Book – Some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, other than humans, are apes, monkeys, crows and ravens, parakeets, and…octopuses. Which is just as weird as it sounds, because while apes and monkeys are closely related to us, and birds not too far different, octopuses (and other cephalopods, squids and cuttlefish) are very distant relations. Our most recent common ancestor is 750 million years old. So why are they so smart, and what can we learn about intelligence and awareness from studying them?
Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, but also a scuba diver, and his encounters with cephalopods off the coast of Australia led him to this fascinating study of minds, both human and alien. Deep discussion of what consciousness is and how it happens is interleaved with vivid descriptions of octopus behavior and relationships. As a pure philosophy book, this would be too dense and heavy to manage, but bringing in the octopuses and their evolutionary history gives it just the right balance. An enlightening read for anyone interested in the question of animal intelligence and the ways humans are similar to – and different from – very different creatures.
Book – Like many writers, Cary Tennis had a project he just couldn’t finish: a sprawling novel he’d started writing while commuting to a detested corporate job. He struggled with it for years before coming up with the Finishing School, a method for constructing a writing group that was about support, not mutual criticism, and gentle accountability. And yes, he finished the novel.
What makes Finishing School the book unique (in my experience of writing-advice books, of which I’ve read many) is the authors’ understanding that writing, and especially projects we’ve been procrastinating on for years, can bring up big emotions, and it’s those emotions, not the writing itself, that frequently gets in the way. Finishing School, the method, is about making some space for those emotions, which in turn makes some space in your head for getting the work done.
I think this method could be expanded to help you deal with any project you want to get done but don’t have a firm deadline for. (Discussed in the book are several writers who had writing-adjacent projects they needed to finish, like cleaning out the study that had been used as a storage room for too many years.) In addition to sympathy, the book lays out the method for you to use as a two-person buddy system or as a large group like a class. I’m looking forward to recruiting a buddy to help me get started on a couple of projects of my own.
Book – It is 1888, a hot, murderous summer in London, and Doctor Thomas Bond is assisting the police in their investigations. Inspector Abberline leads the investigation into Jack the Ripper, cutting up prostitutes in Whitechapel, but Dr. Bond is more concerned with another killer, more fastidious, whose victims they pull out of the river in pieces. His anxiety high, Dr. Bond turns to opium to calm his mind, but in the opium dens he meets a foreign priest and a Polish madman, who convince him that the monster stalking London is not entirely human after all.
There are probably dozens of novels about Jack the Ripper being a man possessed by a demon; this is the first I’ve seen where Jack is a footnote to a different monster. (The Thames Torso Killer was real, and really was active at the same time as Jack the Ripper, but for whatever reason he never became as famous.) Dr. Bond is a terrific character, too; wracked by anxiety and drug addiction, he never entirely believes in the supernatural thing that his companions warn him about, but he’s willing to do whatever is necessary to stop the killing. Fans of Hannibal and Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard series will love this book and its sequel, Murder.
Book – My favorite kinds of mysteries are the ones that play games with your expectations – things like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – so I was intrigued by the description of Anthony Horowitz’s new novel. It’s a murder mystery inside a murder mystery: Alan Conway, author of the bestselling Atticus Pünd series of whodunnits, committed suicide just after turning in his latest manuscript. Except that the manuscript is missing the last chapter, and Susan Ryeland, one of his editors, thinks he didn’t commit suicide at all. The first half of the book is Magpie Murders, the final Atticus Pünd novel; the second half is Susan’s investigation into Conway’s death. (Don’t worry; you do get to read the final chapter in the end.)
Horowitz is a bestselling author and screenwriter in the UK – he’s a co-creater of the longrunning TV show Midsomer Murders – but despite his two excellent Sherlock Holmes novels, he’s not as well known here. He does a terrific job with both mysteries in Magpie Murders, Pünd’s classic whodunnit set in the 1950s and Susan’s modern, genre-savvy investigation in the modern day. Readers who love the puzzle aspect of mysteries but who are turned off by the violence and heavy reliance on forensics in modern thrillers will love this unique novel.
Book – I frequently tell people that some of the best science fiction and fantasy is happening in short stories. It seems counter-intuitive that you could squeeze a satisfying world and characters both out of a couple dozen pages, especially when it’s so hard to find a novel that isn’t part of a series, but there’s something about the short format that really packs a hefty punch. Kij Johnson is an excellent example: her stories are complex, rich, and deep, set in spectacular worlds ranging from just different enough from ours to be intriguing to so different they should be hard to imagine (although she makes it easy). And they’ve won three Nebula awards, which is nothing to sneeze at.
The stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees circle around themes of grief, loss, rebuilding, and the power of story itself to help us through these. In “The Horse Raiders,” a young woman is the only survivor of an attack that wipes out her clan, only to discover that a plague is wiping out their entire planet’s way of life. In “Dia Chjerman’s Tale,” women captives on an imperial spaceship tell the stories of how their ancestors stayed alive. And in the title story, a road trip leads to an unexpected pilgrimage and an even more unexpected chance for grace on behalf of a woman’s dying dog. The characters in these stories are angry, they’re hurt, they lash out and they make mistakes, but they also pull themselves together and carry on.
Graphic novel – Set in Chicago in the 60s, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the semi-autobiographical story of Karen, a ten-year-old girl who pictures (and draws) herself as a werewolf. After her upstairs neighbor dies mysteriously, her death officially labeled a suicide, Karen takes it on herself to investigate, learning about her lovely neighbor’s history as a Holocaust survivor, her older brother Deeze’s many and varied relationships with women, and just exactly how far her monster mask will take her. Meanwhile, her mother is dying of cancer, Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been killed, and Karen is probably in love with her best friend.
