Book – Ruth and Nat are a couple of teenagers about to age out of the Love of Christ! foster home in upstate New York. Traumatized after her older sister aged out and never returned for her, Nat is the only person Ruth has left in the world. That is, until a mysterious stranger appears at the home and suggests a way out – they can exploit Nat’s purported ability to speak to the dead, and make a living for themselves.
Interwoven with this story is that of Cora, a young woman with a boring job, a new pregnancy, and a boyfriend – a married man she’s been carrying on an affair with – who wants nothing to do with a baby. Before she can decide what to do about anything, her long-lost, much-loved Aunt Ruth turns up at her house in the middle of the night, and Cora finds herself following Ruth on a shoeleather road trip, walking across the countryside to a destination Ruth won’t explain.
I picked up this book entirely based on the title – Mr. Splitfoot was the name the Fox sisters gave the spirit they claimed to be communicating with when they invented seances and Spiritualism in 1848 – and although it wasn’t the story I was expecting, I was totally blown away. Part ghost story, part mystery, partly a story about knowing who your family is and what you can rely on them for, this is going on my list of best books from 2016.
Book – As I mentioned earlier this month, I’m fascinated by stories of wilderness adventures gone terribly, irrevocably wrong. Living in the suburbs it’s easy to forget the immensity of the natural world – and its unforgiving nature. As the authors of Over the Edge say, nature is not Disney World, and there’s no guarantee that the unprepared will make it out alive.
And not to be morbid, but this collection of stories about deaths in one of America’s most impressive natural features is fascinating stuff. While there are a fair number of suicides (although not as many as you might think), most of the deaths they talk about are the result of just that kind of lack of preparation – hikers, cavers, rafters who thought they could do more than they could, and found out too late that they were wrong. It’s a comprehensive catalog of things not to do, and anybody interested in hiking Grand Canyon probably ought to read this first, just to make sure they don’t get too cocky.
I stumbled upon this book after reading the fascinating saga of the discovery of the Death Valley Germans – a family of tourists who disappeared into the California desert in 1996, and whose remains were finally discovered by search & rescue volunteer Tom Mahood in 2010. From this and from Over the Edge, I have learned never to drive a minivan offroad in the desert, to always carry twice as much water as I think I’ll need, and also to stay far, far away from Death Valley.
Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.
But somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.
A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.
Book – One day the stars go out. A mysterious membrane has encircled the Earth, and the only thing that gets in is sunlight. And then it’s discovered that the membrane doesn’t just seal the Earth off in space, but also in time, and eons are passing in the rest of the galaxy to every Earth minute. The story of the panicked Earth is told by Tyler Dupree, childhood friend of genius and technology heir Jason Lawton, who will eventually construct a space program dedicated to divining the mystery of the Spin membrane and the Hypotheticals who put it there. Isaac becomes a doctor, and is hired as Jason’s personal physician, a position that lets him watch the whole thing go spiraling out of control.
Science fiction with big ideas often suffers from unrealistic or just uninteresting characters, but I never had that problem with Spin. Tyler, Jason, and Jason’s twin sister Diane are all complex people with deep personal connections in addition to their role in helping the world recover the global disaster that is the Spin – Jason and Diane both push against their politically powerful father, E.D., in different ways, while Tyler is hyper-aware of his position relative to them: he’s the son of their family’s housekeeper. The way their personal dramas play out on a global, even a galactic, scale parallels the accelerated timeline of the Earth under the Spin.
Book – Tara Abernathy is a contract lawyer. Wait, no, don’t run away – I swear this is a fantasy novel, and a really good one, too. In Gladstone’s post-war fantasy world, contracts regulate and control the use of magic, called Craft. In recent history, Craftsmen (and women) overthrew the gods, shifting control of magical power into mortal hands. But remnants of the old religions still exist. And the old gods do, too – so long as they abide by their contracts.
That’s what Tara and her boss are investigating: Kos Everburning, a god of the city of Alt Coulomb, has died and defaulted on his contract. In order to keep the power on, and to forestall political upheaval, they have to prove that Kos was murdered.
Three Parts Dead isn’t always the easiest book to read (Gladstone subscribes to the “throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim” school of worldbuilding), but it’s never boring. This is the first in Gladstone’s ongoing Craft series. The sequel, Two Serpents Rise, features an entirely different cast of characters in a city halfway around the world from Alt Coulomb, but as the series goes on, the storylines begin to converge. It’s deep, fascinating, twisty stuff, and totally worth the effort it can sometimes take.
