Tag Archives: DJ Older

Mid-year reading reviews

At the beginning of 2017 I set myself these reading goals:

  • Read 12 novels (one per month)
  • Read 50 Short stories (approx one per week)

Mid-way through the year, I’m tracking ahead for the first one with 8 titles completed and a 9th about 50% done (on the proviso that one accepts novellas in place of novels–more on that later). I’m a long way behind on the second.

What I have read though has been of an excellent standard. I’m really enjoying the novellas I’ve read. The novella, as a form, has been undervalued in recent years (decades), and there are fewer markets publishing novellas, but there’s something really pleasant (for me at least) about having a slimmer story which I can get to and complete with less ongoing time commitment. Novellas are more binge-able, and when there are breaks between reading opportunities or I have to step away from my reading for a length of time I find it’s easier to come back to the novella. The start is still recently enough in my mind that it’s not lost to the fog of time and distractions.

The books I’ve read (with brief reviews) are:

Gemina (Book 2 of the Illuminae Files) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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This book follows the same structure and style of the previous in the series (Illuminae, which I also loved). This time we have two new protagonists but there are a lot of parallels: boy/girl, separated from one another, smouldering coals of a possible romance… all of which keeps the book familiar, but Hanna and Nik are their own characters with well-developed identities and personalities, so the material is still fresh.

The action has moved from the fleeing fleet of rescue ships of the first book to the space station which was due to provide our erstwhile heroes an escape route. The same nefarious corporate forces which set everything in motion are back again, looking to cover up and save face (and legal consequences).

Kaufmann and Kristoff play off each other’s strength and the banter between the characters sizzles along. There’s a lot of moving parts at play here, some established in the previous book but a lot brand new. The threads of the narrative are interwoven throughout and only start tying in as we approach the climax. There’s a little narrative cheat in there, near the end, but it was well foreshadowed and probably earnt.

Would recommend this series to anyone but especially mid to upper teens.

Half Resurrection Blues (Bone Street Rumba #1) by Daniel Jose Older

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I had been meaning to read Older’s longer work for a while now, ever since I read a good short story of his (‘Anyway Angie’, from Tor), found him on Twitter, and appreciated some of the writing advice and cultural representation thoughts he shared.

This novel was a good intro to his world and his style. The New Yorker setting came through with a strong sense of authenticity and Older’s affection for the place was obvious on the page. The people too. In many ways this is a tribute to the grimier parts of NY’s boroughs, the alleys and bodegas, the clusters of community, the street celebrations, the hidden bars and the sense of having tourists and others intrude on your place like it’s some sort of urban cultural safari.

The plot was solid, taking a few turns at speed without ever really giving you the feeling that you’d lose a sense of where it was all going. In that regard there was a sense of safety or familiarity at work. Carlos’ half-resurrection was a cool concept, as was the ghostly world overlaid on the living world. Older introduces some cool concepts and gets creative with some of the tropes and cliches that the genre offers. He controls the tension well, and the climactic battle(s) fought almost simultaneously in different worlds are well-handled.

If you’re looking for some urban fantasy with ghosts, sword-fights, otherworldly conspiracy and world-saving that starts local, this is for you.

Home (Binti #2) by Nnedi Okorafor

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The sequel to ‘Binti’ (which I read and enjoyed last year) picks up almost immediately after the end of its predecessor. Binti is settled into the University now, but things haven’t been easy and she hasn’t integrated as well as she would have liked. Okorafor treats the trauma Binti carries with respect and she fleshes-out and realises that sense of dislocation, of homesickness. As someone who left a rural home to come to a large metropolitan university, that resonated with me. Binti, of course, first of her kind and survivor of the horrors in Book 1, has more to deal with and decides to head home and reconnect with her roots.

This novella gives much more depth to Binti’s world (galaxy?) and to her character. She is changing, and those changes add to her but also strip away parts of her foundation. She is desperate to reconnect with her family and the life she once had, but struggles to return to things as they once were, because they are no longer like that, and she is no longer as she was.

