Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (SF / Multi-cultural)

AO Oju has remade herself, literally, using cybernetics and AI augmentation, but in this Africanfuturism blend of technology with deep cultural roots, she is kept an outsider by people whose constant refrain is “what kind of woman are you?” On the run from a particularly disturbing engagement in the marketplace, she meets Fulani hersdman Dangote Nuhu Adamu (DNA), and together they set off into the desert, getting closer and loser to the abomination known as the Red Eye.

Written in Okorafor’s trademark mythical language, rich with pulsing sentiment, the story is an intriguing combination of the cultural and the technical. There is plenty of injustice and unfairness and big, bad corporations at the root of it all, balanced with wonderfully inventive technical solutions. I didn’t buy the science really, but as Arthur C Clarke famously said, “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” so …

An engaging read. Works for the YA and Adult SF market.

Thank you to DAW and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Drama/depression index: too high!

Greek classics, a love of books and literature, and the twin pillars of human suffering and hope pervade this broad, sweeping story which spans interstellar travel, the siege of Constantinople, and eco-terrorism in an Idaho library. The published book description is actually very good, so I encourage you to read it directly rather than my trying to do an inadequate recap.

This is a beautifully written, deeply researched, cleverly interconnected story and by the end I was enjoying it a great deal. The characters are intricately done with their memories, desires, and deep need to survive, understand, and have agency in their lives. However, there is an awful lot of pathos for my taste. Before each character can succeed, there is an incredible amount of (too well) described suffering. This is not surprising — the siege of Constantinople is not a great place to be an orphaned girl with an antipathy for embroidery or a hare-lipped boy considered a demon by the greater population. But I clocked 65% through my kindle version before things stopped being utterly depressing. I did love the way literature and the classics were woven throughout, and I found the interstellar generation ship running away from a dying Earth thread quite interesting. The slowly emerging resolution of these independent threads was remarkably well done giving me an overall positive view of the book.

This is a strong and brilliantly executed book. If you loved his Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light You Cannot See, you will likely love this as well.

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

Book two of the Scholomance series (which I previously labeled “Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind”). Galadriel (“El”) is finally a senior at the Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted that operates without staff of any sort and typically graduates (i.e. allows to survive) only a quarter of the class. But this year, even the school itself is looking for a change, and if El and the invincible fighter Orion Lake have their way, this may be the last graduating class ever…

Very similar to book one — good writing, fun to read, likable characters — perhaps a little more detail on innovative monsters than I needed but it made for some very impressive “magical” world building. Strong messaging about the benefits of working together to ensure everyone does well, rather than desperation leading to selfish and ultimately self-destructive strategies.

I still have a preference for her earlier works — Spinning Silver and Uprooted but I always enjoy reading anything she writes. Is this the last book in the series? Hard to say — once again there was no real cliffhanger but … I do feel a little more needs to be explained! This could be read without reading book one but if you plan to do that, go online and get a quick plot summary for book one just to gain familiarity with the characters.

Thank you to Ballantine Del Rey and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

The Peculiarities by David Liss (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

In the Age of Peculiarities, women give birth to rabbits, well-dressed ghouls roam the streets of London, individuals start sprouting leaves, and terrible luck to those who break contracts — though these oddities mostly impact the very poorest, so who cares? It’s 1899 and Thomas Thresher — the younger, largely ignored, son of the Thresher banking family — turns to the occult to find out why the bank seems so very involved in the pervasive disasters. He seeks to save the bank and return it to its original charter — to serve those with nowhere else to go.

Portals to astral realms, a magical society, and Aleister Crowley himself are at the center of this wild-ride style adventure. Plenty of surprises, wry asides, and a strong sense of duty — but what I really love is that the ability to see and manipulate the patterns within mathematics is the powerful magic that is able to do what the best stylings of the Crowley gang cannot.

A real page-turner — well-written, humorous, exciting, and with a wide array of interesting, non-stereotypical, characters.

Good for fans of Alix E. Harrow and Susannah Clark.

Thank you to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 7th, 2021.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3/5

A hardware malfunction causes a cascade of crashing comm satellites over the Five-Hop One-Stop space station causing the quarantine of all beings present. In a story long on socio-cultural world building and short on plot, individuals from four different species are forced to spend time together while each desperately needs to get back to the life that was abruptly brought to a halt. A quarantine story for our time…

Chambers excels at building intricate and engaging cultures which makes the relatively absent plot easy to overlook. She manages to include all of the current “hot topics” camouflaged in non-humanoid skins. Roveg is the insectoid Quelin who takes in information through smells and has a completely non-emotive space; Pei the Aeluon cargo captain who loves a human against the interspecies mating taboo of her kind; Speaker is the perpetually space-suited Akarak as the only planet that could support her methane-breathing life was rendered useless in a previous war; and Ouloo and not-yet-gendered offspring Tupo are the furry Laru who host the station. Throughout their enforced stay, the four learn about each other’s cultures, opinions, and preferences in a pretty interesting set of expositions on modes of communication, mating rituals, taboos, etc.

It’s nice to read a speculative fiction story that isn’t fully dystopian. We’re not embedded in Ewoks here — there are plenty of problems and even a history of downright atrocities — but the characters are able move forward in a more positive way after their experience in a model that suggests how this might be done for any of us. A harmless and relatively uplifting book.

