Firefly: Back from the Black

Title: Firefly: Back from the Black

Author: Joey Spiotto (Illustrator)

Summary: Ever wondered how the crew of Serenity would fare if they landed back on Earth-That-Was? Would we see etiquette classes by Inara? Remedial math lessons from Jayne? Could River make it as a psychic poker champ? And what kind of carnage could Saffron cause with a charity kissing booth?

Buckle up, Browncoats! Because it’s time to find out…

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I was given this book as a present for my birthday earlier this year. I hadn’t even known of its existence, but almost anything Firefly related is a welcome gift! This book is a fine addition to my moderate merchandise collection.

A short book of single-panel comic art work, i’ll start off by saying: if you haven’t seen and enjoyed Firefly the TV show, don’t bother picking this book up. Every page is a reference or an in-joke to the programme, and is bound to be lost on those unfamiliar with it.

The art is simple, but cute. The most expressive and comical character is by far Jayne, with his icon hat and range of emotions he is stand out in this book. The colours are all bright and fun, with characters in familiar and new scenarios, usually with a twist or visualising something only referenced in the show (Wash juggling geese was particularly amusing). There are also more scenic panels, often with some glorious negative space (my weak spot–i love it), like Serenity parked up on a quiet suburban street or Jubal Early trying to hitch a ride while floating, unanchored, in space. Any page would look at home in a frame.

It’s a fun little book of adorable little Firefly cartoons. It’s not that deep, but it is that sweet. I loved it.

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The Boy on the Bridge

Title: The Boy on the Bridge

Author: M.R. Carey

Summary: Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy. The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I read The Girl with All the Gifts four years ago (where does the time go!?) and absolutely loved it. So when i heard Carey was releasing a prequel i was equal measures excited and apprehensive. Excited because yes, more! Apprehensive because, oh no, what if it’s shit?

As the five stars i’ve given it will indicate–it’s not shit.

I knew nothing going in, but had somehow assumed this book took place before the outbreak–that it would be about the outbreak. Instead, it’s several years after the outbreak, and several years before Gifts. It’s a nice spot, because we don’t know the details about what happened at the time of the outbreak, and we don’t know exactly how the discoveries made in this book lead to the things we see in Gifts. There are still plenty of gaps left in the story for speculation and interpretation, which is the kind of thing i love.

The book focuses on the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, an armoured military truck, on its research trek across the UK in search of a cure for Ophiocordyceps, which has infected the human race. The Rosalind Franklin is not unfamiliar–it is the armoured truck the characters of Gifts find in the latter part of the book. So i was very intrigued to find out more about how the truck had got there, what had happened before hand, and where all the crew had gone.

There are more characters in this book–12, compared to Gifts’ 4–though it’s fairly obvious who the red shirts are, as we don’t really ever get to know them. Our core characters are a group of seven. And it’s these characters that make the book, for me. I loved them. All of them–even the not so good ones. Which is good, because with this book being a prequel to an apocalyptic future–we know things don’t exactly work out perfectly for the plot. It has to be the characters that carry this story.

An eccentric genius, or just an ill-equipped explorer swaying on the rickety rope bridge between sanity and madness?

And the characters are all so well written and have such depth. None of them are stereotypes, and although a couple aren’t far off, they all have enough about them to make them more than the role they’re playing in the narrative. Stephen, the boy of the title, who at 15 is incredibly intelligent, on the autistic spectrum, and haunted by grief and trauma. He’s the linchpin of the whole book and logical to a fault, but not perfect and makes several errors in judgement that impact the plot. Samrina, a scientist and surrogate mother to Stephen–she has some personal cargo to worry about. Fournier, the lead scientist and closest stereotype of the book–he’s the obvious and easy bad guy. Carlisle, the military escort leader–his past and his internal struggles make him a wise but fallible leader. Foss, a female military sniper holding her own in a man’s world–she fights to make something of herself and earn the respect she deserves. Sixsmith, the driver and bright spark of this motley crew–she’s the heart and soul backing them all up.

And then there’s McQueen. He was the most surprising to me, because he quickly and inexplicably became my favourite character. Head strong, arrogant, and often going off-book in his military role of second in command–he has all the traits that should make me dislike him. But i didn’t. For me, all along, it was clear there was something else to him. His arrogance was a cover–a front he had to put on to fulfil the stereotype people expect of him. His issue with Carlisle was the most interesting thing to me. How they misunderstood and made assumptions of each other. I had all my hopes pinned on them working things through and working together. At times i think McQueen’s negative feelings towards Carlisle were a bit much, and definitely not resolved fully to my liking. But i’ve decided that it does all get properly concluded–it’s just not part of the book.