An unexpected quest leads her deeper into self-discovery and reveals secrets of her parentage and ancestry, challenges assumptions she had made about her world and her place in it. Throughout the story, Okorafor keeps the focus tightly on Binti and her inner struggles, even as the world around her unfolds. She also elevates to role of culture and spirituality, and allows these elements of Binti to co-exit with her scientific and mathematical strengths, indeed for these different world views to be complementary and mutually-beneficial.

I’d recommend this to anyone interested in seeing where modern Sci-Fi is heading.

(Recent side note: another of Okorafor’s novels, ‘Who Fears Death’, recently picked up for TV with an Executive Producer who is famous for some show about thrones and games).

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

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This novel has been getting a little buzz (and will get more in coming months) as a Hollywood film version is being made. In part I wanted to read this before the film came out, but I didn’t really need that excuse. I read ‘Finch’ some time ago and since then have been meaning to dive deeper into VanderMeer’s worlds.

This is sufficiently ‘Weird’ and VanderMeer handles the weirdness with relish. The characters are kept anonymous, including the protagonist whom we know only as The Biologist. She guides us through her entry to the Southern Reach as best that she can, given the shifting sense of the place and the uncertainty and unreliability of her own senses, the influence of hypnosis and other less explicable factors.

VanderMeer doesn’t explicate too much, which is a welcome decision. The reader is left to piece things together, decide who to trust and how much. It’s a book in which you, as reader, must be an active participant. Making meaning from the fragments and clues and hints. As anyone familiar with VanderMeer’s work might expect, the novel delivers fungi, dysmorphic bodies, impossible mysteries and the central (unresolved) question of what it means to be human and how the line between the Human and the Other might be blurred.

I’d recommend this to anyone willing to walk a few steps through the darkness and investigate the strange things they find as their eyes adjust.

All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells

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This Tor novella was a great advertisement for the strengths of the form. Wells gives us our narrator in first person very quickly, building an amazing amount of world- and character-building into an economical opening without expository dump. She hints at a much larger world and a rich history for the character, but is very disciplined in keeping her focus on the story she is here to tell.

That story is great. A self-described ‘Murderbot’ (possibly a reprogrammed human, possibly a cyborg more machine than flesh), overcomes its control protocols and discovers a love of soap operas and personal freedom. The Murderbot is a sympathetic, snarky, and very enjoyable character.

Wells handles the action elements well, with sparse but evocative description which doesn’t bog down in the minutiae. She is also able to reveal her human characters slowly through the Murderbot’s narrative lens. The agency of the Murderbot is the crucial question here, and Wells maintains that agency right through to a very satisfying end.

River of Teeth (River of Teeth #1) by Sarah Gailey

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This Alt-History Adventure/Heist has one of the best set-ups I’ve come across in a long time. It’s the early-20th Century in the southern states of the young US of A and some enterprising types have taken to importing African Hippopotamuses and farming them along the Mississippi River and the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. Of course, the life of a Hippo (‘Hop’) Rancher is a hard-scrabble one and former-rancher turned general ne’er-do-well Winslow Remington Houndstooth has a scheme (“It’s not a scheme!”) to make some money moving on some feral Hops. A side-order of revenge is quite the motivator too.

This is another Tor novella, and Gailey has great fun with its premise, playing up the familiar tropes of the American frontier all while a semi-submerged hippo waits to rise out of the water and change everything. At times that happens, but overall I found the hippos became too peripheral. They were more than background colour, more than a quirk to the setting, but sometimes not much more.

The human focus is good, and the characters full of colour and movement. They’re a proudly diverse crowd in terms of gender and sexuality and melanin, and that’s a strength of the narrative. Houndstooth’s relationship with Hero is sometimes touching and beautiful; his relationship with Archie hints at a deeper history and mutual respect (along with mutual wariness). But ultimately there didn’t seem enough time to invest in these relationships to the extent that they deserved and sometimes the ‘team’ Houndstooth assembles feels paper-thin, the antagonist likewise a silhouette threat rather than an actual villain: the long shadow cast around the corner but the anticlimactic arsehole in the full light.

