My second-grader has been making robots this week: it started off with a project for her art class, making a robot out of found objects and recycled materials (inspired by Nerdbots), but now she’s on a roll. The class talked about various ideas for robots, and she decided she wanted to make little drawings of robots that had various instructions on the back. The one she made for me is “Book Bot,” pictured above. The instructions are:
- Tell your Bot that you are going to read a new book.
- Read the book.
- Tell your Bot about the book.
Sounds like my Book Bot is a bit like my Stack Overflow audience. So, here we are: I’m telling you about some books I’ve read, and also some books I’m planning to read. Today’s stack is a bit of a hodge-podge, but that seems fitting given the way this past month has felt.
I read Mike Chen’s first novel two years ago: Here and Now and Then is about a time-traveling secret agent from the future who gets stranded in our present, and settles down and starts a family. A year ago, I read his second novel, A Beginning at the End, a story that takes place years after a global pandemic wreaks havoc. It had been written prior to COVID-19, but at the time I read it we were just starting to get more news about the virus, and I had no idea that a year later we would still be struggling to get it under control. (So far, we’re not as bad off as the world in the book, but I’m not quite as ready to make a call about how thing will turn out.)
We Could Be Heroes is his third novel, just released in January, and it’s about people with superpowers. More specifically, two people who find themselves as archrivals with a mysterious connection. Jamie has the ability to read memories—he can flip through them like a book—and he can even selectively delete things, which is perfect for making a clean getaway when he robs banks. Zoe has super speed and strength, and she uses it to catch bad guys … when she’s not on the clock delivering fast food. It’s not long before Zoe (aka the Throwing Star) clashes with the Mind Robber.
What they both have in common, though, is that they both woke up in empty apartments with no memory of who they were before or how they got their powers. They meet each other—sans costumes—at a memory-loss support group, and eventually team up to figure out what’s going on, but it’s hard to know whether they can trust each other. Zoe worries that she might have her memories wiped, and Jamie is afraid of being pummeled.
It’s sort of detective story, as the two of them piece together what they know and follow the trail of clues to their own origin stories. stories. It’s also a superhero story, though it’s not always particularly heroic. Our two protagonists have a lot of issues to work out. And, of course, there are the requisite sinister forces at work and bigger things hidden below the surface. I really enjoyed watching the way things unfolded. The story jumps back and forth between Jamie and Zoe, and it’s fun to see what the world looks like from each of their perspectives.
This young adult graphic novel is about friendship—and the way that it can sometimes be so complicated. At the center of it are Ren and Luna, who meet one day while Ren’s playing basketball near the beach and Luna is surfing. The two girls click right away, and are nearly inseparable—but then Luna has to move back to Oahu, leaving without really saying goodbye. She shows up in LA again years later, when they’re in high school, and acts like nothing has happened, leaving Ren to sort out her discomfort on her own.
It’s also about basketball—the school tries to start up a girls’ team, with barely any funding and a lot of opposition from the boys’ coach, who insists that his team needs the gym time. At times it feels like Ren’s the only one who’s serious about playing; the rest of the girls have various reasons for being there. Their lives are messy; we see a bit of the strained relationship between Ren and her adult sister, and we get glimpses into the lives of some of the other kids as well. The cast of characters is very diverse, reflecting Sloane Leong’s own heritage, which (according to her bio) includes Hawaiian, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Native American, and European ancestries.
A Map to the Sun is more about the characters than a particular storyline, which can make it a little harder to describe. It’s more like an impressionistic painting of a year in Ren’s life, the highs and lows, the ways that friends can cause so much pain but also bring so much joy.
Confession: I’d never read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I just knew that it was about the meat-packing industry and the way that workers were exploited. Kristina Gerhmann adapted the story into this graphic novel, and even though the story takes place at the turn of the 20th century, it’s just as powerful today. The story follows a large Lithuanian family who have just arrived in the United States in 1899, and they head to Chicago where they have family. Most of them don’t speak much English. They’re looking for jobs, a place to live. There’s a young couple who are eager to get married and start a family.
They soon discover that America isn’t necessarily the land of dreams they’d anticipated. They buy a house, but it costs a lot more than they expected, and the terms of the mortgage are confusing. Finding a job is also hard: there are long lines of people trying to get jobs, and the language barrier is an issue. But they’re strong and enthusiastic, and willing to work long hours at difficult tasks. Of course, that’s where we see all the exploitation. The slaughterhouse is a dangerous workplace and people get hurt; even apart from accidents, the job takes its toll on their health. Some of the women, hired to paint the cans, are pushed into prostitution by the manager. And since there are always more people looking for work, there’s no real way to complain about management—instead, you just wind up on a blacklist and out of a job. Some of the family members eventually encounter some Socialists and attend their meetings, learning about the ways that things could change for the better.
