Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

The Vine That Ate the South

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Have you ever had the most awful week? There must be a big, black rain cloud over my and my family member’s heads right now. So, when in doubt, read something really wacky. I have talked about my local indie publisher, Two Dollar Radio, on here before. They publish some really off-the-wall sci-fi/fantasy as well as some hard hitting family dramas and political novels. Basically, they publish a mixed bag of really unique authors and their work. Nobody is paying me to sing their praises; I just genuinely like the company and what they put out. Enter The Vine That Ate the South, one of those off-the-wall sci-fi novels I mentioned.

As the title suggests, there is a vine that is eating the southern United States (there really is too– look up the kudzu vine). Specifically, the novel takes place somewhere in western Kentucky. Our unnamed protagonist sets out to find the rumored heart of the vine, also known as “The Deadening.” Since the protagonist is a bit unsure of how to proceed by himself, he enlists the help of Carver Canute, a rather strange local with a thick southern accent and a pig-greased pompadour who has been to The Deadening before. Together, the narrator/protagonist and Carver venture through the Kentucky wilderness, finding everything from vampires to albino panthers to some just plain crazy hillbillies.

I have read some bizarre books before, but in my opinion, all of the craziness must have a point or else it will not be as enjoyable to me. Is there a point then? Kind of. There’s an adventure with a destination, but along the way Wilkes throws many Southern U.S. folktales and philosophical passages our way. If you aren’t familiar with the folktales, you might be confused. Even if you are familiar with them (or are happy to go along for the ride if you don’t), you might wonder what the point of encountering some of them are because the encounters do not always directly or obviously connect to the overall plot/journey. I enjoyed the nods to references I knew, but I also questioned the point of some encounters in the whole scope of the novel. Maybe there wasn’t a point sometimes, at least compared to a more traditional adventure story plot, but it could have been the author simply wanting to have fun and push some of the folklore of the south into the hands of readers unfamiliar with it. As someone from a state that is also considered very rural, agricultural, backward, and a bit hillbilly, I can appreciate wanting to share the things unique to my area with a wider audience.

Writing-wise, I enjoyed the book. The author is good at describing the weird and wild scenes. There are also some really beautiful lines that talk about nature and more philosophical topics. The novel is in first-person perspective, and the narrator has a very casual, conversational tone. I have to commend the writer’s ability to translate the local dialect into the text. As someone who has lived in Kentucky, I can say that I know a few people who sound just like Carver Canute. The characters are also well written. Carver is weird but entertaining, has great lines, and is very memorable. The narrator never shares his name, but he references his past here and there throughout the novel. You can get a good sense of the kind of person he is without needing a name. I could relate to him a bit because of these references, so I found that even as a female reader, it was easy to insert myself into the book.

The final verdict is four out five stars from me. It was a wild, fun ride that gave me equal amounts escapism and stuff to think about it. I would recommend this to anyone who has a taste for bizarre science fiction, folklore, or fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s work. Vandermeer actually has praise for this novel on its cover, so I think it will hit the mark for his fans who are in the mood for something more indie in style.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

Annihilation

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These past two weeks I have been in Hong Kong. I actually read a lot during the flight there and back (14-16 hrs per flight), but I had no time to review anything because I was still working and adhering to deadlines with a 12 hour time difference to take into consideration. Excuses, excuses, but this has been one tough spring for me. But this is a book blog, so let’s move onto the books!

After reading Jeff Vandermeer’s creative writing guide for sci-fi and fantasy, Wonderbook, I was feeling guilty for not reading his actual novels. How can you take someone’s writing advice when you don’t even know if you like their own work? I don’t know, and admittedly that was not the right order to do things… but I can say I have read his work now, and yes, I liked it.

Annihilation is the first book in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. This first volume is very short at just shy of 200 pages, but it packs quite a punch. In the novel we follow “the biologist” as she and her colleagues explore a place called Area X. The Southern Reach is the entity that puts these expeditions together with volunteers from various fields. Previous groups have died or experienced changes in themselves. The biologist is on expedition number twelve with three other women: the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. Together the four women enter Area X, knowing that they may never return– or at least not as who they once were.

