The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustTitle: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Author: Claire North (pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who also writes as Kate Griffin)
Published: 8 April 2014
Publisher: Redhook Books
Source: own copy
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 9/10

As I go through my notes and highlights for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August I realise that this is *the* best book I read last year. It’s elegant and beautiful and pensive, which is not something I can often say of books that also happen to be fantastic thrillers. I kind of want to read it again right now, but I’ll settle for writing a review that I hope can convey what a wonderful book this is.

At the end of his eleventh life, Harry August is about to slip into his usual cosy, morphine-induced suicide when a little girl arrives to tell him that the world is ending. Both he and the girl are kalachakra – those who journey repeatedly through their own lives. When they die they return to the time and place of their birth and live again, with all the memories of the lives that came before. Because Harry is about to die and travel back to his birth in 1919, he can send the message about the impending apocalypse back through time, as later generations of their kin have been doing.

Harry’s first question is, why does it matter that the world is ending? Everything dies, after all. But the problem is not only that the world is ending, but that it is ending faster – it happens earlier and earlier every time. The fact of this suggests that one of the kalachakra is causing it by using their knowledge of the future to change the past. And as the apocalypse moves back in time it permanently kills kalachakra along the way, because if they ever fail to be born once, they are never born again.

It’s only about halfway through the book that we see Harry start to deal with this issue because for him it poses a complex ethical dilemma that the reader can only understand by first learning the story of his previous lives. So Harry takes us back to his very first birth and on through the lives that follow.

This is a fascinating and engaging story in itself specifically because Harry carries the increasing weight and knowledge of all his previous lives with him (it’s partly this factor that makes the novel superior to Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which is based on a similar concept). In addition he is something known as a mnemonic – a kalachakra who remembers everything with perfect clarity. This has several advantages, one of which is that it makes Harry an excellent narrator who can capture the essence of what it means to kalachakra.

Naturally, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s an extremely difficult thing to deal with at first; in his second life he goes mad with the memories of the previous one, and commits suicide at age seven. In his third life he turns to religion for answers and, finding none, turns to science in his fourth life. There’s no rush – he has centuries to ponder existence. With his knowledge of the future and his accumulated education, it’s easy to become wealthy in later lives, but that doesn’t save him from having to live through childhood over and over again. It also raises some uniquely disturbing problems. How, for example, does the mind deal with pain and trauma in this scenario? When you cannot forget anything, and you have centuries of experience from which the most horrific moments never fade?

In addition to these sorts of psychological conundrums, Harry is faced with a multitude of ethical questions. What should he do with his knowledge of the future? Should he help people, or is it dangerous to interfere? Could he change history or is he ultimately powerless? But if he can’t or shouldn’t change the world, then what is the point of him, and of the kalachakra?

These questions plague Harry for much of the book. He gets some insight when he joins The Cronus Club, a global network of kalachakra whose main purpose is to use their abilities to generate enough wealth to support new and existing members (e.g. extracting young kalachakra so they don’t have to waste decades pretending to be kids). The Club is very strongly opposed to changing history because doing so ended the world once before. Harry initially agrees, arguing that “[c]omplexity should be your excuse for inaction” (52). But as Harry goes from one life to the next, he becomes unsure – what does any of this mean if they never choose to act, to change things?

These ideas aren’t just food for thought – they are integral to the second part of the novel, as are Harry’s experiences (some of which are pretty harrowing). Having told the most important parts of his life story, Harry then moves on to the pacier business of investigating the impending apocalypse, and the novel goes from being a kind of philosophical historical sf to a literary sf thriller. Although Harry is, in most ways, a pretty ordinary guy, being able to educate yourself for centuries and use knowledge of the future to get rich means that he has considerable skills and resources for mounting an investigation. He also happens to live at the right time in history to do something, and being a mnemonic gives him a unique advantage that determines the way things play out.

Now, one thing I love is that Harry doesn’t simply decide to save the world because that’s what you do. He can act, but he needs to decide if he will, and how. At this point it’s abundantly clear that life has very different meaning for kalachakra. Pain is significant but death is not because it just leads to rebirth. They don’t generally care about the deaths of normal, linear people, because those people will all be back again in the next cycle of their lives, even if the world is totally destroyed. They take the permanent deaths of kalachakra very seriously because the kalachakra are special, but for centuries Harry has been questioning their importance, their meaning. And when the importance of the kalachakra is called into question, we return to the question Harry posed at the very beginning – why does it matter that the world is ending? If it’s ending because one of the kalachakra has chosen to act on their knowledge and experience, is that necessarily a bad thing? The kalachakra are essentially immortals but they’re just cycling through the same lives. Are they seriously going to sit around preserving the status quo forever?

Harry wrestles with these issues as he investigates the accelerating apocalypse, and it all comes to bear on his decisions when he finds out what’s going on. This is the best thing about this book – the way Harry’s lives build on one another to drive his decisions and thus the story. The author takes the idea of the kalachakra and delves into the depths of what it means to her main character. The narrative is suitably non-linear, so that we get a sense of how Harry experiences time – all those lives piled up, cross-referencing each other across centuries. Then she puts him into a dire plot in which the things we’ve learnt about him are crucial to the understanding the choices he makes and the eventual outcome.

And it’s magnificent. Everything comes together beautifully. The slow and thoughtful first half transitions into a page-turning thriller. Harry comes up against an opponent who becomes both a friend an an enemy, someone he admires as much as he fears, and who forces him to grapple with all the questions he’s been asking about himself and the kalachakra. It’s such an accomplished novel – superbly written, poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, utterly absorbing. I want to relive Harry’s lives again, and again.

