Sep 23 2018

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

Late Discworld offers at least one great book before the end: I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth Tiffany Aching novel. In contrast to all of the Discworld books aimed at adults from Monstrous Regiment onward (with the possible exception of Thud!), the story and conflicts in the Tiffany Aching stories arise from the characters themselves rather than from some element that Pratchett has decided in advance to examine within the framework of life on the Disc. By her fourth book, Tiffany has grown enough so that the precociousness the story requires is not as much at odds with the age that she is supposed to be within the story.

As I Shall Wear Midnight opens, Tiffany is a teenager doing something very typically teen: thinking that everyone is watching her and wondering about what she is doing. Only in her case they actually are, because she is the only witch in all of the Chalk. People see what she does because witches naturally stand out, and they pay extra attention because she is the only one they know. It’s a balance of awkward and self-assured that Pratchett captures perfectly, with an added dash of the absurd because Discworld is a fantastic farce at heart.

When you were a witch, you were all witches, thought Tiffany Aching as she walked through the crowds, pulling her broomstick after her on the end of a length of string. It floated a few feet above the ground. She was getting a bit bothered about that. It seemed to work quite well, but nevertheless, since all around the fair were small children dragging balloons, also on the end of a piece of string, she couldn’t help thinking that it made her look more than a little bit silly, and something that made one witch look silly made all witches look silly.
On the other hand, if you tied it to a hedge somewhere, there was bound to be some kid who would untie the string and get on the stick for a dare, in which case most likely he would go straight up all the way to the top of the atmosphere where the air froze, and while she could in theory call the stick back, mothers got very touchy about having to that out their children on a bright late-summer day. That would not look good. People would talk. People always talked about witches. (pp. 2–3)

There’s the awkwardness and also one of the key themes of the book: how witches fit in with the communities where they live, and the uneasiness all around that, especially in a place like the Chalk, which had been known to burn witches in the past and only accepted Tiffany because she was so emphatically one of them. Amidst a seemingly jocular description of the scouring fair of the Chalk — a three-day event where the people of the Chalk come together for feasting, games, and scouring the outline of the giant so that the white chalk that formed him (“and he was quite definitely a he, there was no possible doubt about that” p. 5) was free of any grass that might have grown over it in the course of the year — Pratchett strews clues of how the story is going to develop and what it will involve.

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Sep 23 2018

The Price of Blood and Honor by Elizabeth Willey

Elizabeth Willey got better as a writer with each of her three interrelated novels about Argylle, and I am sorry that there aren’t more of them. The Price of Blood and Honor is the third in publication order, although it is the middle book in terms of the internal chronology. It picks up right after the end of A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, about a generation before The Well-Favored Man.

Prospero has lost his bid to topple the Emperor Avril in their native realm of Landuc. Avril has forced an oath from Prospero to give up sorcery, destroy the books that contain his learning, and yield his lands. All of this is the price of sparing Prospero’s daughter, Freia, and Prospero himself. But the old wizard still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Dewar, one of the possible titular characters of A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, surprises most of the cast by revealing he is Prospero’s son by the sorceress Odile, and he has sufficient power to ensure the emperor holds up his end of the bargain. Further, he copies a significant part of Prospero’s library in the few days before the elder conjurer has to fulfill his oath, ensuring that the knowledge is not lost. Before the war, Prospero also made over most of his lands to Freia, so that what the emperor can confiscate directly is not a great loss. Most important, Prospero’s newly created realm of Argylle and its Spring of immense magical potency remain unknown to the emperor and all who owe fealty to him. But the emperor has tricks, too. He offers Freia betrothal to his heir (who is flamingly gay in a society that seems to acquiesce in same-sex relations but depends on hetero relationships to perpetuate its rulers), an offer that cannot be refused. Wheels turn.

One of the pleasures of the first part of the book is seeing how crisply and deftly Willey shows her characters’ actions. Relations among them are complex, as they would be among real people. Freia and Prospero each love the other beyond all reckoning, and bear great burdens for one another, but they are burdens taken either unwittingly or unwillingly, and the two of them talk past one another a great deal. They are often at loggerheads, and ultimately each wants the other do be or do something that they cannot and still remain themselves. That is a price of blood as much as the ransom that Prospero pays to Emperor Avril.