I would call this novel a sci-fi thriller. The happenings of the novel have some basis in science, but it gets a little weird at times. There are some good suspenseful parts, and there are some survival/mystery elements that can easily hook readers. This is a novel that you have to be OK with being confused or lost. For much of the novel we see strange animals, plants, and places with few concrete explanations. The characters become unreliable at times because they are never quite sure if they can trust their senses. Despite the characters lacking actual names, I did not feel emotionally disconnected from them. The biologist is the narrator, and we get many scenes of her remembering her past. Plus, you’re in her head the whole time. However, I can see how any or all of these factors might leave the reader feeling lost, and the ending gives few answers. It is something to aware of, but if you like open-ended novels, this is such a quick and engrossing read that it does not hurt to try!

I gave Annihilation four out of five stars. It was quick, fun, suspenseful, and wonderfully weird. I wish that there had been a bit more direction and clarification in the ending especially, but I enjoyed what I read here and am looking forward to seeing what books two and three have to offer.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

Binti

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Apparently this is the year of sci-fi for me. It isn’t a genre I often reach for because I simply like other genres more. I’ve never been that interested in books about space travel and advanced technology. Give me swords and sorcery any day, but at least I am aware of the fact I should branch out!

Binti has been accepted into the most prestigious school in the galaxy, Oomza University. But Binti is Himba, and her people simply do not leave Earth. Binti sneaks away in the night to leave for her new school because she knows her family will disapprove. As she travels through the stars to her new life, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, an alien race with a long history of war with some humans on Earth.

Binti tells her story in first-person perspective, so it is very easy to get to know her. She is a headstrong, brave, intelligent, and resourceful girl who takes her fate into her own hands. She clearly loves her family and has pride in her people’s traditions. As Binti travels to her new school, she sees humans from different cultures. Her ways are strange to the majority, so she faces some “curiosity” from other people which is really just discrimination. The themes of ignorance breeding hate and listening/learning leading to understanding of differences are touched on a few times even in this short (~100 page) first novella of the series. The other major theme is fitting in and finding yourself in a very different world from what you know, which is actually very easy to relate to for any young person going off to college– across the galaxy or across the country.

It is hard to not recommend such a quick and compelling read. I enjoyed this first novella in the series, but I am unsure if I will continue it soon. I listened to this as an audiobook instead of reading a hard copy, and I would say that the audiobook was a good experience. I prefer reading the hard copy of fantasy/sci-fi books that contain author-created words so that I can see how the words are spelled instead of only hearing them, but I had no trouble with that issue in this audiobook because there were so few unfamiliar words. I gave Binti three or three and a half stars out of five. I am intrigued by the novella and the author’s writing and creativity, so I may continue the series or read more from the author in the future.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction, Short Story Collections

Invisible Planets

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I know the subtitle of this blog is “spoiler free reviews (almost) every Saturday,” but just know that every time I have to skip a week… I feel guilty about it. Despite the delayed post, I actually read this book quickly when I had time to read it. Invisible Planets is exactly as the subtitle says: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. I am still new to science fiction, so maybe my opinion doesn’t mean much, but if you’re also a “newbie” to the genre, I hope my perspective helps. Settle in though. This will be a long one.

I chose this collection because I have enjoyed Ken Liu’s past work, and I believed that he would translate and put together an interesting collection of work from various authors. I was not wrong. There are a variety of writing styles, settings, and themes between the stories. Seven authors (most are also newer voices in the genre) are featured in the collection, and each author has 1-3 short stories. I found myself easily gravitating toward some authors and confused by others, but there should be a little something in here for anyone.