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The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie WillisTitle: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 9 July 2013
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This is one of the most likeable short story collections I’ve read. Usually I like half to three quarters of the stories, or I have to go back and skim over some before writing my review because I’ve already forgotten what they were about. But I enjoyed almost all the stories in this collection, and I hadn’t forgotten them by the time I got around to writing the review.

They’ve all won a Hugo or Nebula award (or both) and they’re all on the lighter side of science fiction and fantasy, focusing on the characters’ relationship and personal dilemmas with just a touch of something speculative. Each story comes with a few comments from Willis. She admits to being wary of commenting on the stories, as that could spoil them in the same way that a magician’s trick is ruined once you know how it works. But having taken into account the potential for her comments to undermine the story, I think Willis managed to make them insightful without being detrimental.

And the stories themselves are great reads. In a speech transcription at the end of the book, Willis talks about why she reads:

But when the interviewer asked Beatrix Potter what her greatest wish was, she said, “To live till the end of the war. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!” That’s exactly how I feel. It’s how I’ve always felt. It’s why I started reading in the first place: to find out what happened to Cinderella and to Peter Pan, to find out whether the twelve dancing princesses got caught and whether Peter Rabbit made it out from under Mr. McGregor’s flowerpot and whether the prince was able to break the spell.

I think this captures the appeal of Willis’s stories as well – they’re enjoyable because they hook you by making you want to know what happens. You could argue that this is the case for all stories, but I often find novels and short stories appealing for other reasons. Sometimes it’s the writing that grabs me, or I want to follow a quirky character. Sometimes I already know what’s going to happen but I want to see what spin the author will put on it. Other stories are about the ideas rather than any plot. These things all have their merits, and they apply to Willis too, but mostly I enjoyed her stories because they had that good old-fashioned storytelling appeal that just never gets old.

In “A Letter to the Clearys”, a young girl returns home with her dog after picking up a letter at the post office. It seems fairly mundane, except for odd hints at the dangers she faces while walking and the increasingly disturbing implications of this letter from family friends.

“At the Rialto” gives you the first taste of Willis’s wonderful humour. It’s set at the Rialto hotel in Hollywood, where a group of physicists are trying to have a conference on quantum physics but can’t get the model-slash-actress at the front desk to do anything useful, or find the right rooms for the lectures. The Kafkaesque absurdity of the whole experience functions as a reflection of quantum physics itself, with it’s counterintuitive nature and weird paradoxes.

“Fire Watch” is set shortly after the events of Willis’s novel Doomsday Book, a time-travel story where history students are sent back in time as part of their studies. In this story, a student who has been training to travel with St Paul learns that he’s actually going to St Paul’s Church to work with the fire watch during the London Blitz of World War 2, putting out incendiary bombs when they hit the building. I didn’t love The Doomsday Book, so I wasn’t too excited about this story, and it left me a bit alienated because I’m hopeless when it comes to history and had never heard of St Paul’s or the fire watch. That said, I was almost in tears by the end, all because of two simple words. Any author who can have that effect on me immediately wins my admiration.

“Inside Job” was one of my favourites and the most compulsively readable story for me. It’s about Rob, a journalist who debunks New Age therapists in Hollywood. He works with Kildy, a gorgeous actress who defies all the stereotypes of being stupid and superficial, although Rob has never quite grown accustomed to the idea that she’s really as intelligent and as interested in his work as she seems to be. Kildy finds a new mystery for them to investigate – a trendy new spirit channeler who seems to be unintentionally channelling a ghost who shares Rob and Kildy’s scathing opinions of the channeling and other New Age crap. But the whole idea of channelling a ghost who doesn’t believe in channelling involves a rather troubling paradox and Rob faces the problem of not believing in something he might actually want to believe in while finally being forced to address his doubts about Kildy.

Admittedly, my other favourites were actually the ones with less emphasis on plot, and more on humour. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is a delightfully absurd story about the poet Emily Dickinson, written as a parody of an academic paper complete with footnotes and references. The paper argues the theory that Dickinson chased away the Martians from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. After her death. It’s utterly ridiculous and loads of fun.

“Even the Queen” is also delightfully crazy, set in a world where women have done away with menstruation except for reproductive purposes. The narrator’s daughter joins a pro-menstruation movement – the Cyclists – that emphasises the essential femininity of doing things naturally. The best part of the story is a hilarious lunch meeting with a group of women and a representative from the Cyclists.

After “Even the Queen”, the collection took a bit of a dip and the last three stories were good but not great. “The Winds of Marble Arch” is a personal mystery about a man travelling around the London Underground, where he keeps getting blasted by terrible foul-smelling winds that leave him filled with fear. He and his wife are visiting London for the second time, and although they have much more money this time around, they just can’t find the same sense of fun and adventure that they enjoyed before. I liked the mystery and personal struggles at the start, but after a while it became a story about a man using the tube, and the final reveal was disappointing.

“All Seated on the Ground” is, quite surprisingly, a story about how violent and disturbing Christmas carols can be. A group of surly aliens lands on Earth, but they don’t do anything except glare disapprovingly at the people who try to talk to them. People lose interest in them as all efforts at communication continue to fail, and the most recent committee is a hopeless hodgepodge of random specialists trying whatever ludicrous thing they can think of. A journalist, Meg, finally gets on the right track when the aliens respond to a Christmas carol, and she notices how the aliens have the same disapproving gaze as her aunt.

“The Last of the Winnebagos” ends the fiction on a stronger note. It’s quite a sad story set in a world where dogs are extinct and hitting an animal with your car is a criminal offence. The narrator is travelling for work when he sees a dead jackal on the side of the road, bringing back tragic memories of the death of his own dog in a car accident, while also getting him tangled up with a somewhat authoritarian animal-protection society.

