Book Review – Star Flight

  • Title: Star Flight
  • Author: Phyllis A. Whitney
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/08/2019

In junior high I discovered Phyllis A. Whitney’s romantic suspense novels in a library somewhere – it may have even been a school library, and I became a devoted fan, scouring used book stores for her novels. But my tastes changed and I stopped reading them. Star Flight is a novel that sat on the shelf for years and I finally took it down and read it. And actually, it’s pretty good.

Lauren Castle is the granddaughter of Victoria Frazer and Roger Brandt two movie stars who had a hot and steamy film set romance that resulted in the birth of Lauren’s mother. But it also resulted in Victoria Frazer’s mysterious death (or disappearance). The death was considered suicide but the body was never found. Lauren’s estranged husband, Jim Castle, was a documentary filmmaker who decided to make a film about Victoria, Roger, and Roger’s wife, Camilla. He died and never finished the film. When Lauren receives a note suggesting her husband and her grandmother were both murdered, she travels to North Carolina, the site of all the happenings, to find out the truth.

Lake Lure in North Carolina was home to many movie stars and films in the 1920s and 1930s, and more recently with films like Dirty Dancing and The Last of the Mohicans, well, recent at the time of the novel, anyway. Victoria and Roger had filmed Blue Ridge Cowboy there but an on-set romance developed. Things did not end well.

When Lauren arrives she lets people she meets know her as “Jim Castle’s wife” rather than as Victoria’s granddaughter. She also runs into an old flame, the type of “what might have been” relationship, Gordon. In the end, she choose Jim, what she and her mother deemed a “practical choice” instead of Gordon – a more romantic free spirit. Lauren’s marriage to Jim was on the rocks before his mysterious death, thus the two-year gap before she decides to find out once and for all what happened.

Lauren meets various people, all of whom have an opinion on Victoria, Roger, the affair, and even the local movie business. There’s Natalie, a woman who paints dramatic paintings (including the painting, “Star Flight”, which gives the book its title), and who sent Lauren the note bringing her to Lake Lure, but who seems not particularly helpful once Lauren arrives. There’s Gretchen, Victoria’s sister who runs the local gift store and seems obsessed with finding good uses for the weed, Kudzu. There’s Betsey, Victoria’s dresser, now ancient, but still sharp, devoted to Victoria, and in possession of an awful lot of information. There’s Roger, himself, who seems content to not stir up the past. He’s angered when Victoria finally tells him who she is. There’s Camilla, Roger’s beautiful Spanish wife who stood beside him even through his various affairs, including the one with Victoria. There’s Ty, Victoria and Gretchen’s brother, who’s made a name for himself as the local “mountain man”. And there’s Gordon, Lauren’s old beau whom she thinks she can’t have a new happy relationship with. There’s even an older, retired actor who was in Blue Ridge Cowboy with Victoria and Roger. And there’s an author who wrote a book called, The Firefly about Victoria.

Victoria basically interviews everyone she meets, at times pretending she’s continuing her husband’s project (the film about Victoria, Roger, and Camilla) and at times admitting who she really is and telling whoever she’s talking to that she wants to learn about her grandmother. She slowly finds out more information, but she’s no closer in finding out what happened.

Finally, there’s a masquerade ball – and Lauren goes dressed as Victoria, wearing the costume she wore in the film, a white ball gown with a white turban. Her date is Gordon, dressed as Roger’s cowboy character. At the ball, it’s clear from Roger and Camilla’s reaction that neither had anything to do with Victoria’s death. But Lauren is also affected by the heat, noise, and the confrontation. Gordon goes to get her a drink – at exactly the wrong time. Lauren is tempted outside and kidnapped. She’s taken to her grandmother’s tomb by the murderer and their accomplice. However, the accomplice gets cold feet at being involved directly in a murder – he runs off. Lauren is rescued. It seems she and Gordon will restart their relationship, possibly settling in North Carolina. No, I’m not going to spoil who the murderer is.

This book starts slow, but the final two or three chapters are really good. The attack on Lauren outside the crowded ballroom, and everything involved with the murderer and their accomplice are really well-written. There’s also some beautiful imagery in those pages, especially Victoria’s final resting place. But for romantic suspense, there’s less romance between Lauren and Gordon than there should be. Lauren keeps thinking to herself that it’s too late for them – yet she’s a widow and Gordon either never married or is long divorced, so there’s no reason they can’t get together again. Besides, I have a soft spot for “second chance” romances between older couples. Another issue with this book is it is written in the first person, which I found to be distancing from the story, rather than the intended drawing you in. Also, all the stuff about using kudzu in salads, to make tea, and medicinally smacked of an author shoe-horning in too much research. It did nothing to add to the story. The book ended a bit quickly – I definitely could have seen at least a chapter or coda showing Lauren and Gordon’s happy relationship. Still, the book is better than the last few books I’ve read by Whitney, and those last few chapters were very good. I can actually recommend this book.


