ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES by Emma Hooper

Etta’s greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water.

Meanwhile her husband Otto waits patiently at home, left only with his memories. Their neighbor Russell remembers too, but differently – and he still loves Etta as much as he did more than fifty years ago, before she married Otto.

The characters have such a touching vulnerability, they have known each other for such a long time, have a shared past that is memorable. A book about a journey, a quest if you will, about memories, longing and unfulfilled desires.

Is it unrealistic that an eighty two year old woman who is losing her memory will set out on a walk to the ocean that is 3232 kilometers away ( just over 2008 miles?  Sure it is, but then I think of some of the candidates running for president of the US, and frankly, I don’t know how they have the stamina, so I am open to believe anything.   Joining her is a coyote named James.  Whether he really exists or not is up for debate, sharing as he does the name of the baby her sister adopted out when she became a nun, and possibly the name of the baby she lost to a miscarriage, who may or not have been named James in her mind.

It was really a poignant story, and one that you either get, and love, or is just totally ho hum for you.   Maybe one´s age when one reads it has a lot to do with what you think about it.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

A slow-moving character portrait filled with complex family dynamics and small-town politics, this book felt like something I read in the fifties or sixties.  Here’s the official plot:

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons, a well-to-do, seemingly ideal family. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby who was found abandoned at a fire station, it turns out that the single mother, new to the country, had recovered her health and a bit of finances and was not frantically looking for her daughter.  She learns that of the couple who now have her child, and a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

We meet the Richardsons first as they stand across the street, watching their beautiful, spacious home burn to the ground.  All are there, all except the rebellious youngest, Izzy.  Are ya getting a sniff of what happened?

I liked it, but the undercurrent, ok, uppercurrent, of a screed against suburbia did seem a bit dated. Hell, we all know by know that that suburbs are soul-sucking constructs that will eat the meat out of you.  I really must read her other touted work, Everything I Never Told You, and see how that goes.

ARTIFICIAL CONDITION by Martha Wells

The second in the Murderbot Diaries series, Artificial Condition continues the story of the  deeply introverted cyborg security unit, or SecUnit, who previously hacked the governor software that forced obedience to human commands, and has illegally gone off the grid, eschewing the safety of a mostly-free life with a sympathetic owner in order to travel on its own. Disguising itself as an augmented human, Murderbot takes off for the mining facility space station where, it understands, it once murdered a group of humans that it was charged with protecting, though its memory of the event has been mostly erased. He/she/it is determined to find out what happened exactly on that planet that was being explored with an eye to terraforming it, and exactly what happened in that massacre on the Company’s mining  site.

I will continue to refer to Murderbot as ‘it’ because it continues to insist it is genderless.  So It manages to hack the various id systems, surveilance systems, etc. and get itself aboard a huge bot-operated transport ship by trading downloaded media (a lot of them space drama series) from Muderbot in exchange for the ride.  During the ride, the transport AI turns out to be far more powerful and intelligent than Murderbot had anticipated. The transport AI, which Murderbot calls ART (short for Asshole Research Transport), is looking for more than just entertainment media. It actually wants to understand and help Murderbot with its quest.  They become friends of sorts, and the transport bot has a whole medical suite and does some work on Murderbot to make it more human-looking.  The Company is looking for him, and scans can sense it is not human by its height and carriage.

Our Unit finally gets himself to a port where he can grab one more ride to the Company’s main planet and go searching in its innards for evidence of what might have happened during to cause that massacre and was it really involved.  He needs documented valid reason for entry to the planet, and manages to get a job as a security unit to some young scientists who need to get to that planet also in order to retrieve some of their work data.

Drama happens, Murderbot gets to see the site of the massacre, more drama happens, Bot works at being more human-like, and while it ends, you just know there is more, and want to read the next Diary Entry.

Again, we have the snarky comments and observations where you can just see the eye-rolling.

Did I really care what an asshole research transport thought about me?  I shouldn’t have asked myself that question.  I felt a wave of non-caring about to come over me, and I knew I couldn’t let it.  If I was going to follow my plan, such as it was, I needed to care.

The two of them argue over whether to make alterations to Murderbot or not.  Finally, Murderbot reluctantly agrees.

It will be simple, ART insisted.  I’ll assist you.   Yes.  The giant transport bot is going to help the construct SecUnit pretend to be human.  This will go well.