If you’re unfamiliar with fiction in translation or have some reservations about understanding any cultural/political nuances in Chinese sci-fi, this is actually a great collection to start with. In the introduction of the collection, Ken Liu explains that he has selected short fiction that he thinks Anglophone readers will appreciate. Still, he urges Anglophone readers to try not to view the stories through a “lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics […] Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their work through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.” And, if you want a little extra information about Chinese science fiction, the anthology includes three essays at the back of the book on the subject. As I said, this is a great place to start for Chinese sci-fi. It just feels “dummy proof” for an English reader.

I find it difficult to review any anthology collection in a broad way because there are so many different authors and stories, so I will briefly discuss the authors, my impression of their styles, and a little bit about their stories that appear in the collection.

Chen Qiufan: “The Year of the Rat,” “The Fish of Lijiang,” and “The Flower of Shazui”

Chen Qiufan’s stories may not have been my favorites, but they certainly made me think. Ken Liu described his work as “melding a global, post-cyberpunk sensibility with China’s traditions  and complex historical legacy.” I found some of his stories disturbingly real. For example, in “The Year of the Rat,” the protagonist is at war with genetically engineered rats with human-like characteristics. The near-humanness of the rats was contrasted against humanity’s and society’s often barbaric side, so it made me uncomfortable in a thoughtful way. Chen Qiufan’s stories feel smart; there’s a lot to unpack and examine in each one, but you can still enjoy them without doing much deep reading.

Xia Jia: “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” “Tongtong’s Summer,” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse”

Xia Jia’s work was what drew me into this anthology. According to Liu, she describes her own style as “porridge SF,” apparently meaning that she considers herself a mixture of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I was drawn to Xia Jia’s work because of her lyrical and descriptive writing style. “Tongtong’s Summer” was a heartfelt tale about an injured grandfather and the summer that he had to stay with his granddaughter and her parents. Grandfather and granddaughter initially have a hard time getting along, but their relationship blossoms into something very sweet. “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” was another of my overall favorites in the collection. It felt like a fairy tale about the passage of time and the how memories can transcend time. I found her stories to be hauntingly beautiful, and I would very happily read more from her if I could.

Ma Boyong: “The City of Silence”

“The City of Silence” was the only story by Ma Boyong in the collection, but it felt like a full length novel. (Or, because of the ending, it could also be a prologue to a great sci-fi novel…) The story focuses on a protagonist who lives in a society with very strict censorship. It is so strict that there is a list of “Healthy Words” everyone must use in their writing and speech, but every day the list of acceptable words grows smaller and smaller. The story discusses the relationship between humans, language, and freedom of expression, but it also goes deeper than that. The characters and how they live in the cracks of this increasingly silent society are extremely interesting. It showcases humanity’s adaptability as well as our limits of what we can endure.

Hao Jingfang: “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing”

Both of Hao Jingfang’s stories were a bit surreal. “Invisible Planets” is structured as if the narrator is talking to another person and telling them about different planets and their inhabitants. The “meaning” of the story is hidden between the planet descriptions and the conversation between the narrator and listener. “Folding Beijing” takes place in a Beijing that can fold itself away at certain times of the day, flip completely over, and unfold itself for another set of residents on the other side. A man in a low class part of the city attempts to illegally travel between the Beijings to deliver a message for pay. Both stories were beautifully written and very creative in both their themes and world building.

Tang Fei: “Call Girl”

“Call Girl” is about a young call girl, but she isn’t really that kind of call girl. I think. She does something with dreams… maybe? I was a little confused by this one, but it was pleasant to read. The point likely flew over my head.

Cheng Jingbo: “Grave of the Fireflies”

“Grave of the Fireflies” felt like a fairy tale. Despite the first person narration, I felt distanced from the characters because of the history-book tone. It was a love story on a planetary, thousand-year scale. The writing was very descriptive with often surreal metaphors. The story felt familiar because it read like an Arthurian tale but with an Eastern flair and some technological/scientific influences making it wholly unique.

