The Girl in the Road

26200137Title: The Girl in the Road

Author: Monica Byrne

Summary: One day Meena gets out of her bed covered in blood, with mysterious snakebites on her chest. Someone is after her – and she must flee India at once. As she plots her escape she learns of The Trail, an energy-harvesting bridge across the Arabian sea. It has become a refuge for itinerant dreamers and loners on the run. Now it will become Meena’s salvation.

With a knapsack full of supplies, Meena sets off across the bridge to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. But as she runs away from the threat of violence, she is also running towards a shocking revelation about her past.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: ‘Weird’ and ‘What’ were the two words i thought when i’d finished reading this book. And currently one of the most positive things i can say about it is that it still has me thinking. There are plenty of things to ponder on, in hindsight, if you choose to.

On the face of it, this book is about two women, each on a journey. Alone, their stories were somewhat interesting, but not interesting enough. It was clear to me from the start that their lives would overlap at some point and i spent most of the book waiting for it. Meena, with her strong will, fierce independence and sexual freedom, i liked a lot at first. Then she started showing how shallow, selfish and reckless she was and i didn’t care any more. Mariama intrigued me enough all the way though, and the fact that she had a set of supporting characters that were not simply memories helped her story a lot.

Set in the foreseeable future, the science fiction aspect of the book was subtle, believable and very interesting. It was also simply a setting for the narrative; the advanced technology plays no intrinsic role to the plot (other than that of The Trail, which still is a setting and could easily be switched out without affecting the core elements of the story). I both loved and regretted that the science fiction wasn’t a larger part of the book. Loved, because it allowed the focus to fall on the characters while allowing the narrative as a whole to be more than contemporary. Regretted, because it was interesting and i would have loved to see more of this world.

I found the first 200 pages really hard to get through. I felt no drive in the story; there was nothing intriguing enough for me to want to pick up the book and keep reading. The book starts out strong, throwing the reader into the lives of these women immediately after something terrible has happened to each of them and we’re left trying to keep up. But after the initial chapter or two the time in both narratives, though particularly in Meena’s, moves very slowly. Days and week stretch out, and we see them make slow, slow progress on their journeys.

It’s only at the last 100 pages where both the plot and the pace pick up. By this time there were overlapping elements in both narratives, but how, exactly, the two women were linked was saved until the last few chapters. The questions the revelation brings are numerous, and the role these women play in each others’ lives and the magnitude of that is only given the last 10 pages or so. It’s a shame in some ways, but an excellent place to finish for others.

Or, it would have been an excellent place to finish, were it not for the epilogue. I’m generally not a fan of epilogues–of dragging a book out and wrapping it up too thoroughly–and this epilogue wasn’t even the worst. It was open ended, it left the reader with something to think about. The thing is, the book does that well enough without the epilogue! There are plenty of elements to think about and pull together, without throwing in another one in the epilogue. I think the book, as a whole, is stronger without that extra intrigue; it feels a little self indulgent of the author (as most epilogues do).

The details and symbolic parallels between the two women’s lives are scattered throughout the book, and it is this aspect that i am mostly still pondering on. Some details are small, seemingly insignificant things like names and brands. Other are larger and more important concepts and themes. These are the really intriguing parts of the book for me.

It’s a shame that the first two thirds of the book wasn’t independently stronger–it hinges so much on the revelation at the end of the book. I suspect the best way to enjoy it and get the most from it would be on a re-read. Unfortunately, it was such a slog to get through it the first time, that i’m disinclined to read it again.

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

22740972Title: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Author: Becky Chambers

Summary: Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: This book, my stars, this book. I received a review copy from NetGalley, but took so long to start reading it. I regret that with every fibre of my being. This books is all sorts of amazing. I didn’t want it to finish, and i dragged my heels reading it so i could make it last as long as possible. I honestly only have good things to say, and that fact surprises no one more than me.

First of all, the world building, or, more accurately, the universe building. It’s so rich, so alive and so effortlessly portrayed. It’s not overly explained to the reader in blocks of uninspiring exposition, but rather sprinkled throughout, in different and interesting ways–it’s more part of the essence of the book and the writing style. It made it such a wonderful reading experience, feeling immersed into the world. Everything from the wider concepts of the Galactic Commons, the different species and their history and cultures down to the small details of a wide variety of food stuffs and the intergalactic postal system–all of it is so obviously well thought out and perfectly brought to life.

