Review: A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers#2) – Becky Chambers

a closed and common orbitLovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ beloved debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

Rating: 4/5

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has a special place in my heart and a coveted position on my list of all time favourite reads. So the knowledge that there was going to be a companion novel filled me with both excitement and trepidation. How do you top the utter heart and joy of humanity that was so delightfully captured in the first novel?

And the answer is, you don’t. But you provide a novel that is equally as satisfying, as progressive and subversive and humorous and diverse. A novel with wry observations about people and their hang-ups and their quirks and their flaws. A book that this time around, focuses more on a mental journey than a physical one, but which is no less appealing.

In case you can’t tell, I really liked it.

“Why don’t different species sit together?” Segregated train cars didn’t mesh ith what she’d read of the Port’s famed egalitarianism.

“Difference species,” Blue said, “different butts.”

A Closed and Common Orbit focuses on the character formerly known as Lovelace, an AI originally powering a longhaul ship who has now been transplanted illegally into a human body and has to figure out life amongst our particular species. Her chapters alternate with those of Jane, a child who grows up preparing for a journey far from her abusive origins. Jane’s connection to the rest of the story is made obvious fairly early on in the novel (and indeed, in the blurb) which makes it easier for the reader understand the motivations of Pepper – a woman who takes Lovelace in and helps her adjust to her new circumstances.

Jane let out a sob she hadn’t known was there. Oouoh sat up with a start. “Oh – oh, what the fuck,” he said. “Shit, let’s get you to the med ward, come on–”
Jane stared at him. “What? Why? I’m fine.”
“Uh, no, you’re…your eyes are leaking.”
Jane laughed, which was hard to do while crying “No, no, this” – she sniffed hard – “it’s just tears. It’s okay.”
Oouoh was distraught. “What about this is okay?”
“We do this. Humans do this when – when we’re feeling a lot of things.”
“You leak?”

The novel has wide appeal – while the world-building is interesting, it isn’t too bogged down in sci-fi technicalities, which tends to put me off many of the books in this genre. It is first and foremost character driven. For instance, the details of the universe focus on the different cultures, mannerisms and appearances of the various species, rather than on the specifics of time travel or space ship engines.

“At the core, you’ve got to get university certification for parenting, just as you do for, say, being a doctor or an engineer. No offence to you or your species, but going into the business of creating life without any sort of formal prep is…” He laughed. “It’s baffling. But then, I’m biased.”

It’s about found family and the things you do for other people. It’s a rumination on what it is to be human. It is, as the title suggests, about how our commonalities can overcome our differences. Dare I say, it’s a triumphant ode about how we can be good to one another.

“Lovey’s gone, and that’s horribly sad. You’re here, and that’s wonderful. This isn’t a zero sum thing. Both can be true at the same time.”

Review: Gemina (The Illuminae Files #2) – Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman

geminaMoving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminaecontinues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.

Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum might be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival; the fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.

But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

Once again told through a compelling dossier of emails, IMs, classified files, transcripts, and schematics, Gemina raises the stakes of the Illuminae Files, hurling readers into an enthralling new story that will leave them breathless.

Rating: 4/5

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one, and the day it finally arrived, I dropped everything else when I got home from work and delved in. Then resurfaced a few hours later, having completed this thing in one sitting. So that should really tell you all you need to know.

But it would be a terrible review if I left it at that, so I suppose some extra detail is necessary, yes?

-I will admit that the novelty of the format has worn off a bit, as novelty does with the second in a line of shiny new things. However, I still really admire the way they make it work, how it all integrates to tell a story that is fairly easy to follow. The illustrations were a particularly cute touch.

-Illustrations and diagrams are also handy when trying to explain concepts such as wormholes and parallel universes. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I still don’t understand them. I didn’t say the diagrams worked, just that they were handy.😛

-As I mentioned in my previous review, this sci-fi definitely fits squarely in the YA category. I don’t think it has wide crossover appeal. But that’s not a criticism. It’s a book written for teens and aimed at teens. Just a warning for adults (like me) who might read it, the teenagers and their lingo and txtspk might grate on you a little.

