BooksOfTheMoon

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

By Graeme Simsion

Rating: 3 stars

Having decided he wants to get married, Professor Don Tillman creates a very detailed questionnaire that he intends to use to weed out the unsuitable from his dating pool (which is most people). And Rosie definitely doesn’t fit the bill. But inevitably, as they spend more time together, they’re drawn closer.

Even after a few days of thinking it over, I’m not really sure what to make of this romantic comedy about a neuroatypical man looking for love. While the author usually shows affection for his protagonist, I can’t help shake the feeling that just occasionally, he’s inviting us to laugh at Don, rather than at the absurd situations he finds himself in. And that makes me uncomfortable. Other than that, it’s a fairly standard boy-meets-girl story of the kind I usually actually quite enjoy. But the fact that the protagonist was on the Autism spectrum and that the author didn’t really deal with that bothered me.

I mean, I guess that could have been the point – just because someone is on the spectrum doesn’t mean they’re so different that they don’t want to find love, and that the ASD was beside the point, but I feel that it should have come up somewhere. There’s a sequence near the start where Don, a professor of genetics, researches and delivers a talk about Aspergers (covering for a friend) but he never seems to associate it with himself. This can only be a deliberate authorial choice, but I don’t understand the point he was making.

The other characters don’t get much in the way of characterisation. Love interest Rosie feels a bit like a manic pixie dream girl with daddy issues. There’s the philandering friend and the dean who’s more obsessed with keeping the money coming in than academic rigour. These characters do get a certain amount of re-evaluation by the end of the book but I still struggled to sympathise with anyone in it.

I feel I’ve been a bit negative in this review, but I did smile, and even laugh occasionally. As I say, the core trope that the book fits into is one that I like, but this implementation was flawed.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405912792
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds

By Karen Lord

Rating: 5 stars

This is a remarkably sweet and uplifting book for a story that starts with genocide. The planet of Sidira is destroyed, leaving only small groups of survivors. One of these groups is resettled on the planet of Cygnus Beta, a world that prides itself on welcoming all those who seek refuge. A government civil servant, Grace Delarua, is seconded to help the new settlement. When the colony decides to scour the planet looking for those with genetic heritage from their world, to help rebuild their society, Grace is assigned to travel with a group, including Dllenahkh, one of the Sidiri leaders.

There’s not a huge amount of plot to this book, it’s mostly a travelogue through various societies on Cygnus Beta, having minor adventures en route. It’s the characters that shine through. The warmth with which they’re portrayed is delightful, especially given the awful nature of the event that brought them there. The Sidiri are known as an intellectual and thoughtful people, not prone to burst of emotion (I pictured them as slightly more laid back Vulcans) and the dry wit that Dllenahkh shows, and his surprisingly tender romance with Delarua is a pleasure to read.

This also feels very much like a book for our times, showing us an example of how a society should handle those in need of refuge: with grace and open arms. In a world where more and more countries are turning their backs on their fellow peoples, we need to be reminded of the alternative. Where the host encourages those who come to them to develop and grow and become they best they can be, while those who take up that offer in turn grow into their host culture, while maintaining their own traditions.

The focus here is very much on Cygnus Beta, with only minor hints being dropped in about the wider galactic society and the four peoples (including Terrans) who make up humanity as a whole. The world-building is nicely done, and slides neatly into the story.

This isn’t a flashy novel, but it’s one that I found has worked its way into my heart without me really noticing. I cared about the characters and their relationships, which, to me, means the book is a success.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780871684
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2014

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

By John Cleland

Rating: 3 stars

I must confess that when I picked this up (on the basis purely of a positive review I’d read), I knew it was supposed to be risqué but I was convinced that a book written in the middle 1700s couldn’t be that risqué. I was wrong. Fanny has a homosexual experience within the first dozen pages and goes on to meet and enjoy men in pretty graphic fashion fairly soon afterwards.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, it’s not that people haven’t been having, thinking, drawing, talking and writing about sex since the start of our species, I just wasn’t expecting it in written and published form in this period.

The book is in epistolary format and can be quite frustrating at times, with lots of long, run-on sentences and nested clauses (not helped by the Gutenberg text I was reading having quite a lot of typos). I sometimes found it difficult to tease out meaning from them. But if you can work through that, it’s enjoyable enough. While not explicitly naming genitals or acts, your euphemism vocabulary will certainly grow, and it can be quite fun spotting the more outrageous metaphors.

