Packing List Post Mortem

So here was my challenge: pack everything I'd need for a month-long, four-season trip into a single suitcase. 

I photographed almost everything I put in my bag before I got on the plane. Now that the trip is over, I'm going to post the photos and evaluate the choices I made.

Before I get on with it: I used the website a lot while I was packing. It's a great resource & has lots of great tips for traveling light.

My packing rule is this: never pack more than you can carry, and always carry what you pack so you know whether or not you overdid it. If that last bit makes no sense, I mean: don't let some sympathetic person help you with the load. Carry it, feel it, learn from it. 


Toiletries. I think I did a pretty good job with this--I cut out everything I wouldn't use daily, and anything that I could do without. No body lotion, for example, even though at home I'm careful to moisturize.

On the other hand, I tried out new products on the trip, and that was a mistake. recommended BB Cream as an all-purpose lotion/moisturizer/sunscreen. I thought it sounded practical and cheap, and in general, I try to avoid packing things that I can't bear to lose. Things get lost and stolen when you travel and you can cut down on the pain in advance by leaving valuables at home.

My usual foundation/moisturizer is pricey, so I ditched it for the cheap stuff. The BB Cream was okay, but not great--I thought it felt a little heavy. The Garnier Fructis was another substitute, which I made for the same reason, and I ended up hating it. 

Lesson: it's okay to make substitutions, but test drive thoroughly before leaving home.


Dresses. I took three and should have taken two.

What's worse, in retrospect I'd probably leave out my favorite of the three: the little spaghetti strap dress with the geometric pattern. I could only wear it when it was very warm and relatively informal. 

The plain gray dress was more functional, because I could wear it in multiple weather conditions--with tights and a cardigan in the cold, with just a cardigan when it was cool. The black dress worked in all the same situations when the gray print worked, and a few more as well--it looks a little more formal. 

cold weather.jpg

Cold weather gear, for hiking. I did not look very fashionable on the trail, but all of this was about right for a summer hike in a cold climate. Pants and long underwear--I ended up using the long underwear as pajama pants. A thermal top and a t-shirt. A long-sleeved shirt, a fleece, a down-filled vest (inherited from my mom--I don't buy anything with down), gloves and a sport bra. 

This was all I wore for about two weeks. Piled all together it was pretty bulky, but looking at the picture now--nope, not a thing that I didn't use and use again. 

cold weather extras.jpg

Various cold weather extras. A travel towel (the nubby blue), a scarf (the beige), a sleeping bag/bed liner, basically a person-sized pocket to use when you suspect your hotel's sheets haven't been washed lately, a platypus water bottle, a pair of crampons and rain pants in a little pouch. Sport sunglasses.

Things I didn't use: the rain pants, the crampons. 

We didn't need crampons in the Torres del Paine, and when we did a mini trek on the Perito Moreno glacier, the tour company provided heavy-duty crampons. Really poor use of space. The rain pants would have come in handy if there had been more rain, so I'm not sorry I brought them. 

first aid kit.jpg

The contents of my first aid kit. 

I have yet to use burn gel or iodine swabs on a trip. I think, in future, I might cut down on emergency care items. Band-aids and a thermometer? Okay, that's fine. But there's no need to go hog wild unless you're really going to be in the wilderness. That's my new position.

There's no getting around the practical stuff: contact lenses and laundry detergent, razors and feminine hygiene.

One tip I got from that worked like a charm was to bring several tiny travel size bottles of saline solution for contact lenses. Yes, more waste, but when you use one up you throw it away instead of carrying around a bottle that stays the same size even as the volume of solution inside of it decreases. 

Packing items that you know you won't bring home is great, because it means you have at least a little space for souvenirs.


Two sweaters, one cardigan. This was about right. Pretty plain--also about right. 


Yes, lots of tops. I could have cut down here; this is well beyond the bare minimum. But they weren't bulky and they created the illusion of variety so I'm okay with the excess.

The mix here: long sleeved, short sleeved, ratty, neat. 


Two pairs of pants and one skirt. The tech pants I wore in Patagonia aren't in this picture, but I only used those while hiking.

Probably could have cut out the skirt. I only wore it a couple of times, and a dress would have served as well. (so maybe the choice ought to have been: take the skirt or the third dress? One or both of them should have been cut).

warm weather.jpg

Warm weather/beach clothes. A swimsuit, a swimsuit cover up, terrycloth shorts, two tank tops and a lacy undershirt. 

