Hum by Helen Phillips

I learned about this book from the Summer Reading Guide on the What Should I Read Next? podcast. It won’t be published until August 6. I was able to read it early by getting an advance reader copy from Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.

The story is about a mother in a near future where AI robots called “hums” and public surveillance are everywhere. The first part of the book is a depressing litany of the living poor in a high tech world succumbing to climate change and slowly losing jobs to automation. After being let go, the mom gets paid to have a procedure to make her face unrecognizable to facial recognition. She uses the windfall to pay back rent and for a vacation at the Botanical Gardens with her husband and two children. While there, a crisis with her children is the event that sets off the main conflict of the novel.

This tale is well-told and realistically evokes the everyday struggles of the working poor trying to raise a family in a world that seems to keep them down at every turn. Additionally, it explores the struggle of parents to raise their kids to be well-rounded adults with all the distractions that technology affords. Unfortunately, I found the balance of the story to be off a bit too much for me. The bleakness heavily outweighs the message. It reminds me of an episode of Black Mirror on Netflix. It gives me that same vague horror of something that could really happen but never should without the same storytelling punch that series delivers.

My rating 3.5/5

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

With the recent release of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, I decided to read the book that started the movie franchise that now includes a total of ten movies. The original novel was published in 1963 in French by Pierre Boulle with the English of Planet of the Apes.

The story starts out with a couple doing some solar sailing through space when they come across a bottle floating in their trajectory. Upon retrieval, they discover that the bottle has a short manuscript in it. With the exception of the final chapter, the rest of the book is the manuscript of a mission to the Betelgeuse system where the astronauts find a planet called Soros that is populated by sentient apes and savage humans unable to speak.

I liked this book, but I definitely felt its age. The twist is clever and different than that of the movie. That surprised me. But the ending in the book in much more thought provoking. The rise of apes and the fall of man on Soros was due to man numbing himself to his surroundings. In that way it reminds me of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

My rating: 3.5/5

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishigura

I picked up this book because of its themes. I enjoy speculative fiction that explores the ideas of identity and the human condition in general. I particular enjoy it when these themes are explored without giving straightforward answers. Life is complicated and such simple answers don’t generally exist. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro explores these ideas in a fascinating way as one would expect from a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Unfortunately one aspect of the plot ruined for me what was an otherwise wonderful novel.

The book is the story of Kara, an Artificial Friend, a type of robot companion for children. She waits in a store to be purchased and fulfill her purpose. When she finally gets a home, she is companion to a girl who has been “lifted”, who is genetically modified to be smarter. This process is not always successful, and it is unclear if it will be for this girl. She has a boy as a neighbor who she is very close with. We learn about all this in bits and pieces through Klara who tells the story from her perspective. Klara seeks to help all those connected with the girl. And this is the part that spoiled the book for me.

While in the store, Klara gets the idea the Sun (always capitalized in the book) bestows “his special nourishment” on someone to heal them. At a some level this makes a certain kind of sense. After all, Klara is powered by solar energy. On the other hand, it is completely absurd. A robot built on logic and algorithms that thinks the Sun is some kind of god to be bargained with in exchange for healing? Very human but not very robot-like. It just kept pulling me out of the story and making me shake my head. I couldn’t buy into it. Ultimately, this aspect of the story spoiled for me what was an otherwise excellent book exploring what it means to be human and care for another.

My rating: 3/5

The Postcard by Anne Berest

Once a year our book club reads a book in translation. This year, that book was The Postcard by Anne Berest, translated from the French by Tina Kover published in 2023. It is a semi-biographical novel that tells the history of the author’s family. Her grandmother received the titular postcard in 2003. On it were the names of her mother, father, sister, and brother who were all murdered in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. The story opens with the author’s mother showing her the postcard and then going on to tell her the history of the people on the postcard until they were deported from France by the Vichy government. The rest of the tale is the author’s journey to discover who sent the postcard and why.