The plot is simple enough, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. Including glimpses of things we’re familiar with in Gifts and hints at how things come about between here and there. There is also a suitable climactic action scene which will look great if and when they make the film. And the ending, which is to say, the epilogue, was a little different and unexpected. I’ve seen some reviews claiming it completely undoes the ending of Gifts, and while i see where that’s coming from… i don’t wholly agree. I think it adds a layer–it adds to the possibilities of the future.

With how focused this book was, and how much scope there is in the world Carey has created here, I can see more books happening–prequels and sequels. And there are a few things, people, and places i’d like to see included in them. I’ll wait and see what Carey might have in store with eager anticipation.

Sealed

sealedTitle: Sealed

Author: Naomi Booth

Summary: Heavily pregnant Alice and her partner Pete are done with the city. Above all, Alice is haunted by the rumours of the skin sealing epidemic starting to infect the urban population. Surely their new remote mountain house will offer safety, a place to forget the nightmares and start their little family. But the mountains and their people hold a different kind of danger. With their relationship under intolerable pressure, violence erupts and Alice is faced with the unthinkable as she fights to protect her unborn child.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I was given a free copy of this book by the publisher via their twitter account, and i was quite intrigued by the sound of it. Described as an “eco horror” it instantly sounded interesting to me.

I loved the “eco” side of the story, with the mysterious new cutis disease, the smog of the cities, the wild fires of the mountains, and “protected” food. There was also some political aspects, with some cutis cover ups, displacement camps run like prisons, a lack of local resources. It had a lot of dystopian-vibes, but doesn’t quite delve deep enough; it’s more pre-dystopian.

Although it had these themes, they were only really lightly touched upon in the grand scheme of the story. The focus was on our main character, Alice, and her partner, Pete. I’ll be honest–i didn’t like them. I felt for Alice, with her cutis obsession and being cut off from information and updates, but she was also weak and pathetic in the face of Pete’s dominance and control. He tells her to stop thinking, asking, worrying, distracting… he just wants to fit in with his new friends and not have to give a shit about his girlfriend’s fears and emotions. He was a knobhead.

In almost every chapter there is more revealed about the past. The history of cutis, of Alice and Pete’s relationship and childhoods, of the death of Alice’s mother and how this has affected her. And while this was interesting stuff to learn, the segues seemed a little too forced to me. There was a scene with Alice suddenly taking an interest in flowers as a reason for her to rummage for her mum’s gardening books to then start remembering her mum’s garden to lead into the past. I wondered if the strange flower Alice had found was related to the cutis epidemic or the environmental changes, but no. Instead, flowers and gardening are never mentioned again.

The last chapter was where the horror aspect really stepped up, with things happening as i’d been expecting them to since chapter two. The unkempt house down the road, the crotchety old man with a gun, the heavily pregnant woman… I loved how cutis played its part here, i loved the unreality of Alice’s experience and how that came across in the writing, and, as a horror fan, i loved the gore.

Overall, the story was very character-driven and -focused. Too much so for my own personal taste. It was far more about Alice’s psychological state of mind and how she copes (or doesn’t cope) with the events unfolding around her, rather than those events themselves. The end of the book was great–on the cusp of the dystopian future i’d be fascinated to read more about.

TTT: Wish I’d DNF’d

As I discussed fairly recently, i’m not very good at giving up on books, even when i’m not enjoying them. It’s not until i’ve finished, when I have all the information and when the book has not redeemed itself, that I think, “Yeah, I shouldn’t have bothered sticking with it till the end.” So for this week’s DNF-themed top ten, i’ve chosen the top ten books I should have not finished.

Ariel – Controversial right off the bat; I know a lot of people love Plath. I just didn’t get on with her poerty at all. It just seemed so bizarre and unconnected. I could barely make sense of it. Thankfully, poetry books don’t take too long to read!

Man and Boy – The one and only book by Parsons I have or will ever read. I found it dull as dishwater, eyerollingly predictable, and completely uninspired.

High Fidelity – Another so many people love. I just hated the characters. All miserable and selfish and blah. I wasn’t invested. There is one quote in this book that I adored, though—i’m at least glad I kept reading till then.

Weaveworld – This book just dragged with not a lot going on. Some of the language and themes were rather sexist and clichéd… i’m actually surprised I slogged my way through it. Having since read a book of Barker’s short stories and loved it, I can only assume novels are not his forte.

Girl, Interrupted – What a whiny, contradictory, self-involved wanker of a character. And as this is based on the real-life events of the author… I don’t like her much, either!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Again with a book so highly regarded. I found it awkward and amateurish. A poor narrative voice (and character—i found him so annoying), and a clichéd “find yourself” adventure. Yawn.

Rosemary’s Baby – This. Book. Made. Me. Angry. I literally wanted to throw it across the room at points. I was hoping so badly for some awesome turnaround in the conclusion… but alas, it just got worse.

