Reviews

Jul. 5th, 2015 05:02 pm
nishatalitha: Sepia photo of a woman in an old-fashioned dress with a book (Woman and Book)
The more observant of you will have noticed that I haven't been posting reviews for the last couple of months. This is due to a couple of reasons:

  1. my head kinda broke a bit—mostly reaction from stress. The workstress is pretty much over, but I'm still reacting to it, and the homestress is ongoing, although with a lower intensity level. As a result I cut back on some committments and also online communicating. It was all a bit too much.

  2. LOTNA, the SF group in London that [personal profile] the_eggwhite and I go to, has a bimonthly fanzine produced by and for the members. I've given them a my review of A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, but my thought is that I will give them two reviews for each magazine, which I will then post here, so there will be a gap whilst I move to the new schedule.


My criteria will remain the same for choosing the books.
nishatalitha: image: lots of ladybirds crawling up fencepost.  white rope is wrapped twice around top of fencepost (Default)
This is due to RL overwhelming me somewhat, particularly today.

I did, however, read The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu earlier this month. I generally liked it, but doubt that I will reread it very often. It's very well written, but is about concepts more than people and as a reader, I am more interested in people. A conflict of taste rather than the author being incompetent. It is the first in a trilogy and I will pick up the sequels as they are translated.

If you like classic SF, then you will probably like The Three Body Problem
nishatalitha: Sepia photo of a woman in an old-fashioned dress with a book (Woman and Book)
I am late this month, thanks to organising a mini-gaming con, and also getting distracted into reading both Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel (the latter two occupied nearly a week of reading time each).

Still, after racking my brains for what I did read this month, I do have a review offering for you. And it's a good one!

Title: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Author: Becky Chambers
Copyright:2014
Publisher: self-published but has been picked up by Hodder & Stoughton - see below
Obtained: e-book from Amazon
Author Website: Other Scribbles
Reason for review: This is an ensemble cast novel and only one of the least-used viewpoints is a white male (and he is hardly heroic). The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is self-published and was shortlisted for best debut in the Kitschies Awards, but has since been picked up by Hodder & Stoughton, been given a new cover and will be out in hardcopy in August this year (I plan to pick up a hardcover too). I read it twice in a week, made [personal profile] the_eggwhite read it—and he enjoyed it.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry, Planet is readily available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, and I believe also from Kobo.

Blurb:Welcome aboard the Wayfarer.

Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.


So, this is a delightful romp of a sf novel. As the title suggests, it is all about the journey not the destination (although as could be anticipated the destination isn't ideal and is then final climax of the book). Essentially the main job of the crew of this ship is creating wormhole tunnels for other ships to use (handwaved generally with enough plausible-seeming info for this non-sciency person) and with the arrival of their new clerk, submit a bid for and win the tender for creating a major new wormhole. They just have to travel for a year to get to the start point first! Ensembles are far more common in TV than books and it is nice to see a true ensemble book.

Our cast include several humans: Ashby the Captain who keeps the show on the road, who has to be friendly with his employees since he's living on a tin can in space with them, but also has to be their boss; Kizzy, the engineer, who reminds me of a cross between Kaylee in Firefly and Abby in NCIS; Jenks, the computer software engineer who also does some electrical engineering; Corbin the awkward white male algae farmer who makes the fuel and is obsessed with making it the best possible mix (almost but not quite the most minor viewpoint); and Rosemary, the ship's clerk who is new to the ship and to space which gives lots of good excuses for info-dumping. She is also the primary recurring viewpoint character (if this book could be said to have one),. The non-humans crew include Lovey, the ship's AI; Sissix, the reptilian Aandrisk pilot; Ohan, a Sianat Pair, an alien, who, because of a virus, is basically a wormhole calculator; and Dr Chef, a Grum, who is both the ship's medic and the ship's cook. Given the long trip they are on, reasons are found to meet family of, visit planets or learn backstory for most of the crew but particularly the non-humans.

First of all, I love that their clerk is the one that makes this possible. Paperwork is important guys! It isn't quite competent bureaucracy porn but it's respectable. I could stand to see more of Rosemary being a competent ships clerk. In addition, being print rather than screen, Chambers is not limited in how her aliens should look, and like James White, takes advantage of this. Also, humans are not the most powerful species in the galaxy which is often nice, and earth is ruined thanks to humans—the latter seems quite realistic to me.

