Fun for Monday: The Seven Virtues Book Tag

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Giovanni dal Ponte’s The Seven Virtues … shiny!

It’s absolutely chucking it down here, right now. The wind is still huffing and puffing around the house, it’s dark and grey and I need cheering up. Let’s do a book tag!

 

The wonderful Ola and Piotrek of Re-enchantment of the World created this tag as the partner to the Seven Deadly Sins tag that was so much fun to do last year. Their fabulous Virtues post can be found here, and my Sins post can be found here.

 

Chastity

Which author/book/series do you wish you had never read?

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It was a very short-lived phase, OK?!

I honestly thought I couldn’t answer this, but a quick look through my old notebooks reminded me that I read Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. And Slugs by Shaun Hutson. And Jim Giraffe by Daren King. And Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. OK, I guess I don’t really wish I’d never read these, because how do I know what I like unless I also read things I don’t like? These are the books that leave the most obvious bad taste for me though.

I also deeply regret Richard Laymon and, yes, that Catherine Cookson novel I read when I was thirteen (she was my other grandmother’s favourite author *shakes head in mystification* and I was just trying to find some common ground with her). It was awful.

I have a lot to atone for. *hangs head*

 

Temperance

Which book/series did you find so good that you didn’t want to read it all at once and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

This is one of the main reasons why I love to reread books. I get to enjoy everything again and linger over the bits I like most without feeling the pressure to find out what’s going to happen next.

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I guess at the moment I am doing this with Saga. And Steven Brust’s Vlad books. I also do it when I reread Diana Wynne Jones. And Robin McKinley books put me in a trance. And I’ve still not read everything by Ray Bradbury yet, but he’s a delicious writer too.

 

Charity

Which book/series/author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

Mosca Mye Duology

This is a part of my job, so it changes depending on who I’m speaking to and where I am. Generally speaking though, I push Robert Goddard at a lot of people because he writes great thriller-ish stories that a lot of people get a kick out of (although his Wide World trilogy has been a little disappointing); I push Alastair Reynolds at anyone who knows the secret scifi handshake; and I’ve tried to push Chris Riddell’s Ottoline and Goth Girl books at poor unsuspecting children, but I don’t have any kind of gift when it comes to communicating with those who are of about elbow height, so that’s not usually very successful. I can usually convince parents, however. And finally, I push Frances Hardinge relentlessly at everyone.

 

Diligence

Which series/author do you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

This isn’t really me. I’m so far behind reading everything by the authors I lovelovelove that I’m not even thinking about what they’re going to write next. When I first had money of my own to spend this was because I lived a long way away from anywhere, had no access to the internet and really only shopped at two local-ish second-hand bookstores. Now it’s because I have access to the internet and there’s just so much interesting stuff being published I don’t stand any chance of keeping up.

Oh … ha. Just realised the only author I ever faithfully followed, waited for and religiously put my name down for was Sir Terry Pratchett. After I’d found him, aged fifteen, I read each of his books as they came out – libraries are great for that – right up until the end.

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Hmm. Now I’m sad.

 

Patience

Is there an author/book/series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising, but ultimately proving rewarding?

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I really struggled with Ursula K LeGuin when I was younger. I first read A Wizard of Earthsea as a tweenager and just … didn’t get it. Read it again in my twenties and enjoyed it so much more. Read it in my thirties and loved it. The same sort of thing happened with The Dispossessed.

What tends to happen though, if something starts out unpromising, is that I drop it like a hot poker and move on to something else, with nary a look behind me.

 

Kindness

Which fictitious character would you consider your role model in the hassle of everyday life?

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I’d love to say Alanna, or Noon, or Binti, or Sulien ap Gwien, but it’s Granny Weatherwax. I mean, I don’t have a commanding air or a penetrating gaze, but I want to be as confident in my powers as she is in hers, I would love to be as terrifying as she can be, and I’m definitely not going to be a nice old lady. I practice my scowl daily. I appreciate practicality and hard work over faff and posturing. And, man, I want to be able to deliver lines like she can.

“A witch ought never be frightened in the darkest forest, Granny Weatherwax had once told her, because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.”

 

Humility

Which book/series/author do you find the most underrated?

I can’t understand why no one is making a MASSIVE fuss about Steven Brust’s books over here in the UK. What’s it like in America? Is it the same? I only started reading him last year because of Little Red Reviewer and I absolutely love his Vlad Taltos books so far. They’re the kind of books that I’m loving so much I am simultaneously squirming with glee and wriggling with shame-impatience-despair that I didn’t come across him sooner.

