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Phase Six by Jim Shepard

I saw Phase Six in the “New Fiction” section of the library and was intrigued.  But the first time, I wasn’t sure how badly I wanted to read a book about a pandemic, albeit mostly written before COVID-19, during an actual pandemic. But I changed my mind and went ahead and read it.


In a tiny settlement on the west coast of Greenland, 11-year-old Aleq and his best friend, frequent trespassers at a mining site exposed to mountains of long-buried and thawing permafrost, carry what they pick up back into their village, and from there Shepard’s harrowing and deeply moving story follows Aleq, one of the few survivors of the initial outbreak, through his identification and radical isolation as the likely index patient. While he shoulders both a crushing guilt for what he may have done and the hopes of a world looking for answers, we also meet two Epidemic Intelligence Service investigators dispatched from the CDC–Jeannine, an epidemiologist and daughter of Algerian immigrants, and Danice, an M.D. and lab wonk. As they attempt to head off the cataclysm, Jeannine–moving from the Greeland hospital overwhelmed with the first patients to a Level 4 high-security facility in the Rocky Mountains–does what she can to sustain Aleq. Both a chamber piece of multiple intimate perspectives and a more omniscient glimpse into the megastructures (political, cultural, and biological) that inform such a disaster, the novel reminds us of the crucial bonds that form in the midst of catastrophe, as a child and several hypereducated adults learn what it means to provide adequate support for those they love. In the process, they celebrate the precious worlds they might lose, and help to shape others that may survive.

My Take

It turned out to be both tender and frightening with an, at times, odd mix of science and relationships.

The pandemic aspect is all too realistic and unsettling in the era of COVID. The tender part deals with the relationships of those looking to solve the science behind the pandemic; particularly two CDC researchers. It was spare and episodic with little vignettes highlighting the challenges of maintaining relationships as a doctor, researcher, etc. with the added push-pull of the pandemic. I enjoyed it but wasn’t wowed by it.

In many ways the emotional heart of the story is about female relationships, despite the male author. I think what threw me a bit was that the book starts almost like a thriller (SPOILER ALERT: mysterious pathogen leading to the deaths of almost an entire village) and then switches to a focus on relationships and interior lives. Plus, for me, too much science talk, even if it made sense given the characters, gave it an odd feel too.

Interesting and well written but not quite my cup of tea. But if you are looking for a fictional account of those on the front lines, to use a cliche, of fighting a pandemic this is the book.

Quick Take On A Short Book: Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente

During a recent trip to the library, I picked up a couple of intriguing short works of fiction.  I finished the first, Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente.


Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze…

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

My quick take

I enjoyed it for the odd novella that it was but, like many, wondered if it delivered on its promise.

It was creepy and atmospheric in some ways; a sense of building panic, of something wrong just off page. Not sure I would call it horror or even a thriller (the book cover says “terrifying new thriller”). And the language and prose is wonderful in that unique Valente style. But the mystical feminist or anti-men ending with its Biblical language and imagery was both weird and a little unclear.

I read it in one sitting. Can’t imagine buying a copy unless I was a big time Valente fan, but I did find it an interesting diversion on a cold Monday night.

For me the quickness of the read, and the fact that I checked it out from the library made it a low risk.  Others have reacted differently. Check out Goodreads to get a flavor.

For other reviews see below.

Jim Geraghty Returns with Another Dangerous Clique Novel

“Ripped from the headlines” plot with Geraghty’s sense of humor makes this a quick read.

When I went to post my review of Jim Geraghty’s latest book, Hunting Four Horseman, on Goodreads I was again cursing the lack of half stars (although, does a half star really mean a lot?) and wrestling with judging a book by the genre it is or the appeal of that genre to you personally…

Which is to say I enjoyed the second Dangerous Clique book but realized these books really aren’t my prefered genre or style within the genre.

Having known Jim for some time, and appreciating his writing, I wanted to buy and read his novels. And they are full of his research, knowledge and sense of humor, which is why I enjoyed them.