Book Review – Doctor Who: Combat Magicks

  • Title: Combat Magicks
  • Series: BBC Books New Series Doctor Who Adventures
  • Author: Steve Cole
  • Characters:  Thirteenth Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, Graham
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 05/18/2019

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in the BBC Books New Doctors line, but I found Combat Magicks better than I remembered the Ninth Doctor books being. This is one of three books featuring the Thirteenth Doctor (as played by Jodie Whittaker on the BBC Series) and her companions, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham. The book opens with everyone in the TARDIS discussing where they want to go next when the TARDIS crashes into something. The TARDIS crash lands, and the Doctor and her companions find themselves in Gaul during Roman times, just before a major battle between the Huns and the Romans.

Speaking of Huns, they meet Attila (the Hun) though at first, he’s incognito as Attila’s first aide de camp. Attila says that the Doctor is a witch, but that’s OK since both he and the Roman commander have been employing witches to help them in combat.

The group is attacked and split up. The Doctor and Yaz are taken to Attila’s camp, Graham is captured by the Romans and assumed to be a wizard after he used some of the Doctor’s healing gel to heal people, and Ryan is captured by the mysterious Legion of Smoke. The Legion of Smoke is fascinating – sort of a Roman Torchwood. They investigate the supernatural but also keep alien tech hidden.

Graham tries to help the Romans where he can and discovers the Doctor’s alien healing gel is poison to the alien Tenctrama, which present as witches to the locals. And the Tenctrama also seem to be carefully avoiding giving either side an advantage. When one side is given genetically-engineered fighting animals, so is the other side, and so it is with every weapon and battle technique that the aliens give to either the Romans or the Huns. As much as they seem to want a level playing field, they also seem to be promoting as much death as possible. And both sides are using their tech to raise the dead as fighting zombie soldiers.

As often is the case, there’s a lot of running around as Graham, Ryan, Yaz, and the Doctor all learn bits and pieces of information slowly to figure out what the Tenctrama are up to, and why the Doctor’s healing gel is poison to them (and any person healed by the gel also cannot be absorbed by the Tenctrama and explodes instead).

The Tenctrama are rather inefficient genetic farmers, taking a thousand years to genetically modify their stock (all humans and animals) and then gaining energy from the animals’ deaths. With help from Liss and Vitus of the Legion of Smoke, Atilla general of the Huns, Aetius general of the Romans, and a few others, the Doctor and her companions are able to defeat the Tenctrama, but not without cost.

I enjoyed this novel. It does follow the typical Doctor Who pattern of splitting up the Doctor and her companions so everyone can discover something and then bringing them back together to trade intelligence and put together a solution, but it’s a well-written story. I liked the historical detail, and it was neat that Attila was portrayed as an intelligent leader with actual goals rather than just being a hacking and raiding barbarian. I loved the Legion of Smoke – rather than being paranoid, they were intelligent and motivated, like Torchwood. Plus, they had prior knowledge of the Doctor, which was a nice bit of continuity.

I recommend Combat Magicks and look forward to getting the other two books in the series featuring the Thirteenth Doctor.

Book Review – Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

  • Title: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
  • Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 03/17/2019

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles VorKosigan series has always been one of my favorites. The books are funny, poignant, and quick reads. This story takes place three years after the death of Aral VorKosigan, Cordelia’s husband and Miles’ father. Miles is now Count VorKosigan and living on Barrayar with his wife and five children. Widowed Cordelia is the Vicereine of Sergyar – the planet where she and Aral met so many years ago. Admiral Oliver Jole is a close friend of the family. It turns out that Aral was bisexual and Oliver was his lover for over 20 years, with Cordelia’s permission. The trio had even experimented with being a threesome, but only somewhat successfully.

Oliver and Cordelia cross paths on Sergyar and quickly renew their friendship and then become “friends with benefits”. Cordelia also takes frozen gametes to the Reproduction Center on Sergyar and gets herself six new daughters-to-be. She has one placed in a Uterine Replicator and the rest frozen for later use. She also has some leftover “eggshells” from the process – which she donates to Jole. Jole will initially freeze these genetic specimens but eventually decide to have three boys of his own using the Rep Center’s advanced technology.