The only story I didn’t like was the surreal “Death on the Nile”, about three couples on a rather miserable trip that takes them through Europe to Egypt. The narrator has elected not to say anything about the glaringly obvious fact that her husband is sleeping with one of the other wives, one husband is constantly drunk, another always sleeping, and the third woman is always reading to them from guide books. The premise sounds fine, but I found the unpleasantness of the trip too discomfiting to read and the increasingly surreal nature of the characters’ experiences just didn’t do anything for me.

The collection ends with three short speeches – Willis’s 2006 Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech, and two Grand Master acceptance speeches. In these she speaks about her love of books and reading, and the writers that inspired her. They’re nice pieces for tugging at the heartstrings of booklovers, but I personally would have preferred something a bit more academic. The speeches must have been wonderful to listen to on the occasion, but on the page they’re a wee bit fluffy. One would have been enough for the collection.

The one downside to this collection is that, unlike other sff, it’s a bit short on ideas. Only the Emily Dickinson story and “Inside Job” really have an sff-ish idea driving the narrative. In the other stories ideas are just vehicles or catalysts for character-based stories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since sff readers often look to short stories for interesting ideas and experimental writing, some might find this a tad disappointing.

I didn’t though. It might not be the most thrilling collection but it’s got a lovely congenial sort of appeal and I think most of the stories are going to stay with me.

The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price

The Flight of the SilversTitle: The Flight of the Silvers
Series: The Silvers Saga
Author: Daniel Price
Published:
 
4 February 2014
Publisher: 
Blue Rider Press
Genre:
 
science fiction, thriller, adventure
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
7/10

The world as we know it ends when the sky crashes down on frozen corpses. Shortly before the end, three mysterious strangers give bracelets to a handful of people, saving them from certain death. The bracelets form a protective shell around the chosen few, then transport them to an parallel-universe Earth whose timeline diverged from ours in the early twentieth century. Here, anti-gravity technology is commonplace and time can be manipulated by common household appliances.

In alternate San Diego, six “Silvers” are brought together because of the silver bracelets they each wear. Sisters Amanda and Hannah Given have never gotten along but are relieved to find each other in this familiar but alien new world. Zack is a witty cartoonist who would have been in New York but travelled to San Diego for Comic-Con. Mia is a smart but insecure 14-year old girl. David is a gorgeous 16-year-old genius from Australia. Theo Maranan is just as gifted but ended up a jaded alcoholic.

Shortly after their arrival the Silvers are taken to a a research facility where they are given food and shelter but also studied (with their consent). Soon, each of them begins to display miraculous abilities. Hannah can move many times faster than normal speed. Amanda can produce strange projections from her hands that can function as weapons or tools. Zack can rewind or fast forward the chronology of objects like food. David can reproduce images or sounds from the past. Mia keeps getting notes from her future self to guide her through the present. And Theo… well that’s a secret.

The Silvers’ powers are pretty cool, but it’s nothing new in this alternate world where scientists have developed the technology to manipulate time. Kitchens have rejuvenators to refresh old food. Restaurants and movie theatres slow time so that you can relax for an hour while only a few minutes pass pass. No one is limited to only 24 hours a day. What’s amazing about the Silvers though, is that they don’t need machines to manipulate time.

All of this is awesome, but I wasn’t that impressed. It’s fun, but futuristic tech and special powers are pretty standard in sff. More importantly, I didn’t like the way some of the characters were depicted (more on that later), and there were little things that bugged me about the writing, like the way the POV kept jumping. I figured I was in for another decent-but-forgettable novel, and I was annoyed that it was over 600 pages long.

But then along came Evan Rander, and everything changed. I’m not going to tell you why, because it’ll be better if you find out for yourself. It suffices to say that this book might have a slightly slow start but once it gets going it’s an entertaining read. Evan is just one part of that. The story gets much more interesting when he joins it, then goes into action overdrive when the Silvers are attacked by enemies they didn’t know they had and are forced to go on the run. The rest of the book is a well-paced thriller with lots of engaging drama as the Silvers try to function as a group while adapting to their new powers, living in a parallel universe, and the constant danger they find themselves in.

I didn’t think the characters were all that great at first, but each of them is trying to cope with personal concerns, and as a group their interactions get more complicated. Amanda is a devout Christian whose beliefs clash with Zack’s agnosticism, David’s scientific mindset, and all their new powers. Hannah has a tendency to view the guys as people she could sleep with and Mia takes an immediate dislike to her, assuming that she’s just another bimbo, like the ones who broke her brothers’ hearts. Having just lost her entire family, she’s annoyed that the Given sisters fight so often rather than appreciating the fact that they have each other. David has terrible social skills and is more willing that the other characters to harm or kill the people who threaten them. Zack hopes there’s a chance of finding his brother in New York, since both of the Given sisters were saved. Theo is still struggling with his alcoholism. These and other issues develop throughout the novel, becoming just as important as the characters’ powers.

It’s a nicely rounded novel that develops in a satisfying way – good story, good characters, a good read. It’s also got pretty solid worldbuilding that unfolds smoothly and gradually, making it a fairly light read, and a great option for readers who are new to the genre. However, Flight of the Silvers falls short in a few areas, one of which is related to the worldbuilding.

This alternative America is an isolationist society. Politically, its development has been completely different and it’s cut itself off from the rest of the world. Early in the twentieth century, there was a “systematic purge” of immigrants. Now, only four hundred highly qualified immigrants are allowed in per year. Foreign news, movies, and presumably other media, are banned. As a result, American society is extremely racist and xenophobic, and also shows signs of being quite sexist. More so than it already is, anyway. One telling moment was when the Silvers first saw the scientists at the research facility – 18 men, 1 woman, all white. At first I thought it was the author’s bias, but it’s a reflection of the society.

