BooksOfTheMoon

A Man Called Ove

By Fredrik Backman

Rating: 5 stars

It’s very difficult to describe the plot of this book without spoilers, so I’m mostly not going to. We first meet Ove, a fifty-nine year old man, shouting at an assistant in an Apple Store, trying to buy a COMPUTER while waving an iPad around. Now, whatever your thoughts on how much the smug assistants in an Apple Store deserve everything they get, it’s not a good first impression of our protagonist. This poor impression deepens over the next two chapters as we follow Ove on his morning routine, as a busybody around the neighbourhood, making sure that everything is as it should be.

At this point, I was wondering if I’d be able to finish the book, given how unlikeable that Ove is. And then the fourth chapter comes around and wallops you in the feels. And it continues to do that repeatedly for the next 260-odd pages. By the end of the book I was completely in love with Ove, and was full-on sobbing at the end.

The book is a fantastic character study, showing very much that no man is an island, no matter how much he may want to be; or rather no matter how much he thinks he wants to be. Ove’s life changes when his new neighbours accidentally reverse a trailer into his postbox. This leads to him having to interact with them, start to get to know them, and from that, a life is unveiled.

Backman spends some time in Ove’s past as well, from his childhood, showing us the sorts of things that made him the man that he is: the man who knows right from wrong and for whom the world exists in black and white, without any inconvenient shades of grey. And when seen from that perspective, it all entirely makes sense. The author builds Ove up, one thought and moment at a time, and in no time, the curmudgeon from the first few chapters is someone you want as your granddad.

I laughed and cried so much reading this book. I absolutely loved it, and that took me by surprise. This isn’t the sort of book that I normally read, but when it was recommended to me by someone whose opinion I trust, I thought what the hell, and I’m so glad I did.

I wonder what it’ll be like reading it again, this time knowing Ove’s character from the start. How much difference that will make when reading particularly the early chapters again. I can’t wait to do so, but I need to leave it a while as I’m still feeling emotionally wrung out from the last read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444775815
Publisher: Sceptre
Year of publication: 2015

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities, #1)

By Robert Jackson Bennett

Rating: 5 stars

The Holy Lands of the Continent were protected by their Divinities; invincible, world-conquering, until one man rises up in the land of Saypur and kills the gods, ending the rule of the Continentals. Generations later, the consequences of this are still being played out, and when there’s a murder in Bulikov, the former city of the Divinities, it sets off a chain of events that threaten the fragile equilibrium.

I loved this book. It’s complex, with no black and white tale of oppressed and oppressors. The history of the Continent’s long and bloody rule of Saypur is remembered as fiercely as the current Continentals see their own poverty and desolation. There’s a spiral of hatred that feeds on itself, something that feels very real and is deftly portrayed by Bennett.

I got to thoroughly like Shara, our protagonist (not to mention Sigrud, her, er, secretary, who doesn’t say much, but his actions speak volumes). Shara is quiet, small, very intelligent, with a passion for history. Something that comes in useful in a city that is practically nothing but history.

The worldbuilding is neatly done as well, with a drip-feed of information early on filling us in on the fact that the Continentals aren’t allowed to talk about their dead gods and aren’t allowed to know much about their own history. There’s a chapter later on that fills in a lot of history about the gods and how they were killed, which on the one hand feels like an infodump, but it’s filling in information for the other characters too, rather than an “As you know, Bob…” sort of thing, so I’ll let the author away with it.

The Divinities loom large in this book, despite being (mostly) absent from it. The god of Order, Kolkan is particularly interesting, with his many edicts and hatred of any kind of pleasure. I’m not sure if it’s intended as a criticism of the sterner sects of real-world religions, but that’s certainly my reading of it.

A nice idea in the book is that now that the Divinities are dead, real world physics can assert itself. The world is moving out of a period where everyone (on the Continent, at least) lived through the miraculous intervention of the gods, and now they’re developing motor cars, the telegraph and photography. It’s not quite steampunk, but is definitely a society that’s moving towards industrialisation.