Cordelia and Oliver date, sleep together, and try to figure out what they will do with their lives. Cordelia decides she will retire as Vicereine to raise her new daughters. Admiral Jole is offered a plum promotion to Chief of Operations for the Barrayarian Military, a post he eventually turns down so he can retire with Cordelia and raise his own new family.

Miles arrives with his wife and children to find out what is going on with his mother. It takes a little while but eventually Cordelia explains she’s sleeping with Jole, she is going to use tech to have six daughters with Aral and eventually Oliver tells Miles’ about his own family plans. It takes Miles a little while to absorb all this but he eventually adapts and he’s happy about his mother’s happiness.

I enjoyed this book – it starts a little slow, but speeds up once Miles finally arrives (with wife, five children, and nannies in tow). The scenes at Jole’s birthday picnic are marvelous. There’s also a more technical plot with moving Sergyar’s capital city away from a Volcanic Zone to someplace more temperate and suitable to living. This almost functions as a McGuffin as it functions as an excuse for furthering the plot. The book is really about the people: Cordelia, Jole, Miles, and the people around them. This book also really feels like it’s a conclusion to the entire Miles VorKosigan series, letting the reader know all the characters are OK and will be happy, even after Aral’s death. Still, it’s an enjoyable read and highly recommended. This volume isn’t really stand-alone as it refers back to various events throughout the entire Miles VorKosigan series of books. Recommended.

Book Review – Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder

  • Title: Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing, and Batman
  • Author: Kristen L. Geaman
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 02/09/2019

Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder is an excellent essay collection about Dick Grayson – Robin, Nightwing, Agent of Spyral, and the heart of the DC Universe. Some of the essays in this collection take a strictly chronological approach – summarizing different eras in Dick Grayson’s career from his earliest days as Batman’s “young sidekick” to the New 52 Era of Grayson. Other essays use a particular lens to examine the character from Freudian psychology to Feminism. Grayson’s relationships with other important characters in his life including Alfred and also the Teen Titans are examined. Finally, the book concludes with interviews with some of the more influential writers of various DC Comics.

I really enjoyed this book, though it took me a while to read parts of it (I never was a fan of Freud and Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin left me cold. So the chapters devoted to those topics were tough going. But, on the other hand, the essay on New 52 including Grayson was very interesting – and I’m not a fan of New 52 either.) I also learned a lot about the history of the character and of DC Comics. I highly recommend this book to Grayson’s many fans, and to anyone who would like to learn more about the character and the history of DC Comics. Each essay is meticulously researched and documented with footnotes.

Book Review – Doctor Who: The Day She Saved The Doctor

  • Title: Doctor Who: The Day She Saved The Doctor
  • Authors: Jacqueline Rayner, Jenny T. Colgan, Susan Calman, Dorothy Koomson
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 12/26/2018

**Spoiler Alert** The Day She Saved the Doctor is a collection of four short stories, well, novelettes. Each story features a female companion and a popular Doctor, and the theme for the four stories is that the companion must “save” or rescue the Doctor. Mind you, in the show the female companions, and even some of the male companions rescued the Doctor all the time. All four stories are also written by female writers and the book designer is also a woman (and from Milwaukee!).

Sarah Jane and the Temple of Eyes
Jacqueline Rayner

The first story, “Sarah Jane and the Temple of Eyes” has the Fourth Doctor (as played on the television series by Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane arriving in Ancient Rome. They no sooner start exploring an ancient marketplace than a woman runs out into the street – her eyes are white and she’s been blinded. But the woman wasn’t always blind and she had been missing a few days. Sarah asks her what happened but she has no idea. Sarah and the Doctor escort her home and discover that four other merchants wives had recently been blinded, under similar circumstances. Sarah smells a story, but she also is convinced that whatever is going on it’s not normal for Imperial Rome.

Sarah and the Doctor split up to interview the other victims, and even the wives of other merchants who are in the same social circle and might know something. But Sarah meets a woman who is the person behind it all and the Doctor gets a warning about the woman but is too late to rescue Sarah. Sarah is taken by Marcia to the temple home of a female-only cult that worships a goddess. There she meets a priestess who is using an alien machine to harvest information from other women. Unfortunately, the machine has the side effect of leaving people blind and Marcia is actually harvesting information to help her husband, also a merchant, in his business dealings.