This is fine, but most of the time it’s just one of the background details because, except for Theo, all the Silvers are white and society’s prejudices don’t hinder them. Even Theo doesn’t have a problem. Some minor characters refer to him as the “chinny” – Chinese – but not to his face. Why not include some POC characters among the Silvers and make this aspect of the world important to them? As it stands, it’s only an issue for Melissa Masaad, a British-Sudanese police officer tasked with tracking down the Silvers. Her dark skin, dreadlocks and ‘exotic’ features make her particularly conspicuous as a senior police officer in this version of America, but she seems to manage by being brusque and more authoritative than her peers.

The fact that Melissa is a woman is more of an issue for her than her race, and this brings me to the problematic way the women are depicted. All the major female characters – except for 14-year-old Mia – are described in terms of their physical beauty. Melissa is gorgeously exotic. Amanda is tall and slender while Hannah as short and busty, but both are clearly stated to be sexually attractive to men. Each sister feels that the other is more attractive. When they meet the male Silvers later, their sex appeal comes up again.

It’s not their beauty that bothers me per se, but rather that they all happen to be beautiful and their sex appeal is one of the most notable things about their characters. Because hey, we really don’t have enough sexualised female characters in fiction do we? Which is why we also need them to behave in gratuitously sexual ways, like when Melissa takes off her uncomfortable, lacy bra in front of 22 male officers, or lies on a desk in front of a male colleague while wearing a short skirt.

The way Hannah is depicted is of particular concern. The size of her breasts comes up A LOT. It tends to come up in people’s first impressions of her. It’s probably been a major influence on her character’s eager sexuality. Evan seems incapable of speaking about her without referring to her big breasts in some derogatory way. Hannah’s chest get mentioned so often that it’s one of her defining characteristics. David is a genius, Zack is snarky, Amanda is uptight, and Hannah has big breasts.

Her breasts are a personal issue for her as well. She ranges from being annoyed or angry when they attract unwanted attention, to wondering why they aren’t getting more attention, or explicitly using them to get attention.

She even brings her breasts up as a topic of conversation when she’s alone with two of the male characters, and is pleased when one of them mentions that her sister Amanda is almost flat-chested. A little later, she considers mentioning her breasts again, just so she can enjoy the positive attention. And she has a personality to match this stereotypical idea of female beauty – she’s ditzy, promiscuous, and flirtatious.

I don’t think this is necessarily an unrealistic portrayal of a sexy woman, because sometimes women do act and think like this. Most of us grow up being taught to think of the sex appeal of our bodies, particularly the size of our breasts and how much we flaunt them. For Hannah, who receives and enjoys a lot of attention from men and whose body is important in her work as an actress, sex appeal will naturally be an important part of her character. However, I think it’s overdone. There’s more to her than her looks, but it’s hard to get past that when she’s constantly being objectified.

There are also little things about the writing that bug me. The characters are often referred to by a description rather than their names. Hannah is “the actress”, Zack is “the cartoonist”. Amanda is “the widow” although I don’t know why she’s not “the nurse” or “the Christian” since both are far more relevant to her character than her unhappy marriage. Theo is repeatedly referred to as Asian even though it’s specified that he’s Filipino. At the same time, David is not referred to as the Australian.

On a more structural note, the multiple POVs (not only the Silvers’ but many of the other characters who play important roles) mean that the reader often knows more than the main characters, and you have to wait patiently for them to figure things out. There’s one crucial issue that’s hinted at throughout the book, but the reveal is being saved for the sequel.

Which, it must be said, I would very much like to read. Flaws aside, this was still an entertaining and engaging book and I really want to know what’s next for the Silvers. Yes, there are gender and race issues, but I’ve read a lot worse. I think these could just have been handled with more nuance and they didn’t have too much of an impact on my overall enjoyment. So please, don’t make me wait too long for The Song of the Orphans.

Top 5 Reads of 2013

I’m feeling lazy and took all morning to write about two paragraphs of the review I’m working on, so instead of that I’m offering you my Top 5 Novels of 2013. It wasn’t a great reading year for me, as opposed to 2012 where my top 5 reads stood out bold and brilliant. On 2013’s list, only one or two books were that amazing. The others were fantastic, but didn’t have as much of an impact on me, or had little flaws that were just a bit too noticeable. That said, after finishing off the reading year with three very disappointing books, I can’t say how happy I am that I had the chance to read these beauties. Here they are in the order that I read them:

The Shining Girls collectors edition

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

A brutal time-travelling serial killer, the talented ‘shining’ girls he murders, the punk who shouldn’t have survived his attack, and an otherworldly house where it all comes together. SA’s literary it-girl Lauren Beukes brings together all sorts of things I love about sci fi, crime thrillers and serial killers in her trademark edgy style. It’s a slick, creepy book, and the scene where Harper tries (and fails) to murder Kirby was one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve read, and not only because of the violence.
My review

SIlently and Very Fast

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente

I’m a big Valente fan, but I think part of the reason I enjoyed this so much is that Clarkesworld’s podcast director Kate Baker read it to me in her lovely voice. Over the past year I’ve been listening to short story podcasts regularly, and I think I played Silently and Very Fast about three times. I was disappointed to find that I could no longer buy the limited edition print copy of this novella, but it is included in the collection The Bread We Eat in DreamsIt’s the most beautiful story about artificial intelligence I’ve come across, incorporating myth and folklore, told in Valente’s spellbinding prose. Highly, highly recommended. You can read or listen to it for free at Clarkesworld magazine, where it has been split into three parts.

