Book Review: Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel

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Fool's WarFool’s War by Sarah Zettel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge and the Space Opera Challenge.

The book has received a lot of mixed reviews. I think the big reason why is that no matter what you’re expecting, this book is not what you expect. Is it space opera? Well; yes; sort of. Is it cyberpunk? Yeah; that too. Is it a story about the Singularity? Yes; but not entirely. Is it a story about First Contact? That too.

What’s the plot? I think the second paragraph of the back of the book summary is probably the best description I could come up with: “Katmer Al Shei, owner of the starship Pasadena, does not know she is carrying a living entity in her ship’s computer systems. Or that the electronic network her family helped weave holds a new race fighting for survival. Or that her ship’s professional Fool is trying to avert a battle that could destroy entire worlds. And when Al Shei learns the truth, all she’ll really know is that it’s time to take sides.”

What’s a professional Fool? Well, in Firefly they have Companions to keep the space travelers sane; in this world they have professional Fools, allowed to go where they want and keep people laughing.

And if I tell you any more than that, I will totally spoil the book for you, because plot and counter-plot and plot twist are the name of the game.

It does take a little while to get going. A lot of time is spent at the beginning of the book fretting and worrying about what the other owner of the ship, Al Shei’s no-good brother-in-law, might have done with the Pasadena while it was in his possession (they time-share) and with not much apparently happening. I see that people have gotten impatient with that. Relax; it picks up quickly. All of that is necessary setup. I think that people may have just gotten lazy about reading setup in recent years because we’re all used to reading James Patterson novels and Twitter feeds. Stick with it, and you’ll find a whole world of wonder opening up to you.

There’s so much to like about this book! One of the first things? There are two protagonists. Both are women. The plot would not change much if they weren’t. One of these women is a devout Muslim, who blows all the Western stereotypes about Muslim women into the void. This novel doesn’t have any issues in passing the Bechdel Test.

Another thing to like is that Al Shei (the Muslim protagonist) is happily married, shows no interest in the male members of her crew, and is a mother, but still travels around the galaxy because that’s the nature of her job. The writer, Sarah Zettel, pulls off a very difficult task; she manages to make Al Shei’s husband Asil into a significant character whose fate you care about, even though he does not appear in the book more than a handful of times. Also, Zettel succeeds admirably at the John W. Campbell challenge.

Aside from that, it’s just really good writing. And good all-around space opera. And hard science fiction, proving that space opera doesn’t have to be disguised fantasy.

I see that someone else who reviewed this book was saying that they didn’t like it because they were comparing it to Ancillary Justice, and that wasn’t fair because “that book was the Exception That Proves the Rule.” I assure that reviewer that without Fool’s War, which was written in the 1990s, there would not have been an Ancillary Justice. I see why Fool’s War is considered such an influential book in science fiction, and as I have many times before, I find myself wondering why it has not won more awards, nor garnered more attention than it has.

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Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

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Stand on ZanzibarStand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge, the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge, and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.

The plot synopsis posted for this book is misleading. It implies that this is a proto-cyberpunk tale of the evils of big corporations. It’s not. But the plot is rather complex so it probably works as well as anything else as a plot description. It’s not really about a plot, anyway; it’s more about the theme.

Overpopulation was a big concern for sci-fi writers in the 70s. They were concerned at the rapid birth rate and that we would be the cause of our own extinction as we overtaxed the world’s resources. The classic sci-fi movie “Soylent Green” was produced during this time, based on an award-winning short story called “Make Room, Make Room!” Fortunately, two factors seem to have thus far rescued us from this fate (but perhaps not forever, as we continue to inflame climate change): 1) modern agricultural technology (which often treats animals immorally and has done terrible things to engineered crops, not the least of which is the creation of inert seed, which I believe should be outlawed across the planet, but which has considerably maximized food production); 2) in urban environments humans have less babies because there is less advantage in it, and so the birth rate declines as the world urbanizes.

The two focal protagonists, roommates Norman House (rising star business executive in an ultra-megacorporation) and Donald Hogan (sleeper spy “synthesist” for the U.S. government) are trying to get along in this overcrowded world of the future. Most governments have imposed eugenics laws in an attempt to control population, and have forbidden breeding rights to an increasingly large group of people, justified by an ever-broadening laundry list of “genetic flaws” (colour-blindness having been one of the most recently adopted.) In the meantime, the tension of living in such close quarters is so high that people are running around on a hair trigger. “Muckers” (people running amok) are a routine danger, losing it for minor trigger reasons and going on a killing spree or blowing things up or committing serial rape. This “rat theory” (humans too crowded will kill each other like rats in a cage) has been generally disproven; but you have to use the space in such a way that it creates peace of mind, so tenement slums will likely produce overcrowded tensions, but megabuildings with a built-in park and shopping mall probably won’t.