I also like that although there’s a moral at the end where Fanny disclaims her past, it’s not a moralistic book in that nothing bad happens to her. She’s allowed to enjoy sex and still get her happy ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 1748

A Pocketful of Crows

By Joanne M. Harris

Rating: 3 stars

I started this book back in the summer, but put it down for a long period because I could see what was coming and it felt “cringe-y”. I did eventually pick it up again, and I’m glad I did. As much as anything, the writing is poetic and beautiful to read, as much as for the story.

Our protagonist is a young woman of the travelling folk, who travels in all manner of birds and beasts, not tied to anyone or anything. Until she falls in love with a young prince. An inevitable betrayal and revenge follows, but it’s the journey that it takes that is worth staying for.

Based on some of the Child ballads, the story is simple enough, and Harris’s embellishments and feminist reading make for an interesting interpretation. As I say, the writing is a pleasure to read, and helps raise the fairly simple story to something greater. Also, the art, even in my Kindle edition, is gorgeous.

Book details

Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2017

This is How You Lose the Time War

By Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 stars

I read this novella immediately after finishing The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With her Mind and the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. From the short, clean prose and breathless action of the former to the leisurely pace and beautifully crafted letters of this, about the only thing the two have in common is the short chapters.

Red and Blue are agents on opposing sides of a war that rages through time. Against orders and, indeed, common sense, they strike up a correspondence that slowly turns into something more.

The time war is very much a background to the evolving relationship between Red and blue. In the early chapters they taunt each other after after thwarting the other’s plans, but the tone of the letters shifts as the backgrounds do and the reader comes to care for these two extraordinary individuals as they come to care for each other.

I loved reading this book. The language is beautiful and is something to savour. Short as it is, it took a while to read it first time round, partially because of a lack of time, and partially because I was reading it slowly. After finishing it, I went back and read it again, much more quickly, which gave me a stronger overall view of it, and the references which had passed me by the first time (as I’d forgotten the details of the earlier chapter by the time I got to the payoff later).

The two sides in the war are mostly stereotypical views of opposing SF worldviews: the technological Agency vs the Garden of bioengineering. While I would love to know more about them and the war, that’s not this book. This book is all about Red and Blue and paints them as a microcosm for the wider conflict. If you accept that, this is a very rewarding read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529405231
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2019

The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway

By Rhys Thomas

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that this tale of a troubled young man who dresses as a superhero to avoid dealing with trauma in his past isn’t the sort of thing I would normally read. But it got a glowing review in a magazine I usually trust and I’m a sucker for a good romance.

Sam is an average guy with a nice house, some nice friends who are as equally socially awkward as he is, and a decent job. He also dresses up a few times a week to fight crime (well, help old ladies across the street, give young kids a heart to heart, and help drunks out of graves, mostly). And then Sarah walks into his life and things will change forever.

Sam is a likeable guy, probably on the spectrum and some aspects of his life hit a little too close to the mark for me personally. His awkwardness around Sarah felt completely authentic and once they did eventually get together, there’s still a lot of tension because you’re just waiting for the secrets to come out and for things to go horribly wrong.

When I were a lad, romances tended to be built up throughout the book and resolved with the couple getting together in time for the climax (so to speak). Whereas here, and possibly in modern romance more generally (like I say, it’s not usually my genre), they get together by the middle of the book, and then things fall apart. In that sense, it reminds me of the film La La Land, although it has a very different thematic ending to that film.

The characterisation of Sam is excellent, although his two friends, with the somewhat unlikely nicknames of Tango and Blotchy, are much less well served. Even Sarah feels like she could have had a better treatment. Of all people, I was surprised that Sam’s boss, Mr Okamatsu, got a lot of attention.

This is a powerful story about grief, loneliness, kindness and love. It’s a very quick read and left me with a number of emotions. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hug my nephlings.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472248145
Publisher: Wildfire
Year of publication: 2018

Defy the Stars (Constellation, #1)

By Claudia Gray

Rating: 4 stars

While I’m a fan of space opera, I tend not to read much in the way of YA or romance novels, so this was a bit of a leap for me. I’m glad I took it though, as I enjoyed it a lot. Noemi is a young fighter pilot, fighting to protect her planet from invasion by Earth. Abel is the most advanced mech ever built by Earth. When the two of them find each other on an abandoned spacecraft, they realise they need each other as they embark on a voyage through the known universe to try and protect Noemi’s home.