While this is #4 in the series, the books just share a common universe. Not necessary to read the prior novels though I confess I found the earlier books a little more interesting.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5

The first few chapters follow a count down to the specific time at which Nora Seed will decide to die. She is 35, has worked at a music store called String Theory for the last few years, is estranged from her only relative, recently split from her fiancee, and is now presented with the body of her dead cat. She feels as though she is a black hole — “a dying star, collapsing in on itself”. On the brink of death, she finds herself in the Midnight Library — where the infinitude of books are all instances of her own life, hinging on some decision large or small.

The book is nicely executed — plenty of philosophy, psychology, and scientific tidbits (many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, Dunbar’s number, and environmental asides). I did find it a bit disappointing — it has received such rave reviews but I feel like it has been done before and most of the “insights” were of the self-help variety. Entertaining but (for me) not terribly inspiring.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E Harrow (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4 / 5 Characters: 4.5 / 5 Plot: 4.5 / 5

I had such fun reading this book — clever and funny with plenty of gender benders, surprise twists, and sass. Short, too, at only 128 pages.

Zinnia Gray of Ohio is the Dying Girl. Afflicted with GRM — a malady that always kills before its victims reach 22 — she has become obsessed with all things Sleeping Beauty (a girl with very similar problems). What follows is a funny and piercingly acute adventure through alternative narratives where an array of women try to alter the “crap” storylines they were given.

It’s a brilliant modernization, magnification, and multiplication of Sleeping Beauty stories, all come together with the spare prose and humorous asides that I love in Harrow’s writing. Some of the references to academic takes on folklore and feminism crack me up while simultaneously getting to the point of what is truly important. A favorite line referencing a female character with a sword: “I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.”

Great characters that I liked a lot, no BS, plenty of adventure, some cool self-reflection and growth (always enjoyable), and plenty of gender norm challenges that are playful rather than strident.

Harrow is right up there in my must-reads list.

A couple of other fun lines:
“My only friend in this entire backwards-ass pre-Enlightenment world is about to be married off to a sentient cleft chin.”

“We might not be able to fix our bullshit stories, but surely we can be less lonely inside them at the end.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 5th, 2021.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (speculative fiction)

200 years after The Awakening — when sentient robots left the abusive factories for the wilderness, rejecting further contact with humans — a human and robot meet in a twist on the traditional “First Contact” story. Sibling Dex — a gender neutral monk, meets Mossbank — a sentient “wild-built” robot whose family tree boasts several generations of wild-built individuals descending from16 factory bots. What follows is short on plot but long in world building, while we follow the two as they wander through untraveled areas and talk about their similarities, differences, and rising self-awareness.

I’m a big Becky Chambers fan — I enjoy her writing and her exploration of cultures. This is the beginning of a new series, and I’m hoping some of the future episodes have a little more plot to them. While this was philosophically interesting, I did get a little bored to be honest. Also, she uses the pronoun “their” for Dex and his/her fellow monks. This drove me crazy — I was not able to get used to it although it peppered every single page. Every time I read the word I struggled to figure out who the rest of the people were and then had to remember it was only Dex! Every time! I’m super happy to use someone’s choice of pronoun when I remember — including a made up one (I like zhe) — but using plurals for a singular drives me batty. I probably won’t read the next book because of this — I just don’t need the cognitive load. However, if this doesn’t bother you and you enjoy slow-paced, philosophical, stories, you will enjoy this!

Thank you to Macmillian-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 13th, 2021.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3/5

The Hidden Palace is a sequel to one of my favorite books: The Golem and the Jinni. Taking up where the G&J left off, we follow the two as they continue their inhuman lives amidst the sea of humanity that is New York City in the early1900s.

The story ranges over fifteen years encompassing WWI, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the disaster of the Titanic and takes place in New York City and parts of Syria. Including most of the characters from the first book, we also meet a Jinniyeh (a female Jinni) who is impervious to iron; an orphaned, ultra orthodox young girl who had helped her rabbi father create a golem to fight the pogroms in Russia; and Yosselle, the new golem himself.

I enjoyed many aspects of this book — the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were fascinating — especially between the young girl and “her” golem. The continuing themes of “otherness” and immigration continued from book one with additional examples through various human and inhuman characters. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t captivated in the way I was by the first book — for me there was too much time spent evoking the time and place through description when I prefer character interaction. Also, the overall tone felt more sorrowful than I remember book one, which is perhaps more realistic, but less satisfying. While book one brought multiple cultures together through these (non-human) representatives, this book felt more like the follow up on a couple in love but with such different essences that they were heading for an inevitable divorce (my impression — not what actually happens). For those who haven’t read the first book, she does a decent summary of the important background and events in the first few chapters.

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 8th, 2021.

Almost Human by HC Denham (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 2/5
A cautionary tale of a future where AI based humanoid robots may be slowly taking over the planet while the human population they are intended to serve remains blissfully unaware. All but one — the utterly competent, perfectly empathic, friendly humanoid robots just give Stella Mayfield the creeps.

While the plot had potential, I really didn’t enjoy this book. The characters were extremely stereotyped (and really, although Stella was a Biologist with a PhD, she behaved like the stereotypical neurotic woman while the men behaved like stereotypical men — completely out of touch with their feelings blah blah blah. The techie robot engineer was the biggest stereotype of all (and spoke some weird dialect that didn’t match anything I’m familiar with and I live and work in Silicon Valley!). There is very little science and very little plot — instead it includes lots of filler encompassing a lot of clichéd relationship stuff that had little to do with the plot. Writing is decent enough that I finished the book, but nothing special, and the end was completely predictable. Could have made a decent short story with better characters and more philosophic depth.