Except, this is not happening in a small African nation called Beninia, where everyone, even though they’re living in crushing poverty and overcrowding, gets along and lives in peace. All attempts to invade them or take them as slaves have failed as the people attempting to do so just gave up. And one of their scientists has just announced a process that can genetically select to prevent all such flaws; which would completely topple the existing social order. The US send Donald to stop it, and Norman’s company send him to figure out a way to make a profit on it. In the meantime a near-sentient computer created by Norman’s company attempts to calculate all of this.

Brunner interrupts his narrative to show us media slices and slices of the lives of other people affected by this world. Many have described it as an experimental novel. Maybe it was at the time. To me, I was reminded of Frederic Pohl’s Gateway, which included slices of the local messages and advertising in his space “gold rush” town, and it didn’t throw me like it seems to have thrown others.

I think this novel was a lot of fun to read. I didn’t like it at first but it grew on me, probably because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Also, I think it has a lot to say to us in the modern time. Because of the overcrowding a vast income inequality opened up; the rich did better in this story than the poor and had to deal with less negative conditions (and that remains true because of the way in which comparative spaces are utilized for the rich and for the poor). Also, people were looking for an excuse to dislike each other and would categorize people according to any perceived difference, from race to national origin to eye colour. Perhaps this explains current politics.

Also, this novel, though in many ways it feels dated, might be one of the ways you could introduce a non-sci-fi friend to science fiction. Atwood fans might call this “speculative fiction” because the science isn’t really that far-fetched or that far in the future, and they would probably read it for the same reasons.

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Book Review: Crashcourse by Wilhelmina Baird

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CrashcourseCrashcourse by Wilhelmina Baird
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge, the Second Best Reading Challenge, and the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.

I originally chose to read this book because I needed to read women I had not read for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge, this one had been nominated for the PKD and Locus sci-fi awards, and the premise sounded interesting. It turned out to conveniently be also suited to two other challenges that I was doing. The Second Best challenge is to read nominees for major sci-fi and fantasy awards that didn’t actually win, which I just started doing late in the year; and I didn’t find out until after I had started reading it that the three main characters – Cass, the protagonist, her boyfriend Dosh, and his boyfriend and Cass’s sometime lover Moke, are a bisexual polyamorous triad. Well; it’s not clear if Cass is bisexual (though she might be; there’s a scene later on in which a woman tries to seduce her, but the circumstances are a bit complicated and I’m not sure how she would have reacted had the situation been different), but the guys definitely are. Weirdly, this is something that seems to have been either missed or completely ignored by the people who wrote the blurb for the book, but it’s clearly stated; although, to give sincere credit where it’s due, this is treated casually, and is not harped on as a major plot point, other than in how it affects the relationship between the three major characters; which is worthy on its own of a tip of the hat to a book written in the 90s. (I was thrown out of a restaurant for being kissy with my girlfriend in 1992; that’s where we were in terms of LGBTQ civil rights).

Cass is a thief, Dosh is a prostitute, and Moke is a street artist. They live together and try to make things work on the streets of a cyberpunk future. There are four classes of people; the Umps (the street folk and the common poor); the Techs, the Arts, and the Aris (who are the ruling, moneyed elite; owners of corporations and the like, who have vast powers in this dystopian future). When Dosh gets tortured once too often by a violent client, he signs their triad up to participate in a big-money film. The catch is that these modern films are designed not only to tell you a story, but to make you feel the emotions of the participating characters. Which means that they use real people living their real lives, and you often can’t tell where reality ends and the movie begins.

A handful of things immediately happen and you’re left to guess which ones are part of the show (if any); someone tries to kill Cass for refusing a contract for a heist; a young, lost girl from a higher class who ran away to get away from her abusive father ends up being rescued by the boys of the trio, who take her in; and a high-class Ari art collector offers to patronize Moke (in the classic sense of supporting and funding his work). And . . . go!

It’s great stuff. Much of it centers around these three very well-written and very human characters being human. All of their strengths and all of their flaws come into play, and an astute reader can see how things may have unfolded in an entirely different way if the three had been different people. The ending is not quite what you expect either. The writing is hypnotic and it takes you immediately along for the ride. We see the world through Cass’ eyes, speaking in a very personal first person using the slang and the context of her time period (which is completely self-invented; and there’s only the faintest trace of 1990s roots that perhaps no one who wasn’t a youth in the 1990s might notice). Once the action starts you don’t want to put it down.

