BOOK REVIEW: Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar

BOOK REVIEW: Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav KalfarTitle: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 277
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

An intergalactic odyssey of love, ambition, and self-discovery

Orphaned as a boy, raised in the Czech countryside by his doting grandparents, Jakub Procházka has risen from small-time scientist to become the country's first astronaut. When a dangerous solo mission to Venus offers him both the chance at heroism he's dreamt of, and a way to atone for his father's sins as a Communist informer, he ventures boldly into the vast unknown. But in so doing, he leaves behind his devoted wife, Lenka, whose love, he realizes too late, he has sacrificed on the altar of his ambitions.

Alone in Deep Space, Jakub discovers a possibly imaginary giant alien spider, who becomes his unlikely companion. Over philosophical conversations about the nature of love, life and death, and the deliciousness of bacon, the pair form an intense and emotional bond. Will it be enough to see Jakub through a clash with secret Russian rivals and return him safely to Earth for a second chance with Lenka?

Rich with warmth and suspense and surprise, Spaceman of Bohemia is an exuberant delight from start to finish. Very seldom has a novel this profound taken readers on a journey of such boundless entertainment and sheer fun.

 Existence runs on energy, a fluid movement forward, yet we never stop seeking the point of origin, the Big Bang that set us upon our inevitable course.

I feel like a lot of the fiction I’ve read this year as a sense of the weird to it. Something is off, something is not quite right. Spaceman of Bohemia is about an orphaned boy raised by his grandparents who grows up to become an astronaut. When the novel begins, he is going on a single-manned mission to a weird particle glow cloud in space near Venus. But this isn’t science fiction in the usual sense. I found this novel to be an exploration on what it means to be a person, what it means to recognize your past as part of your future, and a philosophical meditation on identity.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading it, and I’m glad I never read more than the cover flap on the copy that’s been on the shelves at work for a while because I think I might have been disappointed if I thought this was a space adventure story. It reminded me a lot of Foer’s Everything is Illuminated in the way in which the story moved back and forth through time, through flashes of Jakub’s memories and his present experiences.

What I loved most about this novel, surprisingly enough because I am terrified of spiders, is the hallucinatory spider-like alien who loves Nutella. We never really find out whether or not the spider-alien Jakub sees is really there, and it makes me wonder if the alien manifests itself based on the fears of the person it senses. The alien tells Jakub that it has been observing Earth for a while, absorbing everything humanity has to offer, but it’s Jakub who brings that “humanry” to the alien on a personal level. The end is both heartbreaking and triumphant, and it left me wanting to read more about Jakub and more by Jaroslav Kalfar.

A copy of this book was provided to me for review by the publisher and Netgalley; all opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeer

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: April 25th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 323
Format: Hardcover
Source: Work

"Am I a person?" Borne asked me.

"Yes, you are a person," I told him. "But like a person, you can be a weapon, too." In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford. 

"He was born, but I had borne him."

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.  

“He was born, but I had borne him.”

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne evokes a sense of the weird and the unsettling in a probable near-future reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy. In the novel, a young woman named Rachel scavenges and survives in a city ravaged by an unnamed ecological disaster. The city’s grounds are littered with the remnants of the now-defunct Company’s biotech, and the city is not-so-subtly governed by the actions of Mord, a giant flying bear. During one of her scavenging missions, Rachel finds a little lump of something not quite plant and not quite animal named Borne. Borne disrupts Rachel’s life little by little until his very existence threatens to upheave everything in Rachel’s life and in the strange ecosystem of Mord’s territory.

This standalone novel from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy explores how humans abuse science and nature for technological or monetary gain, and Borne shows us the aftermath of that greed. The novel also explores what it means to be a person, what it means to love and then to let go of love, what it means to live and then to die, and what it means when one finds beauty in the midst of so much chaos. VanderMeer manages to pack so much description, emotion, and longing into such a short novel, and it’s a novel that will make you reread passages and sentences again and again because of their beauty and complexity.

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 96
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

 The Strange Bird is a companion story to VanderMeer’s Borne, and the novella adds even more depth to the world in which VanderMeer has created in Borne. The Strange Bird is part human, part bird, and she is rejected from the world in which she lives, because she is not wholly human nor wholly animal. The timeline of this novella occurs before, during, and after the events of Borne and offers an outside view of those events. While Borne explored in its complexity what it means to be a personThe Strange Bird explores what it means to be free and know oneself when the world seems to “naturally” conspire against your very existence. It’s a highly recommended follow-up if you’ve read Borne and wanted more.

BOOK REVIEW: Artemis, by Andy Weir

BOOK REVIEW: Artemis, by Andy WeirTitle: Artemis by Andy Weir
Published by Crown Publishing
Published: November 14th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you're not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you've got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she's stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

I’m really torn on this review, because a lot of Artemis fell flat to me to the point where I wasn’t enjoying reading it sometimes. I flew through The Martian. I loved Mark Watney as a character. He was funny, flawed, and real. I felt connected with his perilous stranding on Mars, I rooted for his success, and I felt whatever emotions Watney felt during his highs and lows and in-betweens. The Martian, for me, is a solid, traditional science fiction story. Artemis felt, at times, like an experiment with how many boxes can I check off, how many science-y things can I put my characters through, and how many near-death experiences can I put Jazz through…

Jazz Bashara is a twenty-six year old Arabic woman who is incredibly talented at science-ing her way through life and smuggling stuff. I liked that she was Arabic, and I liked some of the references to her heritage, but some of her heritage seemed superficial and not relative to her character at all. I kept thinking she was in her teens by the way she spoke about herself and everyone else around her. Some of her most cringe-worthy lines sounded like she was a girl trying to impress a lot of boys with her cool-girl attitude with the “Oh, I made a double-entendre, get your mind out of the gutter” sort of humor.

