BOOK REVIEW: The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu

BOOK REVIEW: The Paper Menagerie, by Ken LiuTitle: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Published by Saga Press
Published: October 4th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 450
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his multiple award-winning stories for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.
With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. This mesmerizing collection features many of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon Award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).
Insightful and stunning stories that plumb the struggle against history and betrayal of relationships in pivotal moments, this collection showcases one of our greatest and original voices.

 Time’s arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.

Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, period. It’s rare for me to read a short story collection and find something to enjoy and marvel over in each story, but I did with this one. I think the only other one that matches that ‘I love every story in this’ is Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. After finishing The Paper Menagerie, I just wanted so much more, and I’m so looking forward to reading his Dandelion Dynasty series.

I think the thing I liked most about this collection of stories, aside from Liu’s deft skill at writing in and blending several different genres, is that so many of the stories focus on the idea of storytelling and what that means for us as people and as a society. In the collection, you’ll read about the ways in which species across the universe record their stories for the present and the future (“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”), the ways in which society tells us stories to keep us controlled and how difficult it is to break the illusions (“Perfect Match”), the literal power of words (“The Literomancer”), and the literal preservation of memory to be “read” and its upsides and pitfalls (“Simulacrum”).

This solid collection has fiction in all genres, and one of the heaviest stories to read was “The Literomancer,” because while it’s got a flavor of magic and magical realism, it’s firmly rooted in history, and it’s difficult to read about and stomach the atrocities people can do to one another, and it adds another layer of heaviness when the story is mostly from a child’s, an innocent’s, perspective, because we’re watching that loss of innocence unfold before us. I also really liked “The Waves,” and I found it one of the strongest recent science fiction stories I’ve read in a while.

Part of the joy of short story collections is the discovery within the covers, so I don’t want to go into too much detail about the stories themselves. But I will recommend this to you and everyone you know because it’s just that good.

Little List of Reviews #3

Little List of Reviews #3Title: Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn
Published by Tor Books
Published: January 17th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 288
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

A great new stand-alone science fiction novel from the author of the Kitty Norville series.
Polly Newton has one single-minded dream, to be a starship pilot and travel the galaxy. Her mother, the director of the Mars Colony, derails Polly's plans when she sends Polly and her genius twin brother, Charles, to Galileo Academy on Earth—the one planet Polly has no desire to visit. Ever.
Homesick and cut off from her desired future, Polly cannot seem to fit into the constraints of life on Earth, unlike Charles, who deftly maneuvers around people and sees through their behavior to their true motives. Strange, unexplained, dangerous coincidences centered on their high-profile classmates begin piling up. Charles may be right—there's more going on than would appear, and the stakes are high. With the help of Charles, Polly is determined to find the truth, no matter the cost.

 Carrie Vaughn’s Martians Abroad reads like a science fictional school story in which two Martian-human kids are sent to Earth to a prestigious school and things go amok. It’s a well-written, yet straightforwardly simple story following Polly’s mishaps as she attempts to integrate into Earth’s way of things at this boarding school. A set of orchestrated, predictable events prove Polly’s worth to herself, her mother, and the other students as she risks her life to save a handful of the other students. While I was expecting more depth as it was marketed as an “adult” science fiction novel, I think this is a great introduction to science fiction for the younger YA set and a great bridge from children’s fiction to “older” science fiction. The story reads easily, doesn’t feature sex or explicit language, and the violence is on par with most violence found in books marketed to the middle grade and young adult crowd.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tor Books for a review copy!

Little List of Reviews #3Title: Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature by Jacob Weisman
Published by Tachyon Publications
Published: July 12th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Invaders is a collection of stories written by “literary” writers exploring the concept of invasion in science fictional settings. While some of the stories didn’t grab my attention (and that can probably be attributed to timing and my state of mind more than anything else), it’s a solid effort to show that writers bleed through genre lines more often that we realize. I did, however, really enjoy the following stories: “Portal” – J. Robert Lennon, “The Inner City” – Karen Heuler, “Topics in Advanced Rocketry” – Chris Tarry, “A Precursor of the Cinema” – Steven Millhauser, “Monstros” – Junot Díaz, and “Near-Flesh” – Katherine Dunn. These explore the weirdness of human psyche and will linger in my mind for a long time.

Thanks to Netgalley and Tachyon Pub for a review copy!

Little List of Reviews #3Title: The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham
Published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks
Published: January 24th 2017
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 176
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

 The White Cottage Mystery, initially published in 1927, is a straightforward, classic mystery following the murder of a man who lives in a white cottage. The characterizations are simple, the story is simple, but the writing compels one to keep reading to figure out what happened. It’s shorter than I expected, and I finished it in a sitting and a half. While I was reading it, I was hoping for more depth in characterization, but it’s a solid, traditional mystery with all of those conventional twists, turns, and red herrings. Margery Allingham is part of those writers from the Golden Age of mystery writers and is one to whom Agatha Christie admired. If you’re a fan of Christie’s mysteries, you may be interested in this one!