The things I'd cut? The swimsuit cover up and the lacy undershirt.

The cover-up because I didn't end up doing much swimming, and other items would have served as well.

The lacy undershirt because--like the gray print dress--even though it's a favorite item, it was unnecessary. There's probably room in most bags for a few unnecessary, fun things. This tiny little top takes up no space and caused me no grief. But the goal is to pack smarter every time, and I never had a moment when I thought, "Oh, I'm so glad I brought this, nothing else would do!" with that top. So, the conclusion is to cut it.

It's a travel truism that you should pick clothes for versatility. That's the mistake I made with the lacy top and the dress: not versatile. 


I brought three pairs of shoes. Hiking boots were a must. Cheap black flats, and a pair of sandals so old that I threw them away before I came home.

The hiking boots were a bummer. They were huge, which meant I had to wear them on every bus and plane, no matter the weather. I didn't have room to pack them away. But they were necessary.

As for the other two? I picked them because they were disposable, not precious, but they did the job. 



A little purse that I could fold into my suitcase, but pull out to use when out and about.

Kleenex. Because eventually, you learn not to trust toilets to be properly stocked.

Travel guides, my dive log.

Glasses, in case my contact lenses got lost, or for overnight plane flights.

My kindle and cord, my phone cord, a pack of cards.

A warm weather hat, a hat with a sunshade. Never used the hat with the shade--either I should change my habits (probably) or I should leave it at home.

A journal, a tiny nalgene bottle full of fountain pen ink, and gluesticks, to paste items into the journal.

Travel bars for times when I couldn't find any vegetarian food.  

A travel alarm.


Valuables. I try to bring as few as possible, because I want to have my valuables on me at all times.

A DSLR camera, an extra lens, an extra battery and charger. The camera is bulky and really, it's a pain to carry around. But I like taking photos so I accept the constant discomfort. I bought a strap cover on Etsy because I hate wearing a brand name across my chest.

Two wallets. I kept them in different bags, so that if one bag were stolen, I'd be able to carry on. Each wallet had cash, a credit card, and a form of ID. I also carried a little coin purse to hold small amounts of cash, so that when I had to pay for something on the street or in a shop, I'd only pull out the coin purse and only display small amounts of cash in public. 

Also, I say two wallets but one is my fauxdori--you can see the pen loop that I bought, with a plain black Pelikan inside, and, yes, I travel with a fountain pen and, yes, I find that perfectly practical--I think I refilled it once on the trip, because it's a piston filler and holds a lot of ink.

A bungee cord. I don't know why it's here, but I shouldn't have brought it. 


And this is what it all looked like when packed. One medium-sized suitcase that I checked. One camera bag that I had on me at all times, everywhere.

The camera bag has three separate combination locks on it. One is on the strap, so that you can wrap the strap around a pole or a bedframe or whatnot and lock it in. That's handy if you need to sleep in a hostel or on a train. There's a lock on the front pocket, where I kept my fauxdori (which was also a wallet), and another lock on the top flap, which you open to access the camera. I picked this bag because it holds two lenses, and because it soothed my paranoia. 

Lastly, the backpack. I don't like to carry backpacks but I needed it for the hike. This was the only luggage I took on the 6 day hike through the Torres del Paine. It was too small, and as a result I had to....(a) leave my kindle in my checked baggage, because I was afraid of crushing it, which meant I had nothing to read on the trip and (b) strap my jacket to the outside of the backpack while I hiked, because there was no room for it inside.

In an ideal world, I would have bought a different daypack. It would be about 30% larger and super snazzy. But I didn't want to buy too much new stuff for the trip--I had to pick and choose, and 'new backpack' didn't make the cut. Anyhow, it worked.

With the suitcase handle in one hand, my backpack on my back, and my camera bag around my shoulder I was mobile but awkward, loaded down. I had no trouble walking, I carried all of this up and down long flights of stairs, unpaved streets, in and out of buses. 

That being said, getting from place to place with all this stuff on me was a chore. I did not feel light and fancy free. I felt burdened and vulnerable. 

I could have made my life a lot easier by not carrying the camera case. The camera case is what tips a decent bag-and-carry-on duo into a tangle, and it was the camera that made my shoulder ache at the end of a long day.  Nothing else I could have cut would have made as great a difference; but there's no chance I would have left the camera behind. 