This book was a mixed bag. The writing was vivid, really connecting with lived experience. The translator must be credited with taking the original French and making it feel like it was written in English. A sample: “Her legs feel as if they’re still vibrating from the train, the same way the ground seems to shift and heave after a boat trip.” On the other hand, the characters feel a little too stuck. Or maybe the author just dwells on a particular aspect of a character a bit too long, making it feel like they are a little unreasonable. For instance, despite the growing restrictions on Jews in Vichy France, the father on the postcard insists on doing everything the government asks of him in the hopeless effort to become a French citizen. In the end, he willfully and meekly goes with the police when he is finally arrested and deported. It made me want to scream at the book, “What are you doing!?” I suppose that this sort of thing really did happen, but it just left me empty, sad, and a little angry.

The conclusion of the book comes a bit too quickly for my taste. There is a revelation and then it feels as if the book just ends. It does tell the complete history of a family’s experience of the Holocaust and its aftermath, and for that is unique and valuable. But overall this book was only okay. I liked it. But I didn’t love it.

My rating: 3/5

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Last weekend, my partner and I drove up to southern Ohio/northern Kentucky to visit friends. As we always do on a long car ride, we downloaded a few audiobooks to listen to. We do that in case the first one we pick isn’t to our liking. Well, we never got passed our first choice, *Killers of a Certain Age* by Deanna Raybourn.

This is the story of four dear friends, all women, who worked together for forty years and are about to retire. What is most unusual about these ladies is that they were all assassins for an extra-governmental agency. As they gather to celebrate their retirement, they discover that they have become targets themselves. The rest of the book explores how they work together to deal with this surprising turn of events, the hunters becoming the hunted.

This book is a romp! It is fantastic fun for those of us over fifty and learning all the challenges that go with getting older. These sixty-year-old women discuss everything that aging women go through while trying to stay alive and clear their names. While the dialog is snappy and engaging, the plot is propulsive and clever. My phone automatically restarted the book each time I plugged it into the car as we drove around last weekend. And no matter how short the drive, we couldn’t turn it off.

My rating: 4/5

Iron Flame by Rebecca Yarros

This sequel continues the story from the first book. It’s hard to summarize the plot here without giving away a major plot twist of the first book, so I won’t. The romance between the two main characters continues but becomes ever more problematic while starting to follow what for me are the worst romance tropes. Violet also gets more whiny and starts blaming herself for everything. I found it rather annoying. However, the characters are still interesting and some new and interesting dynamics arise between them. In the end, my curiosity for the story line and interest in the dynamics between the characters outweighed the negative, barely.

My rating: 3/5

Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout by Cal Newport

As I have progressed in my career, I have become more and more impatient with what I call BIC managers. BIC stands for “butt in chair”. These managers, rather than measure your productivity based on the results you produce, focus instead on your presence in the office where they can see your butt in your chair. Especially for any kind of salaried position, this has always felt absurd to me. These workers aren’t paid for the hours they work. They are paid for their expertise and the results they produce. The challenge of measuring productivity in this context leaves such poor managers scrambling for how to measure it. In his most recent book, Cal Newport explores both the history of why this is so as well as outlines how knowledge workers can create the space for the slow productivity that leads to outsized results.

Slow Productivity starts with a history of measuring productivity. This was easy in the industrial and agricultural ages. You measured output for each unit of input. But knowledge work is more creative and less easily measured. Still needing a way to measure success, managers fell into using what Newport calls pseudo-productivity. This is measuring hours on the job rather than results, which are much harder to quantify and manage (or micro-manage, as the case may be). He then goes on to outline what it means to slow down and focus on outcomes.

