Captivating, people-centered science fiction

Dreams Before the Start of Time - Anne Charnock

This captivating series of linked stories starts in the future and continues moving forward in time, exploring the ways plausible (if sometimes disturbing) advances in conception and birth options would change individual lives and the relationships between family members and lovers. The book spans several generations in the families of two devoted, but very different, best friends, Millie and Toni, who we meet in the first story. Each successive story features someone the reader has already met, making the implications of previous character choices, or in a few cases non-choices, poignantly clear.

 

Some characters stumble into relationships and parenting, others are highly purposeful. Some go down the old natural paths, others opt for high tech genetic enhancements for one or more of their children.

 

This is people centered science fiction, and almost all of the stories are thought provoking and don’t-want-to-stop-reading compelling. Most moving for me was finding out what happened to a genetically optimized “bottle baby”, meaning a fetus with traits chosen by his parents who was “carried to term” in a lab rather than a human womb. Gerard was orphaned before he was born and left unadopted in his “bottle” by the main characters of an especially haunting story. We meet Gerard again in another story much later in his life, as an adult, after he’d been raised in an institution setting among other orphans with genetic upgrades. Gerard has been living a perfectly constructed life, but  now he’s grappling with the unexpected.  A  one night stand about 10 years ago resulted in a son he has only recently learned about, a boy who contrasts in marked and unexpected ways with the carefully planned son he’s raising with his wife.

 

I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost by the author. Review opinions are mine.

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Strange and dangerous though its world might be…

Strange and dangerous though its world might be, I was fascinated to be back in the technologically advanced, genetically enhanced, climate challenged future Manchester that Anne Charnock first explored in A Calculated Life. In that book the main character is Jayna, a simulant or lab created human who has been completely bio-engineered to have beyond genius level intelligence so she can process huge amounts of data for her employer, but in this novella we get a look at lives on the far other end of the human spectrum.

Caleb and Lexie have both been deemed unworthy for the cognitive implants that most natural born people receive to enhance their abilities. They eke out a living in the Enclave, a violent, gritty slum community far from Manchester’s hub. With a nod to current events, Caleb is a young illegal immigrant who had to flee Spain when climate change rendered his home virtually unlivable. Caleb and Lexie work together, but though they have a stronger bond than normally found in subordinate-boss relationships, the nature of their reality makes it hard for them to trust anyone.

Charnock writes what I think of as science fiction for grownups, stories in which realistic (if often futuristic) characters and thought-filled themes are as important as her high tension plots. While The Enclave isn’t exactly a sequel to A Calculated Life, those who’ve read the first book will recognize Jayna and her coworker Dave in a brief encounter they have with the characters in this novella. Even Dave’s bees make an appearance.

One thing left to explore in this world is the lives of the elite–the natural born (not lab created) humans who have been equipped with cognitive implants. They have best jobs and the nicest homes, but I wonder how life in this tenuous world would feel to one of them.

I received a complimentary copy of The Enclave from the author, with no obligation to write a review. Review opinions are mine.

 

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Review:

Butter: A Rich History - Elaine Khosrova

Butter: A Rich History includes science, social and culinary history, far flung travel adventures, farm and factory tours, recipes(!), and mouth-watering descriptions of the various qualities of different types of butter based on how it’s made and where it comes from–factors I had never thought to consider–so I was fascinated from page one. It also sent me off to my local grocery and farm stores where I was amazed and happy to see quite a variety of butter, including a beautifully yellow and tasty slow churned butter from cows who had not been fed grain but were instead allowed to field graze. Butter has gotten a bad rap health-wise, but author Elaine Khosrova counters some of those now outdated claims. I hadn’t known there was so much to learn about butter and its history and I enjoyed finding out more about something from my everyday world that I had taken for granted. The only slight issue I had was that reading this book made me hungry…

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through the website LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.

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Literary Wonderlands explored in gorgeous and thoughtful detail

Review:

Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created - Laura Miller, Lev Grossman, John Sutherland, Tom Shippey

This is a truly beautiful book, with gorgeous color illustrations on almost every page 2-page spread, so reading it, even flipping through it, is a delight. The first thing I did was check to see which of my favorite literary worlds had been included (Strange/Norrell! Thursday Next! And lots of others), and I read those entries feeling great pleasure and satisfaction to see the texts I love treated with such respectful and thought-provoking attention.

But discovering new-to-you authors is the biggest perk of Literary Wonderlands, with one very slight caveat. If you are someone who avoids spoilers at all costs (I am not), if your reading pleasure is diminished by knowing ahead of time some of what happens in a story, then you’ll want to precede with caution. In order for them give substantial insights, quite a few of the entries contain summaries which tell in a very general way what happens in the book being featured. Since many of these books are well known classics, especially the older ones, I don’t think this will be an issue for most readers.

