Binti

binti smallTitle: Binti

Author: Nnedi Okorafor

Summary: Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itselfbut first she has to make it there, alive.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I read and enjoyed Okorafor’s Lagoongosh, five years ago now! I had mixed feelings on that book, mostly thanks to my own expectations. I’m a little sad it took me so long to pick up another of her books, because I loved Binti!

Binti is a short book at only 90 pages, but those 90 pages pack a lot of world building, character exploration, and story. It felt significantly longer than it is and most definitely in a good way!

Binti is the main character, ostracised from her home for sneaking away to go to university, she is an outsider in every way. I liked her immediately. There are quite a few other characters mentioned in passing, but only a couple we spend any significant time with. Okwu is the other important character, and even though at first there is strong animosity between them and Binti, I liked Okwu immediately.

Considering most of the story is spent on a spaceship, and a significant portion with Binti confined to one room of that ship, we get such a sense of several different worlds. Binti’s home world, Oomza University, as well space travel and how it works (living, breathing spaceships? I want to know more!). We also hear about multiple cultures and species, how war has spread between them, and how even through all their differences the motivations and emotionsthe good and the badare so very recognisable and relatable.

It’s just a great story told beautifully and succinctly. I can’t wait to read the sequel and to see more about Binti and Okwu, their time at university, and the worlds only glimpsed so far.

Disturbing the Beast

distrubing the beast smallTitle: Disturbing the Beast

Author: Various

Summary: The best of women’s weird fiction

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I love short stories. I love weird fiction. I love women-led narratives. Of course I supported this book on kickstarter. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but that’s because I have a lot of unread books, and also because I haven’t been reading much these past couple of years.

I should have loved this book. And I did love some of the stories. Dolly, about a woman who was cloned to re-live the life of the girl she was cloned from, and Burning Girl, about a literal girl on fire, were stand-out stories for me. They both explored the characters’ lives, freedoms, and autonomy (or lack thereof). Their sense of self and of hiding part of themselves for the benefit of others.

The concepts of these two stories in particular spoke to me, but they also stood apart from the rest for another reason. The women in these stories and their plots weren’t defined by or dependent on the men in them.

Almost (almost) every other story in the book included women whose lives and choices were dependant on and affected by men. A woman who consumes men, a woman whose lineage descended from an act of sexual violence, women literally knitting themselves husbands, a woman whose touch becomes electric following the death of one man and returns to normal after she saves the life of another man.

These stories weren’t bad, but I am quite tired of women’s stories, women’s lives, and women’s purpose being defined by the men in them.

One of the stories that I loved and couldn’t stop reading was Wrapped, about a female Egyptologist who discovers the tomb of a lost female pharaoh. The way the story of the pharaoh and the Egyptologist run parallel, like history repeating itself, was well crafted and left me with strong emotions. The men in the story were used to illustrate the inherent sexism and control women have experienced for centuries, rather than any driving force or meaning to the main character as an individual–they helped or hindered her, they did not define her.

While I would certainly look out for stories and books by several of the authors in the future, overall the collection as a whole feels just slightly amateurish. That’s not a criticism, though. Simply an observation. An observation I think would benefit the reader and the stories if you know in advance.

Northern Lights

Title: Northern Lights

Author: Philip Pullman

Summary: Lyra Belacqua lives half-wild and carefree among the scholars of Jordan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle – a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armoured bears.

As she hurtles towards danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, the biggest battle imaginable.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: The first book I’ve finished in 2020! Yes, it’s July. This year has been and continues to be A Struggle. Reader’s block is absolutely a thing. After starting and not finishing several books, I decided to give an audiobook a try. It came with its own problems, but I finished the thing, so it’s a win.

I had seen the recent BBC adaptation of this book, so knew the plot. I was actually counting on that to help me with actually finishing the book. And in fact, in some ways, it helped me enjoy the book more. Knowing what was coming, namely the tragic end for one of the characters, made moments earlier in the book and leading up to it hit much heavier than they would have. I was actually crying at a couple of points, understanding the meanings behind things and how certain aspects played out.

The book was actually quite dark, which I enjoyed. There were a few moments where I winced, thinking of younger readers experiencing the clear violence and trauma. But I do think it’s important that the book doesn’t shy away from it, either. It’s exploring the importance and anguish of the fantasy concept of having a daemon, and allows the reader to understand and connect with that deeply.