Jazz’s type of humor and attitude toward life would be more believable for me if she had a foil, a character who contrasts with her to highlight her nuances, maybe a best friend who is incredibly feminine, but there isn’t one. For all the touting of diversity and what-not, Jazz is really the only female character in the book (aside from someone at the end, but this other character really only acts as a plot device). The other main characters in the book are the stereotypical geek who doesn’t know how to talk to women, the tough-love grunt, and the boyfriend-stealing charming gay guy.

The conspiracy behind the heist isn’t entirely believable to me, so the action and the science needed to resolve the arising problems ultimately fell flat. And, minor spoilers, but. Am I really supposed to believe that whoever designed Artemis didn’t have backup plans in case the entire colony got flooded with some awful unbreathable stuff? That’s just bad science. Any good developer/engineer/architect would probably consider this possibility, and I find it difficult to believe that this scenario didn’t pop up in the theoretical models during planning.

What we were promised in Artemis: a high-octane heist, bad-ass female main character, diverse cast of characters, humor, science, moon stuff. What we got: a sorta cool heist, one stereotypical female main character, a cast of stereotypically diverse characters, humor, science, moon stuff.

Overall, Artemis is a pretty fun, fast read. Aside from those issues I wrote about above, Weir’s writing style makes it difficult to put the book down once the action really gets going. I really enjoyed the concept of colonies on the moon and the details Weir interjects into the concepts and science of moon colonies. This will be one that a lot of people will be divided about in its reception, but it’s a decent follow-up to his first.

Thank you to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for an ARC; all opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain NeuvelTitle: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Series: Themis Files #1
Published by Del Rey
Published: April 26th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

An inventive debut in the tradition of World War Z and The Martian, told in interviews, journal entries, transcripts, and news articles, Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by a quest for truth—and a fight for control of earthshaking power.

 If you fall in love with someone, there’s a good chance the person won’t love you back. Hatred, though, is usually mutual. If you despise someone, it’s pretty much a given they’re also not your biggest fan.

Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants is the story of a girl named Rose who falls into a pit in the middle of the earth in South Dakota, and when she wakes up, she discovers a piece that’s part of a very large robot. Told through a series of interviews, we see from different perspectives the discovery of more of those robot parts and the dawning realization that there is no possible way that humans built this thing. The question remains – who did? Where did this robot’s creators originate? Why was Earth chosen as a destination point for this machine? Are there more?

I enjoyed the style of this book. It reads quickly, and I was constantly turning the pages to see what happened next. The biggest frustration, and it seems relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, in reading stories through the eyes of interviews, articles, and detached narratives are that we’re forced to piece together what happens behind the scenes and who these characters are in relation to the story at hand. When the interviews jump ahead in time by months or years or whatever, I was left wanting to know more about the in-between times, which isn’t a bad thing in the end, because the jumps kept the story moving forward and I don’t think anyone wants a 700+ book of interviews detailing every exact thing. I just enjoyed Neuvel’s world-building so much that I wanted that extra stuff. I’ve got the sequel ready to go, so I’m hoping for more greatness!

It’s billed as something for fans of The Martian, but I think it’s more in line with Pacific Rim and any other machina science fiction. For a debut novel, I was impressed with Neuvel’s scope in his world-building, detail, and character development. It’s a solid novel that feels like it’s been written by someone who has been doing this sort of writing for a long time. I really enjoyed it, and I think it’s a thrilling read for people who love science fiction and for people who love a good thriller.

BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn

BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie VaughnTitle: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
Series: Bannerless Saga #1
Published by Mariner Books
Published: July 11th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

What happens when you mix a post-apocalyptic dystopian with a bit of detective fiction? You’ll get Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless. I really enjoy traditional, structural genre stories mixed with a fantastic setting, and this one didn’t disappoint. Bannerless takes place about a hundred years after a series of events destroy society. It’s a little like taking a peek into our future if we aren’t careful about our relationships with other countries and if we aren’t careful with our planet. Instead of being another post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, Vaughn uses this vision of the future as a twist in her traditional mystery and that twist adds a dimension to the story that I found really enjoyable.

In this futuristic world, the population has dwindled, birth control is mandatory, and people live in tight-knit communities in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. People group together in family units called houses, and they work together to provide enough materials for themselves and for their families, and once their quotas are met or consistently exceeded, these families can apply to get a banner which allows that household to have a baby.

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, a role that combines the roles of police, detective, and judge. Crime doesn’t really exist in this future world, and most of it ends up being bannerless pregnancies or unauthorized food and material production to try to game the system. She is called up with her partner to investigate a suspicious death of a bannerless person in a neighboring community, and she is forced to confront someone with her past as she and her partner Tomas figure out the mystery. I also really enjoyed Enid’s self-discovery as she investigates the suspicious death. She goes from being a little insecure of herself as an individual to growing more and more confident in herself, and to me, that’s entirely relatable. Told in alternating chapters of Enid’s past and present, Bannerless explores a future in which our very society is regulated on the local level and how our actions, even with good intentions, can be devastating for entire families.

If you enjoy traditional mysteries, dystopian futures as imagined in books like Station Eleven, and speculative fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this one! It’s short, yet well-crafted and well-paced. And I’ve just read she’s working on another post-apocalyptic murder mystery, so I’m hoping that the next one will continue following Enid’s investigations!

This book was provided to me for review by Netgalley and Mariner Books. All opinions are my own.