Autumnal #balisebooks

GoodReads tells me I did achieve my 60 books goal for 2020 – and we still have a quarter in this year, so I may need to get a larger goal for next year 😉 Granted, there’s been quite a few shorter books so far in the year: there’s been more graphic novels/comics, as well as more novellas/novelettes/short stories than in the previous years (because I read most of the selection for the Hugos). Still, it’s been a while since I did a #balisebooks post, so let’s fix that.

The Wicked + The Divine – volumes 1 to 9 – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson

The Wicked + The Divine is a graphic novel for which the premise is that every 90 years, 12 gods incarnate as humans. These humans are essentially celebrities – with everything that goes with that – and they’re dying within two years.

I absolutely loved the first volume, but I was somewhat let down by the following volumes: I don’t know exactly what I was expecting for a story, but I felt disappointed, somehow. (I also got very confused towards the end). At least the story is complete and the ends are tied and the ending is actually satisfying.

It was still very good, and I fell absolutely in love with the art, which is GORGEOUS from start to end.

Before Mars – Emma Newman

This is the third book of the Planetfall series, which is a loosely connected series of books that happen in the same universe where a group of colonists left for a distant planet a few decades before. In Before Mars, we follow Anna, who’s the new artist in residence on the Mars colony. Anna quickly starts to observe things that make her question what’s really happening… and her own sanity.

This was fantastic, buuuut. I absolutely loved the idea of “psychological thriller on Mars”, and it’s very well executed. Generally speaking I loved the book, but up until the end I was scared it would go to a disappointing ending. It didn’t (actually, far from it), but I was scared of that. Now I’m not sure whether the issue is with my lack of trust or with the fact that what I was seeing as a possibility was not clearly eliminated as a possibility, but that made my reading slightly more uncomfortable because I was “I like this thing A LOT, but I’m afraid it’s going to go to a conclusion I don’t like and that it will make the whole thing significantly worse”.

It didn’t, and I’m happy with that; it’s also not a feeling I’m much used to, which kind of bothers me. All in all, a very solid addition to the series.

LaGuardia – Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford

LaGuardia is a graphic novel in which there exists sentient alien plants that are trying to integrate as they can on Earth. The main protagonist, Future, is very pregnant, and just left Nigeria while smuggling such an alien (called Letme Live) and arrives at the eponymous airport (and spaceport) to go live with her grandmother.

I loved everything about LaGuardia – it’s smart, it’s sometimes funny, it’s just the right amount of “in-your-face-political”, the art is great and the colors are superb. It won the Hugo 2020 for Best Graphic Novel, and I actually had voted for it in the first place, so that makes me happy 🙂

Atlas Alone – Emma Newman

In Atlas Alone (fourth book of the Planetfall series, see above) we get to follow previous characters of After Atlas. The book centers on Dee, the friend of Carl’s, the detective from After Atlas.

They are currently flying in a spaceship, where the major source of entertainment is mersives – and a significant part of Atlas Alone happens in such environments. This is the story of Dee learning more and more about her environment and how she reacts to it, within the context of her previous trauma.

I must admit that, for me, this was the weakest book of the series. All in all, this felt very, very dark, and I kept hoping for some glimmer of hope that I didn’t feel I got. Also as a nitpick: the turn of sentence “my face was a mask in front of a mask” made me cringe the first time; and it also made me cringe the second and third time I encountered it in the book 😛

However, I did like the environment and what Newman did with the mersives and in particular the whole idea of “leet” gaming. I also enjoyed seeing Carl again, and the role he had in this book. The plot was also very tight and kept me interested all along (and may or may not have led to a few “okay, one more chapter” at too-late-hours of the night).

Mooncakes – Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Another graphic novel, you say? You bet. Nova is a teenager working part-time in her grandmothers’ bookshop. Said bookshop has a large “occult” section, and, oh, Nova’s grandmothers are witches. And, unexpectedly, Nova’s childhood friend Tam reappears, and they are a werewolf.