Communion Town – I was just hoping for so much more from this book. The idea is sound—a collection of short stories set in the same fictional city. But the author was trying too hard, and it just didn’t flow or meld for me.

Looking for Alaska – Perhaps the most loved on this list? I’m sorry, but John Green is not for me. The writing is—fine (though full of quotable clichés). It’s just not challenging enough. I’m generally not a fan of YA as I find the genre generally too much of an easy read—i prefer something that will make me think.

The Hourglass Factory – A spur of the moment purchase I came to regret. Mystery, suffragettes, lesbians—it has some great ingredients. But the storytelling was poor, the plot meandered, and the climax not enough to save it.

Do you love or hate any of these books? What was your spin on this week’s theme? Link me up in the comments below!

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Everything I Never Told You

Title: Everything I Never Told You

Author: Celeste Ng

Summary: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfil the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait about love, lies, and race.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This book had been on my radar for a while, but i wasn’t sure if i wanted to read it. It was the female POC author and the Chinese-American family dynamic that peaked my interest, and when i saw the book in The Works for a few quid i couldn’t say no. I’m glad. I enjoyed this book in a lot more ways than i thought i would.

The quote on the cover says this book “calls to mind The Lovely Bones“, but for most of the book i couldn’t help but think of the TV series Twin Peaks. It starts with a missing girl and the discovery of her body being pulled from a body of water. It goes on to explore the lives of the family and how little they really know about each other. And with Twin Peaks in mind, i’ll be frank and say i had my eyes on the Dad for most of the book!

What i loved most about this book was its third person omniscient narration. I think this is generally a very underused narrative voice, with most books being told in third person limited or first person point of view. Third person omniscient is pretty tough to pull off well, but Ng manages it flawlessly. I was hooked from that very first line, and knew i was going to enjoy the hell out of this book. The narration flits between all the characters’ thoughts and feelings while also giving snippets of events to come. But none of it in a clumsy way–it still flows and at no point did it get confusing.

All the characters are wonderfully written. All with sympathetic motives and views, but all flawed in genuine ways. None of them are perfect, and all of them fail to communicate enough that wires are crossed, incorrect assumptions made, and pressure piles high on shoulders not strong enough to bear the weight. It is all three children i felt for most, but especially Hannah. The youngest, the ignored and forgotten, the observant and unwitting confidante. Nath and Lydia, bound together by their history and the way the family has dealt with that, but also pulled apart by time and adolescence.

Marilyn and James–Mum and Dad–are perhaps the two most interesting characters, but certainly for me the least sympathetic. Their life experiences, reasoning, and decisions are understandable and i feel for them… to a certain extent. When they become so blinded by their own emotions and selfishness, though, i have to draw the line. Marilyn i have more sympathy for, as a woman in the 60s and 70s with dreams and ambitions, and people at every turn only holding her back. Her only real mistake was blindly projecting that onto her daughter. James, though. As much i can understand his history; how isolating being the only Chinese student would be and how desperately he would have wanted to fit in. I couldn’t forgive how he all but hated Nath for being too similar and idolised Lydia for seeming to be so popular and “normal”. I wouldn’t forgive him holding his wife back in her dreams because of his own inadequacy issues. And i certainly shouldn’t forgive an affair with a teaching assistant that started on the day of his own daughter’s funeral. James is just far, far too selfish to be likeable.

I found the story simple, but excellently constructed, and perfectly emotive. It easily kept me reading, not only to know what happened, but also to see how these characters developed and dealt with their trauma. I wanted a happy ending for them (well, most of them). I wanted Hannah to be loved and appreciated and seen, i wanted Nath to go to college and live his own life, i want Jack’s heart to not be broken. I was happy to see just enough of the future in the last couple of pages that i could close the book happy and satisfied.

This is not the usual kind of book i read–it is heavily character-driven, with personal drama and development at its core. It’s contemporary fiction, and it’s not my go-to. But i fell pretty much head of arse for this book, and i need Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere pretty much ASAP. I’d also love to read more books in a well-written third person omniscient voice… the only others i can think of are The Book Thief and The Hobbit. Any recommendations?

Three

Title: Three

Author: Annemarie Monahan

Summary: One yellow April morning, a 17-year-old girl asks herself, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” What she decides will send her life in one of three directions.

That morning is long past. Now she is 41.

On one life path, she is Kitty. She’s been happily married for 23 years. Happily enough. Until Faye, her professor, kisses her.

On another path, she is Katherine, a physician. After the death of an old love, she contacts the one lover who still haunts her: a woman who renounced her for God.

On a third, she calls herself Antonia. She’s barely survived the implosion of a lesbian utopian commune, one built on an abandoned oil rig.