The entries were authored by an impressive list of knowledgeable and talented writers, some of them scholars or historians, and some of them creators of their own literary wonderlands, like Lev Grossman (his The Magicians series is, sadly, not included in the book). Essays are arranged in 5 chronological groups: Ancient Myth and Legend, Science and Romanticism, Golden Age of Fantasy, New World Order, and The Computer Age ( a strange title choice because most of the stories in this group have nothing to do with computers). Most, but not quite all, of the authors are from Europe or the United States.

Literary Wonderlands would be a great holiday gift book for anyone (including yourself!) who loves to read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher with obligations. Review opinions are mine.

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Gripping account of Churchill’s prison escape, but even more fascinating insights into history

Review:

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill - Candice Millard

As she’s already proved in The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard really knows how to tell a gripping story, and this account of young Winston Churchill’s incredible prison escape during the Boer War made me postpone all other activities as I stayed glued to its pages, but–as with her other titles–the event that inspired the book isn’t the only thing that makes Millard’s telling so interesting. For me it’s maybe not even the primary thing, though it’s true that episodes like Churchill desperately leaping onto a moving train and hiding out for days in a pitch-black, rat-infested coal mine were the parts that kept my heart racing.

But the insights into the history and cultural norms of the peoples involved in the story were even more fascinating for me than Churchill’s harrowing escapades. Millard gives concise but detailed backstories of the too complacent British and their empire in the waning days of Victoria’s rule, the fiercely independent and resourceful Boers who after a hundred years felt bound and entitled to the lands they’d settled in southern Africa, and the native African tribes of the area, including the Zulu and the Xhosa, some of whom had inhabited the space for thousands and thousands of years.

The book also gave me a deeper understanding of Churchill’s character, in all its admirable and infuriating glory. The roles of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela (who lived years after the Boer War) and a number of officers in the  British and Boer military are also well described, and the influences or thoughts of Catherine the Great, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Theodore Roosevelt, and the American President William McKinley are noted. All three of Millard’s books cover the late nineteenth century and/or early twentieth century, an era that to the benefit of her readers she seems to know well and is certainly able to bring to life.

I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost or obligation by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.

 

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Ancient local religions in modern India

Reblogged from: Reflections

Review:

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India - William Dalrymple

I just finished re-reading this amazing book–here’s my original review from 2011:

 

The religions most of us are familiar with have been largely standardized and homogenized, but obviously this wasn’t always so. Like languages before the advent of writing, earlier versions of even the same religion had local accents, traditions and emphases that varied substantially from place to place. That early world of indigenous religions still exists in parts of India, and in Nine Lives author William Dalrymple sensitively chronicles the poignant, eye-opening personal stories of nine religious devotees whose practices are outside–sometimes far outside–of the mainstream.

 

The regional outlook of many of his subjects is summed up by one of the last hereditary singers of an ancient, locally-based epic poem that is so long it takes five eight-hour nights, dusk to dawn, to perform. He explained to Dalrymple that of course they were careful to propitiate the “national” gods like Shiva and Vishnu, who control the cosmos, but for their daily needs it made more sense to pray to the local god-kings and heroes who understand their farming life in a way the great gods could not. It’s like going to your county council representative rather than the president of the country to have a new stop sign put in your neighborhood.

 

Dalrymple must have a gift for getting people to open up, and he writes beautifully and with great respect for his subjects. Those subjects include a Dalit or untouchable who becomes a god sought out by Brahmins for several months each year, a Jain nun who is chaperoned by a naked monk part of the time Dalrymple speaks with her, a devotee of the fearsome goddess Tara who lives by the funeral pyres of a cremation ground, a blind wandering Baul who sings songs of worldly liberation, and a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is atoning for being forced to fight for his religious beliefs.

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What I read (and listened to)

Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage - John W. McWhorter Dragon Day (An Ellie McEnroe Novel) - Lisa Brackmann Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations - Mary Beard The Raj Quartet, Volume 2: The Day of the Scorpion - Paul Scott Bring the Monkey - Miles Franklin Plato's Republic - Professor David Roochnik, The Great Courses, The Great Courses The Republic of Plato - Allan Bloom, Plato A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird) - Claudia Gray Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues - Professor Michael Sugrue, The Great Courses, The Great Courses

Inspired by the upcoming summer release of the last book in Jo Walton’s Thessaly Trilogy, which tells the story of the goddesses Athena’s attempt to create Plato’s Republic, I spent much of this month happily ensconced in the classical world of Greece (mainly) and Rome (a little).  I re-read The Republic for the first time since I was 18, which is a little more than 4 decades ago…  And  I also listened to two audio courses on Plato and read a book of essays by Mary Beard about classical Greece and Rome.

I started the month with Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage, an audio course by my favorite linguist, John McWhorter. The Day of the Scorpion is the second book in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, set in India during WWII, Dragon Day is a thriller set in modern day China, Bring the Monkey is a spoofy English country house mystery, and A Thousand Pieces of You is a YA novel that explores the multiverse–it was a reread for me. I was about to start its sequel and just planned to skim the last chapter to remind myself of where it ended, but then couldn’t resist diving back into the whole book. My original review is here: A Thousand Peices of You–Racing through a Multiverse of Alternate Lives.

 

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