Liu Cixin: “The Circle” and “Taking Care of God”

Liu Cixin’s stories were some of my favorites. They have interesting plots with deeper underlying themes. “The Circle” takes place during the reign of the first emperor and involves mathematics, betrayal, and history. It was a very entertaining and smart story. “Taking Care of God” is also very intelligently crafted. Many elderly human looking beings visit Earth, all claiming to be God and requesting food and shelter from humans. Is it a critique on how society treats the elderly? Is there some religious debate in there? There’s certainly some analysis of humanity in it. No matter what meaning you draw from the story, it is humorous, introspective, and sad.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

11/22/63

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Well, I finally read my first Stephen King. I felt guilty reading a book by King’s son when I had never read anything by King himself. It’s silly; I know. I like thrillers, and I am starting to get less scared of reading horror. But I am also still a pretty big chicken. When I was looking for my next book to read, there was a lot of hubbub about the J.F.K. files being released to the public. So, with all that in mind, I picked up 11/22/63. It was a good choice.

Jake Epping is an English teacher who is at a crossroads in his life. He is divorced and feeling a little lost. Al Templeton, the local diner’s owner and Jake’s acquaintance, approaches Jake with a task; go back in time through the diner’s storage room, and save J.F.K. from assassination. Sounds easy enough, right? But the past is obdurate. Jake finds himself in 1958 with a new identity, a new haircut, a flashy new car, and an impossible task. What starts out as a cut and dry mission, turns into a love story with many very real dangers.

I instantly connected with Jake’s character. The prologue has Jake sitting at a desk, grading high school students’ papers. As a teaching assistant, I could relate to Jake’s feelings on grading and his dark humor. Jake is a smart character, a good man, humorous, and just very normal. He’s a fairly average guy in an extraordinary situation. I guess I don’t need to tell you how well King can write characters, but I liked a lot of the people in this book. It was one of those novels that you don’t want to end because you have to say goodbye to characters that feel like old friends.

Big surprise, but the plot was stellar as well. The almost ridiculous beginning hooked me because it was so out there, but somehow so acceptable too. A guy who owns a diner has a portal to the past inside a storage room. It sounds crazy, but it works. Once Jake goes to the past, things really take off. It doesn’t seem so crazy any more. It all feels real. I’m too young to have grown up in the 50’s and 60’s, but the book still felt nostalgic. I can see why many older people loved this time period with the all the dancing, good food, and neighborly attitudes. However, King did not hold back from the harsh realities of racism and sexism that permeated this era. It’s sickening at times, but it just goes to show that there has never been a time or place that was a utopia for everyone.

OK, so, what’s wrong with this book? Well, not much in my opinion. I gave it five solid stars on Goodreads. Still, I think it is very difficult to write a time travel novel. The hardest part is probably ending one. The ending was the worst part of this novel, but that’s not to say it was bad. I cried during the last few pages of 11/22/63, and I was happy enough with the ending. I certainly could not have written it better, but… well… I guess you can read it yourself and make your own judgment. It was still worth reading this 800+ page book.

Yes, I am a new fan of Stephen King. He can definitely write, and from what I can tell, he fathered some great writers too. I would like to read more from King, but I’m not sure I can handle something too scary. Suggestions are welcome!

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

Dark Matter

dmbybcAre you happy with your life? Jason Dessen’s life has turned out well. He believes he is happy with his wife and son. They live a comfortable life. Jason and his wife sometimes wonder how their lives could have been different if they made different choices, but we all wonder about what-ifs, right? Jason goes out to celebrate his college friend’s scientific achievement (an award Jason himself could have won… perhaps), but he never makes it home. He is abducted and when he regains consciousness he is in a world not unlike his own.

I have been in a reading slump lately and I knew I needed something to jolt me out of it. This book did the trick. It is extremely fast-paced which usually isn’t my thing, but it works well here. There some twists and at times the novel blew my mind. It was fun and it might make you think about the universe as a whole or your own life choices. I feel like I can’t say too much without ruining bits of the novel so I will keep my review fairly short and vague.