Who are we? Who haven’t we been? Have we dared? Three of one woman’s possible lives are about to collide.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I can’t remember when, where, or how i came across this book, but i’m so glad i did, because i loved it. I was immediately sucked in, instantly fascinated by these three women in their opening chapters and ready to read more.

The chapters alternate between the three women and their lives, sharing their pasts and presents. As different as they all are, there are traits they all share. For example, they are all very observant: Katherine as a doctor, noting symptoms and concerns to easily diagnose the ailment and the patient’s motivations; Kitty as an expert shopper, getting the best bargains and stocking piling while she can; and Antonia as a clairvoyant on a psychic telephone hotline, using her ability to read people so well even over the phone to rack up the longest call times and the biggest pay cheques. I loved all three of them, in their own ways. I was never disappointed when one character’s chapter ended, only happy to dive right into the next.

Although all, originally, the same woman, that peach took them each on different journeys. And despite the fact it is relationships and love that each of them are struggling with in their stories, they are all exploring different aspects of that. Antonia wants to help save the woman she loves from herself as well as a group of well-meaning but self-destructive earth child hippies, but at the expense of herself. Katherine is contemplating lost love, things left unsaid, and the different experiences people have of the same events. Kitty is finally allowing herself to wake up and explore aspects of her own desire she has kept so well-hidden. There is something here everyone should be able to relate to.

The writing is wonderful. It is clever and witty and poetic and meaningful–and i’m still not sure how it manages to be all those things at once, but it does. And it reads so effortlessly that it was simply a joy to pick up. This was a book i didn’t want to put down, but it was also a book i was enjoying enough to want to make it last. I think i managed quite well, finishing at a sedate pace of 10 days. But i still want to be reading it now.

The only place the book faltered was in the final few short chapters, when each woman’s story was, in a manner of speaking, ‘wrapped up’. At this point the writing became overly poetic and lost some of its meaning; it veered from the story and the point a little in an attempt to be sincere and significant, but succeeded only in being vague and inconsequential.

As far as i’m aware this is the only book by Monahan, but it want more of her words. They were, on the whole, perfection.

Instruction Manual for Swallowing

Title: Instruction Manual for Swallowing

Author: Adam Marek

Summary: Robotic insects, in-growing cutlery, flesh-serving waiters in a zombie cafe… Welcome to the surreal, misshapen universe of Adam Marek’s first collection; a bestiary from the techno-crazed future and mythical past; a users’ guide to the seemingly obvious (and the world of illogic implicit within it). Whether fantastical or everyday in setting, Marek’s stories lead us down to the engine room just beneath modern consciousness, a place of both atavism and familiarity, where the body is fluid, the spirit mechanised, and beasts often tell us more about our humanity than anything we can teach ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: I don’t even remember how, where, or why i came across this book, but it obviously intrigued me enough to add it to my wish list, because i got it for my birthday a couple of years ago. It was recently moved swiftly up the ‘to read’ list when it was mentioned at a short story workshop i attended. One of the exercises was to take two things that you would generally not mix and write a story about them (which his how i ended up writing about a first kiss at an exorcism!). This is, seemingly, what Marek does with these stories.

None of these stories are about what you expect. My favourite was Cuckoo, i think, because its elusiveness works so well; it has a well-rounded story that doesn’t give all of its pieces up at once. Robot Wasps and Meaty’s Boys are two that also sit strong in my mind. Meaty’s Boys is one of the longest stories in the book, but seemed to fly by in no time at all. It is also the story with the most well-built world. Though the world we glimpse in Robot Wars was fascinating and left me wanting to know more about it.

These weird little glimpses into strange quirky worlds are what i love about the best short stories. They don’t all make sense, they don’t all have an underlying message or meaning, and they don’t follow any kind of pattern. They’re mostly just light-hearted gems to while away a few minutes while you’re waiting for the bus. And if a few of them have any kind of depth to them, well, that’s a bonus for those who want to search for it.

I mostly dived into this book looking for inspiration for my own short story writing, and while i did find some of that, i also found doubt and uncertainty. What i found these stories mostly lacking was feeling. I found it easy, once i’d finished a story, to let go of it–to move on. I think that’s perhaps not the feeling i want my own stories to leave readers with, but i write things that are also a little off the wall and i’m starting to wonder… but that’s a whole other post.

The only other problem i had with some of these stories were a few of the male characters, who were off with other women, trying to recapture some bullshit emotions or shit, while leaving their long term partners at home literally holding the baby. I just can’t with these characters, and it makes me side-eye Marek a little that this is obviously so easy a character he can fall into writing.

But yes, silly, weird, and inspired short stories that made me laugh, intrigued, and inspired. Definitely want to read more.

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