Thanks to Netgalley and Bloomsbury for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Carve the Mark, by Veronica Roth

BOOK REVIEW: Carve the Mark, by Veronica RothTitle: Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Series: Carve the Mark #1
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Published: January 17th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 480
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Work
Goodreads

On a planet where violence and vengeance rule, in a galaxy where some are favored by fate, everyone develops a currentgift, a unique power meant to shape the future. While most benefit from their currentgifts, Akos and Cyra do not—their gifts make them vulnerable to others’ control. Can they reclaim their gifts, their fates, and their lives, and reset the balance of power in this world?
Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.
Akos is from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Though protected by his unusual currentgift, once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. When Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. They must decide to help each other to survive—or to destroy one another.

So, I should preface this with a few key points. I work for a bookstore and received an ARC of this book through my job. All opinions are my own. This review is not an attack on the author, the publisher, or anyone else. I am also white, and I am aware this affects my position to call something out as racist. I find that it’s helpful to raise awareness of problematic representation in the media we consume.

In regards to advance copies being sent out to reviewers, I’ve noticed in a lot of Goodreads reviews that the bloggers state either at the beginning or the end of their review that HarperTeen (HT from here on out) sponsored these reviews. Further research led me to discovering that HT paid this set of bloggers to review Carve the Mark. This behavior from a publisher is unsettling. Generally speaking, if one is going to be paid for reviewing something, one will not review the thing unfavorably (and if one reviews unfavorably, that reviewer runs the risk of tarnishing the relationship with said publisher). This behavior by the publisher is akin to self-published authors paying readers to post positive reviews of the work in order to boost sales. That’s what I feel like HT is doing. Perhaps HT was aware of the problematic material in the book and decided to garner a set of positive reviews to boost sales before the book’s official release. I feel as if that money could have been better used to assist Roth in adjusting some of the problematic ideas presented in the book.

I stopped reading at page 66. I was simultaneously bored and unsettled by the book and set it aside. This being said, I do not know how the book ends or develops, and I honestly don’t care. Here are the main things I found problematic within those first 66 pages:

  1. The Thuve and the Shotet. The Thuve are presented as a lighter skinned race who are passive. Akos, one of the main characters, views the Shotet as a brutal and fierce race of people (the Shotet killed Akos’s grandmother). The first time the readers are introduced to the Shotet, the Shotet arrive to Akos’s family farm and brutally murder his father.
  2. The Shotet language is described as harsh and gutteral by Akos compared to his own softer sounding language (who discovers he has the ability to speak other languages without prior conscious knowledge of them). This view of languages is similar to the comparisons of the “music” of Romance (white) languages (French, Italian, Spanish) to the “harsh, guttural” (black) languages of the African continent.
  3. While the Shotet are described has having varying tones of skin, Cyra’s mother is described as having hair curly enough for fingers to be trapped in the curls while Cyra’s is not as curly as that. Um. Okay.
  4. Cyra’s brother Ryz forcibly trades one of his memories for one of Cyra’s. Cyra obviously struggles against it and can’t fight it, and you know what? That’s rape. Forcing someone to take something mentally (and inevitably physically) is an act of rape. Cyra was raped by her own brother. As a result of that rape, Cyra’s power manifests itself as pain. Literally. Pain. By page 66, Cyra cannot touch other people without feeling pain, and other people cannot touch her without feeling pain.
  5. Later, Cyra’s mother asks the doctor “You’re saying this gift is my daughter’s fault? That she wants to be this way?” And the doctor (male) says, “Cyra, the gift comes from you. If you change, the gift will, too.” So a man is telling a woman that her rape and her pain from that rape is her own fault and that she can change it at will. Yep. That’s a blatant reinforcement of rape culture.
  6. The religion of the Shotet draws heavily from Islamic ideology. Some of the religious leaders are called clerics, and some of the practices reinforce the negative views the West has on Muslim culture. We need to move past these harmful stereotypes.
  7. While I enjoyed the Divergent trilogy well enough for what it is (even if it’s a blatant knockoff of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, it is also somewhat original in its ending), Carve the Mark is a lazy reimagining of the Star Wars and X-Men universes. It tries to be unique and diverse, but the glaring insensitivity within the first sixty pages result in its failing.

I was excited for this because there aren’t too many science fiction novels lately for the YA audience. However, the problems in the novel fail its readers by relying on outdated, racist tropes that should be a thing of the past in 2017. Science fiction is about creating new worlds, exploring new ideas, and finding some kernel of society to examine. Carve the Mark does none of this. Instead of drawing on redundant, harmful tropes, science fiction should offer the author and the readers the ability to create something new, to flip tropes and reinvent them. It seems as if the editors failed to notice or didn’t care, knowing that they’d have a cash-grab with the popular name attached; or it seems as if Roth is privileged enough to be unaware of the damage she has caused with these themes. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

After the roller coaster of the last several years with the Black Lives Matter movement, the systematic oppression of Muslims, and the discussions I have had and read, I’m finding myself more and more sensitive to the plights of those who are oppressed. I want to give those people a voice rather than reinforce harmful views. Instead of purchasing or reading this, I recommend finding, like many others have suggested, an own voices/diverse work. My personal recommendation is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.