This book is a slice-of-life novel. Nothing wrong with that—I quite like slice of life novels, particularly when they are done as well as this one is. For those of you who read fanfiction, it reminds me a bit of fic; for those of you who don't, the reminder is not a bad thing. I considered whether it reminded me of the Nathan Lowell Quarter Share series (another slice-of-live living-on-spaceships book, originally published in audio) and concluded that it didn't: whilst I enjoyed Quarter Share, later books in the series were a bit too creepy for me and I gave up on them. Also, they were all first person from one character's perspective, neither of which The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet are. Nor is it creepy, which yay.

On this ship, the crew works on the legit (but blue-collar) side of the law; they have a job, which they are good at; and the rest of the book is about the crew's relationships to each other. We do not quite go on a tour of each person's background, but throughout the book we do learn about some of the history for each character, but also what is important to them now. It focuses on the relationships between each character, and Chambers keeps things going with a deft hand. The relationships are not entirely what you would expect, and clearly illustrate the sf romance trope that humans can fall in love with any being (it is important to note that these loves are not all the eternal-love type of romance, but they are important now and it is worth trying).

One of my favourite quoteable bits is Sissix complaining to Dr Chef about humans and how they smell, Dr Chef saying he'd put odor neutralising formula in their soap and the humans hadn't noticed!

Language and use of gender is important. There is an underlying message about respecting people and how they wish to be perceived and called. Thought has also gone into body image both internal and external and how to be comfortable with yourself.

If elements of this book, upon reflection, seem a bit formulaic, moralistic or predictable I am fine with that, particularly since it fits in generally with left wing views. The storytelling is engaging, with a fairly light hand and it is, quite frankly, just a fun book to read. It never gets heavy or overwhelming and that sense of fun and the authorial light hand with drama makes it an easy and enjoyable read.

I will be keeping an eye out for more fiction by Becky Chambers.

If you like Firefly or Farscape or ensemble slice-of-life stories, then this is the book for you.

Other books I could have reviewed instead this month: Half-Life and Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang, Talk Sweetly to Me and Trade Me by Courtney Milan,
nishatalitha: Sepia photo of a woman in an old-fashioned dress with a book (Woman and Book)
Title: Spirits Abroad
Author: Zen Cho
Copyright: 2014
Publisher: Buku Fixi
Obtained: e-book from Amazon
Reason for reviewing: short story collection by a Malaysian woman living in London, set in both London and Malaysia
Author website: ZenCho.org

Spirits Abroad is readily available in ebook from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Google Play, and Smashwords and in print from Amazon and Fixi

Blurb: “If you live near the jungle, you will realise that what is real and what is not real is not always clear. In the forest there is not a big gap between the two.”

A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, SPIRITS ABROAD collects 10 science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian sensibility.


Spirits Abroad is one of those rare short story collections in which I don't actively dislike any of the stories. The hit rate for really liking the stories is also much better than usual (four or five rather than two), but I genuinely enjoyed the rest as well, although they currently blur into one another.

Each story is written with a light and deft hand. As would be expected from the book title, spirits are very much present, but they are presented as fact rather than fiction and something you just need to placate or manage as you would any other aspect of your life from work to family. I should probably note that the spirits mentioned (almost without exception) are not Western ghosts or dragons and that generally they are referred to by their Chinese or Malaysian name - I am not familiar enough with either language to know which is which.

The book is divided into locational sections: Here, There, Elsewhere and Going Back, but throughout these, there are two other main themes. The first is family: loved, liked, irritating, close or distant, pressuring but always important. I adored the first story ('The First Witch of Damansara'), in which the main character returns to Malaysia for her grandmother's funeral, and works out a way to collude with her younger sister to placate their Nai Nai's ghost. It is an excellent start. 'The House of Aunts' is all about family being somewhat interfering but ultimately wanting the best for the POV character. On a side note, I was amused by the author noting afterwards that while the aunts are made up of an amalgam of her aunts, they wouldn't be happy about this so please don't tell them!

The second theme is education and the importance thereof. Vivian, in 'The First Witch of Damansara' moved away for her education and to get a good office job and fiance (she did this in the right order); Ah Lee in 'The House of Aunts' is still at school and her Aunts are very keen that she get a university degree before marriage; in There, 'One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland' is set at a UK boarding school - actually all of the stories in There either revolve around school or university or the characters are at school or university. 'The Fish Bowl' is a somewhat worrying story about exams.

Other stand out stories for me were 'The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia', which anyone who has had to organise or moderate a round table discussion of experts should appreciation, 'Prudence and the Dragon' and its follow-on 'The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life' were both engaging and delightful. I enjoy both Prudence and Angela's different practical perspectives. 'The Mystery of the Suet Swain' was also excellent commentary on stalking and how it's not cool, but also how you can support your friends if someone is being that sort of douchebag. And for people like me, who don't pick up on this sort of thing very well, helps to identify when that sort of thing is happening.