-The story picks up right after the events of Illuminae, and we leap straight back into the action. Indeed, the action sequences are definitely the strength of this novel. It’s an adrenaline-fuelled, pulse-pounding adventure from start to finish. You’ll need to go read something relaxing afterwards.

-They don’t hesitate to kill off people. And somehow, they still manage to make you feel it, even if you haven’t known them for very long. And there’s no prevaricating around it – death isn’t just used as a threat – it really happens.

-The entire story takes place over two days or so. Which means that upon reflection, the dissolving and development of the relationships seems rather rushed.

-The character of Hanna is hard to like, initially. She comes across as a fairly spoiled socialite. She is revealed to have more depth, of course, but I did prefer the protagonists of the first book to the ones in Gemina. Also, I probably have an unrealistic grudge against her because people always spell my name without an ‘H’ on the end and it annoys me.

Overall, a worthy sequel despite my complaints. I’m already chomping at the bit for the next one, and wondering who the next set of featured characters is going to be.

 

Literary Linking #4

literary-foodfor-thought-2

“This site is dedicated to literature, arts, and culture. Electoral politics are usually beyond our remit. On a morning like this, when America has chosen a bigot and a xenophobe as its next president, my job feels pointless. But I don’t want to add to the chorus of despair, because I do believe there’s a role for art at a time like this, and I don’t say that lightly—words like these don’t come easily to me. I would rather make fun of things, and I’m struggling against an inborn fatalism. (My iPhone just reminded me to water my plants, and I thought, why bother?) The creative impulse is such a fragile thing, but we have to create now. We owe it to ourselves to do the work. I want to encourage you. If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can. If you have friends, as I do, who tacitly believe that it’s too much of a chore to read a book, just one fucking book, from start to finish, smash every LCD they own. This is an opportunity. There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay.”

Writers, Start Writing, and Other News – The Paris Review

The idiom “never judge a book by its cover” warns against evaluating something purely by the way it looks. And yet book covers are designed to give readers an idea of the content, to make them want to pick up a book and read it. Good book covers are designed to be judged.

And humans are quite good at it. It’s relatively straightforward to pick out a cookery book or a biography or a travel guide just by looking at the cover.

And that raises an interesting question: can machines judge books by their covers, too?

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Brian Kenji Iwana and Seiichi Uchida at Kyushu University in Japan. These guys have trained a deep neural network to study book covers and determine the category of book they come from.

Deep Neural Network Learns to Judge Books by Their Covers – MIT Technology Review

Ironically, some of the most frequently challenged books are the very books that young readers say are especially important and meaningful to them. Unfortunately, their views are rarely heard in the over-heated debates that often accompany book challenges. Instead, the adults – parents, school administrators, and school board members – make decisions about what kids should read without always appreciating how books with “controversial” content help young people learn and mature.

Kids explain how banned and challenged books helped them and even saved their lives – Boing Boing

The lack of critics of color is becoming increasingly frustrating for writers like Porochista Khakpour, a critic and the author of The Last Illusion. “Most book critics are white, and very often white and male,” Khakpour says. “Often those white males are not themselves very well-versed in issues of race, ethnicity, xenophobia, cultural appropriation etc. They are simply trained in reading books by white men, for white men, about white men.”

Literary criticism, like the art it seeks to evaluate, must strive for a wide and varied perspective so that the literature it evaluates is similarly wide and varied. Then there’s the reality that it’s much harder to recognize a problem you’ve never experienced. This level of attentiveness often corresponds to a critic’s identity.

White authors are still writing racist books because white critics won’t call them out

Most of the yellow cabs racing through Tunis are decorated with air fresheners, glittery pendulums, and framed baby pictures. Sometimes you’ll find a complimentary box of tissues. But taxi driver Ahmed Mzoughi, 49, has taken a more cerebral approach to his vehicle’s decor. Scattered on the seats and lining the dashboard are slim volumes of poetry, fat novels, and psychology books. Stuck on a side door is a decal that says, “Attention: This Taxi Contains a Book.”