There is one glaring plot hole that is never quite resolved. It becomes clear later on that the viewer of the video movie will be seeing and feeling things through the perspective of the actors. So then why are real people with real lives necessary at all? Still, if you close your eyes and ignore that, the book is truly excellent. It’s why I didn’t give it a five star rating though.

This book was a very influential one, perhaps directly leading to our later fascinations with cyberpunk and dystopia, and virtual reality-enhanced art, so definitely pick it up and give it a try. I just might pick up the sequels; all the other reviewers I’ve read say they aren’t up to the caliber of this one, but this one is good enough that they might be able to afford the loss.

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Book Review: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

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The Demolished ManThe Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge, the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge, and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.

It is my firm opinion that this is a masterpiece; not just of science fiction, in which field it is regarded with a great deal of critical acclaim and is cited frequently as an inspirational source for some of the biggest names in science fiction, past and present; but of modern literature in general. I find myself wondering why it is that the literary community has just discovered a handful of science fiction and speculative fiction writers but completely missed Alfred Bester? Perhaps it is because he has left us only two novels – but what novels!

Quite a few people whom I interact with regarding science fiction, and whose opinion I respect, have read this novel. By experts in the field it’s considered one of the defining books of science fiction (and no, Margaret Atwood, there are no aliens involved). But I find myself wondering whether my colleagues have truly grasped the nuances that I see. In general they say it’s good, but they don’t seem to see the greatness in it that I do.

Nominally it’s a detective story. Ben Reich is the head of a massive corporation that buys countries in a world a couple of hundred years into our future. He’s a driven man who has determined it is necessary to murder his rival, Craye D’Courtney, whose similar corporate empire is slowly but surely defeating Reich’s. But in this world, peepers (telepaths) are employed in almost every profession in which the ability to read someone’s mind might be useful; including, of course, law enforcement. There hasn’t been a premeditated murder in 70 years because these peeper cops can detect a murder before it happens, and Reich must figure out a way to defeat this system.

If this sounds a bit to you like Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, it did to me too. Except that I looked it up; The Demolished Man was published three years before The Minority Report. My colleague Buck said in his review that this book was “Classic science fiction in the manner of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, with a touch of PKD thrown in for good measure. ” In this I find my first point of disagreement; no, PKD was a touch of Alfred Bester thrown in for good measure; at least in this one particular case. I’m sure Buck meant this as a way to describe the writing style of this novel by using comparisons to authors that readers might be more familiar with, since Bester seems to have fallen through the cracks save for serious critics of sci-fi; but no offense, Buck, because you know I respect you, but I think that was poorly phrased. And incidentally, before Philip K. Dick fans get on my case about how PKD was a total original and any similarity of plotline was a mere coincidence, I will point out that The Demolished Man was the first-ever winner of the Hugo Award, which is the first-ever award specifically for science fiction, and this cannot have escaped the notice of any significant science fiction writer of the time. Not that I think this in any way takes away from PKD as a writer, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

One of the significant plot points of the novel is that Lincoln Powell, the cop in pursuit of Reich, also happens to be the head of the Telepath’s Guild, which is (somewhat necessarily) primarily concerned with its own protection through lifelong loyalty to the Guild, which dictates everything in a telepath’s life from what jobs they accept to whom they can marry. On several occasions it becomes clear that Powell, who is just a New York City detective, has the power to order even Cabinet ministers and diplomats to drop everything to do his will, without much explanation required either, as long as those ministers and diplomats are telepaths.

In this fact is part of the true shining brilliance of this novel that I think that others may have missed. On the surface this presents as a detective story of the future, in which a cop tries very hard to get a bad guy that you know for a fact is a bad guy; one who might be very, very dangerous – perhaps as dangerous as Mussolini or Stalin – if he isn’t stopped now. Bester doesn’t pull any punches and in a style that will remind modern readers of George R.R. Martin he gives you very little to sympathize with in Ben Reich, even though Ben Reich is presented as the protagonist; and yet, you do sympathize with him. Actually, I would even suggest that this novel is perhaps better read as a second person narrative, regarding Powell as the protagonist and Reich, the villain, as merely the viewpoint character.

