BooksOfTheMoon

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By Alix E. Harrow

Rating: 3 stars

I’m sort of struggling to write a review for this one, because it doesn’t seem to have made me feel as much as I think it should. It had so much that I enjoy in a book: a feisty heroine, a book-within-a-book, it’s a book about books and storytelling, but somehow, it hasn’t left as much of an impression as I thought it would.

January Scaller is the ward of the wealthy Mr Locke, whose father is his employee, scouring the world for rare and beautiful objects for Locke’s collection. When January finds a strange book, her world changes entirely.

There’s a lot to this book, with race and racism being pretty high up the list. January is the “Coloured” ward of a rich white man in early 20th century America, and we see early on how his influence protects her, and what happens when that protection is withdrawn. Race is very much on our minds now, in mid-2020, with the Black Lives Matter movement still strong after the death of George Floyd, and this book has a strong treatment of the various characters who are treated badly because of their race, and also their class. In particular the power disparity of those who have money and those who don’t. Locke’s New England Archaeological Society is full of the rich and powerful and they take pride in making it clear just how wide that gap is.

This is also a book about change, and travel. In the book, the Doors are a means of change, of new ideas travelling between worlds, and there are attempts to close the Doors, to prevent change and impose a strict order on the world. On my less good days, I feel that those forces are winning. While I wouldn’t describe the early 21st century as “orderly”, it does feel like moneyed interests (such as those in the book) are very much on top. But as the book reminds us, it isn’t forever. Change is inevitable, and those who try to stop it are eventually washed away.

One final thing, something I discovered quite by accident: the book is Augmented Reality-enabled. If you point Google Lens at the front cover, you get a beautiful little animation, and if you point it at the back, you get a little talk from the author about the book. I really like that, and I hope more publishers start doing something similar.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512464

Transition

By Iain Banks

Rating: 3 stars

Despite being marketed in the UK as an “Iain Banks” (mainstream litfic) book, this is very much an “Iain M. Banks” (science fiction) novel: its core conceit is a shadowy conspiracy whose members can travel between alternate Earths in the multiverse. That seems pretty darn science fictional to me!

The book is pretty odd, and it never entirely worked for me. This is partly to do with the characters: it’s told from a number of different viewpoints, and none of them are really sympathetic. You’ve got the assassin, the corrupt politician and the torturer. There’s the hospital patient, I suppose, but he’s hiding from people chasing after him, and he used to be an assassin.

There’s also not much in the way of plot. There’s very interesting world-building going on but when it comes down to it, the plot is mostly about fighting for control of a bureaucracy. It doesn’t exactly set my heart racing. Mind you, there’s an awful lot of sex in the book that could help with that (that and a somewhat unnecessary section on child sexual assault, albeit off-page).

Spoiler
I don’t really understand the end either. How did Oh get his superpowers? Mrs Mulverhill doesn’t seem entirely surprised, and she’s levelling up as the book goes on too. Is it supposed to be natural? Something that the Concern was keeping from its members? Gaining those powers just in the nick of time seems a bit deus ex machina to me.

So slightly disappointing as the last new science fiction from Banks that I’ll ever read, but an interesting curio in its own right.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349139272

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition, Vol. 5

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 3 stars

In the final volume of Alita’s story (well, her first story, at least), Alita storms Nova’s lab, with only Kaos for backup. At one point, she utters the immortal line “My rage is ultrasonic”, which, I must confess, made me giggle a lot. Meanwhile, since his attack on Zalem failed, Den is making a suicidal charge against the Scrapyard, alone, except for Koyomi.

There’s a lot to enjoy here, especially Nova’s second entrapment of Alita in the Ouroboros program, and Den’s mental battle with Kaos, but I was very disappointed with the canonical ending. It just seemed very abrupt and, frankly, a rubbish way to end Alita’s story.

This is continued with a non-canonical coda, almost, that takes Alita to Zalem and sees her and Nova, along with Lou, confront the master computer of Zalem. This improves a bit on the canonical end, but seems very odd. Nova in particular behaves in very odd ways that don’t seem to follow from his previous actions. Why would he restore Alita like that, and give her that new, nigh-on invincible body?