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellHelen of Troy by Ruby Blondell

I don’t often read or review non-fiction, but I would if I found more books like this. Ruby Blondell’s study of Helen of Troy is an in-depth literary analysis of the world’s most beautiful woman as she appears in various texts. It’s also a study of the nature and meaning of female beauty. I learned so much more about the mythical Helen and the society that created her than I thought there was to know. In addition, the discussions on female beauty offer fascinating and fundamental insights that are relevant to so many things that I read and watch all the time. Just this morning I read a blog post by Foz Meadows on contemporary issues of female beauty that related very strongly to what I’d read in Blondell’s book. This might sound overwhelming academic, but it’s not – Blondell is an excellent scholarly writer and her book is smoothly articulated. An elegant, captivating read.
My review

Red Seas Under Red SkiesRed Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

When review copies of The Republic of Thieves became available and the hype started to intensify, I figured it was time I checked out this Gentleman Bastard series that everyone was raving about. I liked the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, but after all the hype I found it good but slightly disappointing. I didn’t know much about Red Seas though, and that might be why I enjoyed it more. The fact that it’s got Zamira Drakasha, a fucking awesome pirate captain who also happens to be a black 39-year old mom, is another reason. And I liked that Jean starts to be more of his own character rather than just a sidekick. Also, it has a casino heist AND a thrilling pirate adventure. And it’s funny. Actually, there are a of reasons I loved this book. Even after doing a read-along for The Republic of Thieves, it remained my favourite.
My review

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsThe Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

This one stirred up a lot of interest and quite a few award nominations when it came out and Jemisin’s name has come up frequently in the online world I inhabit. But I didn’t look too closely since I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy. I figured LOTR and A Song of Ice Fire was about as much as I could handle. Thank god some of the bloggers I’d met through the Scott Lynch read-along invited me to be a host for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms read-along. Jemisin doesn’t waste time with the long-winded easily-forgotten world-building that I dislike about the genre and her characters defy the straight/white/male standards that plague epic fantasy. It’s full of fresh ideas, and complex characters who are never just good or evil or easily described. Plus, the book is about enslaved gods who have been forced to serve a powerful family as weapons, tools and whores for the past two thousand years. It’s awesome. It’s something you should be reading.
Read-along:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

There are a few other books I wanted to mention. Carrie by Stephen King and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Both could have made this list, but they were re-reads and I wanted to stick to new reads.

There are also short story collections that deserve a mention:
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor
Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran
and The Color Master by Aimee Bender

I enjoyed these all very much, but short story collections tend to be at a disadvantage because I never enjoy all of them, I usually find at least one or two quite boring, and their fragmented nature means that they’ll never make as of an impact on me as a novel can. One of the stories may well be that powerful, but it’ll always be watered down when viewed as part of a collection. Nevertheless, these four had plenty of good and great stories and I’m glad I read them.

Now, on with 2014!

The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov

The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey KurkovTitle: The Gardener from Ochakov
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Translation: from Russian by Amanda Love Darragh
Published:  First published 2011, this edition published 1 August 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Genre: fantasy, historical
Rating: 5/10

Igor is a bit of a loser, a 31-year old man who doesn’t have a job or any plans to get one, and survives on the interest from a small investment. He lives with his mother in Irpen, Ukraine, about an hour away from the capital Kiev. One day his mother hires a mysterious old man named Stepan to work as their gardener and handyman. Stepan has a strange, indecipherable tattoo on his arm but he has no idea what it is. Bored, Igor photographs the tattoo and takes the picture to his friend Kolyan, a computer expert. Kolyan cleans up the image to reveal an address in Ochakov, a seaside town.

Stepan travels to Ochakov to learn more about his past, and because Igor has nothing better to do, he tags along, looking for adventure and treasure. The possibility of treasure sounds absurd, but this is exactly what they find – the address on Stepan’s arm leads them to what was once the home of Fima Chagin, a infamous criminal who lived in Ochakov in the 50s. Stepan’s father too, was a criminal, who left a stash of loot at the house.

As a reward for his help, Stepan gives Igor a few of the items – a gold pocket watch (broken), rolls of hundred-rouble notes (worthless), a gun (that doesn’t fire) and a Soviet policeman’s uniform. Igor feels short-changed, but one night he wears the uniform to a costume party and finds himself in 1957 Ochakov, where the pocket watch starts ticking again, the roubles amount to a very large sum of money, and the uniform gives him an authority that strikes fear in the hearts of citizens.

Stepping awkwardly into the role of a Soviet policeman, Igor ropes a young wine smuggler into helping him spy on the criminal Fima Chagin, who is living in Ochakov at this time. This quickly leads Igor to Red Valya – a stunningly beautiful fish seller who may have had an affair with Fima and who immediately captures Igor’s attention and admiration. He begins to flit between present-day Ukraine and 1957 Ochakov, entwining his life with his dabblings in the past.

Now, genre fans, a warning. This is not the kind of book with any interest in the time travel itself, the thrills and perils it offers, or complications like time paradoxes and anachronisms. I wouldn’t say that this is the kind of book where literary fiction and sff intersect because the sff aspect is almost negligible. Time travel is just a plot device. We have no idea why or how it happens. Igor doesn’t think about it much, and isn’t worried about getting stuck in 1957. All we know is that he has a few stiff drinks, puts on the uniform, walks down a certain road, and ends up running into Vanya, the wine smuggler, at the wine factory in Ochakov in 1957. To return home he takes the uniform off and goes to sleep on the couch in Vanya’s house. He wakes up in his own bed in Irpen. He believes that taking the uniform off will send him back home, but he never tests this theory. Nor does he check to see if he needs to drink copiously to time-travel, or if he could walk a different route to end up somewhere else. The time-travel phenomena really only serves to take him to 1957 Ochakov and back, juxtaposing the places and periods, and allowing Igor to carry out his little adventure.