The Great Kindle Clean Up

I've been traveling for the last month. In between seeing lots of awesome stuff, I also spent lots of time on planes, in waiting rooms, and lounging around on hotel patios. Which is to say, I got a lot of reading done. I hoarded new releases before I left. Books that could make me look forward to 10 hours in coach. But I ran through that little stash really quickly & rather than buying more books I decided some books that I'd already bought. Books that I'd anticipated, paid for, downloaded and then cruelly ignored.

A lot of them were really good. That initial impulse to buy, it turns out, had not led me astray. Some of them were bad. You won't hear about those in this post. Either way, the Great Kindle Clean Up was a success--much as I love to keep up with the books that are new and exciting, it can be exhausting. Once the pile of unread books gets big enough, it's demoralizing.

So. Here you go. Mini-reviews of the best books I read last month, during the Great Kindle Clean Up.

Love Irresistibly by Julie James: Julie James is one of my autobuy authors because whatever she writes, I can count on it to be funny, smart, and just plain good. Her protagonists have careers they care about. They behave like adults. If they were real, you'd invite them out for drinks, just because they'd be fun to hang out with. So when they stumble on the way to finding love, the conflicts that keep them apart tend to be relatable (how to balance career and love?), spiced with a dash of high-stakes adventure (in this case: the hero approaches the heroine about helping the FBI plant a bug in a fancy restaurant, in order to bring a dirty politician to justice).

Eternally Yours by Cate Tiernen: This is the third and final book in Tiernen's Immortal Beloved trilogy, every installment of which I have loved. I suppose they're YA but I'm not sure why; all of the main characters are hundreds of years old & act like the adults they are. The series starts when the heroine, Nastasya, checks herself into rehab. Her zest for life has dwindled away and left her self-destructive, bored, and cruel. She recognizes that she has a problem and needs to change. The primary setting for the whole trilogy is the rehab facility, where Nastasya spends a lot of time mucking out stalls and baking bread, but I was riveted to every page. Change for Nastasya is a slow, laborious process but she's a charismatic and funny narrator, and I really rooted for her. Plus, there's a series-arc romance with an immortal former Viking, so bonus.

Untold (The Lynburn Legacy #2) by Sarah Rees Brennan: The plot of Untold didn't quite hang together for me, but I love the cast of characters and individual scenes were emotionally wrenching. I'm really curious to see where Brennan will go with the romance/central conflict, where the heroine, Kami, was born with a telepathic link to a boy she's never met. When they finally come face to face as teenagers, the chemistry is tremendous--but the intimate knowledge they have of one another cuts both ways, creating deep trust and also dangerous co-dependence.

Heroes' Reward by Moira Moore: The final installment in a fun fantasy series that starts with Resenting the Hero. The series is character driven & follows the developing relationship of a true odd couple, Dunleavy "Lee" Mallorough & Shintaro "Taro" Karish. Lee is staid and grounded, with a dry sense of humor. Taro is charming and extroverted. They're forced to work together, but in the process of saving the world over and over again, end up falling in love & hammering out a really lovely relationship. The publisher dropped the series & the author self-published this final installment; having been a loyal reader, I was glad to see the characters get the HEA they deserved.

Tempt the Stars: A Cassie Palmer Novel by Karen Chance: The Cassie Palmer books are like summer blockbuster action movies. Jam-packed with insane stunts that even the supernatural creatures peopling the series ought not to be able to perform--but they're also fun and smart, and the love triangle seems to be resolving in favor of the candidate I like best. Tempt the Stars came out after a long gap, so it was a pleasant surprise to jump back into the world without a hitch. Read it in one sitting, can't wait for the next in the series.

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling: I read this because, hey, J.K. Rowling. Might as well see what there is to see. The Cuckoo's Calling isn't much like the Harry Potter series; I'd go so far as to say that it's aggressively unlike the Harry Potter series, featuring, as it does, messy relationships and imperfect marriages and recreational drugs and people who talk about their bowel movements. The Cuckoo's Calling won't satisfy a craving for Harry Potter, but I thought it was really good. I liked the detective, Cormorant Strike. I liked diving into his backstory, I liked his investigative style, I liked his developing relationship with secretary/sidekick Robin. I thought the big reveal was disappointing, but everything up until then kept me riveted. I'll keep reading this series.

