The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

This was a humorous, fun novel filled with adventure and plot twists. It opens with the main character getting fired during his first performance review at a startup delivering food just as the pandemic kicks off in 2020. I know, not so funny but hang in there with me. The humor is in the situations themselves as well as the banter between the characters. Ironically, he ends up being a driver for the same company. While driving he connects with one guy he delivers to regularly who ends up offering him a job “lifting things”. This job turns out to be for the titular organization in a parallel universe. The kaiju are Godzilla like creatures in this alternate universe that were the inspiration for the original Godzilla movie. The secret organization that preserves them also protects our world and theirs from intermingling too much. Naturally, that is a harder job than it seems.

The prose is a little more explanatory than I would have liked. The description of what the kaiju are and how they work is interesting if a little convoluted. But in the end it all comes together for a rip roaring adventure that really had me turning the pages right to the end.

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

Before the recent Academy Awards ceremony, the nominated short documentary The ABCs of Book Banning was available to watch in its entirety (you can watch the trailer here). The premise of the short film was to give banned books to school kids to get their thoughts on why they might be banned. It is well worth watching and is available on Paramount+. Gender Queer was one of those banned books, so I decided to read it myself.

The book is a memoir in graphic novel form. In it the author tells eir story of growing up with gender dysphoria and coming to understand that e was nonbinary and asexual. I have to admit that the whole transgender and nonbinary controversy is a little challenging for me. As a cishet man, I honestly don’t understand it. That’s part of why I read this book. But I don’t need to understand it in order to allow others to be themselves.

This book was exactly what I was looking for. It gave me a glimpse at the life of one real person who lived through the confusion of dealing with gender dysphoria and how e came to understand who e was. It was both educational and transformative for me. I now feel I have a better understanding of what this issue means and how it can be addressed with compassion and understanding. I still don’t completely get it, but this book was an excellent start on my growth in this area.

My rating: 4/5

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

I found the premise of this book absolutely fascinating. In a future that feels much like our own, death has been conquered. All disease has been cured. Anyone who accidentally dies can be brought back to life at a regeneration center. Effectively, everyone lives forever. In this society, a need was felt to mitigate this with people whose job it is to select people to be “gleaned”, that is killed permanently by a special class of people referred to as “scythes”. This premise sets up a lot of questions about ethics and population control and what meaning does life have if it effectively has no end? And the book delivers on that promise.

While delivering on the philosophical aspects of its premise, it also tells a rip roaring adventure tale of mystery, intrigue, and suspense. The two main characters are teenage apprentice scythes who once they graduate will be licensed to glean on their own. Their teacher is a scythe of the old school who takes his responsibility very seriously. In fact, he feels that anyone who wants to be a scythe should not be. He sees something in these two teenagers that he feels would make excellent scythes. In contrast to this is a group of newer scythes who revel in what they do and feel constrained by the ethics of their order.

This is my favorite kind of science fiction. It takes a “what if” position and nudges it into our future. Then it extrapolates and explores what might happen in those conditions. At the same time it tells a rousing story of everyday people trying to find their way in this world. This is the first book of a series. I cannot wait to get started on the next one.

My rating: 5/5

Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

Last year was my year of short fiction. In addition to all the short stories I read, I collected a number of novellas to read. This was one of them. I was drawn to it because part of its premise is a scientist who figures out how to share the experience of a wolf. It did not disappoint.

As the story opens, the scientist and her team are performing surgery on a wolf in the wild to implant a device in her brain that will broadcast to a corresponding device in the scientist’s brain. When the connection is turned on, the scientist is able to experience all that the wolf sees, hears, smells, and feels. Naturally this experience is in many ways quite foreign for a human and begins to affect the scientist. At the same time, the scientist is experiencing relationship difficulties with her wife.

I loved this short novel! It deals with so many complex topics in ways that really connected with me. It didn’t feel heavy handed or like it was trying to give particular answers. It was more of an exploration of the complexity of human relationships as well as relationships between human animals and the rest of the animal kingdom and the natural world. I found it incredibly moving and a rich reading experience.

My rating: 5/5

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

In my adolescence, Heinlein was one of my favorite authors. I read both Stranger in a Strange World and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and enjoyed them both a great deal. So, I decided to read this other Hugo winner by him. I have to say I was largely disappointed.

Perhaps my disappointment was due to unmet expectations. I knew that the story involved a space soldier in the future when humanity is at war with an alien race referred to as the Bugs, since they look like giant earth insects. This was further reinforced from the ads for the movie that came out in 1997. As a result, I was expecting a war story largely about battles with the aliens. It wasn’t that at all. It was largely the autobiographical journey of a young man who decides to enlist, from boot camp through to his going to school to become an officer. Most, if not all, of the battle scenes were in the largest and penultimate chapter.

Once I got over my unmet expectations, it was simply a story of a future soldier, why he joined up, and his journey in the military. It seemed fairly accurate to how military things go. It also went into some detail about the culture and how society was built around military service. I didn’t think it was spectacular, but I also didn’t think it was that big of a deal. It was certainly no award winner to me. But maybe it was in the time it was published. After all, it was originally published in 1959.

My rating: 3/5

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

For Black History Month (February), my book club read this book. The author is a former host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central. It is the story of his growing up in South Africa, both during and after apartheid there. It was educational, funny, and at times emotionally challenging.

