Title: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
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.
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.
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.
Title: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: April 25th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
"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.
Title: The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
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 person
, The 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.
Title: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
Published by Angry Robot
Published: October 3rd 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
It has been as long as it takes to tell a tale, neither long nor short.
Catherine Helstone's brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon - but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
If you found yourself wanting something more in the same vein as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, wait no more. Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun expertly weaves fantasy, the Gothic, academia, and religion in this compelling novel about missionaries to Arcadia, the land of the Fae.
The story explores a lot of the conventions and repressions of the times and of Gothic tropes (it’s got that weird castle with hidden passage ways, clever uses of light, and the madwoman down below); delves into folklore, fairy tales, and the Fae; and manages to make you think about how we view those ideas, concepts, and social constructs if you’re familiar with them. The story also manages to twist and invert all of that and make it very new, something that I think can be difficult to do well and Ng makes it look effortless.
I loved the inclusion of documents at the beginning of each chapter and spread throughout to ground the story in its own reality and explore the beliefs of Catherine and Leon. The narrative moves in such a way that you, as a reader, begin to question everything, especially once Queen Mab makes her appearance and throws everything for a loop. As we are experiencing all of this through Catherine’s eyes, once the veil is lifted, all we can do is experience the horror and awe as truths come to light.
Under the Pendulum Sun is dark, twisted, and well-executed, and it’s a debut. There was much failing and ahhhhh-ing from me while reading it. If you are already interested in Gothic literature, religion and its functions in society, the taboo, the Fae, you’ll want to read this. You won’t want to put it down once you’ve started, and you’ll be thinking about Arcadia long after you turn the final page.
Thank you to Angry Robot and Netgalley for an advance reader’s copy! All opinions are my own.
Title: The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Published by Simon & Schuster
Published: February 7th 2017
A dazzling debut novel—at once a charming romance and a moving coming-of-age story—about what happens when a fourteen-year old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.
Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.
Do you remember your first love?
The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.
The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.
It’s the 1980s, computer programming is starting to become a thing
, and Billy and his friends are obsessed with getting their hands on a copy of Playboy
featuring Vanna White. While at the store while trying to help his friends conceive a plan in which to buy said Playboy
magazine, he and his friends concoct a scheme that involves the shop owner’s daughter, Mary, and feigning interest in her to get her to get them that magazine. Billy volunteers, and the two become friends once Billy discovers that Mary is interested in computer programming, too.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did because it looked like something that’s right up my alley: computer programmers, the 80s, a cute growing up story. However, it ended up taking a weird turn about three-quarters of the way through the book that just seemed uncharacteristic and unrelated to all of the build-up that had happened in the rest of the book. While the main characters are fourteen or so, each of the boys can be unbelievably cruel in one way or another. Billy’s cruelty is the most unbelievable and is the catalyst for the finale, and then the consequences are just pushed away as if none of it really mattered.
The Impossible Fortress started out cute, light, and enjoyable, but ultimately took a turn for the worse. It’s a shame because it had so much potential!
I received a copy of this book for review through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Title: A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo
Published by Hachette Books
Published: October 3rd 2017
Genres: Cultural Studies
Format: Trade Paper
In the tradition of Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Nothing to Envy, this is a masterful, humane work of literary journalism by New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo--a vivid narrative of Africans, many of them women, who are courageously resisting their continent's wave of fundamentalism.
In A Moonless, Starless Sky Okeowo weaves together four narratives that form a powerful tapestry of modern Africa: a young couple, kidnap victims of Joseph Kony's LRA; a Mauritanian waging a lonely campaign against modern-day slavery; a women's basketball team flourishing amid war-torn Somalia; and a vigilante who takes up arms against the extremist group Boko Haram. This debut book by one of America's most acclaimed young journalists illuminates the inner lives of ordinary people doing the extraordinary--lives that are too often hidden, underreported, or ignored by the rest of the world.
Alexis Okeowo’s A Moonless, Starless Sky
writes about the lives of four individuals in Nigeria, Somalia, Mauritania and Uganda who are resisting against the extremisms they each face. Okeowo, a first generation Nigerian-American, manages to deftly weave hope and inspiration in her solemn, yet conversational, exploration of the bravery and courage these four individuals face in abject terror.
The four narratives are about an LRA child soldier and the girl forced to marry him, a man and his fight against slavery in modern Mauritania, a group fighting Boko Haram, and a Somalian young woman’s struggle for the right to continue playing basketball. While each of the stories were eye-opening to read, the story about the Somalian young woman finding friendship, companionship, and fulfillment in playing basketball tugged at my heart-strings the most. To us here in the US, something so commonplace as playing basketball doesn’t register as a forbidden activity for anyone, but for her, it was a forbidden activity, because she is Muslim, because she is female. Her struggle to pursue her dreams resonated with me so much.
Okeowo writes the lives of each of these individuals with clarity, empathy, and respect; she writes their stories with unflinching insight to their struggles and triumphs. This book will certainly raise awareness to events happening beyond our media’s reach and inspire people to take action. It’s an absolute must read.
Many thanks to Hachette for sending me a copy of this book to review! All opinions are my own.