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Archive for August, 2021

Book Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A path runs through a flowery nature with a 1950s style metal robot on one side and a monk sitting on the back stoop of a tiny house on the other. The title A Psalm for the Wild-Built runs across it.

Summary:
Dex is a tea monk on a planet that lives an eco-friendly lifestyle on a minimal share of the planet with a large portion left wild. The robots found sentience years ago and left for the wild themselves. When Dex diverges suddenly from their usual traveling path, a robot makes contact for the first time in generations.

Review:
This book just oozes coziness and relaxation. Things happen but reading it feels sort of like visiting a 1990s era fantasy/scifi tv show where nothing truly dangerous happens and everything gets wrapped up nicely within 60 minutes. If that tv show was progressive enough to have a non-binary main character that is.

Sibling Dex’s planet is a lot like Earth but definitely is not Earth. The most notable clear indicator that this is not Earth is the universal religion, which Dex is a monk in service of. That said, this religion seems like kind of a mash-up of Buddhism and Hinduism to me. It’s got a lot of Buddhist traditions but tied to a set of 6 gods/goddesses. Dex is in particular service to Allalae, who is tied to bears somehow. I enjoyed the tie to bears. It means there are cute carvings and things of bears everywhere.

The book follows Dex’s journey from an urban monk to a traveling tea monk who roams around the countryside on a bicycle/tiny house extravaganza. Tea monks basically show up, listen to people’s feelings, and then make the perfect cup of tea for whatever their current needs are. They eventually feel what struck me as a bit of a quarter-life (or mid-life?) crisis and veers off-course to visit an old monastery. It’s at this point that Mosscap the wild-build robot reaches out to make contact.

When the robots gained sentience, it was agreed that humans would not contact robots but robots could contact humans. Mosscap is on a mission to see how humans are doing, and of course Dex and Mosscap pair up and help each other on their quests. This is when the fun conversations take place between Dex, who is clearly a bit overly tied to his emotions, and Mosscap, an externally observant logical being. I enjoyed these conversations, even though I found them to be rather expected.

Here’s the thing. I would have loved this book if it had gone on longer. I felt like we were just really starting to get into the meat of things when the book ended. I get it this is the start to a series. But it’s quite short (almost novella length), and I was enjoying the world. I also, from a story structure perspective, feel that essentially things just got set up. I supposed one could chose to write a trilogy that splits the basic story structure out across three books but that will inevitably feel to some people like a bit of a let-down because we expect a complete story. I wish someone had said, “Hey! Just finish telling Dex and Mosscap’s story! No need to stop yet.” I’d probably be less annoyed by this if the next book was out already.

I didn’t find anything in this to be incredibly deep, although I suspect I may have if I had read it before I had studied a lot of philosophical and religious literature. I did however find it to be cozy and relaxing, and I loved the juxtaposition of a cottage core tiny house monk with a 1950s style robot with sentience. Yes. I was also pleased to see Dex as non-binary, and how smoothly their culture just clearly had it set up to say Sibling Dex instead of Brother or Sister. The representation worked and never felt forced.

Recommended to anyone looking for a short, cozy, scifi read and/or to those looking for non-binary representation in scifi.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 160 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

August 24, 2021 3 comments
Image of a digital book cover with a steel man (robot) emerging from the ground.

Summary:
A collection of 8 of Isaac Asimov’s classic robot short stories, divided into three sections: The Coming of the Robots, The Laws of Robotics, and Susan Calvin.

Review:
I often struggle to read short stories. For me, they often are just a bit too short for me to get fully invested into the world they’re set in, so they oddly drag in spite of being short. But this collection really worked for me, and I think that’s because the world was already fully established in my mind. It was just then a matter of what would happen with this particular iteration of a robot and the humans around it.

The world that pre-existed in my mind already was Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (this explains them, if you’re not already familiar with them). Well, that combined with a world that had managed to make robots and engages in space exploration.

The book starts with an early generation robot who goes missing in a rural area and ends up at the behest of a rural man. This one made me laugh out loud, and not in a way that I think takes advantage of anyone. The second short story in this section looks at what happens when robots are sent in advance to a hostile alien planet. What I enjoyed about both of these is how the robots are so pure and so honest and how that throws everyone around them.

I thought the second section was the least engaging, but keep in mind I loved the collection so that’s barely a criticism. There’s a short story that’s very Cold War inspired about spies and robots. Then there’s also one that’s a human telling a tall tale about a robot breaking one of the laws. It’s left up to the reader to decide if it’s true.

The third section all feature the robopsychologist Susan Calvin. To me, it’s clear Susan is somewhere on the Autism spectrum, and I loved her. It did bother me a bit how everyone else in the stories describes Susan as cold and seems to question her femininity because they perceive her as lacking warmth and mothering qualities. But I also think this is a bit of a commentary – is Susan really like this or do others just perceive of her that way? I also really like how well she relates to the robots. She’s not a main character in each of the stories, but she does play a pivotal role in all of them. My favorite was “Galley Slave,” which is about a robot being brought into academia to do some ho-hum labor. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry, and the realness of the problems with academia are clear in the hilarious scifi and robot flavored commentary on that institution.

Overall, I really enjoyed these short stories. They’re a great example of how strong clear, rapid worldbuilding combined with characters formed quickly in broad strokes can make short stories work very well.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Gift

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Book Review: You’re As Good As Dead by E.A. Aymar (Series, #2)

Digital image of a book cover. A glowing green shows what appears to be a bridge. The book title and author name appear over it.