This was sweet and cute and, again, I loved the art. That’s actually one thing that reading a larger-than-usual amount of graphic novels in a short time taught me: I DO have opinions about their art, and it’s very important in my enjoyment of the form.

Middlegame – Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s In an Absent Dream was my favorite for the Hugo award for Best Novella, so that put Middlegame firmly in the top of the pile of the things I wanted to try to read before the Hugo voting deadline, since it was nominated for Best Novel.

In Middlegame, we get to meet Roger and Dodger. Roger has words for everything; Dodger has numbers for everything. They are twins, but they never met. And one day, they make contact – in their minds. Nothing is a coincidence: Roger and Dodger are part of a large alchemical experiment. As they grow up, they learn more about themselves, about their powers, and how the world may end up depending on them.

I did really like Middlegame, and I think it had a lot of things I like – intriguing setting, memorable characters, good writing. I did find it a bit long, but I have no idea if it’s because I’m in a bit of a hurry (I really wanted to read another Hugo nominee before I voted) or whether it would have been my opinion as well in other circumstances.

Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth was the book I had heard the most about before the Hugos (for which it was also nominated for Best Novel). The Emperor has called upon the heirs of all the necromancer houses for a trial of valor. The winner of the trial will ascend to a higher, immortal state of being; the losers may not survive. Harrowhark is the heir for the Ninth House; Gideon is her reluctant protector.

This was super good – loved the setting and the use of necromancy; loved the characters. But it took me a looong while to stop being confused about who’s who – the cast is quite large, and a given character will be called at least three different ways, which doesn’t help. There was also possibly more twists and turns in the last 20% than in the first 80%, and that was a bit exhausting. Also, I’m starting to realize I actually do not like long, epic scenes endings… and this definitely went into that category. So, let’s say that I loved 80% of it 😉

Deal with the Devil – Kit Rocha

I got excited about Deal with the Devil the minute I heard the title of the series (it’s a new series by the authors of the Beyond series): MERCENARY LIBRARIANS, HOW AMAZING IS THAT IDEA.

The global context is the same as in Beyond – post-apocalyptic US, where everything is more or less derelict, and people are scraping by the best they can. Nina and her team collect data from remaining data vaults, mostly redistribute it to whoever needs them, sometimes manage to score an interesting cache of sensitive data that they try to sell to interesting parties.

Knox and his team are ex-super-soldiers in dire need of a way to fix their brain implants before they go completely awry. The hacker that could handle that has been kidnapped; the price for Knox to get them back is to manage to deliver Nina to the kidnappers.

Both teams start working seemingly together; this is a Kit Rocha book, so there’s significant romance elements (I honestly don’t know if it’s a post-apo book with strong elements of romance or a romance book with strong elements of post-apo 😀 ) – not much surprise there.

It had less “librarian” content than I hoped but it was so so good! The fighting scenes read as choreographed (and I actually enjoyed them, although it’s not my usual cup of tea), I loved the characters and the setting, and I cannot wait for #2 🙂

A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine

A Memory Called Empire is the first book of a new series, Teixcalaan. Mahit, who comes from Lsel, a small mining station, is named ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, which is basically… most of the known universe. She gets summoned to her post, and quickly questions the demise of her predecessor, whose death is somewhat suspicious.

Lsel has an interesting technology, called imagos, where the memories of a person get transferred as a chip to another person. Mahit gets the imago of her predecessor, but since they’re bad with backups, or something, she gets an outdated version… which starts malfunctioning quite quickly. Thankfully, her liaison, Three Seagrass, is here to help her navigate court intrigue, poetry as a mean of communication, and what it means to be Teixcalaan (and to possibly be called Six Helicopter or One Lightning.)

A Memory Called Empire won the Hugo award for Best Novel; I hadn’t read it before voting, but this was very well-deserved. The world building is fantastic, the characters are endearing, the plot and intrigue were delightful, and I loved everything about this book. Another one for which I cannot wait for #2!