For me the characters were mostly very clear cut good or bad. Which is fine, though I prefer the morally grey. I loved Lyra, our lead character. She has such passion and intelligence and determination. I loved Roger, her best friend and side kick, and how they would obviously do anything for each other. I loved Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, with his wisdom and kindness and strength. I hated Lord Asriel and the size of his ego–he might have been intelligent, but he was cruel. I hated Mrs Coulter and her false affection and manipulation. I didn’t hate, but found myself disliking Lee Scoresby and his brash American-ness. Though I am hoping some characters will become more complex and interesting over the course of the sequels.

What I enjoyed most were the main themes of the story. Daemons and the connections humans share with them. Dust and where it comes from and how it affects people. Parallel universes and trying to reach them. These and the characters I loved will be what draws me back to listen to the sequels. I’m quite excited about them, now I have no idea about where the story goes.

The Book of Forks

Title: The Book of Forks

Author: Rob Davis

Summary: Castro Smith finds himself imprisoned within the mysterious Power Station, writing his Book of Forks while navigating baffling daily meetings with Poly, a troubled young woman who may be his teacher, his doctor, his prison guard . . . or something else entirely. Meanwhile, back home, Vera and Scarper’s search for their missing friend takes them through the chaotic war zone of the Bear Park and into new and terrifying worlds. With The Book of Forks, Rob Davis completes his abstract adventure trilogy by stepping inside Castro’s disintegrating mind to reveal the truth about the history of the world, the meaning of existence, and the purpose of kitchen scales.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: The third and final book in Davis’ The Motherless Oven trilogy, I couldn’t wait to get my hands and eyeballs on it. I was sad my copy didn’t come with a bookplate, as I had hoped to frame and display all three, but the book is obviously more important.

This book has as much weird and wonderfulness as the first two. With the main characters venturing out beyond the boarders of The Bear Park, where (almost) all of them have lived for their entire lives, we get to see new places and new ways in which these worlds are strange, bizarre, and fascinating. Guerilla postmen, exploding people, diseases as gods, and rotting corpses on the street. And of course we see more of Castro’s book (can you guess what it’s called?), which explores the history and nature of this world in all its peculiarness.

The art, as ever, is beautiful. Simple, but with such amazing detail. The faces are definitely my favourite, varying from plain and unobtrusive in wider panels, slightly more detailed in more medium panels, to perfectly detailed with amazing subtleties in expression and character in the really close panels. I could look at the faces alone for quite a while. Pages from Castro’s book are presented as a kind of divide between chapters and two alternating storylines, which worked well, and I loved the layout and illustrations, as well as the contrasting white-on-black of those pages.

People accept whatever absurdity surrounds them as reality. And yet, to question this absurdity is to become absurd.

I five-star loved the first two books in this series, but unfortunately this book didn’t hit me with quite the same amazement. I really enjoyed this one, it just… It’s longer than either of the first two, but it also feels like less happens for some reason. I think the story races to its conclusion, trying to tie all the threads together, but is also trying to cram in a lot of new things (Castro’s personal story, his book, the other death states, the postmen…). It just doesn’t fully work. And as much as i enjoyed the pages from Castro’s book, they were often a little… much. Whole pages of text in a graphic novel, and switching from panels to full bodies of text and back again made for slow progress, an inconsistent reading pattern, and loss of focus. I loveloveloved Castro’s insightfulness and theories on the strange things the characters in this world accept as normal, but this book made me realise I loved them in context and in brief. Entire pages with numerous (useless) footnotes failed to keep my interest as high.

Overall I do love this series, and it will certainly be one I’d love to revisit. Likely i will choose to read this installment in two halves–the story told in panels, then all the pages from Castro’s book separately. I think I would enjoy it a lot more that way.

Goddess Mode

Title: Goddess Mode

Author: Zoe Quinn, Robbi Rodriguez (Illustrator)

Summary: In a near future where all of humanity’s needs are administered by a godlike A.I., it’s one young woman’s horrible job to do tech support on it. But when Cassandra finds herself violently drawn into a hidden and deadly digital world beneath our own, she discovers a group of super-powered women and horrific monsters locked in a secret war for the cheat codes to reality.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4

Review: I’ve been reading these comics as they’ve come out, which isn’t something I normally do because I have no patience and want to read it all at once. But my partner was the one buying them, and they were there and the story sounded interesting and by the second or third comic i was hooked. So here were are.

It’s a no-brainer, really–this series has everything I love. Science fiction, strong female leads, bright colours with a gritty realism, intrigue, and cliffhangers. The dystopian world the story is set in is one that is easy to imagine in our foreseeable future. Adverts everywhere you look because you have nanotech in your eyeballs, a holographic AI popping up to tell you things, oh, and an entire digital world, pseudo-superheroes, and the monsters they fight. That last bit is less foreseeable.