I would not call the writing amazing. It gets the job done. It is dialogue heavy and not particularly lyrical. The broken sentences creates a sense of urgency that adds to the pacing. The characters- apart from Jason and his wife- are not engaging. The plot carries this novel, but at times I had to suspend my disbelief. I’m not an expert in the science this book touches on, but it was hard not to imagine some plot holes. Simply put, I enjoyed this wild ride.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

After James

AJbyMHI received this as an Advance Reader Copy (releasing September 16th 2016) from a Goodreads giveaway so take all my opinions and observations with a larger grain of salt than usual.

I have pretty mixed feelings about this novel. Within it are three connected stories. The first is about a woman named Alice who worked for a pharmaceutical company that developed a creativity enhancing drug. After her company acts questionably she decides to quit, hide out in the wilderness, and turn them in. The second is about a man named James who is hired to be a “literary detective” who discovers more than he bargained for. The final story is about Celia whose father drastically changes after meeting a strange artist. The artist also begins taking a disturbing amount of Celia’s life into his work. The stories are connected by themes of politics, religion, and science to name a few. Each story approaches these topics in different ways and each one almost feels like a different genre.

Alice’s story is more horror-like and is surprisingly less scientific. The plot took a turn I wasn’t expecting, but I liked it. It also has a lot of interesting visions, symbolism, and imagery. It blurs the lines of reality and imagination which I usually love, but in this case it is a little confusing to read. I am also confused about some Alice’s actions. She samples the drug herself which just doesn’t seem like a good idea- especially in her isolated situation. Though I liked this story I wasn’t overly impressed by the execution of the idea. The twist is unexpected and a little strange, but if you go in knowing the story is somewhat like a horror piece then it isn’t very original for that genre.

I didn’t enjoy James’ story as much. I read the first half and skim-read most of the second half. It is the longest story of the three and I also feel that it is the most boring. There is a detective style mystery that unfolds, but it didn’t keep my interest very well. It reminds me a little of something inspired by 1984 with its technological and political invasiveness. I simply didn’t find myself caring about the thin characters or their problems.

The final story about Celia is again part mystery, part science, and part religious. Hard to explain, but the last story circles back around to the first story while also hinting at the second. Again, I am not on board with the decisions some of the characters make. Celia and her father have some personality compared to the characters in the other stories at least. I somewhat enjoyed this story, but like with the first one the ending takes a strange turn. As with the other stories it is difficult to be sure of what is real and imagined.

The novel as a whole is just OK. I feel like it may not be my thing. It sounds good from the blurb and many of the ideas are interesting, but I don’t feel like they are executed in an engaging way.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

Radiance

RbyCMVI have been wanting this book since I heard about it. The blurb describes is as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system.” Yes, yes, yes. Director Severin Unck, daughter of the famous director Percival Unck, never returns from shooting her last documentary about a colony on Venus that mysteriously vanished. Severin is a realist while her father enjoys making movies about the fantastic. Her search for the truth might have led to her death… but is she truly dead?

The world in this novel is so amazing. Though much of technology and culture is stuck in the early to mid 1900’s with silent black and white movies, nickelodeons, flappers, radio dramas, and the glitz of early Hollywood… space travel is common place. In this alternate reality the planets in our solar system are habitable and teeming with native flora and fauna. The creativity, descriptions, and storytelling bring this vibrant world to life. The world was great, but I want more of it.

The way the novel is written is through film scripts, audio logs, and radio commercials. In the beginning I found this a little confusing since there are jumps back and forth through time as well as some scripts being fictional while others are nonfictional. Though this is an interesting way to present the story I feel like I could have gotten more out of it if it were just written like a regular novel. The descriptions are sometimes [bracketed] and separate which feels very… disconnected. I’m really torn on the presentation of the narrative. On one hand it is very neat to imagine parts being on old film with skipping, distortions, and played on old projectors. It adds a meta-atmosphere for sure, but I also feel like I am missing out on the actual world (with its fashionable and necessary Plutonian masks and the extremely useful “whales” from Venus) in which everything takes place.