The Doctor goes to the temple but the guards won’t let him in because he’s a man. He sneaks in but the priestesses get very upset that a man has invaded his temple. They threaten to kill the Doctor by a poisonous snakebite and use the alien machine on Sarah. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to fix the machine and then has Sarah try it. The machine doesn’t blind her and after the priestess experiences Sarah’s memories of the Doctor, the priestess agrees she can’t kill the Doctor because he is a good man. She also sees that Marcia was taking advantage of her. The Doctor and Sarah leave, as they depart in the TARDIS, Sarah wonders if they might have changed history, but the Doctor reminds her that no one really knows anything about that particular female-led Roman religion.

Rose and the Snow Window
by Jenny T. Colgan

The second short story in The Day She Saved the Doctor is Jenny T. Colgan’s “Rose and the Snow Window”. The story starts with the Ninth Doctor and Rose arriving in Toronto in 2005, the Doctor is looking for a time puncture. He sets up a telescope in an apartment in a high rise apartment building. Rose looks through the telescope and sees a candle-lit room opposite. The Doctor and Rose investigate and soon find a connection between Toronto and Russia in 1812.

They travel back to Russia in 1812 where Rose meets the Russian count she had seen in the window in 2005 Toronto. The young man is bereft because he is being forced into a marriage of convenience to save his family. He soon falls for Rose because she is unlike anyone he has ever met. She also falls for the handsome Count. Do to an attack of some sort of robot or alien that recognizes Rose as an “anomaly” Count Nikolai pulls on the red ribbon she wears and the two snap back to 2005 Toronto. Rose introduces the Count to modern conveniences like hot showers, electric lights, and fluffy towels warmed on a radiator. The Count is delighted by each new discovery he makes, and Rose enjoys this immensely.

They return to Russia again with the Doctor, and gradually the Doctor and Rose figure out that the woman Nikolai is supposed to marry is actually an alien who feeds on psychic energy. She essentially bribes Nikolai – offering him money, security for his family, and no children so the timeline will be preserved. Nikolai decides to reluctantly go through with it. Rose interrupts the wedding. The anomalies get worse with a troop of confused Mounties appearing in 19th century Russia. (Mind you, this isn’t wholly accurate. The Mounties have ceremonial duties, which is the only time they wear red serge. Otherwise, in the Western provinces and territories, the Mounties have duties similar to the FBI or State Police in the US.) The Doctor ends up binding with the alien so it can go home. Later, Rose and the Doctor check on Nikolai’s history – knowing that without a rich purse, the only thing for him to do was join the Russian military in 1812.

“Rose and the Snow Window” had a great sense of atmosphere, and the story centers more on Rose than the Doctor but the Doctor is still a strong presence and it’s a good partnership story about the two of them. I quite enjoyed it. It’s also the longest story in the book.

Clara and the Maze of Cui Palta
by Susan Culman

Clara is basically having a bad day at the start of her story in this collection. It’s not terrible, but she’s bored, frustrated, and really needs a vacation. She convinces the Doctor to take her on a “relaxing spa vacation”. I did have some trouble figuring out if Clara was with the Eleventh Doctor or the Twelfth Doctor in this story, but by the end, I’m pretty sure it was the Eleventh Doctor (as played by Matt Smith on the BBC television series). The two arrive on Cui Palta, one of the great resort planets. They explore, as the Doctor raves about all the relaxing things they can do, but gradually Clara becomes uneasy. Clara’s unease and discomfort grow, and she points out the problem – there are no people. The Doctor pooh-poohs this observation. There are also yellow flowers everywhere and the Doctor encourages Clara “to stop and smell the flowers.”

The two continue walking, then see an entrance to a garden maze. Clara again has misgivings, but the Doctor says it will be fun to solve the maze. They enter but get hopelessly lost, going around and around in circles. Clara confronts the Doctor with this but again he pooh-poohs and ignores her. This continues and the traps in the maze get more and more dangerous. When they find dead skeletons, the Doctor acknowledges that something is wrong. They continue trying to solve the maze – which now includes moving walls and mirrored corridors. Finally, they reach a courtyard with three doors – only to find that when they open and walk through a door – they return to the courtyard.

It’s in this three-choices section that Clara and the Doctor are separated but they can still communicate by yelling to each other. Clara trips and being close to the ground and sneezing (as she’s been doing throughout the story) she used a hankie the Doctor gave her to cover her nose and mouth. Then she sees things clearly – it’s all an illusion and the Doctor is literally running in circles. She calls out to the Doctor to get low and cover his nose and mouth. He does and the illusion breaks. The two leave the maze and city for the TARDIS and leave the planet. But it begs the question as to how the psychoactive flowers got there in the first place and did they really poison all the people on the planet.

Like the Sarah Jane story, Clara and the Maze of Cui Palta plays up Clara’s personal fears – this time her fear of getting lost. But this is also probably the strongest story in terms of the theme of the Companion saving the Doctor – because in this story it seems like the Doctor never would have figured it out. But he also discounts Clara’s concerns frequently – and she comes off a bit spoiled and a bit of a know-it-all. So although it handles the theme in a direct way, I liked other stories in the collection better.

Bill and the Three Jackets
by Dorothy Koomson

Bill and the Doctor are in the TARDIS, and Bill is trying to convince the Doctor to let her go shopping. The Twelfth Doctor (as played by Peter Capaldi on the British series Doctor Who) tries to convince Bill she can certainly find something to wear for her date in the TARDIS’s wardrobe rooms, he even tells her he probably has an entire room of jackets, but Bill is unconvinced and succeeds in getting him to let her go shopping.

Bill goes into town and finds a shop she never really noticed before. Inside are racks and racks of jackets. The shop clerk, who has a name tag that reads, Ziggy, seems friendly enough and before long Bill’s picked out three jackets to try on. She slips on the first one, an amethyst jacket, and is about to take a selfie when the Ziggy objects, the jackets are exclusive designs and the shop doesn’t allow selfies. Bill thinks this is weird but she puts her phone away. The Ziggy then offers to take pictures with her Polaroid camera. The picture seems to be taking an extraordinary amount of time to develop so the clerk puts it on the counter. Bill tries on a green jacket and a gold leather one with buckles. But she also starts to feel ill and weak. Ziggy had taken pictures of her in each jacket. Ziggy urges Bill to get something to eat and then come back and make her decision.

Bill leaves and walks to a nearby coffee shop. But her coffee and sandwich don’t taste good to her and her stomach ache gets worse. Later the owner of the coffee shop comes out and asks Bill where the girl went, the one who ordered a coffee, chips, and sandwich and didn’t pay. Bill’s confused – that’s her order, but she definitely paid. Yet the coffee shop owner insists she’s someone else and the other girl didn’t pay.

Bill goes to the TARDIS and the Doctor doesn’t recognize her either. Moreover, there’s another Bill in the TARDIS. Bill now knows something is very wrong. She tries to figure out how she can get some help and realizes that there’s a girl she knew at university, someone to whom she always gave extra chips. Bill approaches the girl who’s reading a science fiction novel in the cafeteria. Bill explains her story and then tells her about the extra chips. The girl, being an SF fan, actually believes Bill. The two set off for the shop. They get the photographs and then confront the Doctor and the fake Bill again.

Bill tears up the photos and she starts to appear to be herself, while the fake Bill is obviously an alien shapeshifter. The camera was loaded with psychic paper, and the shapeshifter used it to stabilize her form. But when the Doctor and Bill ask why she did it, they find out she was fleeing a repressive regime on her home planet. Now she just wants to go home. The Doctor explains he must take the shapeshifter to a different time as well as place – if he took her to the planet now it would just be empty space. But he agrees. Bill’s compassion for the shapeshifter is instrumental in the Doctor’s decision to help. Bill also gains respect for the girl she’d flirted with but never really spoken to before.

There are no bad guys in this story. The alien is simply homesick and using its natural abilities and a little psychic paper to get what it wants. Bill’s own insecurities made her a mark in the first place, not that that’s completely fair (everyone is insecure sometimes). Bill learns a lot about herself about a friend and about the alien and the Doctor. And the Doctor is passive in this story – he’s as vulnerable to the alien’s illusion as anyone else who doesn’t know Bill. It’s a good story, with an important point about being comfortable in your own skin rather than trying to be someone else’s idea of perfect.

This was a fun collection and I enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

Book Review – Vox

  • Title: Vox
  • Author: Christina Dalcher
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 12/17/2018

**Spoiler Alert** Imagine if armed storm troopers of a new Conservative Christian government came into your place of work and removed all the women there – at gunpoint. Imagine if you were a tenured professor of neurolinguistics – and suddenly, you were simply a wife and mother with all your previous earnings and property transferred to your husband. Imagine having your passport taken from you and your daughter denied her first one? Imagine having to wear a gadget on your wrist that counts every word you say, and if you go over 100 – you get an electric shock. Imagine your daughter going to an indoctrination school where she’s taught sewing, cooking, and gardening – and a little math, but it’s illegal for her to learn to read or even to have books, and your son goes to a purity school where the Bible is used to teach him how men are better than women, men have the right to control women, women are meant to be submissive to men, and it’s women’s fault that men had to come along and shut them up.