A ComfortUnit (a euphemism for sexbot) seems to be trying to kill Murderbot.  The ART says, what does it want?

To kill all humans, I answered.  I could feel ART metaphorically clutch its function.  If there were no humans, there would be no crew to protect and no reason to do research and fill its databases.  It said, “That is irrational.”    I know, I said.  If the humans were dead, who would make the media?  It was so outrageous, it sounded like something a human would say.

I really love Murderbot.  On to the next in the series.

THE AFTER DAYS By Amy Ginsburg

A B-level semi-apocalypse story.  “Middle-aged suburbanites Rachel and Zach team with their friends to battle not only the predators and scavengers who lurk around every corner but also empty pantries, boredom, despair … and sometimes each other.  How far are they willing to go to survive the Big Blackout?

This gripping dystopian twist on contemporary fiction about a woman who must find within herself the strength and ingenuity to endure a world suddenly without electricity is both terrifyingly real and astonishingly tender.

Perfect for book clubs, The After Days explores the ethical quandaries and logistical problems of ordinary suburbanites – people whose most recent problems were dodgy Wi-Fi and cranky bosses – in their struggle to survive in the increasingly treacherous suburbs of Washington, DC.”

OK, I’m a crank.  I admit it.  When a book blurb attempts to tell me how to use the book, i.e. book club,  I am immediately suspicious of its quality.

The story line was pretty good. the power grids are hacked basically all over the world and no one knows when or even if there will ever be power again.  When we think about living off grid, we tend to think of rural houses near a running stream.  But let’s face it — the vast majority of people in developed countries live in cities and their adjacent suburbs. When the pumps stop pumping water, due to no electricity, they can’t just wander down to the banks of the local river and scoop up a couple of bucketfuls.  They can’t just walk into the garden, pull a few carrots, slaughter a chicken or two for food.  In our current times, no electricity is really a danger, and our food doesn’t arrive on four feet, (or two fowl feet).  It arrives in semis to the food distribution centers and to the supermarkets.

The book is a look at how far normally decent, law-abiding, kind, compassionate people will go to ensure their own survival.

So my issue is not with the plot.  It is with the writing, which for some reason I am having difficulty trying to explain, feels like the writing in a cozy mystery.  Not exactly chirpy, but it does not seem to have the gravitas of a different style of writing.  Maybe it is the “astonishingly tender” aspects spoken of in the blurb that give it the unbearable lightness of being that annoys me.

ARK by Stephen Baxter

This is the sequel to The Flood.   And no, Noah does not appear in the story.  The Ark turns out to be a spaceship, being built concurrently to the time we visit in The Flood.

Our world ended in 2052, the year the last great flood finally overwhelmed the lands.

A desperate bid for survival began in America, in the years before the end. The project which could be our final act could also be an impossible dream: creating a starship to take a few hundred survivors on an epic journey to a new world.

As the waters rise, as savage wars are fought over the remaining high ground, the work goes on. Those who will live, of the billions who will die, are chosen. Families are torn apart and the resources of our drowning world are marshalled for one last gamble.

Ark is the story of three women, Grace, Venus and Holle, and their part in humanity’s struggle to reach a new home. For the few survivors, the day of the launch will be only the beginning of the nightmare.

The space voyage to Earth 2, takes decades.  As the people on board deal with the years enclosed in what is basically a tin can, they eventually divide into three factions.  Arrival at the new planet finds it to be unsuitable for life there, and there is great infighting over whether to go on to another planet they have discovered while on route, or to try to populate the planet in hand, or to return to earth.  They end up splitting into three groups, one group is shuttled to the planet, one goes on to the new discovery, another 30 years in flight, and the third group returns to Earth to find that what they had hoped would be a planet with receding waters and a growing available landmass, to be a planet completely under water.

More descriptions of a drowning world, of what becomes of humanity as it tries to continue to survive, and what happens when you have an elite group who can escape, leaving everyone else to their fate.

Again, loved this book.  And not just because I am easy to please, (although there is that), but because it really works on your imagination.

 

THE BONE GARDEN by Tess Gerreten

You know me, anything with ‘bones’ in the title and I’m there!   Well, this one was something of an historical whodunnit when a woman in present day suburb of Boston finds some old bones while digging up the yard in her new house to make a garden.