Other reads

  • Die, Volume 1 – Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans – A graphic novel where a group of role players gets catapulted in the world they’re playing into. I think it was good, but it was completely not my thing 🙂
  • Attachments – Rainbow Rowell – I had my reservations for a long while about the premise of the book (a “security” person monitors employee emails, shenanigans ensue) and, while this was better than I feared, it wasn’t very memorable.
  • Kiss my Cupcake – Helena Hunting – a cute romance about a cupcake-and-cocktail shop owner and her craft-beer-ax-throwing bar owner neighbor.
  • The Bride Test – Helen Hoang – Khai is autistic, and his mother tries to find him the perfect bride. She finds Esme, and offers her a deal: a summer in the US, no strings attached, under the condition that she tries to make things work with her son. This was pretty good, but I had a hard time connecting with Esme – Khai is often flabbergasted by her… but I must admit, so was I at times!
  • The Phlebotomist – Chris Panatier – in a world where people are supposed to give blood every couple of months and where the society’s class system depends on the people blood’s group, Willa learns disturbing truths that put her life and the one of her grandson at risk. A decent post-apocalyptic novel and a nice take on a common trope.

#balisebooks – 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella

After making choices for the Short Story award for the Hugo, I started reading the novellas, and ranking as I went as well. So let’s talk about all the Hugo nominated novellas 🙂 As for the short stories, any one of these is absolutely worth reading; I ended up having preferences… not necessarily where I was expecting (I was honestly thinking my #2 would finish #1, and I was expecting #5 to arrive much higher… and yet.), and all the works are very different, which I enjoyed.

6. The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark

This is a story set in an alternative Cairo at the very beginning of the 20th century. Alternative, because djinns, magic and alchemy have been a thing enough that there exists a Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. We follow Hamed and Onsi, who have been tasked with understanding the why and the how of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – as the title helpfully hints 😉 The atmosphere (including some great background about women’s voting rights) and world-building were fascinating, and I liked the character dynamic between Hamed, a fairly senior agent, and Onsi, a wonderfully enthusiastic newbie. For me specifically, it lacked something (I don’t know what!) to make it entirely memorable, which I regret.

5. This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I really, really wanted to love this one. Time travelling Romeo&Juliet? Yes please. Epistolary novel where the protagonists explain in detail their medium of writing, and every single one is more wonderful than the next? YES PLEASE. Absolutely gorgeous writing, to the point of real poetry? Doesn’t hurt, and check. Buuuuuuuuuuut I wasn’t able to connect with that book to the point I feel I should have to enjoy it fully. I think it’s a matter of “it’s not the book, it’s me” – and I think it’ll be high on the list of “things I need to re-read when I think I’ll be able to connect with it more”. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this one gets the Best Novella award, and I’d be happy with it; it was just not my thing this time around (and I’m sad about it.)

4. The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes

The Deep talks about the wajinru, a folk that lives in the depth of the ocean. The wajinru have a historian, who’s chosen in every generation to hold the (traumatic) memory of their people. We follow the story of Yetu, the current historian – who has a very hard time holding that history in herself. The history of the wajinru is haunting, and its description in The Deep is fantastically well-rendered. The story of Yetu is heartbreaking and yet very relatable. And there’s a whole lot of philosophical questions around sacrifice, and around the idea of identity versus history, that I found very interesting too. This was not a fast-paced book, but it was very impactful.

3. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, by Ted Chiang

The premise of this is very cool – consider a device, called a prism, that allows SOME communication between two parallel universes that differ from the point of a quantum event shown recorded by the device in question. Now, consider the use that quantum event as a “coin flip” – and boom, you have something that allows you to answer the question of “what if I had made that other choice?”. And since that quantum event has some chaotic consequences, you can find prisms in which things diverge in larger or smaller measures. On top of that setting, add some people who are trying to make profit from these communications with parallel universes, and boom, you get Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom (love that title, by the way). I really liked the exploration of what worked and what didn’t in the setting, and the questions about “what is actually ‘core me'” was fascinating too. All in all, this was a very enthusing read 🙂

2. To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers

This was the only novella I read before the Hugo nominations were out – because Becky Chambers, if you think I’m going to wait months before reading anything Becky Chambers writes… well. (Yes, I’m fangirling hard. Deal with it.) At the time I read it last year, I was writing: “A chronicle about a long-term space mission – 4 people on a starship, exploring 4 very different planets. It has a solid, competent crew, and science, and feels, and it feels so much longer (in a good way!!) than the small amount of pages, and it’s lovely, and am I fangirling a little bit too hard here? naaaahhh…”. I’ll keep it at that; and since it was the first I read and I loved it so much, that was a very high bar.

1. In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire

My vote for Best Novella will go to In an Absent Dream. It’s about the tale of Katherine Lundy, who finds a door to the Goblin Market, where rules are important and fair value is an absolute rule (what “fair value” means is also discussed and a whole part of the book). I loved the main character, I loved the concept of the Goblin Market, and I profoundly enjoyed the fact that the more “epic” parts of the story were actually not shown but barely mentioned as “events that happened” (and that actually had important consequences!). This was a magical read – and definitely not all rainbows and unicorns, it also had a fair amount of sadness and of bittersweetness – and I loved this novella so much. Seanan McGuire (and the series of which In an Absent Dream is a part of) is definitely on the list of people from whom I want to read more stuff (… as soon as I’m done with reading all I can for the Hugo voting, I mean!)

“Hugo Award”, “Worldcon” and The Hugo Award Logo are service marks of the World Science Fiction Society, an unincorporated literary society.

#balisebooks – 2020 Hugo Award for Best Short Story

I subscribed to the “I want to vote for the Hugo awards” tier of CoNZealand/Worldcon a few months ago, and the voter packets have just arrived! I don’t expect to be able to vote for all the awards, because there is A LOT of content, and not that much time until mid-July; but the Short Story one is definitely a “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to making my mind for the one I want to vote for. So I read all of them, and here’s my personal ranking!

The cool thing about short stories is that most of them are publicly available, so you can go and have a look too 🙂 And the cool thing about Hugo-nominated stories is that they are all worth a read – I have my favorites and the ones I like less, but they are all objectively great works.

6. Do Not Look Back, My Lion – Alix E. Harrow

Eefa is a self-described good husband, but she’s fed up with her wife going to war, again, especially since said wife is pregnant, again. As you can probably see from this short description, there’s a fair amount of playing with/subverting traditional gender role clichés in this short story – which I’m all in favor of. But, while it is very well-written, and while I actually like the characters, I get the impression that this is the main point of the story, and that I’d like a bit more plot. To be honest, and that probably says more about me than about the story… I was somewhat bored.

5. A Catalog of Storms – Fran Wilde

In Sila’s world, the way to weather storms is to name them and yell at them; but the weathermen who have this power end up being taken by the storms. This was for sure very poetic and I thought I would love this – but it ended up being somewhat confusing for me, and it didn’t move me much. Loved the lists of winds, though – these are beautiful. Oh, and the cover of the Uncanny in which this has been published is fantastic.

4. And Now His Lordship Is Laughing – Shiv Ramdas

In India during WWII, Apa, a Bengali old woman, makes jute dolls that caught the eye of the local governor – who won’t take no for an answer when he asks for one. This was the first story I read, and while I liked it a lot, I knew it would probably not get my vote. The story and the context are powerful, and the writing is superb and memorable, but this is not the kind of stories that I personally enjoy. The historical context makes it complicated for me – yes, I’m glad I read it because I suck at world history and anything that makes me aware of historical events and makes me look into them is welcome, and there’s no denying that these stories are important to tell and to read, but it doesn’t make the experience… comfortable. Not that reading should be comfortable, but I’ll admit that my own discomfort makes this short story lower in my rating that it probably deserves.

3. Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island – Nibedita Sen

Literally what the title says – a story of “cannibal women of Ratnabar Island” (and one who’s been brought to England), told as excerpts from an annotated bibliography. I found it very interesting how much story can be told and implied in such a short story. I absolutely loved to see the many sides of the story (that felt fun and quite cheeky), and I’d be very curious about a longer form – although a longer form would probably not deliver the same punch. And I was delighted by the form of this work. All in all, loved it.

2. As the Last I May Know – S.L. Huang

A story from the point of view of Nyma, a young girl who carries the codes for “seres missiles” in her chest: if the President wants to use said missiles, he has to kill her first to access them. It’s definitely a story built on a moral dilemma (which feels like some kind of variation of the trolley dilemma) as a major plot device, but there’s enough flesh given to the characters that it’s more than that. It’s a bleak story, but I’d qualify that as “softly bleak” – with more resignation and acceptance than hate and vengeance. And it was honestly a tough choice between this and the next one for the first place.

1. Blood Is Another Word for Hunger – Rivers Solomon

Sully, a teenage slave, mass-murders the family that owns her, and gives birth to Ziza, already a teenager at the time of her birth too. I feel like I should not have liked this story. For one thing, it’s quite graphical with a LOT of blood, and the premise is way more WTF than I usually like. And, as I mentioned in And Now His Lordship Is Laughing, historical context often makes me uncomfortable. And all in all, this is a strange and uncomfortable story – uncanny may be the right word – and yet haunting and beautiful and a real surprise when it comes to “I… I think I liked this a lot, although I can’t explain it”.

There, that’s all for me. As hinted at the beginning, I will actually be happy with any of these short stories winning the award. This is the first time I read the whole selection and get to have Opinions on this specific award, so I wouldn’t dare to bet on the winner 😉 They’re all very solid choices; the general selection seems to be somewhat bleaker than what I usually enjoy in my fiction, but I can only recommend all of you to have a look at these if you’re in the market for some short bites to read.

“Hugo Award”, “Worldcon” and The Hugo Award Logo are service marks of the World Science Fiction Society, an unincorporated literary society.

#balisebooks backlog

I published a few stand-alone reviews recently (Otaku, Could be Something Good, Quiche of Death, The City We Became, Solving Sophronia), but I read much more than that in the past few months, so let’s get rid of the backlog with a couple of notes 😉

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen – I had never read Pride and Prejudice, but it had been on my list for a while – it IS considered a classic, but it’s a classic with a “popular” reputation, as opposed to classics of the kind “I remember reading that during high school, Worst Book Ever” 😉 And I thoroughly enjoyed the story of the Bennet sisters, of their family, friends and acquaintances.

Hold Me and The Year of the Crocodile – Courtney Milan – still in the Cyclone series started with Trade me. I enjoyed both of these thoroughly, they’re cute as hell, funny, and nothing to not love there.

After Atlas – Emma Newman – second book of Planetfall, which happens on Earth with a few plot links to Planetfall itself. This is the story of Carlos, an indentured detective, who investigates a very gory murder. This was vastly different from Planetfall, still good, but far less memorable for me.

Naked in Death – J.D. Robb – first book of a Very Long Series (this thing has roughly 50 book, ongoing) – and J.D. Robb is also better known as Nora Roberts. It’s a pretty formulaic but very decent detective story in a close-ish futuristic/vaguely cyber world, starring Eve dallas as homicide detective, and overall it’s a good start for a “background series” I could see myself read for a long time.

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston – a very cute romance involving the son of the President of the United States and the Prince of Wales. Think West Wing meets super cute and funny gay romcom. Loved it.