BOOK REVIEW: Slipping, by Lauren Beukes

BOOK REVIEW: Slipping, by Lauren BeukesTitle: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes
Published by Tachyon Publications
Published: November 29th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 288
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

In her edgy, satiric debut collection, award-winning South African journalist and author Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls, Moxyland) never holds back. Nothing is simple and everything is perilous when humans are involved: corruption, greed, and even love (of a sort).
A permanent corporate branding gives a young woman enhanced physical abilities and a nearly-constant highRecruits lifted out of poverty find a far worse fate collecting biohazardous plants on an inhospitable worldThe only adult survivor of the apocalypse decides he will be the savior of teenagers; the teenagers are not amused.
From Johannesburg to outer space, these previously uncollected tales are a compelling, dark, and slippery ride.

 You might think of a city as a map, all knotted up in the bondage of grid lines by town planners. But really, it’s a language—alive, untidy, ungrammatical. The meaning of things rearranges, so the scramble of the docks turns hipster cool while the faded glamor of the inner city gives way to tenement blocks rotting from the inside. It develops its own accent, its own slang. And sometimes it drops a sentence. Sometimes the sentence finds you. And won’t shut up. – from “Ghost Girl”

I’ve had Beukes’s The Shining Girls on my shelf forever. It was on a lot of lists the year it was released, and I found a paperback of that book in a used bookstore, I bought it… and haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Story of my life. Anyhow, when given the opportunity to read Beukes’s short works, I jumped at the chance. I love short story collections because I feel that short story collections allow the reader to see the wide range of an author’s talent.

Beukes’s writing is acerbic, sharp, and intuitive, and I was drawn in immediately to many of her stories. Slipping is a collection of stories written over about ten years for various other publications, and I would have really liked to have some background information before or after the stories to know when and why each of these stories were written.

My favorite stories were “Princess,” “Exhibitionist,” “Ghost Girl,” and “Dial Tone.” Each of these stories made me whisper what after I finished reading them. Beukes’s writing is at the same time subtle and straightforward. She does not shy away from difficult or terrifying imagery, and she makes you think about why she uses that imagery to explore some weird aspect of human life. Many of her stories cross the genre line between fiction and science fiction, and while a lot of it seems weird at times, it’s also so eerily recognizable. Beukes’s writing asks us why we consider “commonplace” and “everyday” as commonplace and ordinary, because isn’t life weird?

Thank you to Netgalley and Tachyon Publications for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

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BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray BradburyTitle: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Published by Del Rey Books
Published: October 1st 1953
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 190
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The terrifyingly prophetic novel of a post-literate future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.
The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.
Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

 I reread Fahrenheit 451 this year for a discussion with students at my school, and what struck me most this time was the reliance of so many of us on technology and the media that some of us forget (or don’t think) to think about the world around us. Ray Bradbury’s novel deals with the dissolution of literacy and the saturation of media in the future. In the 1950s when it was first published, the novel deals with a future imagined by Bradbury, and through the years, the warnings the novel shows its readers still remain relevant.

I gave a little talk to incoming freshmen about the novel as it was a campus-wide reading requirement for all incoming freshmen, and I spoke a little bit about the Cold War, a little bit about Bradbury writing it, and then I contrasted it with media and literacy today. I talked about how things are different now than they were in the 1950s, especially with the rise of technology, and I compared the walls of TV in the novel to the constant companion of our phone familiars. In Bradbury’s novel, the characters sit in literal rooms of screens and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. Today, we sit with phones in our hands and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. I asked them to consider where the information is coming from, I asked them to consider a bias, and I asked them to continually seek out answers to any questions they have and to use whatever is available to them to get those answers.

After the election results, I’m astounded at how culturally relevant this book still is. Our society is so dependent upon the media for information and does not seem to value using one’s own mind and abilities to read, to research, to question what’s put before us. Our society has devalued education, and I feel as if so many students are no longer taught how to think but what to think, and this is reflected in the constant, consistent bombardment of information through our televisions, through our computers, and through our phones.

How and why are we moving away from a culture that values literacy and knowledge to a culture that places more importance on inciting fear and hatred based on superficial, bigoted information? I’ve been thinking about this for a long while now, and I’m going to continue thinking about it and writing about it and talking about it.

Let this time in America’s history be a reminder to never stop thinking, never stop questioning, because if we stop, we’re going to live in a world in which thinking about ideas rather than merely absorbing them will become a way of the past.