This is the world that Dr. Jean McClellan wakes up it. For a novel that seems like the natural successor to The Handmaid’s Tale, Christina Dalcher’s Vox actually has a surprisingly bubbly narrator. Despite the story being set in Washington DC, Jean sounds like a California blonde. But she is a brilliant neurolinguist and before losing her job at gunpoint, her research specialty was Wernicke’s aphasia. She and her team, consisting of another woman, Dr. Lin the chairperson of the department, and an Italian research fellow named Dr. Rossi were researching a cure for Wernicke’s aphasia, which is an acquired disorder in which people use the wrong words when trying to communicate.

Jean experiences daily horrors – her son, Steven, coming home to announce he’s joined the Purity Movement (basically the Hitler Youth). Later he announces he will marry the girl next door before he turns 18 because then he will get a $10,000 bonus for marrying before 18 and $10,000 for each kid he and his wife have. A few days later, Steven cries that he “did something awful”. That night, an armored car pulls up to the house next door – and the girl, Julia, is dragged away. Her hair is cut, she’s paraded on TV in a grey dress, and she’s shamed for having premarital sex – which is now a crime. She will be sent to a work camp, with a counter on her wrist set to zero instead of one hundred. She’ll spend the rest of her days as a mute slave.

Steven tells his mother that he and all the other boys were made to swear and say “dirty things” at the TV in school when Julia was put on display and that the teachers gave them sheets of paper filled with words they had to use in letters to Julia. Late that night, an ambulance arrives next door. Olivia King, Julia’s mother, queen of the local neighborhood Purity Wives, has electrocuted herself with her own counter. She recorded twenty words into a recorder. Set it close enough to her wrist counter for the voice to be picked-up but far enough away that she couldn’t move it or stop it and put the recorder on a loop. She’s taken from the house unconscious, her hand burnt to a crisp. We can guess she’s dead, though it’s not crystal clear in the novel what happened.

In another vignette, Sonia, Jean’s daughter has a nightmare and screams out in her sleep. Both Jean and her husband rush to the bedroom and her husband clamps his hand over his daughter’s mouth to stop her from talking and getting shocked to death. Jean has used all her words for the day and can say and do nothing to comfort her daughter.

The next day, Sonia gets an award of ice cream at school. Jean checks her counter and realizes her daughter hasn’t spoken a word – all day.

In between the vignettes of terror, Vox also tells the story of Jean and her college roommate – an African American Lesbian named Jackie. Jackie is always joining causes and handing out political leaflets and trying to get Jean to help her. But Jean is too busy to care about politics. In the new regime, Jean knows that Jackie has also been sent away to a work farm to live with a gay man for a bedroom mate in the “conversion” camps – and to do heavy unpaid labor. Jean at times seems to think Jackie was “silly” with all her campaigns, but she also knows that ignoring a steadily declining situation is what lead to this new regime.

The novel flips between describing the daily horrors of Jean’s new life, and memories of her old one. Then government men show up at her door. They take off her counter and tell her the president’s brother had a skiing accident and has brain damage – in the Wernicke’s aphasia area. They try to talk her into joining a government team to come up with a cure. Jean’s given 24 hours to think about it. Jean tells them “no”. She’s then fitted with a new counter, one that decreases her daily word count by 10 every time she swears. And she’s given a sheet of “daily affirmations” she must say every day. They all describe the superiority of men over women and how God wants it that way. It’s nearly too much for Jean.

The next day, she’s given a chance to join the team. Jean asks for and gets a few concessions that weren’t offered the last time – her daughter’s counter in removed. She’s allowed to take her daughter out of school and teach her at home on the days she’s not working. She signs a contract and gets a decent salary, but of course, it goes in her husband’s bank account.