Tunisians are being encouraged to read by turning taxis into libraries

So that’s a wrap of some bookish articles that interested me in the past few weeks. Quartz in particular tends to produce some good literature about, erm, literature. And while I didn’t have the fortitude to quote from the article, the Bad Sex in Fiction nominees for 2016 are out and here to terrorise us all. (Although I really didn’t find Gayle Forman’s contribution that bad at all.)

As always, let me know what you thought about these. Have a good week ahead, everyone.

Review: Mostly Void, Partially Stars (Welcome to Night Vale Episodes #1) – Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

mostly void, partially starsFrom the authors of the New York Times bestselling novel Welcome to Night Vale and the creators of the #1 international podcast of the same name, comes a collection of episodes from Season One of their hit podcast, featuring an introduction by the authors, behind-the-scenes commentary, and original illustrations.

In June of 2012, the creators of Welcome to Night Vale began airing twice-weekly podcasts. By the anniversary show a year later, the fanbase had exploded, vaulting the podcast into the #1 spot on iTunes. Since then, its popularity has grown by epic proportions, hitting more than 100 million downloads, and Night Vale has expanded to a successful live multi-cast international touring stage show and a New York Timesbestselling novel. Now the first two seasons are available as books, offering an entertaining reading experience and a valuable reference guide to past episodes.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars introduces us to Night Vale, a town in the American Southwest where every conspiracy theory is true, and to the strange but friendly people who live there.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars features an introduction by creator and co-writer Joseph Fink, behind-the-scenes commentary and guest introductions by performers from the podcast and notable fans, including Cecil Baldwin (Cecil), Dylan Marron (Carlos), and Kevin R. Free (Kevin) among others. Also included is the full script from the first Welcome to Night Vale live show, Condos. Beautiful illustrations by series artist Jessica Hayworth accompany each episode.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars is an absolute must-have whether you’re a fan of the podcast or discovering for the first time the wonderful world of Night Vale. 

Rating: 4/5

And listeners: Night Vale is an ancient place, full of history and secrets, as we were reminded today. But it is also a place of the present moment, full of life, and of us. If you can hear my voice, speaking live, then you know: We are not history yet. We are happening now, How miraculous is that?

Utterly bizarre yet somehow surprisingly profound and interspersed with philosophical gems , this collection is a must for fans of the podcast. I basically read this entire thing with the gloriously deep, sonorous tones of the audio narrator, Cecil, in my head, which made for an interesting experience.

In breaking news, the sky. The earth. Life. Existence as an unchanging plain with horizons of birth and death in the faint distance. 

It’s the kind of weird that you just have to roll with – it’s all presented so matter-of-factly. You can tell the creators had a helluva lot of fun letting their imaginations run wild, but they somehow make it work. And despite ominous glowing clouds and secret government agencies and conspiracies galore, the inhabitants of this strange little town face dilemmas we too can identify with – love, loss and the existential nature of life.

And really, I think it’s appropriate that I let the genius of Night Vale speak for itself, pardon the pun:

  • The past is gone and cannot harm you anymore. And while the future is fast coming for you, it always flinches first and settles in as the gentle present. This now? This us? We can cope with that. 
  • And night falls on you too. You too have survived, survived everything up to this moment. 
  • May you, too, find love in this dark desert. May it be as permanent as the blinking lights and as comforting as the dull roar of space. 
  • And we are healing. Those of us, whoever we are, who survived. Those others of us, whoever we are, who conquered. Whoever you are now, you are home. We are home, Night Vale. 
  • We are all poetry, Night Vale. Every breath or branch or sigh before another hopeless night of uneasy slumber is itself a verse in a great poem. 
  • We are in a moment that is still falling, still volatile, and we will never be anywhere else. We will always be in that most dangerous, most exciting, most possible time of all: the now, where we can never know what shape that next moment will take. 
  • The present tense of regret is indecision.

