Stack Overflow: 5 Novels

Well, hello. It’s been a while. I was certainly not prepared for the end of the school year—there was the usual flurry of activities before summer break, but this year also included a few graduation celebrations for several friends’ kids, and for a couple weeks it just felt like I was stuck driving every day (which, as a person who generally makes about one or two trips a week, is a lot). But even though I haven’t been writing as much lately, I have been reading a bit! Today’s column is catching up on the last few novels I’ve read.

The Temperature of Me and You by Brian Zepka

For some reason when I skimmed the jacket blurb for this young adult novel, I assumed it was about an alien, which fit with one of the other books I’d read. Turns out it isn’t, but it did at least fit for Pride Month. Dylan lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and although he’s got two great friends and supportive parents, what he really wants is a boyfriend, and he doesn’t know of any other gay boys in town. That’s when Jordan shows up, a new kid in town, and Dylan is immediately smitten.

Then things get weird: it turns out that Jordan is really hot—that is, his body is 110 degrees and he may be linked to the recent house fires in the new development. He’s very hesitant to reveal what’s going on, but after they spend some time together, Dylan starts having some very strange heat-related symptoms of his own.

I’m not new to YA fiction, but I will say that the “scientific” explanation for what was happening with Jordan’s body really stretched my suspension of disbelief. It may have been easier to accept if Jordan had just been an actual alien instead. The characters themselves were fun, though, and I really enjoyed getting to know them. The romance between Dylan and Jordan wasn’t what I’d come to expect from other YA (generally straight) romances, mostly in how quickly Dylan fell for Jordan. I’m used to stories in which the bulk of the story is about the two people dancing around the idea of being in love, or else having to overcome some sort of conflict to be together. In this one, the getting together was accelerated, and sparked the conflict that they then had to address for the rest of the book. If you don’t mind some very hand-wavy science for how a human body could create flames, you might enjoy this story about a couple of hot teens.

Child Zero by Chris Holm

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve read a couple of novels that have dealt with diseases and epidemics, and I admit there’s some morbid curiosity on my part, but it’s also because it’s interesting to me how other people imagine things may go. Some of the novels I’ve read (like Station Eleven) were written well before our current experiences with COVID-19, while others written during this pandemic have turned out to be overly optimistic about how quickly we would return to normal.

Child Zero is set a few years in the future, but it’s not really about our current pandemic. Instead, Chris Holm predicts a world in which antibiotic resistance escalates: the so-called Harbinger virus made it possible for bacteria to pass along their resistance, adapting to new drugs so quickly that antibiotics have become essentially useless. Surgery is pretty much impossible, as are much more basic procedures, because of the risk of infection. In this book, it’s not one particular illness that has a widespread impact, but the damage that infections can do from even something as simple as a paper cut.

Now, Detective Jacob Gibson is investigating a mass murder in Central Park, which was turned into a shantytown after a bioterrorist attack. It began as a quarantine station but the reality was that nobody was allowed to leave for fear of spreading disease. The victims, mysteriously, were in perfect health when they died. Mat, a 12-year-old kid who was smuggled out of the park during the attack, may be the key to solving this—but Jacob isn’t the only one after him.

I did feel like this book—which was published last month—had what seemed like a more realistic (if cynical) idea of what would happen if a deadly disease was unleashed in New York City, and there wasn’t much hope of treatment. The sick were corralled into the park, and told they could leave if they were tested to be disease-free… but of course it was unlikely that anyone would ever be able to leave. The threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is also very real, though I don’t know how accurate the timeline is, and combined with the terrorist attack in the story, it makes for a compelling setting for a thriller.

That said, there were also parts of the story that didn’t land for me: for instance, in the current climate I’m just not sure I’m in the mood for a hero cop story, even if it’s a couple of good cops fighting a powerful shadow organization that’s pulling the strings (which is also a trope that wears a little thin for me). The secret that Mat is carrying with him (which I won’t spoil) just felt a little too implausible. While I appreciated that Holm tried to include a diverse cast—Jacob’s partner is a hijab-wearing woman and Mat is a migrant kid from El Salvador—the portrayals didn’t always feel authentic to me.

Overall, though, the plot kept me engaged, and I liked some of the other materials included between chapters, like recovered forum messages following the plot of the terror attack or news clippings that provided glimpses of how other parts of the world had been impacted by the Harbinger virus.