There’s also a short story set in the Motorball world, not featuring Alita, with a slightly different art style. That was interesting, with quite a melancholy tone to it. The volume finishes with a couple of interviews with the author where, amongst other things, he talks about the end, and how it’s not what he wanted, but various factors converged to force him to end the story where he did.

As for myself, I think I’ll content myself with the non-canonical ending, and not seek out the sequel series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632366023
Year of publication: 2018

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition, Vol. 4

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 3 stars

This volume picks up 10 years after the end of the last one, with Alita having left Figure Four at some point and is back working for Zalem again, in her guise as TUNED unit A1. This volume sees her encounter with Den, the leader of an anti-Zalem army, and Kaos, someone who can read an object’s history by just touching it. She also finally finds her lost father-figure Ido, although that reunion doesn’t exactly go as she expected.

This is a strange volume and the story felt sort of incomplete. Possibly inevitable, as the pace of the overall arc ramps up towards a conclusion in the next volume. Alita seems more vulnerable here and leans heavily on some of those around her, including her new Zalemite operator, Lou (who’s quite adorable, in a deeply nerdy way).

The storyline with the AR units feels like it just peters out, without really much resolution. There are supposed to be multiple AR units, but we only see two of them. If they are as powerful as is portrayed, they should have had a much bigger impact. Likewise, there’s no real explanation for the missing Figure, with just the occasional flashback to him.

Den, leader of the Barjack rebellion against Zalem, is an interesting character, and had the potential to be quite a complex, layered individual, but it doesn’t feel like that happened.

I’ll complete the series now, but I’m losing momentum.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632366016
Year of publication: 2018

The Complete Mapp and Lucia, Volume 1

By E.F. Benson

Rating: 3 stars

A friend recommended the Mapp and Lucia books to me some time ago, and I got given this omnibus for my birthday this year. Having read the first two (of three) volumes in this collection, I’m firmly of the opinion that I’m not going to read the third, nor will I be looking for volume 2 of this series. I didn’t hugely enjoy either book, although I preferred Queen Lucia to Miss Mapp, the eponymous protagonist of which I actively disliked. Individual reviews below.

Queen Lucia

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known in the village of Riseholme, where she lives, as Lucia, is the undisputed reigning monarch of the village, in culture, music and art. Riseholme is awash with well-off, bored inhabitants, all heavily invested in the tiny dramas that play out in the village, from the saga of the guru to the mystery of who’s taken the empty house. Lucia is a ridiculous, pompous creature, but entertaining in her own way.

The strange baby talk that she indulges in with her “grand vizier”, the rather camp Georgie is odd (and a little creepy to my mind). Georgie is possibly the most sympathetic character in the book, although he’s no less ridiculous than the rest of them. The inhabitants of Riseholme, while all scheming and gossiping, for the most part aren’t actively malicious towards each other. Lucia has a need to be the centre of attention and sometimes does underhand things to achieve that, but she usually gets her just desserts.

Spoiler
While I was fully expecting the guru to be a scoundrel, I was disappointed that the only non-white character in the book also turned out to be a thief. This left a sour taste to an otherwise entertaining escapade.

Three stars.

Miss Mapp

Miss Elizabeth Mapp lives in the village of Tilling, where she aspires to fill a similar role to Lucia, but is more just a hate-filled, hypocritical shrew. She has shallow, rivalry-filled friendships with her neighbours and spends her evenings plotting and playing bridge.

The most enjoyable relationship in this book was that between the “frenemies” Major Flint and Captain Puffin, who spend their days playing golf together, and their evenings “writing memoires” and “researching Roman roads” respectively. Miss Mapp’s intervention in that friendship especially made me quite angry.

I wasn’t interested in the stories of these people at all (although the duel was quite entertaining to begin with). I found myself waiting for Mapp to get her comeuppance on a regular basis, which isn’t the basis for me to enjoy a book at all.

Two stars.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840226737
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 2011

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps

By Edward Brooke-Hitching

Rating: 3 stars

This is a quite interesting book of maps of places that don’t exist. Whether by mistake, through hearsay or just plain lying, people were persuaded that these places were real enough to draw maps of, and Brooke-Hitching has collected a number of these, which he presents, along with their stories.