The protagonists of these stories are almost all young Chinese Malaysian woman (as is the author) and thanks to the author's notes at the end on most of the stories, I know that the characters are strongly influenced by events in the author's life or people she knows. This means there is a certain similarity to most of the POV characters, but the situations are different and her hand is light enough that this isn't an issue in this collection. I will, however, be interested to see what she decides to write after she feels she has exhausted those ideas.

In short, therefore, this is an engaging collection which is well worth the read and one I would like in hard copy so I can loan it out to other people to read.

If you like Miyazaki films, anime about the family or home, books about being at school, or if you like your heroines to be practical and sensible (with the occasional touch of whimsy), then this is the collection for you.

Other books I have read this month that I could have revised instead: Invisible City by AC Buchanan, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho, Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction, Dominica Malcolm editor and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard. All of these are also well worth reading.
nishatalitha: Sepia photo of a woman in an old-fashioned dress with a book (Woman and Book)
Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Copyright: 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Obtained: from tombola lot at Worldcon from either BSFA or a London SF group
Reasons for reviewing: science fiction written by an American of Nigerian descent, which is set in Nigeria
Author Website: Nnedi.Com—which looking at says she has won a number of fantasy awards for some of her other books (I'm now embarassed that I haven't read more of her fiction and will rectify this).

Lagoon can be obtained from Amazon.co.uk and Amazom.com; I've also seen it in Waterstones, so hopefully is generally around in bookstores and libraries, do check locally

Book blurb: When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself.

Lagoon is a first contact novel set in Nigeria. A former housemate of mine came from Nigeria, but that's the closest I've been. This means that I have to take on faith that Lagos is like the description, but that doesn't matter—until I came to London, London was fictional— the Lagos of the book is an engaging and interesting place. It was fascinating reading the descriptions and trying to picture it in my head, feeling the energy and busyness of the place. Readers may also note the prevalent use of mobile phones; I gather this is true for much of Nigeria.

It is very clear from the beginning that Lagos is as much a character in the novel as the main POV characters. Ditto the sea for that matter; in many ways the book revolves around contact with the sea. But in brief, aliens come to earth. They would like a nice environment to live, one which their neighbours like too. Seriously, why would you land in the US or the UK where you would get found and probably locked up for scientific experiments by the government, when you could land in Nigerian waters where there is no such strong governmental control? The three main characters meet the alien, and events escalate and then rapidly spiral out of control. Not all the events are bad, not all are good. Overall, there is rapid and swift change, as well as resistance to change, before coming to a final conclusion which ultimately ends on a positive note for society as a whole.

One of the interesting things about this book, although there are three 'main' point of view characters, there are many minor points of view, most of whom only turn up once or twice. These include a road, a priest, an accountant and a singer amongst many others. In addition, there are quick perspective switches just after something major has happened in the book (I was particularly fond of the road and the tarantula). The characters do drop into pidgen English and some of the several other languages spoken in Lagos besides English are also used (generally with a translation and there is also a glossary at the end if you are the sort of person who reads those). Sometimes the use of multiple languages can be an author being clever, but in this case, it's a reflection of the city. It's the same of the points of view aspect: it's an example of authorial control and intent, rather than carelessness. All the point of view shifts tell the readers add an element or piece information.

In terms of pacing, which I am rubbish at describing, the first time I read this it kept me engaged the whole way (I wanted to know what happened next). The reread for this review took me a little while to get past the slower prologue, into the increasingly energetic rest of the book, but once I had, I raced through and quickly reached the can't-put-down point. Structure wise, I think it's relatively standard for a novel (from my dimly remembered high-school English classes), but there is nothing wrong with that. The narrative style and the location are more interesting about this book.

Overall, and without wanting to give anything away, this story is about change, both internal and external. And hopeful change at that. Even though some of the events in the book are quite awful, if not particularly graphic, the end is hoping for a positive future for Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

If you liked The Lego Movie, Pyramids (or other early works) by Terry Pratchett, or Farscape, give Lagoon a go. It's worth it. (Also, I was trying to come up with first contact books or TV that had positive change endings for this bit and really struggled!) I have reasons for choosing each of these comparisons, so if you find them a bit odd I'm happy to discuss.

Rating: 8/10

Next up: I haven't decided yet but am currently contemplating The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu or Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho.

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