Present day: Julia Hamill has made a horrifying discovery on the grounds of her new home in rural Massachusetts: a skull buried in the rocky soil–human, female, and, according to the trained eye of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, scarred with the unmistakable marks of murder. But whoever this nameless woman was, and whatever befell her, is knowledge lost to another time. . . . 

Boston, 1830: In order to pay for his education, Norris Marshall, a talented but penniless student at Boston Medical College, has joined the ranks of local “resurrectionists”–those who plunder graveyards and harvest the dead for sale on the black market. Yet even this ghoulish commerce pales beside the shocking murder of a nurse found mutilated on the university hospital grounds. And when a distinguished doctor meets the same grisly fate, Norris finds that trafficking in the illicit cadaver trade has made him a prime suspect. 

To prove his innocence, Norris must track down the only witness to have glimpsed the killer: Rose Connolly, a beautiful seamstress from the Boston slums who fears she may be the next victim. Joined by a sardonic, keenly intelligent young man named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Norris and Rose comb the city–from its grim cemeteries and autopsy suites to its glittering mansions and centers of Brahmin power–on the trail of a maniacal fiend who lurks where least expected . . . and who waits for his next lethal opportunity.

The actual mystery as to who was the bones, and how she got there was OK, with a nice twist at the end, well, a couple of twists,  really, one of which was worthy of rom-com coziness, but for me, the real interest was the descriptions of the historic time of the Transcendentalists, so that was … when? … oh, yeah, the early nineteen hundreds.   This was a time when doctors did not know to wash their hands between patients, and so passed on puerperal fever from woman to woman, and believed it to be an epidemic, not knowing they themselves caused it.  Germ theory had not yet been introduced in the United States, although it was gaining ground in Europe.

This historic era was also the time of body snatching and grave robbing, as medical schools and surgeons paid for corpses to those willing to bring them fresh ones, for studying the body and teaching anatomy to medical students.  Eventually, they were able to buy bodies legitimately from some states who had laws allowing the use of the bodies of indigent, criminals and unknown persons to be used for medical researched, and the market for the clandestine bodies snatched all but disappeared.

Very interesting stuff, made palatable by a light covering of a love story and a mystery.

THE FLOOD by Stephen Baxter

An apocalyptic story, very wet.  Lots of moisture.  Yep.  It begins in 2016. Another wet summer, another year of storm surges and high tides. But this time the Thames Barrier is breached and central London is swamped. The waters recede, life goes on, the economy begins to recover, people watch the news reports of other floods around the world. And then the waters rise again. And again.

Lily, Helen, Gary and Piers, hostages released from five years captivity at the hands of Christian Extremists in Spain, return to England and the first rumors of a flood of positively Biblical proportions…

Sea levels have begun to rise, at catastrophic speed. Within two years London and New York will be under water. The Pope will give his last address from the Vatican before Rome is swallowed by the rising water. Mecca too will vanish beneath the waves.

The world is drowning. A desperate race to find out what is happening begins. The popular theory is that we are paying the price for our profligacy and that climate change is about to redress Gaia’s balance. But there are dissenting views. And all the time the waters continue to rise and mankind begins the great retreat to higher ground. Millions will die, billions will become migrants. Wars will be fought over mountains.”

An apologia for mankind’s brutality to the planet.  Global warming. Ice melting. Glaciers disintegrating at faster than glacial pace. Our own damn fault.  But wait!  One climatologist, having tracked movements in the oceans, believes it is actually the earth having spasms and releasing pent up water that has been sealed up for billions of years.  So really, the flooding of the world would have happened anyway, even if we weren’t all a$$holes about how we treat our world.

It follows the long, devolving lives of the various protagonists and their offspring.  Spoiler <<<<<< >>>>>  Everybody ends up living on rafts made of garbage.  So much garbage….. the real tragedy of our treatment of the world.  You know all those scows loaded with trash and garbage that we dumped into the oceans to get rid of it?  Well, as the world floods, it all comes floating back up, creating gyres of trash in various locations, where the raft dwellers then go to scavenge.

I found this book really readable, although many people were ho, not to mention, hum, about it.  I really liked the descriptions of what happens in the cities and plains and then the mountains as the waters continue to rise, and the governments continue to dither about what to do.

Some felt the descriptions were excessive and overly lengthy, but that is just why I liked it.  His vision of how people continue to find a way to have a life, in spite of events and situations that one would think would just destroy all soul.  We are all stronger and more resilient than we think we can be.  I hope so.