Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Something has gone drastically wrong aboard the generation ship Matilda .  Centuries after it left the uninhabitable Earth, the ship seems no closer to its destination, if there is in fact a destination at all.  Society has become stratified, with the darker-skinned humans confined to the lower decks, called “Tarlanders”, and treated like servants at best and often like animals.   Those on the higher decks justify this with their religion, which puts straight white men above all others, who are sinners.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Aster is one of the few medics available to those below decks.  She’s something of a genius, and has been allowed to study under/assist the ship’s most esteemed doctor, the Surgeon.  (She knows him as Theo.)  That doesn’t excuse her from backbreaking work in the field decks under the whip-wielding overseers, though.

Recently, the Matilda has been suffering a series of blackouts for the first time in a quarter-century.  Lieutenant, Theo’s cruel uncle and de facto ruler of the ship, has decided that the lower deck people are somehow overloading the power and cut the heat to that part of the ship to “conserve energy.”  The oppressed are suffering, and Aster has been called to amputate a child’s gangrenous foot.

After this gruesome task, Aster returns to her secret botanarium where she grows medicinal plants and performs scientific experiments.  Her childhood friend and confidante Giselle is there and being contrary as usual.  More surprisingly, the Surgeon arrives.  Theo needs some of Aster’s special steroids for his post-polio pain symptoms, and also her help.  The Sovereign Nicolaeus, official ruler of the ship’s people, is dying of a mysterious illness, something Theo has never seen before.

Not having any great love for the ship’s government, Aster turns Theo’s request down.  But then Giselle reveals that she’s been reading the journals of Aster’s long-missing mother Lune, and cracked some of the code they were in–Lune had the same symptoms as Nicolaeus during the last series of blackouts, twenty-five years ago.  Is there a connection?

Aster is a protagonist very different from most I’ve read, being gender ambiguous (but using female pronouns) and having some form of neurodivergence.  The latter is both a strength and a weakness for Aster; it gives her insights that others might miss, but also makes understanding subtleties of language difficult for her to parse.   Metaphors are hard for Aster to grasp, thus her failure to notice that the anomalies in Lune’s journal entries were deliberate.

Most of the book is told in tight third-person following Aster, with three first-person chapters where other characters inform the reader of things Aster is unaware of or not present for.

The storyline largely consists of Aster reacting to other people’s actions; until near the end her few attempts at being proactive backfire.   Theo (who has many secrets) and especially Giselle (never stable, but having gotten worse after much abuse) are far more active, but are mostly off-page doing their things.  The vile Lieutenant seems to relish making life more complicated, deluded by his self-justified mindset.

Matilda‘s society is a pretty clear metaphor for the American South during slavery and Jim Crow (mixed together as needed) and this can come across as heavy-handed from time to time.  We get very little background on how it turned out this way, although one bit of history suggests the social stratification was there from the beginning.

Content notice:  rough language, implied rape, physical and mental abuse, and torture.

The conclusion drastically changes things; there is room for a sequel, but the society will not be the same.

Overall, a mixed bag.  An interesting protagonist and unfolding of events, but often heavy-handed and some key elements seem to be there simply to create the desired metaphor.

Note:  I got this book through PageHabit, so my copy has author annotations on Post-it notes inserted throughout.  This was an interesting extra dimension, but my financial circumstances make it unlikely I’ll order from this vendor again in the near future.

 

 

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair by Barbara & Robert Tinker with Pendred Noyce, illustrated by Yu-Yu Chin

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Once again the Galactic Academy of Science must reach out to kids from the 21st Century to preserve the timeline.  This time Dr. G is sabotaging the International Science Fair to crush the spirits of budding scientists and create a public impression that junk science is just as valid as real science.  Future teen  Quarkum reaches out to two new field agents, Ella and Shomari.

Shomari and Ella must travel through time to learn about cryptography and cryptoanalysis, codes and ciphers, so they can crack the coded messages Dr. G is sending his minions while protecting their own communications.  From Julius Caesar’s shift cipher to Whitfield Diffie and the public key, the experts of the past inform the children of the present to save the future.

This is the latest in a series of children’s books about science, with the framework of ethnically diverse youngsters traveling through time to learn about subjects firsthand.  The language is suitable for fourth graders on up, with more difficult words defined in the text.  It helps that Ella and Shomari are very literate for their age and bright enough to bring up examples when they’re appropriate.

Important or notable words are emphasized with colored text, and the illustrations are good.  There’s information on how to find more codes and ciphers on the publisher’s website if the reader wants to play along.

There is some mild peril–Dr. G’s minions aren’t very threatening.  And the story acknowledges that there are difficult topics that come up in the past, such as slavery, religious discrimination and sexism, which hinder or offend the children from time to time.    However, they are treated as problems of the past, with no mention of such topics in the present.

Like many kids, I went through a codes and ciphers phase, and this book would have been fascinating to me then.   Check out your school or public library.

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