a story in the titular magazine. But the potential downside of doing so could be deadly. The tension builds throughout as does the creep factor. (My rating: 4/5)

Sometimes I read a story that I just don’t connect with. “Gim of P” by Benjamin Dehaan is one such story. In it a miner notices something unusual that no one else seems to care about. The problem is, I didn’t care either. (My rating: 2/5)

In “You Me and the End” by Mona West, a twin on an airplane talks to her absent (and likely dead) twin as the pilot tries to figure out what to do after a nuclear war. There is connection and despair as well as a faint hope of celebration. A remarkable achievement in a story of only a thousand words. (My rating: 4/5)

Zombie’s like to eat brains, right? But what if you were a vegan before you became a zombie? This is the case for the protagonist of “A Young Zombie in Crisis” by Walidah Imarisha. And she doesn’t like brains and so eats the bare minimum to stay undead. How she comes to resolve this challenge is gross and funny. (My rating: 4/5)

You Without Me” by Endira Isa Richardson is a haunting story of a mother and child told to the child (you) by the mother (I). The child is dead but still communicates with the mother. It is a dark tale that really wasn’t for me. (My rating: 2/5)

My average rating for this issue comes in at 3.2 out of 5. Not very good. This magazine tends to be hit or miss for me and not very consistent. While I have appreciated it, I am unlikely to renew my subscription at the end of the year.