The Siren Depths by Martha Wells: Final installment of the Raksura trilogy. I enjoyed each book in this series more than the previous, and I finished The Siren Depths so utterly content that I immediately picked up another Martha Wells book to read. The Raksura trilogy is about a young man, Moon, a sort of dragon shifter who's separated from his family and species as a child & wanders from town to town, trying to fit in and always failing because his winged, scaled form terrifies everyone he meets. As the series starts, he's finally reunited with his own kind & finds out he was born to a high rank--and his official, ordained role is to serve as a trophy spouse to the queen who claims him. But after decades of fending for himself, Moon doesn't know how to be a trophy spouse & he chafes against the restrictions. Moon finds his way, and meanwhile the worldbuilding is imaginative, lush, unexpected.

The Element of Fire by Martha Wells: Second of the three Martha Wells books I read during my trip. All three were excellent. The Element of Fire is a stand alone fantasy about a soldier, captain of an elite company and confidante of the Queen, struggling to save the monarchy during a very well organized coup. Very twisty story that combines action and cutthroat political scheming. Also includes a neat romance.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones: I have heard nothing but good things about Diana Wynne Jones and Howl's Moving Castle, so who knows why it took me so long to turn to the first page and give it a chance. And that's all it took--Howl's Moving Castle is an fizzy delight of a novel that hooked me with the first line. It's charming and clever and deft, silly at times but fun always.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster: This little novella was recommended to me a while back by someone who thought I resembled the protagonist, which, I can now say, was massively flattering because the protagonist of this epistolary novel, Jerusha, is an utter delight. She starts out like Jane Eyre, the model pupil of an orphanage who's aged out of her institution's care, bubbling with sly wit she's learned to suppress and joie de vivre that even a dreary orphanage can't crush.

She's selected by one of the trustees of the orphanage, a tall, spindly-legged man she refers to as Daddy Long Legs, for a special honor: a scholarship to college, including a stipend, so long as she writes the trustee a monthly letter about her progress. The letters make up the book, which was written in 1912. The May-December romance has the potential to be squicky but the language is fresh and delightful, and I loved every word. It's in the public domain and free to download on kindle--I recommend it highly.

World After (Penryn & the End of Days, Book 2) by Susan Ee: Reviews indicate that readers split over World After, the sequel to Angelfall. Personally, I loved it. I liked the expanding End of Days universe, and I was glad to see Penryn get some time to deal with her mother and sister, to re-evaluate place among other human beings, after the revelations of the last book. I was glad she had to chart her own course, separate from any romantic entanglements. Of course, I was also happy when Rafe finally showed up.

Untamed by Anna Cowan: The first historical I've read in way too long & it got me back in the mood. Sometimes the plot felt like a suspension bridge--little gaps between the steps where you could see just how outrageous the story really was, and worried that it would all fall apart--but somehow this only added to the novel's emotional intensity, which was nonstop and breathless in the way of a punch to the solar plexus.

The Arcana Chronicles #1 and #2 (Poison Princess, Endless Knight) by Kresley Cole: I'd describe The Arcana Chronicles as a mashup of The Hunger Games and the X-Men. Characters are avatars of cards on the Tarot deck, with corresponding superpowers. A global disaster precipitates the start of a game, at which point all the superpowered characters have to kill one another. The last one standing lives on, immortal, until the next game starts and the process repeats. This particular game kicks off with a solar flash that evaporates most of the world's water reserves, which makes for a really grim post-apocalypse.

The heroine starts out naive, having lived the life of a pampered southern belle with no knowledge of her dual nature, and has to embrace her inner warrior. She ends up in a love triangle, and each guy is a different flavor of high-handed jerk. However, I love a good high-handed jerk who falls in love despite himself, and I liked both of these guys.

So far, the series is fast-paced with inventive plotting, and nicely mixes the desperate circumstances with an atmosphere of freedom and recklessness.

The Prophet by Amanda Stevens: Third book in the Graveyard Queen series. I really like Stevens' ability to set a mood. Her heroine, Amelia Gray, can see ghosts & her 'talent' is convincingly and consistently shown to be a terrible burden, a danger that limits her options in life and brings her more fear than opportunity. The lush, decaying, Southern Gothic vibe provides a creepy backdrop to the mysteries that Gray investigates. Even the romance with a sexy, haunted cop is a little repulsive. I'm not clear if this is a trilogy that's ended or an ongoing series, which makes it hard to judge the book, but it's an interesting series. More light horror than proper paranormal, maybe?

