GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

GRACELING by Kristin Cashore

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Katsa is used to being feared. She travels all over the Middluns, killing and maiming for King Randa to frighten his subjects into submission. Her Grace for fighting makes the tasks easy physically, but not emotionally. That’s why she started the Council and began sneaking around between official assignments, using her Grace to do good. It is on a Council mission that her life gets complicated. She rescues the Lienid grandfather, like she was supposed to, but she never expected his grandson, Prince Po, to be there. She didn’t expect to be recognized. And she definitely didn’t expect the complicated feelings she would develop toward this fellow Graceling. As she gets swept into the mystery of the Lienid kidapping, Katsa also finds herself getting swept up in a complicated friendship with Po, one that will have her questioning her choices, her identity, and the very nature of her Grace.

In this character-driven fantasy, a good vs. evil plot is just along for the ride as the main characters explore their identities as individuals and as a couple. With a cast of well-developed characters, and a genuinely disturbing evil to fight, this book is engaging and thought-provoking. A great read for YA fantasy fans.

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather

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As a young man, the French priest Father Latour was assigned as a missionary to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Over the course of his life, he served the diverse community, learning much about the Mexicans, Indians, and Americans who lived there and striving to help the poor, spread the faith, and work for justice.

This Willa Cather classic is a work of fiction based on the life of the real French bishop of Santa Fe.  Laid out as a series of vignettes about different people and circumstances, the story provides a beautifully written, poetic glimpse into a romanticized Old West.

Written in the early 20th century, the book contains prejudicial language and ideas about the various Latino and American Indian populations, some of which are less common today.  Since Cather (and her characters) are trying to understand and respect the people and cultures she writes about, it provides an interesting historical perspective on race relations during the late 19th and early 20th century–and forces today’s white readers who believe themselves to be enlightened and tolerant to examine their own language and behavior for unwitting prejudice.

Although it is short, don’t expect this to be a quick read! The rich, dense prose deserves to be savored.  Fortunately, the vignette formate makes it easy to read in bite-sized chunks.

THE GIRL KING by Mimi Yu

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Princess Lu has known for years that her father plans to name her as his heir. She has spent those years training, enthusiastically learning swordplay, riding, hunting–all the skills she will need as emperor. But when her father instead names her cousin Set as his heir, betrothing Lu to him in the process, Lu knows it is her mother’s doing. Her mother has always hated her and favored her younger sister Min, the princess who desperately tries to do whatever is expected of her, no matter how much anger boils inside of her. Lu devises a plan to take back the throne, but when it goes wrong, she finds herself on the run with a boy from her past, one of few survivors of a genocide perpetrated by Lu’s father. And Min finds herself married to Set, an unlikely empress, with her mother, Set, and an unnerving monk all trying to influence and claim her surprising power as her own.

There is a lot going on in this series starter, set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world. The world building is rich, with themes of ethnic conflict, identity, morality in politics, and the use and abuse of power–to name a few–adding depth to a whirlwind plot. A fun read for fantasy fans!

BAD BLOOD: SECRETS AND LIES IN A SILICON VALLEY STARTUP by John Carreyrou

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For years Theranos was the “it” company in the Silicon Valley. It was the perfect startup–using technology to create an unprecedented medical device that promised to save lives. Theranos bragged that with just a finger prick, its devices could run hundreds of blood tests with a higher degree of accuracy than traditional lab tests. The icing on the cake was Theranos’ young, charismatic, female CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Investors, scientists, and pharmacies were lining up to get in on the ground floor with this female Steve Jobs and the technology that would revolutionize the industry.

But not everyone was so excited about Theranos’ product, as investigative journalist John Carreyrou first discovered when approached by a fearful whistleblower. Despite threats of litigation, and NDAs, and a toxic culture of secrecy and bullying, a handful of Theranos’ former employees felt compelled to speak out about the faulty devices and numerous lies Holmes was feeding to investors and consumers. Her aggressive and secretive tactics may have been part of Silicon Valley’s tech culture, but Theranos had a key difference: they manufactured medical devices. Their lies were putting people’s lives in danger.

Fighting a multi-billion dollar company and its lawyers was no small feat, but Carreyrou pursued the truth and ultimately published a series of articles in the WSJ that brought Theranos to its knees. In this gripping book, he describes the corruption of Theranos in detail and demonstrates the frightening ways that Holmes exploited a “fear of missing out” to lead investors and business partners to completely disregard regulations, business protocols, and basic common sense.

THE DISASTERS by M.K. England

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Nax Hall can’t believe he flunked out of the Academy.  He has been planning this for years–to become a pilot, leave Earth, and head out to the Colonies to start a new life.  He should have been top of his class, but instead he is sitting with the other handful of rejects, waiting for the shuttle that will take them back to Earth.  But as their shuttle is arriving, a group of terrorists invade the space station.  Nax and the other three rejects barely make it onto the shuttle and escape before the terrorists deplete the space station of oxygen.  With everyone else at the Academy dead and a terrorist ship on their tail, Nax and the others make the jump to the colonies where they learn that no one knows of the attack.  In fact, whoever orchestrated the assault has claimed that Nax and his companions are wanted fugitives.  As the only ones who know the truth, it is up to this misfit band of strangers to pull together and figure out the terrorists’ plan while there’s still time to save the world.

Billed as “Guardians of the Galaxy meets the Breakfast Club,” this novel is a thrilling start to a new sci-fi series.  An action-heavy plot is balanced by the deep and nuanced characters and rich world-building.  I highly recommend it to sci-fi fans!

 

 

MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz

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When an editor receives the final installment in famous author Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd mystery series, she is immediately sucked into the story.  A housekeeper has died falling down the stairs–a seeming accident.  But when the wealthy estate owner is decapitated at the foot of the same staircase days later, it must be connected.  Detective Atticus Pünd hadn’t intended to take any more cases since he learned he is dying.  But the facts of the case are too strange to pass up.  It seems everyone in the village had a motive for one or both murders, and yet none of the motives seem to explain all of the events.  As the novel draws to a close and Pünd is about to reveal the murderer, the editor realizes that there is a chapter missing.  She puts in a call to her boss, asking him to contact the author, and instead receives startling news:  the author is dead–an apparent suicide.  It turns out that he, like his character Pünd, was dying of cancer.  But something doesn’t sit right about the author’s death, and as the editor searches for the final chapter of his manuscript, she begins to suspect that he may have been murdered, as well.

This intriguing double mystery reads a bit like an Agatha Christie.  It is riddled with quirky suspects and red herrings–both in the framing story and the mystery “novel” within.  I found the Pünd plotline more engaging at first, as it took me a little while to get into the framing mystery once the Pünd story abruptly ended.  But it was a neat concept and definitely kept me reading to the end.  I recommend it to fans of classic whodunit mysteries.