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
Goodreads

"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
Goodreads

 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: Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng

BOOK REVIEW: Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette NgTitle: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
Published by Angry Robot
Published: October 3rd 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

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.

 It has been as long as it takes to tell a tale, neither long nor short.

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.

BOOK REVIEW: The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak

BOOK REVIEW: The Impossible Fortress, by Jason RekulakTitle: The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Published by Simon & Schuster
Published: February 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 285
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

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.

BOOK REVIEW: A Moonless, Starless Sky, by Alexis Okeowo

BOOK REVIEW: A Moonless, Starless Sky, by Alexis OkeowoTitle: 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
Pages: 256
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

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.

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
Goodreads

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.