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Sep 22 2018

A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell

Y’all, that was bananas.

Imagine every noir trope/betrayal/plot twist thrown into a blender and served up with a healthy dose of modern mom issues, and you have this completely insane book that I read essentially overnight when I should have been sleeping. Granted, I was trying to crush the book ahead of going to see the movie, but stupid MoviePass delayed that latter by a week. Still, it was an engaging and oftentimes surprisingly heartfelt look at modern motherhood and family and friendship, amidst all the chaos of criminal activity.

It starts with Stephanie, a well-off widow who runs a cheery mommy blog, whose best friend Emily goes missing. As she rallies her readers to help her find Emily, she finds herself getting improperly close to Emily’s husband, Sean, as the two work on raising their kids together in Emily’s absence. At the 10% mark you begin to discover that sweet, sunny Stephanie has some pretty twisted secrets. At the 53% mark, I actually had to put my Kindle aside because I was suffering from the literary equivalent of watching a scary movie and noping the hell out of there. Obviously, I got over it, but yikes, that was some creepy stuff! I cannot wait to see how they’ll manage that terrific atmosphere in the actual movie.

Anyway, A Simple Favor follows in the tradition of the Patricia Highsmith novels it lovingly cites, updating that style of noir for the 21st century and making for a terrifically entertaining, if absolutely bonkers, novel of complicated women who are fiercely devoted to their children. I don’t know how I felt about that ending, honestly. I don’t know if I liked the “winner” enough to enjoy it fully, and that’s okay. I’ll likely write a Page To Screen entry comparing the two once I’ve seen the movie, so stay tuned. Regardless, I’m awed at the assured full-throttle intensity of Darcey Bell’s debut novel, and look forward to reading more of her work.

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Sep 16 2018

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

About 60% of the way through this book, I thought, “Wtf, this isn’t going to be about what I think it is, is it?” and then it fucking was. And while I was okay with the events that led to the book garnering its own #WTFThatEnding, I was legitimately pissed with how the book has been marketed as a “suspenseful psychological thriller.” That is utter bollocks. This book is a “suspenseful paranormal thriller” and to conflate parapsychology with psychology is some nonsense that the marketing team should be deeply ashamed of.

And I admit that I was pretty annoyed that I’d gone into this book thinking I was about to get some sweet Gone Girl type action, only to find out this was essentially a horror novel, complete with supernatural shenanigans. And I quite enjoy horror novels with supernatural shenanigans, but not when they’re sold to me as murderous domestic dramas at the outset. I need to know to expect a deus ex machina going into the book, else there’ll be some serious side eye going on at the sudden corruption of the fictional universe’s logic.

Anyway, as a horror novel, it’s quite good. Behind Her Eyes is told from shifting perspectives. First, there’s Louise, the unhappy single mom who drunkenly kisses a man in a pub only to discover the next day that he’s her new boss. Second, there’s her new boss David, whose obviously unhappy marriage hides a wealth of dark secrets. And third there’s his wife Adele, whose love for her husband will push her to terrible lengths.

I actually really enjoyed the ending, once I’d gotten over my disappointment that this wasn’t a novel firmly grounded in measured reality. I just really hope Adam escapes somehow (she says, suspensefully.)