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And Jo Walton. It’s like no one knows she exists sometimes, and yet there is a Jo Walton book for everyone, she’s that wide-ranging. I’ve yet to read one of her books and think, ahh, same old same old. She always gets me thinking too, which is the very best kind of writing.

Sometimes the world makes absolutely no sense to me.

 

 

I’m still a bit leery about tagging people (no natural bravery whatsoever – you see why I want to be Granny Weatherwax?), but fortunately I am so late to this one that lots of my favourite people have already done this tag – check them out below:

Calmgrove

ZeeZee with Books

Maddalena over at Space and Sorcery

The Orangutan Librarian

Bookstooge

Lashaan over at Bookidote

 

 

 

 

 

The Finishing School series by Gail Carriger

The Finishing School Series

This series is the perfect comfort read for when life is getting you down and it’s too cold and dark outside to want to do anything but stay in bed. Ostensibly YA, the only real concession Carriger makes to the age of her intended readers is that she refrains from referring to the … ahem … biological aspects of romance, mostly because all her characters are just a touch too young to be carrying on in such a manner. Thank goodness! (Full disclosure: I read the first of Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books, Soulless, before these, and while I loved everything about Alexia Tarabotti, Lord Maccon and company, and the wonderful style in which the book was written, I was just a tad (read: Massively! Terribly!) uncomfortable with the … ahem … romantic bits. The dratted thing is I want to read the rest of the series, so I’m going to have to find a way to deal with this prudishness of mine … just not yet).

As it is the Finishing School books are set before the Parasol Protectorate series, so it’s done me no harm to have read these first. And they’re great fun. Miss Sophronia Temminnick gets packed off to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality at the age of fourteen, only to discover that the school (located aboard an airship of “chubby floating majesty”) is actually going to teach her how to spy, deceive and kill like a pro. To make things more interesting, everyone aboard is aware of this except for Madam Geraldine.

Sophronia soon makes friends and she, Dimity, Agatha, Sidheag and Vieve learn how to navigate society with deadly grace, making use of accessories, petticoats, pastries and even a wicker chicken as they unravel evil plots and confound dastardly plans. Along the way they have dealings with werewolves and vampires, the boys from the local school for evil genius’ Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique, flywaymen (airborne highwaymen!), bitchy fellow students and the sinister group known as the Picklemen.

Things of note volume by volume include, in Etiquette and Espionage: thrown food, an adorable mechanical sausage dog, Bumbersnoot, and Sophronia’s abominable curtsy; in Curtsies and Conspiracies: a pretty, kohl-wearing emo boy, a robe à transformation and more Bumbersnoot; in Waistcoats and Weaponry: a mad, flowerpot-wearing vampire, an accidental secret engagement and the further adventures of Bumbersnoot; and in Manners and Mutiny: some very useful fake cakes, the importance of snacks and tea to espionage endeavours and revelations galore. Also, Bumbersnoot. Not to mention consistently fab banter between friends and enemies alike.

All in all, these books are funny, beautifully written and extremely entertaining. Sometimes that is exactly what you need, so if you find yourself needing such a read you could do a lot worse than give these a go.

 

“I hate adventure. Did I mention recently that I hate adventure? Well, I do. Sophronia, is this your fault? Have you arranged an unwarranted adventure for us?”

 

 

 

 

 

The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

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This story is all about Calamity. Calamity who was once called Chastity. Calamity whose mother just went missing one day and was never seen again. Calamity whose girl friends at school called “Charity Girl”. Calamity who got pregnant at fifteen by her gay best friend. Calamity who became estranged from her father and raised her daughter alone. Calamity who has just buried said father and, at fifty-three years old, is experiencing the first signs of menopause.

Calamity who carries around her hurts like little fires that need to be kept burning at all times.

She is a massive character. She is brave, strong, funny and irreverent. She is also grumpy, sharp-tongued and deeply flawed. There were two points in the story at which I wasn’t at all sure I still liked her, and yet Hopkinson’s compassionate portrait kept me interested until the very end. And by writing Calamity in all her many shades of grey, the author makes her too real to ignore. If she were just a homophobe, or just a critical mother, she’d be easier to dismiss as a caricature, but she is much more than these things and she has the capacity (thank goodness!) to grow.

Which is just as well because, whether she likes it or not, she is going through the change. Having been a woman not afraid to make it clear what, or who, she wanted, she’s not ready yet to hang up her stilettos or stop making eyes at attractive men. She’s not ready to become a ‘matriarch’, and at the beginning of the book she’s not talking to her daughter for having used that ‘m’ word to describe her. She’s not ready to let go of all the things she has been in order to become something new. And in a lot of ways, this is crux of the story.