Summary:
Three years have passed since Tom Starks, a Baltimore community college professor and single father, tried to avenge his wife’s death by hiring a hit man. Tom is now hopeful that he has left the world of violence and murder behind. But he is drawn back into Baltimore’s criminal underground after he witnesses the assassination of an influential crime boss. To make matters worse, it appears the FBI has discovered Tom’s involvement, and they force him to work with them as an informer. Now Tom must navigate a deadly path between warring crime families and ruthless federal agents, even as he desperately tries to keep his involvement a secret from those closest to him. 

Review:
Tom Starks is definitely an example of what happens when you make one grave error in a moment of passion. This man just can’t seem to learn from his mistakes. The book opens with him dropping off money to the crime boss to keep quiet, and he witnesses the crime boss being taken out. The FBI then approaches him to infiltrate the battle between two different crime families. It’s help them or go to prison. Tom chooses helping of course.

The most interesting part of the story to me was when one crime family sends twin Black woman assassins to live with Tom. It’s a bit unclear even to Tom if they’re there to keep him quiet or keep him safe. I liked the characterization of the sisters. Yes, they’re involved in crime, but we find out the crime family’s boss essentially found them as teenagers and saved them from the streets. So they feel obligated to the crime family. They can be violent but also kind. I was particularly fond of how the sisters interact with the family’s pet bunny.

Tom clearly thinks of himself as the good guy but to the reader he’s really not one. He did, after all, hire a hit man. It seems easy to push his boundaries and to get him to do ever increasingly ethically wrong things. He also, in his spare time, sleeps with his dead wife’s sister – who is still married. He tries to protect his adopted daughter by pushing her away out of the house and never telling her anything about what’s really going on or doing a particularly great job of listening to her. This book is a story of a man’s continual descent.

It’s been a long time since I accepted this review copy, and I feel my reading tastes changed in the meantime. I used to be more interested in violent books than I am now. Now I need the violence to be making a statement about something, and I don’t think this one is making a statement. Plus, there is definitely a lot of violence – beatings, murders, and tortures. (No sexual assault though).

This is a book about violence and an ethically questionable man falling further and further into a descent of the loss of light. There is no hope at the end of the book. There seems to be no way out. Does this count as a cautionary tale about the ever-reaching effects of choosing retaliation over transformative justice? I think maybe. For someone like myself who already believes in choosing transformative justice over retaliation, it wasn’t illuminating, though, simply a tale with an expected sad trajectory.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 290 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Previous Book in Series:
I‘ll Sleep When You’re Dead, review

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Book Review: Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor by Anna Qu

August 10, 2021 5 comments
Image of a digital bookcover. A yellow background with scissor open to cut three threads over it. The title of the book is in black. The author's name is in blue.

Summary:
When Anna Qu was in high school, she had her guidance counselor call child protective services because her mother was making her work without pay in the family sweatshop. In her memoir, she explores how her life went from living with her grandparents in China while her widowed mother pursued success in America to the level of division and problems with her mother that led to calling CPS. An exploration of sweatshops, immigration, and difficult relationships with family of origin.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by this book because I thought – wow, what kind of mother brings her child to the US only to turn around and force her to work in a sweatshop? I could wrap my head around a mother owning and running a sweatshop. I could even imagine having your child work in a sweatshop in a different cultural context (due to need, due to cultural expectations, etc…). But the usual immigration story is a desire for your child to have a better life than your own. How does that compute if your own life is owning the sweatshop? I had to find out.

Anna deftly uses this moment in her teen years as the way into telling her life story that is also simultaneously the story of her family, of immigration, of sweatshops, and of what happens when a family member is seemingly randomly selected as the one to be ostracized. Anna felt loved and wanted by her grandparents, but that all changed when she came to the US to join her mother, new stepfather, and two new half-siblings. But this is real life, not a fairy tale, so the change wasn’t instantaneous. To me, one of the most painful scenes of the book is the party the family threw when she arrived from China. Being able to bring a loved one over from China you had to leave behind was a real status marker and cause to be celebrated. How that party went awry and how the relationship with her mother started to fall apart was painful but eloquently told.

Of course because this is a memoir we never truly get to know Anna’s mother’s motivations. But we do get some of her perspective revealed through the case worker, case documents, and what Anna’s grandmother has to say about it. Anna is willing to explore the impact of intergenerational trauma on her mother, without excusing her mother’s actions.

Anna also explores the importance of belonging, and how that being denied outside of the family is even more important when it’s being denied inside of the family. Anna describes her role in her family as:

I was a ghost haunting a family that wanted nothing to do with me, and the loneliness left a tightness in my chest.

location 392

Yet she also explores being othered outside of her family as well. At school she’s different because she spends some time away attending a different school. (Her mother briefly sends her to boarding school in China). She also experiences being different when she goes away to college without any familial support. The fact that she has to advocate for herself, get herself declared independent from her family, that she has to struggle to find a place to go on winter breaks and more, these all serve to show how she doesn’t fit in. I thought this was a great example of ways that society should strive to be more inclusive, as we never know what people’s home lives are like.

Beyond exploring her family trauma, Anna also examines the two-pronged issue of sweatshop labor and workaholism as seen in many immigrant families. From her perspective, this starts out as a necessity and then becomes a way of being even when it’s not a necessity anymore. With regards to sweatshop labor, Anna points out how interesting it is that she could get out because of laws about child labor but somehow this same labor was acceptable among adults. She also talks about how much worse it is for those with no legal recourse, such as those working under the table. What are the societal issues that lead to someone working under the table and how can those be addressed?

There are no easy answers to the difficult questions and problematic situations described in this book. I think a strength of this book is how Anna points out abuse has to be really bad to be resolved in our country – whether talking about home abuse or work abuse – but there’s lot of other abuses that are still abusive that still hurt people’s souls that just keep happening with very little to no intervention. What makes people, workplaces, and cultures abuse some and not others is a central exploration of this book with no easy answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Netgalley

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