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Sep 14 2018

From Page To Screen: Crazy Rich Asians

I’m not one of those snobs who always insists that the book was better than the movie adaptation. In my experience as a pop culture connoisseur, particularly in our modern era, book and movie are often on a similar level to one another. Gone Girl, for example, was excellent in both forms, though that likely had a lot to do with Gillian Flynn’s heavy involvement with both (speaking of, I’m hella excited to see what she does with Lynda LaPlante’s Widows soon.) Of course, there are certain adaptations where the snobs are right, and the movie fails, if not outright betrays, the book (Annihilation, I’m looking at you) but it’s the perishing rare movie that a committed bibliophile like myself will claim outstrips its source material. The Crazy Rich Asians movie? Is absolutely one of those latter.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved reading the CRA novel. But I hated so much the heroine, Rachel, and went on at great length as to why in my original review. Coupled with on-set gossip I got from friends of friends, I was a little worried that I wouldn’t like the film at all. But then I watched it, and they made Rachel someone I could actually root for! I mean, she wasn’t perfect: she was still a typically clueless middle-class (Asian-)American coming into contact with Southeast Asian old money for the first time. I literally cringed every time she said or did something tacky, which was unfortunately but realistically often. But movie Rachel, while occasionally gauche, was not the utter asshole book Rachel was. Y’all, they took out literally every single one of the traits that made me haaaaate her. I credit this to the screenwriters, and especially to Adele Lim who is a Malaysian-American woman like myself. This Bustle interview actually talks about the creation of one of my favorite scenes from the movie (don’t click on the link if you don’t want spoilers tho.) Ms Lim correctly centered the story on family and self-worth, and made it possible for Rachel to be a character I would root for instead of against.

My sister, being the asshole that she is, spent a good portion of the movie complaining loudly that Constance Wu is too old for the part. I’m not sure whether Rachel is supposed to look Ms Wu’s age (interestingly, Ms Wu is one of those Asian women who does not look younger than she actually is, at the age of 36 — this is not a value judgment, btw, so don’t @ me) but that would have added an even greater layer of complexity to the Young family’s animosity towards her as a bride for their heir apparent. We both very much enjoyed Henry Golding as the hero, even tho I was constantly thrown by the fact that he looks like a broader, British version of our younger brother, a similarity my sister doesn’t see at all. One thing that struck me about the book vs the movie is that it’s much easier to believe that Rachel never suspected Nick was rich when you don’t know what his accent actually sounds like. But in the film, by God, Nick’s accent is posh even for an Englishman. There is no way in hell that someone who talks like he does comes from a poor family, as Rachel’s movie mom posited to my very loud disbelief.

Speaking of accents, I almost died the first time I watched it and listened to Ken Jeong’s attempt at a local accent. Coming on the heels of the wonderful Koh Chieng Mun’s warmth and authenticity (honestly, watching her on the big screen being so fully familiar to me made all the tension I didn’t even know I was carrying in my body melt away. It felt like the filmmakers truly did respect and value, if not outright love, where I’m from,) it was a bit of an “oh shit, please don’t minstrel this up” moment. Fortunately, the movie handled it perfectly. Pretty much every scene in the Goh household was freaking phenomenal (shoutout to David Wong: PJ represent!) I also really, really like how they broadened Peik Lin’s role, especially in the scene where she drove Rachel to Ah Ma’s party. It was inconceivable to me that she wasn’t invited in in the book, and I’m glad the movie fixed that. Also, Awkwafina was a delight and lit up every scene she was in. The chemistry between her and Mr Jeong was fantastic, and I hope we see a lot more of the entire Goh family in the sequel (tho gah, I hope she doesn’t wind up stuck with the ending she gets in the books, not unless a certain personality changes dramatically for the better.)

And oh God, that wedding. I’m definitely more old school with my tastes, and while I love a good party and good food, I just cannot sign off on that kind of pointless excess. Who wants to get married in a swamp, ffs? I was very much Team Eleanor/Felicity in their criticism of it. And don’t even get me started on the synchronized swimmers at the end. I have nothing against conspicuous consumption (Peik Lin, for example, is the perfect mix of money and exuberance, tho her parents are not) but must draw the line at vulgar excess. I even hated Eleanor’s ring, honestly: it was too big and too much (tho I can see why the filmmakers had to make it look so distinctive.) Astrid’s earrings were gorgeous, tho. Mad props also to the costumers: the nuance of tailoring vs off-the-rack was exquisite and deserves awards.

Anyway, I saw the movie twice and quite possibly enjoyed it even more the second time than the first. I was a little unclear as to why the Bonaparte quotation was included in the beginning, tho. Yes, China is a force to be reckoned with, but that didn’t really have much bearing on the film, besides the main characters being a part of the diaspora, several some times removed. Perhaps that will be more relevant in the sequel, given that Charlie is Taiwanese? I so want to see Astrid and Charlie together, y’all. Gemma Chan is absolutely exquisite but I need moar Harry Shum Jr on my screen!

