OK, let's knock out reviews of the books I've read lately:
First up, Fifth Ward: First Watch
by Dale Lucas. This is a fantasy police procedural. Rem wakes up in the drunk tank of Fifth Ward in the city of Yenara. Assisting the watch in a jailhouse brawl gets Rem a spot on the Watch and a grumpy Dwarven partner named Torval. As Rem learns how to walk the beat, the Watch starts investigating a series of disappearance and murders.
The book makes for good beach reading. It's not terribly complex or deep and tends to tick off the boxes versus something innovating but for the most part it's well done and the characters are interesting. The only real nit I have to pick is that there are a number of screamingly obvious Checkovian guns lying around which makes the ending a tad less unpredictable than you'd like. Good filler reading.
Next up we have Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Suanders. This was the ad hoc book club book for people who went out to visit my folks for the summer eclipse. The historical fact is that after young Willie Lincoln died, Lincoln made return visits to the grave. In Buddhist traditions the idea of the Bardo is a kind of limbo or purgatory where spirits are between this life and the next. Together that forms the basis for this novel in which the inhabitants of Willie's graveyard try to help Willie move on and come to terms with their own existence (or non-existence).
Fair warning -- the back half (back third?) of this book is amazing, but there is an unnecessarily steep climb to get their. Saunders uses a formatting trick where everything is an excerpt. This is fine when he's taking (what I believe are) actual excerpts from letters/books/diaries to discuss actual historical events but that carries through into the rest of the story. Rather than having a block of dialog or a omniscient third-person narrator, the books builds on excerpts from each character's first person narrative. If you've read Burroughs or DeLaney it's not nearly as bad as that, but it's not easy for most people to get into and will probably discourage a lot of casual readers.
Which is too bad, because once you get into the back half of the book, the plot gets extraordinary. There's a lot of clever world-building on display and the characters are all well-drawn and interesting. You're also left with a lot of interesting questions about the book and about topics large and small.
In the end, I think this book is too clever by half. The formatting gimmick mostly seems like a gimmick and makes a great book a lot less readable. If manage to deal with it, I'd be happy to talk with you about stuff in the book.
Next we have Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
by Sam Quinones. I first heard about this book because I read an interview with Angus Deaton, one half of the team of Deaton-Case who published their study on "deaths of despair" -- economic inequality affecting middle-aged white people who then turn to drugs or suicide to deal with their loss of the American Dream. In the interview, Mr. Deaton had a lot of positive remarks on the book so I picked it up.
Dreamland is two separate, but inter-twined stories. On one side is the pharmaceutical industry that's interested in treating pain with this new pill called OxyContin and on the other side is a small group of Mexicans who all live in the small town of Xalisco in the state of Nayarit. In the 90's, the pharma companies spent big bucks convincing doctors that pain was an important and vital part of patient treatment and that opioids weren't nearly as addictive as people claimed. In Xalisco, young men were fed up with back-breaking, dead-end jobs that left them poorer than when they started so they were looking for new opportunities. Some of them tried their hand at selling black tar heroin. It was cheap to grow and make in Mexico and generally much more pure than the stuff being run in from overseas.
So you wound up with a population being over-prescribed opioid medication and getting hooked on it. When more Oxy wasn't enough, the Xalisco boys would show up with their black tar heroin which was more pure at a cheaper price.
And it's all about convenience. On the pharma side, doctors where encouraged to prescribe more and larger doses of oxy without a lot of thought towards other pain-relieving methods (the pills were cheap, multi-discipline pain-reduction techniques are more effective in the long run but up-front costs were too much for health insurance companies). Eventually, this lead to the rise of pill mills in states without a lot of good oversight or regulation. On the dealers' side, it was a series of independent groups from Xalisco who would turn up in a town, run a low-key operation where you called them up and they delivered right to you. They kept the amount of drugs small, rotated their drivers out every few months, never used their own product, never restored to violence, and never carried weapons. When their drivers were busted, they only did a short time in jail (if any) and were then kicked back to Mexico. The whole system was decentralized, customer service oriented and almost completely invisible to most law enforcement agencies. These two forces collided with each other and produced the opioid epidemic we see today that has gutted towns across the country (although flyover states have been most seriously affected).
The book is well written and moves deftly between these two narrative threads without losing the reader. It was a fascinating look inside the drug industry (legal and illegal). Strongly recommended if you want a good overview of how we got here with heroin and just a generally good look at how we do or don't deal with drugs.
Finally, something a bit lighter in You Die When You Die
by Angus Watson. Imagine North American megafauna didn't all die out. Imagine that a small group of Vikings showed up in North America, but didn't bring along any Old World diseases. Finally, imagine that a local tribe put them under a sort of "benevolent quarantine" where they provided food and resources to the Vikings as long as they didn't leave a 10 mile perimeter around their landing site. That's the basic set-up for this book.
Of course, you can't stay in that 10-mile perimeter very long and soon the local empress has a dream that the "mushroom people" will destroy the earth. She dispatches an army to wipe out the Vikings. A small band of them gets away and the Empress sends the Owlsa after them -- ten magically-enhanced women who will stop at nothing to destroy them.
For the most part, I liked this book and there's a lot of neat world-building and a fair amount of actual research into the topics the author borrows from. The real problem is that the main character, Finn, is a painfully stereotypical teenage boy and gratingly unsympathetic as a character. Also, it very clearly is the start of a trilogy though it does find a halfway decent stopping point without a lot of dangling plot points. It's not a bad book and if the premise intrigues, you'll probably like it.