The Tycoon's Convenient Wife by Ros Clarke: This novella was not what I expected, based on the title. It's more a second chance at romance story than a marriage of convenience plot. Yes, Guy is a wealthy tycoon who needs a sham engagement & Emily works at a village café, but they were close friends in college and drifted apart only when Guy's jealous first wife insisted that he cut ties. Emily's affection & support for Guy have been unwavering, a constant in his life, and circumstances give him the opportunity to appreciate it. It's a fairly quiet story, but easy to sink into and satisfying.

Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells: Another excellent stand alone fantasy from Martha Wells. I really, really learned to appreciate Martha Wells during the past month--her writing is smooth and so immersive that starting one of her books is like sinking into a feather bed. Her world building is rich and lushly imaginative--I've never wanted to visit a fantasy world so much as I'd like to visit Wells'. And Wheel of the Infinite features a really marvelous heroine, Maskelle, a 40-year-old priestess who wields immense magical power, who knows her own strength and never flinches from a confrontation, though she's world-weary rather than showy, sick with mistakes that she's made and too wise to repeat them.

Wheel of the Infinite made me long for more books about characters in their prime, not just because I liked Maskelle but because the potential for conflict is so great--any problem a smart, experienced, capable heroine like Maskelle can't deal with is going to be a doozy, a perfect set-up to a knotty, high-stakes nail biter.

Plus: neat romance.

What I Did For a Duke by Julie Anne Long: Another historical. Why have I been avoiding historicals? This was amazing. The hero, Moncrieffe, decides to seduce & abandon the heroine, Genevieve, in order to get revenge on the heroine's brother--causing him emotional distress equal to what Moncrieffe felt when he caught the brother in bed with his fiancée. But Genevieve has just had her heart broken, and in her grief she's not susceptible to Moncrieffe's charms. Wonderful mix of humor and drenching emotion, totally satisfying.

The Emperor's Edge #1-#6 by Lindsay Buroker (The Emperor's Edge, Dark Currents, Deadly Games, Conspiracy, Blood and Betrayal): So as my trip was drawing to a close and my kindle stash starting to look a little meager, I begged Twitter for recommendations. A couple of people suggested this series, the first book was free, so I gave it a try.

I proceeded to read the first six in the space of two days.

Mind you, one of those two days was an epic airport adventure that included 14 hours in a plane and 9 hours layovering in JFK.

By the time I got home, I had eye strain & had to put my kindle down for a few days. Still: I'm totally in love with this series. Steampunk fantasy that's a little on the fun & light side but the plotting is a mixture of action setpieces and scheming that keeps your heart in your throat, with an excellent protagonist and a series-arc romance with an assassin who's so satisfyingly assassiny.

Seriously, this assassin. He kills people. That's already a big deal, since lots of assassin heroes never kill anyone at all, or kill rarely, or suffer intense guilt about every murder. This guy just kills people. The protagonist, Amaranthe, tries to convince him to cool it with the murdering and he's annoyed. He's also emotionally unavailable and mistrustful.

The perfect candidate for a slow thaw!

Anyway. I'm not quite finished with the series, but I will be soon. Total winner.


Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I expected FANGIRL to be fun, exuberant, charming. A love letter to the Harry Potter series and the fan culture surrounding it. A book about how terrifying and miserable the first year of college can be, and how change comes for us all. Wrapped up with a satisfying HEA. And it was all of those things. In some ways, FANGIRL is a pure confection of a novel. A crisp, airy meringue of delight. Our protagonist, Cath, writes fanfiction about the 'Simon Snow' series, a thinly veiled twist on Harry Potter. This fictional blockbuster series will have eight books and the eighth book is scheduled for release just as Cath's first year of college draws to a close.

Cath spends all of FANGIRL--all of her freshman year--writing her version of how the Simon Snow series should end. She's racing against the clock, because she has to finish before the real book eight comes out and renders her own work irrelevant. I loved the way that Cath wrestles with her fanfiction; how she defends its originality but feels punctured when her writing professor criticizes her. How she loves the fan culture even though it makes her own work ephemeral.

FANGIRL brought back those years before the Harry Potter series was over and the wait seemed endless but there was always that wonderful anticipation of a new book. Of being inside the phenomenon, experiencing it as it unfolded. We (the fans) all knew something amazing was happening, but we didn't know where it would go or how it would end.