The final three chapters outline how to accomplish slow productivity in a world that insists on quarterly results. He does this by focusing on three principles: do fewer things, work at a natural pace, and obsess over quality. When he suggests doing fewer things, he means to focus on only one project at a time, keeping a ranked list of what comes next. Communication and transparency are key. Working at a natural pace means recognizing the ebb and flow of work and adjusting with it. No one does or can work pedal to the metal every day all year long. And when you relentlessly make sure that your results are high quality, those around you will trust your methods.

The details he covers in each of these final chapters are highly practical suggestions that readers can do right now to move their work out of the crazy making of pseudo-productivity and into the realm of a more peaceful and natural way of working that actually produces better results. This book is beyond the usual productivity business book just trying to help you squeeze more out of already busy days. Instead, it is the antidote to that life outlining how you can be an even more effective contributor. Highly recommended.

My rating: 5/5

The Measure by Nikki Erlick

Speculative fiction is often defined as including the genres science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I am a fan and reader of all three genres. In the past, I have thought of my favorite was science fiction. More recently I’ve come to see that a specific type of speculative fiction is my favorite. Speculative fiction can generally be described as the literature of “What if?” The author extrapolates on that question, puts their characters in that world, and explores answers to the question raised. That is my favorite type of fiction, no matter the genre.

The Measure, the debut novel by Nikki Erlick, is just such a novel. It asks the question, “What if everyone could know exactly how long they would live?” In the book every adult wakes up one morning with a box at their front door. In it is a string. On the box is a message that states, “Inside is the measure of your life”. The length of the string corresponds to the length of your life. This event changes the world forever.

The book explores why people might choose to look or not to look in their box to see the length of their string. It explores how such knowledge affects personal relationships, politics, who has what jobs, and even fundamental questions of identity. Many times while reading it I was reminded of one my favorite movies, Gattaca. In that movie a person’s place in the world is determined by their genetics instead of a string, but many of the same ideas are explored.

Perhaps what I like most about this book is that is doesn’t provide easy answers to such a deep question. Instead, it explores the question in the context of the vastness of the human experience. In today’s world where everyone thinks they have the answers to every question and is willing to argue about them with anyone and tell them they are wrong, it is refreshing to read a story that has no simple answers and instead explores why different, loving, caring, genuine people might make different decisions given the same question. And ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. Just different ones.

My rating: 5/5

The Toll by Neal Shusterman

This is the conclusion of the Arc of a Scythe trilogy. It centers around the climax of the second book and how the world reacted. Its hard to say much more without spoilers.

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first two. The action takes place over three years but it isn’t always clear what order things happen in. The story is not sequential. Some action is told toward the end of the three years, then it moves to right after the second novel concluded. It is made explicit the first time, but after that you pretty much have to track it on your own. And there is a lot more happening with more characters in more places. I liked the focused nature of the first two books better.

That said, I still enjoyed this book. There is a lot of action and introspection by the characters deciding who they are and what they are about. I have to admit that I saw in part the end coming, but even so, I found it satisfying.

My rating: 3.5/5

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

This is yet another book that I likely would never have read if it weren’t for my reading club. In April, we read a biography or memoir. While I was a fan of Bruce Springsteen in the ’80s, I had never heard of him before that. After that, I didn’t really follow him. So I was kind of “meh” about reading this book going in.

It is a little slow and choppy in the beginning part where he is talking about his childhood and family. The language is very poetic and flowery with similes and metaphors all over the place. Essentially what you would expect from such a prolific and successful songwriter. And the storytelling leaves gaps that seem to be expected to be filled in by the context but for me did not quite work. It left me feeling a little lost from what he was trying to say in places. But when he starts on his independent life and starting to make music for a living, it really hums! I listened to the songs as he mentioned them in the text. It felt a bit like having a soundtrack to the book.

Springsteen is a real poet and storyteller. He really gets to the heart of the human condition and shares it in a way that really connects with the reader and listener. While he doesn’t “tell all”, he is very open about the things he struggled with, particularly his mental health. He really did feel like an NJ working man who just happened to make it big.

My rating: 4/5