How massively inclusive and representative this book is blows my mind a little. I was trying to list the awesome subjects this book addresses, either simply by representing them, or by touching on and exploring them, to my partner and i couldn’t get them all. For the rest of the night i kept remembering more and simply crying out, “Cloning!” “Polyamorous relationships!” and, “Gender neutral pronouns!” at random moments. Every new diverse theme broached made my grin a little wider and my heart a little bigger.

The book reads like a mini series, with each chapter containing enough plot, topics and character development to fill a short story or television episode. This gave my reading experience much more depth, like i was really living with these characters for a time, rather than visiting with them for a single narrative. Each and every character learnt, grew and changed over the course of the book, and were so well-rounded for it.

Talking of characters, i loved them all. That’s such a rare thing for me to say, but it is entirely true. Some i loved instantly, some grew on me over time, but all of them were so unique, so vibrant, so perfectly imperfect. I’m not the biggest fan of character-driven stories, but this book walks the line between character- and plot-driven, and with characters as wonderful, diverse and real as these, it was a delight to have them driving half the book.

I read somewhere that this book is like a cross between Firefly and Star Trek, and while i see where that comparison is coming from, i don’t think that’s quite fair to any of those three fine and wonderful fictional worlds. Yes, if you look for it, you can see similarities to the rogue and friendly crew of Firefly as well as the varied races and ethical explorers of Star Trek. But if you’re looking for that, you miss what only The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has.

There is a companion book set in the same universe coming out later this year, and I must have it. I can’t get enough of this book and these worlds and these characters and their adventures. I pretty much wanted to be reading this book forever.

The Paper Men

tpmTitle: The Paper Men

Author: William Golding

Summary: Fame, success, fortune; a drink problem slipping over the borderline into alcoholism, a dead marriage, the incurable itches of middle-aged lust. For Wilfred Barclay, novelist, the final, unbearable irritation is Professor Rick L. Tucker, implacable in his determination to become The Barclay Man.

Locked in a lethal relationship they stumble half-blindly across Europe, shedding wives, self-respect, illusions. They confront terrifying abysses – physical, emotional, spiritual – continually change roles, change themselves, change the worlds about them. The climax, when it comes, is as inevitable as it is unexpected.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4.5/5

Review: Golding is an author who’s work i am making my way through at a sedate pace. I haven’t loved every book i’ve read so far, but i have liked, appreciated and admired them all. He’s an author who doesn’t stick to the same genre, format or message. Each of his books is unique, and i love that. The Paper Men was, gladly, another score for the ‘love’ list.

I was apprehensive at first, as i had read some pretty damning reviews. The only thing those bad reviews liked was the ending; they adored the last line. Unfortunately, as i am wont to do, i had already flipped to the last page and read the last line. So i knew going in exactly how this book ended. (Therefore it was not at all as unexpected as the synopsis claimed–they never take into account people skipping ahead!) But screw all the bad reviews–this book was brilliant!

There is humour–oh, so much humour, i laughed loud and often. There is meaningfulness, introspection, commentary. How people can gloss over or miss that and complain that not enough happened makes their taste and intelligence poor, if i’m being honest in my own opinion.

I adored Wilf. I’m not sure i was supposed to, but there we have it. He isn’t perfect, by any means, but he is unapologetically himself, and hurts almost no one but himself. Almost, except those closest to him (though whether he is close to them is debatable), and of course Rick L. Tucker. Wilf travels the world on no whim but his own, drinking, sleeping and writing. He makes no demands on people, letting the wind take him wherever it decides to blow. Rick L. Tucker, on the other hand, goes exactly where Wilf does. His obsessive, stalker, relentless behaviour really, really bothered me. He just wouldn’t give up chasing Wilf around, trying to convince him to let him be his official biographer. How many times can Wilf say, “No,” and disappear to another country before Rick gets the message? Never enough, apparently. Sorry, but harassment is not an endearing quality, and for all Wilf’s faults, i’ll take him over Tucker any day.