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Eddie Robson

Okay, so this is an alien story. Set in some not-entirely-unrecognizable future, the story involves aliens known as Logi, who communicate through a sort of telepathy rather than sounds. Lydia is a translator for Fitzwilliam (they pick human names), the Logi cultural attaché, translating plays and assisting him as he hobnobs with artists and writers hoping to have their works considered important enough to be shared with the Logi homeworld.

The thing about translating the Logi language, though, is that it makes you drunk. It doesn’t change your blood alcohol level, but it otherwise affects the same parts of your brain, which means that the longer you spend translating without taking a break, the drunker you get, sometimes to the point that you don’t even remember things the next day. (Of course, thanks to your net-connected glasses, you can replay your missing hours to see what you’ve missed.) After a drunken incident at a party—it’s been a week-long arts festival and Lydia’s brain has been working overtime—she takes a bit of time off, and then, shortly after her return, things go off the rails and Lydia becomes the number one suspect in a murder, one that has intergalactic consequences.

Now, that’s all I want to reveal about the plot, which is a murder mystery with a not-totally-reliable narrator. (After all, if she doesn’t remember the night of the murder and her glasses weren’t recording, can she know for sure she isn’t the murderer?) I enjoyed the twists and turns and the slow reveals as Lydia followed the clues. And although it is about solving a murder, it also has some wicked humor in it.

What I really loved about this book, though, was the world itself, which is a just-shy-of-parody projection of our current, always-on reality. The concept of glasses that have built-in internet (both for recording your view and for reading your messages) isn’t new, of course, though we haven’t really gotten to a point where they work and don’t make you look ridiculous. Here, they’re almost ubiquitous and have become normalized, and Robson does a good job of making it feel pretty similar to the way we use our smartphones now. In the meantime, the internet hasn’t gotten more factual, but now things have a truthiness rating attached, and you can set your filters based on whether you want clickbait or thoroughly vetted information. There is some alien tech in the story, but not a lot—most of the world seems a lot like an extrapolation of ours, with advancements in things like 3D printing and artificial intelligence.

If you like the sound of an alien murder mystery, I definitely recommend giving this one a read!

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The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly, originally published in French in 2020, is a very curious story. At first, it felt like it was going to be literary fiction. We’re introduced to a hitman, Blake (not his real name), and find out a little about how he got here: a combination of sociopathy and a natural skill has made Blake quite wealthy, and he lives a double life, with a wife and kids who only know him as the owner of several restaurants. And then we move onto another character who doesn’t seem to have any connections to Blake, and then another, and another. A single mom editing a film and reminiscing about a recently ended romance. An author who has steady work as a translator but hasn’t managed to capture fame. A man receiving a diagnosis of a terminal disease.

Eventually, some of the characters do start to connect: you see the romance from the other perspective. The author’s latest book, the anomaly, shows up in the hands of some other characters. But the one thing that ties all of them together is a particular Paris-to-New York flight in March 2021 that hits some remarkable turbulence and shakes everyone up, both literally and figuratively.

And then, well, things take a sharp left turn into… sci-fi? magical realism? It’s hard to say more without spoiling one of the big surprises, though I will note that this twist happens in the first half of the book, so then there’s a lot more to come after that, largely dealing with its ramifications. Suffice to say that something impossible happens and it leaves everyone reeling with what to do.

Secrets aside, this is another book that overlaps our real world in odd ways. It was published in 2020, so I assume the bulk of it was written before any knowledge of COVID-19, so there’s no mention of any restrictions on international travel in March 2021, no masks, no fear of infection. However, there’s one brief mention about President Macron calling for lockdowns to battle the coronavirus, as an example of a community responding to a crucial event. Presumably Le Tellier added a bit here and there near the beginning of the pandemic, with the assumption that things would be back to normal by the following year with no lasting impact. The other prediction he got wrong was about the U.S. election—although he never names him (odd, since other world leaders are called out by name), it’s clear that the U.S. president in the story is Donald Trump, which plays into some of the decisions that are made by the U.S. government.

The Anomaly is simply fascinating, and wrestles with some deep philosophical questions about who we are and the nature of the world itself. It also has some ugly, visceral moments—aside from a few of Blake’s killings, there’s also another set of characters dealing with child abuse, and yet another plot line involving a religious fanatic who takes things too far. As much as I was absorbed by the central mystery, the ending left me a bit befuddled—does it mean what I think it means? It certainly gives me something to ponder.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’d heard about this book, the first in the Lady Astronaut series, a while back, but just had not gotten around to reading it until now. It’s an alternate history of space travel, starting in the 1950s, when a meteorite strikes the ocean just outside Washington, DC, wiping out the capital and devastating much of the east coast. Our narrator, Elma York, was a WASP pilot during the war and also a mathematician—she and her husband Nathaniel, a rocket scientist for NACA, survive the impact.