However, I think some serious questions have to be asked here about how far law enforcement should have the right to go, in terms of the violation of civil liberties, in order to catch a bad guy? Many of Powell’s techniques go right off the board into entrapment and torture to achieve his goal; never mind the violations of privacy implicit in having one’s mind read, and this appears to be sanctioned by the system. (Within its time it’s important to remember that McCarthyism was in full swing in the United States and FBI experiments on unsuspecting citizens using LSD were not that far off.) Once again, just like in The Stars My Destination, it’s apparent that there are no good guys in Bester’s world; we’re all just people being monkeys, with good and evil in all of us. Nobody’s hands are clean, and even choosing not to choose (such in the case of Barbara D’Courtney, daughter of the murdered man, who is thoroughly traumatized) is a choice for survival, not morality. Indeed, I would say that Bester makes the point that even choices that seem moral may be merely justifications for selfish survival. Though seemingly in contradiction, I would also argue that he clearly believes in the existence of the soul and, unlike PKD, in general has an optimistic view of humanity; a point I can’t defend without spoiling the ending, but by all means I invite people to come and debate me in our book club thread if you disagree.

My colleagues Badseedgirl and Charles also reviewed this book. In general they approved of it, and I think that Charles sees some of what I see in it, based on his review. I disagree with his opinion of the slang as “a bump in the road.” I like invented slang; I think it gives future and alternate worlds depth and improves my belief in their reality. And his comment about the Mass Cathexis scene at the end of the book also refers to one of my points as to why this is a truly great novel; not just for science fiction, but for literature in general. Truth, in this book, depends greatly upon your point of view.

Other reviewers have said that they strongly dislike the female characters in this novel; a point which has also been raised for The Stars My Destination. I think this is a valid criticism. I think they’re all wonderfully complex and well-developed people, even when they make decisions that I don’t agree with or that make me uncomfortable. They do seem to defer automatically to any male they come in contact with though (except for the fortune teller, who acquiesces to physical force). This is a flaw in 1950s science fiction and, indeed, any 1950s novel whatsoever. It is perhaps better if you think of Bester’s characters as allegories for elements of human behaviour and psychology, and not as “characters” per se. Still, I can’t disagree with this viewpoint. Do I think this is a deal-breaker that means you shouldn’t read this novel? No more than the treatment of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew should prevent you from reading Shakespeare. (No, he’s not quite The Bard. No one can beat The Bard. But the point is made.) One of the reviewers pointing this out also referred to one of the underlying psychological themes of the novel; Daddy issues. And that’s another theme you can take from it. So it’s very complex!

Lastly, I would like to point out to the small faction who complained that the Hugos had descended into a “liberal’s paradise of artsy SJWs” and thus attempted a takeover in recent years; all I have to say is that the fact that this novel was the first-ever Hugo winner tells me that the Hugos have always been about artistic merit and challenging social issues, not popularity. You are just behind the times.

All in all, quite a hell of a read, one I strongly recommend in general and one I’m going to insist that all my sci-fi fan friends read in particular.

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Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

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Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Space Opera 2016 Reading Challenge and the 12 Awards in 12 Months Reading Challenge.

This is one of Heinlein’s most controversial novels. Along with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, this is the novel that invented the space marine and military science fiction. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, even Mechwarrior. Master Chief and the Spartans wear Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry suits.

The first thing I will tell you is this: do you remember the big-budget film made a few years back with Denise Richards playing Carmen Ibanez? Yeah, well; don’t waste your time. The director admitted to having only read the first couple of pages and it shows. If you’re going to claim that a movie is an adaptation of a famous novel, then tell the story the novel tells, dammit! Don’t slap a famous name on it, borrow a couple of character names, and then claim you’ve made an adaptation. How people get away with this without lawsuits I will never know. It was such a far cry from the actual novel that I don’t know why they bothered to connect it at all. Grrrrrr!

Okay, now that I have gotten that out of my system: Starship Troopers is controversial because it has a reputation as being an ode to fascism. Having re-read it now for the first time since I was a pre-teen, I think that this reputation must be due to one of two things: either people do not understand the novel, or people do not understand what fascism is. I am willing to concede the latter after overhearing some man confirm his wife’s belief, when they were passing through the biography section in the bookstore where I work, that Stalin was “Hitler’s right hand man.” A similar confusion has occurred here: if anything, the philosophy outlined by the characters in Starship Troopers is an extreme of communism, which, of course, is fascism’s polar opposite.

I can see how someone who didn’t read it thoughtfully might have gotten this idea. In the society of Starship Troopers, only citizens have the right to vote, and the only way to become a citizen is to offer two years of service (more if required) to the state. This service is up to the state’s discretion, with some weight given to a person’s preferences. And it doesn’t necessarily mean military service; you might be a bureaucrat in an office. But Juan Rico (whose native tongue is Tagalog; how director Paul Verhoeven and scriptwriter Edward Neumeier got their Aryan Nation Nazi fantasy out of a cast of Filipino and Hispanic characters I will never know) is assigned to the Mobile Infantry; space marines.