His very random little adventure. It’s unclear if Igor is driven by anything other than idle curiosity, and he doesn’t seem to have any goals. He wants to spy on Fima Chagin partly because he’s pretending to be a policeman, and partly because he learned about this legendary criminal when he travelled to Ochakov with Stepan. What he’d actually do with info on Fima’s whereabouts is anyone’s guess. It’s no wonder that Igor is quickly and easily distracted by Valya; he’s just hanging around looking for something to do. There’s a semblance of a plot here, but it meanders aimlessly, much like Igor himself.

Normally in books like this, something else will drive the narrative, such as the character or setting. But in this case nothing did, at least not for me. The characters are all pretty boring. Igor, who has no ambitions other than to buy a motorbike one day, is totally colourless. Vanya is little more than a plot device deployed to guide Igor in 1957, except for a vague suspicion that he might be up to something sinister. The women in the story particularly dull. Valya is there to be a beautiful but reluctant love interest. Igor’s mother Elena Adreevna does little more than cook, clean and scold her son. We meet Stepan’s daughter, who is often just a silent presence.

There are a few potentially interesting characters who seem to have better stories – Stepan; Igor’s best friend Nikolai Kolyon; and the criminal Fima Chagin. Stepan is full of secrets, almost none of which are revealed. Kolyon is vivacious and enterprising – the opposite of Igor – and as a hacker he starts selling information illegally. However, his story is mostly sidelined. Fima Chagin, a famously handsome, charismatic and successful criminal also gets sidelined when Igor loses interest in him in favour of trying to get Valya to spend time with him.

Mostly, the novel seems to be about creating snapshots of day-to-day life in modern Ukraine (Irpen and Kiev) and 1957 Ochakov, which aren’t really that different. This involves stuff like public transport (Igor taking a minibus from Irpen to Kiev, buying instant coffee at the train station), a bit of crime here and there (Vanya’s wine smuggling, Kolyan’s hacking), food (buckwheat with a knob of butter, fresh flounder and gobi from Valya’s stall, salami and salted cucumbers), and A LOT of hard liquor (vodka obviously, but also vodka shots in beer, homemade vodka, brandy, and homemade wormwood liqueur, which I just found out is absinthe).

Then, towards the end, there are a few serious developments as , and Igor starts to have some insights about life – the aimless way he’s living, human nature in general, etc. None of it was exactly profound. Or memorable. Or book-redeeming.

Reading The Gardener from Ochakov is like moving languidly from point A to point B. If books were journeys then this would be a trip to the supermarket. A Ukranian supermarket, maybe. It’s not unpleasant, you pick up a few new and unusual things, but it’s mostly mundane. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it – I’m totally indifferent.

I’d say it’s more for fans of literary historical fiction than sff readers or any reader who enjoys plot. Kurkov uses an extraordinary and unexplained phenomena to portray ordinary lives rather than tell a gripping tale. And because there’s not much of a story driving the narrative, your potential enjoyment depends on whether you find the everyday details of Ukrainian life interesting, or if you’d like to follow the wanderings of a benign drifter like Igor. Its not necessarily a bad thing, and I can see how some would find a quiet, quirky appeal in The Gardener from Ochakov, but it’s not for me.

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

 

The Shining Girls MulhollandTitle: The Shining Girls
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
review copy published by Mulholland Books; originally published by Umuzi
Published:
 15 April 2013 by Umuzi; review edition published 4 June 2013 by Mulholland
Genre: 
fantasy, science fantasy, crime thriller, historical
Source: 
review copy via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Kirby is a bright girl bursting with life, despite her troubled childhood with a single mother whose “default state of being is absent” and the constant upheavals as they move from one home to another.  It Kirby’s sense of promise, the fact that she’s a “shining girl”, that draws Harper Curtis to her. He visits her for the first time when she’s six years old. He gives her a My Little Pony that hasn’t been invented yet. Fifteen years later he returns to kill her in a brutal attack, as he does with all the shining girls.

Harper is a serial killer travelling through time in the city of Chicago, drawn to girls who ‘shine’ with potential and determination. It’s his destiny to snuff their lives out. It’s the House that drives him. He was living in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Depression-era Chicago when fate delivers him a key that unlocks a seemingly abandoned house. Inside is a room full of objects and women’s names written on the wall in Harper’s own handwriting. The names of the shining girls. The objects are what will lead him to them, and Harper knows that he has to find them and kill them.

But he didn’t kill Kirby. Four years after his attack, she starts tracking him down. She joins the Chicago Sun Times as an intern for Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her case. He’s writes for the sports desk now, but Kirby will do whatever she can to find the man who nearly killed her, even if she has to waste time compiling baseball scores.

Kirby gets everything she needs, but Harper still presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. He started killing in 1931, and with the House he can leap across the decades before returning to his own time, untraceable. Any evidence he leaves behind offers only impossible conclusions, allowing him to murder the girls unhindered.

The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.

Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.

Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.

It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.

How they came together in the House, however, remains a mystery. The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates. There are hints and ideas that seem to lead to understanding but never quite get there, leaving the reader pondering the possibilities. There is no how and why for the House. We don’t know how it enables time travel, how it came into being, or why it is focused on killing the shining girls. It’s not clear what exactly motivates Harper either, even though we spend so much time in his head. He avoids taking responsibility for his acts, blaming his victims for shining:

“It’s not my fault, sweetheart,” he says, “It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

There’s also a sense in which he’s driven to do what he does by the objects, the House itself and the time paradox it’s entwined him in. The objects call to him and shine in ways that show him what to use and when.