While the country struggles to restore order, Elma and some climatologists realize that the meteorite has even greater consequences than the initial fires and air blast: the Earth is in for a few years of cooling because of all the dust and smoke in the atmosphere, but then the moisture kicked up by the impact will lead to a greenhouse effect that will eventually boil the oceans. This impending doom is the impetus for kicking the nascent space program into high gear. Various nations work together to form the International Aerospace Coalition, with the intention of building a colony on the moon (and then beyond).

The book is told from Elma’s point of view—she gets a job working as a computer for the IAC and we get to see the development of the space program, both the technical feats required to get astronauts into space as well as the sexism that Elma faces. Throughout the story, she is advocating for women to be astronauts, particularly since many of the WASPs had experience and training that should have been enough to qualify them. Even before the IAC officially opened up astronaut training to women, Elma became known as “the Lady Astronaut” thanks to some magazine articles and TV appearances. That wasn’t without its downsides, though, as Elma also struggles with severe anxiety.

While Elma challenges the sexism at the IAC, she also starts to recognize the racism as well. She and her husband stay for a while with the Lindholms, a Black couple, after escaping from the meteorite with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Eugene is an Air Force Major and Myrtle is a computer for the IAC. It’s through her relationship with the Lindholms that Elma learns the way she has been blind to the way Black people have been treated—from the fact that the first waves of meteor refugees were all white to the fact that, even when women were allowed to become astronauts, the first group of trainees did not include any Black women.

I really loved this book for so many reasons. I grew up in Cape Canaveral so the space program was just part of the culture there, and I’m still fascinated by the engineering that goes into space exploration, even when it is fictionalized. Although the climate change in this book was accelerated by the meteorite impact, I can see the attitudes about it reflected in our world today: we’re just not good at responding to a disaster that’s coming on a scale of decades. Not only that, but we respond to the wrong thing: in the book, post-meteor architecture largely focused on bunker-like underground buildings, supposedly to protect against future meteor strikes (but not so useful for an unlivable planet). I knew that Elma would eventually get to go to space—I mean, it is called A Lady Astronaut Novel—but it was still a fun journey to see how she got there.

I’m excited to see where she goes next! There are two more books in the series already published, with a fourth due sometime this year (though I’ve seen conflicting reports about the title).

My Current Reads

I’m in the middle of a couple of books now. One is another in the World Citizen Comics series from First Second, titled Why the People: The Case for Democracy by Beka Feathers and Ally Shewd. Framed as a conversation between two people as they wait for a delayed flight at the airport, the book takes a look at different forms of government and how they work. I didn’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to social studies when I was younger but have definitely seen as an adult how important it is to understand how things work, so I’ve really been enjoying this comics series.

I also started reading The Merciless Ones by Namina Forna, a sequel to The Gilded Ones (which I covered last year). Deka is now leading the battle to free the rest of the goddesses, but she encounters a strange symbol that seems to affect her powers. Not only that, but she’s getting some strange mixed messages from the Divine Mothers.

One other upcoming book I’ve started is Upgrade by Blake Crouch. I read both Dark Matter and Recursion in the past few months and enjoyed them, so I’m excited to see what Crouch has in store. Upgrade is about gene-editing, in a world where it has been outlawed after a disaster that wiped out crops and killed countless people across the globe. Logan Ramsay was exposed to some sort of bio-bomb… and now that he has recovered, he’s doing better than ever. Why? I haven’t gotten there yet, but this promises to be another exciting thriller.

Lately I’ve also been re-reading the Ms. Marvel series. My family has been watching the TV show together, and my youngest hadn’t read the comics before, so we’re working our way through the series together. While the show definitely went in a different direction in terms of Kamala’s abilities and their origins, I really love the way it captures the family dynamics. It’s been a lot of fun to dive back into Kamala’s world in both versions.

Hopefully I’ll be able to get back on track writing more often! Summer means I don’t have to get kids ready for school, but it also means driving for my kid’s summer job plus practice driving with the learner’s permit, and it also means my kids are around all the time. But I’ve got a lot of comics to share next, so stay tuned!

Disclosure: I received review copies of the books covered in this article, except for the Ms. Marvel series, which I purchased myself.

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This post was last modified on June 27, 2022 4:58 pm

Jonathan H. Liu

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit. I can be reached at jonathan at geekdad dot com.

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