From the weird one-liner intros that set the scene, to the hilariously solemn adverts, completely out-there news stories, the weather in the form of a song,  unspeakably beautiful conclusions and witty proverbs, Welcome to Night Vale is certainly an experience in creativity, and I’m so glad I have this collection to remind me of some of my favourite moments from the podcast.

There’s a thin, semantic line separating weird and beautiful, and that line is covered in jellyfish. 

Review: When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie #3) – Kate Atkinson

Well hello, yes, it’s me! I was actually back from holiday a week ago, but it turns out there’s a lot of life-admin that piles up when you’re away, and I was simply too exhausted to function, let alone read. Also, I am massively behind on my Goodreads challenge, for the first time ever – so I’m pledging one hour reading per day till the end of the year. And hopefully that closes the gap!

when will there be good newsOn a hot summer day, Joanna Mason’s family slowly wanders home along a country lane. A moment later, Joanna’s life is changed forever…

On a dark night thirty years later, ex-detective Jackson Brodie finds himself on a train that is both crowded and late. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly hears a shocking sound…

At the end of a long day, 16-year-old Reggie is looking forward to watching a little TV. Then a terrifying noise shatters her peaceful evening. Luckily, Reggie makes it a point to be prepared for an emergency…

These three lives come together in unexpected and deeply thrilling ways in the latest novel from Kate Atkinson, the critically acclaimed author who Harlan Coben calls “an absolute must-read.”

Rating: 3.5/5

There’s something so compelling about Atkinson’s writing that has me coming back for more – even when I don’t particularly enjoy what I’m reading; even when I’m a little bored, to be honest, during some of the more introspective parts on middle class life or human nature or broken relationships. She just reels me back in, every time.

Don’t make eye contact. Walk briskly, don’t draw attention to yourself. Somewhere, in some Utopian nowhere, women walked without fear. Louise would sure like to see that place. Give medals to all the women. 

Her characters aren’t particularly likeable at all. They really do epitomise the ideal of flawed characters. Indeed, they’re almost frustrating in their humanity – there’s nothing dramatically wrong with then, they’re just stubborn or selfish or hard to love. There isn’t always a redeeming arc for them.

When the going gets tough, the tough take drugs. 

As is the formula for this particular crime series of hers, we are introduced to a series of different character perspectives until they collide – in this instance – quite literally – on a quest for a missing woman. What is frustrating, again, about this author is that things aren’t always wrapped up nicely, and there are usually things left unanswered. True to life, maybe, but it doesn’t feel so satisfying for the reader.

And how did they choose doctors? They took middle-class kids who were good at science subjects and then spent six years teaching them more science and then they let them loose on people. People weren’t science, people were a mess.

Of course, it sounds like this review is full of complaints, but there were aspects I really did enjoy. The mystery of what had happened to Dr Hunter. The moments of humour and wry observations. The class and gender issues that are always hovering in the background. The Britishness of it all, which manages to still feel authentic without veering into cutesy or cloying.

She had always preferred North and South to Wuthering Heights. All that demented running around the moors, identifying yourself with the scenery, not a good role model for a woman. 

Review: Good Morning, Midnight – Lily Brooks-Dalton

good morning midnightAugustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone.

At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success, but when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crew mates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

As Augustine and Sully each face an uncertain future against forbidding yet beautiful landscapes, their stories gradually intertwine in a profound and unexpected conclusion. In crystalline prose, Good Morning, Midnight poses the most important questions: What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives?

Rating: 3.5/5

How gorgeous is that cover? Aching and slow, Good Morning, Midnight  is another one of those quiet end-of-the-world novels, introspective and character driven. Not recommended for those who need their post-apocalyptic sagas action-packed, but still enjoyable for those of us who don’t mind a slower pace. For instance, there are chapters that just consist of our character’s thoughts while they orbit around space or take a lonely stroll around the Arctic, but the author really drives home the sheer isolation of our protagonists – Augustine on the scientific base in the Arctic, and Sully in her spaceship on her way back to Earth.