With the onset of hot flushes Calamity discovers that she is ‘finding’ again. As a child she could find lost things, a talent with something of a history on the Caribbean islands around where she lives. When her mother disappeared she lost this semi-magical skill, and now, at the beginning of the book, it is back with a vengeance. Found things from her childhood are literally dropping out of the sky (or ceiling when indoors) every time she has a hot flush. And as time passes the found things get bigger. First, it’s just a few toys and books, then it’s an almond tree, then it’s a whole grove of cashew trees.

And she finds a small boy on the beach, washed up after a storm. He’s maybe three years old, speaks an unknown language and has a couple of unusual traits that point towards him being one of the ‘sea people’, a sort of mermaid-selkie hybrid that no one speaks openly about, but everyone more or less believes to exist. Calamity takes the boy in and names him Agway. In becoming a surrogate Mamma for him she perhaps thinks to avoid the other associations people are starting to make about a woman of her age.

Because without every being too heavy handed about it, this book explores the terrors of getting older (Hopkinson quotes Dennis Scott’s poem ‘Uncle Time’ several times in the book), especially for women, who, if not seen sexually, don’t appear to be seen at all, by men or by some of their fellow women. It looks at the loneliness that can threaten when everyone around you has grown up or moved on (or been pushed away). But it also gives a glimpse of possible comforts too. Right at the very end of the book Calamity discovers that her neighbours Mr McKinley and Mrs Soledad are “having a hot affair” and there is surely some hope for her to find in their “big grins” and “the companionable rise and fall of their conversation and their laughter”. We lose and we find our whole lives through.

If I have any criticism it is this: many of the mysteries in the story are not solved. We never really learn the significance of the Granny and the devil-girl tale that gets told, nor do we learn the full implications of the dada-hair lady’s story, although we’re in a better position to guess at the connections between her and Calamity. We learn nothing more about the cutlass after Gene’s phone-call about the blood; and while it is implied that Calamity’s mother was one of the sea-people, that, too, is never really confirmed or explained. Also, while I loved the monk seals conundrum at the Zooquarium, I still felt somewhat frustrated that this wasn’t tied into the sea-people story a bit more securely.

This is both a fun and a funny book to read. Calamity is so thoroughly herself that whether she’s trying to climb a tree or run for a bus, commune successfully with a group of sea-people or talk to just about anyone else, her way of looking at the world, with such sharp-edged humour, had me captivated. I don’t always like her, she has a mean streak a mile wide and her inability to let go of past hurts just keeps on damaging her relationships, which is no fun to read, but the feeling at the end of the novel is that she is not yet done changing, and that can only be a good thing.

“You something else, you know that?” He sounded bemused. “You cuss like a sailor, you have a temper like a crocodile, but you more honest than any judge I know.”

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

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This cover, man! Joey Hi-Fi is responsible for this beautiful slice of loveliness.

I remember being so excited when I first heard about Lagoon five years ago. I’d recently been reading about how skewed the Mercator world map is, so hearing about a book in which First Contact occurred in Lagos, Nigeria instead of London or New York was perfectly timed. And sure, it’s taken me five years to actually get around to it, but having read and loved Okorafor’s Binti novellas in the meantime, none of that excitement had dissipated when I finally started reading earlier this week.

“They were confused, afraid and eager to see what would happen next.

How would you have felt?”

 

And it is an incredible read. It’s energetic and chaotic; sometimes confusing, but always teeming with life and action, and it’s going to take me a while to really let what I’ve read sink in. But I’m left with reservations as well. I’m not sure I enjoyed reading this book.

 

Some of that is no doubt because it has forced me to confront my own ignorance. I know very little about Nigeria. I had to look it up on the map because I had no idea where in Africa it was, let alone that it actually has a lagoon. I did not know that electricity outages are a common occurrence there. I had to Google gated communities and Victoria Island. I did not and still do not know what a day in the life of a Nigerian citizen might look like. Not knowing these things bothers me a lot – I am aware that I live in a privileged bubble, but that awareness obviously doesn’t stretch very far and that’s not a good thing to know about yourself.

 

 

This is one of those books that has left me with lots of impressions, some quite sketchy and mostly disjointed. While it starts out fairly straightforward with three unconnected people being drawn to Lagos’ Bar Beach where they meet the ambassador for an alien race, it soon unravels as violence takes over the city and characters from folklore step into the real world. The story unfolds in the way that dreams often do, following its own internal logic, and the reader is just along for the ride.