One last note about the casting: HOW FUCKING WEIRD that the main objections were to relative unknowns with British-Asian roots and not to Korean-Americans playing ethnic Chinese locals. Americans make me so angry with their bullshit sometimes, especially when it plays in to the overseas racist right and especially when this kind of thing is brought up only when it’s convenient for outrage. CRA the movie got all the casting exactly right, and actually betters the book in its representation of diversity in Southeast Asia. It still under-represents non-ethnic-Chinese but given what it’s working with, it’s a huge step forward for Asian representation in Western film, and for Asian people in the West.

Tl; dr: go watch Crazy Rich Asians. Better yet, make it a double feature with Searching, which is an intelligent, cleverly shot thriller that surprised me with how emotionally invested I became in it towards the end.

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Sep 12 2018

London: A Life in Maps by Peter Whitfield

London: A Life in Maps began as a volume accompanying an exhibition at the British Library in 2006. (The exhibit lives on in virtual form at the Library’s web site.) The book was first published that year, and when it kept selling for more than a decade, revised for a new edition published in 2017. The exhibition was apparently divided into eight thematic areas, but Whitfield divides London’s history, unlike Gaul, into four parts: before the Great Fire of 1666, an “age of elegance” after the Fire (something of a long 18th century), a 19th-century metropolis in the Regency and Victorian periods, and suffering from “the shock of the new” in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Twelve years on, the book is a reasonable substitute for a visit, and likely provides more background than the signage offered at the time. Whitfield’s volume is printed in a large format, full color on every page, and if there is a two-page spread without an illustration, I didn’t notice it. From the four chronological parts, Whitfield further divides his text into individual topics — Renaissance London Revealed, Copperplate: From Picture to Map, Shakespeare’s London, to choose four from the pre-Fire section — that are each just a few pages long. The approach adds up to a book that reads quickly, offers fascinating detail on selected items, and allows various themes to emerge over the course of the work.

One of the most prominent theme is how minimally London has been governed over time. Since at least the late medieval period, when Whitfield’s account starts, there have been competing sources of power, wealth and authority along the Thames. In the beginning, royal power, Church authority and the financial muscle of the the City supported and competed with one another. The English Reformation, and particularly Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and other Church institutions broke ecclesiastical authority and tipped the balance very much in favor of the Crown. Royal ambitions required money, and that gave more leeway to the City. At the same time, the king gave former Church estates over to members of the aristocracy, greatly enhancing their power and laying the groundwork for much of London’t future development. Even as centuries passed, London never developed a central governing authority. The City proper guarded its prerogatives. Surrounding areas fell under one form of government or another, and these seldom worked in concert. Even in the 19th century, the railroads and the Tube were private initiatives, barely coordinated at best, destructively competitive at worst.

On the narrow subject of maps and London, Whitfield traces how art, law, commerce and technology have all shaped how the city is depicted, and how that has changed over time. The first printed views of the city are exactly that: panoramas showing how London appeared from a particular vantage at a distance. These were followed by artifacts such as the Agas Map of 1633 that are half map and half view. Whitfield supplements the maps and panoramas with period illustrations. I was very interested to see, for example, pre-Fire buildings that survived into the early 19th century or the Gothic St. Paul’s.

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Sep 11 2018

There There by Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange is such a superlative writer that he can do things that irritate the hell out of me in other books and somehow make them work. And better than work: he creates magic on the page.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that There There ends with multiple storylines left unresolved. In the most glaring example, the penultimate chapter has a sort-of family gathered in a hospital awaiting the fate of a loved one, and you never find out what happens. In any other book, this would drive me insane, but it absolutely and utterly works in this chronicle that is as much a slice of life as it is a fictional narrative. Collecting the stories of American Indians who live primarily in Oakland, California, it is a searing examination of Urban Indians and the many ways they deal, or attempt to, with heritage, identity and survival. Each individual’s story is interwoven into what feels like a living tapestry, almost as if this book is a prose and fictional version of the oral history one of the characters, Dene Oxdene, is compiling for his documentary. And that’s partly why the lack of resolution works: because this narrative stretches so nimbly and powerfully between the past and the present, it feels natural and complete. The future is unwritten because, if you’ll forgive the tautology, the future is unwritten. There There is one of the most immediate books I have ever read, and while I didn’t necessarily understand each character’s feelings, I could absolutely accept their validity because of the way Mr Orange presents them. That is no small feat. This is a superlative book that needs to be more widely read, especially if you have an interest in the American Indian experience. Mr Orange has written something truly special here.