She floated forward, unburdened, into the certainty that she was following the path she was meant to, that she was supposed to be here, that she was a tiny and intrinsic piece of a universe beyond her comprehension.

We never find out what cataclysmic event has happened to essentially cause radio silence on the planet, but again, in this case it’s not necessary, even as we’re driven mad with curiosity. We’re in the same boat, or spaceship, as it were, as our characters, who have to deal with the fact that there are no signs of life apart from themselves. It’s a horrifying concept, in all its stillness. Just utter nothingness, for miles around.

The mess of survival was so distasteful. He preferred not to think about it. 

I preferred Sully’s chapters, learning about her life and relationships with her fellow crew members. The regimens they have to follow to maintain some semblance of normality, the cracks that appear as they fall into despair, and the little insights into their lives before this mission. And ultimately, the preparations and decisions they have to make for a return to an uncertain future on Earth.

It’s a little depressing, I have to admit, but I think it’s a beautiful story nevertheless, one where our characters are really stripped down to the basic aspects of survival, and have to grapple with the ethical and philosophical dilemmas that accompany it.

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

PS This blog will be going on hiatus for two weeks while I galavant overseas for a two week holiday. Chat to you all when I return!

Review: Sting – Sandra Brown

stingWhen Jordie Bennet and Shaw Kinnard lock eyes across a disreputable backwater bar, something definitely sparks. Shaw gives off a dangerous vibe that makes men wary and inspires women to sit up and take notice. None feel that undercurrent more strongly than savvy businesswoman Jordie, who doesn’t belong in a seedy dive on the banks of a bayou. But here she is . . . and Shaw Kinnard is here to kill her. 

As Shaw and his partner take aim, Jordie is certain her time has come. But Shaw has other plans and abducts Jordie, hoping to get his hands on the $30 million her brother has stolen and, presumably, hidden. However, Shaw is not the only one looking for the fortune. Her brother’s ruthless boss and the FBI are after it as well. Now on the run from the feds and a notorious criminal, Jordie and Shaw must rely on their wits-and each other-to stay alive. 

Miles away from civilization and surrounded by swampland, the two play each other against their common enemies. Jordie’s only chance of survival is to outwit Shaw, but it soon becomes clear to Shaw that Jordie isn’t entirely trustworthy, either. Was she in on her brother’s scam, or is she an innocent pawn in a deadly vendetta? And just how valuable is her life to Shaw, her remorseless and manipulative captor? Burning for answers-and for each other-this unlikely pair ultimately make a desperate move that could be their last.

With nonstop plot twists and the tantalizing sexual tension that has made Sandra Brown one of the world’s best-loved authors, STING will keep readers on the edge of their seats until the final pages.

Rating: 3/5

Romantic suspense appears to be my genre of choice this year! I saw rave reviews of Sting on my Goodreads feed, and decided it looked like something I should try. And while it didn’t blow me away, it was certainly an entertaining rollercoaster, and I’m looking forward to checking out some of the author’s other work.

Of the two ‘twists’ in this novel, I totally called the first one. I had a feeling that things wouldn’t be able to be resolved without something of the kind happening, and I was right. It would have simply been too problematic to stand, especially for this genre. And the second twist, well, while I didn’t foresee it, it did make sense. Ahem. Cryptic much?

I liked the female protagonist, Jordie – she treads a fine line between knowing when to fight and knowing when to toe the line for survival’s sake. She’s loyal, perhaps overly so, to her fugitive brother, and carries a burden of guilt for a childhood accident she caused. Shaw is a fairly typical male love interest – trauma in his past, married to the job, toughened up by life, etc. I was less intrigued by him than I was by her.

I ended up devouring this book in one evening – which is always an endorsement. I think what stood out for me is how well the author combines the different elements of romance, suspense, police procedural and character down-time in a recipe that creates an addictive read.

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review.