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed – Lori Gottlieb – I listened that one as an audiobook while wandering the streets of Zürich, and it seems plausible that audiobooks work quite well for me when it comes to autobiographies/memoirs. Gottlieb, as a therapist, goes through a pretty bad breakup (and finds a therapist to help her go through it), while at the same time works with various patients, more or less sympathetic, more or less broken, more or less tragic. I enjoyed that memoir thoroughly, although it could feel somewhat voyeuristic at times.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body – Roxane Gay – I honestly do not know how to talk about this. It feels weird and somewhat “wrong” to appreciate that much a book that tells about someone’s story and struggles in such a “raw” way. Definitely a powerful telling; a lot of trigger warnings (rape and food disorders, both with a fair amount of details), and a weird mix of heartbreak and power. I don’t see how I could recommend that book to anyone, but I’m very glad I read it.

Almost Everything: Notes on HopeAnne Lamott – a collection of autobiographical essays/short chapters. Listened to that on Audible; definitely a mixed bag: about half of it I found funny or moving, and about half of it made me roll my eyes very loudly.

Valour and Vanity – Mary Robinette Kowal – fourth book of Glamourist histories. I didn’t enjoy that one as much as the previous ones – the heist theme didn’t do it for me.

Grown Ups – Marian Keyes – I will absolutely read everything Marian Keyes writes, and I read that in the weeks following its publication. A deftly woven dysfunctional family story, which I really really liked, but part of the ending was a tad too bittersweet for me (although it made perfect sense).

The Caves of Steel – Isaac Asimov – that one’s a re-read (of multiple re-reads). It’s the first “grown-up” science-fiction books I ever read, and it will always have a special place in my heart. It’s set in a distant future where Earth has the properly unsustainable population of 8 billion (heh 🙂 ), and where a number of colonies have been spawned. The colonies have a kind of “embassy”, called Spacetown, where the access is very restricted – and yet, a murder occured. Earth Detective Elijah Baley gets pulled on the investigation, with the help of Daneel Olivaw – a positronic robot. For a book written in 1954, it obviously didn’t age perfectly, but it aged surprisingly well 🙂 Definitely a classic.

The Naked Sun – Isaac Asimov – I actually re-read Caves of Steel because I wanted to re-read Naked Sun (which is the second book in that series). In Naked Sun, Elijah and Daneel are sent to Solaria, a planet that has births very much under control, and on which only 10000 people live. The interesting thing is that the society evolved in a way that people never see each other physically, only “view” themselves via holographic projections. That kind of thing sounded very on point a few weeks ago (and still does, in some places and in some circumstances) – and I really liked the distinction between “see” and “view” in Solaria’s vocabulary. Also: I really like this book anyway 😀

All Systems Red and Artifical Condition – Martha Wells – I gave a new chance to the Murderbot series. I hadn’t been convinced by my first read of All Systems Red, and as I re-read it, I’m not sure why, because it’s great. We follow a Security Unit who dubs itself Murderbot, but who has essentially one goal in life: be left alone to watch the equivalent of Netflix 🙂 Unfortunately, things don’t always go its way. It’s funny, it’s surprisingly wholesome, and I’ll definitely continue reading the others.

The Collapsing Empire / The Consuming Fire / The Last Emperox – John Scalzi – the third and last book of The Interdependency got published this month, so I re-read the first two to have them fresh in my mind. The Interdependency series sees a collision of two major events: there’s a new emperox, Grayland II, who was not exactly supposed to become emperox in the first place (she only did because her older brother died in a stupid accident); and the Flow, which constitutes the only way of traveling between all the star systems of the Empire, starts collapsing for unclear reasons, and it’s apparently unavoidable. The Interdependency series, with that premise, uses a cast of colorful characters and snarky writing to deliver a very satisfying story, which feels more like a very large book than like three distincts books.

The Flatshare, Beth O’Leary – Leon and Tiffy enter a flatshare/bedshare agreement: Leon works nights as a palliative nurse, Tiffy works days as craft book editor, and they actually never meet… but end up having a full-blown correspondance on post-its. A great romcom, with some more sobering aspects (Tiffy’s ex-boyfriend is a Real Problem), but I enjoyed that book a lot – very cute and very funny, with great characters.