I did wish, however, that FANGIRL had dealt more with what happens when the eighth Simon Snow book DOES come out. It's the end of an era--the series is over, Cath's fic is over. She's ready for something new. That's the moment where all of the experiences she's had in the novel tip her in a new direction. The very last page of FANGIRL is an excerpt from the first page of the first story Cath writes after her fanfic. It feels really momentous, like a sea change. Like payoff.

But I wanted to know why she picked that story, and how she meant to continue. In a way, I felt like the most important part of the conclusion--the 'now what?'--was left off the page.

So this fanfic that Cath's writing is a sort of--I don't know, a symbol of the limbo she's in? A project that she started in high school and can't abandon. The crown jewel of her adolescence. By the time it ends, something else needs to begin. Adulthood, if all goes well.

Which brings me back to Cath's first year of college, which is both ordinary and excruciatingly painful (excruciatingly painful in very ordinary ways, I suppose). She's separating from her father, who's more dependent on his children than he ought to be. Her twin sister, Wren, is tired of being one half of a whole and pushes Cath away out of an understandable but immensely hurtful desire to do her own thing for a while. And that leaves Cath, always the less social/popular/cool one of the pair, struggling to make friends on her own for the first time in her life.

She has a hard time of it. The first half of the book really tugged my heartstrings. Cath's isolation and hurt are sharply drawn. It gets to the point where even her last safe place, her writing, is poisoned. There were moments when I thought to myself, "If I read all of this painful stuff and there's no happy ending, I am going to be so mad."

But there is a happy ending. As well as a really sweet, lovely, so charming romance. And Cath gets to find out, at the end of the day, that she's fine just as she is. Time happens. Change happens. Some of it hurts. But she's good.

Note: I received a free copy of this book through the the Amazon Vine program.

Also note: I follow Rainbow Rowell on Twitter & Tumblr. That's why I requested the book--I like her social media voice quite a bit. This also meant that I'd seen a fair bit of Fangirl fan-art before I started the book, & it turns out they should have come with a spoiler alert. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn't known what to expect, but I certainly enjoyed it anyhow.

Review: The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith

R. Lee Smith's books are not for everyone. They're full of extreme situations and tend to provoke extreme reactions--maybe you love it, maybe you hate it. This was my sixth R. Lee Smith book, and I'm firmly in the 'love it' camp. But if you're sensitive to sexual violence or violence in general--if you don't like morally grey, slightly terrifying heroes--you're more likely to fall into the 'hate it' camp.

So. The Last Hour of Gann.

It starts with our heroine, Amber, on a dystopian Earth where space travel has just reached the point of being commercialized. Her Earth-life is pretty rough, and the risk of signing onto the first space colony as an indentured worker seems worth the cash reward she'll claim...if she comes back alive.

Well, the space jaunt doesn't go as planned. The ship veers off course and, while the passengers are in stasis, travels for hundreds of years before crashing on Gann. The ship explodes. Most of the passengers die. A rag-tag band of fifty humans find themselves in a survival situation on a wrecked planet where the sun is a smudge in the sky and winter is coming.

The first half of the book is about how the survivors cope. How they band together. How they cling to lies that give them hope. And how they pick one person to soak up all their frustrations. A scapegoat who, by absorbing all that anger, greases the wheels for everyone else.

That person is Amber.

Amber knows she's never going to be the favorite. She knows she's abrasive, foul-mouthed, a bit of a downer. She tries to compensate: to do more than her fair share of work, and ask for less than her fair share of the comforts. She tries and tries and tries. It doesn't matter.

I don't think I've ever read a better portrayal of what it's like to be disliked. The itchy rage. How swallowing her resentment, letting it simmer silently beneath the surface, makes everyone hate Amber more--because they can sense it, and it's not fun.

The other survivors are caricatures. They reminded me at times of whack-a-moles. Bumbling from one delusion to another, telling themselves ridiculous stories until reality intervenes and they have to retreat and reformulate. Then they pop up again, just as crazy as before.

But it didn't matter that the other survivors are caricatures, because Amber is so real. I don't know about you, but every time I've been in a small, isolated group it divided this way. I've been part of the in group, sincerely hating the odd man out. I've been the odd man out. It's horrible, and Amber's awareness of the others--the way they become a sort of barrage, a pelting, a trial--rang absolutely true to me.