I’d recommend this for a quick, fun read for those who liked old westerns, heist films and hippos (but never expected to see them all in the same place).

This Census-Taker by China Mieville

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If you go poking around this blog for a while you’ll soon see that I hold Mieville in high regard. He’s one of my favourite authors. Having read other reviews of this novella, I’m left to wonder whether my fanboying may be lending a rose-tint to my reading glasses (metaphorically speaking), but…

I liked this a lot.

Even more after reading it than while reading it, I find my mind returning to its images, to the central conundrum of it all, to the problems and passages and moments of it. This novella wormed its way into my brain and was leeching its influence through my thoughts for weeks after I set it down. It’s beautiful and stark and confusing and contradictory and strange. Often weird, always uncanny, sometimes fantastical.

I want to stay spoiler free, so by way of setting things up this opens with a boy coming down from his isolated home high on a rocky mountaintop to the villagers who live a little further downslope. He come with a horrifying tale of having witnessed a murder: his mother has killed his father… or did his father kill his mother? He can’t recall exactly and there’s some doubt anyone died at all. The boy is unreliable as a witness and as a narrator, a point Mieville reinforces throughout with sudden shifts of narrative perspective, person and tense.

This is full of high ideas and beneath its surface you get the sense of a vast and urgent backstory, a history to this world beyond the relatively small tale of the boy on the mountainside. Mieville handles this expertly, but expect to do some work. There’s not a wasted word here (though if you’ve read much of Mieville you’ll know there will be a few which will have you reaching for the dictionary), and even the tangents and digressions come back around to aid what understanding the reader might be able to draw from the novel. It doesn’t move quickly. It’s more atmosphere than plot. It feels much more dense than its length suggests.

I’d recommend this to fans of Mieville, of weird mysteries and creepy, unsettling horror.

Thunderbird (the 4th Miriam Black book) by Chuck Wendig

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Miriam Black is back and she’s on a health-kick… of sorts. She’s jogging. She’s quit smoking. She’s on a path of self-improvement. The good news is she’s still cantankerous and nasty and if anything the ‘nic-fits’ she’s getting from quitting only make things worse.

She’s also dragging around the guilt and wreckage of her various past adventures. While this does give a sense of building consequence for the character (she can’t just fuck things up and then move on to the next episode. Things don’t reset for the people she’s collided with through her travels) it also means that a good memory of the previous three books is required. I don’t know how much you’d lose picking this up as your first Miriam read, but I suspect a lot.

Despite her best efforts, she’s drawn back in, perhaps by fate, or her Trespasser, or her own much-beaten but unwavering sense of decency. As much as she might deny that such a thing exits. She can still see the deaths of those she touches, and her connection to bird-life is only growing stronger and more powerful. But Wendig here populates Miriam’s world with others who also have ‘powers’, as he has started to do in previous volumes, and I felt that detracted a bit from what made the first book (especially) great. There, Miriam was a one-off–an anomaly in a very ‘real’ world for the reader. Here the balance of the scales has tipped, so that she’s not really operating in our world any more, but in a Fantasy setting which is like our world, but not.

Wendig’s taken a lot of heat from certain internet denizens for the politics in his novels, especially in his Star Wars novels. It’s never bothered me (perhaps because I think our politics probably coincide more than they contradict). In this novel, the rise of a Trumpian Far Right in America comes through in Wendig’s antagonists, but really that just made me barrack for Miriam all the more.

I’d recommend this to fans of tough, sweary, angry chicks who kick arse and talk back, who are stubbornly good despite many temptations to go bad.

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So that’s it for the mid-year novels. I’ve read some great short fiction too, but not on track for the 50 for the year so will have to get my head down and get to work.

Might be a review post for the top five I’ve read so far coming soon.

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