 

There are a ton of characters, none of whom we spend a lot of time with, and yet Okorafor gives enough detail that we are able to care about most of them to a degree. The effect that this has is to breathe life into Lagos itself, so that you feel the city is the character and all the various points of view you are experiencing are aspects of that one larger personality. (That said, I hated Father Oke. By the final act I was happy to have forgotten all about him, happy to accept that he was just another small part of the beautiful-dreadful, multifaceted city of Lagos, but when I first encountered him I very nearly put the book down. If he was there to say anything meaningful about how the Christian faith has blended with local West African beliefs or how Christianity is altered by the personality of the country it finds itself in, I’m afraid I missed it all because I just hated him. And his ending wasn’t painful enough).

 

On the other hand, I loved that this story upends so many First Contact tropes. Not only do the aliens choose Africa – and Ayodele makes it clear that they really do choose, that they want to become citizens of Lagos, nowhere else – but their very first contact is with the people of the sea. I mean, we’re a planet two-thirds of which is covered in water, in which the most incredible diversity of species live out their lives, why wouldn’t aliens land there? Ayodele’s people land in the waters off the coast of Nigeria, communicate with the many varieties of marine life and give each what they most want, before coming ashore to chat with the humans. And what do the peoples of the sea want most? For humans to get out the water. So now the oceans are teeming with bigger and badder versions of everything we think we know, ready to kick human arse should we trouble them again.

 

And then there’s the wonderful bit where the President of Nigeria finally shows up and says to Ayodele: “Take me to your leader”.

 

 

The violence that follows Ayodele’s arrival was another aspect of the story I found difficult. It was accurate, sure. We are an angry, violent race. We do unspeakable things. And Okorafor doesn’t flinch away from that. She makes it very clear that aliens are not the problem, it is only our inability to handle change that stands in the way.

 

 

At the same time, she speaks of our interconnected nature. Even as we meet more and yet more characters we discover that they are all linked to one another, that the circles in which they all move are over-lapping constantly. The girl that Benson raped is a cousin of Troy’s, who is part of Moziz’s group of friends. Jacobs, another of this group, has a sister, Fisayo, who witnessed Ayodele coming ashore. Philomena, Moziz’s girlfriend, is Adaora’s house girl and it is her footage of Ayodele that inspires Moziz’s kidnapping scheme. There’s no more than six degrees of separation between any of the characters.

 

By the time the Bone Collector, Legba, Ijele, Mami Wata and Spider the Artist make their appearances it makes complete sense that these alien visitors, bringers of change, would awaken the gods and mythical creatures of Nigeria. We have already witnessed humans with superpowers, and have shared the points of view of swordfish, bats and a seven-legged spider. A country is defined by its beliefs, its history, its citizens (human and otherwise) and its folklore.

 

And ultimately it feels like this story is about how we are never of one mind. Any place is made up of the people that live there, of so many conflicting needs and desires that it can never speak with one voice. We are a fractious and divided people. And somehow Okorafor manages to leave the story (the ending isn’t really an ending, just another beginning. It’s all arbitrary at the end of the day), on a hopeful note. Nigeria will become something different. It won’t be all good. It won’t be all bad either. But it will be vibrant and strong and entirely itself.

 

 

 

 

 

2019 Progress Report

Progress Report 2019

I wasn’t going to do this post. I spent most of January changing my mind back and forth between doing it and not doing it. Hence, it is one month and three days late.

One of the things I both love and loathe at the same time about Goodreads is the My Year in Books thingummy. I love seeing all the books I’ve read over the year in tiled covers, but I loathe Goodreads presuming to tell me what my “most popular” and “least popular” reads were (because I absolutely do not care what the Goodreads *air quotes* community thought about what I’ve read). I love to know what my longest and shortest reads were, and how many pages I’ve read over the year, but I loathe being informed of my average rating over the year, which seems a pointless piece of information considering I only use the 5-star system in the loosest possible way.

Also, since I’ve been doing this bloggy thing, I’ve found that I want some sort of summary that focuses on the books I’ve read and written about here, which is only a slice of my total reading life. And I want to be able to include information on a whim from one year to the next, depending on what’s been important to me over that period. Goodreads fails to cater for these new desires of mine.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I finally decided to do this boring-to-everybody-but-me post. Don’t feel obliged to read it, I’m having a blast out here on my own. *grins from ear to ear*

2019 was a pretty cool year for me in my bloggy life. I started to feel a bit more comfortable talking to people online, and I played nicely with others: taking part in Vintage SciFi Month in January, Wyrd and Wonder in May, the Wyrd and Wonder mini event Spooktastic Reads at the end of October and SciFi Month in November. I also did my first buddy read with the Little Red Reviewer Andrea (we read Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes) and took part in the three Wyrd and Wonder read-alongs of Jen Williams’ frigging awesome Winnowing Flame trilogy. This was an unprecedented level of participation on my part and I loved every single minute of it!