He tells himself he is only looking around, but he knows one of his girls is here. He always does. It’s the same tug in his stomach that brought him to the House. That jolt of recognition when he walks into someplace he’s meant to be. He knows it when he sees the tokens that match the ones in the room. It is a game. To find them through different times and places. It’s a destiny he’s writing for them. Inevitably, they’re waiting for him.

The force exerted on him by the House and the object sometimes makes him uncomfortable, hurts him even, suggesting that he’s being coerced. He certainly doesn’t choose any of the victims himself; they’ve already been chosen and he’s just drawn to them. On a personal level though, Harper is a sadistic psychopath. It’s obvious that he wants to kill and takes a perverse pleasure in contacting his victims as children and then murdering them as adults, destroying the potential that makes them shine.

I will definitely be in the minority here, but Harper is my favourite character. Which isn’t to say I like him – he’s utterly despicable and I like all the other characters a lot more, with the possible exception of a hipster who wants to film Kirby having sex with him so that she can “reclaim what happened to [her]”. Harper disgusts me, but I love a good villain. He’s not especially smart, but he has an intuitive understanding of the House and eschews all gasping disbelief that characters typically go through when fantasy invades reality. When he steps into the House he claims his destiny as if slipping into a perfectly tailored suit. The way Harper hunts and kills the shining girls is so sick and brutal that I find him fascinating and repulsive in equal parts.

The shining girls are wonderful characters too, by virtue of the qualities that make them ‘shine’. Their roles are small, but they would be strong enough to drive an entire novel themselves. Each of them shows a rare sense of determination, typically in defiance of the racial and sexual discrimination prevalent in Chicago across the decades. Zora is a young black woman doing hard manual labour in a shipping yard to support her four children after losing her husband to war. Alice is a transsexual; Willie a lesbian. Some of them shine because of the difference they make in society. Margot arranges safe abortions for girls and women who can’t afford them. Jin-Sook is a social worker changing lives in black communities. Others shine because of their talents. Willie is a promising architect who fought her way into the field at a time when women weren’t normally given such jobs. Mysha is a brilliant botanist.

What makes Kirby shine seems to be something a bit different – her ability to defy Harper, and her potential to find him and stop him. She is the very reason there is a story. Surprisingly though her part of the narrative moves quite slowly, focusing on character development, her internship with Dan on the baseball desk, and his growing affection for her. The investigation takes a back seat. It seems a little odd, given Kirby’s fervour, although we later learn that she’s spent most of her free time trawling through old newspapers and police reports looking for clues and patterns. Nevertheless, it’s not until we near the end of the book that Kirby starts to make real progress, much of which is dismissed because it seems impossible. The book is by no means boring, but I think it relies heavily on Harper and the other shining girls to drive the narrative until Kirby’s story is ready to get into gear for the climactic ending.

The advantage is that you’re kept in prolonged suspense wondering how the hell Kirby is going to find Harper, the seemingly unstoppable serial killer. I didn’t particularly like the way this happened – through chance, rather than Kirby’s deductions – but I can’t deny that the ending was pretty tense and exciting anyway.

There is much to appreciate in the interim – Beukes’s awesome writing, the horror that is Harper, the stories of the shining girls, Kirby’s relationship with her mother, Kirby’s relationship with Dan. I also waited very patiently but with growing anticipation for the chapter where Harper tries to kill Kirby. As much as I’d hyped it up by the time I got to it, it still managed to be shockingly brutal and evocative, leaving me stunned with one of the saddest and most painful images in the book.

The Shining Girls collectors edition

Umuzi Collector’s Edition

One final thing I want to mention is how impressive the depiction of Chicago is. Beukes has obviously done extensive research (don’t ignore the acknowledgements; it’s worth seeing how much work went into this). The plot traverses six decades, and in the relatively short space of 298 pages we see several of Chicago’s historical and cultural faces as the city shifts and grows.

I’m glad that I bought the Umuzi signed and numbered collector’s edition hardcover of this. It’s a great story and one of the best South African novels I’ve read. I love its mysterious take on time travel and the way Beukes uses it as a plot device that brings a fresh perspective to both historical and crime fiction. The Shining Girls deserves its status as one of the most talked-about books at the moment, and strongly encourage you to read it and join the conversation.

Review of Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth

Title: Cape of Slaves
Series: Time Twisters #1
Author: Sam Roth (pseudonym of Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden)
Published: March 2012
Publisher: Puffin South Africa
Genre: science fantasy, historical children’s fiction, YA
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

In the year 2099, a glowing, green, time-travelling dust escapes into an air vent and travels “through time and space, searching for human skin with which it could connect”.

In present day Johannesburg, the glowing dust finds 12-year-old Sarah, and some of it seeps into her skin. At school the next day, Sarah is inexplicably drawn towards a book entitled Europe in the Middle Ages. When she examines one of the pictures she is pulled into the scene, travelling to the time in which it occurred. Sarah returns moments later, and decides that she needs to find others who have been touched by the dust.

She places a cryptic ad in the personal columns of a local teen newspaper, and that’s how she meets Toby, a street-smart boy from a dodgy neighbourhood, and Bonisile ‘Bones’ Tau (rhymes with ‘cow’), a super-nerdy genius. Toby shows them a newspaper clipping about a girl named Miriam who disappeared from the Cape of Slaves exhibition at a local art gallery. Toby is convinced that Miriam travelled through a portal in one of the paintings and could not get back. Bones and Sarah agree to join Toby on a rescue mission to save Miriam, but when they go through the painting to land in Cape Town, 1825, they do so without an inkling of what kind of society awaits them.