Each chapter tells of a part of his life. These include a wide variety of experiences. There was the time he pooped on the floor of his house as a small boy because it was raining outside and he didn’t want to go to the outhouse. He once spent a week in jail for borrowing his step-father’s car without permission due to it having no proper title. Most emotionally and in the final chapter, he tells of how his step-father shot his mother in the head and left her for dead.

Throughout the book, he made me laugh. He also made me feel deeply for the people, like himself, that struggled through apartheid in South Africa and the challenging times afterward as the society adjusted to the new reality. But most of all, this was the story of a boy who loved his mother deeply and experienced the many ins and outs of growing up in a difficult time, coming out of it a wise and compassionate young man.

My rating: 4/5

Going Zero by Anthony McCarten

I am of two minds with this book. The story is a fascinating and propulsive thriller, but the editing in the first half of the book is abysmal. I learned about this book from a blog post. The blogger read and recommended it. The premise is right up my ally, so I got it from by library and started reading.

The story is about a beta test run by a company called Fusion who have partnered with the CIA. Together they have developed a program that is designed to track down any individual no matter how much they try to hide. The book begins as the test starts. There are ten people selected from those who applied. They each have thirty days to “go zero” and avoid capture. If they succeed, they win three million dollars. While the book follows each of the ten, one of them in particular is the focus. She is a librarian who no one expects much from. But she is much more than she seems.

As I said, this a great thriller. The author is a Hollywood screenwriter, and the book has the feel of a blockbuster summer movie. Unfortunately, there were times where editing mistakes just yanked me right out of the story. Here is one example. A character is crossing Lake Ontario from Oswego, NY to Canada. The book explains that a helicopter out of Buffalo is crossing Lake Michigan on its way to intercept. But Lake Michigan is far west of Buffalo on the other side of Michigan, in the opposite direction. Then later the same helicopter is said to be out of Detroit.

Aside from these unfortunate interruptions, the book is fantastic. It explores ideas around privacy, relationships, doing the right thing, and the corruption of power. And all of this in a page turner with twists throughout it. Without the errors, this would be five stars from me.

My rating: 4/5

How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World by Deb Chachra

I love this book. It is informative and nerdy yet eminently readable. It is about the seemingly boring subject of infrastructure—how it came to be, why, what it is for, and what it’s future is. Not exactly your modern day thriller. Yet Deb Chachra somehow tells the story of infrastructure and makes it, if not fascinating (though it is to me), interesting and approachable.

The first part of the book lays out what infrastructure is and why we have it. In brief, it is how we manage our access to and use of energy. And we have it to enable humanity as a whole to do more with less. She then pivots to discussing infrastructure in the context of global anthropogenic climate change. And this is where the book really shines.

Her premise is that we need to move from combustion as our source of energy (fossil fuels) to renewable sources of energy (geothermal, wind, solar). This is hardly new or surprising. What is surprising is that she argues that doing so would move us from energy scarcity to energy abundance. After all, there are only so many fossil fuels on our planet to burn and burning them is causing catastrophic harm to our environment. But renewables are abundant. We just need to learn how to harness them for the use of all.

The rest of the book is a vision for how this is possible, desirable, and most of all essential to the well being of all humankind and our planet. That the author has told such a clear, hopeful story about such a challenging subject around a bleak prospect is a credit to her ability and passion for such a project.

My rating: 5/5

Starter Villain by John Scalzi

The author’s previous novel Red Shirts plays off the trope that every time in Star Trek a team goes on an away mission, a red shirted security officer dies. The characters slowly realize this is happening to them, and they need to figure out what to do about it. I read this book and enjoyed it very much. It was clever, funny, and propulsive. So when Scalzi came out with his latest novel Starter Villain, I was excited to read it.

The main character is Charlie, a down on his luck divorced substitute teacher trying to buy a pub and change his life. After learning that his estranged Uncle has died, one of his employees shows up with an unusual request. She wants him to “stand up” for his uncle at his funeral. While doing so, things get even weirder. Eventually, he learns that his uncle was a villain, complete with a volcanic island lair and genetically altered sentient cats.

Despite the absurd premise, this novel actually works in the same quirky way that Red Shirts works. Charlie is an every man that is easy to root for as he begins to learn the family business and attempt to hold his own against his competitors. Naturally, not everything goes to plan and the ending is one that I feel like I should have seen coming, but I didn’t. I was simply too busy enjoying the ride to try to figure out where it was going.

My rating: 4/5

Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections by Emily Nagoski

This is a book about sex but also more than sex. Specifically it is about sex in long-term relationships. But if you are looking for quick tips and techniques, you best search elsewhere. The focus here is on the long-term relationship then the sex in that relationship.

The text builds on the author’s previous book Come As You Are. The focus of that text is that you are normal and sex is normal. Come Together extends those lessons and applies them to long-term relationships. The core idea of both of these books is that “pleasure is the measure” of good sex. If everything is consensual and it give you pleasure, it is good sex. Too often we focus on desire rather than pleasure. This is a challenge for us as our bodies grow (old) and change. But if we focus on pleasure, the problem goes away. After all, isn’t it more important to enjoy the sex we have over the amount of sex?

This book requires self-examination and work to get the most out of it. The author encourages learning about one’s own “floorplan” of emotions and how they relate to one another. In this way, one can learn how to move out of less desirable states like fear and grief toward more pleasurable ones like play and lust. The book is also filled with anecdotes of how others have applied these principles to improve their intimate relationships. I haven’t even begun the work recommended in the book, and it has already helped shift my thinking about sex in long-term relationships into a more healthy space. I’m looking forward to even more improvement once I begin the work.

My rating: 4/5