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

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

I first learned about this book on the podcast What Should I Read Next?. It is the story of a young woman born on New Year’s Day. As the clock strikes midnight ringing in the new year and her nineteenth birthday, she finds herself suddenly in a strange place in a strange version of her body. It turns out that she lives the year nineteen on the inside but fifty-one on the outside. And on the eve of each of her birthday’s she has no idea what year of her life she will live next. In this way, she really does live her life out of order. I found this unusual take on time travel interesting and decided to read the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Oona’s father died when she was a girl and her mother was unusual in the way she raised her. She readily accepts the weird life that her daughter is experiencing and is the one person always there for her on each of her birthdays. She learns about an assistant she has when she is 51/19 who is also there for her in her older years. As such, this is a story of relationships explored through unusual circumstances. In many ways, Oona is forced to mature much quicker than young people often do.

What really touched me about this book is how real it felt despite the rather absurd (but fun!) premise. The challenges that Oona faces may be out place time-wise, but they are very relatable to the reader. And the way she addresses them feels very realistic. I can see someone behaving as she does. The book reminded me of a combination of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. If you liked either of those books, you might enjoy this one as well. It is an amazing story of family, love, growing up, aging, and all the other messy things we call life.

My rating: 4.5/5

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

A relative of mine from South Carolina lent me her copy of this book, her favorite. It was clear that she has read it many times by the state of the broken binding on the copy she lent me. Having grown up as a Yankee from central New York state, I’ve never read this book. And if she had not lent me her copy, I’m not sure I ever would have. I am sincerely glad I did.

The story is primarily a love story. It starts out with Scarlet at sixteen on her family’s plantation south of Atlanta just as the US Civil War is about to begin. It follows her life through the war and the Reconstruction years after the war. She is a very selfish, pragmatic, and determined young woman. She is in love with Ashley Wilkes, but he is set to marry someone else. The bulk of the novel surrounds how she manages the reality that the man she considers the love of her life is married to someone else. But the story is about so much more.

It is also about Scarlet’s naivete and immaturity. Being pragmatic and determined, she is a survivor above all else. But she continues to pine away about Ashley even though at sixteen he told her that they were too different and would be miserable together. She deals with this the same way she deals with all other things in her life that she doesn’t understand and that make her unhappy. She just decides not to think about them “right now”, determined to think about them later. But she never does. She never grows up and learns to consider anyone other than herself.

The story is also a perspective on the Civil War from the Southern point of view. This is problematic to say the least. This perspective is racist and promotes white supremacy. Despite that, I feel that it is valuable. It provides a view on how being on the losing side of that war must have felt. History is taught by the victors. As such, we learn that the Civil War was a noble war fought to free the slaves. But we are never taught what that must have felt like for those who fought for the Confederacy. They lost family members just as the North did. Their property was destroyed as was their way of life. Then, during Reconstruction, Washington sent soldiers to run their governments and give equal rights to African Americans that those Southerners saw as ignorant and inferior. That must have been infuriating.

And the “Lost Cause” mythology permeates the novel. This I have much less compassion for. Yes, the characters in this book, and I suspect many Southerners after the war, longed for their old way of life and social order, especially the upper class of land and plantation owners. It was a life of ease and luxury. But that way of life depended on the enslavement of other human beings! This is even acknowledged in the novel. The justification for this better old way is that the enslaved were treated like family and cared for in their old age. This is essentially Rudyard Kipling’s argument of the “white man’s burden” and is utter nonsense. Would any white Southerner have changed places with one of their well-cared for slaves? I think not.

Despite these problems, the story and characters are compelling. In addition to Scarlet and Ashley there are Rhett Butler, a scoundrel and conniver with a very similar world view to that of Scarlet, and Melanie Hamilton who marries Ashley. She is the epitome of the great lady of the South for her dedication and loyalty and love. Indeed, she is one of the best characters in the novel. Personally, I couldn’t stand either Scarlet or Ashley, mainly because they didn’t know themselves and didn’t seem interested in self-examination at all. Rhett was my favorite character. He may have been a thief and a Scalawag, but he always knew who he was and why. And he was always honest about who he was. The interaction and growth of these four characters is the soul of the story and what makes it great.

Should you read this book? If the racism and white supremacy and revisionist history would be too much for you, no. If you can see past those very significant shortcomings to have some understanding of the plight of the Southern condition during and after the Civil War, then the interplay of these characters in that background are well worth your time.

My rating: 4/5

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Katie Beaton

This is one of the most unusual books I have ever read. That’s what drew me to it, and why I ultimately read it. It is a memoir told in comic form, sort of a non-fiction, biographical graphic novel. Sounds a bit absurd, but it really works.

The author is from the maritime provinces of Canada. She finishes college with a lot of debt. In order to liquidate that debt and start her life debt-free, she takes a lucrative job in the oil sands of western Canada. It is a desolate place dominated by men. Her experience is lonely and psychologically damaging. The book explores the intersection of this harsh world and someone driven to force her way through it due to crushing debt.

The author uses the format to great effect. It really communicates the feeling of being where she was and gives an inkling of what she experienced. Beaton describes the atmosphere as isolated and oppressive while also being understanding that not everyone was responsible for those feelings. It is a fantastic example of how good and bad can, and regularly do, exist at the same time in the same place and one person’s attempt to reconcile that contradiction.

My rating: 4/5

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

I read this for my book club. We are reading it January We read a different genre each month, and January is Science Fiction month.

This book was on a lot of “best of” lists for 2023, and I can see why though it is not a lighthearted read! In the near future, private companies have taken over the prison systems and have created a kind of gladiator system. The federal government passed a law making it possible for prisoners to opt into a death-match program that is televised. In these matches, members of different prison conglomerates (chain gangs) fight each other to the death. It is bloody, violent, and never-ending. That is unless you survive for three years. Then you are exonerated and freed.

The story follows one particular link (what they call members of a chain gang) as she approaches her last two matches. It also follows a protest movement and a particular couple who are watching it. The emotions are strong and deep. I often put the book down at the end of a chapter and got up and walked around just to take a break from the unrelenting drive of this book and its message. it really puts you in the place of the prisoners and how they must be feeling. Interspersed as footnotes are also facts about the US prison system that are just as shocking.

The writing is visceral. It delivers body blow after body blow. But somehow, it isn’t completely bleak. There is hope. And the story is driving and compelling. I would say that I loved this book, but that isn’t quite the correct word. It isn’t really a story to love. I appreciated it. It moved me. I think it is important how through hyperbole it shows what prison does to people, both those incarcerated and those who house them and administer the system. It makes you uncomfortable while it makes you think. That is my kind of book.

My rating: 5/5

The Bezzle by Cory Doctorow

I got an advanced copy of this book from in return for offering an honest review. This book is the sequel to the author’s previous novel Red Team Blues. Like in that book, forensic accountant Marty Hench is the protagonist. And despite the seeming dullness of his career, this book is a thriller that had me from the start.

The plot takes place in the past of the first novel. In other words, this is technically a prequel. He is telling someone about how he came to learn so much about prisons while never having served time in one. The story opens on Catalina Island with Marty repeatedly joining a friend named Scott there for vacations. They come across something odd going on there that propels the plot forward. A driving aspect of the plot is the friendship between Marty and Scott. The relationship is deep and affectionate and one I’ve rarely seen in modern novels—deep male friendship.

The story is even better than in the first book. There was a lag in that one. This book is maybe a little slow to start, but once the initiating action takes place, it takes off. The story does come around to a selfless sacrifice that may be surprising but is completely relatable and realistic. If you enjoyed the first of this series, you owe it to yourself to pick up this one soon.

My rating: 4/5