That covers the plot, really. The rest of the interest of the book is more Wilf’s mind and thoughts, so i supposed having a soft spot for Wilf makes me more inclined to enjoy his words and the book itself. He is very much a writer, often comparing the world to how things would be done in one of his novels, and offering insight into the mind of a writer. He tos and fros between thought processes, opinions on himself, and choices and reasons. He’s an intellectual and literary man, and he’s also one of the most unreliable narrators i have ever read. His words were a joy, his drinking problem worrisome but occasionally controlled, his paranoia palpable but relatively harmless. He was, ultimately, fascinating.

There is, really, only one point of criticism i have of The Paper Men. As much as i loved reading it when i was reading, when i wasn’t reading, i had no drive to get back to it. I didn’t think about the book when i wasn’t reading it. When i picked it up again i often had to re-read the last paragraph of the previous chapter to remind myself of the exact circumstances it had left of on. And while this didn’t impede my enjoyment of the book when i was reading it, i did miss that burn–that desire to still be reading and to know what happens. I missed it enough to be distinctly aware that it wasn’t there.

But still, the book itself, regardless of my emotions towards it when i put it down, is thoroughly enjoyable, insightful and such a hoot. I loved some sections so much that when i did have a pencil to mark passages i… i used a pen! And i don’t regret a single inked line.

This knocks one square off my Bookish Bingo: Published in my birth year.

Off the Map

otmgallery1Title: Off the Map.

Author: Hib & Kika

Summary: This is what it means to be an adventurer in our day: to give up creature comforts of the mind, to realise possibilities of imagination. Because everything around us says no you cannot do this, you cannot live without that, nothing is useful unless it’s service to money, to gain, to stability.
The adventurer gives in to tides of chaos, trusts the world to support her—and in doing so turns her back on the fear and obedience she has been taught. She rejects the indoctrination of impossibility.
My adventure is a struggle for freedom.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This is a book about travelling, about adventure and about an alternative way of seeing and doing things. I loved this book. I love that this book exists, and would encourage any and everyone to read it.

Most people travel on planes and stay in hotels. A budget traveller may travel by train and stay in hostels, but I know from experience that there are some people who can’t even afford to ‘budget’ travel. It was refreshing to see the budgetless travel not only represented, but also loved, chosen and enjoyed.

This is the story of Hib and Kika, who buy a one-way plane ticket from San Francisco to Europe, and spend long months hitchhiking, sleeping rough, living out of backpacks and relying on the kindness of strangers. And there are still people in the world who will offer all the help they can to people who need it.

…you get what you pay for. Pay a lot and you get an expensive life. Take what’s free and you get freedom.

I could pretty much quote 80% of this book. I loved reading views and opinions about the world, and ways to live in it that i could appreciate and share. To read about people who see the world in a similar way to me was a joy. I might not agree with everything Hib and Kika expressed, but the fact that they don’t take the world as it is given to them—that they see and think for themselves—was what i most strongly agreed with.

The book is by no means perfect. The chapters are told from either Heb or Kika’s point of view, but i was never able to tell which until whoever was narrating mentioned the other. That could get rather confusing.

Also, for my tastes, it was at times written a little to poetically; too dreamy. I love to daydream, but i think Heb and Kika’s daydreams were not quite my style. They involved too much a feeling of helplessness and overly feminine tones, such as mermaids, witches and pretty flowing dresses… For two punk girls in dirty overalls, i didn’t like the juxtaposition, personally. As if their real dreams involved being meaninglessly beautiful. Rubbed me the wrong way.

The book is not written as a typical story; it’s not a straightforward account of their travels. Instead it more like snippets and stories of their travels. Time and space skips in large chunks, without pause, and you just have to keep up. I liked it like that. Instead of weaving an intricate narrative, they present you with 30 small ones. It’s a book that you could flip through to read any random chapter and you wouldn’t be thrown into the middle of a story you wouldn’t understand—each chapter is its own story.

My favourite of these 30 small stories was Street Rat Dreamers. I’ll leave you with a snippet.

…off the map and beyond the boarders there are other formulas. Abandoned house – permission = free shelter and adventure. Rain + covered doorway = gratitude. Soon it’s obvious that what you thought was flat actually has an underside, an edge, a core. That the mirrors you grew up with are as warped as the ones in the funhouse, and there’s no going back to them. There’s either giving up, or going on. One way cynicism, the other, dreams.