Jean goes to her new job. Lin and Dr. Rossi are waiting for her. The lab is very well equipped – and there’s no way it was pulled together in a few days. This is clue number one. It also turns out that Jean, Dr. Lin, and Dr. Rossi had already discovered a cure for Wernicke’s aphasia – a cure Jean hid when she lost her university job. There are enemies all around the three, but gradually as they go through the motions of research, allies seem to appear. But one of the prime enemies is Morgan, a “scientist” who had attempted to get a job in Jean’s department – he’s not intelligent, incapable of doing hard research, and difficult to work with as well. It’s not stated outright, but he’s the type of man with no talent of his own who blames women for his “not getting a good position” – never mind that the women in question have three times the experience he does, and four times better research skills. Morgan is of course highly placed in the new regime. When Jean’s a few minutes late on a Saturday because her babysitter, Olivia King has died and she needs a new one on short notice – Morgan tells her, “See, … this is why the old way didn’t work. There’s always something. Always some sick kid or a school play or menstrual cramps or maternity leave. Always a problem.” Jean’s just seen her next-door neighbor commit suicide – and found out she herself is pregnant. (Her greatest fear is that it’s a girl.) That’s Morgan in a nutshell.

Lin disappears from the team. Jean tries to find out what happened but doesn’t until close to the end of the book. Jean and Dr. Lorenzo Rossi are also secret lovers, picking up their affair from when they both worked at the University – and he’s the father of her child. As an Italian, he’s able to get her a fake passport and keep trying to get her to leave with him. She doesn’t want to leave her remaining children (Steven runs away from home after Julia is taken away to “find her”.)

Jean and Rossi try to find out what’s going on – they know there are three teams – White, Red, and Gold. they know they are the White team. Slowly they realize that the regime isn’t simply after a cure to Wernicke’s aphasia – they want a way to cause it, and a way to make the Wernicke’s Project water soluble. Jean realizes they want a bioweapon. And she realizes just how dangerous it could be if the Conservative Regime could take away the power of speech completely from anyone they want to take it from. Imagine for example if an airline pilot suddenly couldn’t communicate with air traffic control.

This is when Jean also begins to discover there is an underground. It starts with her mailman of all people – and his wife. His wife and daughters have fake counters, live on a farm, and the wife becomes Sonia’s babysitter while Jean works. One of the guards at the government building where she works is also in the Resistance.

Deadlines are pushed up and a human subject, an old woman, is prepared. Jean’s cure works. And Morgan escorts her and Rossi out of the building. They are about to leave the building in Jean’s Honda with some samples strategically hidden on her body when Poe, a creepy quiet guy calls her back in. Jean’s been suspicious of quiet Poe the entire time.

Jean and Rossi are brought to a lower level – the Gold team. Everyone is male and wears a wedding band. They are working on a way to cause Wernicke’s aphasia. Jean thinks of refusing and she discovers to her horror why it’s called “the Gold team” – in a small room, Lin and her lover and Jean’s old college roommate are being held captive, all with zero counter bands on their wrists.
She and Rossi start to formulate a plan.

The novel rushes to its conclusion like a freight train, but it turns out that Poe is a double agent and working for the Resistance – and so is Jean’s husband. With Jean and Rossi’s help and their Wernicke’s aphasia-causing agent, they take down the president and his cabinet, leaving the Director of Health and Human Services as the temporary president. Jean’s husband loses his life in the battle. Jean heads to Italy with her lover, Dr. Lorenzo Rossi, and to have her child there. But the appalling revelation that the Regime was going to permanently silence women, LGBTQA+ people, and anyone the Regime felt opposed their views becomes public and there is backlash against the Purity Movement and a dismantling of what it’s done – in a single year, a year after an African American president was succeeded by President Myers of the Purity Movement.

Again, Vox is a surprisingly bubbly read. It moves fast and many of the chapters are very short. It balances scenes of total horror: Olivia’s death, Julia being dragged away and publically shamed on television, Steven explaining to his mother who has a Ph.D. that it’s her “job” to buy milk; with a fast-paced story of political intrigue. But the best part of the novel is seeing women, well, women and the men in the Resistance, getting their revenge.

And that is the intriguing thing about this novel. It isn’t a story of female heroes breaking an unjust system. It’s a story of a woman discovering the men who have realized that the Purity Movement and its Conservative Regime have gone too far. The solder at the government building joins because his baby daughter isn’t learning how to talk because of her counter. Del and his wife join, well, one gets the feeling they were always a bit “out there” but they also fear for their kids and the inevitable “ride to imprisonment or death” in a black van. Jean’s husband, whom she constantly describes as weak and a bit of a “pussy” is in the dangerous position of being a double agent – and probably pushed to have Jean on the project in the first place hoping she’d have a way to stop it. And we know little of Poe – but he’s also in the dangerous position of being a double agent.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a very fast read. It’s not the depressing dystopian near-future fiction you might expect, but more affirming. And get your friends to read it too. Plus the linguistics aspect is fascinating.