As I say, I don’t read a lot of YA stories, and for the first few chapters of this book, the style and tone felt a little jarring, but once I adapted to the flow of the story, I got on fine with it. Both Noemi and Abel are engaging protagonists, and the alternating POV per chapter means we get inside both their heads and get to experience both sides of the war (although, of course, it’s no spoiler to say that their differing attitudes start to converge as they spend more time with each other).

There are interesting moral questions in the background too – does Genesis have the absolute right to secede from Earth, if it means trapping millions of people in squalor? What rights does a artificial creature have, even a sentient one?

So an interesting story and a fun one. I’ll probably end up picking up the sequel to see where it ends up going.

Book details

ISBN: 9781471406362
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Year of publication: 2017

Thomas the Rhymer

By Ellen Kushner

Rating: 3 stars

Young Thomas the harper is taken in by an elderly couple to whom he returns again and again as his fortunes amongst the courts of the mighty wax and wane. One day he disappears without even his harp and they fear they’ll never see him again. But Thomas has been taken by the Queen of Elfland to be her lover and her harper, to return after seven years. And then he must make right the wrong to the woman he loves.

This is a slightly difficult book to review, as I didn’t feel much while I was reading it. There wasn’t a huge amount to the story and none of the characters really made me feel for them. I actually found the bookends around Elfland more interesting than the portion of the story therein. I suppose it felt more real, more human. The Elfland section sort of felt like nothing mattered, even once the mystery hinted at early on finally took on substance.

In tone, this book sort of reminded me of Mythago Wood, another book that I was ambivalent about. I think this sort of mythic fantasy isn’t necessarily for me. I can appreciate it but it doesn’t necessarily do anything for me. Not a fault of the book, but of the reader. I’ll probably not read much more in this vein in future.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473211629
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1990

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Rating: 5 stars

This is an old favourite and one that I come back to every few years. Jane is a character very dear to my heart, very different to Lizzie Bennett, yet I put them in the same place in my head. Jane may be poor, plain and friendless, but she is a strong character. Although she plays the part of subservient, demure governess, the relationship between her and Mr Rochester is anything but.

I always find the start and end of the book a bit difficult. The start because I empathise with Jane immensely, and her cry of “unjust” rings through my head as I follow her, first through the trials of Gateshead, from “master” John to the Red Room, then through Lowood school and the heartbreakingly good Helen Burns. The tail end, after she’s left Thornwood, I find hard for a different reason: the character of St John Rivers. He’s dizzyingly stern and uncompromising as a rod, but more than that, I find him intensely creepy. His domination of Jane is very different to her relationship with Rochester. It’s not just the lack of love, but the fact that he knows what he’s proposing will kill Jane quickly and it doesn’t move him. This time round, I also realised that he’s a windbag, as well as being sanctimonious. All praise to Brontë for an incredible character.

I love the various set pieces throughout the book, from the first meeting with Rochester on Hay Lane, through the bedroom fire, “portrait of a governess”, the fortune teller, the wedding right through to “Pilot knows me” and, of course, “Reader, I married him.” These are just the scenes that come to mind off the top of my head, there’s very little of the book that I dislike at all. Even the opening and tail end sections I talk about above are marvellous to enjoy and I mention them specially only because of the intense emotions they invoke: the true sign of a master storyteller.

I’ve not mentioned Bertha Mason in this review. She’s a problematic character to modern sentiments but fits the gothic and dramatic tone of the book. I believe various books have been written to tell her story and paint her more sympathetically, although I’ve not read any. I just ned to put my “product of its time” filter firmly in place (something I’ve had practice with, as a fan of Golden Age SF).

(Aside: I happened to be rereading this book when a touring theatre production of Jane Eyre came to my city. It was incredible: intense, modern, touching on all the highlights of the book, condensed into a stage play. If you have the chance, do go and see it.)

Book details

ISBN: 9780142437209
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1847

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