A very interesting, complex book with a lot of ideas. And one that can be pretty much read standalone as well (although I certainly intend to look out the sequels). Definitely recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848667983
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2015

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, #3)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

Picking up pretty much directly from where Ancilliary Sword left off, the conclusion to Breq’s trilogy again changes the direction of the series a bit, with things that have been rumbling a little in the background coming more to the fore. Breq is now publicly known as the last remaining piece of Justice of Toren and she must move quickly to protect Athoek system from the inevitable attack by Anaander Mianaai.

There’s a lot to love in this book and I pretty much want to just pick up the first book again and read the whole trilogy in one go, although I think I’m going to resist doing that until I make more of a dent in my to-read pile.

I think this book brings Breq’s involvement in the wider story of the Radch to an end. There’s lots more that she could do, of course, but I suspect that she’ll be quite tied up in the aftermath of what happened in Atheok, and its fallout, to take any further part in wider events. And I can’t imagine that there won’t be further events. The story of the Radch and its ruler at war with herself is rich pickings for further storytelling and I look forward to reading it.

As for this one, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Not just Breq, but those around her got decent character development and all got a chance to do something cool.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502427
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2015

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

Breq is the last body remaining to an AI that used to be Justice of Toren, a starship with hundreds of ‘ancillary’ human bodies. All that was destroyed and Breq vowed to kill Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, but has instead found herself made a Fleet Captain, put in command of the Mercy of Kalr and sent to secure a star system as part of an outbreak of civil war.

I loved this book as much as, or possibly more than, its predecessor, Ancillary Justice. That was, in essence, a fairly straightforward military space opera/revenge story. This book keeps the military flavour, but adds deeper political overtones, as Breq has to navigate local system politics, use but not abuse her new power and try and keep an eye on the greater civil war breaking out in the Empire.

One thing that I loved about this book was the fact that the heroine is working for the Emperor. It’s clear that, like all empires, really terrible things have been done in forging it (not least the creation of ancillaries themselves) and Breq is seriously questioning it (something that she couldn’t do as Justice of Toren) and growing as a person at the same time.

The supporting cast are mostly in shadow here. Seivarden returns from the previous book, but spends most of it on the Mercy of Kalr, away from the action. In her place is Lieutenant Tisarwat, a young officer foist upon Breq before the start of her mission.

The convention of being gender-blind continues here, with all characters referred to as ‘she’. I like this because it forces you to confront your own prejudices; for example, in my head the magistrate and tea grower (both positions of power) were male. No reason for this, but they were, before I realised what I was doing. But the gender politics are very much in the background. This is a solid space opera, with a lot of depth to it, and I really look forward to the next (final?) book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502410
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

The soldier who goes by the name of Breq is in the final stages of plotting revenge when she comes across Seivarden Vendaai, lying naked and dying in the snow. Why she stops to help him is something even she doesn’t know, but he becomes entangled in her own life and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

I really rather loved this book. Breq is something more and something less than human. Her body was once human, but killed and reanimated. Her intelligence is artificial, being the last remaining component of the starship Justice of Toren, trying to make sense of and work with a single body rather than the resources of thousands of its ‘ancillaries’.

Although Breq (or Justice of Toren) is very much the hero of the piece, the book never shies away from the fact that it was a military ship involved in the invasion and subjugation of many civilisations and planets. It’s done terrible things in its time, but in some ways this is a redemption story as well, with Breq trying, in her own way, to make up for her own past actions.

Breq is also a fascinating protagonist. Being part of an AI with multiple bodies, we get a first person narrative, but from multiple points of view, which gives us both the intimacy of a first person narrator, but also the traditional omniscient narrative, as Justice of Toren is seeing all these things at the same time.