After The Jungle was published, the meat-packing industry was reformed. Through pressure from unions, working conditions have changed drastically, both in the ways that people perform their jobs and in the hours they work. However, a century later we read news about Amazon warehouse workers and Uber driver contracts and it’s apparent that companies are still finding ways to exploit workers, that corporations still put profits over people.
Gerhmann’s graphic novel may bring this story to a new audience, people (like me) who hadn’t read the novel but will pick up a (rather hefty) comic book. Her drawings are rendered mostly in black and white, with the occasional striking touches of red, and although the people’s facial features are a little cartoony, the tale is quite serious and captivating.
I’ve had this trilogy sitting on my shelf for some time—GeekDad Jim Kelly wrote about Illuminae and Gemina years ago, and I was intrigued by his descriptions, but just never got around to them. They’re really hefty books at about 600 pages each, but as it turns out they’re pretty quick reads, not only because of the fast pace of the action in the books, but because of the format. They’re presented as a collection of materials: transcripts of dialogue or descriptions of surveillance footage, email messages, and various types of images. Some pages play around with typography almost as illustrations. So although they’re thick tomes, the word count isn’t as intimidating.
Jim already described the first two books, but the story is set in the far future, and is set in motion by an attack on a mining colony. Kerenza is a backwater planet, with only one wormhole gate that can connect it to the Core systems, and it also happens to be the site of an illegal hermium mine. BeiTech, a rival corporation, has done the unthinkable by launching a surprise military attack on the colony, planning to take it for themselves and eliminate any witnesses. The first book follows a few of the survivors as they flee the planet, trying to reach the wormhole gate on their overcrowded, crippled fleet, while dealing with a malfunctioning ship AI, a terrifying virus, and BeiTech’s dreadnought in pursuit. The second book follows events on the gate itself, Heimdall: to ensure that no news of the attack reached the Core, BeiTech took the precaution of infiltrating the space station, and we get the story of a couple of teenagers working to fend off a highly trained team of “auditors.” Finally, the third book, Obsidio, shows us what’s happening on Kerenza in the aftermath of the attacks: not everyone was killed, and BeiTech has been occupying the planet for months in the face of an underground insurgency. The colonists don’t know if there’s anyone out there to hear their distress calls, and BeiTech is working to repair their mobile jump gate so they can blow the popsicle stand and get back home.
Being young adult books, each one also has a romance story, and the teenagers are definitely the heroes of the story (though there is a huge cast of characters). Illuminae is in one of my favorite genres, the “trapped on a spaceship” sort, where the characters are facing dangers both from without and within. Gemina reminded me a bit of Die Hard, actually, with the clever heroes crawling through air vents and sabotaging a hostile takeover despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Obsidio is a bit harder to pigeonhole; some of it is a war story—you see Kerenza from the perspective of both the colonists and the occupying forces, and we witness the atrocities of the war through the eyes of Rhys Lindstrom, a techie from the jump gate station who hadn’t realized what was happening on the planet below him. The other half is more “stuck on a spaceship” tale, as a lone ship heads toward Kerenza to aid the colonists but has to deal with tensions on board first.
This was definitely a fun read and I blasted through the whole trilogy in about a week. (I will note, though, that reading about an airborne virus and the drastic measures taken to control it was a little startling.) The creative formatting was a cool way to tell the story, and I enjoyed spending some time with this cast of characters. Just a warning, though: don’t get too attached to anyone.
I’ll end with this one, which I’ve just started reading this week. The Gilded Ones (due to be published this month) is a young adult fantasy novel set in the world of Otera, and our protagonist is a young woman named Deka, who is preparing for a ritual of purity, where all the girls who have come of age are tested. Deka, whose mother was from the south, has always stood out because of her darker skin, and she hopes that this ritual will finally prove that she belongs—but we get hints that she also has some secrets, things that she fears may be brought to light. I’m curious to see where this one goes, but I’ve been promised (in the author’s note) a story that examines and challenges patriarchy, so here we go!
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books. Bookshop.org affiliate links help support my writing, thanks!