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Sep 10 2018

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

So let me begin with a quotation from near the end of the novel (pg 345 of the paperback Titan edition):

“If I took away the sensory overlay I could directly know the patterns of so many concepts coming to fruition out here on the North Sea: the physics behind pressure gauges and safety seals, the signal processing in the robotic arms, the quantum processes in giant screen monitors with thermal imaging of the ocean floor, the statistical mechanics and psychological theories of bonding and interaction in the design of the recreation rooms. This place is a microcosm of humanity’s machine.”

If this is the kind of prose that floats your boat, then you will freaking love Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me. An ambitious novel about angels and waveforms and the fight against entropy, it features a cast that’s refreshingly different from that of the average book in today’s market. It’s also got some great ideas about humanity and love and survival.

Unfortunately, it’s also a book about time travel. Unless done right, time travel is one of the most frustrating subject matters I’ve ever come across, for a plethora of reasons. Here, half of my issue was the fact that, as with the rest of the science in the book, it was over-detailed and under-explained. There are so many interesting concepts in this book, but they all get smushed together as we hop between viewpoints — which, in an impressive feat of storytelling, Ms Sullivan successfully presents in first, second and third person — to, um, save some great ideas, I guess? I think if the book had focused on that, and perhaps how it intersected with Dr Sorle’s life, it would have been a much sharper book: as it was, the corporate intrigue and occasional dinosaur left me both unmoved and bored (which is a shame, because Alison is probably my favorite character in the book.) It’s like the financial “conspiracy” was thrown in just to shepherd our characters along to the location where the big finale takes place, as described in my quotation earlier. It feels just as mechanical and inorganic as it sounds.

In fact, a lot of the writing feels more like Ms Sullivan wanted to present some Really Cool Concepts but didn’t know how to comfortably couch it in a human experience. She excels when she’s describing Pearl engaging with her feelings and helping others (also, Alison) but there are things thrown in for no apparent reason, and certainly with no explanation. What was the point of the isometrics? Or of post-Resistance Marquita’s transformation? What is the deal with that freaking refrigerator?!

Anyway, there were too many loose ends for me to really enjoy this novel, but it does have some interesting theories regarding the application of physics/quantum mechanics. It’s not an unenjoyable book, but it could have been a lot more tightly written and less contrived.

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Sep 08 2018

Soviet Bus Stops, Volume II by Christopher Herwig

“‘This is bullshit,’ I mumbled, through tears of exhaustion and frustration. The chances of the 4×4 climbing the snowy Goderdzi Pass were as slim as the likelihood that the bus stop at the summit was the prize I so desperately sought. Why was I still doing this after fifteen years, why couldn’t I stop?” (p. 198)

Christopher Herwig’s afterword to his second volume of Soviet Bus Stops poses the question that many readers would like to ask him, and he provides excellent answers. They’re irresistible, and not just to Herwig. “The attention [Soviet Bus Stops] receives around the world exceeds all my expectations.” (p. 198) He can’t quit them. “For the fifth time, I declare I’m finished with the project. Just days later, I find myself searching online for images of Russian bus stops.” (p. 198)

Writing about the first volume, I noted Russia’s conspicuous absence. Herwig explains, “I felt that a parallel existed between the bus stops as underdogs of architecture, and the former Soviet republics that were often overshadowed by Russia.” (p. 198) Russia calls to him, too. “However, as the book gained recognition, so Russian blogs and groups emerged celebrating their bus stops. These people had always appreciated them, but the book stimulated more open discussion.” (p. 198)

Herwig begins to plan a new volume and an odyssey. On a 30-day visa, he covers 15,000 kilometers, first in a loop near Moscow and then clear across Russia from Krasnodar to Vladivostok. Anyone else would have made a book of the journey — maybe Herwig will yet — but in Soviet Bus Stops, Volume II Herwig gives it three paragraphs. He is clearly a man of great focus. “As I approached Vladivostok, at the end of my journey, the bus stops became fewer and less impressive. Though happy in the knowledge that I’d exceeded my expectations, I couldn’t dispel the nagging feeling that I’d not yet reached my destination.” (p. 199) Maybe there is hope for a third volume.