At first in the book, I felt a bit thrown off-balance and it took a while to work out why. It was because all the characters that Breq met seemed to be female. It took a while for this to sink in. If they had been male I wouldn’t have even noticed. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing – it makes me aware that despite my best efforts, I still have in-built preconceptions, and helps me to try and break through them. In fact, in the story, it’s more interesting than that. The language that Breq thinks in doesn’t make distinction between genders, and the pronoun that she uses is ‘she’ for everyone (and finds it difficult to tell the difference between genders, as the outward signs vary so much between cultures).

Come to think of it, I have no idea if Breq is male or female. She’s referred to as ‘she’ by other characters, but I, think, always in the Radch language, so it’s entirely possible that she’s actually male.

The world-building in the story is really good as well. The civilisation of the Radch, to which JoT belongs, has been expanding for a millennium and eventually met its match with an alien species, and is forced to sue for peace. The Lord of the Radch has, like the ancillaries, thousands of bodies, spread through many star systems, so can always be personally present as the ultimate form of law and justice, meaning that the ‘centre of power’ is always fairly near by, rather than being some distant Rome, and that mind across multiple bodies is played in interesting ways.

So an awful lot in there to think about and digest, but also a really fun space opera with a twist. One of the reasons that I read this book when I did is that it was published in 2013 and I get to nominate and vote in the 2014 Hugo awards. From all I heard, this might be a contender for nomination. From my point of view, it most definitely is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502403
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)
Year of publication: 2013

The Secret Chapter (The Invisible Library #6)

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 5 stars

The world in which Irene grew up is in danger of turning towards chaos, and she must retrieve a book from another world to stabilise it. However, that book is owned by a Fae who demands that she steal a painting for him in exchange for the book. Irene and Kai now have to work as part of a larger team to steal the painting, as long as they don’t kill each other first.

I do love a good heist story, so I enjoyed the painting theft. It involved a classic trope of collecting experts in different fields together who don’t trust each other and watch them in a delicate balance of collaboration and betrayal to achieve the objective. Great fun to read.

For me, the stakes were lessened a bit, because this is really the first time that we’ve really heard Irene talking in any great detail about this world where she went to school, so we aren’t as invested in it as she is. But that’s more than made up for by the story of the painting, and the secret that it hides. And we do also get to meet Irene’s parents and discover just how dysfunctional a family they are, while still loving each other dearly.

Cogman is great at writing action scenes. The chase with the dragon is fantastic, and she obviously has a lot of fun writing Fae who are within their strong archetypes. Mr Nemo is a fantastic character, something between information broker and Bond villain (complete with Island lair) and the other members of the gang have their own charms. I’d love to see more of Ernst, in particular.

The hints thrown in here about dragon back-story, and the setup for the future at the end has me excitedly looking forward to the next book. Almost no Vale in this book, but that’s about the only negative I’ve got.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529000573
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2019

Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 7: Synthesis (Gunnerkrigg Court #7)

By Thomas Siddell

Rating: 5 stars

Volume 7 of Gunnerkrigg Court collects chapters 60-68 of the fabulous webcomic. It starts where volume 6 left off, finishing the story of Jeanne that ended the previous volume. After that, we have a couple of chapters of fallout, first with the fairies and then with Kat and her father. Anja spends a chapter telling a story of how Annie’s mum and dad fell in love. We also have the formal introductions of Juliette and Arthur and the Shadow Men organisation (and, may I say, that these two are a somewhat delightful pair) before the story moves on to what seems like its next phase: Coyote’s gift to Ysengrim and the emergence of Loup.

At times, reading the story online, page by page, three times a week you can sort of lose track of its threads. Reading a large chunk in one go not only reminds you of why you love the characters, but helps clarify the story again. And the story is still hugely engaging. I thought that the end of the Jeanne storyline would be the beginning of the end, but instead Siddell has found really interesting new directions to take the comic, and I’m glad of it. It means I get to spend more time with Annie, Kat and all the rest (even Anthony).