The story is pretty complex for short six-part comics, but never overwhelmingly so. With four main characters and at least four more supporting, they all have their own backstory and character development which feeds into the story as a whole. I loved the main-main character, Cassandra. Her spunky attitude and great hair made me fond very quickly. She’s smart, but overwhelmed, and with huge emotional investment in everything that goes on. My other favourite characters were Tatyanna for her misanthropic cynicism and well-hidden kindness, and Antimony for rocking that eye patch and being so much more than the mother of monsters she was taken for.

Of course, the artwork is freaking gorgeous. So much bright, rich texture and depth. How vibrant Azoth, the digital world, is compared to the “real” analogue world. The quiet simplicity in some frames and the bold chaotic action in others. It’s definitely a comic I’ve wanted to stop and look at a lot more than others, and completely brings to life this incredible world in a science fiction and fantasy mix.

The ending wonderfully tied up several plot threads and left me feeling satisfied, while also unravelling a few more and leaving me in anticipation of a sequel. And now I wait…


Even That Wildest Hope

Title: Even That Wildest Hope

Author: Seyward Goodhand

Summary: The highly anticipated debut short story collection by Journey Prize finalist Seyward Goodhand bursts with vibrant, otherworldly characters—wax girls and gods among men, artists on opposite sides of a war, aimless plutocrats and anarchist urchins—who are sometimes wondrous, often grotesque, and always driven by passions and yearnings common to us all. Stylistic and primordial, Even That Wildest Hope is a chaotic but always satisfying fabulist journey in the baroque tradition of Angela Carter, Carmen Maria Machado, and Ted Chiang.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: I received a free digital copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley. A collection of perculiar short stories, it sounded exactly up my street. And in many ways it was… but it also took me over a month to read.

Goodhand certainly has a wonderful ability to take basic human feelings and struggles and portray them in bizarre and unusual narratives. Emotions made physical, philosophical concepts became human, and moral debates turned into fairy tales.

I loved a lot of the stories in this book. Several were must-keep-reading good. So I Can Win, the Galatrax must Die, about an… unusual… superfood and the lengths people go to to consume it. The Fur Trader’s Daughter, about family, love, and what truly makes us human. The Gamins of Winnipeg, about staying true to yourself verses playing the game of life. The Parachute, about passion and success and jealously. Hansel, Gretel, and Katie, a wonderful twist on the classic that kept me guessing till the very end.

Though I would say none of the stories in this collection were bad, some dragged more than others. Enkidu, about the unequal relationship between a man and a god, and Pastoral, about a woman defined by the men who pursue her and the life experiences she had no choice in, were both very interesting stories, but I took days to read both. They felt stretched out and unnecessarily long–my investment in the stories began to lag because I needed them to move a little faster.

The other stories were fairly short, wonderfully weird, and oddly moving. Felix Baumgartner’s Guardian Angel, about a reluctant guardian angel following its ward into a dangerous situation. What Bothers a Woman of the World, about a woman’s emotional vulnerability taking physical form and the relationship she has with it. Embassy Row, about a group of secluded couples without care or responsibilities trying to find meaning in their lives.

Every story provided a lot of food for thought and although I have my favourites, each and every story has stayed with me in its own way.

Overall this book was fairly mixed bag. Some strong 4- and 5-star stories, but definitely a few 2- and 3-stars as well. Hence the middle-ground rating of 3.5. I think everyone will find a story to love in this book, but not every story will be someone’s cup of tea.

Ismyre

Title: Ismyre

Author: B. Mure

Summary: In the city of Ismyre, Ed the sculptor works as his widower neighbour sings strange melodies late into the night.

Meanwhile, across the city, a government building explodes into a mess of plants and flowers, and B. Mure’s enchanting story of mystery and fantasy begins…

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: This was an impulse buy from my local comic book shop. I have my most successful random purchases with graphic novels, and this one is another win. I couldn’t resist that blurb, and the book didn’t let me down.

The story follows Ed. He sits quietly in his flat, sculpting small wooden figures, and saying “Hm” a lot. I liked him immediately. We also meet the prime minister, who’s dealing with missing people and government buildings blowing up in flowers; Faustine, a friendly but evasive magic user with adorable kids; and the widow, a lady who lives near Ed and sings a lot. The story involves Faustine helping Ed hunt for some of his sculptures that are being stolen, as well as creating a large ice sculpture commissioned by the prime minister. But the plot is almost–almost–incidental. The real focus is on the quiet, lonely nature of the world and the easy, light friendship that builds between Ed and Faustine.