The book itself is lovely, with large, colour reproductions of the maps, often with boxouts of details (if the mistake is a tiny island on a map showing the whole Atlantic ocean, for example). I do feel that some of the entries could do with being longer, and I did get a bit tired of islands in the Atlantic that were probably just cloud banks. The book itself says that mythical islands are as abundant in the mythologies of Eastern cultures as that of the west, but it only devotes a single entry (Wak-Wak) to any of them. I would have happily lost a few of the Atlantic islands in favour of some stuff that wasn’t centred around the West.

There was a lot of interest, though. The story of Gregor MacGregor and his shameless invention of a territory in Latin America is fascinating, not to mention heartbreaking for the people he hoodwinked. And the idea that people for a long time thought that California was an island isn’t something that I had encountered before. Nor the belief that Australia had a huge inland sea, fed by a huge river network.

So a lovely book to dip into at random, but could have done with being a bit more balanced and less Euro- and American-centric.

Book details

ISBN: 9781471159459
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year of publication: 2016

The Psychology of Time Travel

By Kate Mascarenhas

Rating: 3 stars

In the 1960s, four women invent a time machine, but one of them, Barbara (Bee), has a nervous breakdown live on TV and is banished from the group. In the late 2010s, an inquest for an unexplained death brings Bee and her granddaughter Ruby back into the orbit of time travel.

For a lot of this book, I thought it was more thriller than psychology. It’s got that format: short chapters with terse writing that drives the plot forward; but I did eventually realise that the state of mind of the women involved (and the vast majority of the characters are women) was vital to that plot. The chapters jump around to different perspectives and times as it tells the story and the states in particular of Bee, Ruby and Odette, the woman who found the body and who feels a compulsion to identify her, are all vital. Not to mention Margaret. One of the original four scientists, who takes charge of what becomes the Time Travel Conclave and runs it with an iron fist, and moulds (some would say perverts) it to her will.

I probably found the Conclave more interesting than I was supposed to. I can’t help being distracted by questions of procedure: why is the Conclave allowed to exist as this independent entity; why isn’t the government and military all over it (especially if, as is mentioned early on, other nations won’t catch up with the technology for decades); what exactly do time travellers actually do?

As for the whole idea of the Conclave running its own system of “justice” which involves secret courts, trials by ordeal and the possibility of execution, for an organisation that is supposed to be created out of the mid to late 20th century Britain, it seems positively archaic. I can sort of see that that comes out of the psychology/neurosis of Margaret and how she runs the Conclave, but the idea of time travel being so addictive that almost nobody is willing to give it up voluntarily so they go along with her doesn’t really work for me.

Spoiler
Also, I don’t understand why Ruby was tried for Margaret’s murder. She played Candybox Roulette. The bullets went into the machine, but she didn’t force Margaret to stand in the way of it. It was Angharad who had the device reconstructed and put back in Margaret’s way. I don’t understand why Ruby both felt responsible, and was tried for it.

But despite all this, the plot is engaging, the characters interesting and the time travel even, mostly, makes sense.

Book details

ISBN: 9781788540124

A Conspiracy of Truths (A Conspiracy of Truths, #1)

By Alexandra Rowland

Rating: 3 stars

An elderly master Chant (a Chant being a storyteller/sociologist) finds himself accused of witchcraft and is caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with an indifferent advocate. He finds himself caught as a pawn between the rulers of the nation and must elevate himself to player to keep his life and liberty.

This was a decent story about the power of stories and I found it enjoyable, but I don’t think it’ll be hugely memorable for me. Chant (although Chant is a title more than a name, so I feel it should be the Chant, but the book never gives him the definite article) is crotchety and opinionated, with a sharp tongue (as you would expect from someone who needs to tell and learn tales for his livelihood). The politicking early on in the book where he told people whatever it was he thought they wanted to hear and which might earn him some little comforts in prison almost turned me off entirely. Thankfully, this didn’t go the way that I feared, but I nearly put the book down permanently at that point.