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All in all it was a five-star year. Bravo 2019, Bravo!!

 

So, here, in no particular order, are the things I think worth recording about the past year, in list form (naturally) for your (but mostly my) delectation:

 

Favourite books read in 2019

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The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson took me by surprise in the best possible way. I have Rosewater to read next and I am really looking forward to reading more of Thompson’s prose, because sometimes it really is all about how a person puts a sentence together and I really liked his style in Murders.

I’m pretty sure I was clear at the time about how much I enjoyed reading this, but just in case it wasn’t crystal … Space Opera by Catherynne Valente.

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker was a delight from the very first sentence. Even more delightful is knowing that there are two more books set in this world for me to enjoy, not to mention Baker’s more well-known scifi series about the Company, which is about fourteen books long if I remember rightly.

And finally, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I am as interested in Jackson herself as I am in her odd, creepy stories, and I’m really looking forward to tucking into Ruth Franklin’s biography about her, called A Rather Haunted Life, at some point in the coming year.

 

Best cover art of the year

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I don’t want to repeat titles too much across these various categories, so even though Folk by Zoe Gilbert was one of my favourite reads of 2019 I felt a stronger need to waft it’s lovely cover in your general direction than to yack on again about its luscious language and knitted narratives. The cover was produced by David Mann Design (who also did the delicious covers for Circe by Madeleine Miller and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley).

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Todd Lockwood’s art for the multi-volume Memoirs of Lady Trent is in an order all on its own, however. I love everything about his wrap-around anatomical dragon cover for A Natural History of Dragons, so much so that I found it as a wallpaper for my laptop (which you can get here at tor.com if that floats your boat as much as it floats mine). There are also some lovely sketches inside the book, also by Lockwood, making the Lady Trent books positively drool-worthy.

 

 

Weirdest book read

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch. This book left an impression, for sure. It’s about biology and stories and human connections. It’s also angry, confusing and occasionally annoying. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but it’s lodged itself in here nonetheless.

 

Books I DNF’d this year

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Only three altogether and the first two are temporary DNFs: I started reading The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan and was loving it, but somehow it got put down and I’ve yet to pick it back up.

Then there’s The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi which, again, I was loving, before The Slump occurred. It’s still on the pile with the page marked.

Finally, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black didn’t make it. This one was also a victim of The Slump, but whereas I know I’ll go back to Scalzi and I can’t not pick Brennan back up, I’m not so sure I’ll return to Black. There was just too much spit and venom and humiliation for me … but never say never.

 

Characters I was most delighted to meet in 2019

I was overjoyed to make the acquaintance of Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon during The Winnowing Flame read-along (if you’re interested it all began here). A lady of similar age to myself and nowhere near ready to settle down, she’s every inch the adventurer, alight with curiosity and enthusiasm, and utterly charming to boot. Did I mention she has a crossbow? She has a crossbow!

Another weapon-wielding woman I met this year was Miss Sophronia Temminnick of Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series. Bloggy thoughts are on the way later this year, but I can reveal that she is delightfully dangerous and tons of fun.

I was also pleased to meet Lord Ermenwyr in Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World (I know I said I was trying to avoid repetition, but what can I say? He needs to be on the list), whose childhood reminiscences alone had me in stitches. The precocious teenage son of a demon lord and a saint, I thought he was just an incidental character when I started the book, but it turns out he and his family are really quite important to the story, and that is absolutely fine by me.

 

New-to-me authors first encountered this year

2019 was the year I finally got around to reading my first Adrian Tchaikovsky book, Guns of the Dawn, which only confirmed what everyone’s been telling me – that I should read more of his stuff.

I also read my first Nina Kiriki Hoffman. The Thread That Binds the Bones was one of my Spooktastic Reads and it was nothing like I was expecting and all the more fabulous because of it. I’ve been struggling to get hold of a copy of the next Chapel Hollow book The Silent Strength of Stones so that I can continue the journey.

 

My favourite non-fiction reads

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I don’t read a lot of non-fiction in a year because it takes me so long, and I’m a desperately slow reader as it is. 2019 appears to have been the year I was mostly interested in death, as my two favourite factual reads were Carla Valentine’s Past Mortems in which she reveals what it is like to work in a mortuary, and Unnatural Causes by forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd. Both books were fascinating, and Valentine’s in particular was both funny and emotional.

 

Best graphic novels

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Both Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda and Six-Gun Gorilla by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely floated this particular boat of mine very successfully.

 

Series started …

The Anvil of the World trilogy by Kage Baker, The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan, Full Metal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa, Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series, and the Winnowing Flame trilogy by Jen Williams.

 

… And series finished

The Winnowing Flame trilogy – no-one is more impressed than me that I both started and finished a trilogy in one year – and Girls’ Last Tour by Tsukumizu, which is an unusually short manga series of just six volumes.

 

Some things I read, but failed to write posts about

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I read Soulless by Gail Carriger and while I loved the tone, humour, characters and plot, I struggled with the rude bits and just couldn’t bring myself to write anything down. I switched to reading her YA Finishing School series and was much happier.

I also read Bird Box by Josh Malerman early on in the year. I really enjoyed this, although it also scared me silly, but I just wasn’t in the mood to write anything up. Good book though, if you’ve not read it. I was particularly impressed that Malerman doesn’t try to give an explanation, I always prefer a bit of mystery to remain in scary stories, that way they stay scary. (Note to self: saw a new book by Malerman at the library last week called Unbury Carol, don’t forget to request it; might be interesting).

 

The books I least enjoyed this year

It’s no secret that I’ve scrubbed Philip Jose Farmer’s name from every list ever because of To Your Scattered Bodies Go.  I was similarly, but not so vehemently, unimpressed by Vox by Christina Dalcher.

 

My favourite picture book

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Working in a library allows me to indulge my love of picture books. I don’t have children of my own and there are no children within my circle of family and friends still young enough to ply with picture books, so getting to process book deliveries is now the only way for me to dribble over the genius that is children’s book design. This year the book that blew me away was The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. I love Macfarlane’s writing, and I have adored Morris’ artwork in children’s books for years, to have the two of them combine forces is a dream come true. Some of the poems read like riddles, all of them play with language in the most beautiful ways and are stunningly complemented by Morris’ jewel-like illustrations. (If you don’t recognise Morris by name you will surely recognise her gorgeous covers for Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books which you can see here on her site).

 

Book which needs its own category

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It’s not a graphic novel. It’s not a novel that happens to have pictures. It’s not an art book with a story tacked on. The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag is awesome, but it doesn’t fit any of my boxes, so here it is in a category all of its own.

 

And that’s it. 2019 all summed up, ticked off and boxed away. Thanks for humouring me y’all. As you were. 🙂

 

 

 

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

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The most awesome Alex over at Spells and Spaceships recently laid out his intentions to read more diverse SFF in February and March (his first post can be found here, and his second here) and I’m tagging along, having a goodly amount of stuff on my tbr that fits the bill.

A lot of the books I have I bought thanks to a really excellent three-part post by the delightful Dina of SFF Book Reviews (you can find part one here, part two here and part three here) that I read a couple of years ago when I was first starting out in this bloggy business. And I still think you could do a lot worse than begin with Dina’s list, which includes an excellent range of authors. I bought Sorcerer to the Crown thanks to Dina.

And then, in my usual lackadaisical fashion, I forgot to read it. You know how it is.

Boy, do I feel stupid now.

Because Zen Cho. Oh. My. Goodness. I want to read everything she has ever written and then I want to read it all over again. I want to go back in time to the me that had just bought Sorcerer to the Crown and I want to hit that me around the face with it to punctuate my screaming “What. Are. You. Waiting. For?” I know my little strap-line thingummy up there *points left* says “always late to the SFF party”, but sometimes I astound even myself.

 

The problem with trying to write up my thoughts and feelings about something I’ve really enjoyed is that I can’t always bring my brain to heel long enough to string a sentence together. As I’m having this problem right now, I’m just going to get this all off my chest before I start trying to make sense: All the hearts for Damerell, and putting a cork in it; for personal rainclouds and lamia cousins and oriental unicorns (omg!!!); and did someone mention a pea-green hat? And then the sibyl in the painting, and cloud-riding, and Rollo and Poggs, and finally meeting Aunt Georgiana, and talking caterpillars, and yay for that ending, and more more more!!!

Right. That’s better. Let’s begin.

 

This is one of those books, that while being rip-roaring fun to read, also has some serious and thought-provoking undertones. A tale of squabbling sorcerers and wondrous witches, magical creatures and the land of fairy, it is also a story about racism, sexism and oppression. That Cho is able to tell all of these stories within one novel without faltering in her pitch perfect period style is one of the reasons why I am so absolutely in love with this book. I’ve yet to read another historical fantasy set mostly in Regency England that tells the story of an African sorcerer, a powerful and determined biracial woman and a village of vampire women in Malaysia in which these characters are front and centre and their agency vital to the story, rather than added as peripheral oddities.