Book Review – A Wizard of Earthsea

  • Title: A Wizard of Earthsea
  • Author: Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 11/25/2018

I finished this over Thanksgiving Weekend, but with one thing or another, this is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit down and review it. The first paragraph promises a story of Sparrowhawk famous Archmage and dragonlord before he was famous, and this volume (the first of three) is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Ged lives on a small island located in the Archipelago of Earthsea, there isn’t much to do on his island but herd goats or fish in the sea. One day, Ged overhears a woman use a command to control her herd of goats – he tries it and all the goats move to him when he repeats the command the goats move in closer. An old woman witnesses this and prevents Ged from being crushed. She informs him he has magic and he could be a talented wizard. She takes Ged under her wing and begins training him. Ged does well. A few years later, as Ged realizes he’s close to learning everything he can from his local witch, a sorcerer comes to visit his village. the sorcerer offers to train Ged, now called Sparrowhawk, further if he follows him. Ged agrees and abandons his home island.

This new wizard reminds me of Yoda. He says little but expects Ged to learn by listening and observing. Sparrowhawk begins to learn a bit about controlling the natural world, such as influencing and even calling to himself animals and birds (he’s especially good with birds of prey, thus his name) and influencing the weather (which he’s less successful at). He meets a young girl, but the wizard training him warns Sparrowhawk off her because she’s “dark” (meaning “dark side” or evil). The girl gets Sparrowhawk to go through the wizard’s library and open and read one of his forbidden tombs. Sparrowhawk does this and is attacked by a dark shadow. The wizard arrives to beat it off – but gives Sparrowhawk an ultimatum – go to the wizard university to study, or stay and keep his nose out of forbidden books. Despite warnings of dire consequences, Sparrowhawk chooses to go to the wizard university.

The first test at the wizard university is to successfully find the door and enter. It takes Sparrowhawk a few tries but he succeeds. He’s introduced around by an assigned an older student as a mentor. Sparrowhawk immediately dislikes the student who’s meant to show him around and help him adjust to life at the school. It was extremely unclear to me why Sparrowhawk thought Jasper was out to get him. Jasper seems perfectly kind and polite. Jasper is no bully and neither is he the type of spoiled “top boy” who can be irritating because he is so perfect. But Sparrowhawk chooses to dislike the boy who is meant to help him out. Sparrowhawk also makes a friend, Vetch. So he remains at the school, doing well in his studies.

But one day, Jasper does challenge Sparrowhawk (or vice versa) and in the ensuing fight, Sparrowhawk remembers the dark spell he learned from his second teacher, the quiet wizard. He tries to cast the spell, and it backfires spectacularly – Sparrowhawk and Jasper are injured and knocked out, and the Archmage of the school who attempted to contain the evil is killed. After he recovers from his physical hurts – Sparrowhawk is greatly humbled and finds learning magic less instinctive and very difficult. But he continues.

Eventually, Sparrowhawk does graduate, and he’s sent to a small fishing island to the far East of Earthsea. He becomes close friends with one of the fishermen and his family and learns that a dragon with nine children lives on a nearby island and is considered a threat. When Sparrowhawk fails to save the fisherman’s terminally-ill son, he has to prove himself, and he goes after the dragons. Sparrowhawk does well, killing or maiming many of the dragons, and driving off the biggest momma dragon. But the dragon warns him of the shadow hanging over him.

Sparrowhawk tries to return to the island that is home to the wizard university but is defeated by the spell that protects the island from evil. Sparrowhawk realizes that the shadow that attacked when he used the evil spell against Jasper never really left him, and he goes on a very long Quest to destroy this shadow. Vetch joins him on the quest. He eventually succeeds and Sparrowhawk’s discoveries during his quest will lead to the next book.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I liked the setting of the semi-independent islands in Earthsea (all of which are direly poor thanks to the lack of central authority, and land). And I liked the Buddhist/Japanese background for the mythology and themes of the story. It reminded me a lot of Star Wars and the Force (all the Wizards who know what they are doing keep telling Shadowhawk about “balance” and how important it is). But on the negative side, the author seems to feel that one Should Not Use “Big Words” in a children’s book (this is a young adult novel, something I didn’t realize when I started it) – a tendency I find really irritating. The language in the book, despite being simplistic, also has a strange structure – almost as if English isn’t the author’s first language (and it is – I looked up the author). There’s a lot of oddly strung-together descriptions that are both long and just strange, much to the book’s detriment. Overall, I give it three out of 5 stars, and I’m not sure when I’ll read the next volume.