There’s a lot to like here though. Women seem to have complete equality with men, serving in pretty much all walks of life. Chant’s apprentice Ylfing is gay, but this isn’t a Thing, but is just accepted as part of life. He just happens to make puppy dog eyes at every cute boy he sees. Chant finds this exasperating but it sounds about right for a teenage boy.

The characters are fairly well defined. Chant himself, obviously, but also Ylfing (a sweet, innocent boy), Chant’s advocate, Consanza, and some of the rulers that Chant is entangled with. They have their own personalities and feel different enough from each other.

The book is very much about the power of story though and stories themselves are scattered throughout the book. Stories are used as metaphors, for comfort and just to pass the time. As someone who loves stories myself, I appreciate that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534412811
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Year of publication: 2019

Binti: The Complete Trilogy

By Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: 3 stars

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It had such a positive vibe on social media, and won a number of awards, that I was excited to get this omnibus for Christmas. Unfortunately, it just didn’t grab me that much, and I can’t really figure out why. I quite enjoyed the first novella, which had a sort of almost dreamlike feel to it. The killing of everyone on the ship and Binti’s survival feel like they’re being seen from a distance or through water. This means they don’t create as much of an emotional impact as they should.

The short story (Sacred Fire) and the second novella (Home) probably left me the most cold. In the former, it’s clearer that Binti has a sort of PTSD (not unexpected, frankly) and goes out into the desert to try and deal with it. We also see some of her classmates and some friends that she makes. In the latter, Binti decides to return home to Earth to complete a ritual to achieve womanhood, and brings her friend Okwa (the Medusa who had helped kill everyone on her ship) with her, to try and cement the peace treaty between them and the Khoush, the human tribe (country? Empire? It’s never made clear) that they had been at war with. But more importantly, she has to deal with her own family and the rest of her people.

This I had real trouble with: these people are so mired in tradition and desire for home that they viewed any attempt to leave as a betrayal, and a selfish move on Binti’s part, and one that meant that no man would want to marry her. I snorted out loud at that one. I understand a love of home, but to deny someone their desire to learn seems almost perverted to me, and left me feeling very cold towards them.

The last story, Night Masquerade had the most plot to it and was probably the one I enjoyed the most. Having just discovered that she has alien DNA in her (well, more alien DNA than she thought) Binti has to use her utmost skills as a master harmoniser to bring peace between the Medusae and the Khoush before her people are trampled underfoot by their war. And also discover the secrets of her edan.

I think one of the things that irritated me about the book was that Binti was too special. She was, by the end of the first story, a genius mathematician; a master harmoniser; a Medusae ambassador; wielder of the edan. And then by the end of the whole series she’s more than that again. It just felt a little too much. And I thought the reveal of the edan while being funny was a bit of an anticlimax.

Book details

ISBN: 9780756415181
Publisher: Daw Books
Year of publication: 2019

City

By Clifford D. Simak

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of eight short stories in the same setting, connected with a framing story that describes the stories themselves as legends that Dogs have passed down throughout the years about the decline and fall of the mythical species known as Man.

Simak sees a future where first humanity abandons the cities in favour of small, rural communities and later flees Earth for new forms on Jupiter, leaving only a small remnant behind, that is too intimidated by their forebears to create anything new, content to pass on their legacy to the Dogs.

There is continuity in the stories through the Webster family that recurs at pivotal moments, and of the robot Jenkins who serves the Websters. It’s a melancholic sort of book, dealing as it does with the end of humanity, but one with hope that our successors, the Dogs that a Webster uplifted, will be better than us.

The idea of the rugged individual or small community rather than the close living of cities feel decidedly American to me, especially the America of the middle of the 20th century. Having read other of Simak’s works, this love of country life above that of the city is a hallmark of his work. Personally, I really enjoy city life, which made the premise of the first story (which sees the end of the cities) difficult to accept, but once I got past that, the decline of humanity was easier to accept.

The stories are very Golden Age SF, with hardly a woman in sight and, apart from one that was set on Jupiter, all very much rooted on Earth. Simak contrasts Man’s desire to look outward and reliance on technology with Dog’s more introspective intelligence and finds us wanting.

A quietly retrospective book, tinged with melancholy, whose ideas will linger in mind after you put the book down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575105232
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2011

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress