The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Picador USA, 2014).

After hearing Elizabeth Kolbert give a guest lecture at my university and learning that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, I had to buy and read it. Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. She previously wrote “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” which I read, and in this book she continues her approach of visiting scientists in the field and then writing about their work. The previous five mass extinctions of plant and animal life on Earth are well documented by scientists and include the famous asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. In recent decades, so many species are going extinct at such a rapid rate that it is generally agreed we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction. The difference is that this time, it’s being caused by humans. Kolbert tells the fascinating story of a few of these species that are going or have gone extinct, and the heartbreaking details of how scientists are making last ditch efforts to save them.

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Burning Paradise

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson (Tom Doherty Associates, 2013)

The great thing about science fiction is that even when it is four years old, it usually doesn’t seem any less (or more) timely. Hugo Award winning author R. C. Wilson, whose work I haven’t encountered before, imagines in this novel an alternate 2014 that is just subtly different than the one we remember happening three years ago. The difference is the hive colony of aliens who reside in our upper atmosphere. This network of microscopic organisms acts as a parasite that steer the world  towards peace rather than war, by influencing our telecommunications (radio, tv, etc.)  This is so implausible that even in the story, only a small group of people know about it. Nevertheless, our heroes (a couple of college-age kids) eventually save the world. You would think we’d rather continue to have peace than war, but it’s complicated. I would have to give it an R rating for graphic violence and sex; it reads like a movie, though not one I’d particularly want to see. 

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The Stars are Fire

The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

I have no idea where Anita Shreve came up with the title, other than the fact that a huge wildfire is a major part of the plot. The main character saves her two young children from the fire that decimates her Maine town in the mid-1940s, but it leaves her with a bitter and disabled husband and some decisions to make. I associate wildfires with the West, but I suppose Maine was, and is, a heavily wooded rural state. This novel was an interesting “period piece” about post-war America, with plenty of descriptions of typical clothes and furnishings of the period. Apparently you could get a 3-course lunch for 25 cents, for instance. It was a mildly interesting story but not really anything special.

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Ex Libris

Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries, & Lore edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2017)

This collection of 24 short stories is all about librarians and libraries, as the title says. Many of these stories could be described as science fiction, fantasy, or horror, and several are post-apocalyptic. Others are completely different. I didn’t like all of the stories, but there is something for every taste. Librarians are portrayed positively and with a modern adult perspective (there is sex and romance of both straight and LGBTQ persuasions). Books are highly valued in every story. Libraries are portrayed primarily as a place to keep books safe, though they have many other roles in the twenty-first century. This collection reminded me of my roots as a person who became a librarian because I love books and reading.

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Filed under Fiction, Science fiction

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon (Delacorte Books, 2017)

This new book by the author of the best-selling (and my personal favorite) Outlander series is not a full-length novel, but instead a collection of seven novellas. That’s what the “seven stones” refers to, and the “stand or fall” part, according to Gabaldon, refers to “people’s responses to grief and adversity.” Each novella tells a story that takes place in the universe of the series, with characters from the series. Most involve secondary characters (although several are about Lord John) and flesh out a situation referred to only briefly in the novels, for example, how Joan (Claire’s step-daughter) came to be a nun. Diana Gabaldon’s writing style makes all of the stories worth reading; readers will finish each one satisfied that a loose end has been tied up. I recommend this new book for all Outlander fans, although it will mean more to you if you’ve read the whole series and not just watched the tv show.

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Filed under Historical fiction, Uncategorized

The Epiphany Machine

The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard (Penguin Books, 2017)

Although this book sounds like it might be science fiction from the title, it isn’t really. It’s just that a small piece of alternative history involving a tattoo machine that puts “epiphanies” onto people’s forearms has been inserted into ordinary 21st century New  York City life. These messages are chosen by the machine, or possibly the machine’s operator, it’s not clear; not by the person who asks for a tattoo. The messages declare in a sentence or phrase some fundamental truth about the person’s character.

The protagonist of this novel is a man whose whole life revolves around the stories of people who get these tattoos (his parents, to start with) and what happens to them as a result. Said main character is basically a lazy person who spends most of his time thinking about or having sex, so writing about the epiphany machine (in a story-within-the story) is a great excuse for not accomplishing anything with his life. If you’re like me and instinctively dislike people like that, you will probably not enjoy this book. I didn’t. Your mileage may differ.

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I found you

I found you: a novel by Lisa Jewell (Atria Books, 2017)

This seemingly ordinary novel about a single mom somewhere in England (I don’t know English geography very well) sort of turns into a murder mystery when you’re not looking. A man shows up in a beach town without his memory and the single mom takes him in, realizing this is probably a stupid move. Luckily it works out all right. Meanwhile other pieces of the story are narrated as seemingly separate stories, one about a young foreign bride and one about a family with two teenagers, which eventually all come together. The character development is very good, and the descriptions of life in England will be interesting to American readers. This is a well-written novel which keeps the reader wondering what will happen next, without so much graphic violence that you can’t sleep until you’re done. 

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