This is an incredible story, richly layered, full of wonderful, fully-realized characters. Despite the youth of the narrator, there are a lot of heavy themes, but they are rendered with their full complexity intact. And the art is astounding – printed on paper lined like a spiral notebook, the sketchy pencil drawings are absolutely gorgeous, whether Ferris is rendering Deeze’s many weary ex-girlfriends or Karen’s favorite works from the Art Institute. The only unfortunate thing? It ends on a cliffhanger, and Book Two doesn’t come out until next year.
Book – Simon Newman has a very niche career – it’s the mid-2000s, and he and his best friend run a website of dark and creepy content. Desperate to attract subscribers for “Journey to the Darkside,” he hires a guide to take him through Cwm Pot, a notorious cave system in Wales where three cavers died in a flood. Simon escapes with his life, if barely; his guide does not.
But one success isn’t enough on the Internet, and the next one has to be bigger and even more dangerous, so Simon signs on to an Everest expedition, hoping to catch some footage of the climbers whose bodies have to be abandoned above 8,000 feet, where it’s too dangerous to try to bring them down. He learns the story of Juliet Michaels, who in the 1990s was trying to become the first woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen, but perished on the mountain. And in her diary, he finds an eerily familiar story. It seems Juliet was haunted by a lost adventuring partner, just as Simon is. But were they haunted only by memories and regrets, or is there something else out there on the mountain with them?
Sarah Lotz has become my go-to writer for psychological horror: she excels at the kind of atmospheric tension-building that I love. The White Road isn’t seat-of-your-pants scary, but it provides the kind of ambiguous, worrying feeling that I enjoyed so much in, for example, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Once you’ve read this, pick up Into Thin Air to see just how real Lotz’s depiction of death on the world’s highest mountain can be.
Book – Greta is one of the Children of Peace, hostages of the world’s leaders who live in the Precepture in Saskatchewan. If their country goes to war, they die. It’s one of the rules of Talis, the AI who rules the world – war should be personal, and the people declaring war should have to suffer for it. Talis’s scheme works to keep wars rare, but in a world where water grows scarcer by the day, Greta knows that, sooner or later, her mother’s kingdom will go to war to defend Lake Huron, and she is going to die. The arrival of Elián, the hostage from the newly-formed Cumberland Alliance, shakes both the calm society of the Precepture and Greta’s perception of the world – and her willingness to go peacefully to her doom.
There are a lot of ideas in this book: AI threat, water wars, population devastation, extreme solutions to the age-old problem of war. And they’re all secondary to Greta, who is an amazing character, someone who’s walked blindly for most of her life through a horrible, unfair, heartless system that she grows to believe is not the inevitable way the world has to work. It’s gorgeously written (the last couple of chapters in particular) and the characterization is impeccable. This was an incredible book – heartbreaking and brutal, not gratuitously, but as much as it needed to be. Although technically YA, anyone who loves science fiction or dystopian fiction should love this.
Book – Surrealism, as it was invented, wasn’t just an art movement but a political one as well, designed to help the practitioner break out of the mindset imposed on us by the culture we live in and invent a new and better world. Given that, it was really only a matter of time before China Miéville wrote a book about a surrealist city rising up to overthrow its fascist oppressors.
It’s 1950, and Paris is still occupied – both by the Nazis and by the manifs, physical embodiments of surrealist art and poetry that sprang into existence after the S-bomb exploded in a café in the 40s. The city has been sealed off to prevent the manifs from infecting the surrounding countryside. Thibaut is the last remaining member of Main á Plume, a surrealist Resistance faction, when he’s joined by Sam, an American photographer who’s chronicling the manifs for a book she wants to produce, The Last Days of New Paris. But Sam has other goals in mind, and they have to do with the Nazi scheme to leash the manifs as weapons, which is beginning to show signs of success.
This is such a perfect China Miéville book that I really can’t give it a better recommendation than that: If you like his books, you should love this. It’s probably a little easier to follow if you’re moderately familiar with the Surrealists, but there are some helpful illustrations (and an index chronicling the sources of the manifs, if you want to look them up). If you’ve never tried Miéville before, this isn’t necessarily the place to start (unless you really love Surrealism). May I recommend The City & The City, a surrealist mystery novel that’s recently been announced for an upcoming BBC adaptation?
Book – After the Sadiri homeworld was destroyed, their only hope for survival is in reaching out to the indigenous population of their newly adopted home for aid. Cygnus Beta is a world of refugees, all trying to re-create their dramatically different home cultures and governments. Grace Delarua’s job is to try to manage and integrate all this incredible variety; Sadiri Councillor Dllenakh is her point of contact with the Sadiri exiles, who are in search of a population that might be related to their own.
This is a short book, but it packs a lot into a few pages (which is my favorite kind of science fiction, really). Cygnus Beta is a fascinating world, so much variety and diversity packed up right next to each other – which really highlights how often science fiction forgets that we have just as much diversity on our own very small planet – and the overall story, about refugees trying to figure out what culture and heritage and history mean, is incredibly relevant right now. And for once, the slow-burn romance between Delarua and Dllenakh is one of my favorite parts of the story. If you like science fiction but are a little exhausted by breathless save-the-galaxy plots, give this one a try.