Between Two Scorpions by Jim Geraghty

I have a basic policy of reading and reviewing books by friends or acquaintances; even if only the friendship is an online one.  Today, I realized that last year I read a book by a longtime friend and never reviewed it.  In my defense, last year I started a new job, bought a house, and moved to a new town. But still I felt bad when this came to mind today, so I decided to rectify my error.

I have known Jim Geraghty for quite a while and have even met him in person.  We go way back into the golden age of blogging.  Jim is an excellent journalist and has really established a reputation during the pandemic as a voice of reason and information.  If you are interested in politics/public affairs I recommend The Morning Jolt.

So when Jim published Between Two Scorpions I grabbed a copy and read it.

Between Two Scorpions Book Cover
Between Two Scorpions A Dangerous Clique Thriller Discus Books Kindle 305 Amazon

A long dormant CIA asset emerges from hiding to request a meeting with his former handler, the beautiful, enigmatic intelligence operative Katrina Leonidivna. She’s skeptical that the source, a shady arms dealer, is on the level. But when Katrina barely escapes with her life after an explosion rips through the café where they met, she’s forced to take his tip seriously. Alongside her husband, Alec Flanagan, and a rogue crew of covert agents from every corner of the intelligence community, Katrina races around the globe to uncover the truth.

What this dangerous clique of operatives discover is a plot that could rip America apart from the inside. A plot that pits neighbors against one another and turns everyone into a potential threat. A plot that could make anyone take up arms against their own country. A plot that Katrina, Alec, and the rest of their crew have to stop before it’s too late. But when everyone is a suspect, no one is safe and the entire nation is under suspicion. Hot on the trail of a terror cell capable of turning anyone—and everyone—into a deranged killer, only this dangerous clique of spies has a chance to stop the terrorists from weaponizing America’s greatest asset—freedom.


As long as we are confessing, I also failed to read Jim’s novel The Weed Agency so this is my first experience with his fiction, having read his journalism near daily for years.

I don’t think I will hurt Jim’s feeling by saying BTS has some elements common to new fiction authors and first books in a series.  Despite the explosive start, literally, it takes awhile for the book to get going and not all of the characters are all that flushed out. This is also just part of the genre, however, as I have noted when reading books from book-a-year type established authors.  There is always a tension between action and color and character development.

The Names of the Dead by Kevin Wignall

I am a long time reader of Kevin Wignall going back to 2004 and People Die.  Over the years he has explored a number of genres and categories and I have enjoyed them to varying degrees.  His most recent novel, The Names of the Dead, was released today and it felt like a return to “classic” Wignall to me.

Publishers description:

The Names of the Dead coverFormer CIA officer James ‘Wes’ Wesley paid the ultimate price for his patriotism when he was locked up in a French jail for an anti-terror operation gone wrong—abandoned by the Agency he served, shunned by his colleagues and friends, cut off from his family.

Now he is shattered by the news that his ex-wife, Rachel, a State Department analyst, has been killed in a terrorist attack in Spain. He also discovers that his young son, Ethan, is missing. But Wes didn’t know he had a son—until now.

Why was Rachel in Spain? And why did she keep his son secret from him?

Granted early release, Wes takes flight across Europe to search for the truth and exact his revenge. But can he catch the spies who betrayed him before they track him down? In order to find the answers and save his son, Wes realises he must confront the dark secrets in his own past—before it’s too late.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from NetGalley and found myself right back in the world and characters and situations of moral ambiguity, tension and violence.

Here is an exchange in a quick Q&A I did with Kevin in 2008:

I wrote that Conrad Hirst, as most of your books, was an exploration of identity, the nature of morality, and the dangers of self-deception. Is that fair? Accurate?

Yes to both. I’m interested in the fault lines between who we think we are and how others see us. And one of the inherent premises of all my work is that we live in a time of fluid morality, a time in which people are drawing their own boundaries, so I think it’s interesting to explore how people deal with that process, particularly people on the edges of society.

Well, “an exploration of identity, the nature of morality, and the dangers of self-deception” is a pretty good description of The Names of the Dead.  As with most Wignall novels there are a couple of threads.

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