Books – Vlad is an Easterner (a human, to us), but he’s lived his whole life in the strictly regimented, caste-based Dragaeran Empire, among Dragaerans (whom his grandfather calls Elves). Most Dragaeran Houses are a matter of birth, but Vlad’s father bought his family into the House of the Jhereg, best known for putting the “organized” into organized crime. He lives a little in both worlds, rising in the ranks of the Jhereg while learning Eastern witchcraft from his grandfather – which is how he came by his long-time companion Loiosh, who is also a jhereg. All the Dragaeran Houses are named after animals, you see – a jhereg is a small flying lizard, about the size of a housecat. No, they don’t breathe fire. They’re not usually telepathic, either, but Loiosh is a witch’s familiar, after all.
The Vlad Taltos series – part of Steven Brust’s larger Dragaeran universe, which also includes a five-book trilogy and a stand-alone novel set in the East – is really something different; I don’t know of any other fantasy novels like them. They’re all narrated by Vlad in the first person, and Vlad’s voice is one of the most delightful things about them. Think something of a cross between Sam Spade and Strider (who becomes Aragorn). And each book is also about a different Dragaeran House and what that House stands for in Dragaeran society – Jhereg, the first in the series, is about Vlad’s life in the Organization; Dragon, another good starting point, is about war. You learn a little more about the universe with every book. There are fourteen books so far, with five (and lots of questions) left to go.
Book – Trace sees spirits. They’re kind of everywhere, but he doesn’t dare tell anyone he knows about what he can see, because every time he does they wind up dead. Even his partner Boz doesn’t know – until they’re hired by a rich old English lady to retrieve some property for her, and it turns out that she doesn’t need Trace’s skills as a trapper and guide so much as for what he can see that so few others can.
This is a terrifically fun Weird West story, with all the trappings – cowboys, werewolves, ghosts and sorcerers. Messinger does a good job with the diversity of the West, too: Boz is black, and the ghosts of Chinese rail-workers play a role in Trace’s difficulties. The overall plot isn’t too unique (and it’s clearly set up as the beginning of an ongoing series), but the unique twist on monsters and magicians, as well as Boz and Trace’s relationship, make for compelling reading. I’m interested to see where this series goes from here.
Book – What do AIDS, malaria, the Spanish Flu, and Ebola all have in common? Aside from being some of the scariest diseases humanity has to face, they all originated in animals. In Spillover, David Quammen explores how diseases cross over from animals into humans, how researchers figure out where those diseases come from, and what that means for the future of human disease.
That sounds like a combination of boring and terrifying, but really, the book is neither – Quammen’s writing is incredibly clear and easy to follow. He doesn’t assume you know anything about biology, nevermind viral microbiology, and both his own explanations and his conversations with experts make the whole topic seem reasonable and comprehensible. I felt smarter after reading this book. And safer, too – as the conclusion describes, one of the biggest factors in how diseases spread is how infected hosts react to being sick, and as humans, with intelligence and forethought, we can do a lot from preventing the Next Big One from being as big as we fear.
This is a little outdated; published (to great acclaim) in 2012, the most recent epidemic it covers is SARS, missing the most recent Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. (Although there is a lengthy chapter on Ebola, in which he clarifies that it does not actually liquefy its victims, Richard Preston notwithstanding.) But it’s thorough enough to show light on those situations anyway. Pick this one up now, before next flu season comes around.
Book – Imagine that every time you do something wrong – tell a lie, steal something, think an uncharitable thought – everyone can see it, in the form of a little puff of smoke that comes up from your body. It leaves soot on your clothes, your pillowcases, your furniture. You must be perfectly good at all times, or clean everything constantly, or both. And if not – everyone will know.
That’s the world of Smoke, a tremendous new literary fantasy by Dan Vyleta. In Victorian England, the aristocracy are trained from childhood to never Smoke, to repress all their baser instincts to demonstrate their inherent superiority over the lower classes. But what if it doesn’t really work that way? What if Smoke isn’t sin, but something else? Thomas and Charlie, two boys at an elite boarding school in the countryside, begin to question what they’ve been told after a trip to Smoke-filled London, and before long their whole world is unraveling.
I loved this book and its incredible explorations of good and evil, sin and repression. In addition to telling the story of Smoke, it’s also full of all the things that make Victorian novels great – family secrets, corrupt leaders, criminals with a heart of gold, murder, disguise, horse chases, and romance.
Book – Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of murder, and in the spring, she will be executed. The governor has decided that it’s too expensive to send her to the seat of government in Denmark, so she’s been sent to the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, to live there with his family until the execution date can be set.
Between scattered documents – real translations; this is based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland for murder – detailing the problems the government is having in getting an execution set for Agnes and her two co-defendants, we learn more about the family hosting her and about Agnes’s own life. She grew up practically an orphan, working for her keep in a variety of small farms, before falling in love with Natan – the man she’s been convicted of murdering.
This was a moving story, stark and bleak but beautifully told, of a woman who is famous but not very sympathetic in her home country. Hannah Kent helps us to understand Agnes, who has been so terribly isolated for much of her life, who fell in love with the wrong kind of man, who lost a life she had never been very successful at in the first place.