And the art. Oh, the art. Blues, reds, greens, and yellows… melding and overlapping or in stark contrast, light and sparse or bold and filling the frame. How four colours in varying shades and strengths can evoke such varied moods and atmospheres is incredibly done. The characters are all humanoid animals–cats, dogs, crocodiles, birds, deers, frogs, mice… And the line work, walking that fine and beautiful line between neat and tidy, and rough and ready. It feels casual, but is so detailed without being overwhelming. It’s just bloody gorgeous, honestly.

There are two other books by Mure set in the city of Ismyre, and i’ve already added them to my to-read list. I can’t wait to spend more time in the quiet, peculiar little town. My two favourite things from the book were two very simple quotes. I’ll leave you with them and their pages from the book.

Hm.

Very interesting, mostly useless.

Hm.mostly useless

House of Many Ways

Title: House of Many Ways

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Summary: Charmain Baker is in over her head. Looking after Great Uncle William’s tiny cottage should have been easy, but he is the Royal Wizard Norland whose house bends space and time. Its single door leads to any number of places: the bedrooms, the kitchen, the caves under the mountains — even the past.

In no time at all Charmain becomes involved with a magical stray dog, a muddled apprentice wizard and a box of the king’s most treasured documents, as well as irritating a clan of small blue creatures.

Caught up in an intense royal search, she meets a sorceress named Sophie. Can the Wizard Howl and Calcifer be far behind?

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This is the third book in the Howl’s Moving Castle trilogy. It took me a while to get around to reading it, because as much as i flipping adored the first book, the second book was quite a disappointment in comparison… I was really worried this one wouldn’t be as good as I hoped either. BUT! I was so happy to fall for this book almost immediately.

Charmain was an instant delight. A main character with a ferocious appetite for reading is always going to win the hearts of book lovers. But she’s also strong-willed, and selfish, and unsympathetic… All the way through I was pretty much thinking, “Same.” So yeah, I loved her. Sent to look after the house of a distant relative by marriage and thrown in at the deep end with magic, she finds very little time to read. The only other characters we really see enough to properly get to know are Peter, an apprentice wizard who shows up on Charmain’s doorstop unexpectedly to join the party; and Waif, a delightful little dog who won’t leave Charmain alone. They were both wonderful.

And so, of course, magic and mayhem ensue. And really, it’s all such a freaking wonderful journey. I think it helps that Howl and Sophie and Calcifer are in this one a smidgen more than they were in Castle in the Air, but there was something about this book that just had the same fun chaotic energy of the first one. I could happily have read more about the everyday lives of Charmain, Waif, Peter, and Uncle William. The lot of them living in that enormous tiny cottage, tapping furniture for food, chatting with kobolds, and exploring the endless magical twists and turns.

I think that’s the difference–Castle in the Air seemed to meander in a dull way when I wanted the plot to speed up, but House of Many Ways could have meandered as long as it wanted, because I just loved spending time in this world. While the plot was almost secondary to the ups and downs of an average day for Charmain, it was also woven seamlessly into the ups and downs of an average day.

Almost every random crazy thing that happened came back around and tied into the plot by the end of the book, and in such an easy but satisfying way. The mysteries and questions raised in the story were answered, but the story also ends on a note of more excitement to come. And while I’d’ve loved to have carried on reading, getting the happy ending and knowing all these lovely characters have such exciting lives ahead of them is the perfect place to end.

The Can Opener’s Daughter

Title: The Can Opener’s Daughter

Author: Rob Davis

Summary: Vera Pike lives in the cruel world of Grave Acre. Her mother is the Weather Clock, the megalomaniacal Prime Minister of Chance. Her father is a can opener. Charting Vera’s childhood, the second part of Rob Davis’ trilogy takes us from her home in Parliament to suicide school, and from the Bear Park to the black woods that lie beyond. In the present day, Vera and Castro Smith are determined to see their friend Scarper again – but is he even alive? Can anyone outlive their deathday? A darkly inventive sequel, The Can Opener’s Daughter answers many of the questions posed in The Motherless Oven, while asking plenty more of its own.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: This book is every bit as freakishly wonderful as its predecessor, The Motherless Oven. Name plates, suicide charts, and ink gods… there were so many new weird and incredible details. Details that are just so mundane and accepted by characters in the book, but that just make me smile and ponder possible deeper meanings. Whether there are deeper meanings or not–whether you look for them or not–doesn’t matter. I just as easily love this book for its random nonsense.