The Mobile Infantry is a brutal place, where occasionally bones are broken and people are even killed as a normal part of basic training. However, you can leave at any time, and the only penalty for leaving is that you aren’t allowed to come back and you won’t ever be given the right to vote. In one passage, one of the instructors informs Rico that this is so that only those who really give a damn about duty to others before themselves will actually make it through, and so that only those who are willing to defend that at any cost make it. It sounds like a “the few, the proud” speech, so I suppose you could take that as fascism if you weren’t paying attention. Except that it’s really the extreme of socialism; though of course, in the spirit of the time, it denounces Communism as being more suited to the evolution of the insectoid species the human characters are fighting against.

You see, fascism is all about a “superior” elite distinguishing themselves from common people and thus, proving their “right to rule” over everyone else, applying Darwin’s theories to social behaviour. Socialism is about believing that the group is more important than any one individual; which, in its extremes (such as Communist Russia) can be brutal, compassionless and dehumanizing. In this case, the welfare of the group must be more important to a person than their own life or limb, and this is the qualifier for the right to vote. I’m not sure this is a bad idea. Wouldn’t it be great if only those who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not interested in selfish motives could have a voice in politics? Of course I can’t think of any real-life way to establish this without creating the very “elitist” class that it would be intended to avoid, but this is a novel, and who is to say that the society of the future looks anything like the society we have now?

Another passage which might support the fascism theory is in support of spanking a child and of corporal punishment, which are accepted parts of this future society. This is not a popular idea in our time, but do remember that this book was written in 1959. Keeping that in mind, the fact that Heinlein includes female pilots and ship’s crews in his future military is impressive, based in the idea that, on average, women have faster reflexes and reaction times and, on average, men are physically stronger. There are always exceptions of course, and Heinlein’s military allows for them, but Carmenica (not even just Carmen, for crying out loud!) Ibanez becomes a pilot and not a trooper. Since women were denied the right to join the Apollo missions a decade later, this is downright revolutionarily feminist in 1959. And Heinlein’s women are no less brave and heroic than their male counterparts. The pilot of Rico’s ship flies directly into an overwhelmed fire zone to do a pickup, and then makes an impossible landing, giving Rico hell for risking all their lives by delaying the pickup all the while.

Now that I’m done arguing against the critics, I’ll address the book itself. Heinlein starts in media res and the rest of the book is excellently paced between philosophy and action. You never find out who won the war, or whether or not Rico even lived through the experience, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a boy growing up by finding himself in the military and creating an identity for himself as a soldier. It’s an old story; one not currently popular, but one that’s nonetheless true for many people and has been for centuries.

It’s worth contrasting Paul Mandela’s experience in The Forever War with Juan Rico’s experience. Both books have a lot of valuable things to say about war. In The Forever War, Mandela is drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in, and he finds the space marines to be an alienating, dehumanizing experience of horror and misery. In Starship Troopers, Rico volunteers during peacetime, before the war begins, and he finds himself and his personal identity as a soldier, putting his life on the line for the sake of others, and it fits him well. If you’ve known any soldiers, you know that one of the ways they see themselves is as sheepdogs, who protect the flock from the wolves. It may well have been Heinlein who gave us this reference. Starship Troopers was once on the U.S. Marines’ recommended reading list, only recently replaced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

And speaking of Ender’s Game: the alien Bugs that Heinlein’s troopers are fighting are incomprehensible to human beings, and were probably Bugs in order to make them incomprehensible, because the plot isn’t really about them. Humanity and the Bugs are competing for the same ecological niche; and in Heinlein’s novel, this competition is what creates the conditions for war in the first place; population pressure. It’s suggested that the technology might be available to just outright destroy the Bug planets, but they don’t do that because “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The idea is to force the other side to do what they want; destroying them isn’t going to do that. More than a little, Ender’s Game was an answer to Starship Troopers, in which Card suggests that humanity, if it possesses the technology to commit genocide, will do so; and that this is wrong because all life is precious, even those of Bugs. And that, too, is something important to be said about war.

A lot to think about in a little 208 page novel! But I suppose that’s why it won the 1960 Hugo award and is considered one of the defining books of science fiction. I chewed through it quickly and would have done it even faster if I hadn’t been spending those four days mostly driving. I’m sure I’ll read it again, maybe with a completely different viewpoint. But in any case, it’s certainly food for thought, and is definitely a must-read for anyone with even a casual interest in science fiction.

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Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL

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Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges, including a short review of “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart and of “The Mauritius Command” by Patrick O’Brian. Also, what to expect in the next couple of weeks and the rest of my reading list for the challenge!

Source: Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL

Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 2 #ORL

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Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges. Plus a short review of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” by the incomparable George R.R. Martin.

Source: Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 2 #ORL