 

Before I go any further, I should put in a disclaimer. The protagonists are 12 and 13 years old, and according to Puffin’s press release for this Cape of Slaves, the target audience is 8-years old and up. I know nothing about the intellectual capabilities or reading preferences of this age group, so I’m reviewing this primarily for older teenagers and adults who read YA. Younger readers are no doubt less demanding and wouldn’t be bothered by the many shortcomings in this novel, but I thought the authors could have been more rigorous, regardless of the fact that they were writing for children. YA and children’s fiction shouldn’t be sub-standard fiction.

The bit of plot I described above already raises a lot of questions and issues for me. I think it’s unlikely that a personal ad in a local youth newspaper would catch the attention of the very few people who were touched by the dust. Who reads those newspapers anyway? Then Toby assumes that Miriam has time-travelled, based on nothing but a newspaper article claiming she “disappeared without a trace” (24). Sarah and Bones accept his assumption without question and agree to join him on a rescue mission, even though these three met each other less than an hour before. They all act as if time travelling is old hat for them, even though they’ve only had one experience with it so far and don’t really know how it works.

When they go to the museum to find the right painting and travel through it, none of them thinks to dress the part, so they all travel 187 years into the past looking like modern kids. What’s worse is that none of them give a single thought to the fact that they’re going to a time of slavery, and the issue of skin colour only comes up once they’ve gone through.

I could, reluctantly, suspend my disbelief to accept that Sarah is capable of this. She lives a life of privilege, where her daily problems involve her stepdad driving her to school in a huge, embarrassing Hummer, walking her to class, and searching her room for sweets and chocolates because he’s a health freak. Because she’s white, discrimination has probably never been an issue for her and 1825 will be far less dangerous for her than for Toby or Bones, so maybe – just maybe – she hasn’t considered the slavery issue.

Toby on the other hand, is coloured and comes from an impoverished background that has made him acutely aware of the racism and discrimination in present-day South Africa. In 1825, he knows full well that his skin colour puts him in danger, so why didn’t he mention it before? Bones, being a genius who attends one of the poshest schools in the country, has actually memorised a historical timeline from 1652 to 1902, so he definitely knows all about slavery. Nevertheless, he arrives at the gallery an hour early and goes through alone, all because he wants “to be the boy who came back from the past, told the world, and won prizes for it”. Of course, he ends up being the boy who is assumed to be a slave because of his skin colour.

Childish optimism aside, are 12-year olds really this dof? Or so ignorant of their history? Did schools stop teaching kids about slavery? Even if that’s the case, or if these three haven’t had those classes yet, then an art exhibition named “Cape of Slaves” and a room full of pictures depicting slavery should have been a giant, screaming clue. Certainly more noticeable than a cryptic ad in the personals column of a youth newspaper.

Perhaps the protagonists’ ignorance is meant to set the stage for an educational experience, since education is presumably one of the purposes of this novel, at least for those who don’t know about slavery or the fact that it was practised in South Africa. Since I already knew the basics, Cape of Slaves wasn’t informative or immersive. The depiction of slavery felt thin, like an impression gleaned from novels and movies on the subject. The authors (or publishers/editors) appear to have favoured ease of reading over historical accuracy in many instances. Sometimes this is understandable. For example, the violence in the novel is mild, to better suit the young audience, and we mostly see the cruelty of slavery in the way black people are treated like domestic animals.  But too often it felt like the novel just glossed over difficulties in a way that felt unnecessarily childish and unrealistic.

Almost all the characters speak perfect English, so the protagonists have no difficulty communicating. There’s only a smattering of Dutch or Afrikaans, and I don’t recall any African languages being used. No one makes a big deal about the kids’ modern clothing, speech or mannerisms. Many people marvel at how well educated Bones is, as if he were a monkey who’d learned to speak, but none of the slave owners find this threatening or even suspicious, and no one asks how or why he was educated. At one point, a slave boy named Elijah runs away from his farm in an attempt to help Bones, and they both end up getting sold at a slave market in the nearby town. Surprisingly, Elijah’s owners don’t ever come looking for him – quite convenient in terms of plot, but I can’t imagine that runaway slaves were treated so casually.

The characters are just as thin and uninteresting as the historical setting. Sarah is a garden variety shy, insecure girl, who gets jealous easily and finds it difficult to think of Toby without some kind of romantic overtone. Bones is a hollow nerd cliché – he’s physically weak, troubled by allergies, dresses like Steve Urkel, and likes to read about “rocket science and global warming” (46). What vague tastes. Poor Elijah, the only slave with a major role, is little more than a plot device put in place to help the readers and characters find their way. Toby, at least, is a little more appealing, probably because he’s the boldest, most socially conscious, and most adaptable of the three time travellers. He’s the streetwise “cool dude” with a sensitive side, but sadly this comes off as a bit of a cliché too. There’s an odd lack of slang in the characters’ speech, and they don’t really sound like kids most of the time, even if they act as such. There’s no real variation in the way they speak either, and this can be confusing, because the narrative switches between first-person narrators every two or three chapters, and it’s only the context that enables you to identify who is speaking.

On the whole, Cape of Slaves has the quality of a made-for-TV kids’ movie, like the ones that M-Net used to play for the two-hour Disney family time on Sunday afternoons. I remember liking those movies, but even then I knew that their stories were kept smooth and simple – sometimes ridiculously so – in order to keep kids happy. Similarly, this could be a good read for pre-teens and younger teens – it’s short and fairly easy to read, has a bit of adventure, and some educational value. For the many adults who read YA though, I would not recommend this.

Buy a copy of Cape of Slaves