Because Vera’s Mum is the Weather Clock, and a god to boot. Her dad is a simple manual can opener who gets locked in drawer for a year. She spends her days listening to ink gods, wandering around the parliament building she lives in, and admiring the Escher-esque paintings of the immortals. Totally normal things. Until her mum sends her to suicide school, where she avoids plotting and planning her own demise and instead decides to live forever. And it all makes sense, honestly.

I loved Vera in the first book, and I only loved her more in this one. She’s always been strong-willed, rebellious, and independent, and her face in this comic is just… she’s gorgeous, she’s smug, she’s angry, she’s over it. All the faces and characters (human and non-human) are brilliantly vivid and detailed in the book, particularly those of the three protagonists, but I’ve a soft spot for Vera. Maybe because her face can be so angelic but she’s actually anything but!

The story, other than Vera’s fascinating backstory, is very much a bridge between the first and last books. While the first can stand on its own (albeit with a gaping hole of an open ending, but I love those), and I can only assume the third and final book will have some kind of conclusion and satisfying end to the story. But this book doesn’t have much to allow it to stand up on its own. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. It has taken my love and intrigue from the first book and amplified it, leaving me only wanting more, and that’s not a bad thing.

And the art. It has so much depth and detail. Varies from quite simplistic to immensely intricate. If the concepts are bizarre and out of the ordinary, well, it’s only right that the art work is, too. The contraptions children have cobbled together to call parents–some as simplistic as a basic can opener, others as complex as torturous racing cars. The paintings and wheels. The garden full of growing gazettes. I really love the panel choices and framing of scenes. So many, simply as stand alones, are so striking and beautiful. The Weather Clock’s boobs, though, are absolutely terrifying.

So, yeah. I freaking love this book, and this series. Book three comes out in October and can’t wait to get my hands and eyeballs all over it.

Rocannon’s World

Title: Rocannon’s World

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Summary: On the far planet of Fomalhaut II, where three races lived in uneasy peace, the Starlords has landed generations back in their great ships to levy tribute on behalf of the League of All Worlds. Now disaster had struck, and Rocannon, the expedition leader, was marooned on this distant world, eight years away from the nearest planet.

His friends murdered and his spaceship destroyed. Rocannon led the battle to save Fomalhaut II, in strange alliance with the three native races–the cavern-dwelling Gdemiar, the elvish Fiia and the warrior-clan Liuar. And in that desperate battle against an alien foe they myths were born and the legends grew. They were not his people, but the place became ROCANNON’S WORLD.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 3.5/5

Review: I’m still slowly working my way through the books in the Hainish Cycle series and have yet to be disappointed. This one consists of two short but linked stories: The Necklace and The Starlord. I enjoyed them both.

Although strictly speaking a science fiction story there were, on the whole, more elements of fantasy. It is set on a world cut off from space travel and advanced technology, and instead they have swords and giant flying cats and castles and various intelligent beings. With most of the characters not grasping the technology that was described and mentioned and the general setting very fantasy-like, it gave me a similar vibe to the world in The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War and i loved that.

The second, longer, story is told from the point of view of Rocannon–the starlord of the title. He’s a space traveller who has been to many different worlds, but finds himself stranded on this one when his ship and crewmates get destroyed. With the help of the native inhabitants of the planet, he sets off on a mission to contact his own people and get revenge on those who killed his friends. Along the way he learns a lot about this world, the other beings that live on it, as well as communication, friendship, and loyalty.

I pretty much loved all the main characters. There was no real tension in their personalities or relationships with each other. They were just together, helping each other till the end of their journey. I loved that. The adventures, dangers, and discoveries along the way were fun, thrilling, and wonderful in turn… almost like mini stories within this already quite short one, and I’m not sure I could pick a favourite!

The writing, as always with Le Guin, was wonderful. She’s so succinct here; never verbose or unnecessary. In an objective way, you could say the writing is quite straightforward, describing only what happens, often getting straight to the point. But for all the writing doesn’t mess around or meander, it holds the important things. Including the emotional parts of the story. I felt for these characters, their journey, and this world. I wanted things to work out well. I even cared about the giant flying cats they rode everywhere, wanting them to get enough food and rest! It’s just… wonderful writing!

The end of the book seemed to come on fast, with the book never wasting time or dawdling along, and I really appreciated that. As fast as it came, and as much as I already understood the ending from the title and summary of the book, the very last line still hit me with such an emotional punch… I’m not afraid to say i welled up.