So these humans are slowly dying in an alien wilderness when (about 20% of the way through) they discover that they've crashed into a planet with sentient, humanoid life-forms. Lizard-men, or dinosaurs, to be exact.

Of course, we've known about the lizard people all along, because we've been following our hero, Meoraq, from the beginning. He's a warrior-priest in a world where there's nothing better than to be a warrior-priest. In exchange for traveling from city to city engaging in gladiatorial battles-to-the-death, he gets to enjoy all the luxuries his medieval-esque world has to offer: hospitality, material goods, and women.

His encounters with women are brief, highly structured, and mutually unsatisfying. The women are forced (by family, by low status, by barrenness) to accept the advances of a stranger. And Meoraq--the stranger in question--believes he's doing God's work.

He doesn't like it. He doesn't like a lot of things about the way his society is organized. But he's a warrior-priest and he believes that God wants things exactly as they are. So he doesn't ask questions. He just performs his role to the best of his ability.

When Meoraq meets the human survivors, he's on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Xi’Matezh. He believes that God put them in his path as a test, so he takes up the job of teaching them to survive on Gann.

As it happens, however, only Amber is interested in learning to survive on Gann. Only Amber has faced up to the fact that they're never, ever getting back to Earth. So Amber is the only human who latches on to Meoraq. She learns his language, and anything he'll teach her about his world.

The others prefer to wait for Meoraq to feed them. And then complain that maybe he hasn't done a good enough job. And then joke about how he's ugly and probably stupid, more like a dog than a person.

That's how the romance starts. Amber and Meoraq are thrown together, each for their separate reasons shouldering the thankless--truly thankless--task of keeping the human survivors alive.

Meoraq discovers that despite a lifetime of being told that the pinnacle of feminine perfection lies in silence and obedience, really, what he prefers is a foul-mouthed, disrespectful woman who knows her own mind. And he eventually--conveniently?--comes to the conclusion that God sent Amber to him as a wife.

Amber, who's spent her entire life caring for other people, finds in Meoraq someone who will care for her. When Amber is sick, Meoraq tends her. When she's exhausted, he picks up the slack--or pushes her to dig into her reserves.

Normally I'm not a fan when heroines turn weepy, but with Amber it was beautiful. We've seen how tough she can be. We know that she can suck it up, adapt and make-do. We know she'd keep on keepin' on, if she had to. When she finally lets down her guard, it was such a relief. I knew how much she had bottled inside. I knew how much she had to trust Meoraq before she could uncork that bottle and face her own emotions.

Anyway. Lots of stuff happens and I don't want to spoil any more than I already have. Amber and Meoraq find one another, and then they're tested. Personally, I preferred the first half to the second half--I thought it was tighter and more natural. But I was glued to the page from beginning to end, and I found the conclusion satisfying.

One thing I like about R. Lee Smith's books is that she often sets up a kind of culture clash. The collision highlights where each faction has gone wrong, sickened or failed. That's exactly what happens in The Last Hour of Gann. Meoraq's world is medieval-esque. Amber's is modern. Both are broken.

The question is whether Amber and Meoraq, seeing the best in one another, can change anyone else.


Review: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano

All right. I'm going to keep this short. I did not like By Night in Chile. I might not have understood By Night in Chile. But from what I understood, here's what it's about: A smug jerk of a priest makes a name for himself as a literary critic, enjoys socializing in luxurious surroundings with Chile's intelligentsia, hates the Allende revolution because it puts a cramp on his high-living style, feels the cold touch of fear when Pinochet rises to power, but mostly continues with his smugness and his parties, dies.

I just couldn't take an interest in the narrator. He was an ass. I believe that he was supposed to be an ass. But he had no redeeming qualities at all, nor was he very interesting.

The writing was mostly tedious but occasionally quite lovely. I'm going to copy out a few quotes I enjoyed but don't start thinking this is a fun or compelling book. It's really not.

"life went on and on, like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape had been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting the necklace on and wearing it, but no one had the patience or the strength or the courage to take it off and look ati t closely and decipher each landscape grain by grain." (Loc 1192)

"boredom circumnavigating the Chilean imagination like an enormous aircraft carrier" (Loc 1192)

Wait. That's it, actually. And they were both on the same page, too.

I'm willing to believe that Bolano's other books are better. But this one? Nope.

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