Still, it was an absolute joy to read. If I went back and reread it (and I do want to) I know I would understand the subtleties and time jumps much more. This is another novel I wish I had a book club to comb through it with. There is so much depth. The plot loops around itself, makes you question truth and reality, and the underlying commentary blows my mind. It ends like a good movie- not every question is answered in full, but it just makes you hunger for more.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

Lock In

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I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations for liking this book. It did not sound like something I would be into, but it was cheap so I gave it shot and I’m glad I did. In the not too far future a disease, called Haden’s, spreads across the globe that either kills, immobilizes, or changes the brain structure of those infected. Those who are immobilized lose complete control of their bodies, but they remain conscious resulting in “lock in.” Most people who are locked in can still move about the real world using “threeps” which are robots they can control with their minds. Those who survive the disease and are lucky enough not to be locked in can serve as consciousness hosts so that those immobilized can experience the world through a human body. This very strange, but very realistic world presents many problems for our Haden’s specialized FBI agent main characters. Think futuristic Sci-Fi Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

If you’re a little confused by the synopsis I wrote, don’t worry. It is hard to explain everything in a small space and it takes some time to get used to the world and its vocabulary. Luckily Scalzi is pretty good about explaining things without it feeling too much like an info dump. There are some places in which the characters are putting together the pieces of crimes that feel a little information heavy, but it did not distract me too much. All in all, the world feels real. It’s essentially a possible future of America complete with political and social unrest surrounding the issues of Haden’s rights and government funding for their care. Maybe that sounds dull, but I found the book to be surprisingly interesting as a whole. One complaint I have is that the ending was a little quick and conveniently wrapped up. The characters have some personality, but anyone beyond the main two characters is mostly forgettable. The most interesting part of the novel by far is the world Scalzi has built.

Readers who are already into science fiction probably won’t find too much surprising or original about this novel, but since I have just begun to dip my feet into the genre I found it to be very unique. The story is fast paced (except for the aforementioned piecing together of evidence scenes). Sometimes the names of people and the technical mumbo-jumbo confused me. And maybe the political corruption and computer science parts of the novel are unrealistic, but I’m no expert in those areas so I couldn’t say. Either way, I found this to be a page turner and a much needed breath of fresh air in my reading.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Science Fiction

Station Eleven

SEbyESJMIn a matter of days the world has ended. A pandemic, a disease that kills a victim within 48 hours, has left 99% of the world’s population dead. The survivors spend the rest of their lives scraping by, forever changed by the tragedy. In this post-apocalyptic world there is a troupe of traveling actors and musicians who call themselves The Traveling Symphony. When they aren’t protecting themselves from bandits they perform Shakespeare and play music for townspeople they come across.

I loved the sound of this book when I read the blurb and I wasn’t disappointed. However, I can definitely see how it isn’t for everyone. There isn’t much action or suspense. It is a quiet read that is primarily about life. The narrative follows the lives of a few characters in the events leading up to and their lives after the pandemic. The plot jumps back and forth in time and the story is split between past and present events for a while. Eventually the two plot lines meet up as the novel comes to a close. The amount of characters that are introduced does become a little overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem since only a handful really need to be remembered.

I can also understand how some readers may find this novel to be a slow read. Personally, I found it to be a page turner. I was invested in the lives of the main cast. I would call this novel very character driven. If you cannot connect with or find the characters interesting you may not have the same pleasant experience I had while reading it. The novel explores many concepts of humanity and civilization through the characters’ stories more than it deals with the event of the pandemic itself. It makes you think and it scares me. The pandemic, losing loved ones, and civilization crumbling doesn’t feel too far from a possible reality.

The writing is beautiful. The scenes the words paint is both depressing and inspiring. The imagery and character development is spot on. The only thing I really want from this novel is just more. I want more details about the post-pandemic world. I want to know more about different cities, what happens to my favorite characters, and how the world is changed. The novel does explain many of these things in considerable depth, but I still want more! This novel is definitely one of my all time favorites now.