Book details

ISBN: 9781684154418
Publisher: Archaia

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

By Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

Rating: 5 stars

Pale Blue Dot starts with an expanded version of Sagan’s famous speech and then deconstructs any notion that the Earth, or the human species, has any privileged position in the cosmos. From the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe to the idea that humans were created as its caretakers. In each chapter, Sagan starts with a well-defined thesis and then walks us through his thinking, never straying into technical arguments, but keeping that open, everyman approach that he was so well-known for.

He talks about the planets visited by the Voyagers before turning to the idea of human settlements on other worlds in our solar system. He discusses (and dismisses) a number of possible reasons for human space exploration and settlement, keeping his strongest arguments back for the final chapters. In these, he strongly argues that over geological time, there will be events that will shatter a civilisation based solely on a single planet, and, for the safety of our species, we need to migrate – not only to the rocky worlds, but to near earth asteroids and the Oort cloud – to small worlds that we could learn to move around, to avoid any collisions with the mother world, and, in the final chapter, he lets his imagination soar and imagines a human civilisation that spans the galaxy.

Sagan’s ideas, and the words in which he expresses them, are delightful and awe-inspiring. He rightly predicts the idea of robotic explorers of Mars sending back such detailed pictures that you could sit in your bedroom, and virtually travel over its surface. While I sometimes think he thinks better of our species than we deserve, maybe the events of the second half of the 2010s have just made me cynical. And if you want to read something completely lacking in cynicism, and brimming with hope and optimism then this is it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345376596
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year of publication: 1994

Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

By Naomi Kritzer

Rating: 5 stars

I got this book as part of the Feminist Futures story bundle and it caught my eye because I’d read the title story when it was nominated for a Hugo award a few years ago. I loved the story then, and was pleased that it went on to win the Hugo for short story that year and was happy to revisit it as part of this collection.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t enjoyed a collection of short stories as much as this in a long time. There’s not a story here that didn’t connect with me in some way, although some moreso than others. I’m not going to go through every story in detail, but here are some of the highlights. Ace of Spades deals with themes of changes in modes of warfare, how the reduction in risk that technology brings affects decisions, and second chances, all with a sympathetic protagonist dealing with being dealt a crappy hand by fate. Wind is a story about extremes, about two girls who give up something that provides balance in their lives in exchange for something that they yearn for and then have to live with the consequences. Cleanout deals with three daughters clearing out their mother’s house, after she moves into a home and is a beautiful story of grief, loss and coping.

The Good Son had me in tears as a fey follows a human girl back to America and bewitches an old, childless couple, to think of him as their son, to provide camouflage while he chases the girl. Except he doesn’t realise the implications that creating a family will have for him. This is another beautiful story of what family means and the extents we will go to for those we love. Bits, on the other hand, is a hilarious story about alien refugees and the humans who fall in love with them and then need help to have a, er, full relationship. Sex toys. It’s a story about a firm that creates a line of sex toys to help alien/human couples have sex. And it’s brilliant. The final story in the collection, So Much Cooking is told as a series of blog entries in a cookery blog, at the start of an influenza pandemic and how the author and her family cope with not being able to leave the house (and it’s got some cracking recipes as well).

So having enjoyed this collection immensely, I very much look forward to reading more of Kritzer’s work.

Book details

Publisher: Fairwood Press
Year of publication: 2017

Matilda

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 5 stars

Matilda was always one of my favourite Roald Dahl books as a child, and after seeing the musical recently (which is rather marvellous, by the way, and if you get the chance, you should go and see it), I was inspired to re-read the book. I’m very pleased that it holds up very well to adult reading, and still made me laugh as much as it did when I was young. It’s got the trademark Roald Dahl darkness as well, which is just delicious, most obviously in the character of Miss Trunchbull, but also in Matilda’s neglectful parents, who think that books are pointless and who fail to see anything special in Matilda herself.

A fantastic book, that well deserves its place in the canon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140327595
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1988

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