Zacharias Wythe has recently taken up the staff of the Sorcerer Royal and become responsible for all magic in England – which is mysteriously in decline – after the death of his guardian Sir Stephen Wythe. He is the first black man to hold this prominent position and many think him unworthy of it and plot to remove him. Meanwhile, Prunella Gentleman is an orphan of uncertain heritage living/working in a school for the suppression of female magic. When she discovers something among her father’s meagre personal effects it seems that her fortunes may change, if she can persuade someone to help her. Zacharias and Prunella quickly find themselves in each other’s company and chaos, adventure and hilarity ensue.

There is so much more going on than just those bare bones, however. Zacharias has a whole stack of impossible problems to try and solve, not only the decline in English magic and the chilly relations between England and Fairy, but also keeping the government ignorant of this issue, not getting manipulated into promising magical solutions to political problems abroad, managing his own strange and debilitating malady and foiling sorcerous assassination attempts. Not to mention tutoring Prunella in thaumaturgy in the hope of bringing about a reform in the education of women at the same time as helping her in her quest to find a suitable husband.

It’s no wonder that Zacharias is a quiet, serious individual who is practically eclipsed every time Prunella enters the scene. She is a whirlwind of utter self-belief and resolve, practical, resourceful, ambitious, endlessly inventive and magically gifted. Having very few advantages and understanding perfectly how pitiless society can be, she is determined to manoeuvre herself into as safe a position as she can manage. I was in love with her from the get-go for being so very herself and not giving a fig about what society expects of her.

Which is not to say that Zacharias is any less lovable. He is, however, someone you need to spend more time with to love. Used as he is to having to hide his true feelings about the thousand tiny slights he receives for being an African gentleman (a dichotomy if ever there was one: an African at this time seen as less, beneath notice, unworthy of recognition; a gentleman seen as a person of good social standing and thus deserving of recognition), in a position of considerable power, he is far more reserved than Prunella. I loved that neither Zacharias and Prunella’s discussion about being outsiders, nor Zacharias and Sir Stephen’s discussion about obligation and love, tried to simplify or ignore the very complex feelings involved. Zacharias’ whole life is a tumult of anger, guilt and gratitude and there were a couple of moments when Sir Stephen mentioned some memory he had of Zacharias and Zacharias remembered the same instance, but through such a completely different lens of experience, that I choked up.

This. This is why I read. To see and feel and know more than I could without books.

 

And then there were moments when I laughed out loud (my bus journeys are an embarrassment, I tell you). Cho’s fairies and magical creatures are as contrary, fickle and pleasure-seeking as you could want; Prunella is, I think I may have mentioned already, a delight; Mak Genggang ever more so because while Prunella knows the conventions she’s flouting, Mak Genggang doesn’t even acknowledge them in the first place (if she doesn’t appear in the sequel The True Queen I will be heart-broken) and I love the wake of indignant men she leaves behind her. Damerell, on the other hand, seems to have stepped right out of the pages of a Georgette Heyer novel, and I ate up every scene he was in; there was, too, such an interesting dynamic between him and Rollo that I hope we get to see them again, (was I being dumb that I didn’t see the Rollo and Poggs thing coming? It was the loveliest surprise, but as I haven’t started rereading the book yet, I don’t know how obvious the foreshadowing was. I loved it, anyway).

There were also moments where I was furious with certain characters and had to put the book down for a minute or two; where I was enchanted by magic and had to read a passage over again, and where I was horrified by actions contemplated and actions taken (Prunella, I am looking quite particularly at you here). That there was very real human menace alongside magical delights and dangers, and problematic emotions in the same space as amusement and romance has left me full of admiration for Cho’s skill in keeping it all together and spinning such a gorgeous tale. Go and read it now if you haven’t already.

 

Seriously, what are you still doing here?

 

 

 

 

 

Trader to the Stars by Poul Anderson

vintage-sf-badge

Nicholas van Rijn is the trader of the title in this book, which is actually comprised of three longish short stories: “Hiding Place”, “Territory” and “The Master Key” in which van Rijn is the only constant character. He is either a dude or an arsehole, depending on how you look at things, but either way he’s a big one. Large of stature and of girth, van Rijn makes me think of nothing so much as an older Henry VIII, but with a better sense of humour and a bigger nose.

This one definitely wins top prize for the WORST cover ever

All three stories first appeared in Astounding/ Analog Science Fiction magazine in the early sixties. Each one presents a puzzling situation involving both humans and various alien species (to give lots of room for cultural misunderstandings and the like) that leaves the humans stumped until van Rijn steps in and explains it all. The conundrums themselves are Agatha-Christie-worthy and really quite interesting – the blurb on the back of the book sets the scene for the first story “Hiding Place” and was the reason I decided to read this in the first place – and Anderson is great at bringing a world to life and keeping his readers gripped. He doesn’t get swept up in his own cleverness or so absorbed in the science of his worlds that he forgets to be entertaining.

Trader blurb

Also, there are a lot of scientists and soldiers in science fiction, so it’s pretty refreshing to see the galaxy from a mercantile point of view. And Anderson suggests in these stories that trade is a universal language when cultures meet and mingle. I’m not sure how I feel about this – because, hello? Haven’t you heard of the Prime Directive?! These are primitive cultures you’re exploiting for your character’s own greedy ends in an entirely fictional scenario, Mr Anderson – but history does back him up: we human beings are all about the pretty shiny things that someone else has got. Although we are also very keen on attacking and subjugating those who have the pretty shiny things if we think they’re weaker than we are. (Weird thing that just happened: In one of those glorious moments of alignment as I was typing the words Prime Directive the theme tune for Star Trek: Next Generation just started playing through the wall we share with our deaf next-door neighbour – timing or what?).

 

In “Hiding Place” Captain Bahadur Torrance and van Rijn are aboard the Hebe G.B. (love the name!) and trying to stay ahead of space pirates about whom they have some important information. With the Hebe G.B. damaged, they pull up alongside an alien vessel planning to ask for help, but when they board they can find no crew, only cages and containers full of various alien species.

I liked the set up best here, but found two of the story’s developments kind of irritating. First, I didn’t like that the token female character was van Rijn’s bit of stuff. I just would have liked her to be anything other than that. And I didn’t like that she was the cause of brief tension between the Captain and van Rijn. Again, anything else would have been great. I know I’m incredibly privileged to be a white Western woman who has been exposed, during her adult life, to the narrative that a woman can do and be anything. A result of this privilege is that I want the science fiction I read to imagine a future in which women are more. And so I was disappointed to see the only female character in a very typical role, albeit not through coercion or obligation – she’s chosen to be there – but still I’d rather there had been no women in the story.

Second, I was annoyed by van Rijn’s quite quickly solving the puzzle of which of the species were actually the crew of the alien ship, but this was more because I hadn’t yet realised the book was three separate stories and had been expecting to get to work it out for myself. (Although I’m quite smug that I’d already worked out one part of the puzzle before van Rijn mansplained it to Captain Torrance). I can’t deny that his tone had a lot to do with my annoyance too, however. Smart arse.

 

In “Territory” biologist Joyce Davisson and van Rijn are rudely awoken when the human area of t’Kela is attacked. Marooned on the planet by their escaping fellow humans, they flee to a place of temporary safety along with one remaining friendly t’Kelan called Uulobu, and try to work out why the t’Kelans went so suddenly from friend to enemy.

I really enjoyed the cultural misunderstanding at the heart of this story and (further mansplaining aside) I also liked van Rijn’s solution to the problem. I was less keen on his stinky attitude towards Joyce: “you only got to cook and look beautiful”, and was livid that she softened up to him towards the end, but I guess she’s as free to be an idiot as she is to be a scientist.

 

And finally, in “The Master Key” a group of friends and associates meet at van Rijn’s apartment to talk about their youngest member’s recent adventures on the planet Cain. This last story is told from the point of view of one of the party members, who is addressed as Captain, but whose name we never discover. The group is comprised of van Rijn, the Captain, his friend Harry, Harry’s son Per (who is recuperating after being badly injured on his adventure) and Manuel, Per’s ensign.

This one was the best of the bunch for me. I liked how the story was told, with the Captain opening up, then Per and Manuel relating what had happened to them, and van Rijn only getting to chip in at the end, with his inevitable explanation. I enjoyed everything about the planet Cain and its two sentient species the Yildivans and the Lugals. The story is similar to “Territory” in that there is a sudden turnaround in human-alien relations, but the reasons for it were more interesting this time round, I thought.

 

So yeah. All in all a pretty good threesome. Despite minor annoyances I really like the way Anderson writes and I love his aliens. I can’t say I’m a big fan of van Rijn, he’s too much a caricature and his habit of explaining to everyone where they’ve gone wrong isn’t a particularly prepossessing trait. That said, he has an amusing manner of speech that goes a long way to making him more palatable. I can imagine him being voiced by Brian Blessed, booming: “Pox and pestilence, but the first beer of the day is good!” and “What is this poppies with cocking? When I say frog, by billy damn, you jump!” and “Thunder and thighbones, what is this farce?” There’s a lot to be said for creative expletives.

“Beelzebub and botulism!”