The present volume has an introduction by Owen Hatherley, author of Landscapes of Communism. Whereas in the first volume Vera Kavalkova-Halvarsson, who grew up in a family of architects in Belarus, advanced the argument that the bus stops were an opening for individualism in a stultifying system, Hatherley, who is British, contends “we would be wrong to assume that the outpouring of creativity embodied in the bus stops was aimed against the system rather than its direct consequence.” (p. 8) It’s an interesting argument, but in the end seems stretched to me. Sure, the planners set up guidelines and in some cases that Hatherly documents did have firm ideas about how the overall landscape accompanying a road should appear — as a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk — but the madcap exuberance or just randomness that Herwig documents is at odds with the Soviet system. He gets closer to the mark near the end of his essay when he writes that a bus stop is “a product of the Soviet system, with its combination of command economics, public provision and a paradoxical bureaucratic chaos, where apparent conformity and regularity were bent and twisted at the edges.” (p. 13) And at more than just the edges.

Present politics makes its way into the volume, too. One of the stops from Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula, has been repainted in the Russian tricolor since that region was seized and annexed by Russia in 2014. Several of the stops in Ukraine are in that country’s gold and blue livery. History graces the pages: Herwig includes four photos from in and around Chernobyl.

The only stops from the book I have seen in person are some of the constructions in Georgia. However, that selection includes the one at the top of the Goderdzi Pass that Herwig struggled so hard to reach. I had the good sense to travel that route in summer. The Pass is the high point on 100 km or more of unpaved road along the way from Batumi on the Black Sea coast to Georgia’s ancient capital of Vardzia. It sounds like he approached the Pass from the east, and I can see why his vehicle protested. He made it, though, and took the shot that graces the book’s cover. “This wasn’t bullshit — it was brilliant.” (p. 190)

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Sep 07 2018

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3) by Martha Wells

Definitely my favorite of the series so far. Murderbot is slowly becoming more comfortable and confident as an autonomous unit interacting with humans, with a purpose that is becoming clearer, as well: to take down the GrayCris corporation whose actions essentially precipitated Murderbot’s discovery and subsequent flight across the galaxy. There’s a greater wistfulness, too, as Murderbot thinks of Dr Mensah, Murderbot’s ostensible “guardian” and the person most willing to see Murderbot as being invested with an inalienable personhood.

In this installment, Murderbot is intent on examining illegal proceedings on an asteroid that has since been abandoned by GrayCris. Murderbot is pretty sure there’s still incriminating evidence dumped in the memory banks of the machinery there, but the quest to recover such is seriously complicated by the presence of a reclamation team that has bought the rights to the asteroid from GrayCris. Murderbot’s skills as a security consultant quickly come into play as the reclamation team comes under attack from mysterious sources.

That isn’t the hard part for our grumpy AI, tho: the real challenge is figuring out how to deal with Miki, the reclamation team’s pet robot. Essentially a glorified baggage carrier, most robots of Miki’s design are treated like the help or worse. But Miki is treated like a friend and an essential part of the team, something Murderbot has a hard time processing.

I’ve stated in previous reviews that I’m deeply skeptical of the commercial novella format, especially when in an easily collectible series, an opinion that has only been strengthened by’s recent decision to embargo digital library sales for the first four months after a book’s initial pub date. I am unashamed to admit that I’m one of the people without the disposable income to enjoy these books without the help of my tax dollar funded libraries, so I imagine I’ll be reviewing the final(?) Murderbot diary quite a long time from now. At this point, tho, I’m genuinely more interested in finding out what happens to e-book sales than to Murderbot. That said, at least I want Murderbot to do well.

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